'Software Development' Archive

Work Life Separation and Institutional Funding

March 2nd, 2012

(Note: This was cross posted with our friends at StartupNorth.)

I met with a friend this week who has a job. He’s working on a side project with a friend. They both hope to leave their jobs in the near future to work on this new side project full time.

Both partners in this side project have kids, young families. One of the questions he asked me was around fund raising. Specifically the concern that raising funds from institutional investors or angels may put them in a position where they’re being forced to work more than the 60 to 70 hours they’re currently working. Ultimately the concern being that they’ve seen people lives ripped apart by this.

My response was reasonably simple. Product based businesses can, and likely will, consume you and everything in your life. Services based businesses are a lot of work, products are all consuming. If your personal relationships and your support systems aren’t strong, they will get ripped apart. You can’t blame that on investors or entreprenership.

Now for the good news. If your project does not consume you then you have the wrong project. Drop it and move onto the next one or go ask for your job back. Investors won’t force you to work long hours. If they need to, wrong project, drop it, move on.

I’ve said this before, I don’t believe in the myth of work-life separation. In fact, anyone who brings it up with me, I immediately know they have a job they don’t like. The topic of work-life separation has never come up around a group of entrepreneurs. Work-life separation was born of the industrial revolution. You need it to shield that crappy job from your life. Now, full disclosure, I’m drafting this post at 4:21am while you’re cozy in bed. People often use that measure “are you excited to get out of bed and get to work in the morning?”. I use the measure, if you’re sleeping well every night then you may have a job.

My work is my life. My life is my work. I bring all of me to both. Work makes my family stronger, it makes my relationships with my kids stronger, they all feed off each other. The last time I had a corporate gig, my family suffered. That’s just me, I’m not suggesting it’s you.

If you have a great work-life separation today, I’m not advocating you change anything. If, however, you want to work for yourself someday then it’s time to start tearing down that divider. Start by bringing more of you into your work and more of your work home. Don’t worry about losing it or maintaining that barrier, start destroying it. It’s the only chance you have of success out there.

Safety Nets Are For Failing

January 23rd, 2012

A friend who’d been freelancing for the past 6 months recently accepted a job. In speaking with her about her short experience freelancing, she talked about safety nets. They just took on a mortgage, have two cars, etc. If she goes out on her own again, she would prepare better by reducing her income requirements as low as possible. Makes sense right? Prepare to live lean, aim to be ramen profitable. Investors love hearing this stuff!

My response was to disagree. Here’s my concern with ramen profitability, as a goal. A large part of entrepreneurship involves gambling on yourself. You have to become very good at measuring, and taking on, risk. No risk, no nothing. Risk is a requirement. You have to measure that risk effectively so that you aren’t taking unnecessary risks. Once you do take a risk, preparing a series of safety nets is just you deciding you’re going to fail.

“Every person who wins in any undertaking must be willing to burn his ships and cut all sources of retreat. Only by doing so can one be sure of maintaining that state of mind as a burning desire to win, essential to success”

Your subconscious is powerful. If there’s an exit available, it’ll take you there. I speak in public occasionally. I swear, in every case, had someone said to me right before I went up “hey, sorry, we’re running behind, do you mind going next time?”, I’d be all over it. Exit available, exit taken.

There are times when you should be removing failure as an available option instead of preparing it. Did you take driver training when you got your license? Remember being taught about the point of no return when driving into an intersection? As you’re approaching, you are aware of the green light and that it may turn yellow. You explicitly pick a point in time, after which it doesn’t matter if the light turns yellow, you are going through that intersection. It it turns yellow before that point, you hammer on the brakes and stop safely.

What’s the point? The point is that once you pass that point, you can focus and things get simpler. You no longer care about the colour of the light. If the light changes, you don’t flinch, tap the brakes, you just focus on the traffic in the intersection and your only job is to drive through it.

Remember jumping off bridges as a kid? Someone triple dog dared you? Why accept dares like that? Simple, you’re using peer pressure to remove your safety net. You no longer have any choice except to step off that bridge.

Parkinson’s Law says that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. For entrepreneur’s it’s worth considering the role safety nets play. Is it possible that success only expands so as to fill the safety nets available?

Schleping. Sales Solves All.

January 18th, 2012

Paul Graham wrote that part of the reason great startup ideas lie dormant is because of hackers schlep blindness.

“No one likes schleps, but hackers especially dislike them. Most hackers who start startups wish they could do it by just writing some clever software, putting it on a server somewhere, and watching the money roll in—without ever having to talk to users, or negotiate with other companies, or deal with other people’s broken code. Maybe that’s possible, but I haven’t seen it.”

The cliche ‘sales solves all problems’ applies here as well. I spoke with friend recently who is a seed stage investor. I asked them what is the one thing they look for in an investment above all else? Product management skills, user experience, rockstar coder? Their answer was the ability to sell. They require all of those other skills but those can be augmented, taught, hired for. If the person they’re investing in doesn’t appear to have the ability to sell themselves and the product then no deal.

If I wake up in the morning stressed about a product or business I’m working on, I’ve trained myself to focus on selling more that day. If I wasn’t able to sell yesterday then my current plan is flawed. So I make a new plan and go to work selling it. Lean startup folks like to call this a pivot but believe me it’s nothing they created. This is a quote from 1937:

“If the first plan which you adopt does not work successfully, replace it with a new plan, if this new plan fails to work, replace it, in turn with still another, and so on, until you find a plan which does work. Right here in the point at which the majority of men meet with failure, because of their lack of persistence in creating new plans to take the place of those which fail.”

Remember that selling isn’t just about revenue. Selling is about acquiring a customer. Acquiring a customer gets you someone to work for, deliver value to. It gets you your list of todos for today. It gets you out of your office. You can’t hide in your office if you’re selling.

“Thomas A. Edison ‘failed’ ten thousand times before he perfected the incandescent electric light bulb. That is — he met with temporary defeat ten thousand times, before his efforts were crowned with success”

If you’re in software, chances are slim you have any experience selling. Selling doesn’t always mean you’re literally on the road selling. Sales support is selling. Product development is selling. Software development, done well, is selling.

I’m exciting about hosting our half baked session because of that, get us some time to practice selling. You’re given two random words, 5 minutes to prepare, then you have to pitch. You have to focus on who the customer is and what they’re problem is. Fail. Great, you have another 5 minutes to make a new plan and your partner pitches again. Rinse, repeat. The hope is this practice helps us all sell better.

A Co-op Incubator?

August 25th, 2011

I had a great chat over pints yesterday with a friend spitballing the Startupify.me model further. There were a few key threads I wanted to share publicly.

Uniquely Canuck

One was the idea that there is something unique about us folk here in Canada. We agreed that as our startup ecosystem matures, it will be fundamentally different than similar communities in the US and around the world. Understanding how we’ll evolve is less about learning from the valley and more about contemplating who we are, who our parents, grandparents etc are. For my family, we’re closer to the farm than the valley. We’re farmers, we’re builders, our collars have more blue in them than white.

Having said that, we’re also fiercely loyal. We’re company people. For whatever reason, our parent’s generation expect us to go to school and get a good, safe job. My father worked for the same company for 43 years. He started there as a teenaged mechanic.

What does that tell us? We’re hands on, we’re going to grind it out, fill the shop floor with wood shavings. It doesn’t mean we won’t innovate and create, it just means it will come through the work not from outside it.

I’m not interested in ideas that will land on techcrunch and I’m not alone on that. Want to build golf course software? Let’s get some of us working on the ground at a few golf courses. Think there’s space for software innovation in dentist offices? Great, let’s partner with a few dentists and get some software guys in there working daily.

For us I believe we need to do the work first. Innovate from the work out. Let action uncover innovation. It fits with us and it allows us to build sound companies from the customer out.

Us, Together

In the context of startupify.me, what model allows us to share this, in everyway? I’m interested in building success and sharing it, I don’t want to own things, I don’t want employees, I don’t want to manage anyone. What is the right model that engages you? The straight up funded incubator model is out there and known, but what else is there?

In the current model I’ve briefly written up, we have two key stake holders, pre-entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs. We all need to pay our bills, we all want to build successful companies, support each other in that, and share in that success. What model effectively supports that culture?

Is there some form of co-op model that could work here? I’ve been referring to this as Broken Social Scene for startups. If the startupify.me concept appeals to you, would a co-op model make it more or less appealing? Encouraging equity exchanges among members and possibly have startupify.me have equity roles?

Basically all our interests would be highly aligned. As a collective, we would all be invested in the success of each of our startups, pre-entrepreneurs etc. (Bring on the hippie, commune jokes!)

PS: I figured a quick search was in order and outside of a lot of chicken coop sites, Hackers and Founders appear to be headed in a similar direction!

Gamification isn’t new bullshit

August 9th, 2011

I have to admit I’ve talked about applying gaming mechanics to applications during design stages. I can’t say it felt right but I’ll certainly think twice about it again. I’m not suggesting I won’t gamify some apps but I won’t use the term lightly having read Gamification is bullshit.

It does, however, raise some larger questions. While on the surface gamification appears to be enterprise software apps pilfering from software games, I have to say I’m not sure the software gaming space can claim ownership over anything but the term gamification. Maybe I’m missing the point but isn’t our education system an example of gamifying learning? Isn’t our demerit points for bad driving gamifying the rules of the road? Heck, where does capitalism and Canadian Tire money fit into all this?

I’m biased in that I don’t hold much love for rewards, carrots and sticks. If you’re interested, I listed some of my favourite reads on these subjects in the post Rewards Yet Again. One of my favourites is Punished By Rewards by Alfie Kohn.

I agree that gamification tends to be bullshit, however, we were gamifying long before pong came out.

Sweet Spots and Flying Under Radars

July 5th, 2011

If you haven’t read it already, I highly recommend Rob Walling‘s book Start Small, Stay Small. I’m going to ramble around a few background thoughts here so allow me some slack here…

In the book Growing A Business, Paul talks about the almost symbiotic relationship large corporations have with entrepreneurs. Rather than being a battle between the two or mutually exclusive, his thesis is that one can’t exist without the other.

“Entrepreneurial change depends on static situations, and these are provided in abundance by government, large corporations, and other institutions, including educational ones. We need both entrepreneurial and institutional behavior. Each feeds on the other. The role of the former is to foment change. The role of the latter is to test that change.”

I’m in the early stages of a new project. Ideally I’d like to fully bootstrap it myself, however, it’s likely I will raise a very small seed round to bridge the gap to revenue. What’s been interesting in that process is how people who deal in financing circles view that. When you talk about building a $1M, $5M or even $30M company, you’ll hear things like “I like the idea but it’s not a billion dollar idea”.

There was a recent VC panel in Montreal that argued this point around as well. One VC suggested you shouldn’t even come through his door unless you want to build a billion dollar company. He truly meant that to be inspirational, let’s aim high, we need more billion dollar companies.

A European based VC on that panel disputed that, taking the approach that if you want to climb Everest, your first goal should be to climb Rainier. From where I sit, there are far more examples of companies built taking the latter path.

Apple didn’t start out trying to redefine mobile computing. Patagonia started out making better pitons not an outdoor lifestyle behemoth. As well, this approach represents a more actionable first step for an entrepreneur. The idea of conceiving of a billion dollar company from scratch seems absurd to me. Does it mean I’m going to leave the door open to climbing Everest or K2 someday? Well shit ya but today I can’t even make it up the hill to the big church without losing feeling in my left arm.

So here’s the other subtlety in play here. If you’re building a $30M or less company today, you’re well under the radar of any of those large institutions. If you believe any of the above then you need to understand that the sweet spot for entrepreneurs is building these small to medium sized products and companies that the big boys are unable to downsize into. They won’t even know you exist as you work away in their blind spot.

This means you can talk with them, you can share your ideas with them and others. They are literally incapable of competing with you. Now the question is, if you start from day 1 going after a billion dollar idea, are you already setting yourself up from failure as you’re picking a fight you may not need to? Are you starting in a space that requires a large corporation instead of an entrepreneur?


June 28th, 2011

I read about FISI while reading about SparkFun here.

FISI = screw it, ship it

While I’m sure it’s roots are in traditional products and engineering, it’s far more relevant in this web world some of us inhabit. A lot of us literally have no experience building or selling real objects. We build these amorphous things that go by terms like apps, sites and scripts.

If you were selling real world widgets, or better yet let’s make up a real world example. Your family owns a small restaurant. You grow up watching them trade their time for cash by making people breakfast. You decide you want to try selling products instead of time. Your parent’s give you permission to sell some stainless steel coffee mugs at the counter in their restaurant. You save up some cash from your paper route and buy $100 worth of coffee mugs.

Once you receive your first shipment, you unpack them and setup a lovely display at the counter and promptly sell 7 mugs on the first day. The pace continues and you can see the promised land when you’ll have your cash back and start making some. Three days after your first sale, the ugly starts.

A handful of your original customers start complain about the handle. It doesn’t fit into their car cup holders, which makes the mug almost useless for them. They aren’t asking for their money back but they aren’t happy either. As well, some of the mugs have started to leak. For those customers, you offer them their money back.

Immediately you get on the phone with the manufacturer. The good news is they’re aware of the issues, explain that their next version will remedy them so you can look forward to that when you next order. The bad news is you still have 3/4 of your order unsold. Naturally you take those unsold mugs and toss them in the trash and place another $100 order for the new and improved mugs so you can start selling again. Right?

Well clearly not. In the real world we rarely toss out perfectly good product simply because we think we can make it better. Even in the above example, there’s no proof the next batch of mugs will be any better than the previous. In fact, there’s as much chance they could be worse. When the product is software, it’s all too easy to toss out the previous batch because we’re not willing to sell it. It doesn’t represent us well, it’ll hurt our reputation, etc. The cost of manufacturing software can be easy to forget about.

The next time you’re deciding if your software is ready for market, take a moment. Think about what your sales targets were. 100, 1000 licenses? Now imagine that’s a box of 1000 widgets sitting on your desk that you’re about to toss in the landfill. FISI may be closer than you think.

Knowing when to create a factory

January 5th, 2011

I dabble in home renovations and low end woodworking when I’m not stuck at a keyboard. The commonality being that I seem to enjoy building stuff, whether the raw materials be 1’s and 0’s or pine.

One of the skills both require is developing the wisdom to recognize when you need to build a factory and how much to invest in a particular factory. In this context, factory refers to a setup to allow you to repeat a particular task well several times.

In a woodworking context we’re talking about tweaking your workbench or building a full-on jig or template. A recent example that comes to mind are some built-in dressers I made for our bedroom. There were 10 shelves to be built so taking some time to setup a system to easily build 10 of the same thing was worth it. I wasn’t building 100 but 10 is enough to spend some time. In other cases I’ve built jigs for projects I’ve only created one of because there was simply no other way to do it well.

In the programming sense, we’re talking about all the supporting tools around your tasks such as an IDE, build tools, scripts, unit tests, plugins etc. In both cases, you need to assess the time required to build the factory balanced against how long that factory will exist and the time it will save you over the life of the task.

Developing and honing your judgment as to when you should be spending more time building a factory can increase both your productivity and the quality of your work. It’s also a very valuable skill to have in a team lead and mentor.

Being Different

October 9th, 2010

I noticed an undertone to the first day of talks at this week’s Business of Software. That was to be different, stand out, be unique. Create a different company. Towards the end of the day, when a speaker once again suggested that we all should build a ‘different company’, I considered raising my hand to ask… “But if everyone in this room follows your advice to be different, won’t all our companies end up being the same?”

I didn’t ask that question. In the end, that was good because it was answered by the final speaker of day 2 in the clearest way I’ve heard it before. Youngme Moon opened her brilliant talk with the following video:

My lame attempt to summarize: Strong brands stand out and somehow manage to get their customers to view their negatives as positives. Weak brands, through competing, drift towards sameness resulting in their customers viewing their positives as negatives.

One of her examples? While every furniture showroom competes by offering free delivery, great customer service, and quality product, only one brand stands out. There is only one strong brand in this space and it’s Ikea. The others have their positives flipped on them. Their amazing customer service results in “man I wish they’d just leave me alone when I’m in the store” while Ikea’s negatives are flipped as well, “Ah, assembling it is kinda fun”, “I can’t find anyone here who actually works at Ikea but this place is cool”.

Youngme also talked about how vulnerable different ideas are in their infancy. The reason being that a truly different idea is almost indistinguishable from a crazy idea. I’d love to see the looks you’d get if you’d suggested these ideas to Leon’s before Ikea came to Canada:

  • Let’s not offer shipping.
  • Let’s not compete by increasing the quality of our furniture.
  • Let’s offer free daycare to our customers.
  • Let’s not have great customer service, people can just roam around on their own.
  • Let’s put in a full restaurant with cheap breakfast and meatballs.

In that setting those ideas would be considered lunacy right? If you’ve committed to building a different company then crazy ideas are one of your most precious assets and allowing them to be squashed puts you straight on the path to sameness. You will quickly become indistinguishable from your competitors. If that’s your goal then eliminating crazy is a good start.

Dharmesh from Hubspot talked about how your business has to make happy customers not make customers happy. What’s the difference? The latter is about tooling your entire business to churn out happy customers. The former would have killed Ikea. Had Ikea focused on making their customers happy they would have quickly offered free shipping, made their crappy furniture better quality and easier to assemble etc. In short they would have become the same as everyone else.

Does this mean you need to focus solely on your negatives, build crappy software and make your customers hate you? Well no. If, however, you have decided that being different is important then you need to decide what negatives you’re going to hold on to. Don’t apologize for them, in fact start trumpeting them. Being different for the sake of being different is being a clown. Being different to create a bit of friction and offer your customers a better overall experience is the path to a strong brand. If different is you then you also need to hold crazy in high esteem and foster it and you need to worry less about making everyone happy.

A personal example? I own a Daihatsu Hijet Jumbo. For me it’s the perfect truck. Someone recently told me “you have the coolest truck in Guelph”. People smile when I drive by, kids shout and cheer at the truck, people take photos of it, etc. Sure they’re laughing at me but if you’re building a brand, isn’t being noticed important?

Why is this crappy little truck cool anyway? Look at all the negatives. You have to drive on the other side of the car, it’s so small you can’t fit anything in it, nothing’s automatic, it barely does 100 km/h, you have to shift gears with your left hand, there’s hardly any room in the cab etc etc. Somehow though, all those negatives are considered positives and people think it’s a cool truck? If Daihatsu aggressively tried to make their customers happy, what would they do? I’m sure you can imagine what the average company would do and within a few years their trucks would look like every other truck on the road. They would become same.

I say keep up the crazy, own your negatives, do something different!

Help Us With Our Product Dev Area

September 7th, 2010

At Brainpark, when we have the odd spare cycle, we’re working on getting a basic product development team area built. It’s a place away from our corporate site where we can be a bit more playful and be a voice for the design and development team. We’re looking for inspiration and ideas.

  • What does this site need to include?
  • What should it not include?
  • What are the best product dev team sites you’ve seen?
  • Should we talk about formal stuff like roadmaps, upcoming features, power user tricks etc?