This is a series of three posts that explain the story behind iomando from different perspectives: design, business and technology. These have always been my main areas of concern as a co-founder and product owner of the company, so I thought it might be a good idea to write them down and recap some of the work we’ve done the last years.
I’ve already written extensively about iomando: product announcements, company vision, business strategy, design decisions, fundraising, you name it… But these series are not intended to cover each step we’ve made along the way. Instead, they aim to structure some of the most relevant content and then briefly elaborate on the key ideas behind each domain. Think of it as the indispensable summary you should read if you really want to understand the company.
In this article I’ll focus on the design, not pixel perfection, but at a broader level we’ll explore the nature of the problem we are trying to solve at iomando.
Version 2 Behind the Scenes - Reasoning behind some of the design and product decisions we have taken in the iomando version 2.
Thoughts on Vision - New opportunities showed up as we explored the market, and how this helped us understand the true nature of our business.
Focus - The challenges that focus presents when you are first to the market and the potential harm this can do to your business.
Plastic for Bits - The underlying principle that enables every single feature iomando has.
API iomando - Introducing the license program that will allow third parties to integrate or build upon our access technology.
Metrics - How we measure success at iomando.
Hard Choices - The tensions that arose because of the conflicted interests of our vertical and horizontal strategies.
From Mobile to Web - Why we transitioned from a mobile app to a web based management tool.
Brand Redesign - A whole new design for our brand.
Version 3 Behind the Scenes - Reasoning behind some of the design and product decisions we have taken in the iomando version 3.
Solving a meaningful problem
In order to understand the company, we have to look back at the early days, its foundation. Meaningful products (or companies) are all about identifying real problems. So when it comes to build a great product you have to deeply understand the problem first. Only then, after you have felt in love with the problem, not the solution, you can deliver the best experience in order to solve it.
If you have already jumped into the solution, without profound understanding of the problem, you might be biased or influenced by this thing you already have in mind. That's why great products start with a clean slate and are not constrained by any previous assumptions.
Curious thing is that iomando started the other way around. By the end of 2011 I had built a device that could be triggered remotely, and we rushed to find a place where it could fit in. It was a clear recipe for failure. But we were fortunate enough that the journey itself unveiled new opportunities - that we were not even aware they existed - where our product could really deliver great value.
Because of that, what started as a support function to enable other business models, like park sharing, evolved to a product itself aimed to households and small communities. But it was not until the moment we understood the strengths of the underlying technology and the true nature of the market, that we couldn’t figure out what was the reason for us to exist.
Why people bought our product?
As you might know, iomando provides access control services through mobile devices. Instead of using keys and remotes, we do the job with our phone, which by the way is already with us and is more capable than a key would never be.
In our sales pitch and marketing material we always talk about security, cost reduction, management, ease of use, even how cool it is. But you'll hardly hear the deeper cause, the reason why all of this is even possible.
The answer to that is: we are replacing plastic for bits.
That’s all there is. As simple and easy as it sounds, there's really no more to it. Our business thrives under this premise. Everything else is just a consequence of this underlying principle. It may seem like a subtle detail, but it makes all the difference.
Maybe our customers are not directly buying because of this, but they are buying the consequences of it. Therefore, understanding the cause, was the first step to realize why our customers were valuing our proposition. This led us to articulate what was really setting us apart from our competitors, what made us unique:
- Creating additional units of capacity at no cost.
- Distributing those units also at no cost.
Put it in other words, while our competitors are manufacturing and distributing physical keys and remotes, we were just sending ones and zeros through the air. By definition this is what software does and by selling to households and small communities we were not reaping the benefits of such scale.
We had to rethink who could really benefit from this, which environment could set up the place to turn this untapped potential in a huge competitive advantage. Our quest inevitably led us to large organizations, where thousands of people where randomly accessing every day. Think of city councils, industrial areas, harbors, large communities… there we were solving a huge problem. The larger the place was, the most iomando shined.
Managers of these places were struggling to keep track of keys and remotes and were spending a lot of money buying these pieces of plastic. Our solution solved both problems: with iomando keys weren't actually bought, because they were digital, and the distribution was instantaneous and traceable, in real time. Therefore, customers saw in our product a way to save money, while at the same time, take control over access management.
Building for the new Reality
The moment we realized who was really benefiting from our product we truly understood what was the problem we had to design around. Once again, we iterated on the solution, but this time we shifted our strategy to enhance this idea of scale.
Our technology shined the most when it was operating at a large scale. Our product works well in small places like houses or shops, because our technology unlocks some things that are not possible with old keys and remotes. But we are not solving a real problem in there, we are just more convenient.
We struggled so much understanding what was our true north. Because our technology fits within a lot of use cases it has persuaded us to be a jack of all trades, but we ended up being master of none. That’s the kind of mistake you can’t afford when you are starting up. Sadly, we learned that the hard way, there were really bad moments, but fortunately we could straighten the situation.
In order to fulfill our vision for a better access experience leveraging mobile technologies we needed reach, reach beyond our current current capabilities. We knew our vision was ambitious, but we also acknowledged the constraints under we were operating. We were pushing for a huge change, and if we wanted to grow at a much larger scale, we were going to need a ton of help.
So, instead of competing with everybody and make a painful battle out of every little sale, we thought it was a smarter decision to join efforts and build an environment where all parties could benefit from.
Unfortunately, the tools we had available were not up for the job. Our vertically integrated product was fantastic for end users, but it was not designed to reap the benefits of the scale that the opportunity we were chasing presented. Despite the product was selling well and we were growing fast, we made the boldest decision we’ve ever made in the history of iomando. We did a 180º turn and allocated our resources on building an access platform from the ground up, a new license program that would allow third parties to integrate or build upon our access technology.
Looking back, it seems that it was a good decision and our horizontal strategy is paying off. It didn’t came without a price though. Tensions arose and, mostly at the beginning, the transition and the reeducation of the company as a whole was one of the hardest challenges we’ve ever faced at iomando.
Once your incentives are clear, making decisions is rather easy. The path to understanding of what you stand for is hard, specially if your foundation is messy. It took us almost two full years to truly understand who was getting the most value from our product, who’s problem we were really solving.
I don’t pretend to have an absolute truth in here, but I’m more certain that we are closer to it than four years ago. Building products and solving your customer’s problems is a journey of discovery and full of uncertainty, and chances are that you'll never get there.
During my years at iomando I understood that design is a much more profound concept than "how it looks”. To me, design means falling in love with the problem. You are really designing when you break the problem down to pieces and get to the roots of it. Because getting features out of the door is an easy task, but getting the right ones, the ones that are really solving a problem in a meaningful way, that is hard.
Yet this precise thing, the joy of building great products and putting them in the hands of people is the ultimate reason why I started this company. And my job, everyday, is to just try to instill this enthusiasm to every single corner of iomando.
 Credit for the quote to Ben Thompson, it is brilliant.