Scrum, Listening and Product Management

Full disclosure: I flirted with the idea of titling this post Scrum, Lies and Politics, and yes I was thinking about the expression Sex, Lies and Politics when I wrote it.  This is a post about checking yourself before you wreck yourself and your whole team.  There is nothing that prepares you for being a startup founder more than seeing your bright idea crash and burn quickly.  The best founders often got to be the the best by trial and error or by trial and iteration.  By “best” I don’t necessarily just mean the most successful ones.  On the other hand, some founders are more like a slow snowball rolling down hill that just builds mass on the way down.

I am talking to those of you who are trying to build a clone of some app, or the “Uber of” <fill in the blank>.  You are trying to do something that someone else did quite successfully.  Perhaps a number of teams did it quite successfully.  But you are trying to match your apple of an app to theirs by copying, not by creating something that people want or will even care about.

One of the hardest things about failure is losing your life and your team’s life to a project that does not succeed.  I can’t emphasize enough that you don’t get your life back.  If you are lucky you get to hang on to some great lessons learned and some friendships, but that isn’t usually the case if you are building the Titanic and painting it as if anything else is true.

As a founder you need to spend a lot more time testing your assumptions and checking your progress along the way.  If you have an app that is ready for people to start using it then get them using it.  If you think that you need every feature on the menu then stop right now and get your app in the hands of people.

As founders we sometimes feel like what we are carrying around in our heads is the equivalent of the President’s nuclear launch codes or something really important.  What is really important is your passion and your time, not your idea(s).  If your passion and your time are high then you will rub off on your co-founders, customers (including early ones), and you will have wind in your sails.  But if you are building the Winchester house and keeping it under wraps then you are probably going to run out of passion, time and resources before you even figure out that what you are building is not going to appeal to very many people.

To get back to the title of this post, I chose scrum because it is a system that emphasizes taking a collaborative approach that involves listening and iterative product development.

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Email Automation User Experience Considerations

I was using an mobile app yesterday that prompted me to write this post about automation user experience considerations.  The app publisher had a nice feature and I sent them an email about it using their website’s contact us form.  What happened next was not very nice.  I received completely generic auto-response email from them that attempted to cover all kinds of different topics.  It was basically a FAQ page as the auto-response email.  When I followed the instructions in that email and sent a reply saying that their auto-response did not suffice, I got the exact same auto-responder email all over again.  It was a complete mirror in the mirror effect.

Auto-responses can be great.  Automation can be great.  But doing something and not testing it before you unleash it on people is not great.  I went from being a fan of the app to considering whether or not I trust this app publisher at all.

Here is the message, but with their info removed:

From: Appname <>
Date: Sun, Mar 1, 2015 at 6:08 PM
Subject:  Appity App
To: Me

Thanks for getting in touch!
Hi Me,We hope this mail answers your query, if not reply to this mail and we will get in touch with you.If you are complimenting Appname – thank you!If you have questions, most answers can be found on our Help page. Were you looking for an answer to one of these questions?:

  • To disable auto tweeting of stats on my Twitter profile?

Log in at or the mobile app
> Click on “Automate”, the last option on the left menu bar
> Uncheck the “Tweet my stats” option
> Click “Save”.

  • Why is Appname not displaying who unfollowed me?

Sometimes, your follower count will go down if Twitter suspends the accounts of some of your followers. Twitter’s api restricts us from displaying these users. You can safely ignore these unfollowers.

  • I unfollowed/followed quite a few tweeps using Appname, but there is no change in my Twitter follower/following lists.

Wait a while and check back again. Sometimes, it takes a while for yourAppname actions to sync with Twitter.

  • How can I remove my account from Appname?

You really want to? Can’t we talk it over? If you are having issues with the app, please share them with us and we’ll sort it out for you. But, if you really really want to remove your account:

Log in to
> Click on “More” at the top (located extreme right)
> Select “Settings”
> On the next page select “Remove account” (it is right next to your account name).

We’ll be sad to see you go! :(

Your question isn’t answered? Reply to this email and let us know.

Best Regards,
The Appname Team


Still no response.  I am definitely not going to keep using this app.

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A Quick Glance At UDacity

A few days ago I received an offer for $10 per course for any course offered by online course site UDemy, not to be confused with premium online learning site UDacity.  UDemy is like an enhanced Youtube channel, but with a pay wall.  After a comprehensive review of all of the site’s offerings in technology and learn to code categories, I decided that what UDemy has to offer at this time isn’t worth it at any price.  A few looked somewhat tempting, but the reviewers confirmed my assumption.  I can’t understand why UDemy has not put more time into securing or producing higher quality content for its collection.

The pay wall for vid is typically in the $75 dollar and up category.  Now granted, the instructors put a lot of time and energy into the courses offered through the site. The problem is that there isn’t as much quality assurance of the offerings as there could be.  A little curatorial and editorial assistance to the publishers could help solve this problem even if it was in the form of volunteers.

One big problem is that the instructors are not necessarily credentialed for what they are teaching.  This isn’t always going to be a major issue, but it assumes that the the buyer isn’t savvy enough to visit YouTube, Coursera, UDacity or any of the plethora of other high quality sites out there.

I will keep an eye on these guys even though I decided to pass this time around.  UDdemy has a lot of content and even though there isn’t anything that would be in line with what I would like to learn about right now, at least not at the quality level that I require to invest my time, I would go back and look at their offerings again.  Someone just trying to break into web development or learning to code would probably be better served looking elsewhere (hint: YouTube) for similar content.

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Marketing For Independent Musicians

As I firm up the details of a planned trip to SXSW in a few weeks to help a friend get some users for a recently launched mobile app, I have spent a ton of time checking out the bands and individual performers who will be in the music lineup this year.  Marketing for independent musicians is really interesting to me as it turns out.

One thing that I am noticing is that people are all over the map, more so than businesses.  There are a lot more “social” sites that you need to put a flag up on besides Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (it is pretty big for musicians).  Among these are SoundCloud and Vevo (similar to YouTube).

It seems like the music industry is single handedly keeping template website companies in business too.  It isn’t just our parents either.  It seems that having a website is really important, but having a really high quality website is more often optional.  At least for early stage indy musicians.  Or maybe it is a resistance to the whole idea of embracing tech in an effort to make the art.

Like the startup community, there are some very interesting and well produced podcasts and blogs like the DIY Musician Podcast.

If you are interested in music tech or music industry marketing that involves tech let me know.

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SXSW Music and Interactive Fest Here I Come

I have started counting down the days until this year’s SXSW Music and Interactive Fest.  This will be my third trip to SXSW Interactive and my first to SXSW Music.  I was there last year helping a friend gather interactive industry feedback and connections for his app that was launching soon.  This year we will be doing the same thing except the app will be live and we will be connecting with people in the music business as well as some select interactive industry insiders.

Having taken more than a decade off between SXSW festivals before the trip last year, I am looking forward to going back with a bit more savvy about how things work.  I will not be hitting the events with lone lines and nothing but loud music – especially ones on the edge of town this year.  I will be spending more time enjoying music and mixing it up with people in small dinners, coffee meetups and happy hours while I am there.  These are the best part of the event which can sometimes be a bit like running multiple concurrent marathons if you try to get to everything.

To get a better idea of what to expect from the Music Fest performances, I have been sampling their music wherever I can find it and creating a list of them via Twitter.  The list is here and samples of music can be found here.

There is a music hackathon (details here) that I plan to participate in this year as well.  If you are interested in joining me shoot me an email ahead of time.  There is also some sort of music tech meetup sponsored app demo event that we are planning to attend as well.

No news yet on whether or not there will be another secret Texas Hold’em game, but if you hear any news about one let me know.

Besides hackathons and poker games, we have been talking about hosting a flash mob or two focused around music apps or a Rock Band contest if we can line things up for it.

If you are going this year let me know.


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Mobile App Analytics Tools I Am Using

I have spent more time on growth engineering for mobile apps recently.  A few of the tools are the same, but mostly because when you have a mobile app you also have a website so there is some overlap involving Google Analytics and web traffic tools.

Here is a quick roundup of the mobile analytics tools that I have either used or am looking at using.  This list will be updated as I use new tools, use my current tool set more comprehensively, etc.  All of these tools have free plans.

Flurry Analytics by Yahoo! (HERE) (Features List)
Flurry Analytics is the best mobile analytics tool that I have worked with so.  It is very similar to Google Analytics and even allows for creation of custom dashboards just like Google Analytics.  Tracking activity for  mobile app is a bit more complicated though so I am not able to get the same data as I thought I would be able to.  There is no official mobile app for Flurry Analytics which mens iI have to log into the app via my laptop.  I really hope they launch a mobile app soon. (HERE) is a tool that reminds me a lot of MixPanel.  You can see user paths and some things that overlap directly with Flurry Analytics, but you can also contact a user directly through the app.  Getting all of the data that allows you to track into their system is also a bit more complicated so I have yet to put it to a true test of its potential.  There is a very limited mobile app that seems to be more of a nudge to free users to get them to upgrade than a practical tool.  You can view a list of users in it, but it is not practical to use right now.

mixpanel (HERE)
mixpanel is an advanced tool that I have worked with when adding large groups of new users to study how they use a web application.  It works really well, has a lot of great features, and comes with a bit of a learning curve.  It is very similar to from based on my experience, but I have not used it for a mobile application analytics effort yet.  It is more of a premium product so it is also more expensive after an initial free trial and as your application scales up.

MobileAppTracking by TUNE (HERE)
This is a tool on my to try out list.  It is described as an attribution analytics tool that lets you measure the value of your advertising partner.  I know a marketing agency that uses it, but I don’t know much else about it yet.

TapJoy (HERE)
I have not used TapJoy yet, but it looks interesting and I plan to very soon.  There are a number of solutions offered through the company that provides TapJoy including paid install options (I am not sure how I feel about paid user acquisition when it comes to getting loyal early customers – maybe that is ok for buzz purposes in some categories).  There also seem to be some user segmentation, advertising and analytics capabilities which could all come in handy sooner or later.

If I missed an analytics tool (or failed to mention one since this is a first draft at something more substantial) please use the comments to let me know or send me an email.

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Degrading Call Center Service

I can’t quite put a finger on it, but somewhere during the last five years I started really taking stock of the degrading call center service quality.  This is not my industry and I don’t know how to properly quantify or respond to this change, but I am starting to think that this may be either an opportunity: for startups, for someone like Ralph Nader, or for legislators and other regulators who ultimately serve as the people tasked with serving the public interest.

For startups the answer could be as simple as coming up with a way for customers to register the fact that the call center service they are receiving is a not working.  For example: when my wife and I had a baby recently the Maryland Health Connection/Maryland Health Exchange call center made two major mistakes (not counting mis-management of the overall program from the start).  First, they changed our address to the wrong address.  That wrong address was passed on to Carefirst of Maryland, my health insurance company, by the Maryland Health Connection/Maryland Health Exchange to.  I called in to Carefirst multiple times and they told me that they could not change my address or that the only way to change my address would be through the Maryland Health Exchange/Marylnd Health Connection.  After getting the call escalated to management numerous times with zero results I gave up trying to get Carefirst to update my address.  When I call Carefirst they ask me to verify my address in order to talk to anyone there about anything.  Carefirst also sends mail to the wrong address.  Health insurance is provided with geographic limitations on top of this!  So I called the Maryland Health Connection/Maryland Health Exchange thinking that it would be easy to get them to change my address.  After calling in multiple times and they told me that they either could not change my address or that the only way to change my address would be to buy a completely new insurance policy through the Maryland Health Exchange/Maryland Health Connection.  Seriously?  How hard is it to change an address?  After getting the call escalated to management numerous times I decided to try calling their website technical support line.  Same thing, but after pushing for the call to be escalated I was told that my address would be added to a spreadsheet that would be used to update my address in their system (apparently, I kid you not, the entire system is a website with a web form that provides data in spreadsheet form that someone manually data enters into another system).  They told me it would take a few days or a week so I waited.  Several months later the address is still wrong.  A startup could provide a way to report this to upper management.  Maybe they could have one of those hospital style pain faces scales that you pick out where you pick the face showing that dealing with this problem hurts a whole lot or is a complete disaster that prevents someone from getting health care at all in a case like this.

I mentioned that perhaps this is a problem for someone like Ralph Nader to take up.  In 1965 Ralph Nader wrote a book titled ‘Unsafe At Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of The American Automobile.‘  While someone may not die of a call center episode, their life might be threatened under certain circumstances.  I could see the headline now: ‘Elderly person commits suicide after spending 40+ hours seeking to reverse health insurance denial following typo in spreadsheet by Maryland Health Connection call center worker.’  This may seem extreme, but it is actually not that far off.  The people who work in these call centers DO NOT have the authorization to help people if someone calls in with a situation like this.  They flat out refuse to.

It seems that one of the few options that people have as a last resort is to go to third parties to seek help.  Good luck with that. I called my US Senator’s office (they forwarded me to the Governor’s office.  I left two messages and never heard back from the Governor’s office so I called a third time and was told that they would speak to someone about it.  I received an email shortly after the third call telling me that my address was being updated, but that was a complete fake out.  They did not update my address.

I tried social media. I reached out to @MDHealthConnection twice.  The first time they looked up my phone number based on my Twitter ID (which was probably a violation of my privacy rights under HIPPA or something) and called me using the phone number on on file with the Maryland Health Exchange.  Then they had someone email me to confirm that I needed my address updated.  That person said they would have my address updated, but that was also a complete fake out.  They did not update my address either.

At least if there was a startup allowing people to report their Call Center pain level they could share this data with someone like Ralph Nader or the Governor’s office so that something could be done about it.  Maybe this is an opportunity for social entrepreneurship that will get funded sooner or later.  Maybe it is a project for the Presidential Innovation Fellows although their charter does not include state government or private sector companies.

I called the Attorney General’s office and they told me that the Maryland Health Connection is so screwed up that if you are married and you die then your spouse can’t update the system to get survivor benefits.  I don’t have experience with this, but that sounds like a major problem.

Most of what I am talking about involves the Maryland Health Connection call center customer service team’s inability or unwillingness to help people.  But this is just one example of a problem that is across the board when it comes to call centers.

Something really needs to be done about the degradation of call center service quality.  Companies and governments are putting people in gatekeeper roles and blocking people from getting what they are paying for or entitled to.  This is out of control.

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