A Sense of Duty in Startups

fire truck

I’ve never read a blog post about duty and startups (although I’m sure they’re out there), but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for awhile. Some people (founders and employees) have a sense of duty towards the work they do. Others do not. And that sense of duty is one of the elements that separates awesome entrepreneurs and employees from everyone else.

There’s definitely a gray area between “duty” and “responsibility”. In fact you can Google “duty vs. responsibility” and get a lot of results. Here’s an example. I don’t think everything it describes about duty completely applies to a startup founder or employee, but a lot of it does. I also found this article on duty vs. responsibility for CEOs very apropos.

Clearly, we (as founders and employees) have responsibilities. And most people in an early stage startup get their jobs done and handle their responsibilities. But it’s those that have a sense of duty–a higher moral standard that they hold themselves accountable to–that go beyond expectations and really make a difference.

For me, duty is about caring. Or more specifically, caring to a level beyond the norm.

Those with a sense of duty are your go-to-guys, the founders you’ll back over and over, and the employees you want to hire right away when you start something new. It’s cliche, but some guys will take a bullet for you, and others won’t. And I wouldn’t expect most people to take a bullet for you as a founder or fellow employee, but there are a few that just will.

When you find those people, hold onto them.

That sense of duty gives them the ability to take their performance to another level. It gives them the internal fortitude to struggle through all the shit that you’ll face early on with your startup (and later too!) and push through.

One last thing: founders have to be careful about abusing an employee’s sense of duty.

It might be easy to rely on people over and over knowing that they’re compelled to help/work/struggle. In fact, if you want your startup to succeed, you’ll have to rely on those people! But as much as duty is something that comes from within a person, I believe it needs to be recognized, and people’s work needs to be rewarded. In my experience, most people that do have a sense of duty towards the work they do, don’t need a lot of external validation, but they still need some. They don’t need trinkets, baubles, or little perks–they need to know that the person they’re taking a bullet for / following blindly on an insane startup journey, recognizes their value.

Photo courtesy of aeroworks.

Customer Support is the Ultimate Learning Experience

sad to happy

Last week I read a great blog post from the CEO of FullContact, Bart Lorang, about his company’s experience providing customer support.

And then on Friday night I had one of the worst experiences ever at Pipa Restaurant in Halifax. I’ll never be going back there.

Both the blog post from Bart, and the horrible experience at Pipa, had me reflecting on the weekend about the huge importance of customer support to the success of any business, and how we do things at GoInstant.

I look at customer support as the ultimate learning experience, particularly early on in your company’s existence or with a new product. There’s no better way to understand how customers are doing than by handling customer support. Even if you did a lot of validation before launching (as you should!), the minute you put your product into people’s hands, they’ll do all kinds of interesting (read: crazy) things. You’ll probably be surprised and confused at how they’re using your product. Some features will get a ton of use, others will get very little; and I bet that you would have predicted the opposite.

Most often, you just don’t know what people are going to do when they get their hands on your product. And customer support is the learning engine that can drive the company forward in terms of resolving usability issues, fixing bugs, prioritizing features, increasing virality/word-of-mouth and more.

Since GoInstant is a platform for building realtime applications, we never really know what types of apps people are going to build. And our users have a broad range of experience with JavaScript, AngularJS and the other technologies we use. Some get it right away and are off to the races, others have a bigger learning curve. With both types of users (and everyone in between), customer support helps us learn what they were expecting, and how we can make things better. When a user shares code with us (of their app + GoInstant), we can understand their thought process, and it almost always leads to revelations on our side of how we could do things better.

Most of our support is very technical, and as a result, we rotate developers in ERT (Emergency Response Teams) weekly. There are usually 3 developers per ERT. These guys are responsible for handling all customer issues that arise. We have a couple guys that serve as point people to manage the ERTs (including myself), but ultimately the goal is to get our developers –who are building the product– as much face time as possible with customers.

Customer support is the ultimate learning experience. This is especially true early on. And everyone on your team should be learning firsthand about what’s working and what’s not working, so they can make better decisions going forward. If you put barriers up between your team and customers you’ll lose valuable information (through broken telephone), and you won’t give everyone on your team the “up close and personal” experience of handling customers. That experience should remind everyone at your company about who they’re working for (users and customers!) and why they’re there. It should help you figure out the ideal customer for your business (so you’re not trying to boil the ocean and please everyone).

Customer support can be humbling and occasionally painful, but if everyone in your organization participates you’re going to be better for it. Everyone will learn a ton.

Photo courtesy of poolski.

Design is Purpose Driven and Solves Problems


I’m not a designer. Or an expert in UX or UI. But as a product manager, it’s my job to understand how design (and UI/UX) can be applied to solving problems. (It’s also my job to have an opinion…hopefully an educated one!) A product manager’s job is to understand the problems faced by users/customers and then solve those problems with product. Sometimes that means adding features. Sometimes that means taking features away. Sometimes that means moving things around. Design plays a big part in solving problems, if it’s used properly and there’s intent behind the design being implemented.

There are already a lot of great products and web sites out there. While occasionally it makes sense to try something completely new, a lot of design (like product development), is leveraging what’s already out there and mixing things together to create something new. The big risk is riffing off something you see (that you like) that’s not actually working well. You won’t always know why a certain application is built a certain way or a certain design was implemented. So make sure you understand the assumptions you’re going in with; and make sure you understand what problem you’re trying to solve.

Lately I’ve found a bunch of useful resources for helping with design and product development. I wanted to share those here. (Btw, they’re all from Product Hunt.)

  • site inspire is a good resource for general inspiration. They’ve got a growing showcase of well-categorized sites and designs. Sometimes you just need to cruise through a bunch of ideas quickly and find something that catches your attention.
  • goodui.org is focused primarily on conversions. And let’s face it, pretty much everything is about conversions (of some kind), so this is definitely worth checking out.
  • Mobile Patterns shows you a bunch of mobile sites/apps, focused on specific features or flows that many mobile apps use. You can see what a lot of popular apps do for big things like sign up flows, but also dig into smaller details like logging in or composing content.
  • pttrns is similar to the one above, but has even more content. You can see how a bunch of apps handle user profiles, messaging, search and more.
  • User Onboarding analyzes the onboarding for a variety of popular sites and applications. Each analysis is pretty extensive. They’ve got 50 slides for Meetup.com, 58 for Quora, so you can dig into a lot of detail.

Onboarding in particular is one of those areas where a lot of applications (mobile and web) fall down. In many cases, the apps don’t motivate users quickly enough to get them engaged. That’s why 1-day churn on mobile applications can be very high and is a number that mobile developers need to pay attention to. If you can’t hook someone the minute they open the app and start using it, you’re screwed. So the more you invest in researching different and successful onboarding strategies, the better. A big part of onboarding is design (but there’s more to it too: copywriting, speed, etc.)

Simplicity usually wins. Making things simple is ridiculously hard. Being forced to cut and trim is painful and frustrating. When I’m writing copy (say for the GoInstant site) it’s usually 2-3x longer than I really want it to be. So I edit…over and over… (Incidentally, copywriting is a lot like design and plays a big part in user experience!) Every time you design something, right from the first paper sketch to the final product, see if you can take stuff out. Force yourself to at least think through whether you can simplify or not.

Dieter Rams (Chief Design Officer at Braun, 1961-1995) wrote 10 principles of good design, which are awesome and a must read: https://www.vitsoe.com/gb/about/good-design.

Design has an incredible affect on people. You see it every time one of the big guys like Facebook, Apple or Twitter make a change. People go crazy. They usually rant and rave. People get attached to certain “views of the world” and it’s hard to break them out. That can be frustrating when you’re making changes, but it also shows you that if you get it right, you can hook people in a way that’s emotionally significant. People get passionate about good user experience, whether they understand why or not. They get hooked (which is often the goal of good design) and driven to do what you want them to do. Changing behavior is very hard. Good design, which solves a fundamental problem, plays an important part in effecting that change.

Ben Yoskovitz
I'm VP Product at GoInstant (acq. by Salesforce).

I'm also a Founding Partner at Year One Labs, an early stage accelerator in Montreal. Previously I founded Standout Jobs (and sold it).

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