At the May 16, 2012, Princeton Tech Meetup, at least 100 members crowded into a Princeton Public Library meeting room for intense networking and to hear presentations by one N.J. app startup and a UX designer with Jersey connections.
The conversations were loud, with marketers meeting developers and investors connecting with new tech ventures. After about 45 minutes, organizers Venu Moola and Chris Boraski called the group together for its third meeting and made announcements.
An announcement that could hardly be ignored was that Princeton Tech Meetup is clearly filling a need in the area, since membership has been growing by leaps and bounds. As of the end of May, the group numbered more than 370 members. Meetup leaders are still deciding how it will be run and may choose to hold breakout meetings aimed at just developers, for example, in the future.
Gajewski spoke about her “lean” startup experience. Symple is an app Gajewski has developed that allows users to track their disease symptoms. “This was something I needed because I was being treated by my doctor based on symptoms I was reporting,” she said, and there wasn’t an available app that did this.
Gajewski said she knew nothing about building an app, so she created a blueprint, or wireframe, of it and tried to hire someone to build it. The costs were prohibitive, with estimates running to $25,000 from developers in both the U.S. and India. Before she could spend that kind of money, Gajewski said, she needed validation for the idea, so she headed to a lean startup event in San Francisco.
Lean startups (a term apparently coined by Eric Ries), create prototypes quickly—sometimes several times a day– and repeatedly test their market assumptions, using customer feedback to rapidly change designs.
As Gajewski remembers the event, “There were 100 of us. Ten of us were voted to the top of the pool, and those 10 ideas were worked on in a 48-hour period.” Gajewski’s team came in second place, but won “most fundable” and “most likely to succeed.” “This was an incredibly intense experience,” she said.
Gajewski said she learned some lessons about lean startups during this and subsequent lean startup events she attended. Among them, you need to build, test, iterate, put your idea out there, test, iterate, refine, refine and refine, she said.
Customer development should be done concurrently with product development, Gajewski said. “Go out to the field. Talk to potential customers. Make sure your potential customer base is informing your product development,” she advised.
At some point you have to take a stand and launch your product, Gajewski told the group. “Let your customers reflect on what you are doing. They are going to tell you what works and what doesn’t, what has value and what doesn’t.”
Gajewski said startups should launch with the minimum viable product (MVP): the smallest feature set that can create engagement and a pathway for potential customers. “I launched this supremely ugly app … and I got a lot of feedback! I was thrilled. … The people I am serving are very forgiving and also very willing to help me grow this business.”
Be willing to “kill your darlings,” Gajewski suggested. If you love something but no one else cares about it, you must sacrifice that feature set even if you think it is the linchpin of your product. If your customers say it has no value, you must let it go, she said.
Set a metric and meet it or quit, Gajewski advised. “If you don’t make it to the top ten, the idea is done. If you don’t make it to the top four in the finals, the idea is done. … I was constantly giving myself something to push up against. If I didn’t meet it, I could pull the plug.” Doing this makes failure or changing direction less of an ego issue, she said.
Next up at the mic was Jaeger, the UX lead at Greenhouse, a startup working on streamlining the hiring process. Jaeger discussed the notion that the era of developers or programmers — as opposed to founders or entrepreneurs — being needed to design something is coming to an end. “Intellectual, social and creative capital are highly valued by investors,” he noted.
Nevertheless, said Jaeger, “If you are a non-developer it is good to understand some of the basics of lean startups, such as what is pivoting, what is bootstrapping, what is lean, what is a business model canvas.”
Non-developers can increase their marketplace value and more deeply engage with the technology if they learn how to program, Jaeger said. “You increase your value to the team” and through the product life cycle. Plus, if you learn programming you’ll have something to show investors and clients, he pointed out. “People do want to see things that work rather than things that just look pretty,” he noted.
A great way to start, Jaeger said, is by using Ruby on Rails, a framework that lets anyone build web applications. Learning it is relatively easy through classes, online tutorials, videos and books.
Jaeger also advised putting projects on the web using GitHub, a way to share programming. “Throw up a Like button, and maybe you’ll get some people to share your project,” he added. As you go about building your project, there is no shortage of ways to collaborate, he said. Online services can help you.
Jaeger suggested newly minted developers can put their projects on Kickstarter and actually get funded. Currently there are projects from nonprogrammer founders there, he said.
The meeting concluded with audience “asks,” then the group headed to a local bar for further networking and conversation.