Customer, Customer, Customer

This week I traveled down in Palo Alto to attend Relay Ventures Strictly Mobile event thank you to John Occhipinti for inviting us to attend.  The event featured CEO speakers and panelists from Education, Healthcare, Connected Home and Enterprise mobile startups, I noted that one common theme kept being discussed throughout, focus on delighting your customer first & the business model will sort itself out.   In essence customer focus is paramount, without them there is no product or service.

The speakers ranged  from Sal Kahn, founder of Khan Academny, to Ken Gullickson, COO of Evernote.  Sal talked about how even today he is recording new lessons, one or two a day that are requested by email and comments from Kahn Academy students.  Sal described how he just focused on lessons and rudimentary tools before  he had figured out how to run Kahn Academy as a financially sustainable entity.  By keeping focused on what his “customers” ask for, his team of only 40  have acquired a base of  nearly 50 million students/learners.

Ken Gullickson talked about how Evernote keeps improving the basic “free” product and in doing so have reduced customer acquisition costs.  This is  because they see strong evidence that a sizeable percentage of customers who stopped using their free version takes a second look at Evernote.  By the time they do so, Evernote has added even more customer requested features and improved ease of use, hence, they’re  likely to cause the customer to stick, and their data supports this insight.  Ken literally made the point “worry about getting the product right first, it will naturally lead you to the right business model”.

Update: As I’ve been reminded by some old MS buddies, another key lesson from Ken’s talk is what we used to call “shipping is a feature” i.e. knowing when to release the product when it’s good enough and having the discipline to do so is a key skill for any product/service team.  Thanks for the reminder guys!

Too often we get caught up gaming the business model, monetization strategy etc. and forget the basic premise that a happy customer is the overarching goal, we all know what happens in social media in the hands of a not so happy customer.

So, my take away as an evangelist is to always remember that if your startup is wondering about what the right thing to do with your API, your newest program or feature in your tools, as an evangelist you’ve got the best feedback loop in town, your customer, i.e. your developer ecosystem.  Ask them and listen to what they say you should do.  It’s always easier to “sell” something that your customer helped you design be it your product, your platform API or programs, your results will speak for themselves.  Focus on *your* customers.

When is the last time you harvested your forum feedback?  When’s the last time you asked a question on your own forum?

Who’s responsible for…. Evangelism?

Today I read a tweet, that lead me to read a great blog post, that lead me to think once again about a subject that I’ve discussed once before.  Although the subject of the blog post is “Who’s responsible for sales?”, when you read this just do a mental cut and paste and substitute the word “Evangelism” for “Sales”.

In a company with a core platform offering, the same “we’re all in this together” mentality is required to build, evangelize, sell and support your API to developers much earlier in the cycle than putting your  product in the hands of your first customer.  In many ways, if you don’t think about the developer community as customer number one, you’re probably going to have a hard time offering customer number two, the consumer, any sustained differentiation.

I’ve touched on this once before in a previous post, bottom line, if a platform orientation is critical to your product or business success, then everyone on your team, better yet, your whole company, is an Evangelist.  While I’m an Evangelist all day, everyday, your whole firm needs to view developers as strategic partners, and your most important early audience and hence, treat each interaction with them as an opportunity to Evangelize.  Who knows, they may like what they see and turn into the best Evangelists of your platform.  This approach worked for us at BlackBerry, and I know if you’re committed, will also work for you.

What a difference a year makes!

Thanks for all the kind email today from industry friends around the world both old and new, yes, BlackBerry’s back in the fight as evidenced by today’s quarterly earnings report.  I for one am glad our BlackBerry CEO Thorstein Heins could actually say the word “profits” in a sentence today.

That said, reflecting back on a year ago and the situation at hand through the lens of an Evangelist, what did we accomplish in an open letter:

1) Built a world class Evangelism team.  This includes our HQ technical team, marketing and operations, as well as my WW team of Technical Evangelists.  As I’ve stated before, the team must be strong, and ours is built of achievers.

2) Imbued in ourselves and our community a shared sense of purpose.  Yes, it started with the Team BlackBerry Developers, but, we worked together with this strong core to “grow the bubble” of “those in the know” about BlackBerry 10.  One piece of evidence, over 55% of our sales are to folks moving off one of our competitors platforms.  We also saw that the developers on these other platforms began targeting BlackBerry 10 months ago, it’s true, developers are the early indicator of platform health.

3) Continue to invest and innovate.  We don’t plan to let up on the gas pedal, I’ve discussed the team innovating rapidly, this next year will not be any different, we’ve merely entered the next phase of our plan and will continue to drive innovative approaches.

4) Shipping is a feature.  My final big thank you is to our colleagues in Product Engineering for working the late nights & weekends, hope we did you guys proud.  Thanks for all the SDK releases, this was key for all the early developer engagement.

Thanks again, it’s been a great and at times unbelieveable year for the Developer Relations Group at BlackBerry and we look forward to seeing you out in the Ecosystem.

Great Vision, Great Execution

I may be BlackBerry’s Evangelism Team’s Sensei, but I’m not the Sensei of all things smartphone or even mobile devices.  Lucky for me, I get to work every day with colleagues who literally invented the smartphone category.  For example, I just had dinner with colleagues from the Enterprise Products team at BlackBerry and gained insights about how the requirements of operating mobile devices connected to the Enterprise lead to what we think of as core BlackBerry strengths re: security and manageability.

What I’m struck by as I’ve learned more about the evolution of BlackBerry’s Enterprise products is how the team’s very forward looking initial product vision continues to make product feature decisions easy to make even in today’s BYOD world.   In fact, it appears to me this makes BlackBerry the most “BYOD Ready” platform on the market today, yet “BYOD” wasn’t on the radar when the team crafted their product vision many product cycles ago.

What can we learn from this as Evangelists?  As a team, a strong shared vision and mission provides clarity for the team every day, but especially in moments of crisis or indecision.  At BlackBerry our team’s mission is to “Make BlackBerry the best business partner for App Developers.”  Period.  To begin with, this means many different things to us, like are we making things easier, faster and more profitable for our developers?  Are we helping them see additional opportunities worldwide with their apps?  You get the idea.

Up front clarity of vision and mission enables you see more clearly your desired end point, hence, helps you reach your destination faster and with fewer detours and false starts.

What’s your team’s vision and mission?

Don’t stop believing

Not to worry, I’m not going to launch into Journey’s power ballad….

It appears that the negative coverage is now increasing on my old friends in Windows Phone.  I joined the BlackBerry team just over a year ago, and in that time one skill I’ve “exercised” is to read the recent coverage of BlackBerry, process that information and to simply continue executing on the path we’d already charted.  This is something that a good Evangelist needs to do, believe in your own technology.  In the face of such constant, negative and well, sometimes actually quite amusing coverage, how do you keep the team moving forward?

Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t control.

It’s easy to get caught up and react to negativity.   So, early last year we learned that we had to carry our message out to developers ourselves.  This lead us to launch our now infamous 44 city BlackBerry Jam World Tour.  We could control our own messaging only if we could deliver it directly to developers without someone else’s spin or agenda.  We counted on this core of developers to carry our unfiltered message out to their community.  It seemed like a good idea and really was the best option available.  So we did, simple as that.

Another example was fighting the “vaporware” problem.  Being a former Microsoft Technical Evangelist, having to manage an Ecosystem to a new set of target dates was something I, er, was used to doing?  Anyways, we couldn’t control the speculation about “if BlackBerry 10 would ever ship” but what we decided to do is let developers experience it first hand.  We launched the biggest seeding program of it’s type in the industry.  Developers could monitor our progress build to build, SDK release to SDK release and see that BlackBerry 10 was real.

When you’re facing a situation like we’ve faced at BlackBerry, set realistic expectations with your team and management &  know it always takes longer than you think for your message to carry.   But the most important thing is to actively go out into the Ecosystem, tell your story and watch something great happen.

Focus, Focus, Focus on core value

In my Evangelism role I speak with developers and start ups all day, but when the start up is being run by an old friend, I listen carefully.  I’ve had the unique opportunity to observe my friends thoughts over a few years about developing a product or service based on his unique expertise and background over lunch or coffee.  During this time his thoughts evolved from a series of observations, to an idea, and now into a product that’s currently in development with a bunch of eager customers he and the team have already lined up.  What I’ve learned from him is another lesson of the power of focus.

Starting originally with observations of  classic  IT operational problems in big data centers,  my friend and his partners iterated through a bunch of product ideas, beginning with using streaming media and voice communications to monitor IT operations staff.  While doing this they came to a realization that they’d identified a powerful insight that’s driving their product’s core value: most problems they’d encountered are time based with location information and “who did what” being key data items.   Exactly the kind of information that a mobile phone can provide.

Turning a classic IT problem inside out, rather than using traditional data gathering  methods, they use the smartphone as the device that captures and encodes this information for their customers, turning what was a previously error prone and “after the fact” data collection problem into a real-time event creation captured using “point phone at thing (location, document, etc.), push button on UI, done”.  It’s a brilliant application of using the smartphone in a novel way.  By generalizing their observations after talking with a myriad of potential customers, they’ve actually moved to a different initial target market than IT operations.

He’s also applied some Evangelism principals we’ve discussed: like talking to customers early (evangelize early), he’s iterated rapidly on the core ideas (agile), he’s built a lean team (hire to your profile) and now he’s broadening the feedback loop (lunches with dudes like me…).

Looks like a success in progress, because the team is building an innovative product with a laser focus on maximizing via their core value.