There IS such a thing as a stupid question—and that’s a good thing

16 Nov

Whoever said “there are no stupid questions, just stupid people” was stupid. There are many, many stupid questions…and you better be asking them if you want your business to succeed.

I’ve learned a lot about the value of stupid questions in the last month in my role as City Manager at StartupCity Des Moines because I’m usually the one asking them. As a non-techie working in an über techie world, I almost always feel stupid. I don’t understand much of what I hear around me. Back-end utility? Gooey (um, I mean GUI?)? SEM? It’s all Greek to me. I know I’m ignorant and, as such, I’m not afraid to ask the questions that others who are supposed to know this stuff may not have the guts to ask.

Last week, I asked one of our startups why a button on his mobile app was green. Stupid question but it helped identify a problem that other ordinary, non-techie users might have. Yesterday, an applicant stopped by the offices to pitch his startup. I didn’t understand the technology behind the idea but I asked some stupid questions about why his target market (women) would want to use the site, and he left needing to rethink his approach.

Stupid questions can uncover some really important information. The people using your product or service don’t share your encyclopedic knowledge about it, nor do they have the same IQ as you. But their experiences are as valuable—actually, they are more valuable—than yours. If they don’t understand and love what you have to offer, then you have nothing to sell.

To uncover the stupid questions—and then make needed changes to address them—you need to look outside of yourself. Get in front of as many people as possible, even those you don’t consider a target market. Sometimes the stupidest (and best) questions come from the unlikeliest sources. Let everyone play with your product, if you have one, or describe what you are doing and how. Then give them permission to ask you anything.

Listening without judgment is key here. Remember, these are probably going to sound like stupid questions to you but there is something to be learned if only you curb your instinct to explain, justify, rationalize, and roll your eyes. Take notes on everything you hear, even if it seems totally silly to you, and watch for trends. If more than one person asks the same stupid question, it’s probably not so stupid after all.

By now you are probably thinking, “she’s just describing a focus group.” That’s true, it just happens to be a more organic, valuable, and cheaper DIY version. Long before you can afford to hire a big marketing firm to organize a formal roundtable of targeted users, you can empower yourself to improve your product using useful data from real-world users.

So the next time you find yourself saying, “that’s a stupid question,” stop and explore whether it might actually be an opportunity to improve.

Geekpreneurs: Can you tell your story or is it time to get help?

7 Nov

In the last year, I’ve been introduced to a lot of amazing startups and I’ve discovered two distinct types of tech entrepreneurs. The first is the Non-Geek Visionary, who has an amazing idea but doesn’t have the technical skills to make it happen. The second is the Geekpreneur, who not only has the idea but also has the ability to build it.

What I’ve noticed about these groups is that the latter often has a hard time recognizing weaknesses and bringing others on board to handle those areas. It makes sense. Their product is truly their baby—they spent countless hours taking it from dream to reality—and handing even a piece of it off to someone else can be scary.

Geekpreneurs frequently drop the ball when it comes to marketing. An encyclopedic knowledge can make it difficult to devise a clear, concise, and clever way to communicate the product to others. “I understand what I’m doing, why don’t you?” Building something amazing is meaningless, however, if no one knows about it, understands it, or cares about it.

Creating a great “elevator pitch” isn’t difficult, but it requires stepping outside of yourself to think objectively about your product. Unfortunately, that’s not something most of us can do. The most successful business people are masters at delegation and Geekpreneurs (as well as Non-Geek Visionaries who struggle with marketing) would be well served to ask for help when it comes to writing a bio, one sheet, web verbiage, and other marketing materials.

(Shameless plug: I love using my journalism background to help entrepreneurs tell their stories. If you need help, contact me.)

Are you a geek, nerd or dork?

4 Nov

Fun discussion in the office today with some of our in-house geeks. I got to be the smarty pants for once because I was able to educate these tech guys on the difference between a geek, nerd and dork. Smart and focused on a tech project but still able to get laid? Congrats, you’re a geek! Focused on tech stuff but not so smart and lousy with the ladies? Sorry, but you’re a dork.

I learned about the differences a year ago when I came across an awesome Venn diagram on the topic (source: Buzzfeed). I liked it so much I hung it in my last office. I think it hits the nail on the head. What do you think?

QR codes are useless

27 Oct

Should I care about QR codes? I posited the question on Twitter today…and it seems I shouldn’t care. I’m glad to know I’m not alone.

QR codes (or quick-response codes) are like barcodes that can be scanned by a mobile device’s camera and read with an app. As I understand it (and I don’t understand much about these types of things), the cool-looking black squares can be encoded to include any kind of data. They can be used to direct someone to a website, contact information or a map, product details, a coupon, a Facebook fan page and more.

The first time I saw a QR code was about a year ago on a business card for a tech startup. I didn’t and still don’t have a QR code reader on my smartphone so I never bothered to scan that card to see where it took me, but I’d put money on it being a direct link to the guy’s website. Big whoop. That saves me maybe 2 seconds of entering the address into my web browser.

Marketers are now putting these pesky buggers everywhere. They show up frequently on magazine pages, but who reads printed media anymore? I can just touch a link to the same content on my iPad newsstand magazine. I’ve noticed them on the windows of restaurants and retail shops, but then I’m on the move and can’t be bothered to stop and scan with the hopes it yields something worthwhile. I even hear they have a giant one on top of a barn targeted to airplane passengers. I won’t even touch that silliness.

Until today, I thought I was just a non-geek who didn’t get QR codes. Perhaps these ugly black boxes are really cool and I’m missing out on something awesome. Researching for this blog, however, I found out I’m not alone. Even some tech-savvy marketing folks agree with me. From memeburn: “QR codes are not the Next Big Thing (at least, not yet).” Even better, from iMediaConnection: “From the relative lack of public understanding of what they even are, to the dearth of creativity in their usage, the QR code is destined to become just the little box that geek built.”

My sentiments exactly. Can’t we just agree to stop already with QR codes? Yes, they are nifty and new but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are helpful or worthwhile. Until someone can show me value in stopping to scan that little black box when I’m reading a flyer, walking down the street, or flying in an airplane, I’m not downloading a damn QR reader.

Picture This: Thinc Iowa

24 Oct

Highlights of Thinc Iowa include: Paige Craig of BetterWorks, Ben Milne of Dwolla (giving a shoutout to Christian Renaud of StartupCity Des Moines), a panel discussion with several speakers, charging my phone in the hallway due to a surprising lack of a charging station, colorful Chucks worn by Scott Case of StartupAmerica, and local boy Ben Silbermann of Pinterest.

Thinc Big

21 Oct

Have you ever bothered to talk to your barber about his business? It might affect how you shape yours. Such a simple but powerful idea. And that’s what Paige Craig delivered today at Thinc Iowa. In fact, it was sort of his theme. “Think big, execute small.” I like this guy.

He didn’t deliver a bunch of mumbo tech jumbo that I would never understand. Instead, he inspired everyone in the room with real-world ideas that resonate across industries. Heck, they were ideas any business – big or small, tech or old school – need to hear. Treat your employees well, dream big but execute deliberately, focus on yourself and not what others are doing … duh.

I left the room so inspired. Even I spent the lunch hour dreaming of my big idea that can make an impact. Nothing techy (yet) or revolutionary (does it have to be?) but I’m dreaming and ready to act. Isn’t that was this is all about? Thanks, Thinc Iowa.

Just getting started

21 Oct

So I’m blogging. That’s new. I’ve always wanted to but was never quite sure of my niche. Well, one week into my new job at StartUpCity Des Moines I’ve realized I do have something to say. I’m a fish out of water in this tech world and I’m excited to share my journey into geekdom with you.

I have two liberal arts degrees, failed College Algebra (twice) and the only code I know is the one that gets me into my apartment building. Despite that, I’ve always been an early (well, early-ish) adopter of technology. I’ve been an Apple loyalist since playing Frogger on an Apple IIe in 1986 and I’m writing this on my iPad with my iPhone and MacBook sitting next to me.

The timing of this blog is simple. I’m at Thinc Iowa today and feeling inspired to get my geek on. So I’m going to give it a shot. I hope you’ll join me for the (sure to be bumpy) ride.