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Showing posts from October, 2011

The Daily Post

I've been trying to blog daily for the past few weeks, but today I simply didn't have the time (or impetus).

I sat on a panel today in Philly about scaling business and it went fairly well. I think I forget sometimes how much I've been through, the initiatives, ideas, conflicts, wins, losses, etc--all of it comes back in discussions like these. I'm certain I got as much out of it as the people in the room.

One reason the panel worked is that we didn't make it about us; yes we spoke from experience, but the trigger wasn't the moderator, it was the audience. After brief intros, we asked people to ask questions given where they are currently in their businesses, and responded to that.

The effect was more of a group workshop rather than a top-down highlight of the panelists, and everyone was able to learn something. I'm not a huge fan of panels, except that it takes a lot less preparation than speaking, and you get to think on your feet, which is a lot more nat…

Unrealistic Planning

Brief post today.

How I ever thought I'd be able to code during this conference is beyond me. At my ripe old age of 44 you'd think I'd have a clue.

Well, I did have a clue. I know better but I like to think that I can do everything I need to regardless of time :)

I know so many people here and it's great to catch up, which is the point of being here anyway. But I have a self-imposed deadline of Tuesday for the next release. So I'm literally filling up my calendar where I can over the next few days, and scheduling the work.

Be intentional. When I'm not, things slide, and when I am, I mostly get it right.

Socially Responsible Business

I'm headed off to the annual open gathering of Social Venture Network (SVN). It's a membership organization made up of the leading social entrepreneurs, both nonprofit and for-profit.

Businesses don't have to join a network or club to be socially responsible. This group is more like a tribe to me--a bunch of motivated, aspirational misfits trying to do good through business. Some do very well. Some fail miserably. Some are simply stubbornly persistent and do ok but don't have the impact they envision.

Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's, Judy Wicks from the White Dog Cafe, the "radical" Van Jones (so radical he's advocating for corporate subsidies to bring energy jobs to inner cities...wait, that's capitalism!), Josh Knauer of RhizaLabs (very cool mapping software), and a long list of others.

One of my favorite companies represented is Greyston Bakery. Their motto is "we don't hire people to bake brownies, we bake brownies to hire people"…

A Mission I Can Believe In

A really good guy with great sales management experience was a small but important investor in one of my startups. C-level guy, totally competent, smart, etc. Reads this blog--very smart :) (hi!).

For weeks he's asked me to meet with him about a startup. And I've been busy, but have wanted to help because 1) he's helped me and 2) I like helping startups and 3) here's a guy who knows how to hit something out of the park.

But I really didn't want to for another reason: I hate the idea. I don't want the idea to succeed. It's not in poor taste, it's not unethical, I simply hate it. So no, I'm not going to refer any investors, because I really, really hate it.

I like technology that helps people, but especially software(web/mobile/whatever) that helps people who help other people. That's my life's work, I've realized.

Any time you catalyze exponential goodness through the supply of something affordable and accessible, do it. Do it often.

Miss…

Startup Titles

Fred posted about titles yesterday: CFO vs VP of Finance. Titles are really not my favorite subject when talking about startups, because it distracts from the most important thing:  traction with customers.

I refrained from commenting because I think it's one of the less relevant pieces to early-stage startups he's done recently; it's a topic for later-stage startups, of which there are a lot fewer than early stage. Read the comments, though--some good stuff there.

So. CFO of what? If you're seed stage, a CFO is adding little strategic value; there simply isn't the cash-management, customer traction, investor relations to warrant anything more than advisory-level input.

If you're an early stage startup with less than, say, 10 people--VP of Marketing of what? If you have no direct reports, that's a pretty good indicator that a title isn't warranted.

Titles in startups do matter to the people who hold or held them; they're likely more meaningful afte…

Jawaya Update

I've been up and down about Jawaya over the past 6 months. Google comes out with Google  +, and it kind of sucks the wind out of your sails because you know at some point they'll incorporate search as one of the signals, and it's likely they'll surface people you know alongside searches they've done that are similar to yours.

That's in our original spec and first release, though that's not quite enough. But it's enough to render you impotent for a bit. 
Since I started this over a year ago, I've said that it feels like there's this giant, perfect wave forming just offshore and we're still standing on the beach waxing our boards. Later I changed that; that the wave is about to crash right where we're standing on the beach, still waxing our boards. 
Execution is everything. I built the functional prototype in a few weeks on old familiar technology--ASP--but knew it couldn't scale. So we decided to switch over to Rails, which i didn't …

Startups: Year 2

Fred Wilson posted today about Michael Bloomberg's talk at the Web 2.0 Summit.
The third year is when things start to work, you get customers, you start hiring quickly. The business ramps. But the second year is tough. Really tough. Everyone starts doubting you and if you stop and think, you can start doubting yourself.I commented, which will be today's post:


Year 2 was Year 3 for ChiliSoft (it went faster than usual). For Mission Research it was right on schedule--Year 3. When we first released GiftWorks it was like we held a big party and sent people to the wrong address: nobody showed up. 

The product wasn't ready--it wasn't really feature complete. The company was largely unknown, and we were selling to a lagging, skeptical market that didn't like to spend money: we had no credibility. 

So one by one we worked with prospects and learned from them. Gave the product away mostly, just to get feedback, build credibility, and build a better product. 

Nine months later, w…

jQuery Selectors

Hogan's Heroes used to have a routine where someone would be defusing a bomb, and someone else would be reading the instructions. "Cut the red wire. But first, cut the blue wire."

Most of my jQuery bugs are around nailing the selector. I do a lot of dynamic concatenating of class names and id's at the server; get it wrong in your JS and ugh...pain.

Lesson: make sure your selectors are right before cutting the red wire.

Your Daily Calls

I've harped on this before, and I'm largely writing this to remind myself: you have to make your daily calls.

Whether it's to potential customers, existing customers, investors, reporters, potential partners, employees, distributors--make the calls.

Two hours a day--the first hour in the morning, and then some other hour that makes sense to you, depending on your target that day or week, or year, depending on your stage.

Smile and dial. End one call, make the next one. Don't take a break--it's just an hour at a time.

If you do connect with anyone, make sure you walk away with a next step, unless it's just informational. If it's very important--the big sale, raising a round, hiring a great team member--try to get a meeting instead of another call or email. And know how to nail the in-person meeting.

Always be gracious.

Why do I emphasize the call?

Email is impersonal; it's very difficult to properly and professionally emote the way you can--even subtly-…

Startup Books

One of our local founders asked me what books he should read as he and his co-founder jump off the startup cliff and into the river of poorly conceived metaphors.
For me, a lot of these books have a few great lines and ideas that stick with you, but the best part of reading them is the number of ideas and amount of energy you get as you think about your own vision. 


This list is off the top of my head--I've missed a bunch in the past ten years. 
Eric Ries, Lean Startup. I haven't read it yet, having lived the gist of it, but I'll get it today. I hope it lives up to the hype.TechStars: Do More FasterGuy Kawasaki The Art of the Start,How to Drive Your Competition Crazy. I like to read Guy because he's a fun voice who nails evangelism.Crossing the Chasm (I'd read the condensed version of this).Innovator's Solution. Read this instead of the Innovator's Dilemma; that book is summarized in the first chapters; more targeted toward corporate innovation but contains so…

The Importance of Week 1

I had a conversation with an entrepreneur on Monday on my way up here to the wilds of northern Pennsylvania (where the air is crisp and the frackin high).

He sounded down. He had quit his corporate consulting gig and wanted to build a startup, but had been through it before several times, never working out.

I asked him how his finances were.

"I live like a church mouse!' he exclaimed. Good. You'll appreciate that later when you've outlasted everyone else.

We both talked about our challenges, and by the end of the talk he sounded better. So I launched into my startup rant.

I want to know what you're going to commit to. What do you need to do today to get to next week?


Get started.

You don't have a spec. Sit down, no computer, just pen and paper, and write the damn spec. Draw it. Make notes on it. I don't care if it looks good, just get it done.

What else?

Write up some scenarios (Steve and Dave are rolling their eyes; I hated this but it works). Who wants yo…

Fundraising: See Investors Early and Often

She said she's spoken to two investors outside of friends and family--informally. That's over the past nine months.

This is her first startup; very smart, lots of experience, strong vision. But that really struck me--only two investors in nine months, and it's time to start raising money.

Fundraising is a sales process. Here are some quick pointers:
Get to know as many investors as possible, even if it's too early. The next time you see them, let them know your progress. Send a monthly update. When you're ready, meet with them in person. If you have trouble getting a meeting, shoot for a call, but that's a last resort for me because you lose your primary power of persuasion--holding someone's attention, drawing them in, infecting them with your passionSet a minimum level. I like $25k; if you need $250k the max number of people you have to keep informed is 10, which is manageable. Ask for the investment. If it's an angel investor ask for double or triple …

The $20,000 Book

A few years ago I left my last startup and almost immediately started writing a book of startup advice for founders, from my narrow set of experiences advising over 20 startups and building four.

Yesterday I picked it up again, and started weeding through what I've written since 2004. I'm working on it a few hours per day, and hope to have a draft by the end of the week.


Please let me know in the comments if there's anything specific you'd like to see in the book. I'm publishing it as a Kindle thang, possibly other formats, but I'm a Kindle fanboy.


The book will be a collection of advice for building, running, funding, and managing startups. But there will be a special emphasis on decision-making challenges: frequently the right path is unclear, so you try, fail, refine, try again, etc, etc, and hopefully survive the failures.

The best way to let me know if this interests you is to buy the book :), which will be $20,000 per copy (haven't market-tested that …

Weekends

Yesterday the storm in south central PA knocked out the Amtrak power lines between Paoli and Lancaster.

I'll spare the details, but my trip, again, took four hours instead of two and a half, but I was impressed with Amtrak's quick handling of the logistics: they replaced the electric diesel engine, loaded everyone from the stranded local-stop train onto ours (standing in the aisles), routed us onto eastbound tracks going west, prevented other trains from colliding head on, and got us all home safely.

During none of that--none--did my Verizon Mifi deliver the goods. I don't mind subsidizing mass transit. I do mind paying for a service that doesn't deliver when I need it. I can code offline, but I can't hit StackOverflow when I need it. So Verizon, whatever it is you need to do to at least match Amtrak's service between Paoli and Lancaster, can you get to it?

With the storm came Fall weather--the crisp air, the smell of smoke from someone's fire down the stre…

Heading to NY

Heading to the train in about a half hour. And I haven't packed yet, so this will be a quick post.

First, check out this video, starting at 27:00. I love this dose of reality.


I've always liked businesses where you have to sell something, not simply sell advertising, which I suppose is selling something, or enabling others to sell to your aggregated eyeballs, but selling a product or service just seems more grounded. 
I'm starting to sell myself: interviewing with a number of companies and headhunters, which I've frankly never done. I've always started things. 
Jawaya will have to be a side project for the time being. I haven't felt comfortable raising money for it, so the pace is a lot slower than it should be, though I'm taking steps to address that. 
Ryan kicked my butt over the weekend and reminded me that I have a book to finish. So I've set a deadline: Finish the book in 10 days and start selling it. 
I've got a ton of experience, about 120 pages o…

Brain Sparks

I try to code for a half hour, take a brief break, then code some more. More often than not, I just keep going, and at some point the brain just slows down and I can't figure something out.

[insert red bull ad here]

I work in a small room at the top of my house; it doubles as my studio. I just took a 15-minute guitar break, and I'm ready to slay some code dragons again. I'm not shy; I turn it up and really dig into it, usually exploring some recent musical thought.

When it's not clicking for me, I deliberately do a lot of modal stuff, things that challenge the ear and fingers.

And it works every time--I'm back, refreshed, brain's sparking again.

No Red Bull or other additives needed.

a bit of fun

Breaks are good.

I've been waiting on a few fixes for Jawaya from the intrepid Ryan, who has real paying work to do as well, so in the meantime I've taken a step back from Jawaya until after this post.

Note: I'm at best an intermediate programmer; and this post is targeted toward beginners and intermediates. If you're a code jockey, you may find yourself guffawing out loud as I say things like "tests? we don't need no stinkin tests!".

In the meantime, I've been playing with some cool technology, and having some fun with it. Node.js is a lot of fun to work with; it's an http server written in Javascript, which has become fast enough.

My goal is this: to build a useful app entirely in Javascript, from the database to web server to framework to browser stuff. Why? Well, I know JS, so I don't have to learn the language, just the tools.

The nicest thing is that you don't have to ask your brain to think differently each time you switch from brows…

Aligning Interests

I advise about 20 startups on and off on an ongoing basis. This is not one of my favorite stories.

One of the startups I advise went through a leadership change last year; revenue was flat, the year ended with a 17% loss, the product team had left, and the plans to replace them involved offshoring, which greatly weakened product- and people-oriented exit scenario.

A few of the key people had left because their options were underwater and it was no longer a fun or fulfilling place to be. The CEO had argued that nobody cared about employee options anyway, and they didn't even understand what they were. They had become, effectively, a joke.

Unaligned Incentives
After the change at the top I understood the ease of holding that position: the CEO had worked out a compensation deal with the board that paid management substantial cash bonuses based on the level of the exit, which was solid inoculation from the options--preferences mess, while leaving the employees and founders eating the d…

It Should Just Work

My father died of cancer in the Fall of 1996. Sometime around July that year he drove home in a new car; he went out to get a Cadillac but came home with a Buick. "It was $10,000 cheaper". He had always wanted the Caddy, but couldn't turn down the deal.

He was stick thin after 9 months of treatment, surgery, and more treatment; "drink the poison, it's kill or be killed,  the trick is to stop in time". I was there to tell him the doctors wanted to try another round, but he refused to continue treatments. He knew it was over.

When Steve Jobs presented his visionfor the "spaceship" Apple campus to Cupertino City Council, his breathing was labored, his body skeletal. He knew it was over, and anyone who's witnessed the slow but definitive decline of someone dying from cancer could see that.

But there he was, pushing his final (public) vision, visionary to the end.

Positive Discrimnation
I didn't know Jobs; the closest I ever came was through an …

Node.js or Express.js Issue W Folder Names

If you're new to Node, as I am, there's a ton to learn. If you're also new to Mac, there's a bunch more to learn, and usually by cattle prod.

Today's learning, so far, is that when you name your Express app, don't use an underscore like Your_App, because Node (or express) chokes on it and can't find it.

Removing the underscore eliminates the issue.

Sometimes Wrong, Never in Doubt

I'm trying to bring light to the darkness around the edges, but haven't gotten there yet. Some days, it really brings me down how slowly we're progressing.

I had a call with a VC I really respect yesterday. He's seen the app a few times, and each time his response has been the same:
what's the use case for this, why would I ever use it? And after explaining why I and others do use it, he still didn't buy it.

Or rather, he didn't get why enough people would use it for him to care about it enough to write the check (as a user or as an investor; nail the first one and the second is more likely to follow).

I didn't think he would, especially given there are currently only a few people using it, which proves his point. We just haven't moved it forward enough to get traction yet.

He didn't care about the execution difficulties, which have bee numerous given the part-time Rails work and my fulltime front-end work (perhaps I should have funded the devs f…

Monetizing Excess Capacity

I've been kicking around different business models over the past year for Jawaya. One of the attractive catch phrases I've come up with is "monetize excess capacity".

(I say that as though I invented it, because Google puts one of my posts at the top of the search. If you're me, that's what you get, anyway; Google search supports vanity over accuracy?)

So what does that mean?

Airbnb: monetize the excess capacity of your homeLoosecubes.com: monetize the excess capacity of your officeeBay: monetize the excess in your lifeJawaya: monetize the excess capacity of your time (one of the options). Schooletize: monetize the excess capacity of your school facilities (fictitious)What else do we have lying around that we can put to good use? Commercial kitchens. Long-haul trucking capacity (logistics software handles this pretty well). Planes. Trains. Automobiles. 
It's a long list. 
But the only way these models can be successful is if there's enough demand. You…

How's it Going with Last Year's Pledges?

At the end of 2010 I wrote a post called "The End of Bullshit". I just came across it again, and it hit me like cold water in the face on a cold October morning. 
Here's an excerpt. 
"One of the startups I advise spent a bunch of money outsourcing overseas. The entire product was built by a team in India. The company spent hundreds of thousands on it, and it works, mostly, kind of. 
But something doesn't quite work, it's not quite right, it's not satisfying to the founder.
Well no shit. You're a founder. You're never satisfied. You need developers who work for you who share your vision and will do what's needed to go from crap to great."
It's a rant, but it's a good kick in the ass.

Amazon is My Favorite Company

I'm writing this as a consumer only.

I love Amazon. I love the Kindle, which is the device that returned me to reading. My ADD makes it very difficult to get through a book, much less a newspaper, so the small screen of the first one was perfect for me.

But I left that one on a plane. And then I broke the replacement a year later.

And then a few weeks ago I apparently broke the Kindle 2 that replaced the replacement. But this time, Amazon's sending me a replacement free of charge; they've had quality issues with screens.

The Kindle Fire tablet is coming out in a month or so, and I'm likely to buy that over an iPad if I have the spare cash to do it.

My rule for new gear is this: no new cash for new gear--gotta get it from selling something else. I have a ton of studio gear I don't use, and more than enough computers, plus two monitors I'm not really using, though I'm just lazy and should hook them up (will do post-launch).

But I value the Kindle, which retur…