Ian and I went to the final day of the jam-packed AWS conference in Sydney today. It was an astonishing turn out. I had not seen so many engineers and technicians all together like this in a room before. It was awe-inspiring to think that everyone here was creating something.
Somehow, I have also become wrapped in this world of creation. I am simultaneously fearful and excited... how will I ever keep up with everything that is happening? How will VIVA ever do well going up against so many other things?
It felt a little bit like that old saying, to run is to stand still.
So we run, and we keep on running.
"I don't get it," Pete said over coffee last week.
"What do you mean?"
"Who is going to miss VIVA if it disappeared tomorrow? No one, that's who. You need to create a product that people will miss, and will pay you to bring it back."
It wasn't the first time I heard this product design philosophy. I read it in a book once upon a time, and Nic Wright had told me exactly the same thing on more than one occasion.
"Right now, you are talking to nobody."
"Because I'm talking to everybody."
"Exactly, and so nobody is getting your message."
Peter Lord is one of Matt Vickers's friends. Several years ago, he created Money Brilliant, which was then purchased by AMP. Pete is now creating another startup called The Green Room.
We spoke a while about VIVA's strengths and weaknesses. Internally, I thought about all the difficulties we have had trying to solve different consumer use cases with one uniform design solution, trying to market one solution to all consumers, and trying to pitch the nebulous and ambitious idea of VIVA to investors. It was going to be much easier if we focused on a narrow application.
"I love the design of the app, you have put a lot of love into it, but you are talking to a hundred people with it, and maybe five people love it. You should try to talk to ten people, and have eight people love it."
It made a lot of sense... but I wondered how best to tackle this pivot. Is it to focus on P.A.L.S.? Performances, arts, and live shows?
My gut says yes.
Progress feels so slow in the days before releasing a new version of VIVA.
We have had some tech hiccups getting to this point... but we are edging closer every day. Every day feels like the eve before the release of a new version, but not yet! The user feedback from the last few months have guided us to focus on making improvements to VIVA - small tweaks for big wins.
They may not be enough though.
"So I guess you aren't doing an overhaul just yet," Adam wrote in an email to me last week.
If we reduce VIVA down to its core, there are only three components:
Our tech team has been split along those three paths, trying to divide and conquer. Since our team is lean (read: small), we have had to prioritise certain things above others, even though they are probably equally important.
There is a jigsaw puzzle of possibilities...
John and I caught up last week to talk other business. These meetings serve as a good distraction from VIVA, so that I can turn away for a little bit, gain some distance, and tackle problems afresh.
We are close to the new version now... and with the benefit of the distance, the progress feels too slow and the changes feel too insignificant. I feel like we are the tortoise in the race. I hope the fable comes true, and that maybe we will win the race in the end.
I should be focused on Python coding this afternoon. Nishant sent a skeleton template for our data cleaner and labeller this morning, and I just have to go through and repeat a few hundred lines of code to label events data. I really should be doing that... but instead, I feel compelled to write a blog post about releasing the next version of the VIVA app.
One thing I should do more is survey and listen to our customers. It is fundamental to product design to listen to your customers. What I have failed to do in the last two months is to monitor our app reviews on the Apple App Store. It took a phone call with Adam to bring this to my attention this morning. I haven't felt the sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach for a while, "Oh sh*t, I really f*cked up, and there is no rewind button for life." I felt it during the call with Adam.
Was I asleep at the wheel? How did I miss the one-star reviews on the App Store?
One user wrote, "It’s definitely a problem that needs solving but unfortunately the uninviting and unintuitive interface detracts from what the app could possibly offer. Hopefully it gets better soon as I don’t like that Facebook is the go-to place to find out about events."
Another user was more abrupt and wrote, "Worst navigation with the worst user interface ever. Don’t even bother downloading it."
Dave, our UX consultant, had pointed out the unintuitive interface in September last year, and we have been trying to figure out a way to fix the interface without losing the soul of the app. We could have changed VIVA into the standard list style apps that everyone uses or model ourselves completely after the Google Material.io philosophy, but we wanted to be a little different. Perhaps that is my ego speaking.
We are close to releasing a new version now, and here's a sneak peek of the redesigned screens.
Kristy from the the Ducere MBA team shared a 2015 article with me last night - Hugh Malkin's piece on why no one has solved event discovery. It is a really good piece, and nails everything I learnt working in the same space as Hugh.
Hugh wrote his piece as a response and an extension to Mark Hendrickson's piece from 2012 on the uphill battle of social event sharing. The analysis and research that support those articles are incredible. I wish I can write something to extend on the work of those two, but I don't feel I have learnt quite enough or distilled the knowledge in a manner that can be shared very easily.
These days, I am often asking myself:
What is the right solution to the problem of event discovery?
I think the solution has to answer three questions in just the right blend:
Is VIVA the right blend? I don't know yet. I feel like we are still constantly testing and iterating. That is, after all, what product design is all about!
I think it is inevitable when someone spends a lot of time thinking about a problem, that problem starts to connect to other problems, and those problems start to connect to even more problems, and so on, until there is a giant spider web of interconnected issues. Flick one string here, and a node five degrees away starts to vibrate in a way that wasn't foreseen.
And so it is that I have come to think a lot about transportation, and the importance of people moving from one place to the next, how that can be improved and whether it is necessary at all.
This started when I found an event I really liked on VIVA...
... and I found myself thinking, "Geez that's far away."
What a shame that distance and inconvenience should stop someone from doing something they want!
Of course, there is the argument that if someone really wanted to do something, they will prioritise and find a way to do it... and if they happen to choose something else, then they never really wanted to do that something in the first place. I think that is a flawed argument, because two choices in the abstract, ignoring real-world factors like convenience, can only happen in a vacuum. So it is unrealistic to say that "all things being equal"... well, they are not. The only way to create a truly equal world us to lower all these hurdles that stand in the way of maximising enjoyment.
I don't have the answer though.
I don't know of anyway to equalise time and distance... yet! Maybe I will invent something after VIVA takes off globally.
Hahaha. I just realised something. While I am solving people's transportation problem, I should get myself a name badge for "Elon".
I know I said a while back that I don't go to many trivia nights, but it seems evidence is mounting that trivia nights are the only social events I attend. They make me feel a little stupid because I know so little about trivia.
That was Tuesday. It is now Friday.
On Tuesday night, I started writing something a piece about the next round of activities for VIVA. Instead of finishing that piece on the blog, I started writing instructions to Ian and Syed about how to automate our data labelling process. For those in the know, labelling of data is one of the key things that we have to do to treat the information that comes into VIVA in order for events to be properly categorised, and therefore recommended to people. It is the difference between telling someone they might enjoy Swan Lake rather than just any opera (or any live performance). So far, this has been a manually intensive process, but now we are looking to automate that.
As a result, I never ended up writing a piece about the next round of activities for VIVA, so... another day!
One of the reasons I came down to Melbourne this week was to meet the academic at Ducere Business School. That happened in Camberwell this morning.
A couple of months ago, Jess from Collabosaurus set us up with Ducere to chat about how they might be able to help solve one of VIVA's big strategic problems. This was at the start of November, and around the time when five massive tech players moved into the same consumer space as VIVA - oh Nelly, that is a story and a half... and much too much for me to write about in one single blog post. I will start drip feeding details of this over the next few months as we work together with the MBA students at Ducere.
It was fantastic to meet Dom, one of the academics on the case, and Natalia, the coordinator for this project. I think this is going to be great fun as we try to figure out the what's what and why's why.
The coffee in Melbourne is better than Sydney.
Mark and I coffeed afterwards to talk about a different business opportunity. I will have to tell you about that another time as well... but that would be straying far off topic, and we will need a really good segue.
I started writing this blog post on Friday night -
"Hang out with all your PALS," I had joked in the car.
The off the cuff slogan seemed simultaneously compelling and embarrassing, like a Dad joke that already had too much emotional investment. No one will laugh, but everyone wants the relief of ending the comedic setup.
"PALS. Performances, arts, and live shows. That is what I want VIVA to do."
I really want to enrich life for everyone...
... but in order to enrich the lives of everyone, I have to start small.
We saw Briefs at the Sydney Festival over the weekend. The Brief boys put on a phenomenal show - which we had already read about in Time Out - but as with all live shows, words in a review can never quite capture the atmosphere and mood.
Maybe it was a bit presumptuous, but I really wanted the Brief boys to be well rewarded for putting on a show for us. I wanted to encourage more performances like Briefs and more people to attend these performances.
"I want more people to go out to see these shows. Not just go down to their local happy hour all the time."
Before Saturday night, the last time I went bowling was probably around two years ago.
I spend much of my time pondering the process for shaping our social lives - or, the customer journey, if you are familiar with marketing or startup jargon. How do we decide what to do on the weekend? Who told us about bowling? Where did we decide to go? So on, and so on. All the while trying to uncover some insights about this decision making process so that VIVA can better help solve the problem, whatever that problem is.
In the beginning, I thought the problem was...
... that we did not know what to do with our spare time. I felt that was the problem VIVA solved because I had about five hours of spare time a week where I did not know what to do, and so this must be a problem that everyone faced. After a while, I realised that I did not in fact have any spare time at all. The "spare time" was invariably filled with seeing friends, shopping, chores and little gremlins that appear last minute.
No, no. VIVA was not trying to help people fill their spare time. That is a silly endeavour because very few people have a problem filling spare time.
The real problem was...
... we do not always have a good answer to the question, "What should we do?" We would love to be social and do meaningful things, but we often end up doing something less. This came from two connected problems - we do not know the possibilities for what to do, and we do not have time to find and consider all those possibilities. So, we built VIVA to solve those problems.
Now, we have refined this again, so we edge a little closer to the real customer journey - it isn't that we do not have a good answer to the question, "what should we do?" Sometimes, we know exactly what we should do, but we want to find out more information about that thing, and this is what the next version of VIVA must solve.