ShelfLuv’s Pek Pongpaet on Listening to your Heart

So much of business, it seems, is about satisfying someone else's needs. For whatever reason, an entrepreneur's needs don't necessarily always overlap with those of their customers, which can result in a catastrophic disconnect between supplier and demander. It doesn't always have to be this why, and Pek Pongpaet is a great reminder of this.

The local self-proclaimed "hack of all trades" is a huge tech and book nerd, and after taking an idea that combined those passions in a coding competition last year he used the momentum to launch ShelfLuv. It's a website that allows users to share what they read with friends, which is an idea that's certainly been done before, but hardly this smoothly. It combines Instant technology (think of Google Instant's immediate results while you type) with social networking to help make an online facsimile of browsing a buddy's bookshelf.

I gave Pongpaet a call to discuss why entrepreneurs don't listen to their hearts as often as they should, how they can do so better, and the challenges ShelfLuv faces. (Note: If you want to join ShelfLuv, Pongpaet has created an invite code to Inc. Well readers -- simply plug in "incwell" as your invite code when registering.)

In a blog post you wrote last year, you talked about how you made ShelfLuv because it's something you really wanted but didn't see anyone else doing. It seems obvious that people should make things they want under the assumption others do as well, but it feels like that doesn't happen that often. Why do you think that is?

Pek Pongpaet: I guess there's a couple reasons. I think a lot of people look at trends. They look at an Angry Birds and they want to get quick so they think of an idea similar to that. Or if they're a business, they look at Groupon and all the Groupon clones. They might not even care about the deal space until they figure they should do something like that. Like you said, though, they're not really scratching their own itch. They're just looking at trends, what's popular, and following the herd.

What advice would you offer to those who don't want to follow the herd?

PP: I've done a couple apps and a couple websites that are scratching my own itch. My advice is to start as small as possible. Don't over complicate it. People might have a grand vision of what their their site or app is going to look like. Don't do that. Chop as much as possible off. Basically tone down the idea and get that out into the market and see what people think. That's just gonna cut time off and get it out the door. The sooner you can get it out the door you can learn what people like about it or what they don't like about it.

There's a term minimum viable product, the minimum version that you can still call your product -- do that, and get it out the door. It's not gonna be the prettiest or exactly as you envision it, but at least you'll learn stuff. The sooner you learn stuff, what your users like, what they have in common with you, the closer you are.

That's what happened with ShelfLuv. It was a hackathon project. I did it at a coding contest in less than 48 hours, and all it was at the time was type search and get an instant shelf of books as you typed, like Google Instant. That's all it was. It didn't do anything else. Because people really liked that, I built on top of it.

ShelfLuv is a website, but if folks are thinking of doing an iOS or Android app, in your opinion should they charge for it or give it away if they're adhering to the minimum viable product concept?

PP: If you're doing an app, you can do wireframes and mockups and test your ideas there and show it to people and ask if they'll use it. You can load it up as photos onto your iPhone. Just kinda take people through the screenshots and show them, "This is what would happen if you did this."

If it passes that you should do a really barebones-minimum interactive prototype. Just take it a step at a time. In the end you have to get it out there and my recommendation is, yeah, go free first. Maybe free for a week and learn what the reviews say. Another thing is when you launch an app you get 60 free codes that you can give out to people. Give those codes out and ask for some feedback. Just anyone who's willing to try your stuff.

What research did you do after deciding you wanted to follow the idea for ShelfLuv further than just being a concept?

PP: I knew I liked books, so I looked at what cool products were out there. I was really inspired by iBooks, the whole bookshelf interface. It's gotten to the point where if you look at Amazon's website, I mean it works for them, but visually it looks really cluttered. Their goal is to upsell. "Look at this product! By the way, look at this product." You're bombarded. It's like going into a shopping mall. I just wanted to concentrate the experience on the books you're looking for and give you a really nice experience as if you were walking into a bookstore and can see books on a shelf.

I walked into a couple bookstores for inspiration, other apps, and other instant products to see how they did stuff. To quote Picasso, "Good artists copy; great artists steal." But then you need to make it your own, of course.

How has ShelfLuv's popularity compared to what your initial hopes for it when it launched in September last year?

PP: We have over 2,000 registered users who have added over 20,000 books, so that's kinda cool. About 10 books a person. Some people are super-users, adding 200 books, some people add less. But it works out to about 10 books per user.

I've been very lucky because I did the instant part at a coding contest and I won. I got to present it onstage and it was actually a very big event full of entrepreneurs and actually there was some writers and reporters, so they wrote about the event and also mentioned all the people who presented and their products. I got mentioned quite a lot, ShelfLuv got mentioned quite a lot. We got some initial traffic there, and people really liked it. With that in mind, I thought, "Well, what can we do with this?"

One of my own things is I like to be able to show my books. One of the things I like to do when I go to other people's homes is look at their bookshelves. I think a lot of people, not just me, like to do this. It's just a way to connect and peek into people's personalities. With books going digital, and now you don't really go to people's homes, you don't really experience that experience very often. This was my way of taking that online. 

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