N. Feans, Flickr

What your users really think of you

A live octopus. A young startup. The quest to make a product people love.

I’ve never done this. I mean, I’ve been doing this for a while but I’ve never delivered that I said, staring into the box one last time, before handing it over. She smiled sheepishly, “Well, there’s a first for everything” Done with pleasantries, she reached over and claimed the box, it’s contents still rattling. As I saw her walk back into her burnt-shingle townhouse, I yelled “Do you even know how to use that!?” (I’m an idiot).

Suddenly offended, she yelled back over her shoulder of course I do!”. Then with immense, unforeseen pride. “I’ve made it a million times!”

And then she was gone. Back through the doorway from whence she came.

I’d never delivered a live octopus before. Never, in over 365 days of doing this. Never. Even that day, I had tried to not mention the fact that it was an octopus (and that it was alive) but alas, I’m merely human and easily overpowered by my curiosity.

Sometimes it takes a eight-armed mollusc to get you to re-examine your job

Driving to the next delivery on my route, I fell into a rather unusual stream of thought. Unusual, because in all my “Startup-guy wisdom” (yes sarcastic), I’d founded this service with the end goal of being “the most affordable grocery delivery service on the market”. Ew. There was nothing more to it. We get your groceries. You pay us. Rinse. Repeat. In my mind, my job as the founder, was just facilitating that. Simplifying the process. Refining the user experience. Over and over.

So, normally as I would drive away from a delivery, I would think of what had gone wrong. How it could’ve been better, faster, simpler. “Could we use a different POS? Should we just not ship frozen food?”

But today, I thought of her face. I thought of the way she said “of course!”. The pride. The offense. She had to have seen why this was a strange situation, I thought. This can’t be surprising to her. It’s a damn live octopus. Really?

But. That pride. It was fierce. It was real. It was defensive. It demanded understanding.

So that night, I forewent the regular routines of Foundership (hack, sell, deliver). Instead, I did something I wish I’d done months ago. I opened up the big, ugly, virtual box of customer communications. I braced myself and went through every single complaint that customers had had and every single order that had been made to date.

In that box, I found something. I found specificity. I found strong preferences. I found passion. People weren’t saying “get me any-ole cheap Kimchi”, they were saying “get me the large jar of the Mat Kimchi from 99 Ranch. It’s the one with the two cartoon snowmen on it. I know because I grew up on it”

It was a beautiful nugget of knowledge that none of my How-to-Silicon-Valley web-courses could’ve taught me: Your product isn’t just what you do. It’s also how you make your user feel. What does the product mean to them, beyond the elevator pitch? If you’re lucky (like I was) it’s a good feeling (maybe even a great one). Regardless of your luck, however, you as a biased founder, are inherently incapable of “just knowing” what that feeling is.

Your product isn’t just what you do. It’s also how you make your user feel. What does the product mean to them, beyond the elevator pitch? … You, as a biased founder, are inherently incapable of “just knowing” what that feeling is.

People care about their food. Food matters to them. Not just what they get and how many calories it is. But what it means. What emotion it evokes. The memories it fires up. Of childhood picnics and of Sunday brunches and of childhood evenings at their Grandparent’s house. Therefore, as harbingers of food, we weren’t just delivering groceries.

We were delivering an experience, sometimes an excursion, often a walk down the memory lane of raw, untouched, polaroid moments from your previous life. She wasn’t just saying “of course I know what to do with this” She was saying “how dare you question what this means to me” For people, food defines who they were and how they’ve lived. Where they came from and where they are going.

We were (and still are) creating better access to food, not just shopping for you at the grocery store. We were allowing you to get something to your door that you’d grown up with but had since taught yourself to live without.

Then why the heck, I remember thinking, was a I calling my company the “most affordable and efficient grocery delivery service on the market” Why was I diminishing it’s value so significantly? WHY, in the name of god, would I sell customer’s the dream of efficiency? Who the hell cared about that? Seriously, if you’re starting a delivery company, understand this- your customer does not care about what your supply chain looks like. They want what they want. It matters to them and it better matter to you as well.

“Understand this- your customer does not care about what your supply chain looks like. They want what they want. It matters to them. So, it better matter to you as well”

I’ll tell you why. It’s because striking a balance is hard. Between all that you hear about being direct and not complicating your value proposition with building for real people. And the things that matter to them.

It’s hammered into you, from the day that you start your company, that “if you can’t explain what you do in one sentence, you’re doomed” I think that’s true. But there’s a flip-side to it. Your user’s emotions are not restricted to one sentence. The depth of your product is not restricted to one sentence.

Your user’s emotions are not restricted to one sentence. The depth of your product is not restricted to one sentence.

So, by all means, develop and sharpen that elevator pitch. Refine your product to be pin pointed and direct. But understand that everything around that pin-point is not absolutely unimportant. It is not useless touchy-feely garbage that no one should ever think of. That is your voice. That is what makes your product better or worse than your competitors product that does the same exact task. That voice is why, users will flock to you at times even when you suck.

And for Godssake, don’t just add “We’re making the World a better place through…” to the beginning of your pitch. You don’t want to be this guy:

Credit: Silicon Valley and HBO. I do not own the quote, the picture or the joke.

Good news is, it’s possible to do both. You can build an extremely precise and effective service, without making your user feel like a number. You can add character, without losing practicality.

Here’s what we did and how it worked:

  1. Start from the outside. We stopped paying $1.50 boxes from Staples. All our deliveries would now come in repurposed boxes from local vendors. These boxes just felt better. They were slightly worn. But in a good way. They had stories to tell. They had been places and seen shit. They also happened to be free and earned us the gratitude of many a 7–11 owner around Berkeley.

Cereal boxes do this exceptionally well. Look at your son or daughter (or any little human in your life) eat cereal. It is not just about the psychedelically-colored sugar clumps inside the box. It is about the box.

Here’s a box of Cheerios from circa-sometime. Just count the number of cereal references on there. PS, its zero.

Here’s the quick and dirty: On the off-chance that you’re not the President of General Mills and are instead working on a software product, look at every single thing around the product that isn’t the product. The email receipt, the error message, the packaging. Now take away every bit of canned, big-company jargon and design that you can. Know the user and be different, be nice, be friendly, be happy.

This is what we used to deliver in.
This is what we deliver in now.

2. Put people dead-center. Before I jump into anything else, let me just take a moment to thank Frank Yoo. I cannot, in good faith, claim any ownership of this epiphany. Frank is a friend and an advisor. And he taught me, by doing, that the people that use my service should be celebrated and showcased.

These people are absolute angels for using your product. Treat them as such. They are the company. Not you. Not your spectacular collection of icons and illustrations. They deserve to be on the front page of everything (yes, everything) you make.

Here’s the quick and dirty: Go to your website and count the number of times you show the faces of those that use your product. Now double that.

This what our landing page looks like now.
This is what our landing page used to look like

3. Make people feel better. People will not come back if your product rocked but they felt horrible after using it. They might come back if they felt “meh” after using it. They will come back if they felt good after using it.

Here’s the quick and dirty: Add more meaningful conversations to your product. Add a little note. Send a text. Call them. Not to talk about the business. Just to tell them that you care and that you pay attention to what they order. Cuz guess what? You actually do!

We add a tiny little note with every single order. It’ll usually have a dumb pun or something about the order.

4. A good business model works for everyone. Re-examine how you make money. Think about it at a conceptual level. Ask yourself- do I make money when my users fail? (example late payment fees) Do I make money in ways that are hidden to my users? (marking up items without telling them). Is there a version of the product that people can use to make money? (Can you build a platform instead of a product?)

Simple is a company that, in my mind, does this exceptionally well. Here’s the kind of stuff they talk about and bring to light: https://www.simple.com/blog/how-do-banks-make-money

Here’s what we did. We broke down the product into packets and found something that people and communities could do on their own. And in doing so, make money. Then, we pushed hard to get them involved.

Today, when you make an order with my company, you are served by someone you know. A neighbor. A friend. Someone that you trust. Plus, like groceries in general, we’re hyperlocal. So this makes sense. If you’re already shopping at a store, why not pick up a few more orders for your friends and make some money.

This is how we explain it on the website.

Here’s the quick and dirty: Act on the answers to the questions above. Simplify your business model to be something that works for everyone and make it crystal-goddamn-clear to users.

Here’s what has happened since. Since making these changes, we’ve found a different customer waiting for us at the door. Not one that’s angry at us for being late but one that loves that we came. Not one that demands a refund at the tiniest mistake, but one that defends us and celebrates us openly on every possible channel.

Our sales have been growing too (20% week on week). Our retention is up and our churn has never been lower.

Those are the facts.

Beyond all of that, however, I have never loved our job so much. I understand the user’s frustrations now. So their complaints don’t annoy me. I know why this matters to them and why they’re angry with us. After all, I know these people. They’re not crazy. They’re passionate and rightly so.

Lastly, it has made me think. It’s made me question what I do and why I do it. Delivering doesn’t bore me. It excites me. It’s my favorite part of the day (every single day). A job well done feels better than it ever has, because I understand just how much that meant to my user.

I look at the Kombucha boxes full of food, waiting to be delivered and ask myself, “What’s really in this box?” “Is it just microwave popcorn or is it a Star Wars-marathon with the roommates?” “Is it just cake mix? Or is it a surprise birthday party for your overworked mom?” “Is it really just Pickled duck eggs? Or is it something you’ve never dared to try before?”

What’s really in the box?

Look deeper. 
There’s more there than meets the eye.