What I Learned from Jason Freide (37signals)

Original author: Dan Shipper
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A creative conversation between Dan Schipper, cofounder of Firefly and Jason Freide, cofounder of 37signals led the author of the article to interesting conclusions about how and to whom to sell software. We hope that you, the Guardians, will benefit.

Translated by the localization company Alconost. I decided to meet with Jason Fraid to learn how to sell software and stop interrupting random sales. Over the 10 years of my programming experience, I have made quite a lot of money online, but most of my sales were due to chance.

That is, I never really thought about how and why products are bought at all. I create a product, release it, provide traffic to it - and sales almost always start. But I never tried to understand who buys my product and why. I have never perfected a sales text or analyzed what types of traffic attract more buyers to me.

As soon as a product is released, I do one of two things: either start working on adding new features to it, or take on a new project. And I never thought what worked and what didn’t, didn’t care about improvement and simplification - I was always fascinated by the prospect of creating something new.

This allows you to learn. And I learned a lot over the past 10 years. But it seems to me that for the transition from a normal to a good level something more is needed. To make first-class products, you must constantly practice the art of understanding. And also get rid of everything except the absolutely necessary.

Over the past months, Firefly co-founders and I have been working on the realization of this idea - we learned to sell intentionally, and not by accident. We wanted sales to take place due to the fact that the product text is precisely aimed at the consumer’s problem and offers a solution that forms an emotional connection. We didn’t want the sales to happen only because the buyer is smart enough - he was able to get through the list of product characteristics that he did not need and found the reason to pay for it.

Nonrandom sales require an understanding of the needs of customers, and Jason is perhaps one of the best specialists in the world in this matter.

In November, we made an appointment via Twitter, and three months later I was sitting in the 37signals office - at one round wooden conference table with him. We spent about two hours talking about Basecamp (its product), Firefly (my product) and many other things. And this is what I learned.

An information problem arises with the product

There are two obstacles to non-random sales: lack of information and its excess.

When work on a product is just beginning, you do not have much information. Given this vacuum, most people only guess who and why might need what they create. But often the initial assumptions turn out to be erroneous.

Therefore, we talk with everyone and everyone about what we create, counting on feedback. In my Evernote there are 37 notes about conversations with different people about Firefly. And these are only those that I took care to write down.

But such communication creates an informational problem: it is very difficult to separate the grain from the chaff. And the information should be completely sorted. If you try to create a selling text on the basis of the feedback received, you will not be able to use all the opinions, and it would not bring any benefit. The general principle of sales is that if you sell to everyone, you will not sell to anyone.

Information problem can be solved.

Jason's solution is simple and effective. There are only two people who can give real feedback about your product: the one who just bought it, and the one who just abandoned it.

You can certainly collect other people's opinions, but in the end they will turn out to be less valuable. A client who has been with you for 8 years and loves everything you do will not provide useful feedback. He just bows you to death. Also useless is the one who promises to register and pay money if you, say, add such and such four functions. He will deceive you and eventually disappear.

A newly registered user can give good feedback. He just finished the buying process, and it’s easier for him to share information about why he made this purchase, what emotional reason led him to your product, and what part of the product is really useful for him.

If you will be interviewing new customers, their words can be used to sell your product. This will allow you to understand their way of thinking, figure out what is important to them, and what convinced them to tell you their credit card details.

Similarly, a consumer who has just abandoned your product can tell you exactly what you are missing. These people registered and entered their credit card information in the hope that you can solve their problem. If they leave you, it means that your product did not give them what they expected.

Sometimes the point is in the text: you did not provide what you promised on the site. Sometimes the problem is in the product itself: it may be too slow, or it contains too many errors, or does not solve the problem for which it is intended. In any case, in-depth interviews with those who have just abandoned the product can help you identify and correct deficiencies.

What if you do not have clients yet? Jason also has an answer to this: find your competitor’s customers and talk to them.

How to ask questions to get worthwhile answers

Even if you know with whom to talk about the product, this does not mean that you know what to ask and how to ask questions. Actually, this was my biggest problem with the client development methodology: it says that you need to ask questions, but there is not a word about how and about what.

Let's start by asking questions.

The human brain is a complex and confusing thing. It doesn’t handle very well high-level abstractions like “What problems do you have?” Or “How can we improve this?” If you ask someone a high-level question about what problems he faces in his work, you will usually receive an inaudible story about hatred of foul-smelling employees or a fear of angering superiors. These answers are useless, since abstract human problems cannot be solved using software.

But the human brain copes with specifics perfectly. Questions such as “Can you tell us what you do during the day?” Or “Are there any repetitive tasks you perform daily?” Will take you on a much more interesting path. You can identify problems that can be resolved using your software.

Now that we know how to ask questions, let's discuss what answers we need to understand how to sell a product.

What work does your product do?

First of all, you need to find out what kind of work your product does.

At first glance, answering this question is easy. A shower helps you become clean. A backpack helps carry things. Wallet - keep money together. Firefly makes it easy to screen clients.

But people are irrational. Their decision to purchase is influenced not by what the product does, but by what it means in their lives.

During the conversation, Jason showed me a video of the Harvard Business School with Professor Clayton Christensen . Clayton argues that "products only find their market when they help consumers complete the work they are already trying to do."

He tells the story of a fast food restaurant that tried to increase sales of milkshakes. A traditional market research was carried out, which any large company does. The target audience was determined and focus groups were held with these people.

At focus groups, participants were asked the question: “What can we do to make you like our milkshakes more?”. And the answer was received: people wanted more pieces of fruit, or more chocolate, or a new interesting taste. The company listened and changed the line of milkshakes. But this did not affect sales.

Then the company invited a consultant who approached the problem from the other side and asked a very specific question: “To do what kind of work do people hire a milkshake?”

After collecting the answers, he found that 50% of consumers buy milkshakes in the early morning. So he decided the next morning to speak with those who had just bought a milkshake. The result is a very interesting model.

Almost everyone who buys a milkshake early in the morning does this during a long drive trip - they need something to do. It turns out that a milkshake is an ideal meal for a long morning trip to work. He is sweet. Its eating takes a lot of time, that is, it is enough for almost the entire trip. He is in a glass - does not stain the interior. And he is quite satisfying.

So, for all these people, milkshake was not just a sweet drink. He was something that occupied them on the road.

Once you have determined what kind of work your product does, it remains to find out another important thing.

How do people switch to your product?

In the example with milkshakes, it turned out that people who bought them in the morning also tried other products. Some have tried to eat bananas. It is a healthy and tasty food. But unlike milkshakes, bananas quickly end - they are not enough for the whole trip. And they are not so satisfying. Others tried to eat donuts. They are good because they are sweet. But because of them, the steering wheel quickly becomes sticky and the interior gets dirty. And again: they are not so satisfying.

That is, people switched to milkshakes because they turned out to be the perfect way to keep yourself busy for a long drive.

The same thing happens with any other types of products.

If it seems to you that people do not switch from something else to use what you have created, it means that either you do not understand your own product or nobody needs what you sell. Each product has competitors. They may be other products or processes.

If you know what your customers are moving from, this seriously adds to the understanding of how to sell your product and what problem it should solve. And when you do this research, you will find that people often move from completely unexpected things.

Your competitors may not be what you think

In the milkshake example, fast food initially believed that McDonalds and Burger King were its competitors in the milkshake market. But there was a much wider competition that the company was unaware of.

This turned out to be fully applicable to my product.

Firefly provides screening for customer support without downloading the application. We thought a lot about how much the screening market has been modified. There are enough free products there. Therefore, in order to take money for our software (which we do), we had to understand the needs of our customers better than everyone else on the market.

I showed Jason a demo, and he seemed to like it. He called his employee from customer support, who also watched the demo. To determine what kind of work this product does for her, we asked what she did when she had a client in contact who asked for help. It turned out that her workflow does not include screening. It cannot be entered, because any type of screening that requires the client to download a separate application is a nightmare for a support employee.

Instead, she asks the client to describe the page that he sees and what he needs to do. Then she instructs him from memory, telling which buttons to press to solve his problem.

It often happened that, despite careful descriptions, she still did not understand what the client saw. It happened that she asked the client to press the button, which should have been on the page open in front of him, but received the answer that there was no such button. Worst of all, at that moment she could not say whether it was a mistake in the product or if the client was just looking for a button in the wrong place.

Firefly solves this problem: it can see exactly what the client sees, without forcing it to interrupt viewing for the sake of downloading and launching third-party applications. But what’s interesting: we don’t really compete with other screening software in this case. We compete with the memory of customer support staff and their willingness to instruct customers daily from memory.

Here is the key to understanding how to sell this product. We are supposedly doing the same thing - letting the support service see the client’s screen, but this does not mean that we are doing the same work as traditional screening.

If we reflect this in the approach to selling our product, it will help to find more buyers and earn more money.

Think about who your real competitors are. To calculate them, determine what kind of work your product does and how people switch to it.

After meeting with Jason, my girlfriend and I spent the rest of the day in our hotel room, sorting through different products and trying to determine what kind of work they were doing. This is a fun game, and some finds, believe me, will surprise you. For example, a shower does not just make you clean: its job is to provide you with a place where you can escape from everything in order to be alone with your thoughts.

You probably noticed that a lot of what I talked about here seems to apply to both product development and sales. This is because the understanding of your consumers determines what opportunities to put in the product and how to promote it. So we come to the next point.

Superior sales and great product have a common foundation.

Jason never told me directly about this, but, in my opinion, it shows through in his every word. If it turns out that he really didn’t mean anything like that, all the fame will go to me.

Many people think of marketing as the tricks and tricks that are needed to trick people into buying something. But first-class marketing does not do this: it relies on an accurate understanding of consumer needs at an emotional level and demonstrates how your product will satisfy these needs.

A first-class product is made based on the same understanding. When you know the emotional needs of your consumer, you can create something completely simple, but that exactly meets those needs.

If you understand that every element of the interface of your product means in the life of its user, you can understand how best to sell this product. The essence of your product and the way it is sold are closely related and depend on a detailed understanding.

This awareness is simple and beautiful.

Role of doubt

I think the most important thing I learned from all this was not Jason's specific advice, although his advice was undeniably valuable. The most important was how he advised and how this reveals his approach.

The first thing I noticed was that he did not try to convince me of his innocence.

“This, as we found out, works for us. It may not be right, but it seems to be working, ”he said, pointing to the image of Basecamp's homepage projected from a macbook onto a wall with a wireless projector.

I came prepared - with a lot of questions to which he had answers. But not quite ordinary.

You see, when smart people give advice, they tell you what to do. But over the past few years, I realized that the smartest people, giving advice, do three things:
  1. Before they say anything, they ask what you hope to achieve.
  2. Their advice is accompanied by a few warnings.
  3. They are not shy to say: "I do not know."

Jason is no exception. He was equally interested in what I was doing and why. (This as a philosopher student makes me especially happy). And he did not try to defend his innocence at all costs.

What he does really well is to find all that is irrelevant and get rid of it. This requires a deep understanding of their customers, which he aggressively seeks.

It is very easy to do something without evaluating how well it works. It is much harder to constantly and consciously review everything until you get to the bottom of the problem. So I understood his way of thinking. And this is what I would like to adopt.

About the translator

Translation of the article was done in Alconost.

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