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Archive for the ‘My New Startup’ Category

The Risk Of “Don’t Make Me Think”

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

Or, when the knowledge should be in the box, that you call your company

We have (almost) all heard about the Amazon cloud outage at the North Virginia data center, and for sure we have been hearing many bloggers’ thoughts about it. Here is my take at it.

Disclaimer: all what I write doesn’t aspire to a general validity, it only tries to have a very special validity for my own approach to producing web applications and IT services, and at being an entrepreneur in general. The current hyperspace event is a very good opportunity to double check the concept of ”Don’t make me think”.

As Leon Katsnelson writes, this outage has shown how many companies use cloud computing. The question to me is not whether this is a good or a bad thing, or whether they should have bought a different sevice from Amazon, the question to me is more whether they are at all aware of it.

Cloud computing as a business model has taken some knowledge out of the companies and has collected it inside the service itself. Cloud computing has taken on because of the “don’t make me think” drive.  Together with  the knowledge, what has been thrown out of the companies, are also a lot worries and that is what  companies pay for, they pay to be able to think about something else than computing.

This is all right and well, in the end “Don’t make me think” is what all businesses sell in a way or the other. However some business should rather re-think what their core business is.

I by pure chance know of at least one company that has been down due to this outage, and whose very business is selling backup services. And they not only sell to final customers, they sell to resellers. This means that many, and many companies, whose business, among other things, is selling continual availability of data, have been down for over 24 hours, and without having any chance to do anything about it, for themselves or for their customers.

The lesson: when you sell “Don’t make me think” it should be based on your own knowledge of what’s in the box. If you sell a box that you bought from someone else that bought it from someone else that … you got it, then you not only take the thinking out of the equation, but also the responsibility, and that’s overselling.

Differently from Leon Katsnelson, I think that there are other options than buying cloud computing from Amazon, whether it is with a silver lining or not: one is to build your own cloud, the technology is readily available and if your business is backup services, the knowledge too should be in your own box.

You won’t fund my startup? I give you a free software tool!

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

On the onStartup Linked In group someone posted what boils down to the question “what do you do when you realize that no VC would finance your startup”. Among the many “combat” answers, there was one that I picked up as the path I would follow in such case.

Some months later I have in fact been contacting some VCs and I’ve got a bunch of negative replies, directly or indirectly. I have understood the arguments and made some realizations. So I got back to that one answer and now I’m going to  follow that path.

  1. Why did they turn me down
  2. What did I understand and
  3. What is the path I will follow,

you’ll ask? Well here it comes, but first comes the answer to another fundamental question:

0. Why did I spoke to VCs in the first place?

0. To try and get funds of course, but also and most importantly to come out of my comfort zone, to stop coding and start thinking, that is, to start relating to reality as it presents itself on the market place, VCs being a part of the market.

This means that I used VCs more like sparring partners than possible sources of funds. Of course, if they would have chosen my startup to invest in, that would have been an added bonus, however not getting funded has not been a complete failure at all.

Question 1. Why did they turn me down?

To make it short, among the different reasons they gave me, the fundamental one is that I’m out too early, the project is untested with real people so as things stand now, although lots of proof of concepts has been done on the critical technical aspects, the whole thing  to them is not much more than pies in the sky. (Other untold reasons deserve their own post, stay tuned for more).

Question 2. What did I get out of this exercise (speaking to VCs)

The fundamental result of doing this is that I had to prepare myself for speaking, that is I had to speak out my ideas, so people understand them. I saw the reactions on their faces when I spoke, I heard the arguments used to test my ideas. Still more important: I heard the many people I spoke with to prepare for speaking to the VCs. Further, each VC  wants you to present your idea in a different way, someone wants you to make an “odd presentation” that shows whether you’re able to stand out of the crowd, others want a 3 minutes pitch, others again want to see your exec summary first, while some wants to see the whole business plan, before engaging in any discussion.

Staying in good shape

This alone got me at work to refine my ideas and plans to make them viewable from all these different angles. It compelled me to cut down the fat and get to the essence of what is the product, what makes this different from others, what will make it or brake it.

It’s a heck of a lot of work to be doing for getting nothing, isn’t it? Yes, It ‘s a lot of work but not for getting nothing. What I got is very important. And I’m still glad I did this “too early”. The real outcome of this exercise is the cutting down, so that the shape of my business proposition is clear and explicable to many different people. Guys that not just listen politely to you, but that are there to question you and to doubt your skills and plans because they themselves have something at stake.

When you prepare to really try and convince such people your mindset changes. It is a big step closer to reality. Of course, as it is said, the biggest step is making the first person to open the wallet and pass over some money to you.  However, when that happens, you will want to know exactly why.  For an IT entrepreneur the exercise of speaking to possible investors is a more involving test than just putting up some functionality with a link to a payment gateway.

“No I don’t like coding

The irony of this is that  one VC told me, “why do you do this, because you like coding, don’t you?” Well it was just a test from him, because he meets so many “business people”, programmers that put up a system because they like coding and they like what they code, no matter if this is what the market likes, and it would be lovely if someone would pay you for doing what you like instead of the other way around. And no, that was not the case, however he was still not so happy to hear that, “no, I don’t like coding for the sake of it, as a matter of fact I haven’t coded anything at all yet”. In the end he wanted to try the system out with some would be customers, while in the end I wanted to try my ideas out with him.

What now?

Now the one path to follow, remember? the answer I picked up on the group forum. The path is to think an MVP,  a Minimum Viable Product, cut down on dreams, functionality and – most important – time and cost, and bootstrap the whole thing, i.e. just doing by myself. This is what I’m working at now. The technical/design principles however are the same as I told you last time. As a demonstration of that I want to give you the promised goody, that is a preview and a tool that follows those same principles, having some elements of the described principles 2 – 4. For you that don’t bother reading the last post these are:

2. Don’t make me think
3. Software as candies
4. The fun theory

A free software tool

I will use this tool myself to wrap in my webapplication the day it will hit the market (keep your breath, it’s within view). You can use it too if you are skilled enough to understand how to bring it to good use. NB! It is not for everything or for everybody.

The tool is a 3 panes Split Desktop. You find it on its project page with detailed explanation for how to install and use it.

I would love to hear from you, either here on this blog or on the YUI Library forum for the SplitDesktop

See you soon, Paolo Nesti Poggi

5 Ingredients That Will Change Your Life

Saturday, January 29th, 2011

I told you in my last blog that I will change your life with my new startup, but I’m still not prepared to reveal my business proposition. However, what I can tell you right now is, which ingredients will make my business a success. Indeed these ingredients are those making the success of many other endeavors, so it’s just a matter of grabbing them, mixing up, adding salt and pepper and consume, right? Well, I hope you will tell me what your angle on this is. Here is mine.

The ingredients are:

1. Give me the dream of a different world
2. Don’t make me think
3. Software as candies
4. The fun theory
5. The choice of tools is key to success or failure

1. Give me the dream of a different world

Let’s start with a thought experiment. Let’s take some undisputed great successes: Apple, B&O (well, I’m writing from Denmark) and Harry Potter.
We can put these 3 to a test to try and extract which characteristics have determined their outcome. The test is to think whether a, let’s say standard, business proposition, would be able to convey the chances of success that we now know the three businesses have experienced. So: How would an honest business proposition for each of these three endeavors have been?
  • “Computers and handheld devices with superior performance and usability. A distinctive design”, for Apple.
  • “TV, radio and sound equipment with superior finish, total integration, a conservative touch”, for B&O
  • “A fantasy series, telling the story of three magical friends during their stay at a wizard school. The reader follows the story of three friends while they overcome all adversities in a caleidoscopic world of witches, wizards, villains, supernatural forces and strong family and friendship relationships”, for Harry Potter.
It is clear that no one would bet a dime on such business propositions. And why not? No one would, because these statements can be applied to thousands of other similar companies and literature works, that are the living proof of the fact, that such business propositions are not describing something able to strike a chord with so many people as it is the case for our three champions.
It is possible that Apple is now defining what superior design is, however the opposite is by no means the case. What is superior design?  A mouse with one button? What is finish, a telephone that weighs 200 grams more than necessary? What is an irresistible fantasy world? A school? We could of course go on and on, the point however is that no single element in these projects is the joker that made it, or the single answer to a specific need, neither the key to success is to be found in a description of what these projects are by and in themselves.
No, my thesis is that the success comes from the promise of a different world and from providing the stepping stones, each leading towards the realization of that same promise, and each being reaffirmation of that promise.
A world where we are free from some of the laces that binds us in the current one. It is the realisation of the fact that when I dream at night I dream of flying, I don’t dream of a cheap intercontinental ticket.
Acknowledging and reproducing this, will have to be my first ingredient.

2. Don’t Make Me Think (or the Ego Wow)

Of course Don’t Make Me Think is the title of a great book on how to design websites, but the statement encompasses in general another of the traits of what makes a winning product and not only a winning web design.
In some sense it might seem counterintuitive, because one could argue that people want to think, because they want to be creative. And yet people want to make their own thoughts, actually people love to be able to produce more thoughts and be more productive, and reach more of their goals… with less effort.
This means that each additional thought that doesn’t spring from their own mind is a barrier put in the way towards their goals. In this sense, “don’t make me think” is at the root of every person’s choice, it means: “give me the tools to reach my own goals without having to think about the how”. “I don’t mind having many goals as far as these are mine and well within reach”.
As we see, this ingredient is complementary to the above: the one is the promise of a different world, and the other is the how to reach it with no effort or, more correctly and in a more fundamental way, with less effort that it seemed possible. In the end, it is a “wow effect” applied to personal performance. It is about nourishing the little child in us shouting “Mom, look what I’m capable of!”.
“Don’t make me think” will have to be the second ingredient offered to my customers.

3. Software as candies

At this point I think I must reveal at least that my startup has much to do with software, computers, the Web and all the rest (you had guessed it anyway, hadn’t you?). And speaking of software, at some point I came across a concept that I think stems from Joel Spolsky’s blog. Nonetheless I cannot find it with a search on the site, so maybe I’m wrong (can you point me to the right article, by the way?). The idea, as far as I remember, was to architect software as an experience for the user that consists of a chain of small candies, that one by one will attract the user and reveal the entire package. The goal of this approach is to not overwhelm the user with too much information and/or functionality all at a time and elicit some pleasure for the discovery.
Ideally, one should present the user with the right information only at the right time. The right time being not simply when the user needs it, but more effectively when the user is in the mood, the position, the ability, the right circumstances to explore more, even if it is just for the pleasure of it. This is of course easier said than done; however, it is a good principle to keep in mind, and combine with other very good principles like Less is more and Murder your Darlings.
This will have to be the glue that keeps all the other elements together, my third ingredient.

4. The fun theory

No trace of  “software as candies” was to be found on Joel Spolsky’s blog, however I found another article that leads me to the next ingredient bound to make my “recipe” a resounding success. In his “What Is Great Design (first draft)”  JS writes about conflicting constraints, the author brings the design of a dustbin as an example and concludes his analysis of requirements writing: “Ok, light, heavy, big, and small. What else. It should be closed on the top, so rubbish doesn’t fly away in the wind. It should be open on the top, so it’s easy to throw things away. It should be really, really, really cheap.“A paradoxical example which by itself is very enlightening, however these conflicting constraints and solving them is “only” the part that I as a software developer must solve, and my work will possibly be OK: never great, hopefully not lousy, probably something that by it’s nature will always have some flaws.
So, how can I even think of producing a great business success based on software, knowing that shortcomings is the name of the game? Well, as it is shown by this other dustbin, the secret is to let people forget about the flaws, by creating enthusiasm or fun, this is the fun theory. This ingredient will have to be used sparingly and only after due consideration of the context.

Closing remarks

This post is long enough so I will close it here and leave the last ingredient for a next post. But if you at this point still feel like reading more words, I can point you to a place where you can find as many as you wish and you can choose too.
It is clear to me that the 4 principles – and some subprinciples – mentioned above, are all descending from or necessary to fulfill the first one: The ability to suggest/evocate a whole world where things are different, easier, and where the me in the picture is a more capable person. Not simply able to exploit this or that particular feature, but more empowered, able to do more with less, and confident that, if ever in need, a loving Hermione will come to the rescue.
Many more than 4 or 5 are the ingredients that make up a business, however these seem to me absolutely required if a business is to be making an impact on the life of people.  What do you think?

I Will Change Your Life!

Monday, January 3rd, 2011

As a new year resolution I’m starting this blog series about my findings and thoughts on the way to build my new startup. I’ve already been a long way “on the road” and met the most diverse sites, ideas, technologies and people. Starting from today, I will write down some notes about these encounters and how my project develops.

Why do I do this? I should have more important things to use my time on, than just write about what I’m doing, right? Yes, however this is a very good way to come out of my comfort zone.  To expose myself, so to put myself in a position where a failure is no longer an option, as it would be too expensive in terms of reputation.

Last year I came across one incredibly wise writer about investments, startups, good ideas and the like: Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator. By the way if you are interested in startups, VCs and surroundings, I encourage you to read all of his essays.

Well, in the one entitled “How Not to Die”, Paul Graham tells about one of the founders of Octopart, that besides dropping out of school to follow his dream, also appeared in Newsweek with the word “Billionaire” printed across his chest.

PG writes: “He just cannot fail now. Everyone he knows has seen that picture. Girls who dissed him in high school have seen it. His mom probably has it on the fridge. It would be unthinkably humiliating to fail now. At this point he is committed to fight to the death.”

I don’t necessarily want to be a billionaire, but certainly I do want to change your life, with my simple yet revolutionary innovation. Remember this, you girl of long time ago, that ditched me at high school, and you old friend that are looking for an early retirement and are laughing at my enthusiasm to work on this project, and you casual reader that for now don’t really see where this is going to lead.

Follow me on the next posts, because I will change your life.