Friday, March 30, 2012

Lehigh Valley Hackathon

@MikeHawkins clued me in to the Lehigh Valley Hackathon that start today and runs through the weekend.

If you want to join them, here are the details.

Poll: What should I write about next?

I'm back to the almost-daily post, and I'm wondering what you--my two-and-a-half readers--would like me to post about over the coming weeks.

I stopped writing political posts last Fall and switched to this as my main, and really only blog, focusing on startup life and founders.

Yesterday I broke that streak to weigh in on the healthcare issue, which is something I'd been involved with deeply since 2003 when I briefly delved into politics.

But I think that will continue to be a rare occurrence.

I don't want to distract from the focus on helping startups and founders, and there's little more divisive and distracting than a complex political issue.

Today I'd love to hear from you about this blog--what should I write more about? Less? We'll call this a poll--without the constraints.

See in you the comments.


Thursday, March 29, 2012

Healthcare

The Supreme Court deliberations over the past few days were interesting. Unfortunately, they discussions were largely not about the need for healthcare coverage, or the injustices in the system, or the economic drag that the current system offers.

Today I'm talking with the press about Obamacare (The Affordable Care Act). The likelihood is that part or all of the Act will be struck down. I don't agree with the reasons, but then again I'm not a legal expert. 

I'll say this though: it's time that businesses get out of the business of healthcare. There's no reason we should spend any of our business dollars or time on healthcare. None. 

And the best thing for our businesses and the economy is to cover everyone--everybody in, nobody out, no blaming, no means testing, etc. 

The Obama bill was ok--baby steps, really. It was great for insurers--expands their markets by 25%. The benefits to small business are small but not unwanted--tax credits. 

Instead of paying 30% overhead to insurance companies--admin costs, sales, marketing, operations, and massive executive salaries--we should have a one-payer system, with a mix of private and public healthcare providers. 

Pay for it with a simple payroll tax: 10% to the business, 3% to employees. Everyone has skin in the game, and it covers everyone. The paperwork goes away, the annual shopping for a better deal goes away, the massive increases in rates year after year goes away, the insanely high cost of the uninsured goes away.

It make sense. But sensible solutions and politics rarely mix.

UPDATE: I was asked to talk about my experiences with healthcare and advocate for the exchange, which is one of the better ideas. When I asserted that businesses really should get out of healthcare altogether and go to a single-payer system, the moderator interrupted, talking over me--muting.

Which is just about exactly what the Obama administration did when it excluded single-payer proponents from the discussion about solving the country's healthcare crisis. That muting of other voices was intellectually dishonest, weakened the process, and weakened the overall bill.

I hung up. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Ideas vs Execution

I'm in the middle of a big product push at the startup where I'm CTO. We're pushing out a bunch of widgets and a mobile app, along with new site features and a design refresh, and APIs to support all of it.

It's a lot.

We have a lot of ideas, and write most of them down. I have a ton of ideas, and push some into the process.
citation: bmaksym @ dreamstime

Ideas are plentiful and cheap (until the patent trolls show up), but execution is everything.

And that's why

I'm ending

this

post

right

       now.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Selling the Car

Over the next week or so I hope to sell the car. It's a 2001 Subaru Sedan with maybe 78k miles.

Why?

I live in downtown Lancaster, a block from the 300 block of N Queen. I walk to Central Market or Lemon Street Market. I ride my bike to County Park and walk to School Board meetings.

I walk to the train station to go to New York, or take the bus. I can take the train to Philly airport, Newark, or even BWI if I need to.

If I need to rent a car to do a road trip, I can join Zipcar in Philly and train in to pick it up, or I can rent a car locally.

The car costs about $200/month to own and operate; more if I get tickets, and I do get tickets.

This isn't my last car. I'm waiting for a great electric car or plugin-hybrid. Likely a minivan or pickup truck. Or given my new singledom and my need to live up to cliches, maybe I'll get a Model X from Tesla.

My point? We don't need to own cars. I'm looking forward to a well-executed AirBnB for monetizing the excess capacity of car availability, otherwise known as car-sharing.

Monday, March 26, 2012

What's Your Niche?

When we started Mission Research waaayyyy back in 2002 (though I had been working on it prior to that), we thought we had focus--the nonprofit sector.

1.5 million nonprofits, totally unserved by easy to use, affordable software. And we were going to get them all :)

It turns out that the viable market--active nonprofits that raise money from donors--is much smaller. It's a good market, but it's not 1.5 million strong.

Within that sector, there are several niches that perform very well for the company (which I won't mention here). It makes sense to target those niches--invest research and marketing activities to help accelerate and expand our presence there.

When you're starting out, it's tough to focus on a niche or two, because 1) you don't know which niche will perform really well for you and 2) you're naturally greedy--you want to serve everyone.


Let me reframe that positively (in deference to yesterday's post): you're naturally helpful and want to serve everyone.

But you can't serve everyone when you're starting out, and shouldn't.

So what niches works well for you? How can you discover that, especially when you have a generalized solution?

It takes time, and it takes test marketing. You should use a number of tactics, track everything, measure it well, and you'll start to see who buys from you more than the others.

What tactics? I'm not a marketing pro, but I'd say try these, noting that the quality of the list is foundational for success:

  • Direct mail. Yes, people still open mail.
  • Online survey through Zoomerang or other company that offers targeted audiences
  • Google Ads, targeted toward different sectors
  • email marketing--again the list is really, really important. 
All should funnel them into your sales process. 

If you don't know what your sales process is, we'll talk about that sometime soon, but break it down into phases that describe the customer's decision process and your specific tasks needed move them from one phase to the next, because most won't move on their own. 

 Beautiful day out there--two short bike rides scheduled and a ton of code to write, fix, fix again :)




Sunday, March 25, 2012

Reframing The Optimism of Dissent

It's overcast and cool today--perfect for a visit to the cafe to read the Sunday papers. It was an interesting weekend--I saw 5 really good bands, got some work done, and got divorced.

The letter came yesterday, and it made me sad and introspective, so I've been spending some of today thinking through my flaws (or, charitably, challenges), and strengths and opportunities (dear God I'm doing a SWOT analysis on myself! now I feel nauseous :)  ).

I'm really thinking a lot about conflict, and what drives me to be a vocal critic.

Van Jones said in a brilliant speech that followed mine (less brilliant or interesting) "Martin Luther King never said, not once, I have a complaint!".
And that's instructive.

The critic focuses on the problem. The optimist, the visionary focuses on the desired outcome or state of things.

The criticism is not blame, it's really identifying a desire to see things improve, or change; it's actually positive.

I call it the "optimism of dissent".

But offer enough dissent instead of the vision it represents, and you become, in the eyes of those who know you, a negative person.

No I'm not. :)

Sometimes I forget the vision. I might have tired of expressing a better way and having the true naysayers dismiss it as impossible, or difficult, and what they are saying is that they lack the will, or commitment, or energy, or desire, or understanding that things are possible by simply doing them.

There is optimism in my dissent when I say that funding schools through property taxes is insane, unfair, and inequitable (and unsustainable at this rate). I'm optimistic that we will see the error of our ways and design a new way to fund schools, and here are four simple ideas:
  • increase the state personal income tax, 
  • tax on our natural gas pulled from our Commonwealth (note "common" and "wealth")
  • cut the national Defense budget in half
  • tax imports from countries that violate trade agreements, like, say, China
I see the optimism in my dissent about my weight; what I mean is I'm looking forward to continuing to lose weight, get healthier, and enjoy the process along the way.

I feel the optimism in my dissent when I say to a startup founder "you should be fully committed and you're not and you won't make it". What I mean to say is "you have a great idea, smarts, and gumption and you really should go for it".

Positioning is an art. Framing ideas, concepts, complaints, hope, and optimism in a way that elevates and propels you is the discipline needed for the art to have lasting impact.

People will back vision, hope, and the path to get there. That's not my intent here--to get people to back me--it's to live a richer life. To have better relationships. To preserve and expand friendships. Maybe even to recover some.

I'm instructing myself here. I'm hoping to be more mindful of my positioning, my framing of my optimism, and pledging to do so more from the optimism and less from the dissent.  

He never said that, not once, that Martin Luther King. And would you look at that--the sun just peeked through...


Saturday, March 24, 2012

I Know--Let's Put on a Show!

I remember watching what had to be movies from the 40's and 50's, where everyone was looking sad and glum, when suddenly somebody jumps up with a huge smile and says "I know--let's put on a show!" and then convinces everyone to make it happen, thus saving the orphanage or town. 




In Lancaster, PA (the center of culture and technology), Steve Carlson is that guy


He's organized three place-based plays, which basically means that he got three playwrights to write 15-minute plays for 3 different locations in Lancaster, within short walking distance of one another. 


Great idea, and happens on Art Walk Weekend in early May. 


So I'm asking for you to be that person to and put on a show. Check it out, and kick in--we've got a show to put on!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Stick With It

When you're weary...feeling small.

Stick with it.

Building a startup is hard. Building software people want to use if they know about it is very hard. Getting people to know about your software is the hardest thing of all.

Remember why you started. Remember the injustice you're correcting. The darkness you want to bring light to. The pain you want to ease.

And then get back to it.


(and for Elvis fans, this one below)

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Seek Problems, Dream Later

It came to me in a dream. I dreamt I was a bird, soaring above the trees, surfing the wind currents, gliding in for a landing. 


And I realized at that moment that I just had to build a flying machine, and that humans would never naturally fly like a bird because we simply don't have the chest muscles, so we must have something like Wii-controlled, lightweight motorized wing pumps with just enough torque.


Well, none of that's true--for me anyway.

Maybe ideas come from dreams. But most innovation starts at the point of the problem. The concept stage is great because it's like flying in the dream--there's no gravity, no friction, few obstacles.

The real innovation happens when your customers or users try to use what you built on the basis of that concept. You start to learn about friction and gravity, but more importantly, you learn what they really need.

A friend of mine called yesterday to ask if I had ever seen a certain something for websites for small businesses, and I said in fact no, I had not, but it was a great idea. He had dug around the usual spots, and couldn't find anything.

It's one of these things that seems so obvious, but apparently nobody's built  a business. In fact, most of the technology--no--all of the technology already exists. And it's the kind of thing that would likely be broadly adopted, and there could be a real business there.

The only way he discovered that seemingly massive hole was by trying to help customers directly, working with them to help increase their businesses.

And it's not easy--it's work to get enough exposure to the point of the problem in order to innovate.

A founder of  a local started messaged me the other day saying he had made 40 calls with no hits--nobody was interested.

It must have been frustrating, but it made me wonder if he was telling about his solution or learning about what their issues were.

You have great ideas, great concepts, and such great energy that other people nod in agreement when you tell them about it.

But it's only when you immerse yourself in their worlds that you can begin to realize what the real issues are, and what innovations are needed to help them.

Go forth, seek problems--dream later.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The End of Big Ideas?

Gates said in the early 90's there would be a computer in every home, connected to the internet (others said that too). The mainstream didn't believe it, and the press was skeptical, but it was easy to see that costs would come down, experiences would improve, and there would be more software to serve needs.

The web enabled anything to be connected to anything or anyone. Open APIs enabled developers to build anything that talking to anything else. Node.js (or any other web/application server) could be ported to devices, or embedded, so now any device can host applications.

Handheld computers were envisioned in the 50's (or before), and showed up in Star Trek. In 2001, I got the first Handspring--a derivative of the Palm Pilot, but better. Soon after they came out with a "cell phone module" that enabled connectivity to the web, phone calls, etc, at gawdawfully slow speeds. But it took the vision of simplicity and elegance before everyone simply had to have one, in the form of an iPhone, Blackberry, or Windows mobile, which never took off.

And then Google dropped Android on the world, and it's now the fastest growing mobile OS.

And now tablets--attempted before but failing because of the insistence of OS vendors to put a PC OS in the form factor, when Jobs said no, let's augment the phone instead of cramming down a Mac OS into a tablet form factor.

For most of us, the operating system started to disappear, with apps the only thing.

The power of computers rocketed through the 2000s, such that significant increases in performance were no longer perceptible to most people--the bottleneck was somewhere else. It just became easy to do just about anything.

Apps were no longer about compilation, mostly; that's handled by the browser, and yes, you have to compile native smartphone apps, but native is going away for most apps because of layers like PhoneGap.

So now it's all about text--writing text, storing text, displaying text (even with images with base64).

We have open source hardware platforms like Arduino. We have apps for just about anything. Yes, there are still dragons to slay, but they seem smaller, and more and more apps are about the little inconveniences.

Modern multitouch rocked our worlds when it was shown by the NYU grad Jeff Han and then popularized by Apple, who bought the Delaware company Fingerworks to add it to the iPhone.

There's a lot more coming, because now everything is programmatically possible.

The big hurdles seem to be with bureacracy. Healthcare technology is highly proprietary, too expensive, and highly fragmented. It's like enterprise software in the early 90's.

Developing nations are largely skipping a PC phase and jumping to cellphones, but not smartphones; cells are becoming more and more like smartphones. Someone, somewhere will release an android cell phone that costs $20, democratizing access and power in a way never seen before.

So now that we're all connected in real time, can build anything, can track everything, can see anything anywhere in real time, make anything with our personal 3-D printers,  and everyone of us can build our own systems like legos, make our own movies and produce high-quality audio, and we Elan is taking us to the Moon again, what is the next wave?

What's next? Just incremental improvements to already amazing stuff? Or is there another sea change possible?

Of course there is. Someone sees it.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Another Punt: Boards (AVC.COM)

Fred has another good boards post.


My comment:

Good post; I have less experience (maybe 6 or 7 boards) but I'll slightly disagree about scope of the role. 
Sometimes the Chair can get too involved and sway the direction of the company, without the rest of the board having much say in the matter. I'm guessing a number of us in the AVC community have witnessed this (or participated).
Distinguishing between the will of the Board and the will of the Chair becomes difficult for the CEO if the Chair goes  beyond that.  
The primary role of Chair is to open, moderate, and close the meetings, set dates for next meetings, and then anything conferred to her by the will of the board (note I said her--however completely unlikely that is given our still rather biased board-selection tendencies that lead to male-heavy boards ..cough cough, Facebook).
Anything beyond that is outside the Chair's authority. 
Power, however, is what you get people to do because of your authority, which a lot of board members (and Chairs) take advantage of. 
On the flip side, if the Chair doesn't set dates, doesn't moderate well, doesn't keep the CEO aware of the Board's directives, expectations can easily be missed and board members can feel dissatisfied. 
It's really up to the CEO to make sure communication is flowing and the company is aligned with the will of the board, because ultimately it's her job on the line and the Chair is just one of several/many vote(s).

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Punt to AVC: The Startup Curve

Fred has a good post for discussion today here, and there are some comments worth reading. My contribution follows...
_____________________________


We held our 8th Startup Lancaster on Monday--20 founders this time, most of them new to the group. We've had a good group since last May, but one of the things I keep seeing is 1) indecisiveness and 2) lack of a business model or confidence in one.

So we focused on 2 things: what is the pain you're alleviating, and what's the model. What do you sell, who is buying it, how often, and how do you deliver it.

You can overcome a lot of the "wiggles of false hope" if you talk daily with prospects and customers and develop the path to sustainable revenue.

"Researching" on the web, talking to friends, attending conferences etc might make you feel like you're doing something, but until somebody makes a sale, you're going to be speculating until you get tired of it and shut down.

Last point--we didn't talk about raising capital. A lot of founders I come across look at investment as external validation that will lift them to success.

But you have to build your own success, and only take capital to amplify it.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Max Gail: Online Community Pioneer

My dad died on November 2nd 1996. On his birthday on November 16th, I was in Vegas on Microsoft's dime to show ChiliReports. And I think that year (it might have been the next) we sponsored the Chili for Children Cookoff. 

We didn't know what we were doing. Hai was there, Chris was there. We were in an arena where the cookoff was going on, and at some point our company name hit the screen. Felt great, even though we paid for it (silly spend). 

But there was a party--a backstage-if-you're-a-sponsor party. They had hired a bunch of has-been actors (better has-been than never-was) and we chatted with a few of them, including the weird guy from Mork and Mindy. 

And then I saw Wojo. Wojo wasn't paid to be there. He was there to tell everybody he could talk to about his vision for online and offline communities. He talked my ear off. And he was right. 

But he was too early. 

Max Gail--Wojciehowicz from Barney Miller--is a visionary. Or was. I have no idea what happened with his ideas. We talked on the phone a few times, and I really believed in him. But I didn't even know what I was doing for us, much less for Max. 

Tonight I remember this for some reason. And I looked him up, and he's still kicking, so I'm thinking I'd like to fly out to LA and buy him a beer, or mocha if that works. 

Max Gail--Internet Pioneer. Wikipedia missed it. 


Punt to AVC on Boards

Fred's got another solid post on boards today, so go check it out and read the comments. But don't stay too long--lots to do.

And reminder: Startup Lancaster is on tonight at 6 pm at the Candy Factory in Lancaster.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Startup [YourTownHere]

Last year I read in the local rag that Sam Abadir had raised $6 million for appMobi, and it was at 35 East Orange St in downtown Lancaster.

Sam who?

This town is entirely too small to learn something like that through the paper. Something felt wrong; there are clearly tech companies here, but they didn't seem to be connected. 

So I asked Ross Kramer of Listrak, Kirk Barrett of Cimbrian, Dave Weaver of Loggr.net to  help gather startups and see what's out there. 

The first Startup Lancaster event drew 20 people or so from about 15 startups. It was thrilling to see the level of interest. 

Since then, we've had about 8 meetings, and a bunch of the companies have made substantial progress. Others have stalled, and some have taken on completely new models. One changed their plan from outsourcing to hiring locally, and will launch shortly. Some have raised capital. 

Recently Kyle Sollenberger (departed co-founder of CoTweet) joined us and has been doling out advice to other passionate founders. 

No founder has all the answers, so we're blessed to have Kyle and the other vets mixing it up with the first-timers. 

I've learned a lot from talking with these founders, and am thrilled to see some of the progress. By getting together, we've helped each other, encouraged each other, guided each other, and developed friendships along the way. 

STARTUP MECHANICSBURG
This week, an intrepid entrepreneur, Josh Smith, heard Kyle present to the Central PA Tech Meetup (another, more general tech group), and Kyle apparently mentioned Startup Lancaster.

Josh liked the idea but didn't like the drive to Lancaster (wimp!), so the next day he started Startup Mechanicsburg (rolls right off the tongue). 

Awesome. 

YOU CAN DO IT TOO


If you know one other startup, one other aspiring founder, set a date, get together, and share your challenges and achievements. 

Call it Startup [insert your town's name here]. There, you've just started your own little ecosystem.

Here are some tips:
  • Use Meetup.com. I used Eventbrite until this week. Meetup is sooo much better, and in the week since I started using it the group has added new founders much faster for some reason. 
  • Promote the night through social media, emails to friends, family, investors, other tech meetups, etc.
  • Tell your nearest branch of Ben Franklin Technology Partners
  • Pick a day of the month when most people are likely to be able to make it. Friday would be a bad choice. 
  • Start at 6 or 7; 5 is too early, after 7 is too late. 
  • Be on time. 
  • Schedule it for an hour and a half to two hours. If people see 3 hours, they might not come, but people will tend to stay two to three hours. 
  • Founders only--no investors, lawyers, vendors, employees, bankers or cops. At some point it makes sense to invite a guest speaker, and maybe even to have a show and tell event where you invite local investors, press, etc. We're just about at that point here in Lancaster. 
  • What happens in fight club stays in fight club. That means don't tell people outside of the group about the challenges of one founder or another. Respect confidentiality. 
  • Be open about your challenges and feel free to share anything. 
  • Be ethical.
  • Typically we order dinner--each is responsible for their own bill. 
  • Make sure the staff knows you're getting separate checks. (crucial!)
  • Pick a venue with a back room or quiet space. If there's music on, ask them to turn it off so you can hear each other without shouting. 
  • Beer is encouraged but not required. Have some. Not too much. 
  • Occasionally have someone demo their stuff. But not often--it can really cut into networking time. 
  • Have each founder introduce themselves with a description of what their startup does and one or two challenges they currently face. 
  • Break into small groups to talk about challenges--no more than 4 per group. 3 is ideal. 
  • Come back together and share what you've learned
  • Don't let any one person dominate (especially the organizer)
  • Be generous with your advice. 
  • Swap out leaders. 
  • Tip the staff. 
  • Do it again next month.
  • Let me know if you've started something -- I'm happy to join you sometime, and I bet others in our group would as well to help you get going. 
If you have more tips please leave them in the comments. 


Thursday, March 8, 2012

Boards, Investors: Don't Send Your Startups Email--Ever

Not one, not two, not even three but FOUR founders have asked me in the past two weeks what to do about the massive amount of email they get from their investors and boards.

It's the avian flu of startup life...slows you down, makes you feel bad, and somehow is spreading form one startup to the next ;)

This post is for board members, who are very smart and wise and can give great advice, of course, but who should be judicious in how and when they give it.

And if you have a board, it's for you to convey this edict to your board and investors:
don't send your startups email. Ever. 
Ok, not ever, but not so much. Please.

You want to help, you see what you think is a compelling article, so you send it. Sometimes without any context, and always without the salient point copied into the email.

And you just took 15 minutes of your valued startup employees' time. Now repeat that a few times a day, every day. 5 hours a week. 20 hours a month.

It's interruptive. It's distracting.

It's occasionally relevant but it is never, ever life-changing, ground-breaking, turn this thing upside down and strap a rocket on its back earth-shaking stuff that justifies the email.

I've never once received an email from an investor or board member with a link leading to a story or post that made me say "Oh shit, now we're screwed". Not once. Or "that's the answer! Hold the phones!" Nada.

We're already up on stuff. We read the latest. There are few credible publications we haven't skimmed or dug into. In fact, we do it too much, because we don't want to miss anything. We might be wandering in the desert now and then, but the email isn't going to help.

Whiteboard session on model? Sure. Absolutely--let's put in on the calendar because that's absolutely great help.

We have deadlines. Business models to validate. Prospects to talk to. Specs to write. Code dragons to slay. And your investment to make fruitful.

Leave us alone for a bit. If you absolutely must send something, cut and paste the one  or two paragraphs that you think are so groundbreaking and write an intro that gives context.

Your investment's time is crucial. And time's a wastin, even reading this post, though it might be the most valuable link you can send--to other board members and investors.



Monday, March 5, 2012

Phyllis Reuther

There are a lot of smart, committed people in the world, but only a few brilliant ones. Phyllis Reuther was one of them.

I just got the sad news from her former colleague and friend Charles Wilson that Phyllis died last week after a battle with cancer. At 58 she was simply too young.

Charles introduced me to Phyllis last year and suggested I ask her to serve as an advisor to Jawaya because of her search expertise. We met for lunch south of the San Francisco airport and hit it off right away.

Phyllis had just taken the role of Director of Research for Sprint, and gave me a tour of the largely empty building, explaining her vision for the labs.

The next time we met, that space was filled with people digging into the possibilities. Her expertise was search, and in particular, mobile search.

She helped me think through a range of issues; one would assume we talked about search or big data or algorithms, but she focused on people and their motivations, really challenging me to think through the rationale for the tech rather than the tech itself.

I didn't know her well, but after a few of our lunches felt I had a friend and guide I could count on--and did.

She'll be missed.

Her obituary is here: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/sfgate/obituary.aspx?n=phyllis-reuther&pid=156309361