This post by Bill Gurley on technology for local businesses is great and I think it gets at something that many people in this industry overlook. We’re used to approaching problems by finding a solution to the broadest possible problem, scaling it out, then making incremental niche features and improvements to address the more specific needs of certain market segments. But realistically local businesses aren’t like that, and treating them as one category that needs to be solved and scaled is a losing strategy. There are many distinct nuances to the ways restaurants, car services, doctors’ offices, coffee shops, etc. operate. Starting with a top down approach will alienate everyone because it solves a problem for no one.
To build products for local businesses you need to take a very serious, up close and personal look at the operations for a narrowly defined vertical. And build from there. It’s slow going, but it’s necessary. There is room for scale and abstraction but it’s a whole lot harder and more nuanced than what most people expect. You really need to live in the other’s shoes for a bit to fully appreciate this.
The great example that comes to my mind is Sidecar. They have an incredibly robust feedback loop in place already, but I’ve heard that their CEO drives around picking up passengers to get a better sense of the challenges faced by both users and drivers. Empathy with both sides is crucial.
Everyone in tech is familiar with the concept of dogfooding a product or service. We all understand how important it is to try things and get feedback. The problem with tools for small, local businesses is that most of us don’t have occasion to use them ourselves. We can endlessly experiment with the consumer experience, but it’s much harder to realistically simulate the merchant/business side of things.
My advice to anyone working on tools/products/services for local businesses is to establish early partnerships with a handful of merchants so you can really experiment with and improve upon what you’re building. Take those businesses and make them extensions of your workspace. Work from that coffee shop or shoe store for a few days. Have your team members rotate through shifts working at these businesses. Take empathy one step further and figure out the nuances of these highly differentiated and operationally complex businesses. Then once you’ve cracked it, move on to the next one. The abstraction that can be used to scale things out should come from what you learn at the bottom - it shouldn’t be superimposed from the top.
Ladies and gentlmen, here are two great pieces for you all to read while procrastinating at work today:
First up, we have a Wired interview with Clay Shirky. He’s a professor at NYU and he has done a ton of interesting research around social media and its impact on society. There’s a ton we can all learn from him. Check it out.
Second, here’s an overview of some of the emerging players in the small and medium business loyalty space. The article is a bit misguided in it’s excitement around NFC and QR codes. Additionally, it has an alarmingly limited view of some of the companies in this area. I think the key takeaway, however, is spot on: the intersection of mobile advertising, loyalty, and small business tools is going to see a ton of attention and growth over the next 12 months.
How are people not making a bigger deal out of this? Amazon is allowing anyone to submit scripts for movies and series and they will produce them if there is demand for it. Audience tested content… awesome.