Should you care if our small business succeeds? (or Ten things you can do to help if you love A Story Before Bed.)

Jenny, Walter, and I founded our little company back in late 2006. After some time trying other possibilities, we finally found our first major product when we decided to build A Story Before Bed in late 2008. In November of 2009 we were the first and only service on the internet that let you record video of yourself reading (and in sync with) a children’s book and play it back as often as you like. We had 25 books and zero users. In January of 2011, a little over a year later, we’re still the only service that lets you record video of yourself reading children’s books, we have more than ten times as many books, and thousands upon thousands of users. You can use our service on the web and even on your iPad or iPhone. We’ve given away over 76,000 free children’s stories to parents in the U.S. Armed Forces who are separated from their children while they serve our country. And just today we were nominated of for a publishing innovation award from Digital Book World. We find out on monday if we won, but it’s an honor just to be nominated. :)

How did we do it? We didn’t take investment money, we didn’t kick in our own, we’re basically a mom and pop software company. The three partners plus a few helpers who contract with us and make up our extended family. And of course, the final component is you – people who look at what we’ve made and say to themselves… “this website looks nice, feels nice, and seems like something that should be a part of my life.” And to be honest, there are some (not all) web companies who are doing it very differently than us. They get a lot of money from investors, hire a bazillion people, spend a ton of money building something and marketing it and hope it will be an overnight success. When it isn’t, they often move on to the next startup. We’re more of the slow and steady types. We like to think of ourselves as craftspeople, slowly building our software one polished pixel at a time.

So back to the original question, why would you care about whether our business succeeds or not? I have no problem with large businesses or people being successful. But I also know that there needs to be room in this world for the small creators, the small business people. Those are typically the businesses that you love instead of just use or need. We want to be a business that you love. That’s why we work so hard on every book. That’s why we make sure the site keeps moving forward by polishing every rough edge. And that’s why we answer our own phone when you call and give you our e-mail addresses to get in touch whenever you want.

And to be clear, many of you have already done more than enough to help this small business succeed. You’re reading this blog, you may have registered for our site, or gotten a free santa book, recorded a book, signed up for our mailing list or even purchased a book or a subscription. And we appreciate it so much. But if you have the inclination, if you have a few minutes, and if you want us to keep making our site better, faster, smoother, more beautiful, and have even more great books for you to read to your kids, here are a few things you can do that would help us immeasurably.

Ten quick and easy things you can do if you Love A Story Before Bed and want to help it succeed. (Choosing one would be awesome. More would be amazing!)

  1. Record a free book on our site and share it with your friends and family on Facebook.
  2. Not on Facebook? Record a free book on our site and send the link out to your friends and family via e-mail.
  3. Think of five people you know who might like our site (the parent who travels frequently for work, the distant grandparent, etc.) and tell them about it.
  4. When you tell folks about our site, remind them there are books that they can try completely free (and if they run into trouble, we have free 1-800 technical support).
  5. Got an iPhone or iPad? Head over to the app store and download our app. Make sure to give us a rating and leave some comments.
  6. Got a blog or a website? Post a link to A Story Before Bed on your site and write about your experience with our site. Post a link to one of your finished recordings.
  7. Fan of someone else’s blog who might be interested in our site? Perhaps a parenting blog? Or children’s book site? Leave comments on their site about A Story Before Bed with a link to us. Or even contact the author of the site and let them know about our site.
  8. Know an accomplished children’s book author, illustrator, or publisher? Tell them to contact us to get their books on our site. We’re always looking for more great books.
  9. Know a teacher with a class from pre-K through fifth grade? Show them our site. They’ll immediately figure out ways to use it in the classroom!
  10. Know a journalist/reporter/talk show host? Tell them that there are thousands of parents in the military reading stories to their kids from distant lands thanks to A Story Before Bed and it would make a great story.

And one extra…

  1. Let us know what we can do better. We’re not a huge corporation with hundreds of staff, so we don’t always move as quickly as we’d like, but we do listen, and we care deeply. You can even let us know if there are things on this list that we’ve missed.

Thanks for even considering doing any of the above. We appreciate it! And we have a couple of tidbits for you this week:

  1. Head over to our Facebook Fan page. We’re having a contest where you can tag yourself on one of the books listed and vote for which book we should be free. At the end of January we will make the winning book free for a weekend! Our gift to you. And one lucky person who tagged themselves will win a free super subscription to A Story Before Bed.
  2. Head over to our new site: I Miss My Kids. It’s a live feed of people on the internet who miss their kids, We think A Story Before Bed can be a small part of helping ease that situation. If you like it, tell your friends about the site.

We believe that in the future, when a parent or grandparent can’t be around, every children’s book will let the child be read to by a loved one. And we believe that these recordings will be memories that families treasure for generations to come. That’s a future we’re working to deliver every day.

A one year wedding anniversary gift, looking back on our unique wedding video guestbook

Exactly one year ago, Adrian and I were married here in Seattle :)

There were a lot of different things that made that day so special: the setting (we were tucked away in the beautiful Dunn Gardens), the surprise Lion Dance that kicked off our reception, the unique cake centerpieces at each table… I even designed a seating chart that was “font-coded!” But one of the most special additions (and definitely the geekiest!) was the wonderful wedding present my two co-founders made for my big day, Thrilled for You Wedding Video Guestbook.

Of course, I am a little biased because a) it was my own wedding and b) this is my company’s product, but I really loved having this alternative to a physical guestbook. Even though we hired an awesome professional videographer to film the entire day, there’s still something really intimate about capturing video messages from our closest friends and family. Our guests left a few really funny and deeply personal messages, not the kind of thing that I can imagine them saying to a stranger aiming a video camera at them. And although our wedding was small by today’s standards, we still felt like we didn’t get the chance to properly visit with each and every guest. The guestbook video messages captured behind-the-scene footage that gave us a sense for how much fun people were having at the wedding.

So as Adrian and I celebrate our anniversary tonight, we’ll be watching all our guestbook videos from last year. We’re even going to make it a tradition to do so every anniversary.

Thank you Walter and Hillel for the best wedding gift ever. And Happy Anniversary, to both the Thrilled for You Video Guestbook and to my truly amazing husband, Adrian.

P.S. Our awesome videographer incorporated the Thrilled for You clips into our official wedding video, but he also put together a little sample of some of the more comical messages :-) :

How I almost ignored our single best source for customer feedback.

Back in mid-2009 when we were building A Story Before Bed a children’s books online service for its eventual launch in the fall of 2009 we had a talk about how to support our eventual customers. I remember reading a blog post (which I can’t find now – please post in the comments if you remember it) about how putting an 800 number on your website made people much more willing to give you their credit card numbers. We decided that having free 1-800 tech support for our site was going to be a differentiator for us. It’s not often you find a consumer website these days that provides that level of support. Typically if there even is a phone number it’s buried under layers and layers of FAQs, knowledge bases, and e-mail forms. It often seems like companies will do anything possible to avoid actually speaking to a customer. I’ve experienced this many times as a customer and I know how it makes me feel. Like crap. And yet, as a business owner, I read all this reluctance as an indicator of how costly and time consuming it is to provide person-to-person customer support. I was nervous.

At first I suggested that the 1-800 number would ring my cell phone. This wasn’t some altruistic desire to connect with customers, but me being cheap. My partner Walter laughed at me. He pointed out this would not be a good use of my time as we would no doubt be inundated by calls, and I had lots of other stuff to do. I was a little embarrassed, but he’s annoyingly right almost all of the time. I spent months looking for firms to which I could outsource our phone support. I finally found one in the Philippines. Our operator was very nice. She was dedicated to our product. And could chat with her over IM, even when she was on call (to which I could listen in on). Her attitude was just wonderful, but there was no way she could know the product the way I did. She also couldn’t know how much we cared about making our customers happy. One day I discussed with her when to give a refund. I told her we had a no questions asked 7 day refund policy. She asked what to do if the person wanted a refund on day 8? I told her to go ahead and give it anyway. There were a lot of situations like this that had to be spelled out. To the letter.

We launched, and she handled calls. She definitely did her best, and it was great to know that our customers had someone they could rely on. And while we didn’t have a huge number of customers, we woefully overestimated how many support calls they would generate. It’s not that our product was perfect. It definitely wasn’t. It’s just that while the 800 number may have made people feel comfortable using the site, for the most part, they didn’t use it. My rough calculations show about one support call out of every 100 registered users, if that. After a couple of months of paying an incredible amount of money to handle the handful of calls we decided to bail and go back to the original plan. We set up a new 800 number that rings straight to my cell phone. Caller ID lets me distinguish between my mom calling and a customer needing help. And now, every few days, I get a phone call from a customer who has a question about our service.

When I used to work at a large software company, I couldn’t imagine many jobs worse than being a tech support person. Perhaps it was my own interaction with support folks stuck supporting products they almost never had control over, and often didn’t have enough expertise in. Or maybe it was all the effort that companies make to avoid being on the phone with customers in the context of support that made me assume it’s something to be avoided. It turns out that answering our support calls has been an incredibly productive experience as well as potentially a profit center. When customers call, not only am I in a great position to help them as I understand the product inside and out, but their questions and feedback are essentially a free focus group. We always have a list of improvements we need to make to the product, but sometimes prioritizing can be a crapshoot. Vocal customers tell me quickly which work items need to move to the top of the list. I can only imagine how many customers of ours experience the same frustration as these callers but don’t bother picking up the phone. I think of our support callers as unelected representatives of our customer population. Each of them represents a non-trivial number of users who (understandably) didn’t have the time to call us.

Not only do I get great information that I can empathize with from these customers, but recently I’ve started finding out how effective our marketing is – “Do you mind me asking where you heard about A Story Before Bed?” and turning each support call into a gentle sales call – “Did you know about our subscription offer? It could save you a lot of money.” I realize these things may be obvious to many of you reading this post, but even if I understood them intellectually, I didn’t *really* understand them, at an emotional level. It’s still early, but it looks like answering calls may not only not be a drag on the bottom line, but a boost.

And while the frequency of calls is on the rise as our site gets more popular, for now, handling the calls isn’t just ‘not a problem’ it’s something I look forward to. It makes me understand why Craig’s (a.k.a. Craigslist Craig) main job is customer support. From my perspective, there’s no better way to understand what my customers are thinking. Analytics can tell me what they’re doing, but not why. When the calls are frequent enough to impact my other responsibilities, I honestly wonder which of my tasks I’ll delegate. More and more I think that someone else might be flying to New York to sign up new publishers, and I’ll stay focused on answering calls and e-mails.

A Story Before Bed. This is Hillel. How may I help you? :)

What I think it means to be a “true software designer”.

I’ve had this blog post kicking around for awhile. And now, since I’ve been recklessly pontificating about the definition of the term “software designer” I might as well give some background on what I think in detail.

If you’ve spent any time following Jackson Fish Market, you may have noticed that we’re somewhat unconventional as a startup. We haven’t taken any investment, we aren’t looking to flip, we have a female co-founder. The first two appear to be getting less rare, and the third, well, the tech industry still feels much like a boys club, But that’s a topic for another post. What’s interesting about our female co-founder is not her gender, but her role. Even rarer than a woman as a co-founder is a designer as a co-founder. If you’re a world famous designer like Philippe Starck, or if you’re running a creative agency, having a designer as a founder is common. But Jenny isn’t world famous (yet) and Jackson Fish Market isn’t a design firm, it’s a software startup.

There are two ways to understand why we have a designer as a co-founder. The first is to meet Jenny and see her work. The intelligence, talent, energy, creativity, and style that she brings to every piece of work we do should be obvious. But for a deeper discussion you must understand that there is an almost universal misunderstanding of the role of “design” and “designer” at a software firm. Once you understand what great designers really do, you’ll be wondering why you don’t have one as a co-founder. And then you’ll realize how few currently exist.

A true and talented software designer is like a singer/songwriter. The can both write the music and perform it with quality. A great singer will fail singing a badly crafted song. And a poor singer will fail singing even the most beautiful composition. In the case of software design, the song composition is the scenario definition, interaction design, and basic structure of the experience. The song performance is the top-most layer of the user interface, the combination of pixels, some as images, some as text, some animated, some aural (audio pixels?), that bring the experience to the users input mechanisms – sight, touch, sound (no smell and taste quite yet). And while it’s true that you can find a great singer and a great songwriter to partner to create magic, unless you’ve found a partnership of true equals, one side tends to dominate the other, to its detriment. There are certainly some popular music acts today that are created by a team with a performer out front and center. And yet, from my perspective, the vast bulk of genuine artists both craft and perform their art.

When it comes to software, our industry’s penchant for specialization is in full effect. The software designer’s role is divided across multiple people in an organization including the graphic designer, the information architect, the program manager, the usability engineer, the technical writer, the interaction designer, and in some cases the ethnographer or anthropologist. And that’s not to say that there aren’t some interesting talents and specialties in every single one of these roles. There are. But in a world where small teams make great things, in truth, one star software designer can handle pretty much all of these tasks, and the end result will likely be better. Less committee, more vision.

In most software companies that don’t have endless resources, the roles are divided into essentially two. The first role is what I’ll call “interaction designer” for shorthand which is basically everything above except for drawing the actual art that goes on the screen. The “graphic designer” is hired for the rest. And in almost every organization, the interaction designer is “on top”. They run the show. They get the credit. They get the paycheck. They’re in charge. In my opinion, this is backwards. I believe that most of the self-proclaimed “interaction designers” or “user experience architects” are a dime a dozen.

Here’s an observation that will offend many people. It is much easier for someone who’s intellectually curious with aesthetic skills, an eye for detail, some Photoshop chops, and a real sense of style to learn how to do interaction design, and understand how software works underneath the covers, than it is for a software person, (even an interaction focused software person) to learn how to do great aesthetics and presentation. To put it simply, becoming an interaction designer is really not that hard. I know.

If you ask me to create a true software designer from either a) a smart and talented graphic designer, or b) a smart and talented interaction designer, nine times out of ten I will start with the graphic designer because the interaction design skills are much easier to acquire. From my perspective, while there are some interaction designers out there who certainly add value, there are a lot more who are essentially valueless.

And in some perverse irony, it is often the people with the easily acquired skill who spend all their time acting like the graphic designers are a dime a dozen, and that the interaction design discipline is the serious one. I chalk this up to their insecurity. The graphic designers don’t go around shitting on interaction designers. They’re not threatened, and in fact, they often want to broaden their skills to include interaction design. And yet I’ve seen countless people referring to the role of creating the presentation layer as “applying lipstick” or something that can be added later. In fact the aesthetics need to come from a process where a true software designer is involved in crafting their vision from day one. Where a software designer is informed enough to help make technology choices give the experience they’re trying to create. Where a software designer is the person on the team who is ultimately responsible for having and executing on a vision for the kind of experience that the customer will encounter.

Not only should you have a true software designer in your organization, but the organization should be built to serve the needs of that person. I’m sure there are other ways to approach this problem. And there are certainly plenty of customers who don’t appear to notice quality when it comes to product design (note all the customers of General Motors and MySpace). But more and more I think people want to emulate VW and Apple. And I believe the only way to do this is to put a true software designer in charge.

Our own Jenny Lam is the Best Startup Software Designer in Seattle

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Of course we’ve known that for some time, but now our local startup community concurs. Nominated last year but coming away winless, this year Jenny took home the prize. We spend the bulk of our time heads down trying to make great software. Ultimately, our customers loving our products is what we cherish the most. That said, getting recognition from your peers is a treat. Thanks Seattle 2.0 and the community of folks who voted for us.

Check out all the winners at TechFlash.

Update: In what has roundly been denounced as a “dick move” I tried to make a nuanced point about who was or wasn’t a software designer in my original post. Not only was I wrong that two of the other nominees were actually designers, but my attempt at nuance was i believe what the kids call “an epic fail”. Now in the worst tradition of dick moves, I’m removing all the original stuff and replacing it with this. I know I can’t unsay what I said, and I apologize that it came off as jerky. To the folks involved, I owe you coffee/lunch. And to everyone else, please don’t blame Jenny for my poor judgment.