In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that
have shaped their business philosophy.



Co-founder and CEO, FocalCast


Background:  

FocalCast is a cloud-based platform that can turn an Apple or Android device into a live, interactive whiteboard, allowing people to share presentations with an audience. The platform includes annotation tools that facilitate real-time collaboration on shared presentations. FocalCast, based in St. Louis, also works with video conference providers and other technology partners to provide additional collaborative tools for teams in business and educational settings.

The Mistake:

Not thinking all the way through the business side of launching a technology-driven product.

Three years ago, when Chromecast and AppleTV and other ways to connect your smartphone or tablet to your TV didn’t exist, we wanted to create something like that. We were initially going to build a device you could plug into your screen, then connect to your phone wirelessly. In the research we did, we found some patents from Google and Microsoft that looked exactly like what we were going to build. We didn’t want to compete with them. So, we thought, “What if we create a presentation application for your phone to give presentations wirelessly using your phone in a classroom or similar setting using that new technology?” Three weeks later, Google Chromecast came out, so we were right on and we were the first wireless presentation application for Android.

We got tens of thousands of downloads. Depending on the permissions users give you, you get a really good picture of how people are using your software. So we could see things like where people were using it and whether it was working properly. In the first version of the application, users just downloaded, opened it and started using it. It’s great from the user perspective. But from our perspective, we didn’t have the contact information for any of those thousands of people using the software. We knew everything about our users – where they were, their usage, what screens they were on – except who they were. When we went to release the full application with new capabilities and extra features, we thought, “Wait a minute. How do we contact all of our users and tell them?”

That was a huge learning moment for us. If a million people are using your software, but you don’t know who they are and you can’t talk to them, that’s a huge, huge challenge. So we immediately initiated a login feature. But, because users had to manually update software before the days of automatic updates, only about half the beta users updated it to the full version.

Our background is engineering, so we were very excited about creating an innovative new product. We just didn’t think all the way through the business side of it. We didn’t ask ourselves, “When I want to talk to someone about new features, or a contract, or talk to them about how they are going to pay for this innovative product, how do I do that?”

If a million people are using your software, but you don’t know who they are and you can’t talk to them, that’s a huge, huge challenge.

The Lesson:

Probably the biggest lesson is always be thinking about the business workflow. Be able to get out of your chair, metaphorically speaking, for a moment and sit in the customer’s chair or sit in your support or sales team member’s chair and think, “What do they need before I do something new like launch a new product or support platform or enter a new market?”

Get out of your own mindset, get to the customer’s shoes and put yourself mentally in different positions. Make sure you understand all the angles of a decision before you do it, especially all the angles that aren’t about you. It could mean something as simple as hiring customer support staff who speak Chinese if a lot of users are in China.

We’ve implemented that as much as we can since then. Before we do anything like a product launch, we try to get as much feedback as possible and also try to look ahead as much as possible to make sure we don’t accidentally back ourselves into another corner.

FocalCast is on Twitter at @FocalCast.

Photo courtesy of Devin Turner.

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