Required Reading: Lauren Perkins

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Name: Lauren Perkins
Classes Taught: Building a Brand-Centric Business Strategy, Building an Online Community for Your Brand

Lauren Perkins is the founder and President of Perks Consulting, and is an experienced marketing and strategy expert within the health, fitness, spa and beauty industries. She began her career as a journalist in local news, and later moved into brand management and experiential marketing.

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Raw Materials: Food52

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Name: Food52
GA Member Since: January, 2011
Employees: 7
Hiring? Yes! A VP Technology with vision, and a talented front end engineer.

Food52 is a community for people who love food. Dedicated to celebrating home cooks, they offer quality curated information about food and cooking, while engaging their readers through weekly themed recipe challenges. Check out the raw materials we found on co-founder Amanda Hesser’s kitchen counter:

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Technically Speaking: MySQL

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MySQL. You’ll hear developers speak of it in lofty terms. “It’s my lifeline,” “it’s essential,” “without it, we’d never have launched.” It also happens to be integral to some of the largest web platforms in the world, such as Facebook, Google and Twitter.

So what is it?

MySQL (pronounced “My S-Q-L” or “My Sequel”) is an open-source, relational database management system (RDBMS). It enables developers to manage data streams in a fluid, scalable, reliable way. Essentially, one can outsource a multi-terabyte data flow to the MySQL database server, and freely customize that data’s interaction with your site or web application.

Think about the data inside files that you store on your computer’s hard drive. That data is accessible to you, but unless you organize your files as part of a larger system, its contents are static, and its relationship with data in other files is difficult to ascertain. When one inputs databases into MySQL, all that data – the location, size and inventory of a company’s retail stores, for instance – can be filtered, edited, and searched with amazing speed. Put another way, MySQL is where data points talks to each other, and also interact with the web.

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Required Reading: Will Flaherty

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Name: Will Flaherty
Classes Taught: A Data Driven Approach to PR

Will Flaherty is Director of Communications at SeatGeek, a ticket search engine for sports events, concerts, and more. Will started college with the goal of becoming a sports writer; while he deviated from this original plan, he’s since pursued a career in PR and Marketing that combines his interests in sports, media, and technology.

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Technically Speaking: Drupal

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Hundreds of different platforms exist today to help developers manage content online. Of them, WordPress, Joomla, and Plone have amassed significant followings in the past few years – WordPress 3.3 alone has been downloaded 16 million times since its release in December 2011. But today in Assembled Basics we hone in on Drupal, which, if not the forefather of these newer platforms, has been deeply influential in building the infrastructure of the web over the last 6-7 years.

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Raw Materials: Craft Coffee

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Name: Craft Coffee
GA Member Since: January, 2011
Employees: 3
Hiring? Yes! A kickass full-stack Rails developer.

Craft Coffee is a coffee discovery service dedicated to spreading the awesomeness of small-batch, artisan coffee to the masses. Each month they hand-select premium coffees from small artisan roasters around the country, and only their absolute favorites make it into a monthly tasting box delivered to subscribers. Their coffee powers General Assembly’s coffee station, which in turn powers, well, all of us. Check out the raw materials we found on their desks, and a bit of commentary from them on each item:

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Technically Speaking: CoffeeScript

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Developers love to turn simple into simpler. Every year, new programming languages are introduced that try to tweak the most popular languages – Ruby, Python,C++, etc. – into something cleaner, faster, and more accessible. Few, if any, have had the success of CoffeeScript, invented in 2009 by Jeremy Ashkenas

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Technically Speaking: APIs

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Every day, we see content and data that comes from one source re-purposed into another. An API (Application Programming Interface) is a method for web apps, mobile apps, and websites to communicate with each other. Open APIs use a simple request/response model: a request is sent to an application, that request gets evaluated, and then the server sends a response back to the original sender.

Perhaps most importantly, APIs help to create a seamless user experience. A popular example is Facebook Connect, where signing into Facebook means you’re already authenticated when you sign up on other websites using their API. In this way, APIs are crucial for promoting conversations, integration, and sharing. And though tech giants like eBay and Amazon were among the first to use them, today even brands (e.g. ESPN, AmEx) and many startups (e.g. foursquare, Foodspotting) develop their own.

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Digital Trendsetting: 7 Key Learnings from the Founder of Send the Trend

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Building an avid customer base is tricky for any new business – especially if you’re in a landscape as saturated as women’s fashion. Send the Trend has emerged over the last three years as a dynamic player in this space by offering their users personalized accessories recommendations (e.g bags, jewelery) every month. Send the Trend has almost one million users, and was recently acquired by the home shopping giant QVC.

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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.

Learn to Create Products People Will Love