Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Where Innovation Happens

As I get closer to a go/no-go decision on a project, I've been thinking about the difference about my vision for the project and the supportive innovations to enable the core innovations

The vision combines (in unequal parts) product, core innovation as I imagine it, the application of that core innovation, design, marketing,  developer ecosystem, and business development. The core innovation enables everything else, but it's the application of the innovation that makes it meaningful, useful, and in this case, fun.

This week we're testing initial approaches to the implementation for our specific application, and that's where we'll develop the enabling innovations, which is basically where the rubber meets the road.

The difference is that the enabling innovation happens at the source of real problems only encountered in the making of something, and in a project like this just getting the essence of it right isn't enough; it also has to be safe, the components have to be cost effective at volume, and it has to produce a result that's as good or better than people expect.

Over the past 30 years the US has outsourced so much tech that we no longer make most of what it appears we need in this project. So when we outsource the manufacturing of, say, computer chips  and microcontrollers, we also lose out on the innovations developed during new designs and even the manufacturing processes--where the rubber meets the road. And this is the fun part, which means we're missing out on some of the fun of developing new things.

Everything is cheaper than if it were made in the US (likely), but we also don't fully know what the conditions are in the plants that make them now--I have a lot to learn about that in a short time. This is old news, but it's new to me, and I'll write a bit more about what I learn in the process.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Projects vs. Startups

Yesterday I spent some time thinking about the difference between my successful starts and my projects, which I'll call R&D that never makes it to market.

The start is the most fun, and it can also be the hardest part, and it's certainly the most important:

figure out the market, the opportunity, develop vision, design the product, figure out the sourcing if it's a physical product, figure out best methods and user interface if it's a software product (and both if it's both hardware and software), refine the product, find early customers, test, refine, improve, iterate all of that while you also develop the brand, the marketing language, figure out the best sales approach, sales system, sales language, customer support, etc.

During that time you're setting up internal systems of communication, accounting, legal, HR, etc, but mostly you wing it until you have more than a few people.

And, of course, you have to figure out how to pay the bills. You can take an asset-backed loan like I did for the food company, or invest your own money (same), or raise money from investors--likely friends and family or angels at the super early stage.

And you want to partner with the right people--hire the right people, start with the right people...getting that right throughout the life of the company defines the life of the company.

So last night I took an inventory of the companies and projects I've started. There's a difference: projects never make it to the company stage.

A company (my definition--yes there are shell companies ) has customers, revenue, and employees depending on it for income. That could be you, or your first hire, or your co-founder. Otherwise it's just a full-time R&D effort, likely self funded.

My projects, well. I've started a lot. Russ Ryan from ChiliSoft once said to me with some amount of frustration "you never finish anything." That still bugs me to this day, because he was somewhat right. But that's not my job; my job is to start things, I say to myself, defiantly. But not exactly. When you're a founder, your job is to start something and set it up for a safe landing. You don't have to land the plane, but it should have what it needs to get there, and it sure as hell needs to be flying. 

I'll bet a lot of founders disagree with that, and ok, disagree. You're probably right. For me, the job is to get it so it's moving in the right direction: excellent product, broad but specific vision, branding, early customer base with no limit on the horizon, repeatable, growing revenue, a strong early team, and the capital to get it to the next stage, if not to profitability.

So my projects are a source of frustration and I've been trying to figure out exactly why I didn't launch them. Here's a list:
  • Project management. I developed this as an internal tool for Mission Research when we were initially building GiftWorks. It was terrible, but useful. Post a document or photo, make some comments, select who would be notified of the post with a link back to it, and that's it. That was in 2002. But it wasn't our focus, and it just sort of died at some point, likely because it was a good idea, poorly executed, and not the purpose of the company.
  • Focus. I developed this after leaving GiftWorks in 2008. I have ADD and get distracted by shiny things like the interwebs, so I built something that allowed me to turn parts of it off, track my activity, show me charts of just how much time I spent on FB and other sites, and it worked pretty well. But I didn't have a model, and it didn't work well enough that I felt I could release it. And I didn't have a team--sometimes that sense of obligation to others pulls you through.
  • Jawaya. This was the collaborative search engine, and maybe the project that came closest to becoming a company. It surfaced your endorsed results to other people searching for the same stuff so they'd have to work less to find it. It was hard to explain, and I didn't have a simplified way of showing it because it was complex and investors would ask "but why doesn't Google just turn this on as a feature", and of course Google never did, because they don't get it.

    But my job was to convince investors and then users of the value of it. At its peak we had maybe 100 users and it wasn't their default for very long. So--raised a little capital, used contractors, didn't have employees, no paying customers, and it petered out. Not a company.
There are a half dozen other startup ideas I pursued. The mobile platform was the most recent, and that got zero traction with investor and was absolutely the kind of thing that needed investment first.

At the moment I have three projects: two are software, one is hardware and software. I am definitely moving the hardware/software project forward, but I'm not sure it will be a formal company (it certainly could).

The software projects are just to help me learn, but I'm not particularly passionate about either of them. They're useful, and it's fun to learn.

So what are the missing pieces for me to go from idea to project to startup company?
  • clear idea of the product and market (what are you selling, to whom, for how much, how often, etc)
  • capital to get it rolling, or high enough sales to get it rolling on its own
  • a team to work with. This might be the most important part for me, because it helps remind me of the importance of making things work. 
 Team + capital + product + market.


Wednesday, September 4, 2019

How Cities Can Avoid Ransom: Pull the Plug

About ten years ago a shipment of flowers from Latin America to the Miami Airport was found to have a dangerous insect not native to the US; it could have had (and maybe has) disastrous impact on the US flower industry were it to survive further north.

It must be an impossible job to try to keep bugs and viruses that don't belong here out of the US; imagine how many carriers of viruses just boarded a plan somewhere else.

Hold that thought.

This Internet Thing Is Gonna Be Big
I remember trying to convince a customer back in the 90's (before ChiliSoft) that this Internet thing was gonna be big, and the dozen ways it would make them faster, stronger, better than their competition--or whatever the pitch was back then. More efficient, less money. Tastes great, less filling.

It took some time, but eventually most businesses adopted the Internet in some way--for browsing, email, external services like booking travel, and ultimately apps.

Businesses and governments were sold on efficiencies of "the cloud" (a still-ridiculous invention of a metaphor that somehow stuck), and software as a service. Pay monthly, pay yearly, no software installations, out with the old, in with the new.

Even in Lancaster, PA, we're so enthralled with the idea of the Internet we gave a no-bid contract to a tiny networking company to provide high-speed Internet--a great idea, poorly executed.

Ransom
And then the holdups began. Dozens of cities now have been attacked and their computer systems held hostage for ransom, payable in Bitcoin, of course, the currency of choice among thieves who prefer to remain anonymous. Ransom works very, very well for them.

I'll skip to the point: you can't win this game. If you run a city, a utility, a state--any government or authority or even any business--you can't win this game. You can't.

And your insurance companies are not going to back you anymore. You're building a house on a flood plain, and ya know, it's simply gonna flood. And nobody's going to have your back.

Pull the plug.

It's really the only thing you can do. Ok, yes, some vendor is going to sell you (scare you, for good reason) on their protection services, or some amazing piece of hardware designed to detect and prevent intrusions.  The hackers, though, figure out new ways to get around the new ways designed to keep them out; the escalation continues and new holes appear as current ones are patched.

And of course it's not just tech: it's likely your employees are getting duped by something in email or on a site. They click on a link that wasn't flagged by the security software, or open the attachment (no--no no no no!), or something.

You just can't control human behavior enough, and you can't keep up with the large number of old and new vulnerabilities.

So pull the plug.

Literally.

Turn Off the Internet
That sounds radical, but here are some ideas that don't quite include caveware, and while I'm not a security expert,  I am somewhat technical and developing something with security as a factor:
  • Go back to sneakernet. Disconnect everything from the web, move files around on SD cards or USB drives (there's a vulnerability right there--USB drives and SD cards).
  • Go back to a closed network. Run all applications internally. Demand your "cloud" provider to install an internal cloud, and don't allow it to connect to the internet randomly--require it at specific times through specific ports, using an encrypted connection (for updates, etc). Then pull the plug again.
  • Run two networks: internal and Internet. Don't connect the two. Ever. Don't move data from the outside in, and rarely from the inside out.
  • Remove all USB and SD slots (or any other storage connection) from all computers. Just super-glue them shut. That kills the sneakernet idea but hey.
  • Kill the wifi--yes the internal wifi. You don't need it. Stick with hard-wired networking. Ok maybe you need it, but you can limit it to just tablets (but not smartphones; smartphones are typically internet connected).
  • Revoke the computing privileges of anyone who violates the security rules, or simply show them the door. I know it's not that easy, but damn, people, don't click on the attachment.
  • ...and other draconian measures.
Start with Nothing
You'd be surprised how much you learn about what you do, why you do it, and other ways it can be done when you start with the draconian, start from scratch, assume caveware (i.e. nothing).

What can you do without? What can you do differently? What happens when instead of emailing someone, you sit down and talk with them. Or print a couple of copies, hand them out, and talk about it? What positive effects flow from that interaction? What can you gain from doing less?

Everything's out to get us. Feels that way sometimes, doesn't it. So close the airports, stop all trade of agricultural products, shut down everything. Don't venture outside, and if you have to, wear a mask.

But that's no way to live, of course.

So what's the proportional and functional response such that we can continue to live and operate in what appears to be an increasingly dangerous world?

I'm not sure. But do voting machines really need any electronics at all? And if so, do they need to be networked? No, and no. And software to run cities and utilities do not really need to run on the Internet; there's no intrinsic need for cloud computing, or at least internet-connected "cloud" computing.

This Effects My Project
I love tech, I love what's next, and I'm working on something super fun and cool and very next but it has one big problem: it's an internet-connected device, and I really don't know the answer to the security issue. Even assuming we had the ability to make it the most secure thing ever, it will be open to attack, which means it will likely be attacked, which means someone might be able to control it remotely, which would be very, very dangerous.

So I'm thinking a lot about how to pull the plug, or whether it really needs to be internet connected at all, or just sometimes. Right now I'm leaning toward pulling the plug, but enabling the transfer of data in some way, just not directly from the internet.

I'm glad I'm not a city. But if you are a city and want to learn about pulling the plug but still running your systems, fell free to contact me for help.



Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Reinvention

It's been more than a year since the last loaf of bread left The Lancaster Food Company bakery. The half life of grief might be about six months, but the final final move-out wasn't until February of this year; the main was November 30th of last year. So I'm crossing a threshold about now, looking forward more, but still examining what went wrong, what went right.

It's a lot less painful when I remember three things: we did a lot of good for some people, I did everything I could, as did my partner, and people weren't buying enough what we were selling fast enough.

The regrets pop up now and again, but less frequently, and I'm learning to just welcome them in, serve them tea, then send them on their ways. One regret is foundational: we didn't ask ourselves what the best possible product line would be. I did question bread because of the reliance on plastic, but that's not the right business model question, but this is:
If we're going to make food so we can hire people and build a sustainable company, what is the optimal choice given shelf life, the time it takes to produce a batch, and cost of distribution?
The rest is standard--competition, branding, sourcing, etc.

The shelf life of our bread was 10-14 days, depending. Each batch took about 6.5 hours to complete. And with bread you have to take unsold product, then try to monetize it to recover losses. It's a very, very tough business. As much as we loved the products, and miss them, not enough people were buying them frequently enough.

A better choice would have been a product with a shelf life of, say, 6 months, that took an hour or two to make. Product expiration risk goes way down, distribution opportunities go way up, distribution costs go down, and it takes less labor per batch. That's one reason we added cookies--longer shelf life, shorter production time.

Alas, it's over, and after another six months I might have enough clarity to document the lessons learned, but for now I'm looking forward.



Which leads me to "reinvention." I don't think reinvention is the right term; a person commits themselves to a path, accumulates knowledge, skills, bruises, and insights along the way, and then applies that and their core spirit and personality to a new path. And maybe they learn new skills that ultimately illuminate that path, but they're still the same person with the same combination of vision, skills judgment, ethics, and drive, with perhaps more insight.

Me? I've been a songwriter and musician and still am. A sound engineer, a recording engineer, a gaffer. A dishwasher, waiter, paperboy, junk food retailer (in school), line cook, food deliverer, panel assembler (for 31 minutes), proofreader, computer designer, computer builder, computer deliverer, computer installer, networking technician, programmer, software designer, software salesman, software CTO, CEO, VP of Applications, marketer, project manager, bread delivery specialist, brand ambassador, taste tester, business developer, communications manager, garden manager, elected official, fundraiser, venture capital wrangler, Board member, volunteer, and likely many things in between.

I've done some of these very well, some poorly; some I've hated, and some I loved.

And now I'm working on what's next, more than a year later, starting from scratch, but full of energy and ideas and moving ideas to plans, thinking about my future, my values, my people, what I care about and don't, and the situations and steady state I'd prefer in my life.

Wouldn't it be nice for someone to recognize your value and just reach out and find a place for you that works for everyone? From what I've heard from colleagues who've been through this, it just doesn't work that way. You sometimes get lucky, but typically serial entrepreneurs are that way partly out of necessity, especially when you've had a failure. Nobody wants you.

So you pick up your pieces, find bits of duct tape and glue to get yourself back together, dust yourself off, and get back to work. You hustle. It's taken me a while to get past the depression that comes with the grief, and now I'm cranking pretty hard on all fronts, but yeah--it's been a grind.

I'm applying for jobs, but rarely get an interview, so I'm starting a consulting business while I develop a side project that has serious potential, though it's not a serious contribution to the world. Maybe it'll bring a bit of happiness somewhere, but it's not a world-changing product or company.

I have a running list of what I'd like to work on next, and next to that a list of principles I'd like to live by, and so far nothing on the first list lives up to those principles. It doesn't mean I won't do them--I need to make a living. But I haven't landed on the one thing that will get me up in the morning with energy, drive, vision, and a sense of mission. Not yet, anyway.

That said, I'm looking for someone who can help me develop a circuit board. Ping me if you know of anyone (preferably in Grand Rapids or Lancaster). I'm digging in again, and it's always more fun to work with an expert than to try to become one. 

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Immersive Entrepreneurs & What's Next for Me

I'm an immersive entrepreneur.

Not all are; some want to know the basics of what they need to know to sell their products or services, and that's enough, which is a very good thing because it means a lot of business keeps moving that way.

But innovation can only occur at the point of the problem, which we can perhaps envision, but most of us learn more by working on it in real time, in the room, experiencing the problems and obstacles that serve as the sand in our oyster (broad discovery can happen anywhere, as can vision).

We have to touch it, toss it up and down, stare at it for hours, ask it how it's doing, what its lineage is, how its ancestors were made, what went wrong and why, how often.

We need to know the smell of the room, the noise in the hallway, the motion outside the window--the environmental stuff when it's relevant. The bottom of a delivery van gets hot to the touch on a hot summer day--you might not want to pack the floor with boxes of chocolate chip cookies (gooey learning by experience). What's the innovation need in that case? Smarter packing, or a cooled or insulated van floor.

There are downsides to being an immersive entrepreneur, especially if you're also an innovator with vision, working outside of your primary personal skills.

The Immersion
A year ago I started kicking an idea around a quite brilliant friend of mine had. He had a great start--the tech was functional and I know his history so I know it would only get better; everything's programmatically possible with him.

It was exciting. I saw it as a broad platform for mobile development, with its own ecosystem of developers and third party software companies depending on it. So I dug into it, taught myself the tech, went deeper and taught myself some of the underlying tech, built a few samples, and learned what else was out there.

There were dozens of mobile dev platforms but no clear leader. I wondered why, and concluded there is a lot of noise in that market, none are easy from start to finish,  documentation generally sucks, and (this is the key) most of the platforms served as lead generation for services for themselves rather than focusing on making each customer/developer successful.

I found little appetite for investment because we'd have been a late entrant into a crowded, noisy market. And I had immersed myself completely: developed spreadsheet business models, charts comparing competitors, a new UI and UX for the product, designs, platform charts, and learned new frameworks, took courses, etc, etc.

I was all in.  But the tech wasn't quite ready,  and my friend had no time outside of work and family, so the capital was crucial for creating time and space to work. With even a small success it would have been a significant win for investors, but I couldn't make the case, possibly because of my five-year detour sinking all my dough into baking bread to hire people.

The upside?

Well, I learned the tech. I'm able to build React websites and React Native apps. I got back in touch with my inner Node and Express, and nicely satisfied with the Mongo wrapper Mongoose.

And I relearned the importance of immersion, as well as the cost: I risked my own time and opportunity to immerse myself in a project where I depended on someone else who wasn't fully available, and, even knowing that, dove in deep to learn as much as I could, because the vision was powerful and the tech compelling.

Plus it tapped into two of the things that drive me: to make the world an easier place to live and work, and to build something valuable at a large scale. It takes a lot of belief for me to go that far into something, and I don't regret it. There was something powerful there.

Growth Consulting
I immerse similarly when I help my client companies to grow; I can't do that well without understanding their markets, how they make their products, who it helps and how, etc. They get that for free--I can't work any other way.
 
My main gig is consulting to startups and established companies on anything from growth strategies (marketing strategies, sales systems, analytics) to capital and accountability. More on this later, once I get the new site up. This format is out of date. But I'm not :)

What's Next
The ideas list is long, but there's one project I've wanted to do for quite a while, so I've been digging in ... (if you know what product I'm talking about please don't mention it in the comments).

Years ago I had an idea for a common consumer product, designed in an uncommon way, that might scale because the underlying idea has broad applications. And as usual I thought it was unique, but found recently there were hobby attempts over 10-15 years ago, but none with a goal to ship a commercially viable product.

Going to market is a lot tougher than proof of concept.

So I've been immersing myself in the product design world once again, this time learning basic electronics, the joy and pain of Arduino, electronics supply chains, etc.

And of course I had to choose a product where I'm not an expert at the base tech! I have to learn everything and depend on someone else with experience and judgement to help me make the right choices. Again :)  Which is also fun, but one day I'd love to just make something without having to be an apprentice. Sigh...the generalist's lament.

Anyway, we'll call that a side hustle until I know I can pull it off profitably, which means costing out parts, assembly, regulatory stuff, etc, which means studying, learning, and asking experts. It takes time--that's even before optimizing.

Ideally, what's next will be something I really believe in that will help the world. The side hustle won't address that, but it will be fun and profitable, so it's a nice interlude until the next next big thing.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Momentum is Fleeting


Doors opened. Conversations happened. Approving nods all around. Emails flew about.   Lunches, then dinner some nights. People showed up and stayed. You soaked it all in, counted your cards, dreamt of what could be next. 

It was a grand time.

After the break, silence. Doors closed. Conversations stopped. No meetings, no nods. Emails dried up. Bag lunch, leftovers. Nobody showed up. You soaked it all in, no cards to count, wondering if this is how it all falls apart.

Momentum is fleeting. Don't take it for granted. Those balls you were juggling are now hanging in the air all by themselves, stuck in the magic of the moment. The magic leaves, the balls fall down. And you pick 'em back up again and try to remember how you made it happen.

When you know there's momentum, seize it. Carpe diem. Hoo-rah. Hop on the desk. Make your stand. Round everyone up and ask them to join you. Sign 'em up. Take pictures. Slap backs. Share apples. High fives all around. Keep that momentum going. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Strong Opinions, Strongly Held

I really like smart, polite people who mean well. I've heard the phrase from a number of smart polite people that they believe in the phrase, "strong views (or opinions), weakly held." 

When I first heard that I nodded in agreement and considered its wisdom. It implies a willingness to cooperate, to not be blinded by your own beliefs to the detriment of progress. 

And I'm sure it works in certain groups---collaborators working on improving the status quo--in certain situations. And yet it can sound like "yeah I have a strong opinion about this, but I don't really care that much about the outcome." 

There's another group of people--a smaller group, I'd bet. These people have strong opinions, strongly held. 

Steve Jobs didn't hold his strong opinions weakly. Nor did MLK. Nor did Sara Blakely, the now-billionaire founder of Spanx. Nor did John Lennon, or Basquiat, or Miles Davis. 

Weakly held opinions lead to weak outcomes, the muzak of outcomes. I don't see the use of having a strong opinion about something but saying "meh." 

How does that serve society, or companies, or movements? We need strong opinions, strongly held to change the world to the better. We don't need to lower the bar to the acceptable outcome that weakly held opinions lead to. 

Be opinionated. Stick with it. And yes, be right, be informed, know your stuff, but don't give in just because it feels good to the group. Leaders have a tough job, and holding strong, well-informed opinions makes that job a bit easier. 

It's also the only thing that's moved us forward: tenacious, visionary people with very strong opinions about their part of this world.