Category Archives: The Hawaii Project

Havana Bay, by Martin Cruz Smith

Arkady Renko might be my most favorite fictional detective. Equal parts morose, guilt-ridden persistence and quietly brilliant intuition, his disinterested “<bleep> you” attitude towards anyone in his way always seems to land him in trouble — with his superiors, his enemies, and often his lovers. Martin Cruz Smith’s prose has a convincing way of communicating Arkady’s intuition, in a way that you are convinced Arkady is smarter than you are.

Arkady made his first appearance in Gorky Park, first the book and then the movie. During a recent trip to Pinehurst, NC, I recently discovered that I had missed one of the earlier books in the series, Havana Bay, and scooped it up from Given Books.

Havana Bay: A Novel (William Monk)

When the corpse of a Russian is hauled from the oily waters of Havana Bay, Arkady Renko comes to Cuba to identify the body. Looking for the killer, he discovers a city of faded loneliness, unexpected danger, and bewildering contradictions.

Arkady is sent to Cuba to investigate the apparent death of his friend Pribluda, and he’s at the harbor to identify a body, presumably Pribluda’s. This is the era when Russia had stopped funding Cuba, and Russians aren’t so welcome there, especially when they are prying. Detective Ofelio Osorio is the female detective working on the case. “A dead Russian, a live Russian, what’s the difference?”, she spits out, mirroring the attitudes of most Cubans of the time towards Russians. Arkady and his creator Martin Cruz Smith both have that wonderful black humor shared by soldiers and policeman.

Osorio was a small brown woman in PNR Blue; she gave Arkady a studied glare. A Cuban named Rufo was the interpreter from the Russian embassy. “It’s very simple,” he translated the captain’s words. “You see the body, identify the body and then go home.

… The diver stepped in a hole and went under. Gasping, he came up out of the water, grabbed onto first the inner tube and then a foot hanging from it. The foot came off. The inner tube pressed against the spear of a mattress spring, popped and started to deflate. As the foot turned to jelly, Detective Osorio shouted for the officer to toss it to shore: a classic confrontation between authority and vulgar death, Arkady thought. All along the tape, onlookers clapped and laughed.

Rufo, said, “See, usually our level of competence is fairly high, but Russians have this effect. The captain will never forgive you.

The camera went on taping the debacle while another detective jumped in the water. Arkady hoped the lens captured the way the rising sun poured into the windows of the ferry. The inner tube was sinking. An arm disengaged. Shouts flew flew back and forth between Osorio and the police boat. The more desperately the men in the water tried to save the situation the worse it became. Captain Arcos contributed orders to lift the body. As the diver steadied the head, the pressure in his hands liquefied the face and made it slide like a grape skin off the skull, which itself separated cleanly from the neck; it was like trying to lift a man was perversely disrobing part by part, unembarrassed by the stench of advanced decomposition. A pelican sailed overhead, red as a flamingo.

I think identification is going to be a little more complicated than the captain imagined,” Arkady said.

Ofelio is tough as nails, but has a soft spot for her children and the aggressive banter between her and her mother is priceless. After denying she’s attracted to Renko, he kills someone attacking him, and she gets the call.

Her mother maintained an expression of innocence until Ofelia hung up.
What is it?
It’s about the Russian”, Ofelia said. “He’s killed someone.
Ah, you were meant for each other.

Needless to say, Arkady doesn’t have any trouble making enemies quickly. Fidel Castro makes an appearance, and as usual, Arkady tries to figure things out. Havana Bay captures the beauty of Havana, the fading glory of the architecture, the sex for sale, and the curious mix of religions, from Catholicism to Santeria to Voodoo to Abakua. The humor is persistently black.

And what exactly could a neumático (an inner tube riding fisherman) do while his friend was being eaten by a shark?
Erasmo let his eyebrows rise. “Well, we have a lot of religions in Cuba to choose from”.

Havana Bay is relentlessly funny in a mordant way, occasionally poignant, and a very intriguing mystery. Very much worth a read as the landscape in Cuba shifts.

Getting your startup’s first 500 users

There are many articles about growth hacking out there, but they tend to focus on startups that already have some level of traction. But what about those really early days when you have no idea where your users are going to come from? How do you get to your first 500 or 1000 users?

Paul Graham famously said you have to “do things that don’t scale” in the early days. Rather than adopt a strategy that works for tens of thousands or millions of people, do something that works for tens or hundreds of people.

My site, The Hawaii Project, is a personalized book discovery engine, created because existing solutions simply don’t work for finding great books to read and keeping track of your favorite authors. However, it violates one of my basic rules for B2C startups — it doesn’t have a daily use case. (Most people don’t look for new books to read every day ). I’m knowingly violating one of my rules because this project is near to my heart, but it makes for tricky customer acquisition!

I built my positioning hypothesis for the product early on, following the sage advice of Michael Troiano. (which goes something like, “For avid readers looking for great books to read, The Hawaii Project recommends high quality, personally relevant books you’d never find on your own because we track hundreds of hand-selected sources of great books and match our findings to your interests.”). Which is too long. But that’s where I started.

Because the books space is interesting and complicated, I build a stakeholder map — everyone who might be interested in what I’m up to. That includes Readers, Book Bloggers, Book Clubs, Authors, Publicists, Publishers, Bookstores, Libraries and Librarians, Literacy non-profits (we donate 10% to them), Journalists and the startup community. I crafted pitches for each of these communities.

I highly recommend Traction, which provides a well-thought out framework for thinking about customer acquisition channels.

Traction: A Startup Guide to Getting Customers

Most startups end in failure. Almost every failed startup has a product. What failed startups don’t have is traction — real customer growth. This book introduces startup founders and employees to the “Bullseye Framework,” a five-step process successful companies use to get traction.

With that in mind, here’s my path to 500 users — what tactics worked and what tactics didn’t. By users I mean people who signed up for an account on THP — I don’t count simple site visitors (of which there are many more).

First, let’s look at the chart of user acquisition by date, with the key milestones. As you can see, much of it is “slow and steady” growth — with some occasional spikes.

I started acquiring users before I launched, by running a private beta program. Most of those were people I knew — friends & family. For better or worse, from there I moved to doing a Kickstarter, pre-launch. The Kickstarter did not reach its goal so I didn’t get money, but it did generate a fair bit of early press and additional users.

In broad strokes, 15% of my first 500 users are friends and family. 5% are identifiable as “friends of friends” where the product spread without my involvement. 5% are people I didn’t know but networked to for business reasons, and who subsequently signed up. The remaining 75% are people I don’t know, who came in through various activities discussed below. About half of them came in as part of the broader Kickstarter initiative — press, social media posts and the like. Many of the people who signed up at launch were queued up from the Kickstarter campaign and waiting for entrance.

Some pre-launch, early tactics that worked:

  1. Friends and Family. No secret sauce here. These are the people who want you to succeed — all you need to do is ask.
  2. Your professional network. I shamelessly spammed my LinkedIn connections (about 1000 of them).
  3. Kickstarter & related Press outreach
  4. Social Media. A particular success for me was live-blogging my Kickstarter campaign on LinkedIn, which generated a large number of Kickstarter pledges and email list signups, who converted to registered users when we launched, and garnered me ~1500 followers on LinkedIn. I used LinkedIn because that’s where my biggest network was. Choose your biggest / best platform, but keep in mind you can’t just spam them — you have to produce content on a frequent basis, so consider what kind of content you’ll be making and where it most naturally resides. A bunch of posts about startup marketing don’t seem to fit on Facebook.

Those are classic jump-start techniques. Even though the Kickstarter was a lot of work, and didn’t raise funds, it provided a reason for press outreach and a framework for launch that people could embrace.

Since the Kickstarter, there’s been three major “events” that generated significant upticks in users:

  1. The Launch — having done a lot of work with press and email-list gathering, when I took The Hawaii Project out of private beta, and opened it up, I had a good email list I could blast to — many of those people signed up.
  2. I invested a lot in LinkedIn, where my network is strongest. As a result of live-blogging my Kickstarter on LinkedIn, a series of posts I wrote (mostly not directly about The Hawaii Project) got featured by LinkedIn editors. One post garnered 25,000 views, another 5,000 views — some of those readers turned into THP subscribers.
  3. HackerNews. I posted a “Show HN” post on HackerNews. I got some friends to bump it, it picked up steam and snowballed into 100+ users — 20% of my first 500! I don’t know what caused it to catch fire, but the community was really helpful and engaged— I got some great feedback in addition to signups. I am sure many of that community were “tire kickers” rather than just average book readers, but it was very helpful! (A similar attempt at Product Hunt sank without a trace — YMMV).

More along the lines of “doing things that don’t scale”, some other activities that yielded early results:

  1. Email “Spam” — I found mailing lists of librarians online, web-scraped them for the email addresses, and sent every librarian in Massachusetts an email about the campaign.
  2. Book Clubs — I visited a number of book club meetings and signed people up. One of them is using THP to source all their reading choices. While it doesn’t scale, it did generate users — I also realized my product wasn’t a complete solution for book clubs, a topic I plan to return to in future.
  3. Bookmarks — I printed up Bookmarks with attractive “book on a beach” imagery and THP website and contact details, and hand them out at a drop of a hat. (After the first version, I put a trackable URL on them so I can see visits if people type it in). Decent (not high end) bookmarks cost about $0.50 from VistaPrint, so after factoring in conversion rates, the Customer Acquisition Cost is high — but it’s great branding for events, and doubles as a unique business card.
  4. Partnerships. I partnered with the Nahant Library to embed The Hawaii Project in a frame in their website, which generated ~500 visits and a number of subscribers (plus some revenue!).
  5. A side project. As part of the CODEX hackathon, I built BookPlaylist (a bastardized THP where you can build Spotify music playlists to go with your favorite books) and cross-linked it to THP, which generated customers.
  6. Quora. Recently I have started answering books-related questions on Quora, and including links to The Hawaii Project for books I mention. So far, when I answer 2 or 3 questions a day for a week, I pick up 2 or 3 people a day for that time, pretty much a 1:1 ratio of answers to subscribers. Not super scalable but it seems to be reliable and repeatable. It’s now part of my day.

Longer term investments that may or may not pay off:

  1. Social Media Platforms and Content Marketing. I’ve been running a twitter account since I started work on the project, long before I even had a private beta (come follow us!). I tweet out interesting books every day, and have about 700 followers. Probably 50% of my followers appear to be authors, which is an interesting dynamic I hope to make use of some day. I run a Medium account which doesn’t seem to help much. I have a Facebook page which I don’t have time to manage — it gets views but I don’t think generates users. Most every blog post I write gets posted to LinkedIn, my personal blog, my personal Medium account, The Hawaii Project on Medium, and Twitter. The jury is still out on whether my Twitter time investment is really going to pay off.
  2. SEO. I saw the power of SEO with goby, where at peak we were pulling 1M+ monthly visitors from SEO. But SEO takes a LONG time to develop and so far my SEO traffic is a trickle, not a flood. But I’m a firm believer in getting this right and have invested a fair bit in SEO (probably worthy of a separate post).

I also tried some tactics that I thought would work very well. And they didn’t:

  1. Book Bloggers — I hypothesized that Book Bloggers, because they need things to write about, and love books and reading, would naturally want to write about The Hawaii Project. I wrote to about 20 of them, and heard absolutely nothing back. I believe there’s something there but early experiments weren’t encouraging — I haven’t found the right angle yet.
  2. Startup Events — I have a rule that I will talk to anyone who wants to listen, about THP, and I’ve been fortunate to speak at a number of startup pitch events. They’ve all been useful for various reasons, but none have led directly to significant signups.
  3. Author outreach — I hypothesized that Authors would want to help promote their books and would write about THP. Many of my twitter followers are authors. I’ve written to many (authors are surprisingly approachable, even famous ones). I’ve had many good conversations but it’s not turned into much in the way of users.
  4. Bookstore outreach — while it’s more of a stretch, I got in touch with a number of bookstores, in hopes of cross-promotion. Had a few interesting conversations, but in the end, we couldn’t connect the wires on their offline experience and my online experience. And most of them view themselves as being in the book recommendation business, interestingly, especially the “Indie” bookstores.

I also ran a variety of tests on paid acquisition, primarily Google and Facebook ads, so that I had data on cost of acquisition on those channels — they are scalable, if expensive. So far cost of acquisition significantly outpaces customer lifetime value, so I can’t just “arbitrage” my way to success, unless I find a way to reduce the ad costs.

In summary, there was no “one thing” that did it for me. I invested hard in “friends and family” and my personal network, and I tried many things, looking for things that showed promise. And kept at it. I invested hard in LinkedIn, because that is where my network was the largest, and it paid dividends. I followed my mantra of “Everything is Practice”, online and offline, kept trying things, and found a few hits and even more misses.

You should not wait for lightning to strike — invest in getting new customers every day, and plan for the long haul. I haven’t found the repeatable, reliable, scalable customer acquisition strategy, yet. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Another nail in the coffin of subscription book reading

Electric Literature reports:

Scribd Puts Another Nail in the Coffin of “Netflix for Books”

A few years ago, everyone seemed certain that ebooks were taking over, and companies rushed to form the first successful “Netflix for books” service that could provide readers with unlimited ebooks for a low monthly price. Amazon jumped into the market with Kindle Unlimited, challenging the already existing Scribd and Oyster for the ebook subscription crown.

We’ve written previously about Scribd and the challenges of the ebook subscription model. Electric Lit reports that Scribd will more-or-less gut the service by imposing hard-to-understand limits on how much you can read on the service. It’s challenging enough to make an economic rationale for Scribd, in it’s current form (as I wrote here). This will make it near-impossible.

Whither the eBooks subscription model?

The news that Oyster is closing shop (or at least, abandoning their eBooks subscription business) suggests a re-evaluation of the subscription eBook business model is in order. We’ve written before about the challenges of the subscription model for eBooks.

I think it’s the endgame, until the publishers see this model as a benefit and revenue source, rather than as something to be tolerated.

What do you think?

Introducing Goodreads Import

goodreadsThe Hawaii Project is a personalized book discovery engine, kind of like a bookstore where every book in the store is picked just for you. When you first sign up for The Hawaii Project, you can pick from our “channels” to identify what kinds of books you are interested in (including traditional genres like “Historical Fiction” or “Romance”, and interesting “concept” Channels like “Noir” or “Exotic Places”. And you can identify authors you love. As you use the system, marking books you’ve Read or Want, we are learning what kinds of books you love, and this improves the quality of our recommendations. But, sometimes this can be time-consuming.

Today, I’m pleased to announce an easy way to jump start your interest profile, by importing your Goodreads library.

It’s quick and easy. Just sign in to Goodreads and go to this Goodreads page. Hit “Export Library”, which will create a “csv” file with your Goodreads Library in it. When it’s complete click on the “Your Export” link to download the file. Then head to the Hawaii Project’s Goodreads page. Pick “Choose File”, select the file you downloaded from Goodreads, and hit “Import Now” to import your library. Books on the “read” or “currently reading” shelf on Goodreads will go on your Read list; books on the “to read” shelf will go on your Want list on The Hawaii Project.

Loading your Goodreads library will give you a head start on tracking what books you’ve Read or Want, and quickly jumpstart your recommendations to take into account the books you’ve read (so we don’t show you those again, but DO show you books in a similar vein). By analyzing the metadata associated with those books, as well as the text, keywords, and books that are often mentioned along side those books, we produce a unique set of personalized, relevant book recommendations (and book news!) every day.


Your first time UX IS your UX

The Hawaii Project Home PageStartups obsess about their User Experience (UX). As well they should. Consumer expectations are sky high — if your product is ugly, hard to use, or confusing, they’ll abandon it in a heartbeat. There’s just too many options out there.

But are you worried about the right things?

Startups have a tendency to agonize over their user interface, but not necessarily the right parts. Fussing with buttons, changing colors, re-arranging pages, tinkering with the home page. Assuming a user flow that’s the typical “previous visitor comes back to the the home page, then hits the link we want them to hit, and takes the actions we want them to take”. This is often not where the big win is.

Here’s the reality. Your first time user experience IS your user experience. It’s the only thing guaranteed to be experienced by all your customers. All those fancy features you are implementing don’t mean a thing if people don’t onboard well. If they onboard well, they’ll come back — and you’ll have acquired the necessary information (e.g. their email address) to pro-actively reach out to them to get them back. If they don’t onboard well, all that other stuff doesn’t matter. Invest in optimizing your first time experience!

What are the key ingredients of a great onboarding experience?

  • Tell the Story with Progressive Exposure
  • Incremental Rewards
  • No friction
  • Context aware
  • Multi-channel aware
  • Easy off ramps

Tell the Story with Progressive Exposure. As people onboard, it’s your chance to tell them the story of your product. Simon Sinek calls this “Start with Why”. “People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.”. This is your chance to sell your mission, to tell them that story.

Tell them that story. And what your product’s benefits are, and how it works. But gradually. Make sure you expose the right information first. Gradually reveal details — people can’t take it all in at once. Many details can be deferred to a follow up welcome email, and that gives you another change to help refine the onboarding and drive re-engagement. For example, with The Hawaii Project, I follow up a day after registration with an onboarding email, and if they have not filled out certain bits of information (e.g. their favorite authors!), I will offer them the chance to do it then.

Give them incremental rewards along the way. As they give you information, give them something back, so they invest in the process.

No Friction. Ask the easy questions first. Don’t ask the hard questions til later. (for example, in The Hawaii Project’s onboarding for book recommendations, the first question I used to ask was for people’s favorite authors, via a blank search box. Data and user interviews showed me that many people got stuck on this question. And then abandoned the entire onboarding process. So I moved that question till near the end, made suggestions for them based on previous information I’d gleaned, and made that question optional). If the question is hard, get rid of it or move it to the end once people are invested. Don’t ask for information you haven’t earned the right to yet — for example, asking for payment details when I don’t really even know what the service does yet.

Context Aware. You have to be aware of how people came to your site/app and why they did so. Quite possibly (most likely) they didn’t start on your home page! They probably started on some other page, if it’s a web app — make sure the onboarding process can be started from there, and is contextually aware of that page and what it means for the user. Maybe it’s a book page for their favorite author — take advantage of that knowledge in onboarding.

Multi-Channel. People may have found out about you by visiting your website and then downloading the app. Or your app and website need to interoperate. Or your website points people to download your app. Where possible be aware of this multi-channel exposure and take advantage of it.

Easy Exit Ramps. Give people an easy way to stop the onboarding process, while leaving with confidence that their information isn’t lost and that they can come back later to finish. Many times people stumble on something interesting, suddenly realize they have a meeting to go to and can’t finish then. Don’t lose them.

Here’s an example I recently came across that breaks too many rules. I saw some ads and articles for an “all you can eat” magazine subscription service,Texture. While they have a website, all the ads (and the positioning on the site) point me to the app. So I downloaded the Android App and fired it up. Here’s what happened.

First three steps on Texture Onboarding

Screen 1. Fine. I guess, why not put sign up first, not second — once people have signed up and signed in, they aren’t going to sign in again? Since you’re advertising a mobile app, why not assume that’s where people are coming from? (I.E. — the only reason I’d need to sign in is if I created an account on the web, then downloaded the app — which is not what your website leads me to do….but fine. So I hit “sign up”, — what wha???? Why am I suddenly cast out of the app into a website? Completely lost my flow already and a bit confused. You’re selling a mobile app, let me create my account in that app without sending me off someplace strange! In that one event I’m already starting to lose trust in this app.

I get a page full of info, instead of a signup form. Ok, so I figure out I’m supposed to hit the button (again) to “Start Free Trial”. (In fact, if I scroll down, there are TWO kinds of free trials to choose from…gack! So I enter my info, and BOOM — Texture wants my credit card!?!!? I don’t enough know what this thing is yet? I know it’s magazines, but I don’t know how it works, what magazines they have, nothing — and they want my CC info. This is WAY too much friction. And you haven’t earned the right to ask for my credit card yet!

Honestly, if I were a normal consumer, and not someone looking to explore onboarding experiences, I’d be out of here, never to return. I’m a lost customer to them. But, I sign up. Here’s the next three screens:

Good grief. After I create my account, it tells me I need to download the app (iOS no less, even though I came from Android)! I already did download the app! That’s why I’m here! If you’re going to send me off to a website to sign me up, at least keep the context that I came from an app and respect it! They’ve lost the context of who I am and how I got here.

Then I get a screen with some high level info — it’s OK, but it’s not the primary content and it’s a lot of info to consume. So I just hit continue, and (finally!) get to the money screen — where I can pick which magazines I want to read! From there it’s no so bad, but in reality they lost me 3 or 4 screens ago. A better user experience would have a) let me start personalizing before asking for my payment, and b) let me create account and payment afterwards, in a native UI. I can’t get away without providing payment info either way, but in this way I’m motivated to pay vs irritated to pay.

Now, Texture seems like an interesting product and I’m sure they’ll refine all this — it’s just an illustrative way of pointing out that all the care they undoubtedly spent on their product UI is potentially wasted because I never got to it.

Your First Time User Experience IS your user experience. Treat it that way.

(are you a Book Lover? Sign up for The Hawaii Project and check out our onboarding. It’s by no means perfect, and comments/critiques are welcome!)

If you’re interested to explore how others tackle Onboarding, there’s some great collections of first time experiences: