Drawing lessons from a failure
Recently, a sandwich shop here in town closed up. I wasn't really all that surprised, since I knew it was doomed for failure from the beginning, but I was thinking about it and saw some useful lessons in it.
This is the story of the Mr. Pickles Restaurant in Lodi, CA. For almost 2 years, my wife and I lived just down the street from one of them in Elk Grove and I literally went there 2-3 times a week. It was awesome. When I saw one was opening here in town, I was excited to finally get a new sandwich shop in town, and the same one I loved going to before, but had a sense from the beginning that it might be ill fated. The building it was opening in was previously a Togo's which had closed a few years before because no one went there either. I knew the Mr. Pickles could fall to the same fate.
The place was on the David Letterman show shortly after it opened in his "Small Town News" segments. They had a guy in a pickle costume dancing on the street corner. The cops were called on the giant pickle for holding up traffic one day. It made the local newspaper's cop log, and ended up on Letterman. And yet just one year after that, it is closed up.
Location == Usability
The saying "location, location, location" is often over used, but always true. Can also say "usability, usability, usability", but it is more of a tongue twister.
Things like being on the right street corner are important, but there are other factors of a location that killed this place. It is on a small lot on the corner of a busy street. There are maybe 6 parking spots. This is a big killer for your lunch crowd. First, it is busy, so pulling into a small lot might be fun. Then you find the lot is full of 3 other cars looking for a spot, which are there are none. So you fight your way out, go down the street, flip a U, and go park across the street in the much bigger lot and then you need wait at the crosswalk to go get lunch. Lesson: Don't make people have to do extra work to get to your place, or use your app. If it is difficult to just get in the door, people won't bother. If you app and slow to load, people will just move on. If it is a pain to register, people will skip it. A recent paper by Pingdom mentioned 28% of online shoppers will not wait more than 4 seconds for a page to load. The number goes up to 1/3 when looking at broadband users.
Choose your competition
Another killer... when you end up going across the street to park, in the nice big parking lot, there is another sandwich shop which has been in town since forever which everyone knows and loves. Right across the street from stiff competition isn't the best place. Just the act of having to go across the street could motivate the person to go to the other place instead. Lesson: taking on competition is great, but sometimes focusing on where they're weak might to better. With a restaurant here in Lodi, there are plenty of busy areas that could use a deli. Or be much more specialized with your sandwiches, rather than run of the mill. With software, if you competitor is weak in one aspect, make yours be awesome at it as well.
Brand yourself, and stick to it
One of the things this sandwich chain thrives on is individuality. It is a chain of franchises, so each restaurant has some differences. One thing is they all have the same sandwiches, but they all name them differently.
This can be a positive and a negative. You can go to one location, fall in love with a sandwich, but then go to another one and be completely lost looking at the menu. This can be confusing, especially if you don't know they do this.
You also need to stick to it though. The sandwich shop here in town copped out. There is one 20 mins north from us in Elk Grove, and one 20 mins south in Stockton. Instead of coming up with their own names, this restaurant copied the names of the ones in Stockton. If your chain promotes individuality, then work it. In this case, I walked in expecting a new set of names only to realize it lacked originality. The franchise owner for this store was a disappointment.
Watch associations, and keep clean toilets
One thing about the building for the restaurant is that it lacked an inside bathroom. Bathrooms are important. People like to wash their hands before eating, people got to go pee after drinking a soda, etc. If your only option is a bathroom out around back, using it becomes unattractive. You start getting pictures of those gross bathrooms around back at the gas station where the key is tied to a giant hub cap. Associations are important. You don't want people about to eat picturing bacteria infested bathrooms with keys on hubcaps. Not sure of a parallel to software, but don't write something that sucks. Associations come from negative outlooks. People thought Rails was slow because Twitter had problems. Think of the anagrams for FORD.
Meet basic expectations, or exceed when you change expectations
One thing I've noticed at the Mr. Pickles I have been to is that they don't have fountain drinks. This is such a basic requirement for most people that they don't understand why a place wouldn't have them. People want to fill up themselves, they might want more than a 12oz soda, and they often like to refill before leaving. Fountain drinks aren't that expensive. From what I know, soda is a tremendous rip off. But Mr. Pickles doesn't have them. The one here in town just had normal 12oz soda cans, and a couple 20oz glasses of things like Gatorade. Nothing special, just what you'd normally find in your own fridge or at the grocery store.
Couple this with the bathroom experience, and some people like my parents only tried this Mr. Pickles once. They failed to meet basic expectations. If your app fails to load on the first try, forget it, you might be lucky if they try again.
In some cases, when you don't meet basic expectations like fountain drinks, you need to turn it into something special. The Mr. Pickles in Elk Grove which we loved so much didn't have fountain drinks either, but instead of offering normal 12oz sodas, they were fully stocked in specialty drinks. Those brands you've never heard of but have the awesome flavors? They had a ton of them. They had a couple Pepsis and Sierra Mists for the vanilla people, but they had tons of brands you've never heard of with funky names and labels that made it an adventure to try them. When we went there, I made an effort to try all the different ones they had. The owner would regularly cycle out the ones that weren't selling well and get something new. We got to know him and he'd tell me when he got something new in and ask my opinion.
The one in Lodi again copied the Stockton store which lacked originality. If you're going to copy another place, copy one that rocks, not the plain one. The Stockton one stocked only normal drinks. Its only saving grace is they got a good location. The Lodi one unfortunately didn't duplicate that. If you're not going to meet a basic expectation, then turn it into something more exciting. Turn it into an adventure, a feature, a positive, something to differentiate yourself rather than undermine you.