Former Homer CPO & Co-Founder on 3 Mistakes and How We Overcame Them
3 Mistakes and How We Overcame Them
As Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer of Homer Learning, I was at the table for many strategic decisions. Over the course of five years, sometimes those decisions worked out, sometimes they made little impact, and sometimes they were flat out wrong. Early on, the team made a number of strategic, critical product decisions that remain front and center today. We also made some critical mistakes, that potentially could have sunk the company.
Homer’s goal is giving children the best educational start possible. Our award-winning learn-to-read apps are the heart of our offering and have been so from the onset. One of the best early decisions made was conducting an independent study of the effectiveness of our learn-to-read program. Children using Homer demonstrated significant improvement versus their peers. That message resonated strongly with parents and formed the basis of our marketing efforts for a long time. While our product was successful, it didn’t mean we understood how to predictably grow through organic or paid efforts. Like many new products, we initially struggled with engagement and conversion. In 2015 we were not growing organically. Our churn was too high, and we could not convert a new user into a paying user at a high enough rate. In other words, we had not found product-market fit.
Three key mistakes stand out from this period. Learning and recovering from them provided the footing we needed for longer term growth.
Mistake 1: Copying our Competitors
One significant competitor already had an incredible market adoption rate. Their product spanned all domains in early childhood learning (math, science, etc) and had a highly engaging reward system. Its availability on Android and web, outpaced our iOS only limitation. It’s easy to look at competitors presuming their new releases are part of an intentional strategy resulting from a meticulous product design process. I’ve found that often the reality can be quite different.
The trouble with copying your competitors is twofold. Besides being well behind them in product development, they are often wrong in their decisions, and you just don’t know it yet. Further, mapping their strategy onto your company, vision, product, or brand may be ineffective. Though this may seem obvious, startups desperate for traction and solutions to inherent problems, easily fall into this trap. In Homer’s case, we were overly “influenced” by our competitor’s reward system to keep children engaged. Adopting it proved somewhat of a disaster, with parents complaining that it was distracting their child from actually learning to read.. Which leads me to …
Mistake 2: Forgetting our True Value
When we focused too much on our competitor’s moves, we lost sight of our greatest strength. Reading! At our core, we were a learn-to-read product, with a proven track record confirmed by an independent study. Why were we wasting time with other subjects, ancillary features, and gimmicks? In retrospect, this revelation seems obvious.
Only after deeply considering where we sat in the market, and our competitor’s positioning, we realized the solution. Reading was not only a deep domain we could own, but it was also the most significant educational challenge facing parents of Kindergarten-aged children. And it’s a big problem to solve. Over 60% of students in the United States do not achieve appropriate reading skills by third grade. That’s considered the critical year where students start to focus less on learning to read, and more on reading to learn. Without a strong foundation by then, by many definitions kids face a much more challenging lifelong outlook.
This was a meaty problem. Once we agreed teaching reading was to become our core brand promise, we cut projects in areas that may have achieved short-term engagement goals (big “maybe”), but had little to do with what our audience wanted. Which allowed us to fix the next mistake on the list…
Mistake 3 : Spreading Resources Too Thin
This is the classic startup mistake. Not doing too many things at once requires serious discipline. “We have to build the plane and fly it at the same time” is the line we liked to tell ourselves. In many ways, this is true for any startup. You have a lot to prove in a short time period. However, you also have to think of your product roadmap highly sequentially. Even if you hire enough engineers to build more stuff at the same time, you don’t necessarily have the team around those engineers to adequately support the design and promotion of those features. The tough lesson is accepting that the small but dedicated audience your product has today is more important than the larger, more diverse audience you want for your product tomorrow. You cannot build everything for everyone at once. The best approach I’ve seen in this regard is by Superhuman, outlined brilliantly by their CEO.
For Homer, once we stopped copying competitors, focused on our strengths, and dedicated the majority of resources to those efforts, our product started clicking. Critically, we listened to our audience. They valued education over entertainment, and we built features and content for them. We rebuilt our on-boarding around learning to read, and helping parents select content for their child at the right reading level. We reconstructed our content around a learning path, to keep a child on a journey to reading success over time. These efforts led to sustainable success. Homer was now positioned to grow effectively and profitably, unlocking opportunities to eventually service those broader domains in early childhood.