Ten Things I Learned from Three Years of Experiments

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This is (for now) the last blog post on the Shiftup blog because, after a few weeks of deliberations, I have decided to suspend all my work on the Shiftup programs and the MindSettlers app in favor of my newest project: the unFIX model.

I’ve experimented with a wide range of business ideas for several years. Now, it is time for me to focus on something that has proven to work. In this blog post, I want to reflect on the ten things I learned from my (sometimes crazy) adventures during the last three years.

1: Shiftup Program and MindSettlers

The experiment I’m most proud of is the Shiftup Program (which uses the MindSettlers platform). It consists of various self-paced learning paths through articles, videos, podcasts, meetups, and more.

Many hundreds of people have participated in these qualification programs, and I handed out nearly 100 diplomas. My idea of self-paced learning for qualification (not certification) with crowdsourced content did not exist before, and people seemed to like it. I validated this with dozens of customer interviews and many more meetups. The concept required a significant investment in a new version of MindSettlers, but I thought it was worth trying. And I was happy to see that usage and retention metrics were at least ten times better than the first MindSettlers app in 2017-2019.

However, it was still not enough. I needed the platform to be a hundred times more successful to justify my monthly investments, but our usage and conversion rates to paid memberships didn’t support that. And due to the longer-than-expected Covid crisis, I had to terminate my funding.

Lesson learned: Customer interviews and user feedback easily lead to false positives: people say they love an idea, but their behavior shows that the value proposition is not strong enough.

Note: We will terminate all Explorer memberships from March 31, and pre-paid annual memberships will be refunded.

2: ICAgile Certification

I developed three courses and signed up with ICAgile to have my workshops accredited for the ICP-BAF, ICP-LEA, and ICP-PDM certificates. The collaboration with ICAgile was pleasant (and I support their approach to certification), but I found that the market for workshops was not as good as I had hoped (especially when the pandemic hit a year after I began making these courses).

But I had an even bigger issue to deal with: motivation. When you make new courses to match the existing learning programs of a certification institute, you’re always lagging in the market. You’re never innovating. There cannot be an official certification program (with defined learning objectives written up by experts) for the newest business trends and developments. Because with the latest topics, there is not enough experience and not enough demand yet. And so, my membership of ICAgile was holding me back, and I was not ahead of the curve anymore. It made me unhappy.

Lesson learned: When you tie in with a business partner, no matter how nice they are, you must be fully aware of how the partnership will drive and constrain your future business development.

Note: I keep supporting Facilitator memberships until December 31. After that, any pre-paid annual memberships will be refunded.

3: Self-paced Workshops

In the middle of the Covid pandemic, I saw an opportunity in the market for self-paced workshops where people could decide for themselves which meetups to attend and when. Each session was repeated multiple times across different weekdays and time zones so that participants had plenty of options to choose from. If they couldn’t join this week, they knew there would be another session a month later.

In the beginning, I had many people joining for free (because it was something new), but my problem was that the conversion rate to paid participants was meager. On top of that, those who did pay for an entire course often never showed up, even when repeating the same sessions three or four times. They seemed to expect that I would continue doing the same sessions forever. Add to that a significant increase in logistical efforts (compared to regular two-day workshops), and the conclusion was clear: this was not going as I had hoped. I was practically working for free.

Lessons learned: Free users don’t pay the bills; be mindful of conversion rates from day one. And don’t give customers endless freedom but force them to choose from a few options.

4: The Versatile Organization Workshop

After breaking away from ICAgile-based workshops, I was able to go into areas where I had not gone before, such as Jobs-to-Be-Done, OKRs in flow, Customer Experience (CX), Gamification, the unFIX model, and hybrid working. I turned these experimental topics into a new course called The Versatile Organization. The pandemic made it a challenge to organize these workshops on location, but I was happy and thankful that some organizers and companies were willing to give it a try.

The early feedback was okay: not outstanding, but encouraging. The main feedback was that the topics I picked were somewhat disconnected. People were confused about how it all hung together.

All of this changed when I noticed that my new unFIX model was getting the most attention from workshop participants and online visitors. So, when I decided to move unFIX to the start of the workshop, making it the foundation for everything else, suddenly it all clicked! The average evaluations went up with two full points, and I had only changed the order of things. (The following workshops are planned for Prague and Vienna. There might also be workshops in Zurich and Munich.)

Lesson learned: Average feedback doesn’t always mean you need to improve the parts. Sometimes, you need to figure out a more cohesive way of connecting the pieces together.

Note: The Versatile Organization workshop will steadily change into the unFIX Model: Foundation workshop. I will be using the summer months to make the necessary modifications.

5: Specializing Generalist

Many things interest me that I’m not good at (such as entrepreneurship, finance, marketing, product management, and more). I could choose to become better in some of these areas, but increased performance requires prioritizing deliberate practice.

It’s entirely possible (even likely) that some of my experiments could have had better results if I had spent time improving my talents. But I was in divergent mode. I was a specializing generalist. I was trying many things to see what could work, and I was learning stuff about whatever crossed my path. I learned new tools for making videos, organizing meetups, automating sign-ups, and so on. Searching a business landscape for things that work requires you to be more of a generalist than a specialist.

The beneficial side-effect of such a broad search is that you also figure out what you don’t like and, therefore, what kind of activities you don’t want to be spending your time on. (For example, I learned I don’t like making online videos. It’s just not my thing.)

Lesson learned: When running many experiments, you must consent to mediocre performance in everything. You must be a jack-of-all-trades (and master of none) until you find a new home where you can settle.

6: Teaching vs. Practicing

The best sports coaches are usually not great athletes themselves. And vice versa, the best athletes are unlikely to be great teachers. Teaching and practicing are often different disciplines. I notice this myself when trying to run my own business. I am usually better at talking and writing about management, leadership, and innovation than practicing these things myself.

For sure, I also enjoy trying to practice the things I talk and write about and learning from my experiences. But, ultimately, the teacher in me prefers to step away from the daily grind and put into words what other people can learn from. For example, if I had worked at Pipedrive, I would probably have been a mediocre manager. But I wrote the best article on how Pipedrive is managed. Great teachers are average practitioners; great practitioners are average teachers.

Lesson learned: I am a writer, speaker, and entrepreneur, in that order. I do entrepreneurial work (with pleasure) to be a better writer and speaker. I don’t write or speak to be a better entrepreneur.

7: The Customer Experience

If there’s one thing that could be the most important takeaway for me, it’s that customer experience is more important than product development. The agile community is still far too obsessed with making products and not enough with designing experiences. I found this out the hard way.

People liked our product, but the experience was by far not good enough. A great idea does not equal a great product and vice versa. Over time, I learned about customer experience issues that I should have paid attention to but didn’t. I talked with many people, but I didn’t observe what they were doing. I wasted too much time and money trying out cool features without a solid understanding of our intended customers’ actual pains and gains. (By the way, that’s what the Jobs-to-Be-Done concept is all about.)

Lesson learned: Double down on customer experience and ignore your cool feature ideas. Observe what (potential) customers are doing and ask them questions about their behaviors.

8: The Employee Experience

If we consider myself an employee of my own company, then I can say I learned a lot about my personal employee experience. I love variety in my work: sometimes, I want to travel a lot; sometimes, I want to stay at home for a while. I love learning from experiments, and I don’t like repeating the same things (workshops, webinars, meetups) too many times. I also hate being ruled by my agenda: going from one appointment to the other without having any time to learn, reflect, and write.

I have my most enjoyable days (like today!) when there is nothing in my calendar, and I can walk around the city, listen to podcasts, read books, discover patterns across articles, arrive at new insights, and then write (or talk) about the things I learned. (And get paid for that!)

After years of trying out different kinds of work, I know much better in which roles I’m happy and in which roles I’m not. It appears that I love reading, listening, watching, experimenting, and then sharing new insights. So that’s what I should be optimizing for.

Lesson learned: It can take several years to know what roles fit you well and what type of work environments and daily rhythms go best with your personality.

9: No-Code/Low-Code Platforms

I’ve become a big fan of Airtable, Integromat (now: Make), and other no-code and low-code environments. It is incredible how fast you can set up new environments and try out new ideas without writing a single line of code (except maybe for a few filter and sorting formulas). Such platforms substantially increase your ability to be agile and offer your customers Minimum Viable Products while deferring your investments in actual coding to later stages.

However, there is a risk that you go too far. I have spent hours, days, and weeks building tables, tweaking filters and playing with scenarios that did not result in any added value for customers. I went too far overdesigning the temporary stuff because it was all too easy. I am now almost an expert in Airtable and Integromat, while I should have been an expert in customer experience.

Lesson learned: The ease of making stuff in no-code/low-code environments comes with the risk of overdesign because you get carried away by all the possibilities. “Look, it’s only a few clicks!”

10: The Curse of Funding

I completed several successful rounds of funding in the past, and I’ve not been impressed by the impact that money had on my innovations. I dare say that I had the best ideas when I had the least money. Lots of digits on your bank account increase the chance of making careless decisions. And it makes you anxious to show results to those who funded you, which often negatively impacts your creativity and decision-making. In contrast, when you’re low on funds, it’s the other way around: you become a lot more creative and think three times harder about every crucial decision.

Somewhere in the Shiftup courseware, there is a reference to research showing no correlation between R&D spending and the innovative capability of organizations. I believe it has been the same for me.

Lesson learned: Money doesn’t bring innovation. I would only attempt another funding round when I was confident that I needed it to scale something up that already worked.

Shiftup and MindSettlers

I remember talking with a product manager at a games company who said that the mediocre products were the most challenging products to deal with. With successful games, it was easy: grow them and exploit them until they run out of steam. With unsuccessful games, it was also straightforward: kill them before they kill the business. But what do you do with the ones in between? The ones not successful enough for business growth and not unsuccessful enough to kill?

The product manager said that these were the toughest decisions to make. Often, the company had to kill (or suspend) these products because the maintenance of mediocre games costs just as much as the maintenance of successful ones. And when you do nothing about it, you run the risk of mediocre products distracting you from what works well. Or worse, slowly bleeding you dry.

I have now come to the same insight with my decision about Shiftup and MindSetters. It costs a lot of time and energy to keep products running. You don’t always notice this until you have something else going that looks to become much more successful. In such cases, it’s probably best to aim for the lowest level of maintenance: halt the product and wait for a chance to relaunch when the time is right.

Note: Yes, I hope that I can relaunch MindSettlers and the Shiftup Programs in the future. The ideas were good but our execution was lacking. When I relaunch, I need to be put in a different role, and the team should have a focus on the experience, not the product.

The unFIX Model

For now, I need to focus. And my focus will be on the unFIX model.

I would not have come up with this model if I had not gone wide with all my experiments in the last three years. It’s good to diverge and try many things. But when you find something that works, you need to double down on it and put everything else on ice. Don’t keep other experiments running. There are times to generalize and times to specialize. I have enjoyed plenty of divergences; now, I need my time to converge and focus. And be ahead of the curve again.

Thanks for all your support and participation so far!

I hope you’ll also join me on my new adventure.

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