When we first decided to build Remind101, my brother David and I spent over a year really struggling to grow our company. Limited experience. Lack of mentorship. Our location. There were tons of factors that contributed to our initial struggle, but these three played an important role. Actually, so much so that now when people ask “What’s the most important aspect to starting a company?” I usually say finding the right mentors to help guide you. This can, of course, be argued but I had all the energy and passion in the world but without someone pushing you to think bigger or answer basic questions it’s tough.
Then, in the summer of 2011 we got accepted to the first cohort of the Imagine K12 edtech incubator program. At the time we had a few thousand users and a product that didn’t truly solve a real problem. We really didn’t know what to expect when moving Palo Alto but started this journey with an open mind. We had a rough idea of the where we wanted to take the company but no clue how to actually get there…
Early on we established 3 principles that guide everything we do at Remind101:
- Talk to users (constantly)
- Build a simple product
- Solve a real problem
1. Talk to Users
Everything spurred from talking to users. I’m not a teacher and neither is David. As soon as we dropped the prideful mindset that we knew what our teachers problems were, the blinders came off. During our initial 10 weeks in Imagine K12 I made it a priority to speak with hundreds (yes, hundreds) of teachers. Face-to-face in coffee shops. On the phone. Video calls via Skype. If a teacher was willing to speak with me, I made it happen. My job was to ask a few good questions and listen really well.
My core questions:
- How do you communicate with students after school?
- How do you communicate with parents after school?
- Do you ever text message students? Why/why not?
After a while, we realized that there were 2 very simple problems at the core of communication between teachers, students and parents. We came to this conclusion by listening to the 100’s of teachers and documenting their feedback.
- I don’t have a safe way to communicate
- I don’t have an efficient way to communicate
If you are really solving a problem after talking to whomever your user may be (in our case it was a teacher) you’ll begin to see a pattern. Nearly every teacher somehow said they don’t have a safe, easy way to communicate outside of school time.
We would have never come to this conclusion without talking to users. So get out of the office, meet people, talk to teachers, go to their classrooms, and most importantly, LISTEN.
2. Build a simple product
A key message we got after talking to so many teachers is that they are very busy. Think about it… across 2-3 classes with 20 students/class and each student has at least 1 parent involved. That could be 100 people they need to stay in contact with on a regular basis. A communication is just one aspect of their work, not to mention grading, lesson plans, PD, tutoring…the list goes on.
They definitely do not need another tech tool that takes 45min to learn how to use. (I know it sounds funny but many of the old enterprise technology suites schools purchase come with complex instruction manuals).
We saw this as an opportunity. We spent LOADS of time trying to figure out how to make our product extremely simple. I started by drawing what we wanted to build with a pen and pencil, show it to teachers and see how quickly they understood what we were thinking. We would do this for almost all new features and design changes. The teachers appreciated it too because it showed we really cared about creating a great product that met their needs. We are constantly striving to make our products simpler and easy to use, which is an ongoing process.
3. Solve a real problem
This is very Seth Godin-like of me to say. If you try to solve a problem for everyone you’ll fail because not everyone has the same problem. Focus on solving a real problem for someone. Our someone was obviously the teacher.
Finding the right teachers is a topic for another article, but a great place to start is Twitter. If you ever find yourself doubting any product decision, come back to these 3 simple principles: talk to your users, build a simple product and solve a real problem.