3 Tips for a Successful Product Focus Group

In a previous post I talked about how MakeStickers.com used a focus group to learn what people think about our custom stickers, as well as the stickers from other places. Here are a few tips to make sure your focus group is successful.

1. Don't let them know who you are

You might be tempted to bring people into your company's office, or use your customers as a recruiting pool, but you risk missing a lot. Don't get me wrong, you should always be getting feedback from customers, but the whole point of this exercise is to understand how people perceive your product compared to your competition.

In any populated area you can find a company that provides facilities for focus groups as well as a pool of subjects to use. That's exactly what we paid a few thousand dollars for - a facility and staff to recruit and pay participants. When people came in, I just introduced myself as "Adam" and told them we'd be talking about stickers today. For all they knew, I was just a guy who worked at the focus group place. Which, by the way, is a great option to use if you have money available but nobody who feels they can facilitate a focus group. Most of these places will provide a facilitator for a (rather large) fee.

2. Do at least two sessions

It adds to the cost and time, but trust me, you can't risk only having one session. At the very least having multiple sessions is an insurance policy for when something devastating happens in the session. Suppose one of the participants in your group has very strong views and is very vocal. They could dramatically change the feedback you'll get from people. Any time there is a group dynamic, you must have at least two sessions.

Just to give a small example of what happens, I wanted to start out each session with a simple question that anyone could easily answer - just an ice-breaker to introduce the topic. So I asked, "Who here has ever had a bumper sticker on their car?" Now, I knew from the screener survey that at least half of the people indicated they did have a sticker. So how many people do you think raised their hand? None. That's right, they all sat there and looked at me like I just asked "When did you stop beating your wife?"

In the second group, I asked the same question, and hands flew up. People went on and on about their stickers - sports teams, school clubs, etc. It was a completely different response from the first group, and I don't have a clue why. That's how it is with group dynamics, sometimes (oftentimes) there's no straightforward explanation for how things go.

3. Start with an individual survey

Group discussions are great, but you want to be sure you get each individual's opinion before it gets changed or suppressed by the loudmouth in the room who tells everyone how it really is. We did a written survey before the group discussion. An added bonus to this is that everyone is well-prepared to answer your questions because they just finished writing down what they think. It's a great tool to use to get the quiet ones to speak. Just ask "So, Kim, what did you say was your favorite sticker?" She just wrote down her answer a minute ago, so she can't say "I'm not sure."

»

How to better understand your market, product, and competition in one day

At MakeStickers.com we print millions of custom vinyl stickers each year. Yearly growth and positive feedback from customers tells us we're doing a lot of things right, but we're always careful not to fool ourselves by only listening to our fans.

There are other online custom sticker printers in the world (who shall remain un-named), and we know there are differences in the way stickers can be made. The details aren't important, but different materials and processes lead to a slightly different sticker product. We started to wonder what people like. We know our customers like our stickers, but how do we know they wouldn't prefer something different?

The good thing is that empirical questions like this can be answered through some simple research. We ordered stickers from a number of our competitors (taking notes and screenshots along the way), and set up a focus group. Each participant was given a bag of stickers, labeled A-F on the back. We gave a set of instructions, having each person compare the stickers while still on the backing, then peeling them off and applying them to a hard surface. Participants gave individual ratings for each sticker on paper, and then discussed the pros and cons of each sticker as a group.

We did something similar using our website and competitors' websites.

While facilitating the focus group, we never told the participants which company we were from, so the information we collected was completely unbiased.

For about $2,500 and a day of time on the focus group, we obtained extremely valuable information. It was encouraging to see how much our stickers were preferred, but it was even more valuable to learn about the few negative aspects that some people mentioned.

We learned that what makes a sticker good to one person might make it bad to another, but more importantly, we have some estimate of how those preferences break down among the population. And it feels odd to say, but we learned things that our competitors really would want to know about their own product (But we're never going to tell).

In a later post, I'll list some of the lessons learned and key points to consider to pull off a successful focus group. After doing one, the value is clear, and we're already planning our next.

»

Ming Math

Ming Math is an idea that my wife and I have been thinking about and working on for some time. It's pretty well-known that children in the US don't get a world-class math education during preschool through middle school. Rather than try to "fix the system" we decided to do something that would directly have a positive impact.

So what is Ming Math? It's a combination of hands-on math games that you can play with your child, along with instructional videos for you to learn how to play the games and know how to teach your child the fundamental math concepts that are often missed in school. We will also provide online practice that targets different concepts and is adaptive, guiding your child towards mastery of each concept.

Unlike the thousands of "math apps" out there, we're serious about helping children learn and equipping parents to teach their children. Existing apps and websites might provide entertaining drills for children, but they ignore the importance of direct instruction and interaction between the parent and child.

Check out Ming Math and head over to our Facebook page to learn more and stay up to date!

»

5 Guiding Questions for Picking the Right Employee Perks

Massages, in-house chefs, free oil changes, and so on; we all know about the amazing employee perks the likes of Google and Facebook provide. Even small startups often give generous perks. Tech startups like Codecademy enjoy daily catered lunches. So what perks are best? The answer, as always, is it depends. Here are 5 questions that will help you determine what's right for your company

1. Budget

In our case, we knew we wanted to do something in the $3,000 to $5,000 range. We have about 25 employees, so we needed to keep it under $200 per employee. We also wanted to cover the tax that employees would owe (talk to a tax expert to learn what kinds of perks are taxable), which means we only had about $170 per employee to work with. Budget alone won’t give you an answer, but it’s good to figure this first so that you can explore realistic possibilities.

2. One-time or ongoing?

A baseball game outing is a one-time thing. The employee who starts a week after the company baseball game won’t get to enjoy the game. That’s not necessarily bad, but it’s worth considering. Other perks, like gym membership, are ongoing, and as new people join, they start getting the perk. One-time things can help spice things up, since they aren’t predictable. But you can let prospective employees know about the ongoing perks available.

3. Impact

With any form of non-monetary compensation, you have to ask, why? Why not just give everyone more money. They can buy a gym membership, get oil changes, and see baseball games with that money. Impact is the answer to that question. The goal is to provide something that has an impact beyond the monetary value. Many companies do things to save their employees time - oil changes, chefs, and haircuts at work. Being able to get your oil changed while at work has a bigger impact than the $40 value of an oil change. The more impact the perk has, the more authentic it will seem. Giving everybody Target gift cards to buy milk is a great example of a very poor impact.

4. Secondary benefits

As with anything, the employee perk you chose will send out ripples through your company and cause secondary effects. For example, Giving in-office haircuts would have a secondary benefit of better looking employees who may experience a boost in self-esteem. Gym memberships can have a secondary benefit of healthier employees. Moreover, the very perception among employees that the company cares for their well-being can be a great secondary benefit of a number of health-focused perks. But it cuts both ways. Pizza every Friday for lunch can lead to a decrease in productivity in the afternoon, and higher blood pressure among employees.

5. Is it really a perk, or a trap?

This last point is an extension of the point above, and each company needs to decide where they stand on this issue. Many of the perks commonly associated with tech startups are designed to keep employees at work as much as possible. Video games, places to sleep, catered dinner - all reduce the need for a life outside of the office. Now, the fact is that many companies are full of single 20 somethings who love the idea of not making it home every night. But be mindful of what signals you’re sending your employees with perks that replace what otherwise might be part of their home life.

What we did at Graphicsland

It all started when we provided employees with breakfast every Monday, a snack on Wednesdays, and lunch on Fridays during the two busy months in spring. We decided to get some decent quality food that would be healthy to help fuel the team through the busy season. It was a hit. So we thought, “Maybe we should do this all the time?”

We figured it would cost about $5,000 per year to provide a nice lunch every Friday. So we started to think about what else we could do for $5,000 that might have a bigger impact. We thought of going to events like concerts, but many employees have families and might be unable to attend any given night.

Eventually we settled on getting a Fitbit for each employee. Fitbits are not uncommon as employee perks, thanks in part to Fitbit’s focus on that market. We set up a company group, so those who want can share their steps with others and compare “scores.” For us, Fitbits ticked all the boxes - they’re an ongoing perk that we can offer any new employee, they’re something that most people wouldn’t spend their own money on, they send the message that the company cares about health, and they (in theory) will help employees be more active and healthy. Moreover it’s helped create a little fun, which is a critical part of building a well-functioning team.

I’ve even started taking some of my weekly meetings with managers outside, walking around to get some steps, which is no easy task for an office worker.

»

Difficult conversations and raises: two sides of the same coin

Personnel decisions are never easy. Denying a raise, giving less than happy feedback at a mid-year review, or even letting somebody go are certainly among the toughest parts of my job. But I’ve realized that if I’m not willing to follow through with those difficult but necessary actions, then I’ll never be able to create a work environment that is highly successful, productive, and full of people that have many career choices but choose to be part of our team.

The easiest and most enjoyable parts of a boss’ job are congratulating a team on an accomplishment, giving well-deserved raises, and promoting from within. That guy who you need to stay on top of to get him to do his job, do you think you’ll be giving him a promotion? If you feel like half of your employees are just mediocre, are you going to be willing to provide the kind of benefits that would attract top talent?

Delivering the hard news when it’s needed sets you up to deliver good news to those who are growing and contributing to the growth of the company. Moreover, it’s not fair to under-performing employees to string them along while resentment grows in your mind until one day it becomes impossible to allow things to continue. Every employee deserves to know where they stand, and nobody should be shocked that they’re being let go.

As Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister put it in their classic Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, at some companies there is the shared belief that they are simply the best, and that only a fool would want to work elsewhere. That’s my goal, and I think it should be the goal of every manager. To reach this goal, every employee needs to be held in high esteem by his or her peers. Keeping a few under-performing employees around can crush that culture of excellence.

»