Believability is the precursor to many things in entrepreneurship. I invest much of my time convincing prospective hires, partners, customers and investors to believe in the vision we project to the world. But at some point, a founder’s hand-waving has to be replaced by a rate of irrefutable traction or the venture will run out of cash.

And while traction ultimately means data that speaks for itself and trends generated by genuine customer demand, believability is more fluid. 

For me, believability has three tiers, particularly when building products and new experiences. The objective of each level of believability is to deliver a magical experience, no matter the available funds, technology or founder experience. However, the back-end experience of each tier can vary significantly. 

There are ‘mad ducks’, swans and eagles. 

Eagles are the top believability tier. These product experiences are efficient, reliable and already scaled. Automation also features heavily at each point of the experience. A good example is Gmail for Work. You can signup online, be up and running in less than five minutes, and the product is always on.

Swans are at the next tier. Graceful on the surface but still paddling hard to make it look easy. E-commerce businesses are an excellent example of swans. The customer-facing end of the experience is relatively efficient, and the back-end is somewhat automated, but behind the scenes, many people are working hard to make the business seem effortless. 

Mad ducks are the ground floor of believability and where all product experiences begin. The defining feature of a mad duck is the founder. No matter how ‘together’ the founder tries to look, they maintain a constant level of angst that the whole experience could come crashing down at any moment. While believable, mad duck experiences are held together by duct-tape and look forward to surviving long enough in the market to amass the resources to graduate to a swan. Be In Motion started that way. 

Believability at the start line

The punchline of this post is to do whatever it takes in the beginning to achieve believability. But invest in graduating from mad duck to swan to eagle. Otherwise, the business model will break under to load of the cost to serve.

That said, it’s essential to realise that all new product experiences, the mad ducks, will have a high cost to serve because of the manual nature of fulfilment. 

AirShr was a case in point. Opher and I were building an in-car experience. If you listened to the radio on your commute and wanted to save talk segments, advertisements or songs, you could do so by pressing a Bluetooth-enabled button in the car. That would start a cascade of processes that would identify the station and content you were listening to before returning all the details for that moment to AirShr app. 

We needed a way to deliver this experience and convey the magic that we knew was possible in a believable way. But we hadn’t finished  automating the systems that provided data from radio stations, the backbone of the consumer experience. 

We turned to a mechanical Turk model to solve this issue. 

As Wikipedia explains, the Mechanical Turk or Automaton Chess Player, was a fake chess-playing machine constructed in the late 18th century. From 1770 until its destruction by fire in 1854 it was exhibited by various owners as an automaton, though it was eventually revealed to be an elaborate hoax. Constructed and unveiled in 1770 by Wolfgang von Kempelen (Hungarian: 1734–1804) to impress the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, the mechanism appeared to be able to play a strong game of chess against a human opponent, as well as perform the knight’s tour, a puzzle that requires the player to move a knight to occupy every square of a chessboard exactly once.

The Turk was, in fact, a mechanical illusion that allowed a human chess master hiding inside to operate the machine. With a skilled operator, the Turk won most of the games played during its demonstrations around Europe and the Americas for nearly 84 years, playing and defeating many challengers including statesmen such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin.

The modern day equivalent is Amazon Mechanical Turk, a crowdsourcing website for businesses (known as Requesters) to hire remotely located “crowdworkers” to perform discrete on-demand tasks that computers are currently unable to do. It is operated under Amazon Web Services, and is owned by Amazon.

In AirShr’s early days, we hired freelancers across Asia to listen to the internet version of broadcast radio. They transcribed what they heard into an online interface designed by my co-founder, Opher. 

When people used AirShr to save a radio moment in those early days, the information sourced by those freelancers is what they received. 

It was heavily manual, required massive amounts of logistics, and it didn’t always work, but when it did, the experience was incredible. 

The good news is that we graduated from mad duck to swan. 

Leveraging mad duck experiences 

I have repeatedly leveraged the AirShr mad duck experience and today use three tactics in early product development.

First, map the desired experience. While this might seem like an obvious step, many first-time founders tend to move quickly to create a solution without full knowledge of either the problem or the desired experience. Think of mapping the desired experience as a hypothesis; it provides the basis from which to learn.

Second, use freelancers to run and learn faster. I use UpWork to find engineering and marketing talent to help quickly build and refine early versions of product experiences. We also used UpWork to hire researchers who became our radio listening transcribers. 

As a side note, I recommend explaining the bigger picture to any freelancer you hire. One of the primary reasons for not getting the most out of a freelancer relationship is the absence of context. In other words, the person hiring explains the task that needs to be completed but forgets or avoids explaining the bigger picture. At AirShr, it wasn’t until weeks into the project that one of the freelancers asked why they were doing the task they were assigned. Once we explained, they instantly resonated with the experience we were trying to create. Their interest, productivity and desire to help refine our experience increased significantly after this conversation.

Third, stress test the underlying experience with friendlies. Stress-testing the experience with friends who understand product development and have permission to provide direct feedback is very important. While this might also seem obvious, the key is to show them the map of the desired experience and then show them the current version of the product. Most first-time founders nervously reveal the current version and ask friendlies for feedback without context or visibility of the bigger picture.   

The Mechanical Turk Tipping Point

There comes a time when freelancers become hard-coded into a business model. In other words, instead of designing technology to solve for a particular step in the experience, a decision was made to keep hiring more freelancers. I call this the Mechanical Turk Tipping Point. And for the most part, it’s not a good thing. 

The early use of freelancers as mechanical Turks to accelerate knowledge of a problem, deliver a solution or generate revenue can be intoxicating. However, these freelancers can also become an expensive crutch. And unlike positive tipping points which result in companies achieving new levels of growth, having too many mechanical Turks can prevent a business from graduating to swan status. 

There is a graveyard of companies who showed immense potential but stalled as a consequence of trying to meet customer demand by throwing more people at the problem. The key is to build technology at the same time as leveraging freelancers to learn and develop momentum.  

One last thing…

The single most significant challenge for new founders is making others see their vision. This challenge compounds with founders being resource-poor and desperately wanting to create a highly scalable solution to the problem they want to solve. 

The bottom line in the early days is that believability is essential to progress, and every new experience starts as a mad duck. 

Use strategies that enable rapid rates of learning, like the Mechanical Turk model, in pursuit of becoming an eagle, but remain aware of addiction to manual interventions. While useful in the short term, they can stall growth or worse still, bring a business model to its knees.