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Collaboration Meets Competition: The Power of the Hackathon

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Wikimedia Hackathon 2013, Amsterdam via Flickr

Wikimedia Hackathon 2013, Amsterdam via Flickr

Remember those all-night cramming sessions in college, when you would overcaffeinate, stay up for days, and muster all the focus you could to finish a paper or prepare for a test? Imagine a room full of computer programmers, developers, visionaries, and marketers doing the same thing for a day, a weekend, or even a full week. Instead of cramming, they are competing to create prototypes that innovate on a theme or improve upon an existing project. It’s called a hackathon, and it is has become a regular part of how technology companies do business. In fact, the power of the hackathon has extended beyond the tech industry into countless other sectors.

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5 Successful Businesses That Got Huge By Starting Small

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Will this idea germinate into a success?

CC Image Courtesy of Ritesh Man Tamrakar on Flickr

Susan Feldman, cofounder of shopping site One Kings Lane, attributes the company’s success to not aiming to build the next big thing — she recommends “that if you have an idea and you want to do something, starting small is okay.”

Feldman’s advice mirrors the wisdom many companies follow when introducing their product or service to the market: begin by testing interest and enthusiasm with an MVP, or minimum viable product. This “barebones” product has just the necessary features to receive money and feedback from early adopters. Not only will this provide you with constructive criticism from your core audience, but a strong user reception validates moving forward with a product. Look to these five success stories to see how companies have used their MVPs to float their product to the marketplace.

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A Product Manager By Any Other Name: 3 Titles For Product Managers

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Different Names for Product Managers Image

Because product management encompasses a variety of elements, it can be found at multiple levels of development and production, under numerous titles. One survey found as many as 256 unique titles for the role among respondents. Whether you’re looking for work in the field, or wondering if you may already be operating in a related capacity, knowing what they are can be of benefit. Read on to learn a few.

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10 Books To Read Before Pitching Your Startup

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books image

Image Courtesy of Rodrigo Galindez on Flickr

One of the first things a startup should build is a library. Business books can help hone or disrupt your way of thinking (sometimes in ways that are subtle, sometimes in thunderclaps), they can help you learn from examples and case studies, and they keep you up with the latest jargon at pitch meetings and cocktail parties. Of course, new books come out all the time, and everyone has their personal favorites, but these essential titles should help you fill your startup library.

Related Story: Considering Business School? Read These 10 Books Instead

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Are You A Product Manager? Here’s Why You Should Learn Code

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Code on the wall image

CC Image Courtesy of Nat Welch on Flickr

Is coding a job requirement for product managers? That’s a concrete question with a simple answer: No. It’s certainly possible for a product manager to capably bring a production from idea to market, guiding and managing engineers and designers along the process, and ensuring that the product is both loved and profitable, without writing a single line of code. When the question shifts to should product managers learn to code, the answer becomes a bit more subtle.

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7 Essential Skills for the Full Stack Product Person

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Meet Alex Cowan, entrepreneur (5x), intrapreneur (1x), author, and instructor at General Assembly. He’s also the author of ‘Starting a Tech Business’. When he’s not teaching at GA, he’s often found advising companies and posting instructional materials for innovators and instructions on alexandercowan.com.

I’m always pushing myself to be the best possible product person I can be, and these days I tend to earn a lot through my work as an instructor. My classes are on the interdisciplinary topics of product design and venture creation, so I get to work with business people wanting to understand the technical side and engineers wanting to learn the business side.

Often times, students from the business side are thinking of learning to code and students from the engineering side are thinking of going to get an MBA. While both might be advisable in certain situations, I’ve found that there are a few simple foundation skills that drive the interdisciplinary cooperation at the heart of so many successful projects:

the-full-stack-product-person-v4

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Exit Flatsville: Using Storyboards to Energize Your Agile User Stories

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Meet Alex Cowan, entrepreneur (5x), intrapreneur (1x), author, and instructor at General Assembly. He’s also the author of ‘Starting a Tech Business’. When he’s not teaching at GA, he’s often found advising companies and posting instructional materials for innovators and instructions on alexandercowan.com. This is the second post in Alex’s series on Storyboarding. Click here to read his introductory post

Outstanding products are the accumulation of many thoughtful details. Particularly in more mature categories, consistently thoughtful execution is probably more important than grand inspiration.

Agile’s primary input, user stories, have always been a great way to get that consistency. Sadly, they’re not a silver bullet and their impact is often marginalized because of weak stories. Quality stories that really represent users should thread back to personas & problem scenarios, meaning that you have a vivid depiction of who this user is and what underlying need the story’s addressing. Without this, the user stories may end up as a specification for something thought up ‘inside the building’ as opposed to out in the market. Furthermore, the story will end up in out there in the real world without a clear trail back to why you thought it was a good idea and a ready criteria for whether or not it’s delivering the outcome you intended.

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General Assembly Raises $35 Million in Series C Round

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Since our launch in 2011, General Assembly has made tremendous progress towards our long-term vision: Creating a global community of individuals empowered to pursue the work they love. General Assembly has already touched hundreds of thousands of lives, with a community of more than 100,000 students, including an alumni network of more than 6,000 graduates of our courses across eight campuses.

While our progress has been tremendous, our work has barely begun. Our mandate, our deepest organizational responsibility, is to support these alumni not just now, but for many, many years to come. It is this obligation that led to our new round of funding for General Assembly, designed to ensure that we will be able to educate students and help decades of alumni yet to come. Led by Institutional Venture Partners (IVP), this round represents over $35 million of investment, with participation from other investors including GSV Capital, Rethink Education, Maveron, and Western Technology Investment. IVP is an incredible firm, with an awe-inspiring portfolio including Twitter, Omniture, Netflix, Akamai, Soundcloud, and Snapchat. Todd Chaffee, general partner at IVP, is joining our board, and we’re proud to partner with the firm as we continue to expand our audience and scope of offerings.

While we look toward the future, I also want to recognize General Assembly’s team today. We have 250 amazing, talented people, working tirelessly from outposts across the globe. Working at a startup is a constant challenge and I’m proud of what our team has accomplished. Our ability to continue to invest and grow is due to their commitment to General Assembly and to our students; they are the most crucial element of our collective success to date.

While a financing round is a milestone, it is hardly an endpoint. We want to build General Assembly to still be thriving 75 years from now, and have mountains of work to do to continue to serve our students, alumni, and the countless individuals we have yet to reach. There will be new courses, new campuses, and new audiences to come. We look forward to sharing them with our growing global community.

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A Case Study on Getting Started with Lean Startup Methodology

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The Lean Startup method to build products

The lean startup methodology is not a skillset you can learn all at once. Like yoga, it’s a practice you must develop and apply over time in order to get any value from it.

In a nutshell, lean offers a validated way to learn about your startup. It answers key questions like: Is there a market for your business? How can you gather key information about the features and functionality of a business concept?

Lean will help you practice identifying your market and developing product-market fit. It’s a process can be applied to any product concept — here’s how you get started.

Step 1: Choose and validate an idea.

One word lean practitioners rely on heavily is “validate,” and GA’s learning experiences are designed to help people understand what it means to validate an idea or product.

In one of our workshops, instructors provided the class with an app idea and walked them through the process of determining whether or not it would succeed. The app was called Cut the Line, and the concept was a mobile app that helps you skip the line at restaurants and other popular attractions. The idea drew inspiration from Disney World’s FastPass and applied it to all of New York City. Imagine being able to skip any line anywhere … for a price.

“Yes, that would be awesome,” was the response we got from most people when asked whether they liked the idea.

Step 2: Define the assumptions.

Before committing to the business idea as we had originally conceived of it and investing precious resources to build the “perfect” product, we challenged the class to identify whether there was a market for Cut the Line, and if so, the bare minimum feature set — or the minimum viable product (MVP) — people would actually pay for. Our class mapped out the idea’s riskiest business assumptions to reveal the bare minimum facets of the business (consumer behavior, pain) that must truly exist for this business to work.

  • Assumption #1: Patrons would pay to skip lines.
  • Assumption #2: Restaurants would accept payment for allowing some customers to skip the line.
  • Assumption #3: There is a large enough market for this product to build a sustainable business.

Step 3: Validate your assumptions.

After mapping the riskiest assumptions, we took to the streets to meet real, live potential customers and observe their behavior. Our learning exercises started with offering strangers money for their spot in line in efforts to define if we could pay to create a spot online. We experimented with a range of price points; if they refused a small sum, we countered with a higher offer.

Step 4: Analyze lessons learned.

Our experiments highlighted one key fact about consumer behavior: While you can gain some valuable qualitative information about your customer through conversation, people are generally terrible judges of hypothetical behavior. The only reliable way to test whether someone will pay for something is to actually charge them for a product.

  • #1 Lesson Learned: Patrons felt paying to skip the line was unfair to the others in the line. Many patrons refused the offer to pay us to Cut the Line. When we asked why, we got an interesting array of responses that included: Parents with children said that waiting in the line was a part of the “sight seeing experience.” Tourists enjoyed waiting in line because the longer the line, the better the restaurant. It was how they judged if a restaurant was good. One surprising exception: A man on a date paid to skip the line.
  • #2 Lesson Learned: Restaurants did not want to let some clients to skip the line. Restaurants did not want to seem unfair giving certain customers special treatment. They were afraid that any additional revenue generated by the FastPass would be offset by losing the business of irritated potential customers.
  • #3 Lesson Learned: Our target market significantly narrowed as we spoke with potential customers. The class expected the average patron waiting in a long line would be willing to pay to skip to the front. And with the refusal of venues to allow some patrons to skip the line, we were left wondering, was there an opportunity for this product at all?

Step 5: Identify flaws in the experiment and consider next steps.

There are some natural limitations to any experiment. Some potential issues that may have influenced our learning and warrant further exploration:

  • We looked very “unofficial,” approaching patrons at restaurants in line wearing street clothes.
  • Our small data-set was geographically limited to Times Square.
  • Our pool of potential customers was predominantly limited to restaurants, so a person’s level of hunger may have forced a different behavior.
  • Lastly, a digital solution such as a mobile app would have increased anonymity; in the in-person setting, we expect some would-be customers felt peer pressure to not cut the line.

Had our class extended beyond three days, our next step would have been to explore those learnings further and to address some of those limitations.

Step 6: Decide whether or not to proceed with the idea.

After three nights of validated learning inquiry into Cut the Line, we didn’t feel confident that there’s a market for the product; at least not with the implementation that we had envisioned. Our student who did make a sale had a brilliant customer development hack: He put in his name to get a table for dinner at the Hard Rock Hotel, waited 30 minutes until his buzzer would be called next, and then sold his spot in the line to a patron who had only been waiting five minutes (a gentleman on a date).

Key Takeaway

There are a number of other factors to consider as well, but social factors like “perceived fairness” and peer pressure are clear barriers to successfully monetizing the business idea. The biggest lessons we hope our students took away, though, is that just because people say, “Oh yes, I would pay for your product,” doesn’t actually mean they will or that there’s even a market for it. Uncovering insights and understanding the nuances of a potential customer’s behavior is key to learning whether there’s a market for your business idea.

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