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In any startup, or any business really, the people in charge of creating new products and services are stuck with a common problem. What is the most important thing to do/build/create next?
There are many project management techniques used to help teams prioritize what should be built next. Project Management Poker is a good example, but just one of many prioritization techniques. However, this technique still requires you to have much discussion beforehand to decide what even goes into the pool of possible features to consider. It is this process of brainstorming that can suck up way too much time. This is especially true in a startup.
For entrepreneurs, you don’t really know what your product is great at yet. Everyone, especially the "visionary" is constantly thinking of new things to add. In fact, many startups chase anything that looks like it might generate profit. How do you focus the chaos of "what if we" ideas? My advice, manage your ARMS.
Years ago we started our journey of starting a game company. Our company QONQR (pronounced Conquer), for the most part, was an accident. My business partner Justin had pitched his idea at a Startup Weekend event in St Paul, MN. "We should build a game that lets you capture your hometown with your smartphone." 48 hours later, we had built the firs playable prototype. Six months later, we had players from around the world.
Every startup is unique, but problems are pretty similar. Like most early stage startups, we found ourselves spending hours in discussions like, "You know what would be cool …", "What if we …", "We should build a …"
What compounded the issue was having an eccentric creator on the team. My dear friend and co-founder Andy was brilliant at managing complex systems and simplifying them into algorithms. However Andy was a notorious rabbit-hole-spelunker. He was the kind of guy that would have a crazy idea, and couldn’t force himself to pull up. It would start out with the idea of exploring post World War II Russian economics and result in a developer who hadn’t slept in 36 hours, was physically wrecked for days to follow, and a week of lost productivity.
What do you do when you have brilliant creative who struggles to focus? How do you manage a team who gets lost in their imagination for new features? How do you allow for those moments of inspiration, but then move quickly separate the wheat from the chaff?
At QONQR, I invented a system to do that.
Now when something new is proposed we first ask, "How does this fit in our ARMS?" Perhaps more often, when a customer suggests a new features, we can now more succinctly responds what we agree that is very cool, it doesn’t fit well in any of our four core focuses.
This is anything that brings you new customers. In many organizations, most people would consider this the sales funnel. But it goes beyond that. Marketing should be included in this area. If your product is free, or has a free demo, the very first user experience also needs to fall under Acquisition. In QONQR, this begins with their very first exposure to the name "QONQR", up to the first 15 minutes of the game experience. Things we do that fit in the "A" include:
This is anything that keeps a customer engaged with your product. Ideally you want people to engage with your product long enough to become a profitable customer. In other words, long enough so the money made from your customers exceeds the cost to acquire and maintain them (on the average). Every company will have a different metric for what defines good and bad retention. In the end however, your focus really comes down to how "sticky" is your product. For QONQR, some examples include:
What makes you money? This might be collecting money directly from customers, or making money on customer activity, perhaps through advertising or selling data. For some companies, this can include converting free users to paying users. Some tactics QONQR uses include:
The "S" was added to the ARM after we started using the process and discovered there were things we had to build just to survive, but did not fit into the ARM equation. Things in this category should include processes that consume way too much productive time, and could be automated. Where is your pain? Sometimes you may find that a job could be performed by lower cost employee with the right tools or training. Building those tools or training materials falls into the "S" category. Examples for QONQR include:
Now that you understand what ARMS stands for, you can begin to apply the process to your "What if" conversations. Brainstorming conversations often start with, "You know what would be cool…" Sadly, cool doesn’t pay the bills. If it doesn’t get people to talk about it (attracting new players), doesn’t make players do something over and over to experience it (retention), doesn’t encourage people to spend money to keep experiencing it (revenue), and isn’t removing a pain point for the business (cost reduction); it is nothing more than "cool" and you probably shouldn’t do it.
Here is a great example. Every game needs background music. It is a core expectation of every game, and games are considered incomplete without it. However, in an ironic twist, nearly every gamer turns off the background music at some point in their game experience, often early. Many times, players have said to us, "You know what would be awesome? You should add several different tracks for background music so players can pick a background music to match their mood."
I doubt anyone would boast about this feature in a way that attracts new players, play the game longer as a result of the music options, spend money to get access to more background music options, and it definitely isn’t a pain point for the business. It doesn’t really fit in our ARMS, and therefore isn’t something that will ever make our features list. DONE! In less than a minute we quickly evaluated an idea and kept it off the list of possible features, saving very critical time debating it, or worse thousands of dollars building something that didn’t provide core value.
I hope at this point I’ve convinced you that managing to your ARMS can dramatically focus a team on possible features. It cuts to the core of what is important when considering new features. Once you can quickly classify which letter or letters a feature fits within, you can start your prioritization by section.
For example, in QONQR, if a player tried QONQR for 7 days, 44% will play the game nearly every day for a year. We do not have a retention problem. QONQR as a business, has been played in every country in the world, covers over 35% of the populated earth, runs on iPhone, Android, and Windows Phone, and has a very complicated cloud platform backing everything. All of this was built by only 2 developers and customer support is managed by a part-time employee 10 hours a week. We have done an amazing job of building the tools needed to run a "lean" business and have already spent much time working on the "Self-Preservation" part of our business. That means for us, we really need to focus on Acquisition and Monetization. Boom! Just like the music example above, in less than a minute we identified that most of the features built in the next month should come out of the A and M categories. Now a more traditional prioritization process can filter the list to the top feature to be built next.
ARMS is an incredibly simple and fast way to focus a discussion. It isn’t magic, it is vocabulary. When everyone is speaking with the same terminology; conversations are shorter, goals are constantly at the forefront of discussions, and teams simply get to work on what is most important more quickly. Give it a try. Obviously there is no such thing as the perfect solution for every team, but ARMS might just be the thing that gets your team looking in the right direction from the start.
ARMS is a trademark of Scott Davis Industries. We strongly believe that sharing ideas should be free. But if you want to take what we have given away for free and start charging for it, that’s not cool. Feel free to use the ARMS methodology on your own team with no risk of being charged a fee. However if you are a person or company that sells your ideas on team and project management, and you are interested in incorporating ARMS into your own service offering that you resell or promote for a fee, please contact me using one of the tips on the Contact page for more information on using the ARMS trademark as part of your product or service.