This is the first post in a series of interviews on Product Leadership. I’m very pleased to kick this series off with an interview of Max Ventilla at Google. Max was a co-founder of Aardvark, a social search company backed by Harrison Metal and August Capital that was acquired several months ago by Google.
What struck be as unique about Aardvark early on was the way the initial product came together, and the fact that the company is a 30 person organization with no product managers. Instead, they are heavy on user focused designers and product focused technologists.
I’m not a journalist, but I’m going to keep this in Q&A format, but won’t jot words verbatum (although the content was approved by Max).
RG: What problem were you trying to solve with Aardvark and how did you go about it?
MV: We were solving the problem of searching for subjective questions. Different people can search for the same concept but are looking for very different answers because they are different and the context of their question is different.
Startups are most likely to succeed when founders really understand a space and they are taking advantage of timely trends (making the wind at their backs)
Our team really understood search and the trend of increasing openness of personal information was at our backs. The opening of the Facebook platform was a catalyst for us to really go after this problem.
RG: You talked about being user driven in your product design approach. Tell me about what this meant for Aardvark.
MV: My last startup had a great product but limited user traction. We decided to approach this one differently. The very best product managers are right 20% of the time. Most are right less than 10%. There’s too much “hunch” in product decisions, so we set out to build products that could be tested.
It is tremendously beneficial to choose a product that you CAN be user driven about. It’s hard for some enterprise products, or a search system that requires that you process responses in milliseconds. We tried to test products that we thought could be appealing even if they were in a very raw form.
RG: So, phase 1, you have a problem and no idea how to solve it. What did you do?
MV: We self funded the company and released very cheap prototypes to test. What became Aardvark was the 6th prototype. Each prototype was a 2-4 week effort. We used humans to replicate the back end as much as possible. We invited 100-200 friends to try to prototypes and measured how many of them came back. The results were unambiguously negative until Aardvark.
Once we chose Aardvark, we continued to run with humans replicating pieces of the backend for 9 months. We had 8 people managing queries, classifying conversations, etc. We actually raised our seed and series A rounds before the system was automated – the assumption was that the lines between humans and AI would cross, and we at least proved that we were building stuff people would respond to.
As we refined the product, we would bring in six-twelve people weekly to react to mockups, prototypes, or simulations that we were working on. It was a mix of existing users and people who never saw the product before. We had our engineers join for many of these sessions, both so that they could made modifications in real time, but also so we could all experience the pain of a user not knowing what to do.
This is a step beyond the “launch early and often” approach. It’s very very qualitative in addition to quantitative. Launch early and often and being extremely data driven works, but when you have thousands of users. It takes a long time before startups get that many active users.
Stealing from Max’s blog here: “I’d estimate that we moved about half as quickly as if we’d just gone with our gut consistently. In return, we dramatically reduced the chance that we would make wildly wrong bets…. Ultimately, investors gave money as much for our process as for our team and concept.”
RG: There has been some discussion about the limitations of “lean startup principles” and the Henry Ford adage that “If you asked users what they wanted, you would have gotten faster horses.” What do you think of that?
MV: In our first phase, the concepts came from the team. We tested the viability with people, but the vision of the products came from us. The concept of having a “human” that you would talk to via IM was based on our own intuition, which we tested. When we were developing the product, we also don’t ask users what they want us to build. We see what works, what doesn’t work, and the underlying problems behind our users struggle. We have a blog post on our methodology on our site here.
RG: Thanks Max. Best of luck at Google and we look forward to the continued growth of Aardvark and your new endeavors.