He knows a bit about wireframes, actually. He’s director of Digital Arena (a page production and creative industry project management software company) and he’s also founder of PageProof.com, a recently launched stand-alone cloud-based page-proofing system that’s off to a strong start. The product went to market just ten weeks ago, and in that time, has gathered users in 223 cities and 65 countries worldwide. Not too shabby.
So what’s behind the effortless scaling? How does a start-up go from napkin design to launched product? Also, the ‘about’ page on the Digital Arena website says to “ask him about UFOs”, so, curiosity piqued, Idealog decided to track him down to do just that.
Idealog: Hi Marcus. You’re the founder of PageProof.com. What’s that?
PageProof is the world’s first fully encrypted cloud page proofing system.
And you launched in June, just over 10 weeks ago. Things have started off well, right?
Yeah. So in June on launch day we started with zero customers. Over the 10 weeks following we’ve gained customers in 223 cities in 65 countries around the world. That blows us away every minute. We’ve got customers in Brazil, the States, France. Two thirds of our customers are not in New Zealand.
What’s behind the quick pick-up do you think?
The nature of the product, I think. Nobody proofreads things in isolation.
For example we have a New Zealand company who has a lot of offices around the world. They’ve been sending proofs out and what we’re finding is that people in that company will put up a file up, asking for proofs from Australia, the States and the UK. Five days after those new users have tried PageProof, they get an alert [to buy a paid account], and things just keep going from there.
Well, we had a hunch that there were other people in world who proof-read things!
So what’s behind the genesis of the product? At your Ignite talk you mentioned the importance of “figuring out the hard stuff first”. You’re talking about R&D, right?
Well, what I mean is that so many people ignore really important stuff upfront. They say ‘Oh, we’ll get to that eventually’, but that’s a real mistake.
You need to break your idea apart in the beginning and ask ‘what’s really difficult here?’ Too many people start with the design instead of working on the hard stuff first, because finding what’s hard is actually quite difficult in itself. Too many people say, ‘oh, we’ll just let the developers figure that hard stuff out”.
Is that what you mean when you say “sometimes you have to throw away your wireframes”? That you need to be prepared to take all those points off the board if it makes the product better?
We developed a few prototypes and few wireframes and they worked well, but at the end of the day, if we had have taken [those designs] all the way to production, that would have been a huge mistake. We would have ended up building servers and all of this stuff that wasn’t right for us. So we had to throw the wireframe away and start again.
The secret is to use the wireframe to nut out the problem, but then revisit it later and ask ‘is this really the best way to do this or do I need to throw it all away and start again?'
And during that process, you might find yourself discovering new value, right?
Yeah, but that’s a process in and of itself. We thought naively, ‘Oh, we’ll patent a lot of stuff,’ but once you’ve done that, you can’t go out and talk to people about what you’re doing. If you’ve done stuff with the patent office, you can’t talk about it for three months. We literally had to get everyone in the room and say ‘Listen guys, this is the cone of silence. You can’t talk to anyone about this to anyone, not even your partners’.
Then when we started going through the validation stage, our potential customers would ask ‘what are you were working on?’ and we’d have to say ‘we can’t talk about it; we're filing patents’.
But that was a really great earning opportunity, because it was then that we started listening. You can’t talk about what you’re doing, so all you can do is ask people to tell you about what they need, warts and all, and you actually end up getting that validation. They will tell you if you ask. They’ll say ‘I wish I could do this, I wish we could do that’. That’s great and you write that down. We heard people say things that conflicted with our own thinking, and we had no choice but to shut up and listen.
And it turned out that avoiding talking about what we were doing was the most important part of the process.
You need to break your idea apart in the beginning and ask ‘what’s really difficult here?’ Too many people start with the design instead of working on the hard stuff first, because finding what’s hard is actually quite difficult in itself. Too many say, ‘oh, we’ll just let the developers figure that hard stuff out”.
When you’re doing this validation, are these people welcoming your approach? How do you convince them to make time for you at all?
What we found was that – and maybe be it’s a Kiwi thing – is that if you ask people to talk about what they do, they will. We’d just call them, offer to buy them a cup of coffee, and 90 percent of them were happy to do so.
Similarly, you’re a big advocate of working with a mentor, but how do you find them? And how do you convince them to help you once you’ve found them?
So we knew a guy who was working at Vend. I’d bumped into him a few times before, because we’d started going to a lot of meetups, and he said he was really interested in what we were doing. So I called him a few days later and asked if he would informally meet us once a week, and he was really enthusiastic. It was literally one hour a week. He chose the cafes and we paid the bill. He would tell us straight down the barrel of a gun ‘don’t do that’, or ‘we’ve done that, but it didn’t work’ and that saved us a ton of time, and many of the products worked out better because of it.
During this design process, you say you were building hypothetical customer profiles. Why bother? What’s the actual value of a hypothetical customer?
The value is that you gain a view of your product from your customers’ eyes. We used the TV show Suits. We were watching the show at the time and talking about it as we were going through the process, so we said ‘let’s take the characters from this show and build some profiles around them’. It was quite a big process, actually, and took a couple of days. Gemma said ‘When Harvey gets this email, he’s not going to respond to it. This person will see it, this person might see it, but Harvey’s only going to glance at it.’ We’re able to then look at the product through these personas, and ‘change our glasses’ if you like. It certainly made the process clearer for us internally.
One of the things you talked about at Ignite was the huge importance of really good design, and you must be doing something right, because you’ve made it to the finals of the Best Design Awards.
Well I’m a big Apple fan, have been since 1981, so for me, the design aspect is really important. I’m not a creative myself, but I know when something looks good. From the beginning we said ‘design is how it looks, how it behaves when we touch it and how it works’, so you have to design everything. We took that iterative design process and used it for everything.
So yes, we’re up for three Best Awards and are finalists times two in the AGDA awards for website design and the application itself.
You’ve made sure that focus on design pervades everything on PageProof, right? Even the humdrum stuff.
We say ‘design your support, because if you don’t, your customers will design it for you’.
Look at it this way, if you don’t design a nice way for people to communicate with you, they will find a way and it might not be the way you like. They’ll find your email address, your home number. Retrofitting a support system into your product, that’s not elegant, so make support one of the core foundations of your system.
And one of the other benefits of working that way is that by the end of the process we know it so well that when we change things, we know what to expect, we know what to test. If you put something on at the last minute, then change it, it often breaks. But we know it so well we know how it’s going to behave when we change things.
Let’s change tack a bit. Start-ups often have this idea that they’ve got to be ‘hip’ somehow, that they need a pinball machine and the CEO needs to be all adventurous and windswept à la Richard Branson. What’s your take on that?
Well when you look at something like Apple from here, everything looks so amazing. They execute on product, they do wonderful packaging, it’s perfect. You look at Vend and they’re playing Ping-Pong and drinking beer, and they look so cool. When you look at the public personas these companies have you think ‘aww, we’re not so cool’, but thinking like that is a trap.
If you don’t design a nice way for people to communicate with you, they will find a way and it might not be the way you like. They’ll find your email address, your home number. Retrofitting a support system into your product, that’s not elegant, so make support one of the core foundations of your system.
Our team, for example, are all geeks. They know what they like, so we don’t have kegs. What we do have however is a retro arcade machine with two and a half thousand games. So we play Mario Cart at lunch time instead of drinking beer, because we’re not big beer drinkers anyway. You’ve just got to find your own thing.
And if you actually go and visit a lot of these successful start-ups only a minority actually have those crazy setups anyway.
Finally Marcus, I have to ask. Your ‘about’ page on Digital Arena says “ask him about UFO’s….”, so…what’s the deal with UFOs?
Okay. In the office, one of our team is a firm believer in UFOs. He will talk about them in a lot of detail – body types and different races – he’ll talk about them as if it’s a real thing. Personally, I use logic in my work, so we have…conversations. I don’t believe. My take is that the chance of UFOs actually finding us is just so remote. And we always assume they’re going to be so much more intelligent than us, right? Why would they be more intelligent?
So would you describe yourself as a passionate UFO denier?
No, I’m not a passionate denier, but I am evidence based. Show me some hard-core evidence. But maybe leave this part out.