The Curve began its life with a question. What would it be like if all companies were able to see the experience of their peers as they considered ways of removing carbon from their business? The founding team were inspired by the success of platforms such as Uber, Airbnb and TripAdvisor, and set out to build the ‘TripAdvisor for energy management’. The Curve aims to help tackle climate change faster than ever before.

The Curve is a product of The Crowd, a knowledge sharing company with a mission to better connect business and society. It is best known in the business community for The Crowd Forum, a monthly event that has met 87 times since 2008 with over 15,000 people taking part. The Curve is its first foray into the world of digital.

We started working on an MVP of the Curve in February 2015. The MVP was based on a prototype The Crowd created in summer 2014. After trialling the prototype at a conference, The Crowd team decided to turn it into something scalable, beautiful and secure, that could be used by large corporations to make a real difference.

At the end of March 2015, the MVP was complete and The Crowd began using it with real people. We caught up with David Short, Strategic Advisor on the Curve, to find out what he and The Crowd team learned from the MVP and how they will be moving forward with the next step of their product journey…

The Curve MVP

The Curve MVP was based on a relatively modest budget and we worked with The Crowd team in an agile fashion, building the most important functionality first so that we could deliver a functioning product, within budget, that would allow them to test assumptions and gather feedback for future iterations. David Short, Strategic Advisor for the Curve explains…

“We needed a system where people could create accounts individually, but also as part of a company, and then they could upload energy investment projects with specific data. We needed to be able to display that data and anonymise it so that companies could learn from one another safely. We needed certain search functionality. We needed a smooth onboarding process where users could create an account. We needed an administrator panel so we, The Crowd, had access to certain administrative functionality the users didn’t.”

Using the MVP

The Crowd team have always thought of the Curve as a TripAdvisor for energy management. Like TripAdvisor, it was important to populate the Curve with data instead of pushing an empty tool out to potential users. Just as TripAdvisor would be pointless without any reviews on it, the Curve needed data to share before it could be of any value.

Fortunately (or rather, smartly), The Crowd were able to populate The Curve with data from around 180 energy investment projects they had collected from a variety of large companies during the original trial the year before. The companies who’d participated in the trial would become the Curve’s first users. Gradually The Crowd team approached the companies who’d participated in the trial, telling them the Curve had now been built, their data had been added and asking them to reclaim their accounts and add more projects.

By inviting 5-10 people who had a personal connection with David and The Crowd, the team were able to gather feedback without risking damaging their reputation with potential customers or as David put it: “I know if it screws up they won’t hold it against me!”

It was through this informal introduction of personal contacts to the Curve that David and the team were able to quickly pick up on issues to resolve before launching to a wider audience. These issues, copy changes, additional functionality, enhancements, were resolved in a series of mini sprints over the coming months based on feedback from real users.

The Curve Pioneers

While The Crowd team weren’t outwardly marketing the Curve, they talked about it openly at their events and began to pick up new users they hadn’t explicitly invited. As the user base for the Curve gradually grew, the team settled on the idea of Curve Pioneers. The Crowd would invite 15 to 20 companies they already had a special relationship with to help road-test and co-create the Curve beyond the MVP stage.

David and The Crowd team worked closely with the Curve Pioneers, giving personal demonstrations and support and free access to features that may later become premium features, in exchange for three things:

  • Pioneers must use the Curve functionality properly – i.e. they would have more than one staff member sign up for an account, and use the tool as a team.
  • Pioneers must agree to give feedback later in the year.
  • Pioneers must agree to upload their full energy investment programme into the tool within a reasonable timeframe to increase the volume of quality data on the Curve.

After the launch and initial trialling, The Crowd team realised the way they needed to go. They decided to focus on building a panel of quality users and take on board anyone else who wanted to try it, but to not massively promote the Curve to their 10,000 strong events database until they were certain of the product’s stability.

Onboarding and engagement

As well as iterating on the product itself, The Crowd team felt they needed better tools to automate onboarding, engagement and tracking.

Once a few hundred users were signed up, and regularly using the Curve, the team recognised that it was very difficult to work out exactly how people were using it. David spent a lot of time speaking to users on the phone and watching them interact with the product via screen sharing or simply standing behind them. While this was incredibly useful for getting early feedback, it wasn’t going to be scalable.

Another issue was around engagement. “We realised by the summer that we were creating a great tool that could be really useful to people, but they’re not waking up every morning and thinking of logging into the Curve” says David. “If anyone’s uploaded a project, we need to be pushing signals to them, primarily through emails, to get them engaging with the site.”

After much consideration, The Crowd team chose to integrate customer communication platform, Intercom, to track user behaviour and send “nurturing”, events-based emails to help users work their way through the system. David reflects: “I realise now if we’d tried doing anything bigger without that, it could’ve been a nightmare.”

Lessons learned

While The Crowd team had a good idea of the functionality the Curve should have, they were able to prioritise features and make compromises to keep their MVP within budget. Having already prototyped the tool and tried it with real potential customers, they were able to make educated assumptions which helped to cut down on wasted time and money.

Looking back, David is glad he trialled the Curve MVP on a handful of personal contacts first. An MVP is never perfect, that’s the point, but by testing with “friendly” companies, he was able to gather feedback while maintaining potential customers’ trust. Scaring off potential customers with a shoddy product is a fear many startup founders experience, but building in stealth mode, with no outside feedback, usually does more harm than good. A trusted group of beta testers can be ideal for enterprise products like the Curve where each individual customer can be worth a significant amount of money.

With the Pioneer program, the Crowd was able to get feedback from quality customers that had massive potential to help with the product. Rewarding early adopters is a tactic used by many startups and The Crowd team were able to find an efficient way to make rewards work for them.

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