January 22 2014 “Must-Have” Mobile Experience DesignA talk about mobile experience design that I presented at MoDevEast 2013:
The best growth hack of all: build a must-have experience (MHX) into your mobile product. Redefine your product as a painkiller to generate word of mouth and keep people coming back. Through a case-study of Homesnap, this talk will examine a methodology for designing mobile products that spread themselves. Don't let a lack of curiosity kill your product!
September 19 2012 Harnessing Serendipity for Profit and FunA fun piece about Serendipity that I wrote for the Huffington Post:
It takes a lot of sweat equity to build a successful and sustainable startup, which is why I don't get out of the office very much. My startup is focused on building HomeSnap, a real estate brand for the mobile world. All of our primary competitors have more developers, more marketers and much more money. The only way we win is to build innovative products that create real value. That's why I spend most of my time tucked behind my desk programming, photoshopping, testing, measuring and strategizing.
But I've realized that it can be counterproductive to spend ALL of your time hunkered down in the office. If you never get out, then you never create the opportunity to let serendipity happen.
Serendipity is an ability to nurture a chance occurrence and make productive use of it. The chance occurrence can be almost anything: an insight, a desire, a new connection or a random encounter. Serendipity is elusive and can be tricky to cultivate in the midst of a demanding schedule. The best way to give serendipity a chance is to break your routine.
Get out into the real world. Go to places where the smart people in your industry hang out. Bring your product or pitch to the table and share it with everybody you meet. Seek out relationships with professional contacts that you admire. Take a deep breath and get up on stage. Take a risk.
We took a big risk when we decided to build HomeSnap, which itself is based on the happy feeling derived from experiencing serendipity. With HomeSnap for iPhone, you can take a picture of any home in the United States to find out all about it. The allure of serendipity is strong. Many people try HomeSnap because they want to find out if it really works.
We chose to launch HomeSnap at SXSW on a shoe-string budget because we knew that we had to forge relationships with influencers. My expectation was that SXSW would be a great networking opportunity; it turned out to be an amazingly fun experience and a significant turning point for our startup.
At the TechCocktail Startup Showcase, HomeSnap won the "Most Innovative" award. Serendipitously, Steve Case walked through the door moments later and came over to meet us. Flash forward 5 months and Steve Case's Revolution Ventures is a significant investor in HomeSnap. I'm not sure that Revolution would have invested if we didn't make our case to Steve at a cowboy bar in Austin (1500 miles away from my desk).
The best part about serendipity is that it's seemingly available in limitless quantities, if you push yourself to look. In the past few months, I have pushed myself to attend more networking opportunities. Sometimes on the heel of a 12 hour shift, sometimes in the face of a daunting deadline. But it's almost always worth it.
Quick example: I wouldn't have been invited to the Huffington Post's Entrepreneurship Expo at the Democratic National Convention if I had not previously met the founder of StartupHire at CapitolConnection. And without attending the DNC, I would not have met the Startup America team and been afforded the opportunity to write this blog post.
If you're ready to embrace serendipity, break your routine and say hello world.
Send me some serendipity at @LouMintzer
March 18 2012 SXSW 2012: A Case Study
I just got back and finally recovered from my first SXSW experience. It was an incredible adventure that almost never happened. Since September 2011, I have been part of a small crew at Sawbuck working to build the most simple real estate app that you can imagine: HomeSnap - take a picture of any home in the United State to find out how much it's worth (and more).
Our original plan was to launch HomeSnap at the SXSW Accelerator but our application was summarily rejected. In fact, the rejection email incorrectly referenced a completely different startup. We doubled-checked but still, no dice. Our backup plan (sorry @Jason) was to launch at LAUNCH conference in San Francisco. After mutiple video-conference demos, HomeSnap was rejected once again. At this point, we were down but determined because our field testing had indicated that people enjoyed using the app.
We didn't have to look much farther than our own backyard. DC-based entrepreneur and technology journalist Frank Gruber was planning Tech Cocktail’s official SXSW Startup Celebration Event – a “Startup Showcase” mixer event that would take place on Saturday night at a 6th Street bar. I somewhat intentionally bumped into Frank at a TechCocktail event in February, had a quick chance to demo HomeSnap, and a few days later Frank and his team punched our ticket to Austin.
Inside the 2012 TeckCocktail Startup Showcase
The most daunting challenge was timing Apple's approval. We drew a line in the sand, put our collective nose to the grindstone and worked intensely to complete HomeSnap. The app was submitted to Apple 8 days prior to SXSW and approved with 1 day to spare.
While we waited for approval, we offered TechCrunch an exclusive opportunity to cover our story. We contacted Sarah Perez directly and queued up our story, complete with a 90-second demo video. Sarah installed HomeSnap before it hit the App Store and interviewed Sawbuck's CEO, Guy Wolcott, for about an hour. We were hopeful that Sarah enjoyed using HomeSnap but we really had no idea.
It took about 25 phone interviews to hire 6 motivated and competent brand ambassadors
Once we committed to SXSW, there was a lot of work to do. New business cards, promo cards, signage, etc. We decided early that we wanted to do more than just attend SXSW, we wanted to get something out of it. Since the trade show was already booked and our only scheduled event was the Tech Cocktail mixer, we decided to improvise. We spent the week before SXSW making phone calls to hire a street team, rent a 32' RV, find a parking spot, book rooms, book flights, reserve kegs, and finalize the details of a contest that we would run during our trip.
The HomeSnap tour bus rolling down 4th Street, between the Hilton and the Austin Convention Center
On Thursday, the first day of SXSW and while we were flying to Texas, TechCrunch published an article about HomeSnap. An upbeat, positive article that gave HomeSnap instant credibility. Thousands of people downloaded HomeSnap on the first day while we were busy trying to figure out how to park the RV among taco trucks in a tiny sliver of a parking lot on East 6th Street. In the wee hours of the following morning, Techmeme picked up the story, which provided another valuable shot in the arm.
On Friday morning, in the pouring rain, we assembled and trained the HomeSnap street team. The Sawbuck crew would be responsible for targeting and pitching key influencers, while the HomeSnap street team would make friendly introductions and woo attendees at-large. We used GroupMe to keep in touch, despite being dispersed throughout Austin. This was a key decision because days later I would be able to redeem a free grilled cheese sandwich for proving that I had GroupMe installed on my iPhone.
This is what a panel discussion looks like unless you get there at least 20 minutes early
Since it was raining so hard the first 2 days, the streets were empty and everything was taking place inside. The convention center was the main event but I quickly found that I was always sitting in the last row (or worse on the floor) because I was too busy to arrive 20 minutes early. My favorite hangout was the 4th floor of the Hilton hotel, where Startup America had set up shop. This was a great place to meet key influencers, including: Eric Reis, Alexia Tsotsis, Colleen Debaise, Eric Markowitz and others.
Startup America had an awesome agenda, with impromptu celebrity-judged pitch contests everyday
We ended up pitching HomeSnap on the Startup America stage 3 times. It was a great experience that helped HomeSnap gain additional exposure. We had no idea that we'd be able to pitch HomeSnap publicly and we were pumped about each serendipitous opportunity.
Guy hopped up on the Startup America pitch stage twice (pictured with Steve Blank and Scott Case), I got up there once
The Tech Cocktail Mixer was the first time that I comprehended the mainstream appeal of HomeSnap. The simplicity of the idea was powerful. Between the nine people that we had staffing the event, I'm sure we directly pitched the app nearly 1000 times - with very high positive approval. My expectation was that it would be a great networking opportunity, it turned out to be an amazing experience. After pitching each of the celebrity judges, HomeSnap won the "Most Innovative" award. Right after we won, Steve Case arrived and came right over to meet us. We got to hang out with him and his family for about 15 minutes.
Chillin' with Steve Case moments after winning "Most Innovative"
Finally, the weather cleared and we were able to venture outside. The collective attitude of the whole conference changed when the weather broke. The beer was cold, the sun was hot, and foursquare was played constantly at the Foursquare Court. I stopped by the Foursquare Court twice and as luck would have it, I got to hang out with Dennis Crowley twice. The first time I pitched him HomeSnap, the second time he grabbed me a bottle of water and posed for a picture.
Hanging out with Dennis Crowley at the Foursquare Court on 5th Street
Since everybody was talking about Highlight at SXSW, I had to give it a try. It drained my battery but did serve one important purpose: it revealed Robert Scoble's minute-by-minute location. I should have known, he was hanging out at the Rackspace booth inside the Trade Show. I cruised by, patiently waited for the right opportunity, and cranked out my best 30-second HomeSnap pitch. He seemed to get it.
For the best networking, you still don't need an app. I was fortunate enough to meet and hang out with a large number of startup founders and advocates, including: Lori Cheek (Cheekd), Lou Aronson (VOTIFI), Keith Casey (Twilio), Derek Holt (Startup America), Arne Horn (Gauss), Paul Sherman (Potomac Tech Wire), Danielle Weinblatt (Take the Interview), Lauren Wolff (Spotsi - who also taught me how to throw machetes), and many more. Pro-tip: Cardmunch works like a charm for keeping track of business cards.
A pedicab ride can save your life at 4am in Austin
By Wednesday, my feet were sore, I had a huge bruise on my knee that I don't remember banging, and I had charged up a serious sleep debt. I had been monitoring HomeSnap's App Store ranking but once it falls out of the Top 400 you lose visibility and HomeSnap was only hanging on by a thread. We packed up the RV, returned the empty kegs and hopped on a flight back to DC.
I was already thrilled with our SXSW experience but the final shoe had yet to drop. On my first day back, Apple featured HomeSnap on the front page of the App Store. Ever since, HomeSnap has been steadily climbing the rankings. As I write this post, HomeSnap is ranked #9 overall in Lifestyle. I'm guessing that I'll never know what turned Apple on to HomeSnap... Was it the TechCrunch article? Was it flagged during the review process? Did Apple have secret shoppers at SXSW? All I can tell you is that being featured by Apple is pretty much the best thing that can happen to an app.
Long story short, SXSW is an epic networking opportunity. I have read a lot of articles about which startup "won" SXSW. None of those articles have mentioned HomeSnap - but I feel like we won. On the first day of SXSW, less than 100 people had ever heard about HomeSnap. Less than one week later, HomeSnap is now the #1 ranked real estate app in the entire App Store (surpassing Zillow, Trulia, Realtor and others) and has been downloaded once every 10 seconds since we launched at SXSW.
I can't wait until SXSW 2013.
March 18 2012 Introducing HomeSnap for iPhone
HomeSnap is now available for download in the App Store. The premise is simple: take a picture of any home in the USA to find out how much it's worth (and more). Download HomeSnap and go for a walk!
Building HomeSnap was a massive undertaking on two fronts. First, we had to build a humungous corpus of data. This is something we have been working on since the launch of Sawbuck in 2008 but we really turned up the volume for HomeSnap. HomeSnap pulls together tax records for 90 million homes, 18 MLS databases in 14 major metropolitan areas, 2012 census data, public schools data, school attendance zones, geographic polygons, historical value assessments and more. In addition to translating, assimilating and scrubbing all of the data, we indexed and staged it for peak performance.
On the second front, we had to design an app that performed admirably and provided a friendly user experience. HomeSnap uses many different sensors within the iPhone to track location, movement and heading. Advanced, patent-pending mathematical algorithms are required to identify the correct home. Just in case the app can't determine the exact home or doesn't get it right the first time, we developed an elegant fall-back that allows the user to pick the correct home on a map.
All of this work, including design and programming, was completed at our headquarters in Washington DC by 5 people in about 6 months. We officially launched HomeSnap on March 8, 2012 - the first day of the SXSW Interactive conference. Download HomeSnap
October 05 2011 Steve Jobs, You’ll Be MissedThe brief essay below was written in January 2005 as part of my application to the University of Maryland School of Business (Smith). I am posting it verbatim in honor of Steve Jobs, who passed away today at age 56.
You are planning the course schedule for next year's curriculum. You have the opportunity to choose any individual (living or deceased) to teach one course in any subject matter during your first semester. Which individual would you choose? What would be the subject matter? Why? Please limit to one page.
After tossing and turning all night, I can distinctly remember running downstairs on Christmas morning in 1986. As I reached the bottom step my eyes immediately locked onto the coolest thing that I had ever seen: a brand-new Apple II in my living room! It was my family’s first personal computer and it completely blew my mind. So much has changed about consumer technology since then, yet today I use my Apple iPod today just as much as I used that Apple II. Certainly the staying power of Apple has a lot to do with its leader and while I’m sure it’s exceedingly difficult to pry him away from his role as CEO, I would love the opportunity enroll in a Smith course taught by Steve Jobs.
While most CEOs are focused on achieving their financial and operational goals, and on executing a strategy, it is clear that Jobs believes his company's ultimate advantage comes from its ability to make unique, or as he calls them, "insanely great" products. Moreover, he has repeatedly led Apple in the quest to create such products and has demonstrated just how wildly successful this strategy can be. I admire his drive for greatness and the innovation and business savvy that he brings along with it. In turn, I think it would be incredible to learn more about his business and design tactics firsthand.
In addition to Apple, Jobs has co-founded two other successful businesses, NeXT and Pixar. Despite stiff competition and high barriers to entry he was able to make successful inroads into both the software design and film production industries. In each case Jobs proved that he is a rare leader that can not only weave together form, function and performance with style but can also focus an entire company on that task. Evidently, he believes that communication and the ability to get groups of people working together to bring a new idea to life are keys to success. I would definitely jump at the opportunity to personally hear more about his leadership philosophies.
I have come to admire Jobs for a variety of reasons and I would particularly value a course in which he would explicate his strategic vision and leadership philosophy. As a technology worker and nascent entrepreneur I believe that there is a lot I could learn from him. In addition, I believe that I would genuinely enjoy his teaching style. Jobs is a renowned public speaker with a lot of charisma and I bet he would put on a great show.
December 15 2009 7 Steps To Make Your Website FastThe speed of your website is important because people's time is important. Nobody wants to sit around and wait for your website to load! In fact, page speed and page abandonment have a direct relationship. The 7 step program below is a set of guiding principles that outline a course of action to make your website load faster.
1. Admit it, your website is slower than your competition's website! What, you need proof? Go to WebPageTest and make a visual comparison video to assess your page speed against your competitor's page speed. Here is a classic example of Facebook vs. MySpace, who do you think wins?
2. Yeah, you have a problem. No worries, it can be fixed. Exactly what you need to do to make your website faster has already been documented. Check out Google's Web Performance Best Practices or Yahoo's Performance Rules and believe.
3. Now you must decide that making your website load faster will improve your business! It will improve your traffic, retain your visitors and boost your clicks. The evidence speaks for itself. Do your homework and check out some of the presenter presentations from Velocity 2009. Speed matters and its not just lip service.
4. You're in, time to get started. First step, you must take fearless inventory of your website's performance issues. If you use Firefox as a browser, you can install Firebug and then use YSlow or Page Speed to grade the performance of your website and generate a list of things that you can fix. Use WebPageTest to view a performance waterfall generated by Internet Explorer.
5. You are now completely aware of the exact nature your performance wrongs. Now you need to come up with a plan to methodically fix each defect. Fortunately, most performance improvement tasks are small and lend themselves nicely to being tracked via a ticketing system like Jira or project management software like Basecamp.
6. Dole out the work. If you are a web designer, time to roll up your sleeves. If you have a team of designers and developers, make sure you clearly prioritize the optimization work in relation to new development. Sow the seeds of speed and reap the benefits!
7. Finally, now that you've had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, it is your duty to carry this message onward. You must instill the Web Performance Best Practices into all of your future website development projects. As you'll learn, its faster and more efficient to have your development team code it right the first time. Good luck!
December 11 2009 So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish
It has been an exciting ride but my time at AOL has come to an end. I spent six years at AOL and I will look back upon those years with fond memories. At AOL I worked with many smart, driven people and I wish them all the best. Under Tim Armstrong’s leadership, AOL is transforming itself into a low-cost content machine and if online ad rates come back, it might just work.
At AOL, I had the opportunity to work on a ton of interesting projects and build a wide array of websites. One of the very first projects that I helped build was AOL Call Alert and I just chuckled when I realized that it actually still exists! Recently, my focus has been on building in-house performance tools to measure, analyze and improve the speed and availability of AOL websites like AOL, TMZ, Fanhouse, Engadget and Politics Daily.
I learned many things at AOL, including the realization that I enjoy conceiving, designing and building websites. Now that I’m a free agent, I’m excited to apply everything that I have learned about building world-class websites to new opportunities. Building and growing a personal blog is something that I finally have time to do.
December 05 2009 ExpressionEngine 2.0Congrats to Ellis Labs for launching a huge upgrade to ExpressionEngine. The new version is a robust publishing system and an impressive leap forward. Once you get the hang of setting up channels and templates, publishing dynamic content becomes a breeze.
Built on CodeIgniter, my favorite PHP framework, ExpressionEngine 2.0 is bound to do great things. With its support for add-on modules, plugins and extensions, I see the basis for a strong developer ecosystem. As I tweak, customize and optimize my installation I will continue to post my findings.
I'm Lou Mintzer, an entrepreneur, programmer, speaker, blogger, designer and product builder.Tweets by @LouMintzer