Most product development teams think they know what their customers want. Keith Frankel thinks that they’re wrong.
Parlay’s mission is to connect developers with the customers who use their products and tools every day. Frankel believes that companies can’t just assume that they know what their customers want. Instead, they should just ask them.
“Through Parlay, we give these digital product teams a way to validate the impact of all these new potential feature ideas they’re considering building inside of their live products in the exact location where those features may one day exist,” he said.
On the customer-facing side, Parlay encourages users to comment on potential updates — all within the existing product. Arming product development teams with this data allows them to identify and scrap the bad concepts before they get past the idea stage. It also helps hone the good ideas, making new features stronger out of the gate.
The problem today, Frankel said, is that companies aren’t finding meaningful ways to interact with their users.
Instead, they rely on obtrusive user surveys or they pay complete strangers to interact with their products. Even worse, many teams rely on their customer service teams to do the heavy lifting when building relationships, but customers might be so frustrated by the lack of communication that they’re already considering leaving.
“We're building this platform that hopefully solves these very real short-term pains that a lot of these product teams experience today, but [we] do it in such a novel way that ultimately trains them about how they should be thinking about building products down the road. We are getting users involved as early as possible and as frequently as possible, and almost making this army of customers into an army of collaborators,” he said.
Keith and his co-founders got the idea for Parlay while working at Firecracker. Working at a bootstrapped startup, they were in a situation familiar to most developers: They were strapped for time. That meant that they couldn’t risk building features that their customers didn’t need or want.
They searched for a tool that would let them get direct feedback from their users and found nothing. Instead, they were forced to construct a patchwork system using a number of third-party tools strung together.
It wasn’t pretty for the developers or the users, but it worked.
“That was just like an ‘Aha! moment,’” he said. “I’d never had so much interaction with users. I knew these people by name. I knew them personally. I knew what they hated. I knew what subjects they were struggling with, and I knew all of this because I was actually talking to them on a frequent and consistent basis. I look back at every other product team I've ever worked on and every other product I've been responsible for designing or building, and I couldn’t recall any at-scale instances of that.”
Frankel doesn’t think this type of interaction with users will be optional in the near future.
“As the tools we use to build products get more and more powerful, meaning as AI and automation continue to creep into this realm of software development and make the feature development process nearly instantaneous, we believe that at some point the way teams build products will no longer be sustainable,” he said. “They'll need to rely on something else to give them a competitive advantage in the market. We think ultimately the main thing that will keep companies from being disrupted by competitors is just the relationship they have with their users.”
Frankel says that he sees this urgency when he watches his two-year-old niece use technology.
“She uses an iPad better than I can. I build software for a living that's been purchased and used by a lot of people, but she's better at navigating a basic user interface than I am,” he said. “What that means to me is that by the time she's 20, her knowledge of how technology works and is built is going to be light years ahead of mine, because she was raised with it.”
Her generation is going to have strong opinions about the experiences they have with the products they use, he says, and they’ll know how to verbalize those experiences to the people doing his job today.
“I don't think our better-trained next generation of digital product users are going to be okay having decisions made for them by machine-learning algorithms,” he said. “What's going to happen is they're going to say ‘I want to select the experience I have in this product myself.’”
In Frankel’s future, every person has an individualized version of the products they use. And in fact, he predicts, as we get more and more technologically advanced the role human beings play will only get more and more analog.
Technology may do some of the heavy lifting, but that means that humans will have more of a responsibility to interact with each other in meaningful ways.
Frankel and the team at Parlay had originally looked into traditional fundraising for the company and had actually secured two different term sheets. But Frankel says he was unhappy with the dynamic he was encouraged to create to earn the type of funding he wanted.
“I was amazed and disturbed at how quickly I went from pursuing venture capital to feeling like I was pursuing vanity capital,” he said. “I hear people say things like ‘Big money attracts bigger money’ or I would have other entrepreneurs who had raised money and had more experience say things like ‘You need to be manipulating this fundraising process because it's the little boys club, and they’re all talking to each other behind your back. You want them all to be talking to each other and feeling the the deal urgency.’ It was almost Machivellian — the psychological manipulation of them seemed like such a fucking waste of time.”
Plus, equity crowdfunding had another positive aspect — it would help grow his potential network of users. Frankel and his team already had connections with angel investors, but getting money from them wouldn’t allow them to extend their network at all.
“It's amazing,” he said.” You're building a network of supporters that can go make this the next big thing. In the same way, we're talking about almost democratizing the product development process; Republic is democratizing the fundraising process. It’s beautiful, and it fits perfectly in line with what we're trying to do. And it’s great to build this community of supporters that can help in dozens of ways, not just [with] money. In fact, the money is the least important part of this for an early stage company. The thing you need least is money. The thing you need most is help, is a network, is a community, and a tribe, and that's what Republic is.”
Frankel believes that equity crowdfunding is the future. In just a few years, he says, companies will be raising ten times what they’re able to raise now.
“We're in the early stages, but I’m happy to be the case study for this,” he said. “I could not believe in this more.”