Monday, October 31, 2011

Traffic, Technology, and Treasure

These are my lean startup experiences for October. It's a concrete example of how I've applied the “build-measure-learn” approach to Blender Addons during the past month.

Growth by Weekly Release
The big experiment was seeing whether or not I could raise traffic 35% in a month by doing weekly add-on releases for Blender. Results exceeded expectations with a growth of 56% for October. However, traffic by itself is just a vanity metric.

The details in the traffic data said a lot about what users want. A script called “Curve Mangler” released early on in the month gave traffic an early bump because visitors like curve add-ons. On the other hand, the “Orphan Cleanup” data utility add-on didn't excite people as much. 

The clues are in Google Analytics. Digging deep uncovers an interesting form of indirect communication. Users often will express their desires by way of their behavior at the site. It's a great way to help set priorities in a way that helps to reach goals.

Direct communication also plays a big part. My tools in this regard are forum boards and social networks. It's great for morale because it makes me feel part of a community. I learn a lot from them. Their feedback and encouragement helps me make my add-ons better. It also helps drive traffic to my site.

Testing Technical Assumptions
It is okay to do a technical experiment just to satisfy curiosity so long as you have a set definition of success or failure within a reasonable amount of time. For example, I wanted to see if I could easily control particle fountains with an armature. The experiment failed. I'm okay with that.

Failure is sometimes the womb through which better ideas are born. In this particular case, I found a way to use generated curves to provide new ways to visualize and test out armatures. This means a new add-on project to kick off November with.

Money Pressure vs. Money Goals
A startup needs to turn a profit at some point. My approach was to put that issue on the back burner. It made more sense to focus on building up a decent reputation as an open source developer while also securing a day job. That much has been done.

Here's another reason it was right to wait til now.  I believe money pressure for a startup is a bad thing because it's distracting. Money goals, on the other hand, are generally good. The key thing is to be in the position to start off with a modest goal. It makes no sense to try making 2000 dollars in a month when I haven't even proved I could pull in 20. A modest financial metric can be handled just like any other piece of data. Less pressure allows for clearer thinking and, in turn, smarter pivots.

Closing Thoughts
October was a great month and I am excited about what November might bring. New add-on projects, a new day job, and other things in the work ensure there's never a dull moment. I look forward to reporting new progress soon.

Monday, October 3, 2011

When It Feels Like a Video Game

Wow!  This was a wild week.  Someone in the Blender project gave me commit rights to one of their repositories.  Huge honor!  On top of that, the Mohegan Sun Casino hired me as a Java programmer.  Big relief!  Despite all the excitement, a lot still happened with Blender Addons. 

Here's what's happening there.

1.  Step Pyramid appears to going into the next official Blender release.
2.  Particle Tracer is in consideration for a later release.
3.  "Particle Man", "Orphan Slayer", and "Mangler Suite" are addons in development for October.
4.  Disappointing September traffic lead to new site design tweaks for Blender Addons.

Lean startup principles helped me get all this in motion.  Time with users and studying the results of my past work helped inform my next move.  Even the failures, unpleasant as they were, gave me a sweet data set to work off of. 

Of course, the most fascinating thing about this whole learn-and-build process is it feels like a video game.  There's something about it that reminds me of the hours of Civilization and Caesar that I used to put in.  I can't put it into words why that is but I'm sure not complaining.  It's intense but it's also a heck of a lot of fun.