Designers, please stop doing this...

Spotted this thread on Twitter today, these are the thoughts of a designer, retweeted by another designer I follow:

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Given the pithy responses to the original tweet, I will give the designer the benefit of the doubt that he was just yanking everyone’s chain with this thread, but I have seen designers who post stuff like this without irony.

To those that do this - Just. Stop. Please.

I applaud that you perceive that there may be a problem with something you see in the universe, and that you think it could be better. But before putting your critique’s hat on, please take the time to become more familiar with the domain of the thing/concept that you are critiquing.

To cover the above scenario: I used to be a pilot, and had to learn morse code as part of my studies to obtain my license. I initially thought the same as above - what a confusing jumble this seems. But guess what? When I actually started to USE morse code, I realised what an incredibly efficient method of communication it is. The series of dots and dashes are not seemingly random, as pointed out by one of the replies above, rather they reflect the frequency of usage (‘E’ is the most commonly used letter in the English language, and is denoted by a single dot), and are also designed to prevent ambiguity of similar sounding letters.

To suggest that the series of dots and dashes are dependent on the ‘numerical position within the set’ is flawed thinking. Quick - who can tell me the 16th letter of the alphabet? The 11th? As you can see - this is a pointless strategy.

(On the other hand, morse depiction of NUMBERS uses a flowing pattern system that is logical and consistent).

I was blocked on Twitter last year by a certain ‘high profile’ designer who is considered a darling of the Twitter Design community. She raised questions about something that is commonly used in the aviation industry, and when I (politely) pointed out the flaws in her thinking, based on my actual real world knowledge of the topic, she immediately Tweet shamed me and blocked me to prevent any further discussion on the subject.

This was quite an arrogant and myopic stance to take, and I hope that she is still not considered a role model for new up and coming designers in the field. (Note that she raised questions, but like the above example, didn’t actually use her designer expertise to come up with any sort of solution for the problem).

I know plenty of great designers. Some of them have even worked on my own creations and made them better than I could have ever envisaged.

Questioning something is perfectly valid. But before you voice your opinions on a particular facet of the existing design, please take the time to study the history and immerse yourself in the context of that design, and ask yourself WHY it is as it is currently? There are always forces that hold things in place, and sometimes those forces exist for a good reason, and shouldn’t be bent or altered unless your way forward is significantly better.

The evolving startup

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I was listening to the excellent Startup Therapy podcast this morning on my walk. More specifically, I was listening to the episode with Steve Blank, where they were talking about a startup ‘shedding its skin’.

What does that mean, in a nutshell? Well, it is really about the natural evolution of a startup through the different stages of Search, Build & Grow - roughly translated to product market fit, traction, and growth.

The hosts talked about how the different roles of employees, and even founders, within the startup will change as it progresses through these stages, and that even the founders themselves may not be the best people to lead the business through certain stages.

It kind of reminds me of a book I read as a youngster, where a plane crashed into a mountain and the surviving passengers had to work out how to get back to civilisation. The person totally in charge of the aircraft while in the air (the pilot), was different from the person who took charge of the group’s survival in the wreck of the plane in the snowy mountain, who was different again from the person who led the small expedition to try and find civilisation and help. Each had their own unique skillsets which made them natural leaders in those different scenarios. Most importantly, each person knew when to defer their leadership as the missions of the group changed.

I’ve experienced something similar in my own startup, HR Partner. Over a year ago, my original co-founder of two years left the startup. It wasn’t my decision. She had self-identified that she wasn’t the best person to lead the business into the next stage of growth. I must admit that I couldn’t see it then, but over the past year, I have grown to appreciate that call, as the business has grown from strength to strength with different leadership, and indeed, I have now transitioned my startup again to bring on a new co-founder with different skill who is again raising the bar and taking us to new heights.

Kudos to my former founder to having the strength of character to realise that she had maxed out her skills and needed to step out. It has made me think about my long term role in my own company. Though I wrote 99% of the code and have spent a lot of time as a solo founder building this company, I think we will get to the stage in a year or two where I will have to relinquish my own control and ownership over the business for it to thrive.

I was never comfortable with the title of CEO, and I think that my future here lies in being more of a CTO or Product Manager with someone else (perhaps my new co-founder, or perhaps someone else altogether) at the helm, driving it forward.

Eventually, I see myself stepping out of the company entirely, as I am realistic enough to see that my personality type (and future life goals) are not compatible with growing and sustaining a large, enterprise software company, and I look forward to handing over the reins to someone much more qualified and able.

This is not to say I am losing interest in my startup - far from it. I have never been more passionate and excited to build something that is used and loved by more and more people each day. It is just that I need to be more realistic about what it is going to take for this company to be the success that it deserves to be. So in the meantime, I will enjoy my role in the journey, and I hope I am wise enough (like my old co-founder) to know when I need to take a side step.

Proud to be sinister

sinister - (a) of, relating to, or situated to the left or on the left side of something especially being or relating to the side of a heraldic shield at the left of the person bearing it (b) of ill omen by reason of being on the left


I’m left handed. Have been so for as long as I can remember.

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But what I also remember is that when I was about in grade 1 or 2, my teachers in my primary school in Malaysia tried to force me to be right handed. I do recall the raps across the knuckles and the teacher standing over me while I did my writing practice to ensure I kept using my right hand.

It was at this point that my maths grades started to suffer. I was getting 0% on tests, and all my teachers were baffled, as were my parents. No one could explain why I went from a fairly average to good student, to a poor one at this one particular subject.

And it would have remained that way if not for my habit of drawing on everything with chalk, as I loved to do around the house. One day, I used chalk to number all the stairs going up to the second floor of our home. My mum noticed this when she was carrying a basket of clean laundry upstairs, and her annoyance at me on the first flight of stairs turned to concern and realisation by the time she reached the second flight.

You see, I had numbered everything from stair 1 to 11 perfectly fine, but after that, instead of 12, 13, 14,1 5… etc., they were written as 21, 31, 41, 51 and onwards.

The forced transposition from one hand to another also resulted in a transposition of the placement of those numbers, and I was unconsciously writing the numbers back to front.

A quick check of my old maths tests from class showed the same thing. I actually had got the sums correct, however my answers were written back to front, resulting in a cross instead of a tick. To this day I am alarmed that no teacher ever looked deeper at my answers and realised what was happening. Had I not numbered our house stairs with chalk that day, who knows how long this would have gone on, and what impact this would have had on my learning to date.

Conversely, many years later in flying school, one of my proudest moments was when I scored 99.9% on a fiendishly difficult navigation examination. Only three of us in the class (of 12 students) passed that exam and I was chuffed to be one of them.

What makes this even more special is that when I asked my instructor where I had lost the 0.1%, he said that is was because I had copied down one of the numbers from the original question sheet onto my working sheet wrong. But I had come up with the right answer at the end using that wrong initial figure. That was where I had lost the 0.1%!

But the fact that my instructor didn’t just mark my answer wrong because the end result wasn’t what he expected, like my grade 2 teachers did, but instead went through the effort of completing the 2 pages of calculations with my input figures and see that I understood the problem and could come up with a solution - well, that meant so much to me, and showed me the difference between a good teacher and a bad one.

Addendum: I am actually not a strict left hander per se. I do a lot of one handed things (writing, bowling at cricket, playing tennis, eating with a spoon) left handed, but two handed things (playing guitar, batting at cricket, playing golf etc.) right handed.

Actually, I think in guitar playing especially, it helps to have my most dexterous hand doing all the hard fiddly bits on the neck and not just holding the pick and moving it up and down!

SaaS Startup Founders: Are you talking to the right audience?

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I have a confession to make. I am a developer, not a marketer, and in the nearly 4 years that I have been running my startup HR Partner, I have made a ton of mistakes in my ‘go to market’ strategy, and I hope to share a couple of them here with you.

I always naively thought that the coding of my SaaS product would be the hard part, and that the selling part would happen naturally and effortlessly. How wrong I was. In today’s noisy world, with a ton of competitive offerings, getting heard is nearly impossible, and finding people who will like, and more importantly, pay for your offering is painfully difficult.

Probably the biggest mistake we’ve made with our marketing was simply talking and selling to the wrong people. We never really stopped to look at who would be using our product but instead went for the scattergun approach to throw everything at the wall and see what would stick. Let me give you a brief history of what we did.

When I first built HR Partner back around 2016, I decided to release our Beta version to the world via a fanfare splash on the very popular ProductHunt website. It seemed to work, and we actually got hundreds of sign ups out of this one source. “Great!”, I thought - success and endless bags of cash shall now rain down on me.

Wrong. Pretty much 0% of those early signups stuck around. You see, ProductHunt is comprised mainly of programmers, designers and other small startup founders. They are very interested in tech, but have little or no interest in setting up HR policies and procedures, or managing a large team. They signed up purely out of interest sake, but had no reason to actually implement our system at their workplace.

Nevertheless, we doubled down on our failure to learn, and I embarked on a campaign of listing my HR system on various Beta announcement sites such as BetaList. Same results. A flurry of sign ups by curious people, but very little stickiness.

Of course, this spike in signups both times was great for my ego, but I couldn’t see that this was just a vanity metric that did nothing to help us get any real traction.

Next, we went completely broad based, by spending a ton of money on Google Ads. We even worked with a Google consultant to get our keywords and campaign ‘just so’. But while we saw a massive increase in traffic to our website, it didn’t result in many trial signups, and in fact, we got a TON of calls and emails from various employees asking us HR policy and payroll legislation questions! We quickly pulled the plug on this avenue.

At this point, and for the first time in over 6 months of trying, I actually sat down to think about where I was going wrong. It was pretty obvious actually. ProductHunt and BetaList are great sites, but really, they are ideally suited if you have early stage products that are geared to the programmers or designers of this world. Business owners are not renown for adopting concept stage or beta stage software - they want something proven and reliable. Coders and creative people however, are different and can’t wait to try the next shiny thing! We were talking to totally the wrong people.

So I began to think. Who would need HR systems? Well, the obvious answer is “HR Managers”, duh!

Thus began our next marketing push - cold outreach to anyone with the title “HR Manager” on LinkedIn. Initial observations were a mixed bag. We were having some great conversations with a lot of HR Managers on that platform, but very few would actually take the next step and sign up for a trial of HR Partner. It turns out that while these were the right people to talk to, they already had established systems they were happy with, and were not looking to buy.

We were getting closer - the right people, just in the wrong place & time. So how do we get them at the right time? Well, we’ve recently put some marketing effort on business software directories, such as Capterra or G2 Crowd. These are vast directories of SaaS offering that people can go to when, you guessed it, they are evaluating business software that they are thinking of buying.

Now we were getting somewhere. By promoting our offering on these platforms, we started to see a steady uptick of trial sign ups, and more importantly, paying customers.

This is all good news, but there is still so much more learning to be done here. For instance, we are finding that while it is the HR or Operations Managers we are mainly talking to, the actual buying decision is usually made by a different person in the chain.

HR Managers are coming to us with a specific set of problems - for example they may be drowning in paperwork or having trouble keeping employee qualifications and training up to date. Whereas the business owner may have a different set of issues they want solved, such as high turnover, or the high cost of recruiting new employees.

This means that we needed to address both areas. When talking to the HR Manager, we would focus on the problems they were experiencing, but when the decision went back up the line to the person who would sign off on the new software, we had to start from scratch and provide solutions for a whole different set of problems. We essentially had to sell our system twice, to practically two different audiences.

Did I say two? We actually discovered that we had a third audience that we had to sell to. These were the actual employees themselves within the organisations who bought HR Partner. Any great HR software is just going to languish if the employees don’t feel comfortable using it. All that the employees wanted to know was - how do I find out how many days leave I have available? How can I request some time off expediently? How can I find the contact email of another employee in a remote office? etc. A totally different set of problems and expectations than the other two audiences we had been dealing with!

Thus we refined our sales and marketing processes to deal with these three distinct audiences that our product had. Sure it is a lot harder to do, and is time consuming, but it has resulted in a far more effective and predictable process now - just by understanding who our audience was, and in our case, who our multiple audiences were that we had to talk to, understand, and solve problems for.

We are still learning and improving, and I am interested in hearing more from other startup founders and business owners out there. How did you find your real audience?

This article was originally written for the Catalysr Blog. I was a member of the Catalysr C18 cohort for migrapreneurs, an experience which was awesome and extremely beneficial to me and my startup. Find out more about them at catalysr.com.au.