Bad Serves, Good Serves, and Tiny Habits: How to Disrupt an Entrenched Behavior

October 28, 2013

1:27 pm

When I was a kid, I was friends with two brothers, Tommy and Johnny. When we were 12, Tommy, the big brother, got into tennis, and after he’d been playing for awhile, Johnny followed suit. Once they were both playing, their parents—delighted that their sons were now competing on a court in a game with clear rules and minimal physical interaction instead of in no-holds-barred Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reenactments in the living room—sprung for tennis camp, and Tommy and Johnny disappeared for a month to learn the finer points of the game.

When they got back, I teased Tommy, asking if Johnny was better than he was now. Tommy shook his head and said matter-of-factly: “No, but he will be.” In a rare moment of adolescent self-reflection, Tommy told me that he still beat his brother 9 times out of 10, but that eventually his brother would be the better player. Why, I wondered? Because he would outgrow Tommy and be bigger, stronger? Tommy shook his head again. “I learned to serve kind of on my own. Johnny really only learned at camp. So for the last couple of years, I’ve been perfecting a bad serve, and now Johnny is practicing a good serve. I still win, because I have the best possible version of my bad serve, but once Johnny gets good at the good serve, it’s over.”

I bring this up because it’s a pretty spot-on analogy for the relationship between startups and the big established companies in the fields that they are disrupting. Startups are like Johnny, the little brother. We come in with a new, better way of doing things—“the good serve”—but that doesn’t guarantee overnight success. The dinosaurs are still bigger, stronger, and for years have been perfecting their bad serve.

At Speek, we are changing the way people make conference calls. Instead of dialing in with a PIN, our users can go to a simple URL (a la and join a call instantaneously. We believe our way is better, a lot better, for a variety of reasons. But at the end of the day, we are a seed-stage startup company with 16 employees, breaking into an industry crowded with some of the largest corporations in the world. And these competitors have had many years and many millions of dollars to develop the best possible version of their bad serve.

So what does that mean for startups? While you are still improving, growing, perfecting your good serve, how do you convince users that the product or experience you provide is an improvement on what’s offered by the competition?

At Speek, we’ve taken to heart the “tiny habits” strategy pioneered by Dr. BJ Fogg, director of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford. Dr. Fogg noticed something that’s universally true about people: it’s a lot easier to make small, incremental changes to your behavior than it is to make big sweeping changes. Oftentimes, when we get inspired to change our lifestyles (get in shape, quit smoking, stop procrastinating), we try desperately to make radical changes, sprinting to the finish line before our limited supply of self control is dried up (hence crash diets and marathon sessions at the gym, quitting cold turkey, and setting your alarm at 5am and chaining yourself to your desk). But this is almost always a recipe for failure: the gains made early on when motivation is high are almost always lost when that motivation is exhausted, and we revert to our original, bad behaviors (i.e. back to being a couch potato with a full ashtray who watches another episode of Duck Dynasty instead of getting to that PowerPoint that needs revising).

And so Dr. Fogg’s “tiny habits” strategy was born. Fogg uses a simple equation, B=mat (Behavior = Motivation x Ability x Trigger) to show when we are successful at changing our habits. The first three variables are pretty self-explanatory, and “triggers” are those specific desires that spur us to change (wanting to lose weight before a wedding, for example). If any one of those three is sufficiently high, it’s possible for behavior to change, but the best way to get someone to change their behavior is by making something easier (i.e. increasing their ability) and providing additional triggers (like offering incentives or discounts for a new product).

This translates into offering users clear benefits, while also making it very easy to switch from the old way of doing things, by offering incremental changes that can help them segue seamlessly from their old behaviors.

For example, at Speek, as mentioned above, we offer a web-based conference call experience, which is substantially different than the dial-in conference calls that customers are used to. To ease this transition, we offer—as an alternative to joining the call through their browser—a button offering a phone number and PIN so that they can join the old-fashioned way. This allows them to feel “safe” trying the new way, because they know that if they find it confusing or it doesn’t work, they can always do it the old way. Over time, we see users take this option less and less, as joining the call the new way becomes their new, default behavior.

As an example of creating a new trigger, we knew that one of the worst experiences of the old dial-in method is when you are trying to do it on the go, via a mobile phone. Our smartphone app features “single button click” access, making joining a call from your smartphone even easier relative to the old-fashioned way. This added incentive makes switching to Speek even more attractive. By making our product easier to use (increasing ability) and providing particular improvements to problematic scenarios (adding triggers) we allow users to take baby steps toward a permanent switch.

By understanding “tiny habits,” we’ve been able to convert users in the least disruptive, most painless way possible. By teaching our users a new way to do conference calls incrementally, we are able to convince a growing number of them that our way is better. And meanwhile, we work relentlessly to continue to improve our own product—like Tommy’s little brother Johnny, we keep on practicing our good serve.

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Danny Boice is the CTO of Speek - a 500 Startups-funded startup that lets users do conference calls with a simple link ( rather than using phone numbers and PINs. A serial startup/technology entrepreneur and executive, Danny started his career as a software engineer working for startups like Network Solutions and in the 90′s. You can find Danny on Twitter @DannyBoice.

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