Kevin Hale on “How to Build Products Users Love”

HIPLegal is hosting a brown-bag lunch series for entrepreneurs, to watch and discuss videos of an exciting educational series, “How to Start a Startup.” Sam Altman, President of Y Combinator, is teaching this series as a class at Stanford this fall and is making the classes available online. Along with guest lecturers like Marissa Mayer, Peter Thiel, and Ben Horowitz, he will be covering the fundamentals: how to come up with ideas and evaluate them, how to get users and grow, how to do sales and marketing, how to hire, how to raise money, company culture, operations and management, business strategy, and more.

HIPLegal is holding a weekly brownbag lunch to view and discuss each session on Wednesdays from 4:00-5:30 pm at our office (20195 Stevens Creek Blvd., Suite 250, Cupertino). We watch one video per week (50 minutes) and then hold a discussion for about 40 minutes. We brainstorm ideas, bounce them off each other, and refine them over the course of the series. This is a 20 session program that should be a great program for anyone who is in the process of starting a company or is thinking about one day diving into entrepreneurship. The full curriculum and the videos to date are here.

Please fill out the survey here and let us know if you are interested in attending the series with us.

Session 7 – Kevin Hale, Founder, Wufoo and Partner, Y Combinator, “How to Build Products Users Love, Part I.”


Growth is pretty simple – it is the gap between conversion and churn. See graph here at p. 3. What is less simple is the human side of interacting with users. Wufoo wanted to create products that users not only loved, but wanted to have a relationship with. They looked to apply how relationships between people work to the relationship between the company and the users. Making the interface not only functional but fun helps. Hale showed some examples of a dinosaur roaring (Wufoo), fart noises (instagram), and a company having thematic pictures on its various features. [HIPLegal note: our discussion did not evaluate these “playful and fun” features positively. This may be a factor of age and gender, or simply of having different interests. This is one of the reasons why you really need to know your customer base.]

Creating meaningful relationships with your users is like being in a relationship: interacting with new users is like dating; keeping your existing users is like marriage.

    • For new users, as with dating, it’s all about first impressions. You look for the first opportunity to seduce them. One way is to give them a good origin story, just like a couple recounts the first time they met. Look for opportunities to create “first moments.” You want to create an enchanting experience, not just a traditional experience. Every interaction you have with your users is an opportunity.
    • For existing users, think about how to keep them happy after your launch. Wufoo looked to research by John Gottman on relationships. Gottman is famous for claiming that he could predict the long-term success of a marriage after watching a 15-minute video of a couple fighting about something. Wufoo tried to look at the relationship between its staff and its customers based on Gottman’s lessons. They tried to instill values in software developers that were key to relationships: responsibility, accountability, humility and modesty. The key to developing these values in the team is to make everyone do customer support. This ensures problems are understood, addressed quickly, and motivates engineers to solve problems to reduce phone calls. When Kayak® put a red customer service support phone in the engineering room, problems got fixed more quickly and calls slowed down.

Losing customers is like a breakup in a relationship. Be aware of indicators like criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling (identified by John Gottman as the “four horsemen” indicating that a marriage will end in divorce).

Wufoo realized that understanding the emotional state of users when they had a complaint helped them better solve the user’s problem. They used a drop-down menu on their complaint site that allowed the user to identify their emotional state (excited, confused, worried, upset, panicked, angry). Even though it was optional, users identified their emotional state 75.8% of the time.

Product design improves with the time of direct exposure your company has to users. One frustration of users is the knowledge gap: the difference between what they currently know and what they need to know to effectively use your product. There are two ways to address this: (1) increase the user’s knowledge; or (2) decrease the knowledge needed. New features tend to increase the knowledge gap, yet this is usually where developers like to focus. Having direct contact with users through customer support might reveal different solutions that narrow the knowledge gap.

All relationships can atrophy if the passion or fire dissipates (another John Gottman insight). The same is true for your users’ relationship with your company. Show that you care. Blogs and newsletters don’t really work, because most users will never be aware of them. But alerts can add value. One example from Wufoo was timestamping new features, so that when a user logged in, they would receive an alert saying, “Since you’ve been gone, we have added some features to make your life easier: [list of new features since they last logged in].”

Wufoo also sent personal, handwritten notes to users, to reinforce the connection. Initially they sent Christmas cards, and later “any time” cards. They found their users appreciated this and at least one user contacted them to mention that their note had gone missing, when they didn’t receive one. [HIPLegal note: in our discussion while watching this video, all of the four women who were discussing it had negative reactions to receiving a random handwritten note from someone they didn’t know. Efforts like these will resonate with some users and not others. Another reason to know your customer base.]

The path toward market dominance can be through having the best price (logistics driven – examples, Wal-Mart and Amazon), the best product (R&D driven – Apple), or the best overall solution (being customer intimate). Unlike the first two paths, the last path is available to everyone if they choose to pursue it.

The Q&A session brought out some really interesting points:

    • When working remotely, it is important to respect people’s time. Wufoo instituted a 4.5 day work week. One day was fully devoted to customer support. The half day was on Fridays and it was for all the meetings they needed to have, both internally and externally. They limited all questions during the week (outside that meeting) to a 15 minute discussion. If the discussion took longer than 15 minutes, the issue was held for the meeting. Usually, the minor issues disappeared before the meeting. This left 3 solid days to build without distractions.
    • To set up accountability for employees, Wufoo had an ongoing to-do list for the company. Everyone’s tasks were added to the document and everyone could see what was being done or not done when the company went over the list every week. If a task did not get done, that opened up the opportunity to discuss what barriers were preventing it from being completed. It also put social pressure on people who were doing things last minute or not getting things done.
    • One way to ensure you are hiring someone who will fit into your culture is to have them do a one-month side project for you, to see what their working style is and how they manage their time.

Kevin Hale quote: “My feeling on marketing and sales, my feeling is marketing and sales is a tax you pay because you haven’t made your product remarkable.”

On Wednesday, November 12th at 4pm, we will watch Session 8, Walker Williams, Founder, Teespring, Justin Kan, Founder, Twitch and Partner, Y Combinator, and Stanley Tang, Founder, DoorDash, on “Doing Things That Don’t Scale; PR; and How to Get Started.” Sign up here if you can join us. Email if you’d like to participate by phone.