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daily articles for founders

Here are 10 quality posts from the Founder's Library:

Recruiting programmers to your startup  

Another excellent article by Chris Dixon, about a topic that is important to pretty much every startup, no matter what your definition of the word.

Chris's key points can be summarised as:

  • Understand what motivates programmers (beyond a certain point, it's not money)
  • Respect programming as the creative activity it is
  • Be proactive about building contacts with great programmers
  • Use various cues for screening and filtering down candidates, like open source contributions, code tests, and trial projects
  • You'll need a track record of treating programmers well to be able to attract great programmers who have many other options
  • Don't try to beat Google on perks, you can't
  • Don't under-grant equity to early programmers who join you before you've achieved traction - they are late cofounders, not early hires

Great points. I'll add that one of the things that can really help with telling great programmers apart from not-so-great ones is, in fact, to have a great programmer on your team already. It takes one to know one.

Criticism and two-way streets  

Great design approach by Des Traynor in this post:

Like Apple, Microsoft encourages their designers to create many different solutions to any given design problem. But picking an outright winner isn’t easy. It can cause arguments and standstills. The quality of resolution here defines the quality of the design process. Who gets to decide? Is it the loudest shouter? The most senior? The highest paid? None of these are correct by default.

Every solution is great in some circumstances and terrible in others. Design debates are best settled by inviting everyone to present their solution, but also explain under what circumstances their solution is terrible. Finally they’re asked to explain under what circumstances their colleague’s solution would be better. This is what Bill Buxton refers to as walking on both sides of the street.

This can be scaled down to a small startup team. When solving a tricky design problem, ask everyone involved to come up with some solutions, then get them to explain when their solution won't work, and why the solutions they didn't come up with are better.

The article makes several other interesting points.

How to invalidate your startup idea  

Some good methods for invalidating ideas. Method 2, which is morally grey, got ripped into on HN. To that I'd reply that lying is a part of life, and I challenge anyone to go a single day without telling even a single white lie. Not all lies are equal.

Here are the methods proposed to identify a "hair on fire" problem, as opposed to a nice to have:

  1. Get a focus group, talk to them about the problem you're solving, and then provide them with a URL where they can go later to sign up for the product.
  2. Cold-email 20 potential customers and offer to pay them money to use the product. When they do sign up, tell them the offer was oversubscribed and is not longer available.
  3. Create a landing page with a 10-step registration process. Drive traffic to it. See how far into the process people are willing to go (the further, the more desperate they are for the product).

The article also points out this doesn't apply to all product types.

Idea reach and the cofounder myth

Last week's linked post "stop looking for a cofounder" generated quite a bit of response on HN, much of it around the idea of using freelancers to build your startup. People seemed to think that I advocated using subcontractors to build high-tech startups.

The answer to this is a concept I call "idea reach", which is essential for any new entrepreneur to understand, especially if they think they need a cofounder.

The ideas within your reach

Idea reach represents the landscape of ideas that are within your reach to implement. On the multi-dimensional mental map of startup ideas, it is the ones that are close enough to your current location (determined by your knowledge, personality, experience, etc) that you can actually get there (with the execution ability you have - determined by your resources and skills) and implement them. When evaluating which ideas to work on, you should always consider this concept. One of the reasons why so many business cofounders are "looking for technical cofounders" at the wrong time is because they fail to understand idea reach.

There are many bad, good, and great ideas out there. When deciding which one to work on, it's not enough to evaluate whether the idea is viable in the abstract. Whether you personally will be able to execute on it is just as important.

Examples

Here are some simple examples.

Let's say you had the idea of using popularity to rank webpages, back in the late 90s, but you have no technical background. You don't know programming, you just know how to use a web browser and create a Geocities page, but you think that search engines could be done much better.

This is a brilliant idea, and after you explore it (using, for example, the lean methods which only evolved 10 years later, because you're a visionary), you decide that this is worth pursuing, it has a lot of market potential. And you would be right - that idea turned out to be one of the biggest ideas of the decade, spawning the extremely successful Google.

However, starting with no technical knowledge, implementing Google would not be within your reach. It's a great idea for somebody else, someone who has the technical chops to implement a highly challenging technology project like the Google search engine. It is not the kind of idea where you can just put down a few hundred thousand dollars (assuming you had them), hire a bunch of programmers, and get them to make it happen.

Another, even more obvious example: let's say you have an idea for a phone better than the iPhone. Let's assume it's a great idea, and you even have the skills in "technology" to implement it (yes, I know that it's laughable to think that a single person could do all that today). That's still not within your reach, however, because developing an iPhone-killer prototype is far from sufficient to compete with the behemoths operating in that market. You need logistics, manufacturing deals, negotiation leverage, great marketing, and so on. There's no way you will have access to that without first building a large company. This idea is obviously out of the reach of any new entrepreneur.

Here's a more subtle example: let's say you know very little about software, but you are a highly experienced project manager and you think you can design significantly better project management software. Depending on how complicated this software is technologically (and to find that out, you'll have to trust someone technical to tell you) this idea may be just within your reach (with some hired assistance), or just out of your reach.

If the tool turns out to be relatively simple (bearing in mind that not everyone is trying to build the next Google), and if, as the founder of the company, you have the funds (from whatever source) to invest in it, it is conceivable that an early version of this project management tool could be implemented by freelancers, paid employees, or a combination of the two, without you, the founder, having to be technical. So long as the idea is not too technically complex (and a lot of great business ideas aren't very complex technologically - e.g. Groupon), you can make up for your lack of skill by spending money.

If it turns out to be very complicated, the idea is simply outside of the reach of a non-technical project manager. It might (or might not) be a great idea, but it's not the right idea for this founder. Instead of looking for a technical cofounder who will make up for that huge hole in your skill set, find another idea that's better suited to you.

Finally, if the idea is not too technical, so it is possible to hire people to do it for you, for a sum anywhere from a few thousand bucks to a million, but you don't have that money available, then no matter how simple the idea may be, it is out of your reach, because you do not have the resources to execute on it. At that point, you shouldn't "go looking for a cofounder". Instead, try to raise the capital (likely from your own savings) so that the idea comes within your reach. If you can't raise the capital (because no investor believes in you, or because the idea is just too expensive), this idea is outside your reach. Do something else.

The problem with looking for cofounders

The way many people end up looking for cofounders is that they spend a lot of time thinking through a lot of ideas, and finally settle on the "best" idea that seems not too far out of their reach. Very often, however, that idea is still quite far out of their reach, usually because they lack the technical skills to implement it themselves and they vastly underestimate (or don't bother estimating at all) the complexity of the idea.

So then, having had the idea already, they go and look for a "cofounder" to make up for the fact that this not the right idea for them. Sometimes, they find that person. Sometimes that even works out ok. But generally, it doesn't work, because the people who make good cofounders are either unavailable, or uninterested in your idea, and so the chances are anyone you do convince to join you isn't worth having as a cofounder in the first place.

Extending your reach

This, however, doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with having cofounders. Cofounders provide many things, including motivation, more dynamic ideas, and even additional reach. If you know someone who is great at building physical widgets, and you're great at building software, and you're both looking to start a business at the same time, it can very well make sense to team up and look for an idea that's within the reach of both of you as a team, rather than individually. Chances are, this idea will have less competition, because fewer founding teams will have those combined skills.

"Looking for potential cofounders" is fine if your aim is to meet cool people whom you may want to work with later if the right opportunity comes along. Having great people in your network extends your reach because if you both happen to be free at the same time, you can pool your resources and execute on more difficult ideas.

But don't go looking for a cofounder to enable you to implement an idea, which you've settled on already, that's outside your reach. That's not a cofounder, it's an employee who's executing on your plan, and should be paid with money. And if you can't afford them, or if the idea can't be implemented by hired guns, then find another idea. It's not like there's a scarcity of ideas out there.

Swinging for the fences

One last thought. A lot of people will respond that many highly successful startups implemented ideas that were outside their reach, and succeeded anyway. YCombinator has made it a successful business model to take founders and virtually catapult them far away from their idea reach, and succeed anyway through a combination of exceptional founder selection and world-class mentoring.

That's a fine business model for YC, a great thing for the world to have, and if you're one of their selected protégés, you should definitely go for it and give it your best. However, this type of proposition is always, naturally more risky. If you can afford to fail without too much damage, swinging for the fences may be the right strategy for you (see this article too). If, however, you've got very limited savings, and failure will propel you back into a corporate environment and a job you hate, then it might be better to focus on achieving survival and comfort first. That's easier with an idea that's within your reach.


Management is a support function  

Here's a great article from Joel Spolsky, which makes the point that management is not about command and control, but about providing support:

Thus, the upside-down pyramid. Stop thinking of the management team at the top of the organization. Start thinking of the software developers, the designers, the product managers, and the front line sales people as the top of the organization.

The “management team” isn’t the “decision making” team. It’s a support function. You may want to call them administration instead of management, which will keep them from getting too big for their britches.

While there is certainly plenty of decision-making required at the "top" (mostly about strategic direction and key hires), the decisions on what to do to react to specific daily business situations should be driven by those closest to those decisions.

The sad thing is, management gurus like Peter Drucker have banged on that drum since the 50's, and yet many businesses still operate as if centralised decision making was viable to build large businesses. It's not. As Spolsky (and, a few decades ago, Drucker) point out, centralised decision-making is simply not scalable.

That being said, of course, "building a large business" is not everyone's aim. If you don't want your business to get big anyway, you can probably sustain centralised decision-making until your business gets to a few people or so.

Kevin McDonagh on: How to attend a conference

Kevin McDonagh is director at Novoda, a development consultancy for the Android platform. He is also an organiser of the London Android user group and the UK arm of Droidcon.

Kevin caught my interest when he casually mentioned that he typically came out of one day conferences with over a hundred business cards to follow up on. Out of those he usually gets at least one client (which makes up for even expensive, international conferences like Mobile World Congress.

Here, then, is his advice:

Conferences are the best way to quickly extend a business network and, if done correctly, attendance and the follow up is an arduous but rewarding endeavour. Uninitiated networking professionals commonly attend conference days in hope of stumbling across opportunity whilst floating amongst their peers, but without discipline, the majority of business opportunities are likely to go unrealised.

I considered my early conference attendance as a pleasant distraction. I attended only the cheapest / free events, which usually ensured their topics were tainted by sponsors. This isn't always the case as it was 6 years ago, since grass roots conferences organised by enthusiasts are more common nowadays.

At my first conferences I met and shared knowledge with great people talking about exciting prospects but after the event I failed to keep any further contact. These days I return home from conferences with a cringeworthy amount of follow-up, but the opportunities created from this process have ensured cash flow for my company months down the line. This is why attending a conference is an investment of both time and money, and you should be well aquatinted with how to see returns on this investment.

Here's a check list before I elaborate further:

Preparation

  • Plenty of business cards;
  • A loose itinerary of possible contacts;
  • A ballpoint pen;
  • 1-minute demo / tablet pdf presentation;
  • Sound bites about you;
  • Charged Laptop, phones and chargers;
  • Planned route to and from the conference.

Attending: Excite and create opportunities

  • Speak to everyone;
  • Prompt them to lead;
  • Seamlessly lead into a short pitch;
  • Be quick;
  • Suggest next actions;
  • Write reference notes on their card.

Immediate follow up: politely present further opportunity

  • Use card notes as conversation points;
  • Append canned info responses;
  • Tie the knot.

Staggered follow ups: Plan to cultivate relationships

  • Building long lasting professional relationships;
  • Create calendar entries;
  • Notes on contacts.

The details

Preparation

Plenty of business cards

I take 2-400 business cards depending on the event. These cards should look attractive and contain info about your 'professional' social networks, along with any relevant web links. Leave some white space upon which your contacts can write notes about your conversation. Novoda encourages this on cards with a leading statement: "You spoke to at:". I often fill out the place we spoke before leaving them to add any further notes.

A loose itinerary of possible contacts

There is likely a theme to the conference, so preparing some aims beforehand might help your casual conversations lead into something. Depending on the registration service, conference lists of attendees and speakers may be available on the site.

A few good ballpoint pens

People will ask you for one and you'll need to take notes. Don't use the rollerballs as they smudge on some laminated cards.

1-minute demo / tablet pdf presentation, and sound bites about you

Bright, picture laden presentation slides, and then a live demo, are how I professionally introduce myself. If the climate is more casual I just demo. While chatting, I flick through the presentation slides on an iPad while chatting (until I can get a good Android alternative tablet!).

Charged Laptop, phones + charger

I have a separate demo device with prepared shortcuts, to help with demos. Obviously, this is useless if it runs out of battery. And, if you're using it all day, it probably will run out.

Planned route to and from the conference

You don't want to waste two hours trying to figure out how get there only to get lost. Print out a google map (not susceptible to connection problems) and consider visiting the location the day before.

Attending: Excite and create opportunities

Speak to everyone

In the worst instances, I've known shy friends to only manage short conversations with a handful of people besides whom they were inconveniently stood or sat, at a conference of thousands.

This is a terrible shame for everyone involved. Attempting to literally speak with all attendees would be fruitless and boring, but please make the effort to meet a significant number of people. Subtlety is appreciated, rather than stepping from one person to the next like a machine, but the very reason everyone is in attendance is to share in a theme with others. The majority will thank your asserted approach, and are looking forward to your conversation.

Prompt them to lead

Don't just run up and start pitching, but don't leave them dangling for too long without relevant information either. Start by asking them questions rather than with a monologue. Ask them to explain their business interests. This will help identify if they are someone with whom you would like to work.

Seamlessly lead into a short pitch

Keep their interests in mind while speaking about yourself. Be memorable by speaking passionately, with obvious expertise about relevant business. Help your new contact find potential in your product.

Be quick

Everyone recognises a pitch. Get through the best areas until they are satisfied they are speaking to an expert. Don't bore your newfound contact. If you are continually seeing glazed looks, consider shortening your presentation. If they want to hear more, they will prompt you for it.

Suggest next actions

Don't rely on your new connections to flourish without a lot of painstaking effort. Respect is earned in a relationship, but you are likely going to be the only one who cares in the beginning, so it will likely be yourself who suggests any immediate opportunities. Play your cards right, and further down the line they will be honoured to do the same in return.

Write reference notes on their card

After the conversation, take notes to help remember:

  • intros
  • actions
  • companies
  • products.

Not an essay, just short memorable tags to trigger your memory. Don't be too obscure, or reviewing the cards days later can become confusing. Take notes after speaking with someone, or just as you are leaving, but see what works for you best. Sometimes writing in front of a contact will prompt them to also write on your card.

Immediate follow up: politely present further opportunity

The real work begins after the conference. Build relationship ties, now that you have faces to go along with names.

Use card notes as conversation points

Each of your emails should be customised to discuss matters noted on their card. A good initial email will be relevant and engaging, but most importantly, it will actively pursue further interaction and leave as few reasons not to follow up as possible.

A few good techniques are:

  • immediately present valuable information;
  • ask for their advice on a particular matter while ending with a question to encourage recourse;
  • suggest two meeting times and places to speak further.

Append canned info responses

Regardless of how interesting you are, I'm sure the majority about yourself and your time at an event will be similar. Rather repeatedly typing it out, write one or two generic responses and paste them into the starts of your mail. Don't send them verbatim, as you are not a robot! Instead use them as cues to write over and adapt.

Tie the knot

After sending your quick email introduction, please don't ask for their hand in marriage. Instead, start lightly, but keep them closely connected for future follow ups. Avoid legacy technology like rolodexes and paper tombs of client directories. Social networks and CRM tools are more useful and practical.

After sending an initial email, connect with the recipient through LinkedIn, as they are now likely to know your name. Occasionally, at the same time, I'll follow an interesting twitter stream, comment on a code changeset, or comment on their blog post. It is the culmination of many considerate little acts which will add character to your relationship.

Staggered follow ups: Plan to cultivate relationships

Building long lasting professional relationships

If your new contacts can immediately benefit from your further introductions, make sure to proactively introduce them to one another. Making professional introductions at your own expense is often rewarding at a future date, as a relationship is not a one time deal. As pointed out by Paulina yesterday, there is no better way to earn friendship and trust than through offering opportunities.

Create calendar entries

Put notes in your calendar to revisit contacts two weeks, a month, and three months after your initial contact. Chances to work together are fleeting, as are people's attentions. An inevitable majority of your new contacts will quickly fall silent, but as your reputation increases, you will see this percentage decrease. Silent leads do not mean that there is no longer an opportunity. As I discussed, relationships are for the long term, so keep in regular contact and repeat the previous step but with new information.

Notes on contacts

Once you email someone they are in your contacts list and their details will become a whole lot more valuable if you remember who they are. So flesh out the contact entries with notes about them and when you were last in contact. Filling out these often empty fields in your contacts is time consuming, but it will be worth it in two years time when they contact you through a referral.

In conclusion

These steps shouldn't come as any surprise. The logic in the above approach is obvious, but the discipline of enforcing the steps is what will guarantee fruitful leads and new business for years to come.

Applying a systematic, well-tuned approach to conferences will help you make the most of them. I look forward to meeting you at the next conference!

This article is part of a series.


If you ever feel alone in this...  

I have never suffered from depression. I used to feel pretty miserable as a kid (which perhaps is comparable) due to generalised bullying, but there was never a chemical imbalance side to it.

However, particularly in view of recent suicides in the tech scene, it is great to see people with that sort of experience stepping up and offering a helping hand. Darius Monsef:

I haven't thought about killing myself in 20 years, but I've been there. So if you're ever so depressed and stressed out, and you think you're alone. You're not. I've been there. It can get better and i'll bear that burden with you. Send me an email with the subject, “I feel alone in this” and you'll be the next email I write or the call I make.

Beyond that call to action, the whole article is worth reading for a reiteration of something I've discussed in several of my talks:

A person who is $50k in debt has a very hard life. They have no budget for luxuries or means to try and improve their life. They eat the cheapest foods and aren't able to travel. A person with $0 debt, but $0 savings has a quality of life worlds different. They may not have luxuries, but they have way more comfort and abilities to improve their life. Somebody with $50k in the bank is again dramatically better off than somebody with $0… And the quality of life dramatically increases again when you have something like $500k in the bank. That person is able to enjoy high quality foods, travel, live in luxurious comfort and use their capital to try and make their and those close to them lives better. A person with $5M does enjoy a higher quality of life, but not as dramatically better… they might fly in chartered planes vs first class, or drive a $120k car instead of a $70k car, but overall their quality of life is similar. And the increase in quality of life dramatically tapers off as you get to somewhere like $50M. I've personally experienced most of these levels of wealth, and while I haven't yet experienced the very top levels I've spoken to friends that are there and generally they agree.

I've never been $50k in debt (I think my max was about £12k), but I am now slowly but surely climbing up on the other side, and I couldn't agree more. From a personal standpoint, money is a hygiene factor. How much soap can you use?

There's only one good reason to accumulate more money than that, and it's that it can be traded for influence to make things happen. Bill Gates is giving us a great example of what you can do when you have mind-boggling amounts of money, that you can't do with just a few millions. But that's a different goal than wanting to make billions for yourself, which, in my opinion, is both incredibly unlikely and not particularly worth the effort.

There are many more points (and a great slide) in the article. Go read it.

First time sales versus returning sales  

Rob Walling makes the following point about websites that sell software:

The #1 goal of your website is not to sell software. Not unless your purchase price is less than the “impulse” price point of around $20. If it’s above this mark then most people will not buy on their first visit to your website.

(...)

Your goal should be to get first-time visitors to come back.

And not just come back, but have repeated, “confidence building” contact with your company or product. It’s not your job to shove your $300 product down their throat on their first visit, but it is your job to convince them that coming back is worthwhile, and to help them overcome the four objections I listed above during the process.

Rob uses data from his own products to support this thesis, and suggests the following methods of getting first-time visitors to come back: get them to give you their email:

  1. Have a killer landing page that builds enough trust that they might give you their email.
  2. Give something away to entice them.
  3. Automate the follow-up
Focus on the power users  

Jason Cohen from A Smart Bear:

Ignoring most of your potential market, how are expert, power-users doing this today, without your software?

Jason suggests focusing on the power-users first, because they're the go-to guys for the industry. Solve their problems, in their terms, and market it directly to them. Then, later, expand the scope of your marketing as your user base shifts.

This is in contrast with the typical fly under the competition strategy many people follow, but Jason makes a good case for why this works, in both a consumer and a b2b context. The article is long, but worth your time.

Sales or die  

Echoing Mark's point from earlier, here's Spencer Fry:

Make sales or die. A little background on me for anyone who hasn’t been reading my articles since 2009: I started selling on the Internet when I was eleven years old, in 1995. Since then I’ve co-founded three successful companies: TypeFrag, Carbonmade and Uncover. What do they all have in common and why are they all still around? It’s revenue. Revenue comes from sales. If you don’t have sales, you don’t have revenue, and without revenue, you will die.

Nothing much to add. All the successful serial entrepreneurs I know are extremely focused on the concept of sales-first. This is the model that works outside the Valley.

... which makes learning to sell one of the most important things you can do with your time, if this is not part of your skill set.

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