Guest Post – Doing Product – Lessons Learned at Skyscanner – by Adam Joyce

skyscannerThis guest post is by Adam Joyce, co-founder of Elliptic. Following the learning-intensive Seedcamp Onboarding Week, Adam and the Elliptic team share some headlines from a session they found particularly key to their development – Product by Rachel Evatt. Having built and sold her own startup and now serving as Product Director at Skyscanner, Rachel knows what it’s like to be in the startup trenches and to manage a product that is used by, depended on, and loved, by loads of customers. At our most recent Onboarding Week, Rachel shared her top pointers with our teams. 

Day three of Seedcamp Onboarding week was packed with more great masterclasses from industry experts and the highlight for Elliptic was Rachel Evatt giving us her insights on Product, based on her time working at Skyscanner and Zoombu before that. After a brief introduction to the early days of Zoombu and her experiences as a founder at Seedcamp Week, she took us through her lessons of Product.

To begin with, what is Product? Formally, it is a thing that is the result of an action or process, but we should really see it as sitting in the intersection of customers, technology and business. What do customers want? What is achievable from a technological point-of-view? and lastly, what is the business proposition? And with that, on with the lessons…

Lesson 1: solve a big problem that people face often.

By ‘big’ here, we are thinking about something a web-enabled company can solve – one that can scale massively. Rachel introduced the idea of a Universality-Frequency matrix to frame the discussion. A company exemplifying the concept of universality would be, with exemplifying the concept of frequency.

Google and Facebook are both great examples hitting both of these – the word of mouth combined with frequency makes scaling somewhat easier for these businesses. When Twitter first launched, it was not considered particularly clear whether they were solving a universal problem (seems quaint, looking back), so the founders had to prove real traction and growth to encourage early investors.

Whilst one might think that travelling is also a relatively universal and frequent practise for most people, Skyscanner’s average customer typically only books flights through their site twice a year. So that gives Skyscanner the task of re-selling the product to their customers every half-year. Low frequency makes fast scaling a problem too – a friend might make a recommendation to use the site, but by time you get round to book a flight for yourself, you’ll most likely forget the recommendation you received. Skyscanner are continually thinking of ways to help move their product range up the frequency axis to help improve their scaling.

Lesson 2: Be stubborn on your vision (and passionate)

The details of how you go about achieving your vision are less important and in a small startup will change all the time. What is far more important is the big vision that you have. Time is so limited and precious in a startup that you must be very clear about your vision. (That said, don’t be blind to a lack of growing user traction, which is, after all, the simplest way to tell whether you have a good product!)

Skyscanner’s grand vision is helping people get from A to B and she highlighted the various product iterations that have added to this. She showed us the first ever version of Skyscanner – a set of spreadsheets and VB code with a very simple front-end webpage! – and the changes that early version has gone through over time, each remaining true to that core, simple vision.

Lesson 3: Know what your users can’t know, and talk to them anyway.

By far the most heavily discussed lesson. We spent a lot of time going over this one. She began by asking who’d spoken to a customer so far that day, how many had everyone spoken to that week. Fortunately, Elliptic had been speaking to a few so avoided being shamed :-). But more important than talking to customers every week is making sure you ask them the correct questions. Her advice chimed heavily with the masterclass earlier in the week from Rob Fitzpatrick, author of ‘The Mom Test’ – don’t be leading or ask biased questions, be somewhat holistic and human in your lines of enquiry.

Skyscanner devote a lot of effort to product research and are big fans of observing customer behaviour. They build wireframes of sites and, via an independent third-party, ask customer-testers to attempt to achieve various specific tasks. By observing what they do and the issues they have, they can quickly alter the wireframes and re-test until they’ve perfected the flow. She highlighted some useful websites that come in handy for this sort of thing: Balsamiq, WhatUsersDo and UserTesting – the latter even allowing for interactive, real-time sessions to test interaction with the hosted product. Lastly, ClickTale allows for a similar thing on a much larger scale by analysing mouse-movements and clicks on a site and generating heat-map reporting of the results. Skyscanner have an individual dedicated to the user testing role, who is independent to the team that creates the product to avoid any biasing of the results. They have in some cases worked with a third party which means there is no risk of any bias.

They are big fans of mapping out the entire end-to-end journey of their customers, from dreaming about their next holiday right through to getting on the flight in the airport (and everything in-between!). They have a giant post-it board in their office documenting every aspect they can think of and are continually iterating on it, analysing it, zooming in on one small aspect. The slogan to keep in mind is “Love Your Funnel!”. This, with analytics such as Google Analytics is a really powerful combination. Skyscanner have only in recent years expanded their analytics metrics beyond these simple tools.

I’ll zoom through the last three lessons as I’ve been going on for a while now already. They are:

– Lesson 4: Know that 2/3s of your ideas won’t work and the other 1/3 need iterating.

Lesson 5: Form the dream-team of engineer, product-guy and designer.

– Lesson 6: Keep the main thing the main thing

In regard to this last lesson, she mentioned the book Will It Make the Boat Go Faster? by Ben Hunt-Davis about his (successful) pursuit of Olympic gold and focus the crew applied to this pursuit. Sounds like one to stick on Elliptic’s amazon wishlist…

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