What were the factors within your business that led you to start developing your own product with Touch Voicemail?
Frustration really. When the original iPhone was introduced it was showcased with visual voicemail but the gotcha was it required carrier buy in. We realised no mobile carrier supported this in New Zealand but also realised that outside of the US and Canada the uptake was fairly low internationally.
We dwelled quite a bit on the motivations for and against carrier uptake, but realised nothing was likely to change fast. So we started building a prototype product and generally getting feedback from anyone that would listen. That was the starting point for Touch Voicemail and we became really quite motivated by the positive reactions we got to the idea.
What kind of initial research did you do to establish the market need for your idea?
I think building an app is really high risk. For every company that has made one that does well there are hundreds, maybe thousands that haven't.
On that basis the research we did was about how we could scale the opportunity; did we have a product that we could get to the world and utilise the Appstore to its full global potential? Technically that ability is quite a challenge for our service because it doesn't just need the internet, but also local infrastructure.
We did a lot of research over the internet. As a startup entrepreneur you almost don't want to find anyone else that's done something similar to what you've dreamed up, but you do have to go through the process of doing some competitor research.
And just because there are others in the mix it doesn't mean you can't approach things in a different way - I think it's all about how you execute on your plan. We also had a lot of conversations behind the scenes with telecommunications carriers about where they were at with any developments in this space.
The other research we did was about validating a workable commercial model. The model we have looks fairly simple now but we had all sorts of complex ideas to begin with and our research helped us frame the right approach - or at least the right starting point.
What was involved in developing the product from that point on?
Getting quickly to a prototype is key and our approach was heavily guided by our prototype feedback, as well as our own instincts of what we wanted from a voicemail app. We genuinely wanted the service ourselves so we worked hard to stay true to getting it working well with simple features to start with.
In terms of the feedback, we just tried to show the product to as many people as we could - friends, family, customers of BridgePoint, industry contacts. Even when my business partner was doing a house extension he was introducing it to the tradespeople; one of them even ditched his old phone and bought an iPhone after he tried it so he could use it.
What has been the major challenge for the company while developing the app?
The challenge in a very small company like ours is that providing IT services - which is our main bread and butter business - and coding an app are at complete odds. For development you need long, undisturbed periods of concentration and that doesn't always work in well with handling a raft of IT customers and their support needs.
Thankfully for about a year our technical director just didn't sleep too much and we broke the back of the major development work. We were also really cautious about taking on new business and new IT projects in our core business. We focused on repeat business and nothing too large that would detract from Touch Voicemail.
What are three key pieces of advice you'd have for other small business owners looking to embark on a similar product development journey?
1. Get loads of customer feedback before you set sail. We put a prototype together and it was that customer feedback that motivated us and still does today. New product development is going to have an element of risk and speculation and the best way to intelligently navigate that for us was to listen to the market throughout the journey.
2. Expect it's going to take way longer and probably much more resources than you ever imagined. Bashing out a prototype might require less than 10 per cent of the total resources needed to be production ready. I think this is generally underestimated.
3. Agonise over product and service simplicity, staying true to the core user benefits. Adding bells and whistles sounds great, but it can quickly create complexity, delay launch and even degrade the overall experience for the majority of customers.
Coming up in Your Business: How do you outsource offshore? What are the options, how does it work on a practical level, and what are some of the pitfalls? If you've got a story to share, drop me a note: email@example.com