Archive for February, 2009

Sanity check your Web App dev strategy with Dion Hinchcliffe – PART 2

February 27, 2009

In my followup to PART 1 of this post I have listed Dion Hinchcliffe’s next 25 recommendation for developing a web app strategy:

house-of-cards

Is your Web Architecture made from a house of cards?

  1. Monetize every page view (26.) – As a SaaS app will be charging a monthly subscription service fee. So, no ads.
  2. Users’ data belongs to them, not you (27.) – Tell Facebook this! We intend to enable customers to export their historical data as part of our service.
  3. Go to the user, don’t only make them come to you. (28.) – Great ideas for creating Facebook applications, OpenSocial gadgets, and enabling use from mashups. Huddle.net have successfully taken this approach with Facebook, LinkedIN,etc.
  4. SEO is as important as ever, so design for it (29) – We’ve learnt alot from this blog and E20portal.com on data URL address-ability.
  5. Know thy popular Web standards and use them (30) – We think open standards is the future, so embrace it 😉
  6. Understand and apply Web-Oriented Architecture (WOA) (31.) –  We are using a leading proven and stable web-app development framework for rapid dev and differentiation. We understand the need for standards for customer interaction.
  7. Online products that build upon enterprise systems should use open SOA principles (32.) – SOA is not a factor for our service.
  8. Strategically use feeds and syndication to enable deep content distribution (33.) We intend to offer feeds for key data points that matter to our customers. Our customers’ feedback will drive our direction.
  9. Build on the shoulders of giants; don’t recreate what you can source from elsewhere (34.) –  ‘First Rule of Architecture Club’ – reuse where possible! Our framework gives us much reuse capabilities, however sometimes we have needed to build ground up to bring flexibility.
  10. Register the user as soon as possible (35.) –  The 37Signal’s FedEx form is a great example of improved forms/registration. Simplicity is the key. Not thought about OpenID.. an idea to think about 🙂
  11. Explicitly enable your users to co-develop the product (36.) – We want to co-dev as much as possible but first we need a product to start the conversations.
  12. Provide the legal and collaborative foundations for others to build on your data and platform (37.) – Open API is a goal.
  13. Design your product to build a strong network effect (38.) – Good idea for many social Web 2.0 apps but not sure this one fits so well with our service.
  14. Know your Web 2.0 design patterns and business models (39.) – We believe we have a product and revenue model which should work.. Only time will tell.
  15. Integrate a coherent social experience into your product (40) – Web infrastructure monitoring is primarily a internal concern.  However, experiences and advice could be shared on our forum.
  16. Understand your business model and use it to drive your product design (41.) – We are going to be Freemium and our value proposition is tuned into the changes resulting from the current economic climate.
  17. Embrace emergent development methods (42.) – Companies such as MindTouch and Intalio have embraced this Crowdsource approach, however healthy profits still  need to be made to survive and grow.
  18. It’s all about usability, usability, and usability (43.) – An obvious but excellent point. UI is king!! And we want to put as much time and effort into this as we can afford.
  19. Security isn’t an afterthought (44.) – Simon, my co-founder,  has a strong background in security working for a Global Credit card company/Bank. SaaS startups must understand security because it’s a major barrier to uptake.
  20. Stress test regularly and before releases (45.) – Already cover this one.
  21. Backup and disaster recovery, know your plan (46.) – Again Simon and I have a background in infrastructure so we know the rules and will stick to them
  22. Good Web products understand that there is more than the Web (47.) – .Humm, let’s crawl first 😉
  23. Look for emerging areas on the edge of the Web (48.) – Innovate but don’t educate the market at your expense. We are being careful with this one.
  24. Plan to evolve over time, for a long time (49.) – That’s why we love the Tech business – it never sits still 🙂
  25. Continually improve yourself and your Web 2.0 strategies (50) – Stop, reflect and start again. The best form of design 🙂

Interestingly there were some negative comments of Dion’s post:

“this is a terrible article… it’s like hearing about someone is development saying ‘be nice, love others, do your homework'”.  I responded saying:

“I do not believe there is an ‘insightful’ silver bullet solution any problems in life including web app dev. Following the basic principles extremely well is often the answer plus a little bit of lady luck. But we often find the obvious is hard to follow.”

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The Lucky Entrepreneur: How to make your own luck

February 24, 2009

Last week I gave a half day briefing to 30 Entrepreneurship MBA students on identifying entrepreneurial opportunities (see my Slideshare presentation and blog post). Feedback on my presentation was positive and two of the students even put comments on this blog. One of them referred to the need for ‘Lady luck’. Since then I’ve been thinking about the meaning of being lucky and how one becomes lucky.

luckyleprecon1

The Lucky Irish Leprecon & his pot of Gold

Until now I’ve not thought much about luck in life.  I have had a lucky life so far but things can always change. I now need all the luck I can get with a new a startup (50% of startups fail within 5 years) and we are now in a deep recession (depression..!).

What is luck? When asked about the secret of their successes I’ve heard of founder’s or senior managers saying they were lucky. However some people seem to have all the bad luck with many things in life going against them. What’s the difference between these two types of people:

  1. Hard work? A focused and committed effort on achieving a goal reduces the risk of failure and increases the likelihood of success
  2. Random chance? I don’t believe in chance – There is no such thing as chance; and what seem to us merest accident springs from the deepest source of destiny.Johann Friedrich Von Schi
  3. Being in the right time in the right place? Fait, coincidence or destiny you may call it. If you are determined and locate yourself often enough in the right place where thing can happen, they eventually will.
  4. Seeing the positive and making the most of the negative? Those people with the streaks of bad luck in life seem to struggle to find the difficult times, which we all encounter, as ultimately beneficial. It seems unlucky people often wallow in self pity and reflect on the past. Whereas positive (lucky) people see a brighter future.
  5. Being modest about your own achievements and efforts? This is an interesting one.. Lucky people seem often to be modest about their success. They attract other lucky (positive) people around them which results in more luck (success)! But its not luck, it’s a deep understanding of other people . Lucky people don’t seem to have bloated ego’s. Their interested  in others and not in being self obsessed.

At my talk I referred to the need to reduce risk in business. However risk and taking chances can’t be eliminated altogether. You can become paralyzed if  you don’t go for it at some point. ‘Screw it, lets do it’ as Richard Branson likes to say. Luck is about reaching a positive outcome. It’s based upon probability and probability is the assessment of a measured risks. Louis Pasteur said “Chance favours the prepared mind.” and Ernest Hemingway, “You make your own luck”.

I believe there is much truth in these two statements and becoming a lucky person is combination of the five points listed above. Richard Wiseman, head of a University psychology research department, studied lucky people for 8 years and found very similar attitudes in lucky people. I hope luck shines on us all and shines brightly when we really need it, including my little startup :)

3 ways to spot Startup opportunities

February 20, 2009

Our story thus far..

I left employment back in 07 to do an MBA in Entrepreneurship with the UK’s Top Entrepreneurial University. I loved every MBA minute. When I finished I convinced one of my best friends, Simon Oxley, to leave his well paid corporate job with all its benefits to start a business. We really did ‘burn our ships’ as we did not know what we were going to startup in. We left ourselves no choice, no retreat!.

tn-burning_ships

However, we did have alot of experience in the Tech industry and knew we wanted to sell b2b.  We looked around and could see Web2.0 was moving into companies with Enterprise 2.0.

To get involved with this emerging trend we built and launched an Enterprise 2.0 informational website. The website proved to be great experience but did not and was not going to make us money.We decided we wanted to develop software but we needed to work out what we were going to build. Reflecting back I think we spent too much time figuring out what to do. It seems that this is a common problem for startups. We now know what we are going to do with our Aware Monitoring service.

Spotting Startup opportunities

My MBA and on the job learning experiences have taught me many things on what,  how and where to find startup opportunities:

  1. Using prior knowledge – Market experience is a wonderful thing. It brings deep understanding of customer problems; insider knowledge of the competitive landscape; awareness of market changes and there impact’s. This knowledge can be harnessed to identify new and emerging opportunities in a given marketplace.  Warning: care needs to be taken that the opportunity is a ‘gap in the market’ and there is in fact a  ‘market in this gap’. Many market gaps are unfilled because they are a unprofitable. There is also no such thing as the ‘perfect opportunity’ and competition is inevitable.
  2. See opportunities in Change – Change brings opportunity as I discussed with my ‘5 career alternatives for start-up founders during the recession’ post. This change can be driven by technology, demographics or government policies. The famous academic Joseph Schumpeter refers to technological change as ‘Creative Distruction’. However to realise the opportunity these changes bring, startup founders must have the ability to turn a idea into reality. ‘Talk is cheap’ as they say.
  3. Social networks – Even when you’ve found that world changing opportunity that’s only the beginning. An opportunity needs to be tested with friends, soft prospects and real target customers. It must be sold. Because there is no such a thing as the perfect opportunity openness to  new ideas must be maintained. New improved sub opportunities may present themselves as the initial opportunity unfolds. An idea changes as you talk to your social networks and attempt to sell to real life, paying customers.

Our  opportunity search..

By September 08 we had refined all our ideas into four final opportunities. I still think these are good opportunities with great potential and will share them with you. Please prove me right and turn these into a real business. The challenge is not just in knowing where an opportunity lies but in the implementation. Paul Graham of Y combinator lists a ton of opportunities saying ‘imaginative people will take them in directions we didn’t anticipate. .’

  1. Tagging software for unstructured data i.e. photo’s, files, etc (problem: information overload)
  2. Climate change website/portal/Social network (Change: behaviour change forced by the world’s increasing temperature)
  3. Virtual conference platform (Change: forced decrease in travel because of climate change)
  4. Preventative web systems  monitoring (Change: more reliance on web systems)

We’ve taken the 4th option with Aware Monitoring.  We’ve also speeded our pace up. It’s been a neck breaking last four months: we’ve committed to an opportunity; wrote and presented a business plan,; built a prototype; started full development; found a product name (with matching URL); got a logo and now this week we have a Launch page. It starting to feel real and the SaaS market is showing signs of blooming in the down turn 🙂

Launchpage design: One v.small step for man, one giant leap for Aware Monitoring

February 17, 2009

We’ve now got our Aware Monitoring launch page up – hurray!!! It took more work than we originally thought, which seems the norm for software development. The two build choices for a homepage or Launch page are pre-built technology or Do-It-Yourself.. We looked at both. Here are our experiences, ideas and some useful links. Our launch page requirements were:

  1. Email address box
  2. Beta Tick box
  3. Text action button
  4. Unsubscribe & email statement
  5. 1-2 sentences about product/benefit
  6. Logo image branding
  7. Link to Privacy Policy

We looked at heaps of past Launch pages  including the examples on Launch Soon . Dave Stone also has some useful tips on launch pages. We liked the Newsvine page the most because its straight forward and bold. We also looked at Alex Tew’s PopJam recent beta Launch page.

newsvine_holding
Newvines launch page

We were going to use Feedburner for our registration system and email updates, but after some thought found it too limiting. We wanted to give visitors the option to signup for news updates and also be on our beta. Feedburner did not give us this capability, so we decided to build our own registration system. This brings more flexibility and we can extend the system as our needs change. Now I’m starting to see why so many dev houses build there own tools.

aware_admin
Aware Monitoring Launch page backend

aware_monitoring_launch_page1
Aware Monitoring Launch Page – One small step at a time.

We also published our new Extreme Bootstrappers blog static holding page today:

extreme_bootstrappers_holding_page

More details on the Extreme Bootstrappers blog to follow another day. Interestingly I viewed a slide show entitled ‘What is design’. Its says design is at the heart of everything. I think they could be onto something 🙂

Beginners guide to Twitter: Do’s, don’ts & etiquette

February 12, 2009

Yes, Twitter’s gone mainstream in the UK and USA, moving from geek to the street. The UK ‘s much beloved Stephen Fry now has 187,000 Followers!! The Web2.0 tech Superstar Kevin Rose 88,000 following is now looking puny compared to the heavy weight celebrities. Poor old Twitter is going to fall apart now with all this new traffic. They could’nt cope before!! I’m a Twitter newbie and want to know the Twitter do’s, don’ts and  etiquette.

stephen_fry_iphone_twitterer1
Mr Fry The Twit..ter

I’ve held back on Twitter for a long time, preferring the old fashioned Jedi way of Blogging. Even the die hards like my blogger friend Bill Ives are getting in on the Twitter act. Now I’m signed up on Twitter (http://twitter.com/nickpoint) I want to learn how to Tweet. Searching around I’ve founds lots of hints and tips to answer my questions:

twitter-bird

How do I get more Twitter follows?

Ryan Carson recommends: re-Tweeting; speaking at events; making new real world friends and write blog posts to increase your Twitter following. Easy, huh! Kevin Rose adds 10 more ideas: Fill out your Twitter bio;  put links to your Twitter profile everywhere e.g Digg, LinkedIn, Facebook, blog, etc; Tweet about your passions in life; tell everyone about your Twitter id e.g tell your Mom about Twitter.. 😉 ; Tweet pictures; Start a contest; watch and learn from other Twitterers; look for hot topics and track your results.

What’s a re-Tweet anyway?

‘”RT” or “retweeting” is simply taking a twitter post from someone else and forwarding (rebroadcasting) it to your followers. Retweeting can be a great way to add followers, as it pushes your @username into foreign social graphs, which in turn results in clicks back to your profile. Make sure to track your retweets using retweetist.’ Kevin Rose

What can go wrong with Twitter?

Apart from the frustrating down time, but hey it is a free service, Twitter can end up taking alot of time. More than your overflowing email box it seems. I read Jim Connolly’s Marketing blog. He’s got 23,000 Twitter follows and has just thrown in the Twitter towel. He’s been spending (‘wasting’) two and a half hours each day on Twitter! Most of this was Twittering with people he did not know. Like the chief techno geek Robert Scoble Jim is moving to FriendFeed instead.

Like email flame-mail Twitter can have a negative impact. Known as Twittercide!! The advice is don’t lose your temper and stay calm, try to defuse conflicts and look for a mediator when necessary. Unlike one to one email Twitter is open for everyone to view and judge. The marketing and startup guru Seth Godin warns people about using Twitter because it’s easy to be misunderstood.

How can I use Twitter as a marketing tool?

The mega marketeer marketing tool for his website. Click here for Guy’s advice. Companies like Virgin Blue have very successfully used Twitter for marketing. It looks like Twitter will turn into even more of a mainstream marketing tool over time now.

I think Twitter has great mainstream social and commercial potential. However, care needs to be taken on what is written , how much time is spent on Twitter and who is followed. Hey, you never know Twitter may even end up as the standard office tool and also replace SMS Texting in the future.

Sanity check your Web App dev strategy with Dion Hinchcliffe & co

February 11, 2009

Dion Hinchcliffe recently published a great blog post, ’50 Essential Strategies For Creating A Successful Web 2.0 Product’. Dion highlights the success of online web app’s coming from software architecture and product design. I know Dion and have featured Dion Hinchcliffe’s blog on our E20portal.com website. Dion is heavily focused on Web2.0 and Enterprise IT architecture. You only have to look at Twitters ups and downs to see the effect weak foundations can have on a web app. The challenge is should you prepare your web app for scaling now or worry about it later.

twitter-down-again-bad-architecture
Oh no, Twitters down again!!  (Febuary 2009)

We liked Dion’s post so much we checked his architecture/design recommendations against our startup web app to see if we’re on the right tracks:

  1. Start with a simple problem– Web infrastructure monitoring is a mature sector and we are focused on one simple solution.
  2. Create prototypes as early as possible – We built an inexpensive prototype late last year
  3. Get people on the network to work with the product prototype rapidly and often – We are trying v.hard to get our beta out as soon as possible.
  4. Release early and release often– As a SaaS provider releasing often is the norm
  5. Manage your software development and operations to real numbers that matter – We’ve already commercial identified key performance indicators
  6. Gather usage data from your users and input it back into product design as often as possible – We are very keen to do this but need to work more on click stream analytics
  7. Put off irreversible architecture and product design decisions as long as possible – Tricky to do
  8. Choose the technologies later and think carefully about what your product will do first – Yes, problem first platform second
  9. When you do select technologies, consider current skill sets and staff availability– We’ve chosen one of the big mainstream platforms/frameworks
  10. Balance programmer productivity with operational costs – A careful balancing act. Time will tell on this.
  11. Variability in the productivity amongst programmers and development platforms each varies by an order of magnitude– We have not hit the challenge yet.
  12. Plan for testing to be a larger part of software development process than non-Web applications – We already had Cross browser testing, usability challneges when building E20portal.com. We should load test The Aware Monitoring app – Thanks Dion 🙂
  13. Move beyond traditional application hosting– We defiantly want the benefits grid /cloud hosting can bring
  14. Have an open source strategy – We are using Open source 😉
  15. Consider mobile users as important as your regular browser customers – This is an important point to keep it in mind.
  16. Search is the new navigation, make it easy to use in your application– Again this is an important point and we need to be mindful.
  17. Whenever users can provide data to your product, enable them – We need to crawl before we can walk
  18. Offer an open API so that your Web application can be extended by partners around the world– I’d love to have an Open API but it’s over the horizon
  19. Make sure your product can be spread around the Web by users, provide widgets, badges, and gadgets – Excellent point! 🙂 One we have thought about.
  20. Create features to make the product distribute virally – As point 19.
  21. The link is the fundamental unit of thought on the Web, therefore richly link-enable your applications – We like linking 🙂
  22. Create an online user community for your product and nurture it– I’m not so sure about putting too much time into a full blown online community. Perhaps a forum..We’ll see..
  23. Offer a up-to-date, clean, compelling application design – Dion is spot on :), this is vital in the Web app space. Need to put in the time and effort
  24. Load-time and responsiveness matter, measure and optimize for them on a regular basis – It has to be!
  25. User experience should follow a “complexity gradient.” – Another good idea 🙂

We found reviewing our progress against Dion’s points a great sanity check. I’ll post the next 25 points another day. On our journey we’ve found lots of helpful advice including Joel on Software, 37Signals, etc. This link to a video from  Dharmesh Shah is very, very useful for new tech startups eager to learn from the mistakes/pitfall of others.

I think the challenge is  how much upfront effort do you put into the architecture, as most Web Apps ain’t going to sky rocket to rockstar status i.e. Twitter. Leah Culver learnt along the way with Pownce (now part of SixApart) and had scaling challenges. Feedburner put alot of upfront effort into the architecture design and produced a scalable stable app. Unfortunately architecture design costs time and money in the short run if you prepare for scale. However it also costs in the long if you don’t prepare and then have to re-architect. Its all a matter of calculated risks

Business cards – 5 key features for success

February 5, 2009

Business cards – a boring subject…but they are very important. It is said when you first meet someone you make your mind up whether you like them within the first 30 seconds! On these occasions business cards are often exchanged. Quality business cards can help make a good impression and are worth investing time and money on. The business card exchange ritual goes back along way:

businesscardattorney1895
American Attorney business card 1895
(a very serious looking fellow!)

I’ve received 1000’s of business cards over the years. They come in all different shapes, sizes, colours, textures, materials, etc. I’ve even been given a Titanium card!! With so many choices what do you choose for your business card? We dusted off our boxes of other peoples business cards last week and compared 100’s of cards. In the end we decided that the key feature of choosing a business card are:

  1. Text– Clear readable text which is a good font size and is well spaced. This makes the card easier to read and brings the impression of spaciousness. We found plenty of cards which used very small fonts and/or the text/lines were crammed together.
  2. Print quality– First impressions do count. Cut costs here and you maybe sending out a cheap low quality impression of your company and its products/services. Unfortunately we found several poor quality print jobs.
  3. Card thickness – Again quality counts. This is a strange thing to describe but when you hold a thicker business card it gives a feeling of substance. Again quality. When we looked through our cards quality thick paper makes a big difference (preferably 400g+).
  4. Back of card– IN the past I’ve used the back of peoples business cards to write summary notes. Alternatively the back of a business card is a great way to reinforce your logo and brand. It’s a walking advertisement of your brand. We found some great examples including Jive Software, Trampoline Systems and Mindcandy.
  5. Size– Having a card which fits into a wallet or purse is helpful. In a wallet it can be easily found and will be looked at again. I do like the ‘mini’ card funkiness but there just not practical as they get lost easily.

With all this in mind we had our cards designed by a professional designer. In the past we skipped the designer and did it ourselves. I think its worth paying that extra cash even when you are extreme bootstrapping to have it done properly. Here is our final result:

aware-monitoring_business_card1

Armed with a great design/layout you then need to find a good printer. We have looked at several printing companies and selected Printing.com. They offer a local service which is always useful when in a rush, a useful proof checking service and they are a big outfit which means they have good printers. Yes, we checkout what printing machines they used. There are lots of other printing companies. Emma Jones at Enterprise Nation has suggested several  including MOO and vistaprint.co.uk. “They cost as little as £15 for 250, again with free ‘template’ designs that look very professional” (Emma).

Good business cards really are worth investing in to give out the right impression when meeting a potential partner, prospective client, etc for the first time.

My other startup related posts: