Access matters, Dave Wilkins believes. “[It’s] a critical ingredient to entrepreneurial and career success,” he says. “If you don’t have access to the right type of person to bounce around ideas or get guidance, you will not be as successful as someone who does have access.”
But access isn’t available to anyone equally. That’s why Wilkin founded Ten Thousand Coffees, a platform that allows users to connect with leaders in a variety of fields. Ten Thousand Coffees now has far more users than its name suggests, and its platform is being used by more than 25 FORTUNE 500 companies, as well as not-for-profit organizations like the SIPO Foundation.
Here’s what Wilkin learned while building Ten Thousand Coffees.
Problems matter more than solutions
Product development can take on a logic all of its own, warns Wilkin. “You construct a solution that you think is really great, but you forget what the problem is,” he observes.
Ten Thousand Coffee’s big pivot came when the team realized it had to step away from automating mentorship to re-focus on what had motivated the platform in the first place: making access to people better. “Get obsessed with the problem and not the solution,” advises Wilkin.
Focus on more than money
Ten Thousand Coffees had plenty of opportunities to get paid, but Wilkin believed that it’s free-to-use model needed to be maintained. “We always would say No’ because they didn’t actually build our value proposition,” he says.
Instead, the company was looking for a revenue model that actually added value for ordinary users. Wilkin chose to license the Ten Thousand Coffees platform to companies and organizations, allowing those institutions to engage their employees and members, and adding more people to the overall community.
“Make sure that the revenue model doesn’t cannibalize the value of your company to your users,” says Wilkin.
A question of timing
Facebook has made a habit of releasing products, then improving them in real time, and Wilkin says that “Zuckerberg principle” applies to any get-to-market strategy. “If you’ve launched it and it feels perfect, you’ve launched it too late,” Wilkin says.
Watching users actually interact with your product will teach you an incredible amount about what needs improving and where you need to be headed. “So often when people are innovating, they continuously over-architect the idea to be perfect,” observes Wilkin. “What’s more important is [to figure] out what the leanest potential solution is to a problem, and just get it out into the market.”
Build it and they will come
Ten Thousand Coffees is now the largest peer-to-peer mentoring program in the world, according to Wilkin, and it got there without spending a whole lot of time on publicity and marketing. “Our big focus has been on building a really great product, and if people have a really great experience with the product [then] they just naturally refer people,” he says.
Ignore what they say they want
Mentors are hot right now—employees and entrepreneurs have been told they need one, and leaders that they need to be one. But Wilkin says when given the opportunity to form a mentorship relationship, most people don’t want it.
The problem, Wilkin says, is that people don’t want the fixed-term version of mentorship, in which mentor and mentee interact in a regular, prescribed way. “In real-time people wanted to go and ask somebody questions or go find a way to open a a door, but they didn’t want a mentor,” he says.
So Ten Thousand Coffees based its platform on what its users really wanted, not what they said they wanted. It reinvented the mentorship relationship as a single coffee meeting, rather than a six-month schedule of interactions. “We [needed] to change the expectation of what’s required of a relationship, and people will naturally make that more successful,” Wilkin says.
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