All posts filed under “business

When to speak up

“Rooting for your team to fail is as bad as it sounds. Even if you said early and often that this path was a stupid one, that this destination makes no sense–if you’re on the plane, if you’re in the meeting, if you decided to play the game–then once the journey starts, your job is to get us there, safe and sound.”

I’m 100% guilty of this. I will bitch and moan like there’s no tomorrow and often when it’s too late to actually do anything. It’s better to make the most of a bad situation rather than doom everything to failure. It’s not helpful and doesn’t do anyone any favours.

Why I’ve gone off VC

When starting a new “startup”, the most likely course of action is MVP, VC, Exit, Profit! For NewsTrapper we were thinking of going down the YCombinator/TechStars route, but at the last minute decided to try bootstrapping it ourselves.

The main reason is that I think there are a lot of valuable lessons to learn trying to go through the whole process of bootstrapping with very little budget, but another factor is that recently I’ve been turned off the idea of VC. One of the main motivators for wanting to create my own business is to be my own boss. While fame and fortune are nice goals, more than anything I want to have freedom to do what I want. When you take VC you basically have a new boss. I don’t want to report to anyone. To have to go to meetings, produce presentations and seek the approval of others before I can make any decisions. Perhaps it’s old age that’s made me more drawn to freedom than money.

Do what matters most

Something that I find a real struggle is staying focused on developing features that actually matter to the end user. Working on NewsTrapper it’s extremely easy to continually work on the more technical Solr/NLP side of things, after all that’s the real heart of the system and where all the challenging work is. The trouble is, improving that part of the system isn’t what’s holding us back from being able to launch. The point of an MVP is to have the minimum features possible for it to be useable. It doesn’t matter if our indexing is terrible as long as someone can come along and use the system in some form of intended fashion.

I find it really useful to review what it is I’m working on and what actually needs to be done almost constantly. Many times I’ll actually drop what I’m doing and move onto something less appealing, but more pressing. Break your system down and answer the question of “What does a user need to achieve their goal?” and do the bare minimum, no matter how bad, to deliver that. If you’re doing a small private beta then it doesn’t have to be perfect, it just needs to prove the point and confirm whether your idea is useful or not.

Don’t spend money to start your business

You’ve got a new business, you need to get it off the ground, what do you do? Do you spend money on advertising, marketing, sales? No! It’s easy to sit and think you’re doomed because you don’t have a budget. But that is not how small businesses get off the ground. The only expenditure you need to make is one that is paid for in blood, sweat and tears. There are countless examples of businesses that are now huge successes and that started with no money. Don’t waste money on flyers, direct mail campaigns and expensive advertising. Pick up the phone and talk to people. It’s horrible and it sucks, but that’s the price of not having any money to spend in the first place.

I once worked with a group of people who thought that spending nearly £14k on a glass partition for the office we were going to move into would get the investor’s juices flowing. There was a bad culture of spending money there. The company soon folded and we never did move into the new office.

If you’re not shipping, you’re sinking

Shipping is not easy. Shipping might actually be the hardest part of creating anything. When the moment comes to ship your head is filled with questions and doubts (Thanks Lizard Brain). “What if I’ve made mistakes?” “What if I’ve missed something?” “What if there are bugs?” “What if no one likes what I’ve done?” “Oh if I could just get this extra feature in.” This fear makes shipping hard and as a consequence we push back and back and back. But by doing so we only expose ourselves to ever increasing risk. The risk that there’ll be too many features to debug, the risk that there’ll be too many unknown things to fix, the risk that we’ve been trying to solve the wrong problem all along.

I’ve shipped enough broken deployments that I no longer worry too much about bugs or broken builds. Yes, I’ve had users complain multiple times about things I’ve broken. But, more times then not, getting a half arsed solution out the door quickly has answered more questions and solved more problems then stalling and trying to do something perfectly.

Don’t be afraid of shipping and don’t hold back. No matter what you do, you will never get it right. The wonderful thing about the world is we always have tomorrow to try again.

Boring work is important work

Whether your starting a new project, company, job etc, you all too easily get caught up in the initial whirlwind of getting things off the ground. It’s exciting creating that new empty git repository, making your first few initial commits and hobbling together the start of what you imagine to be the next startup success story. Then a few weeks in that excitement fades and you’re faced with an ever-increasing mountain of tedious and boring things that need to be done. The project soon becomes boring and the temptation to jump ship and work on the next exciting idea rears its head like an itch that screams to be scratched.

No one will ever tell you that 90% of the work that you’ll need to put in will be boring. That you’ll have to grind out immensely boring things to move towards your goal of completing your project. That’s why so many startups fall by the way-side. That’s why there are so many projects on Github that once showed immense promise, but now just sit abandoned as a sea of issues and pull-requests mount up.

The ones who make it aren’t the ones that are doing the exciting work, it’s the ones that can face up to the challenge of seeing things through until the end.

Your project’s most boring work, will sometimes turn out to be your project’s most important work.

Why I’m Doing It All Wrong

The only thing that I’ve ever done right in my life is to doggedly pursue the things that I’m interested in. To the detriment of everything else. No matter what anyone else says.

Pursuing my interests regardless of what anyone says has worked well for me. I’m naturally interested in business. I’m naturally interested in coding and design. I’m naturally interested in writing.

And so my goal is this: to be able to do those things sustainably, for the rest of my life.

That, in a nutshell, is why I do this every day.

I initially skipped over this post, but I’m glad I went back and read it. Exactly the sort of things that run through my mind. It’s so easy to get caught up in the startup frenzy, that if your product isn’t social, free, an app or whatever, that you’re doing it wrong. The startup way is a lottery. One where most players number one and only goal is to get funded, that somehow somehow once we do that, the rest will be easy.

I just want to sell products to customers and make money that old fashioned way. It’s easy to forget that the number of businesses making money (and lots of it) day in day out far out weigh the number of businesses winning the startup game. We just don’t hear about them, because making money is out of fashion.

Successful people are successful

…always optimise for personal growth, for building your “success pool” that you can leverage to go from smaller successes to bigger successes. Steer away from choices that reduce this personal asset.

Excellent article on what it take to be successful. When we were working on our startups, we always shoot for the stars. Every bet was an all or nothing one, where revenue and profits were problems for the future. A lot of those decisions were out of our hands, while we always believed that first priority should always have been making enough money to keep our heads above water, rather than living on borrowed time.

The Lean Startup

I finally finished reading The Lean Startup. The main gist is that we need to be creating fast feedback loops for products/changes we make, so that we can quickly see what is and isn’t working. It’s a good extension of what to do once you have you minimum-viable product up and running, as it’s easy to fall into the trap of just adding features, without actually adding any value. I especially liked the parts on doing a cohort study of your users. Instead of measuring figures like engagement as a total for a specific time, you would track engagement for people who signed up in January only, then sign ups in February, then March, etc. This gives you a better picture of whether you’re actually improving your service or only appearing to improve because of growing figures.

Overall the book wasn’t too bad. I felt that perhaps the first half was a lot more “actionable” and my interest fell off once past the half way point, so I ended up just steaming through after that. Definitely worth reading if you’re in the startup arena though.

I’ll be getting another copy soon anyways as I’ll be seeing Eric talk when he comes to London in January.

Iceberg features

Iceberg features are where on the surface they seem small and simple while backed by a huge un-seeable chunks of functionality and processes. Like their real counterpart they come in many different shapes and sizes. From the “Oh, just add an extra field to this form”, which in-fact impacts the business logic, to “Just copy this feature on site X”, without taking into consideration the processes that go on behind the scenes. I’m sure we’ve all experienced the first sort of “small change” problem before, but the second one is a lot more subtle and easy to miss.

A lot of sites successful implement a “invite your friends” feature, which grabs a user’s address book and messages each of them asking them to join. The simplistic way of copying the functionality is to think that the road to success is simply grabbing the needed details and messaging them, thinking that what makes the functionality successful starts with the form and stops with the initial message. That’s just the tip of the feature iceberg. Is it successful for another site as they have a planned out set of campaign emails they send out to an invited person, with timed followups and different possible campaign routes depending on a user’s reactions. It may well be that having a naive imitation of the feature is better than not having one at all, but it’s the compromise of deciding what to do. Is a poorly imitated, half implemented and thought out feature better than a smaller, but more complete and well thought out one.

Monkeys in a cage

Five monkeys are caged together and there are some bananas hanging from the top of the cage. Some scientists attach an automated device for sensing if the bananas are moved; once a monkey tries to get any, an electric shock travels through the cage so that all monkeys get shocked. In the beginning, a single monkey climbs up to the bananas, touches them and every monkey gets shocked. So he doesn’t try anymore, but the other four monkeys try the same thing and the result comes to be the same. Therefore, the monkeys learn something in common: that is, do not get the bananas! You’ll get a painful electric shock! The scientists then replace one of the original monkeys with a new one. This new monkey sees the bananas and wants to get them right away, but the other four monkeys beat it when they see its actions. Since these original four monkeys think the new monkey will make them get shocked, they stop the new monkey from getting the bananas. This monkey tries a few times and the others beat it every time without it ever getting the bananas. Of course, all five monkeys don’t get shocked. The scientists then replace another of the original monkeys with a new one. This second new monkey sees the bananas and you bet it wants to get them immediately. But, sadly, the others beat it and the first new monkey beats the newest one even harder then the others (for the newest one is the rookie and has the lowest social status). Just like before, the newest monkey tries several times to get the bananas and is stopped by the others when they attack him. The scientists continue to replace all the original monkeys until no monkeys who actually felt the electric shock remain. Now none of the five new monkeys dare to touch the bananas yet none of them know why. They only know whomever wants to get the bananas will be beaten.

Frequently I write about doing what matters most and not getting caught up in the stuff that makes the least amount of difference. The tale above is a great story that leads on from that; Making sure you know why you’re doing something.

This recently came up in a conversation about re-designing the homepage of viewshound.com. One person thought the front page should be laid out one way, while another thought it should be laid out another way. The problem was, neither answered the question of firstly, why the homepage needed to change and secondly, what did we want to achieve by changing it. The naive answer to the second point is that we want to “increase page views”, but really in essence the answer is a lot more in-depth than that. Are we looking to drive first time visitors to individual articles or are we looking to drive people to category pages? Are we optimising for new arrivals or optimising for frequent readers? Once you rule out these sort of low-level questions, the route you take becomes a lot clearer, and changes for the sake of making changes becomes a problem of the past.

Working on the edges

Imagine your business is a lovely big garden. You tend to the flowers, water the plants, and place your seeds carefully in the hope that a few months down the line they’ll blossom into a beautiful array of colours. But you don’t mow the lawn. As time goes by, your lawn gets overgrown and filled with weeds, eventually swallowing up all the hard work you put into your flower beds. Would you do this? Of course not, so why do we run our business like this then?

The lawn is the heart and soul of your garden. It’s plainest and simplest to maintain, but it is the easiest to neglect in favour of working on the things that are more attractive. Are you neglecting the core of what makes your business run, in favour of what’s more exciting? Blogs, SEO, Facebook, Twitter, Affiliates, Promotions are not your core concern. You need to be making sales. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is how sales are made. They are fillers for an already churning sales engine. Pick up the phone, go and meet potential buyers. Start the engine of your lawn mower and mow your lawn.

The details of technology

I dreamt last night that a load of “business” people had been suddenly injected into our company. I got into an argument over the difference between two different hosts, stating that they are the same while someone else jumped in stating that they are totally different while citing various technical reasons, that really made no difference to the delivery of the project.

A while back I turned down working on an idea some acquaintances had because I didn’t have time. It ended up that someone else I knew took up the project. When first going over it myself I remember thinking a pretty much complete MVP could be done in a month or so, but last I heard, the other developer was still working on the project backend framework a few months in, with no basic site or anything in sight.

This is a common problem with starting a new site. It’s easy to get bogged down in the technical aspects while missing out on delivering actual usable software. I always remind myself of the General Patton quote “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week” and so the same stands for programming. Better to launch something sloppy today, than something perfect in the future. If the project is successful you can alway incrementally improve the code you rushed in. If the project’s a flop, you’ll know a lot sooner.

Copy your idols as they were, not as they are

Most dreams are driven by our desire to be like our idols. We all want to achieve what they have, whether that’s to be as successful/famous/rich/fit/etc as they are. So to do that, we naturally look at what they do and imitate that. If that’s what you’re doing, STOP! Imitating them as they are right now, is not going to get you to where you need to get to. To achieve the same, you need to go back and copy your idols as they were, not as they are right now.

What they do now does not make them successful, it only serves to fuel the success they have already created. The essence of what got them there, is totally different. It’s easy to look at a person or business and think “If it works for them it must work for me!”, but the difference between them and you is that they are at the stage where they are looking for small edges they can gain, where as you still need to get all the fundamentals down before you can work on the same things.

It’s the difference between having a painting that’s 99% finished and one that’s only 10% complete. The painting that’s almost finished needs only fine strokes to finish it off, where as the other still needs broad strokes to even make it meaningful.

So think about what your doing now to achieve goals and see if you’re working on the broad or fine details. If you’re working on the details and neglecting the bigger picture then reassess what it is you need to do and do it!