General Assembly’s sprint process; Meetup’s rebranding

NEW YORK — If you’re rebranding and you didn’t go to the Design Driven meetup last November 1 at WeWork, you missed the outstanding presentations of Bryan Berger, Product Design lead at General Assembly and Jennifer Gergen, Design director at Meetup.

Among the presenters in the New York meetups this year, Berger and Gergen seem to have the most material for the audience, if only there were enough time for them to present them. The two took their time to explain the design processes of their respective companies.

General Assembly holds bootcamp-style tech, business and design classes in the Flatiron district, while Meetup offers a platform for people to form communities based on their interests.

For General Assembly, Berger took us to through the results of its “distraction-free” design sprint, taking us to the company’s product design process “to position ourselves to be more effective.”

“We mapped out who’s who and where we are,” he said.

It was interesting to learn how they took the initiative to look back into its library of materials to see if they are still relevant. Not many companies would bother to do so and to see if previous works still mattered, as the torrent of materials can be overwhelming, for any company.

“This is how I do it with my team: ‘Get aligned, set expectations, pre plan, get buy-in and make it real,” Berger said.

In aligning objectives, Berger said General Assembly followed patterns that champion reusability, consistency and efficiency across products and teams. “We had a single style guide to help our production cycle. We spoke the same languages across design and engineering.”

“We optimize team efficiency and design impact, fix processes and sunset old cluttered systems and shed light on things that have been overlooked,” he added.

After its sprint, Berger was only too willing to share its learnings:

  • Empower your team
  • Draft a design team charter
  • Pair new hires with veterans
  • Cross-product design collaboration is very powerful
  • Make research insights accessible to everyone
  • Frame stakeholder discussions in the present

(It’s easier to work with wish lists if we understand the facts first)

  • It’s extremely inefficient to achieve growth and future goals without the foundational pieces in place
  • Teams can now visualize the complexity and work to simplify it
  • We stubbed out a huge chunk of our Pattern Library
  • We identified key areas for additional research in our ecosystem
  • We have actionable roadmaps to tackle each initiative in order to keep the momentum going

What to avoid? “Silos are destructive,” he said. “They resist change. They promote one-off solutions. Scalability isn’t top of mind. They burn people out.”

Gergen talked about the redesign of Meetup, which now sports a new logo that captures the spirit of the platform: it’s a swarm (of people).

Her presentation was very illuminating because she talked about the company’s journey, its beginnings as a company that “didn’t have a design team when we started and who did usability before design.”

It helped explain the time it took the company a long time to rebrand since it was founded after 9/11 when there were no apps and UI was an abbreviation still alien to many. There was a lot to “unlearn.” There was a need to define design. Its rebranding, unveiled this year, took 2 years. It included a “remade Meetup that is personal, lightweight and a (good) mobile experience.”

Gergen showed how a design director’s job goes beyond the creative, as she made use of spreadsheets to do a health checkup and a design team health benchmark for Meetup.

She also made sure that everyone was involved. The primaries: the key decision makers; the secondaries: the designers who know their work and the subject matter experts. Depending on the tasks, it had IOS experts providing assistance for its app development or marketing people for its marketing efforts.

How do you get your team to become design driven? “Get lucky,” she said.

She elaborates, “Do user research. Do stakeholder surveys. Do a company wide survey.” For the latter, some staffers produced essays that were 10 pages long.”

Because its company actually makes people meet in person, she had some of her design team go to actual meetups. “We organized teams to go to meetups and interview people.”

Percolate and TeachersPayTeachers were other presenters.

Facebook shows roadmap to AI, Qubole addresses Big Data’s low success rate

NEW YORK—Why do companies struggle with Big Data and why is Ashush Thusoo, founder and CEO at cloud-scale data processing Qubole, concerned about it? The answer is obvious: Big Data gives you competitive advantage if companies can manage it; unfortunately, not all the time. It has been reported that only 27 percent of Big Data initiatives are classified as successful in 2014.

Thinking of doing a startup? Do hackathons first

NEW YORK—Nine out of 10 startups fail, studies say. Why? Because many of these startups make products no one wants. This is almost common knowledge by now if you’ve been reading up or attending meetups, at least. Being aware of the high failure rate can be discouraging, of course, but that shouldn’t stop you from pursuing your dream.

There are still ways to lessen the risk — and among the three panelists speaking at the Tech in Motion meetup last October 20, it was Dom Tancredi who probably gave the best advice, summed up in three words. “Do a hackathon.” In 48 hours of creating a product, he added, you’ll learn (a lot of things you can bring to your startup). It’s like a “microcosm of a startup.”

Even for someone already established in his web and mobile development business, Dom & Tom, he said, “I make it a point to attend 3 hackathons a year to keep myself relevant.”

Tancredi admitted to failing with 2 of the 3 startups that he started with his brother Tom. Unlike other startups, Tancredi started with 3 startups and proceeded to concentrate on one when the two other startups wouldn’t cut it.  He has more than 18 years of experience as a full-stack web developer and has led Dom & Tom since 2009.

He gave more tips: “Just know where you are spending your time. Spend 30 percent of your time on your customers another 40 percent on your product and 30 percent on yourself. Strive for equal balance.”

Josh Brenner, founder and CEO of bTreated, a yield management technology platform for the wellness industry, thinks failure starts even earlier. “People build this big idea in their head, but who (unfortunately) did not talk to people to validate their idea.”

“Immerse myself in the business. Everyone is better for it in the end,” he said.

Drew Silverstein, CEO and founder of Amper Music has a different take on the 9-out-10 failed startups observation. “5 of those 10 should not have started.”

He agrees with Brenner, though that you need to test each idea at its core and then validate that. Again, we go back to what you need to do: talk to customers.

Tancredi cautions though that talking to your customers is just “half the battle.”

When do you think you can reach some measure of success? For Tancredi, you’ll need to have to have “IP, the technology, the team and your efficacy and sustainability.

Silverstein has a more practical measure of success. When he hits his goal for 90 days, then he thinks he’s had some measure of success.

Brenner took his turn in giving cautionary advice. “People underestimate how much it’s hard to (build and run) a startup. You can be very successful one day and be a failure another day. You will have extreme highs and lows.”

To keep going, Silverstein said, “It is incumbent upon you to find a mentor. Ask a mentor for coffee. Solve one problem at a time.”

Brenner, for his part, thinks that “if you have a passion outside of your job, it helps (to give you ideas). “You don’t have to kill yourself, you need (time) to be creative.”

“You cannot overanalyze,” he added. “Just put out an MVP (minimum viable product) out there,” he said.

As for growing your startup, everyone agreed that you should learn marketing as well.

UX people are ‘people people’; lessons for aspiring designers

NEW YORK—How do you get into UX work when it’s not even on a school curriculum and many of the UX designers come from various fields? It turns out there are many ways of answering the question because there are no specific skill sets required for a UX designer, as the panelists conveyed last October 19 at the qLabs in Chelsea.

You could be an architect (yes, your sketching skills will come into play), an advertising copywriter (yes, the way your process information and organize your thoughts in writing is right on the money), a graphic designer (yes, your visual eye will be of immense help) or a sociologist or anthropologist (as work can comprise understanding human behavior),

If you’re the numbers type and you like to use Excel, it’s said to be a beautiful skill to bring to UX as well. The field is wide open. Something you have done before can be leveraged for UX.

If you’re a good storyteller, it mitigates lack of experience but you will need to be all-round, multi-disciplined, and passionate about acquiring more skills. You could be doing user research, sketching wireframes, doing prototypes or thinking of the strategy behind a project. It really depends on the company. The bigger the company, the more specific your role becomes. The small company will have you holding multiple titles.

In terms of thinking, you need to have an opinion on visual space, designing a product or service, having design as a mindset, calling out assumptions.

Most important of all, you need to have empathy. A suggestion points to reading lots of literature to develop empathy. Usually, writers are empathetic, which also qualifies them. One panelist said, “If you are a good note taker and you organize your thoughts well, you already got 85 percent of the job. It’s all about being a very good listener.”

So if you think you can be a UX designer, what do you think?

For a start, look to learn from experienced UX designers by checking their portfolio online and doing your best to do the following:

·        Find UX designers on Linkedin. Reach out to them

·        Go to meetups and conference as well

·        Participate in hackathons.

·        Find projects you can do.

·        Read everything and know the writers writing about UX.

When it’s time for you to show your expertise, you won’t get a job right away. The valuable advice: “Volunteer. Work for non-profits to test your new skills”

And don’t forget to build a portfolio. If you have nothing to show, make case studies and do spec work. Applying a narrative approach is said to be the best way to present your work out there.  For reference, check out UX case studies from the Airbnb and Netflix sites.

If you’re still intimidated think of it this way, “You don’t have to be a Photoshop expert, but you must be able to simplify things.” You can use paper for prototyping, if you don’t have the graphic software skills.

And while you’re doing all these, don’t forget to build on your social capital. Sometimes it’s about connecting to someone with power and influence as much as your need to relate to something and connect to something.

As a junior UX designer, you need to show initiative, curiosity, and passion. You need to have a sense of collaboration. “UX people are people people.”

 

Fintech panel gets real about the challenges facing app economy

NEW YORK—“Is the app economy dead? When was the last time you bought an app?” The question was directed at Vivek Nasta, founder & CEO, Scout Finance at the panel discussion on fintech by Empire Startups last October 17 at Rise

Nasta was suddenly speechless, as the audience chuckled nervously. Who bothers to purchase an app when many of them are free to download?

Even if Nasta didn’t respond, he did say how it’s tough to satisfy customers these days. “They want speed…They’ll ask for everything. And use one percent (of a feature),” he said. Still, he thinks it’s important to address this and find an answer, even if he it’s very hard to make money on mobile.

“It’s about anticipating what people need,” he said.

In the talk about the challenges of mobile fintech, Nasta was joined by Ed Robinson, cofounder, Stash; Raffaelle Breaks, VP of Global Digital Experience, American Express and Travis Skelly, SVP of Venture Investing, Citi Ventures. It was moderated by Matthew Hooper, VP of Open Innovation at Barclays.

It was Breaks who probably gave the most relevant question of the night, “How do we emulate customer experience online on a desktop and from one’s smartphone?” She also craves for some proper automation in fintech.

Skelly, for his part, thinks it’s still hard to aggregate all accounts.

Hooper asked the panel about the sustainability of apps, as there’s only so much space you can use on your smartphone.

“Apps will still be there,” Robinson said.

Answering for American Express, Breaks said, “Desktop still comprises most of our user base. While engagement is higher on mobile, people just don’t check their account all the time.”

This was echoed by Skelly who said fintech apps are not meant for heavy use or activity compared to some social media apps, naturally.  However, he thinks apps will still be there. He even sees incumbents and startups fighting it out.

Breaks noted how its customers still prefer to call someone at the company instead of interacting with an app.

On making apps relevant, Nasta said apps should have some two-way interaction and good user experience.  He doesn’t believe in a mobile only solution for fintech.

What makes them successful in this challenging environment?

Robinson believes it’s his 24/7 approach to the business. He believes in building trust and engagement. “We provide information ASAP or we lose them.”

For legacy companies, targeting millennials has not been easy as they’re likely to use instruments that are popular in their age group. “These customers may heavily skew toward iOS which is hard to infiltrate,” Breaks said.

In terms of targeting a broad audience, Breaks thinks small countries are good test areas for new fintech initiatives, especially underserved and underbanked markets.

Fintech is also looking into replicating their platforms with artificial intelligence, but it’s still early to tell where that is leading.

What do new fintech startups need to do to succeed in this space? Robinson said, “The more you can get the cadence of iterating, making changes and updating the app, the better off you’ll be.”

With fintech becoming more democratized, however, Skelly thinks branding will take a hit. “People don’t need to know what card they use on an uber, for example.”

This development should allow small underserved markets access to new fintech tools which is in contrast with countries like the US where banks are strictly regulated.

“(In the US), it’ll take a year’s worth of specking to make an app for a bank,” Nasta said.

“We’re still in the early innings,” he concluded.

What a strategy kernel can do you for your product development

By Dennis Clemente

A strategy kernel has a diagnosis, a guiding policy, a coherent action.  In diagnosing a strategy, it has to have an explanation of the nature of the challenge

NEW YORK—“Strategy isn’t just something you create, you iterate on it.” That was Chris Butler, senior product strategist at Philosophie, formerly with Microsoft, talking about how to build strategy in an agile environment at the Product School meetup last October 12 at Grind near Times Square.

Butler went about his presentation talking first about what makes a strategy a bad one. “Failure to face the challenge, mistaking goals for strategy, just having a list of things to do,” he said.

Having that out of the way, he proceeds to explain why “having the conversation about strategy, writing it down, and making it part of your process every day” is important. It certainly helps the group fine tune a strategy, a good one that can be the key to the agile group’s success.

Butler proceeds to show his own model canvas for strategy—a strategy kernel if you will. It has a diagnosis, a guiding policy, a coherent action.  In diagnosing a strategy, it has to have an explanation of the nature of the challenge.

“A good diagnosis simplifies the often overwhelming complexity of reality by identifying certain aspects of the situation as being the critical ones.

A guiding policy is an overall approach chosen to cope with or overcome the obstacles identified in the diagnosis.

Coherent actions are steps that are coordinated with one another to support the accomplishment of the guiding policy.

For Butler, strategy comprises the following:

  • Largely or entirely drives most of the subsequent decisions and actions of the business
  • Not easily changed once made
  • Have the greatest impact on whether the objective will be achieved
  • Combines your assets and capabilities to deliver value to customers
  • Creates a sustainable advantage based on doing something differently from your competitors
  • Leads to superior growth and profitability

Healthcare tech offers opportunities if you can answer pain points

NEW YORK—Opportunities abound in healthcare technology, but many challenges prevail. It takes its sweet time to scale. It takes some pivoting to reach product-market fit.  It’s better narrowed down to a particular category than spread out. And perhaps the most challenging of all, it’s tightly regulated that every time a healthcare specialist or entrepreneur opens his mouth, you hear HIPAA compliance all the time. HIPAA is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which requires protection and confidential handling of personal information, among others.

At Workville last October 11, Jason Malki’s Alley Boost meetup assembled a great panel of startups in the health space to talk about health technology.  The guest speakers were Ram Swaminathan, founder and CEO of Buddi Health, a startup innovating on a disruptive deep learning platform focused on the US healthcare revenue cycle space;  physician Atul Kumar, mentor and angel investor  for healthcare IT startups; physician Philip Christian, DreamIt Ventures managing director for health; and Samir Malik, SVP/general manager of Genoa Telepsychiatry.

Many healthcare technology startups are looking for automated and interoperable healthcare information solutions to improve medical care, lower costs, increase efficiency, reduce error and improve patient satisfaction while also optimizing reimbursement for ambulatory and inpatient healthcare providers.

Other than the tight regulations in this vertical, the panel thinks many health tech startups have not pinned down this one thing: the pain point they are addressing.

On core pointers when launching a startup

Christian: Ask yourself how big the problem is; every good idea does not turn into a business

Malik: (Startups rely) bias-to-action (thinking). Listen to the market, interact with the market, talk to them. Healthcare moves in cycles that Snapchats don’t. It takes a lot of time.

Kumar: Think of what status quo (is doing). What is existing paradigm? Think of the workflow. Starting point (for learning) has to be with providers

Swaminathan: (Be aware it is) compliance-heavy. Do your market research. Who’s going to pay—payer, provider or patient? Study why other startups fail. Look at sales cycles.

Why healthcare industry is slow to change?

Christian:  A physician will ask himself, why he is risking himself and the patient (for a new health technology). Onboarding is real headache

Malik: Decision-making is not as liquid

Kumar: Healthcare is highly regulated but (people know) it’s where opportunities are.

Swaminathan: Policy changes may take 10 years. Liability for a provider is so high. Liability and regulation stifle innovation. You have to win over lots of people, so many decision makers. It probably takes 2 years to get into an agreement, not 8 months.

What are the best ways of cutting sales cycle?

Christian: You have to understand your customer in and out.

Malik: (Develop) personal relationships, spending time with (potential clients), do cold calls, send them articles, listen to their (concerns) as we did for more than 8 months (at one point)

Swamanithan: Pivot a problem before you sell. Keep pivoting until your startup/service becomes a good product-market it. Linkedin works; reach out to physicians there.

How can startups stand out?

Christian: There are lots of copycats, 8 to 15 companies (may have the same platforms). They don’t have bad ideas, they’re just redundant. Make sure your (personal) story connects to your startup. Be realistic where the market is now.

Malik: Turn things into actionable data. Incorporate machine learning

Kumar: Differentiation is so critical. Success lies in metrics. Look into case studies—before and after.

What are exciting emerging trends?

Christian: Technologies that can manage costs

Swamanithan:  Locking up data sets, how algorithms can crack the code, how to better assess risks. Reach out to Google and Microsoft (for partnerships)

$2T Insurance Tech: ‘Pie is big for everyone’

By Dennis Clemente

NEW YORK – One can expect more fusion of tech and insurance (insurance tech) as the companies see opportunities in tackling the $2 trillion insurance industry. This was the topic at the NewFinance (NY Chapter) meetup with guests PolicyGenius, Extraordinary Re and Softheon last October 6 at Rise.

Now, why would anyone even bother using insure-tech when the traditional way of buying insurance still exists? Most of the presenters think the pie is big for everyone.

“No winner takes all. The important thing is to find out your core competency and to find the crack (where you can go in),” said Eugene Sayan, founder, chairman, and CEO of Softheon.

If it means less people are working as insurance agents, David McKay, chief technology officer of PolicyGenius, made this clear: “The average age of an insurance agent in the US is 59.”

“We are not an aggregator, he said, adding later that “we earn the same way as an insurance agent.”

Established In 2014, PolicyGenius last raised $15 million to expand its price comparison insurance brokerage platform. It offers a path to life insurance, long-term disability insurance, renters insurance and pet insurance through tailored advice and no-pressure purchasing. And who doesn’t want that last part, right?

How much does giving advice play a part in its business? It sounds a lot, the way McKay said that “about 18 million people are stuck shoppers.”

On the site, one will find online quotes for policies and an application process as well as other information.

Set for launch in early 2018, the next presenter, Will Dove, CEO of Extraordinary Re, is building the first trading platform that creates a liquid market for $22 trillion of insurance liabilities. It has reportedly two US patents and substantial work completed.

As a trading platform, it will concentrate on facilitating the coverage of (re)insurance and capital markets.

Dove said investors will have direct access to broad range of insurance risks, be able to customize an insurance investment portfolio, offer a new tradable instrument, with liquidity that enables investors to trade in and out of long-tail risks, plus have non-correlated returns.

For (re) insurance companies, it will hopefully simplify, accelerate and reduce cost of accessing capital markets; reach capital to finance innovative contracts not supported by actuarial models; broaden scope of risks that can be transferred to capital markets; offer new tools for Risk & Capital management, trading insurance exposure on the platform and foster new product innovation.

Last presenter Softheon is engineering the next generation of health plan solutions with innovative and easy-to-use products that revolutionize the way everyday people access healthcare insurance.

It carries five platforms to help its partners quickly adapt to industry standards, manage client data, and grow its membership. This year, it collaborated with health plans, brokers, employers, and governmental organizations in all 50 states to care for over 1.6M lives.

The meetup was hosted by Ashish Singal.

Leadership lessons from young digital founders

NEW YORK – “I think AI will co-create our reality,” said Aaron Nicholson, co-founder of Studio Transcendent who was at the IBM Think Leaders meetup last October 4 at Rise, along with Ita Ekpoudoum, founder and CEO of Tigress Ventures and Josie Hines, co-founder of Art Frankly.

Nicholson’s Studio Transcendent is a maker of premier virtual reality experiences with focus on cinematic storytelling for many big clients.

Asked how he started, he said candidly, “I could never get a job.” Reflecting on his most trying times, he said, “I wanted to quit a lot of times, (because I found out that) people would not act as rationally as I would expect them to act.”

He shared some of his insights about leadership and learning:

  • Have the ability to learn and apply what you learn
  • We need to be information absorbers
  • You need to know (how to do) apps now, hinting at how the educational system doesn’t teach it unless you’re taking a tech course.
  • Listen to signals (akin to gut feel)
  • There are two types of people in this world: Those with no ideas and those with so many ideas and how it’s hard for both because we only have so much time every day. But get your hands on one thing. Go make it.
  • I don’t believe in competition. It makes me tense, less creative. But I believe in collaborating with them later.
  • On closing (a deal), relax. Let them be attracted to you

Originally from Nigeria, Ekpoudoum said she founded Tigress Ventures to help women entrepreneurs, professionals and investors to help themselves and each other. She honed her people skills from her work in the financial and technology companies such as Goldman Sachs and American Express as well as TravelClick.

“We pair visionary entrepreneurs with accomplished professionals who know to turn ideas into realities, helping entrepreneurs scale their business and providing professionals with high impact advisory and leadership development opportunities,” she said.

Her thoughts on leadership:

  • I had an idea years ago but didn’t know anything, so meet people; go out of your industry
  • On sales: you have to articulate your business in 30 seconds
  • If you have a strong team you can scale

Hines of Art Frankly talked about what seems to be a Linkedin for artists.

Art Frankly is an online jobs and recruitment platform for the visual arts community to seek and post jobs, list spaces and discover other opportunities while building a professional presence.

It serves artists, curators, researchers, gallerists, students, and creative professionals in one place.

What’s his advice for the rest of us? He thinks giving appreciation is important. “I have consultants who work full time and appreciate the work they do for me.”

Hines said he gets helps from a “hodgepodge of different sources.”

The meetup was moderated by Robert Schwartz, Global Leader of Strategy & Design, IBM iX.

Concierge startups offer house calls for dental work, errands and beauty makeovers

NEW YORK–There are now house calls for dentists, errands and laundry, even beauty makeovers. In the tech concierge space, this is no longer surprising. But here’s the thing: These companies are offering these services to seniors, the market many tech startups are ignoring when it’s a sizeable enough market. More than 44 million Americans are 65 years old and up.

Carla Caramat, CEO and founder of housecallsdentists.com, Zachary Jones, Business Development head of nancy.care and Rachel Doyle, CEO and founder of glamourgals.org presented their respective concierge businesses for seniors last September 29 at the Aging 2.0 meetup at Brookdale Battery Park in lower Manhattan.

Caramat, who has over two decades of success as an entrepreneur in health care management in San Francisco, offers her dentist house calls in New York and San Francisco.  How did she figure out if her idea was viable? “About 70 percent of seniors live in Manhattan. On top of that, her target audience is not covered by insurance.”

When you make a dental appointment, Caramat said two people come to your home – the vetted dentist and dental assistant. Yes, the company also does X-rays at your home and works with care managers as well.

Jones, co-founder of Portea Medical, a provider of home healthcare services in India and Malaysia, says the startup was named Nancy, because it’s a popular name among seniors. Nancy is a tech-enabled senior care concierge service that allows family caregivers to remotely care for their loved ones by using a smartphone app. These include home grocery deliveries, laundry, haircuts and errands.

For Jones, the industry is in its nascent stage.  He recognizes seniors don’t buy things online, but the daughter does. “It’s a much more involved process than you think.”

Other than family members, who can the seniors trust to take care of them? “We understand it’s the most vulnerable market. We use social proof as our vetting process. It’s similar to how you rate your Uber driver.” He adds that the analytics will bear this out.

Doyle said GlamourGals caters mostly to women: “Women outnumber men 8 to 1,” she said, although she said she wouldn’t mind extending their service to men.

As a young woman, it may hard to figure out why Doyle’s business caters to women two or three times her age, but she has been at it for more than a decade.

Doyle said she was inspired to give beauty makeovers when she was a teen back in 1999. Today, she organizes teen volunteers to provide ongoing companionship and give beauty makeover to women in senior homes. “We’re building a movement of compassionate leaders.”

How do they market to seniors who mostly don’t care about forming habits around using apps, the internet or technology?

Caramat said she markets to them by releasing quarterly newsletters and doing SEO. For his part, Jones said they reach out to the daughters of their target market while Doyle relies on press coverage, which is not surprising given that her startup offers complimentary beauty makeovers – a story that gets media covering it.  “When you have a great story, you can utilize the press.”

“You have to have confidence in marketing to people twice or three times your age,” she added.

Allison Becker hosted the meetup with Lauren Covello of FORTUNE Venture as moderator.