Spicy Chai Latte Made in Belgium, or Startup Life on The Old Continent

Notice the Made In Belgium logo on the left?

We are sitting close together, oddly perched on the high bar stools in the boardroom, when Julie mouths the question “Do you want to blog on Silicon Valley Tales?” Joy rises to my cheeks. I temporarily fade out of the meeting. The tall wooden table we’re sitting around is basking in the bright winter light coming from the windows, where the medieval surroundings of our inner European city office clash hard with the SaaS platform for tablets we’re all working on.

Magical land of technology
I get this warm fuzzy feeling inside, like pride and excitement and wonder all mixed together. I’m proud of all the people around me who are building , I’m so happy to work for a startup, and now I get to contribute to a blog that has Silicon Valley in the title. The magical land of technology, that mythological place where the future is being shaped by clever people with Pixies t-shirts and/or beards…

This place doesn’t actually exist as I imagine it. I’m not even interested in what it’s really like. I believe in the idea of Silicon Valley, in people giving it their best shot to develop technology that has an impact on life. I’ve never even been there, but that doesn’t matter. You don’t need to have visited Mekka to understand what it’s about. I’m not even sure I’d want to go, not to break the bubble of wonder – just kidding.

Hormones and football
in my case, this blog is more about surviving the concept of Silicon Valley. Which, believe you me, is potentially more powerful than the real place. As for the part that this blog is written by women, I’ll be short about that. I’m in complete denial about what gender has to do with anything. My life is not that different from that of my beloved, except perhaps for my roller coaster hormone rides and his particular love of football.

Startup life
So, is startup life different in Belgium than it is in the US? I can’t really say, because I only know startup life in the US from reading and hearing about it. I’m sure people don’t really run around drinking spinach smoothies and munching on raw cocoa husks all day. I also don’t think people in Silicon Valley have this unquestionable belief in success all the time. And I’d be surprised if every coffee shop is full of entrepreneurs.

Grumpy Europeans
Now you know the clichés as we get them here. I wonder what the clichés about European startup life are like in he US. Maybe that nobody wants you to succeed here. That we’re a bunch of grumpy skeptics. Or that it’s always raining, and that we eat pork sausages with garlic for breakfast, lunch and dinner? Let me know in the comments.

Chai latte and spinach
If you want to come over and taste European startup life, you might have to be quick though. Because there’s a tin of chai latte, that quintessential ingredient of a good San Francisco workday as far as I can tell from here, sitting on my kitchen shelf, with “made in Belgium” printed on it. We’ll have spinach smoothies next…

Making the Jump

There are many jumps one could make!  The jump to marriage, parenthood, to faith, getting in shape, becoming a vegetarian.  But the jump I’m looking to make is moving from a “doer” role to a “leader” role.  I have a lot of years of work experience under my belt, and design is my arena, my passion, my forte.  User experience design to be exact.  I’ve always thought of UX (and most design jobs) as doer roles, and was content with that idea.  But I’ve had a wake up call and I’m ready to take that leap – and land a “Lead” or “Senior” or “Manager” role.

Some career paths have clear job title progressions, and I suppose UX is no different.  But title might not be the question here, instead it’s more like “how” do I get there?  And maybe you’re wondering why I call this a leap.  In my situation, the job title I seek may not reflect my number of years in the industry because I’ve done some role shifting.  [Sharing some history here…]  About 2 years ago I accepted a lateral move into the Product Management team, and then a year later once again, into a Site Optimization and A/B testing role.  During those periods I pivoted on the UX skills (knowing they are complementary!)  but it meant I spent less time on full blown design – less time actually designing things that could go into a portfolio.

My good friend Andrew tells me “Don’t worry about your marketability!  You have soft skills that naturally come with years of experience.”  Hmmm okay, might be true.  (Hopefully true!)  And maybe it sounds like I’m searching for a job.  You’re definitely onto me.  But I can’t help but feel like I’m going to have to do this the hard way.

I’m left with some questions:

  • I’ve never managed anyone, should I make that my #1 goal next?
  • Are leadership roles more about skillset / experience or if you’ve managed people?
  • Would working at a startup be my solution?  (giggle, no but really)

The next opportunity I land should make this path clearer for me, and moving forward is the only way to figure this out / make it happen.   But I would love your feedback: was there a clear “jump” period for you – did you have unique challenges?

Desperately seeking Susan to design better software

Desperately seeking Susan to design better software

The future of software requires a stronger feminine touch.

Good news, in software companies, women are easier to find as employees nowadays.  The bad news is that women are not placed in the driver seat to influence software design, interaction and value delivered to their customers — which may be why some new business software feels like it’s 30 years old. For enterprise and infrastructure software to keep customers happy, they desperately need a woman’s touch in design to improve profitability..

In the US, women control the purse strings, estimating a total purchasing prowess of . This goes beyond buying grocery and retail items – whereas major consumer facing technology companies and services like Sprint have acknowledged the lipstick economy. Sprint has revamped marketing, packaging, and contextual appeal, and then grew their business  after their 2013 about face with . This lesson is one that the software industry needs to pay attention to, and the first step is to get more women into software product management roles.

Breaking into the wallet

Appealing to women is not answered by changing the price to be impulsively attractive and packaging to be pink.  It needs to understand that women think about products differently. Women think contextually, and make decisions upon our personal experiences and lessons learned, weighing community opinion, common knowledge, emotional reactions and trust in a very non-linear manner. Women are very much masters of unstructured data abstraction that is often explained as women’s intuition because most times seems illogical.

Breaking down the mental model for purchasing, women’s point of view, women heavily value product attributes that are greatly under-designed in software – especially within Enterprise (B2B software), Infrastructure/ Platform software and Software delivery services.

Women need to connect with the software, and often it’s through these techniques:

  • personal trust and transparency with product
  • product community and their personal contribution impact
  • an engaged and guided product usage experience
  • personal emotional recognition
  • usage time commitments and capabilities
  • personal results for using product (the reward)

Time for more Femmefluence in software design.

According to , women’s complex decision making extends the sticking power after purchase, and more likely to share with others. Talk to any software CEO, and product sticking and sharing power is what they constantly seek to grow their revenue stream.

“Women remember more and differently than men do, so talk to both her emotional and rational sides and acknowledge her attention to detail. Layering emotional decision-making opportunities with rational information will increase purchase intent and will have strong “sticking” power. According to Nielsen NeuroFocus, the female brain is programmed to maintain social harmony, so messaging should be positive and not focus on negative comparisons or associations.”

My bet on the winning enterprise and office software will have a predominant feminine touch in design, engagement and reward. Want to start now? Answer these questions to identify your breakout path:

  • How can software acknowledge the user’s emotions? How can that emotional connection improve quality of work?
  • How can the software interactions evolve based on the different times of the day? Living in a multi-device world requires software to be smart about human capacity and expectations.
  • How can the software have a close and personal connection with the user? Designing the engagement to be a trusted experience, and providing more insight than asking the user to give is key.
  • How can the software tell the user exactly what they need to do to achieve their goal? I am personally biased with this point as I’m from the enterprise world, where reports are made for managers, and end users only get a dashboard of what’s next for them to do. I think every professional should know how their work contributes to the bigger picture, and the software can become their trusted source for keeping them on track.

Bringing in empathy, compassion, trustworthiness into software design can create high loyalty high dependability with every user, and differentiate your product at the emotional level as well as tapping into higher profit margins.

The dollar and cents about feminine software design

Not saying that men can’t think about emotions and identify a path of engagement that “clicks” with the user’s heart and the head – but that’s what these complex software categories are often missing. Consider how business driving software solutions could interact differently, and how that design could improve the software company’s business.

  • What is the abandonment rate from the download of the software to the distribution of the software to the end users? If your revenue derives from usage (read subscription model) this could be the financial justification to get more engaged.
  • What is the retention rate of new customers to returning customers once the contract terms expire? The cheapest way to grow your customer base is to keep your current customers. If the retention rate needs improvement – is it because the software didn’t deliver what was promised? Create a connection with the user? Get the user to be successful themselves?
  • What is the cost difference between attaining a new customer from a referral compared to your standard marketing lead acquisition spend & conversion ratio? And, how many leads do you get from customers compared to general marketing activities? If the company is spending too much on sales and marketing, perhaps investing into the product relationship with the customer is the appropriate next step.

Women in the software industry

Recently, DOL reports that there’s a – whereas there’s over 536,000 of us women employed full time. , too.

So the big question, is: what are women doing within the software industry?

CNNMoney analyzed the hiring within the tech industry by job function – and the data pointed that women were often the business moms as . The next job functions popular with women ranged from professionals, sales, and management all in the 20th percentile.

There are numerous articles placing attention on the lack of women within engineering roles and executive roles within Silicon Valley. insightful statistics collected by Tracy Chou, a software engineer at Pinterest researched 131 tech companies and found o. And the gender imbalance is even found with and who are twice as likely to leave their post then men.

Product design and Product Managers

Drilling deeper into the roles, I asked a technology industry executive recruiter to go through his database, and let me know what was the ratio of women to men within the product management role.  After tracking 120 product managers, his statistics brought attention to the problem – it’s a 1:6 ratio of women to men product managers (16.7%) which is less than what Tracy discovered within Software Engineers. I ran a similar unscientific analysis of product managers within my LinkedIn network and found 4 women out of my first 40 search results. Telling, isn’t it?

The “Seeking Susan” Challenge

If you are a leader within a software company, and the above dollars and cents makes “SENSE” to pursue a more feminine approach – start by looking at your product design team. If it’s not gender balanced, be creative on getting a woman’s perspective heard to accomplish your business goal. Likely, they’re ready to lean in, and can contribute a very profitable perspective.

I welcome your comments and insight to this topic.

~ Tara Spalding

If we build it, they will buy it…

I’m a product manager by nature and profession, so today in a slight departure from life in Silicon Valley – I’m going to talk about building products in Silicon Valley. Carl Sagan used to talk about, ‘ … billions upon billions of stars…’. And likewise we have billions upon billions of ideas floating around in the ether above highway 101. Everyone thinks that they are about to create the next big thing. And if you follow tech news, there are many big things that even receive several rounds of funding, before falling over. In my opinion many of these fail because they did not consider the most important step in product development: What is the problem? If you are not able to articulate a problem statement, and what your snazzy resolution would be – then you are going to run into trouble.

This means there needs to be some research done with your core audience, and I mean talking to actual people not reading industry analysts or guru reports that you can get online. Take your idea and meet with your existing customers first. They will provide you with one view – which is usually biased more towards their specific needs with your product line. But, you will have some customers that are thinking about the future and where their systems and processes go next, and they will provide you with valuable input. The next step may be more challenging, because you need to locate core audience that is not an existing customer. These folks are potentially your future customers, and they can give you another perspective. Perhaps they are struggling with a similar but different problem than what you previously focused on. Listen to these people, because if you are trying to expand your market, you need to bring fresh faces aboard the customer train. AND, do not ever leave out your field sales force, if you have one, that is. If your product requires direct sales, you should run your plan by the field, including the Services team, because they provide you with a third perspective. They are constantly beating the bushes for new logos, and can help you with input from prospects, and what they hear about the changing issues for companies in your field.

I realize that for many this should be product management 101, but I have rarely seen this done very well, and usually there are several products that a) never get released, but syphon budget and resources from revenue generating product lines, b) get released and never get sold, because the customer does not ‘get’ how the product will help them, c) reflect negatively on the company brand if a big marketing splash was made, and then the product is suddenly withdrawn. And yes, there are many other factors that affect the success or failure of a product – but it always boils down to what problem are you solving, and is that a valid problem. I have seen software organizations go into tailspins because everyone got caught up in the brilliant idea excitement and had a science project percolating in development which did not have real funding. I have seen posters, graphics and expensive product videos get built – even when the product has no true release date in sight. And, in the end, all of this harms your core product lines that are generating solid revenues. So product builders beware! Don’t be taken in by the next shiny object without doing your due diligence on the research side!

Silicon Valley Linguistics or an American Abroad

And we’re back… Bienvenue to 2014!

Can you believe it’s already February? Just like that, we’re into the second month of the year and it’s time to return to the telling of Silicon Valley Tales.

Today’s tale is a story of linguistics. I was once again traveling abroad. This time for my work at  I had the opportunity to visit England, Belgium, Switzerland (briefly) and the French Alps. My colleagues were generous, kind and hospitable. We toured Ghent, Belgium and the French Alps for a little winter time fun. It was a great trip.

Every day we spent a few hours in group meetings and in working sessions. We talked about needs for each market and my co-workers would seamlessly switch back and forth from one language to another. I just stared at them in wonder. I started to play the, “let’s see if I can guess what they are saying,” game. Surprisingly I got some things right. This was more from body language and inflection than anything else.

But when it got right down to it, I felt more and more like… a stupid American. Not on every topic but definitely in my communication abilities.  Most of my co-workers speak at least three languages, Dutch, French, and English. I took French for a year in high school and three semesters in college.  I still can’t speak French. I can barely understand people speaking French.  It’s the only subject I ever got less than a passing grade in.

During the team outing, a small group of us were standing on a mountain top in the ski-resort, Flaine. Our very rigid, French instructor asked if she should speak English. Everyone looked at each other and then looked at me. “Uhh… no go ahead and speak French, I’ll try and keep up.”   She shook her head a little bit. After all, she already explained to me that my ski boots were on the wrong feet. (Oops. It’s been 10 years since the last time I went skiing.)  After an hour of kindergarten style instructions, she started calling me, “Madame Americain.”  I felt like there was a dunce cap on top of my head for the whole lesson, but nothing a little European style apres-ski drinking wouldn’t take care of.

While enjoying some warm spiced wine at the bar, I asked my co-workers how they achieved their linguistic success. They all pointed to that media source that Americans love to hate: TV.  Over and over, I heard, “oh I learned English from watching American television. It’s even better now that you can pick shows to watch on-demand.”  Huh. Really? Maybe I need to start watching Telemundo more often.  Parents of small children take note! Maybe a little foreign TV isn’t so bad for your children after all!

We continued to talk about cultural differences and the fact that you couldn’t drive more than two hours in any directions without having to speak a different language. No one really cared that I couldn’t speak an extra language.  They really wanted to know why Americans got upset when foreigners spoke badly about the US government.   I looked at them and said, “I can’t blame you for speaking badly about parts of our government, I do it  almost daily. Maybe we’re just mad we can only do it in one language.”

Welcome back. Looking forward to a slew of new tales from our authors.