January 21st, 2019 / Published in: Interviews
The art and science of product design and strategy based on lessons learned during a 25-year career.
Paul Shustak is a serial entrepreneur with 20+ years’ experience in product design, development and marketing. He is currently founder and CEO of Karen.care, a SaaS platform that helps families care for their aging parents.
He also co-founded GroupDragon, the first mobile platform for accountability groups, and KOR Water, a fast-growing consumer products brand. Previously, Paul held senior product and marketing roles at Adobe, Sony and Microsoft. His passion is developing products and that address important human needs, particularly those that involve behavior change. During his career, he has led over two dozen product launches with an aggregate global user base of nearly a billion. He holds a BA from Purchase College, an MBA from Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, and a Masters in Human-Computer Interaction from New York University.
Dulce: Hello everyone, and welcome to our newest of DojoLive! Connecting tech experts like you, my name is Dulce Luna, live From Hermosillo, Mexico, and first of all I want to thank our faithful audience whose session after session continues to see us and before meeting our very special guest today, I want to welcome my co-host, live from Los Angeles, we have Tullio Siragusa in from the other topic sorry, to interrupt you Tullio, how are you?
Tullio: Happy new year, good to see you for our call today.
Dulce: Sure I’m really excited too, so from the other side of the globe we have from Mexico City, Carlos Ponce, welcome Carlos.
Carlos: It’s a pleasure to be here again.
Tullio: Are you outside?, it looks like you’re in a balcony, are you outside?
Carlos: No its a reflection actually and you know what, I get it there’s something that I gotta confess, I’m not in Mexico City, [INAUDIBLE] I’m in Baja Right now.
Dulce: That’s great.
Carlos: I got a little thing in here you know, so yeah, i’ll be here for a couple weeks, and working in Baja, beautiful Baja, sunny as you can see its blue, you don’t get that see that Mexico City.
Dulce: Wow you really trick us.
Carlos: Yeah, so i just now leave the office to the engineers, you know there are the ones who deserve it, so thank you, thank you Dulce, thank you Tullio.
Dulce: Ok, great so i would like to take this moment to introduce our guest today on DojoLive! We have Paul Shustak he’s a serial entrepreneur with more than 20 years experience in product design development and marketing, hes currently co-founder and CEO at Karen, you can check it out at Karen.care, this is a SAS platform that helps family´s care for their elderly loved ones, sorry, he also co-founded group dragon, the first mobile platform for account would be only groups, and core water, first growing consumer products brand, previously Paul held a senior product and marketing roles at Adobe, Sony and Microsoft so we’re very excited for Paul to be here with us today, we have so many question for you, we´re going to have a lot of fun today, we´re gonna also have a special topic for today, which we will be talking about in a couple of minutes, but first let’s say hello to Paul Shustak thank you for join us today, how are you?
Paul: Im terrific, it’s great to be here thanks for having me, nice to meet you all.
Dulce: Awesome, so well today’s topic is cracking the code on product success and white matters to your business the art and science of product design and strategy, based on lessons learned during a 25-year career, why did you choose this topic poll?
Paul: Product is sort of my obsession, it’s kind of a lifelong journey that i think i’m on which is as the title says, cracking the code, is product is a mystery, you know how do you create successful products on a repeatable basis how do you sustain that success in the face of competition let’s face it you know, most products fails, it’s really hards, it’s a big challenge, but i actually think it’s the most important part of many business , your product or service, if you like to call it that, is something that needs to be offering, o you’re going to fail, no matter how good your marketing is or your distribution , so that why i’m obsessed with products.
Tullio: So i’m curious Paul, how did you get here can you give us a little background about yourself?
Paul: Sure, so Maya my undergraduate was film degree and i actually wanted to be a movie director, i spent after college i spent a couple of years in that industry sort of low-level jobs, and i what i was getting into computers at that time using, lets see at the time, it was Windows PCs, the mac was sort of growing wrong as a platform and you know, started programming and doing a lot of graphics on the computer and i could start to see the potential this was in the late 80s early 90s for content to become digital and because i was basically in the content industry very interested in that idea and friend of mine was attending a program at NYU its a masters program called ITP or interactive telecommunications its a sort of combination of engineering and art and design, similar to the MIT Media Lab and she said you should check it out, maybe this is the way to pursue this idea of digital content and this you know this was like the early 90s as i said, it was something that relatively few people were thinking about, but i could use this program you know, was the place to study this the director a woman named Red Burns it was like already like far ahead of the game, she’s no longer with us but she was a real visionary so i wound up there doing a masters program my senior thesis was the first sign language dictionary to use digital video and i wanted a bus telling that product that companyo to publisher, that was king of my first exit, my first product i build and designed, was this sign language dictionary and from from there i wound up working at Microsoft leading a team of engineers and designers to develop a history of the 20th century based on the Encarta Brand, i don’t know if anyone remembers Encarta it was the personal DVD encyclopedia, was 1995 you know, DVD and Cds at the time, we´re not you know, we´re not sort of tanking as a product category so product project was cancelled but i wound up on a lot of interesting things at Microsoft leading product teams at MSN and on the windows team and then wound up working at Sony leaning product teams who launched Sony’s first digital music services and there i wound up at Above where i was part of the team that was helping Adobe transition from selling CD and DVD physical good business to a cloud-based business model with cloud-based services and so we launched a bunch of services around Adobe Creative Cloud and it was around that time that i really my entrepreneurial juices started flowing again and i was really i was kind of bored with software, to be honest it was just was pre iPhone or just the iPhone have just come out and it felt like we had sort of reached the peak of desktop applications and internet 2.0 and a friend of mine wanted to start a company focused on designing and physical products, the idea as to get consumers to shift away from bottled water to more sustainable solutions and we had this idea, basically creating the apple of personal hydration as we called it in the division was a line of reusable bottles that were very functional national fashionable portable filtration products and water enhancements, things that would allow you to enhance your water different flavorings or functional benefits like energy or nutritional functions, and so i quit Adobe to start this company in the middle of the financial crisis, people said i was crazy and i probably was, but we really caught fire we were like, the, i mean today you can buy designer water bottles everywhere, we were literally the first company to pioneer this concept and you know we were on fire four a couple three years products were featured in a bunch of movies and T.V shows, i don’t know if you remember the first Iron Man, second Iron Man, Tony Stark is drinking this vital live giving fluid from a very unusual container that was one of our water bottles and well, we didn’t pay a dime for that from that placement , and so i was learning about physical product and things like supply chains and inventory and helping grow this company but, i wasn’t really very good or very inspired by the world of physical products, i decided to go back into technology, i left day to day responsibilities of core that was the name of the company, did my own startup which was grupo dragon, your dragon was an online platform or mobile platform, that help people form what are called accountability groups, you probably would recognize these in the form of like an a Weight Watchers group, or alcoholics anonymous ,they are very good at helping people achieve their goals and so we built a platform that would allow you to join a group or form a group get a couch some great product lessons, there we you know company failed unlike core, and then started and then wound up working for another friends company we called cyanogen up in Silicon Valley for a couple years, some great product lessons there, and here and my next company, the company i have now, long story short right, is called Karen, and Karen stemmed from problem in my personal life, with my mom having dementia and some other issues that basically forced my family to become responsible for her care, and saw a lot of problems for people in that situation that i thought we could solve with technology platform so that’s as we´re building today, and so you know throughout all of this experience a lot of failures, some successes, a lot of scars, a lot of lessons, and like i said you know, that cracking the code is not easy right.
Tullio: And the topic because personally, i’m interested, because my moms undergoing some of that herself and her care something my brothers and i are definitely very attuned to, and so i’m interested in learning more about your company and how its solving helping folk theri challenge with that, today can you give us a little bit more about that, we’ve learned with a gave birth to this is Karen your mom, your moms name, so your name is that what.
Paul: Its not, its my co-founders, my co-founders aunts but.
Tullio: Tell us a little bit about how it works, what is it that you are solving.
Paul: Yeah, so we like to think of this as a guide that guides families through what we call the elder care journey, and so every family is at a different point on this journey , you know, your it starts, the journey starts so you know, with your mom, your dad, your aunt or uncle grandparent, now being healthy and independent at some point they become less independent, maybe there’s a diagnosis or an illness or just fragility, they move into a state of dependence maybe with home care or in assisted living you know typically then there’s another phases which is greater dependence greater fragility and then end of life, so the idea is we the platform guides you through each of these stages using a combination of software and human experts, there are three pillars to the platform, the first is what we call the action plan you fill out a short survey and it captures a wide range of information about your family situation and the person you are caring for and we have an algorithm that’s designed to mimic the recommendation of elder care experts, and the algorithm generates what we call an action plan, and its basically a set of task prioritized by the algorithm that you can then perform with your family members to get a handle on the situation or prepare for a situation that may be coming if your earlier in that stage that pillar one, pillar two is collaboration you can invite family members in, some light weight collaboration and project management tools for example you can take one of those tasks in your action plan and you can assign it to another family member they can set a due date, they can add notes, you can add notes back, you can have conversation about these task and then the third pillar is the human experts, instead we´re embedding basically an experts, marketplace right, within each of these task so for example, Carlos maybe you’re worried about your mom’s finances that she may be unable to manage those at some point so we might recommend you get a power of attorney to get ahead of that problem and you´ll get a task in your action plan and something you may want to tackle yourself will provide some self-service options but if you want to get help from an attorney you click a button and we have will recommend an attorney that you can work with, and actually collaborate with right from within the application to complete that particular task, so those are the three pillars of the product.
Tullio: Wow, that’s amazing, that you’ve created that and im curious related to the topic you´ve chosen today, what are some of the lessons are applying in that design in that evolution of that product, so like what’s work i mean, people use lean start. Lean methodologies canvas, i mean what are you Oscar Wilde what’s working up and courtesy of what’s working for you.
Paul: That’s really great, it’s a great question, i’m just i´ll just point out that the third pillar is launching next month, so we haven’t launched that yet, so lets answer your other question i would characterize what we’ve done is as definitely lean, i’m a big and here engoh leans startup also i would say where we´re using all the design thinking methodologies you know it’s another buzzword with, with regard to lean and what we did was we tried to very disciplined in that in terms of that build measure learn cycle that lean is really all about so, the build part for us was we built in MVP in and it was completely under the radar but we shared it in a Facebook campaign so we had some hypotheses you know that’s another big part of the lean methodology, it some hypotheses about the market we were going after and how they would use the product and how they would they would like the product, and responded to the product, so we tested those hypotheses by recruiting actual families, who had these elder care issues on in a facebook campaign, and of course the product MVP we built was instrumented, you know we could see exactly what our conversion was where the friction points were in the funnel we had a set of KPIs that we could measure for all of these all these users who were coming in through a campaign to see if our hypotheses were correct, so we actually went through three cycles of those, that build measure learn cycle we did three facebook campaign each time we made corrections to the product improvements to the product and we could see these KPIs improving to the point where we felt we were ready to do a public beta, so that’s sort of the lean aspect in a nutshell to what we did and if you like i can talk about some of the other methodologies we employed around design thinking.
Tullio: Yeah,i’d love to learn somewhere, i mean our audience is always looking for unique ways to apply design, i think it’s interesting, ten years ago people put out software, the design was like an afterthought, which was a huge mistake right, that was before everybody had apps, Amazon and everything else that makes life somewhat simpler today and those consumer apps you know kind of raise the bar and what the customer experience should look like so now its really unacceptable for software to look like green bars back in a day so always so always look curious to learn new trick, new lessons, new ways or even proven ways that people were looked.
Paul: Yeah, it’s your point i mean the bar is very high but i’m a firm believer in this saying that you i’ll hear a lot which is that you´are not embarrassed by your MVP then you spend too much time in it on it, and it’s something personally that’s really hard for me to follow because i’m a perfectionist i love design but.
Tullio: Hang on, hang on, repeat that again if you like.
Paul: If you´re not embarrassed while you’re by your MVP if you’re not embarrassed by it, you spent to much time or money on it
Carlos: Actually i was going to ask you to repeat that because it’s a very very very [INAUDIBLE] quote.
Tullio: Usually [INAUDIBLE] did i hear that right, usually if you´re like okay, so if you´re not embarrassed by your MVP its means you spend too much time on it.
Paul: Yeah the MVP is supposed to.
Tullio: You should be embarrassed.
Paul: Yeah, and you know when i look back on the initial designs that we launched with and in that first campaign they’re pretty hideous but you know, the lesson there was, they did the job, they helped us prove and disprove a set of hypothesis, hypotheses, that we had at the time and allowed us to move to the next phase you know, the other thing that they did , that the MVP did was it gave us confidence that we were on the right path like and you know big part of lean as you know is don’t get too attached to your idea, you know, the business model, the design whatever it is even the problem you´re solving we were pretty attached to this these three pillars that i talked about earlier and we but we were ready to pivot but know what, we saw by building that MVP in teste it was, yeah we were on the right path so, you asked me to talk about some of the other methodologies we used so usability studies were a big part of this afet each of these iterations we not only looked the metrics but we also did usability studies and we did those online for the most part with some great tools , usability hub and usertesting.com really found those effective and we also did interview, we you know, we recruited some of the users of interviews and got a lot of good more qualitative data and you know even before we launched the MVP when we were in the design phase when did what we called customer discovery which is basically interviews, and you know those are all super helpful.
Tullio: You´re speaking a language that our header product is on Misael Leon would be very proud of because that’s one of the thing here on nearsoft office we do feasibility studies research which a lot of companies seem to forget how important that is like how do you design something without understanding how your users are going to interact whether they have an interest in it, what are you disrupting so definitely speaking our language here, appreciate that, what do you noticed in terms of pushback from i mean, are you finding working with engineers that they often have trouble with that design thinking is that shifting now, what are you seeing?
Paul: With engineers that’s interesting , well so what you know my main engineering partner is my co-founder and he’s a brilliant guy who’s completely bought in, i would say you know, that the tension may be as follows, engineers want to build and you know, a good product manager or designer wants once that software development process to unfold a little bit more slowly so you have time to do all the research and testing that may not even require software, you can do fantastic test with mock-ups even paper prototypes, when right, so yeah, i think that’s your question you know maybe the tension is engineers want to build and designers hopefully want to go more slowly, and that the tension to exist i think.
Tullio: Interesting, so how do you balance that?
Paul: Yeah balance that right.
Tullio: In your experience.
Paul: So i would say we probably overbuilt because you know, my engineering team my CTO won more arguments than i did and well see how that plays out you kno, the reason he won the arguments largely was because you could say well we have these engineers already building , you know if we hit pause now we might not be able to get them back right, or when they do come back, they won’t be as productive so we should just keep going and you know, in a lot of cases i felt confident in the roadmap looking back on the development cycle id say well i was probably overconfident because we built something we probably should have built later should have been pushed down on the roadmap and as a result there’s some features that should have been built earlier, who knows how you know how it plays out in the end, but i, you know i can look back and see that debate and maybe they were maybe it was ultimately a bad idea to give up on that on those arguments.
Tullio: That’s an interesting observation and experience there’s a few of us who ve been talking about [INAUDIBLE] sort take a life of their own right, you have to, the minute you have an organization to sustain it and keep feeding it into you know maintaining it so you kind of lose purpose because you’re not purpose driven your organization was driven right, so some of us believe that the future design will be more purpose-driven with just why you’re gonna have a lot more freelance and sort of this lfui in and out of approach of thing, where are your thoughts around that do yo0 think that would solve that dilemma, so long-term?
Paul: I think that would awesome, right, if we could get engineers into this mindset that we´re gonna have to pause at certain points and whatever is that your building needs to be modular enough to be able to come back to you, you know when we have enough data i, so, its that just one one to think about it but then you know obviously if you have marketing folks and you have finance folks i mean, they’re all putting pressure on you as well to build so how do you build an organization that is completely let’s call it, you know design centered, i’d love to try that we should talk more about that idea.
Tullio: Yeah, yes well i was having conversation around the fact that most organizations are still embedded in the assembly line methodology back in the you know, four days and ultimately be purpose driven, there is an organization but that’s a whole other conversation for another day, any questions do we have from the audience, this is a great topic looks like you really understand the constant challenges around design and you´ve given some great tips here any question from the audience Carlos that we want to give Paul access to Paul.
Carlos: Well only one actually its from one of our guys here hold one one second, and, excuse me, now this is coming here through slack by the way actually it is coming from Jorge Simons or our social media expert, and Jorge is asking, why do you think the markets are ready for what you´re offering.
Paul: Why do we think the markets are ready for what we are offering?
Paul: Yeah, a few reasons that i’ll preface this by saying i don’t think the mass market is what we´ve seen over the past five years is that basically people in their 50s and 60s and late 40s are adopting technology at a greater rate, they’re using facebook every day and at the office, now they’re using like salesforce and [INAUDIBLE] can when they plan travel or using travelocity or Kayaking though and there are the people who are caring for elderly parent right now, they’re often referred to as the Sandwich Generation because they have kids of their own so they’re sandwiched between caring for their kid and parents and you know 10 years ago or 15 years ago technology platform like Karen would have had a smaller addressable market because again people in their forties, fifties and sixties we´re just lost left adopting technology at a slower rate, you know it’s one reason we think the market is ready or at least the early adopters, another reason is the growth in the elderly population is projected to double and where it is today in just 15 years and you know another reason is more more families who are opting to what’s called age in place so assisted living is becoming a less desirable outcome and elderly folks teen years want to stay at home which places a lot more burden on families then they basically have to manage finances and home care and healthcare so tools like Karen are going become increasingly important as that trend unfolds.
Tullio: I think those like that fantastic actually want to thank you for building that, do you think that this could also be used for other care i mean like there’s other handicaps for example.
Paul: Yeah we do.
Tullio: Anything there could be adults for example who have autism that needs some kind of support, how it that, there’s something that could be used there too?
Paul: Yeah absolutely there are a couple of companies in space which are focused on helping families and have children with disabilities so just think is what you´re referring to and you know that they are employing some planning tools that are somewhat similar to Karen , and that’s its a market that we’d like to get into someday but all the solving you need the eldercare, its plenty for us right now.
Tullio: Yeah i hear you, okay, all right we´re coming up on time it always happens when we’re starting to get really in the thick of it but thank you guys have [INAUDIBLE] Dulce or Carlos.
Dulce: Continue on and on with the topic and i think it’s very interesting what you’re doing Paul, i did some research on the platform that you’re working on and its incredible i mean i can identify because of experience with my family so it will be great that we could have that access here in Mexico it will be great so thank you Paul for joining us today, i don’t know if you have any last words of wisdom for our audience that we would like to share.
Carlos: Yes please.
Paul: Well here’s one there are a lot of methodologies out there and buzzwords in the product design world and they’re all great living in a very exciting time all this great thinking but i would urge founders not to get distracted it really comes down justo to a few simple rules, like know your customer, ok, build something that at least one foldable are gonna love you don’t want to serve all of them and we did the lean methodology which is building MVP measure your success and then either in a build, measure learn this, go slowly and have fun.
Dulce: Awesome, thank you so Carlos can you please tell us what’s coming up for next session of DojoLive!?
Tullio: [INAUDIBLE] the proper being with us today for sure.
Carlos: Absolutely, now before we actually before we sign off and let you go Paul just a quick announcement about this, about next week on DojoLive! We are going to be speaking with, hold on one second, let me just check it here, with John, Jonathan Chow from BeeToken, Beetoken is a platform that seeks to reinvent the home sharing economy by building a middleman free appears to be your network of hosts and guest on the centralized web in the top page is gonna be the rise of enterprise and blockchain in the travel industry, so that’s next week’s topic and that’s gonna happen on Wednesday at 1pm Pacific so that you know folks make a note of it, Wednesday 1 p.m. Pacif i´ll see you next weekend, that being said Dulce back to you for wrap up please.
Dulce: So thank you Paul for joining us today it was a great time we could schedule another session because we still had a lot of questions that we wanted to ask you so thank you it was great to see you, thank you guys Carlos and Tullio for joining us today and thank you our audience for always being here with us we´re gonna have a lot of more gun this year so and thank you have a great day, and see you next time.
Carlos: See you next time.