strategy

Why the ‘Best User Experience’ MITX award means so much

Last night at the 2015 MITX awards, Punchbowl won the award for ‘Best User Experience.’ This award meant a lot to me — let me tell you why.Screen Shot 2015-05-15 at 7.19.11 AM

On February 25, 2014 (15 months ago, and just days before my second child was born), I held an offsite meeting with key members of the Punchbowl team. At this “eTeam meeting” I brought up a radical idea: what would happen if we removed 50% of the features in our product, drastically simplified the user interface, and focused the product on our core offering of digital invitations? After several hours of discussion, “Project Megadeth” was born.

For the next several months, I worked on strategy with close advisors and mentors. We worked through some of the tough business issues, thought hard about tactics, and plotted a plan of attack. A few months later, our product team had cleared their plate and was ready to go. In June 2014 at our Q3 kickoff meeting, I unveiled the bold plan to the whole Punchbowl team, and we set out on the most ambitious project in the history of the company.

Every day, for weeks and weeks on end, our design and product team met. Lead by our Director of User Experience, we explored, iterated, designed, thrashed, re-designed, and iterated some more. We built from the ground up with tablet and mobile phones in mind. Seven years of experience paid off, and eventually we had a design that we believed met all of our objectives. Our development team dove headfirst into implementing the design, and within a few months we began to see the new user interface come to life.

However, with any radical new design, there were several challenges. Our CTO is fond of saying “a spec is just a suggestion” and in this case it was definitely true. There were several issues that we had to solve during the implementation phase, as we balanced simplicity with powerful features. One example: we wanted to preserve our ‘Potluck’ feature, but we didn’t want it to be a required step for every user. We solved it by branching the feature from the ‘Invitation Options’ page and creating a mini user workflow for creation and editing. Sounds simple, but the devil is always in the details.

On October 20, 2014 we launched the new site. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and we were really excited about early usage. Over the next few months, we measured conversion and improved some of the user interface based on the metrics. We saw incredible growth, especially in our kids birthday segment. We knew we had a winner on our hands.

Fast forward to May 14, 2015: it’s now been well over a year since that fateful meeting with my eTeam. And yesterday afternoon, I had the opportunity to demo our fantastic product to a group of MITX judges. Several hours later, I sat with over 1200 people at the MITX awards ceremony. The event was elaborate and very fancy — and for the companies nominated, it felt like the technology Academy Awards.

When they announced the winner in our category, I pumped my fist and thought about the hundreds of hours that we spent designing and implementing the new user interface for Punchbowl. And I thought about the awesome people on the Punchbowl team, and just how very far we’ve come. I jumped up on stage, took the microphone as the lights shined brightly in my face and said  “Here’s the thing about great UI:  we spent literally hundreds of hours making a website that works on mobile, works on tablet, works on desktop and when you use it, it just feels like it works. I’d like to dedicate this award to every single entrepreneur who is not getting the notice that they deserve, who are taking one little step at a time, which is what we’ve done for the last seven years. So to the Punchbowl team, to Devin, to Blake, to Ryan, to Stephanie, we did it baby – let’s go!” (video of my acceptance speech below)

SWAMI SAYS: Some awards are just marketing gimmicks — and some awards mean a lot. The MITX award for ‘Best User Experience’ means a lot to me and the Punchbowl team. I’m very thankful and proud of the award.

The most wonderful time of year (to work)

Wonderful time of year imageThe past couple of weeks have been busy with Christmas, and New Years Eve holidays. It’s the time of year that lots of people take time away from work, and email inboxes quiet down. Many of the days around the holidays have fewer people in the office, and there are very few scheduled meetings. It all can amount to a unproductive environment at work.

And yet, for me the holiday weeks have always been some of the most productive times of the year. I relish the days where I don’t have any scheduled meetings, there are fewer emails to respond to, and I can focus on the big picture. For this small company CEO, these past couple of weeks are critical to success in the new year.

I’ve spent the time working through our strategic and financial plan for year ahead. I’ve pored over financials, dug deep into the strategic possibilities, and had long conversations with advisors and mentors that I trust the most. I’ve read business related materials that have helped round out my thinking, and I’ve had quiet time to contemplate the year ahead. Indeed, for me it’s the most wonderful time of the year to work.

This first week of the new year, I’ll meet with the whole Punchbowl team to unveil the fruits of my labor: a well-thought out strategic roadmap for the year. It includes not only a clear description of how I made decisions, but also a product and marketing roadmap for the year. While I can’t predict whether or not the plan will be well received, I can be assured that I’m well prepared and that the plans have not been made rashly.

Even though I’ve worked most days over the holiday period, don’t be mistaken. I also had lots of time with my family, and plenty of time to see friends. But I was in the office on all of the work days, and spent evenings and some of the weekend at home thinking about work. I never shut off work like I do on vacations.

I’m not a fan of cold weather, and I would gladly trade one day in the summer for two days working in the winter. I’d rather work hard during December, January and February than during beach weather. I look forward to this coming summer when I’ll take a couple weeks off and enjoy the weather. That will be my reward for working hard through a time of year that lots of people shut it down.

SWAMI SAYS: Did you take a lot of days off this holiday season? Next year, consider working as much as you can during the holidays, and taking more time off during the warm summer months. You’ll start the year feeling ready to go and fired up.

It took me 25 years to meet Mickey Mouse

By now, hopefully you have heard the news — Punchbowl has been named the exclusive provider of digital invitations featuring Disney characters. To say I’m excited would be a gross understatement.

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This is the kind of deal that doesn’t come easily and requires many, many meetings. Over the past two and a half years, I’ve had countless phone calls and exchanged numerous emails with the folks at Disney.  I’ve gotten to know my counterpart at Disney very well through this process. And yet, I’ve never met him.

I’ve seen a picture of him online, and I’m sure he’s seen mine. We’re connected on LinkedIn, I have his cell phone number, and I know some details about his family. In the past few days, I’ve been on the phone with him several times per day as we prepared to launch this partnership. But we’ve never shook hands, shared a meal, or looked each other in the eyes. This significant deal was completed without ever meeting face to face. Like many people I do business with these days, neither of us felt the burning need to get together. Oh, we tried a few times. The latest attempt was when I was in Southern California for a conference. He even gave me a great tip about flying out of Long Beach instead of LAX. But our schedules didn’t align and I wasn’t able to stick around an extra day. “That’s ok,” we both agreed, we’ll catch each other next time.

Perhaps it’s fitting, because it took me 25 years to meet Mickey Mouse. Unlike many kids in America, I never had the opportunity to go to Disney World or Disneyland as a child. Of course I loved all of the characters, but growing up in a middle-class family with six kids it wasn’t practical to go on a Disney vacation. Many of my friends went, but I grew up without seeing the live Disney experience. That didn’t quell my desire to go.

In my mid 20s, I was living on the West Coast and my girlfriend (now wife) and I took a trip to Disneyland. I loved it. I’ll never forget seeing the Muppet Studios or flying on the California Dreamin’ ride (I even bought the soundtrack). A few years later, I went to visit my family in Orlando and had the opportunity to visit Disney World. I loved Epcot, the parades, and the rides. And I even got to meet Mickey Mouse up close and personal.

I hope it doesn’t take 25 years for me to meet the person at Disney who helped make this deal happen. As I’ve told him numerous times, I wanted this deal badly, and I did everything I could to get it done. In the new world of online business, he didn’t need to meet me to know that I am who I appear to be online. I’m a passionate entrepreneur who loves hard work and doesn’t like excuses. And I didn’t need to meet him to understand that he was looking for a great partnership with a company that has a best-in-class product and team. Together, we learned everything about each other without the need to meet face to face.

SWAMI SAYS: Big deals can happen between companies even if you never meet face to face with your counterpart. So it’s more important than ever to make sure that your digital persona matches who you really are in-person. In this day and age of business online, it’s a whole new world. It’s a magical world, where when you wish upon a star, sometimes dreams do come true. Check out the new Disney Digital Invitation Collection.

The ‘flyover’ states

Like most startup CEO’s, I spend most of my time dealing with companies on either the East Coast or the West Coast. Between Boston and New York on the East Coast, and San Francisco, Silicon Valley, LA and Seattle on the West Coast there are a lot of potential partners for a business like Punchbowl.

Flyover

However, over the last year, I’ve noticed an increasing number of potential partners and big customers  that are between the coasts. I’m talking places like Idaho, Missouri, Indiana, and Minnesota. In fact, I spent several hours last week talking with a couple of companies in the Midwest that are several billion dollar companies (yes, that’s billion). And guess what? Many of them talk about their strong customer base in the middle of the country.

Those of us on the coasts tend to forget that there are a lot of people who live between the coasts. The wonderful thing about the Internet as a marketing channel is that you can reach them just as easily as the people on the coasts. You don’t need to get on a plane or spend thousands of dollars on billboard ads up and down the interstate. Punchbowl.com doesn’t care where you live (and we love our international customers too!). (more…)

5 reasons you must repeat your strategy

Every great company or organization should have a high-level strategy that can be explained in two minutes or less. A company’s strategy is the blueprint to success, and a great strategy helps connect every single employee to the vision of the company’s growth.

A strategy is not a mission statement. A strategy is a clearly-defined path to growth and financial success over a set period of time. Your strategy should explain how you acquire customers, how you monetize them, and the key differentiators of your business. In short, your strategy is the reason that you’ll be successful in the market. (more…)

How to spend Venture Capital money

So you landed Venture Capital money for your start-up? Congratulations! That’s a huge accomplishment in and of itself. Now comes the next hard part. How do you spend all of that money?

Once it hits the bank account, as a start-up CEO, you need to start thinking like a VC. So here are a few suggestions about how to start spending those hot, steaming piles of cash: (more…)

Should I write a business plan?

Over the past year, I’ve spent some of my time mentoring new startups. It’s one way for me to stay connected to the entrepreneur community in Boston, and the new ideas I hear from other entrepreneurs helps me with my own thinking.

In these advice sessions, I’ve often been asked by new entrepreneurs, “Do I need to write a business plan?” Every time I hear this question, I think of old school business men who once read a book about how to start a business back in the 1950s. Ask your father about how to start a business and he might say “First you need to write a 50 page document that covers every possible pitfall of the business. Then you need to find investors who will provide you feedback on that business plan. Then you’ll be ready to start a business.”

I’m here to tell you that you don’t need a business plan. I wish someone had told me that back when I started Punchbowl. I remember very clearly wrestling with this fundamental question. If I’m starting a business, surely a need a business plan… right? Isn’t that what makes it legitimate? (more…)

What every entrepreneur can learn from DollarShaveClub.com

dollar-shave-clubA few months ago, the entrepreneur/tech world was rocked by the awesome launch of DollarShaveClub. Like many of my peers, I  was excited about the premise of the company. I shave both my face and my head (yes, bald is beautiful), and have often lamented the extraordinary price of razors. From the outset, it sounded like I was a perfect target customer of DollarShaveClub. I’m tech savvy, shave often, and feel like I’m getting ripped off from the razor companies. Without hesitation, I signed up for the “The Executive,” their top-of-the-line razor for $9 per month.

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Everything can’t be the #1 Priority

Over the years, I’ve been on the receiving end of a slew of feature requests from our customers, my friends & family, our employees, our partners, and our investors. It’s fascinating to hear from all of the various people. Each person explains why they believe that the feature they suggested should be the most important priority for Punchbowl. Everyone has “must-have” features or functionality, and everyone has items that they consider the #1 priority.

Here’s the problem: everything can’t be the #1 priority. (more…)

Are you a hot dog stand or a hotel?

During a recent conversation with one of our partners, I wanted to illustrate a point about pricing. So I asked a simple question: “are you a hot dog stand or a hotel?” You can imagine that they had no idea what I was talking about. Allow me to explain.
When it comes to pricing, there are two basic models: (more…)