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daily articles for founders

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

Hiring from Craigslist  

This summer, at Woobius, we hired some interns. We used a British-centric equivalent called GumTree, and it worked well, even for programming interns. The article proposes a repeatable process for successfully hiring from Craigslist:

  1. Create an informative ad with the right information
  2. Create an application form with the right questions
  3. Post to Craigslist and wait for the applications
  4. Select the 10 best applicants and send them 2 further, very detailed questions
  5. Interview the 3-4 people you like best in person
  6. Hire!
How to deal with massive technological disruption  

I went to a couple of events, recently. Each had a a very different feel.

Journalism

The first was an even for journalists and hackers. There, the main concern echoed by the journalists in the room was of how they could continue to do what they feel is a valuable thing, despite the major changes that technology has wrought on their industry.

Journalists feel (quite rightly) that they perform a public service. In the words of the respectable speaker at this event, their job, among other things, is to give people the information they need (but don't necessarily want) alongside with the information they want (but which isn't really useful to them). In other words, give people something that will help them vote in the next election alongside their daily dose of football trivia.

This all felt very noble, if a little paternalistic, but my feeling was that they were living in a dream. Let me explain what I mean by mentioning the second event.

Health

Healthcare, particularly in the UK, is hardly a progressive field full of consumer technology innovations. And yet, the event that I went to (MC ThinkCamp mHealth) was surprisingly progressive. The people presenting were, most of them, doctors. And yet they fully, clearly understood that technology is changing the reality of healthcare.

For example, one presenter had built an application that allowed patients to handle their own records. He didn't wait for approval from the NHS, he didn't even seek the approval of other doctors. What this entrepreneur realised was, to put it in his own words, that "history is moving this way", and that people who argue that patients shouldn't control their own records will, in 30 or 40 years, be regarded as incomprehensibly wrong, much as we now regard those who argued, up until the 1970s in Switzerland, that women shouldn't vote. Those people were, and are, on the wrong side of history.

My feeling was that these people "got it". They understood that technology moves inexorably forward and does not care much for the established order. They understood that it will turn the world of healthcare upside down over the next few decades - wether healthcare professionals like it or not - and that if they don't want to be left behind, they'd better join in the change.

They understood that if technology makes possible something clearly desired by many, this thing will happen, and will keep happening, and will be unstoppable - whether that is free movie downloads, patients controlling their records, or, as the linked article discusses, news personalisation.

Journalism, redux

Jeremy Mims, echoing the feelings expressed by journalists at the first event, proposes that:

Part of the purpose of news is to create an educated and engaged citizenry, not merely provide a funnel for our natural predilection for the stuff we like (which the Internet is already stunningly good at).

He continues:

What I'd prefer to see is a service that tracks what everyone reads and shows me results not from people like me, but people who aren't. I'm already great at finding information that confirms my outlook and disposition (on the Internet, it's a Google search away). I need to be reminded that the world is big, opinions are diverse, there are subjects that I'm woefully uneducated about, and that not everyone thinks the way I do.

That's all very nice, but that's not how disruption work. What people want, they will get, and the way forward is not to pine for something that might work as it did in the past (or, even worse, provides something that most people don't want, such as news that they disagree with).

I actually agree with journalism's goals, however paternalistic. People need to get more than a daily dose of X Factor and Football to be functioning citizens - and many people don't get that info-nutrition. But the way to achieve this is to look forward, at things as they will be 10, 20, 30 years from now, and build from there, not from a past that is quickly fading.

This means, for example, accepting that news personalisation is on the way, and that people will read only the news they want to read. This doesn't mean they won't be exposed to different viewpoints, but it means that in order to reach people, you'll have to build something that they actively want to follow - not just piggyback on the local sports news and hope they read the headline printed on the front of the paper before they vote.

It's change, real change, and it requires a different mindset, one that's willing to start from where things are going, rather than whence they came.

Product/market fit vs profitability  

Matt Wensing makes a great point that product/market fit is only part of the objective. If the product/market fit is not profitable, it can be a very misleading objective.

If you summarize ‘achieving product/market fit' as the goal, you may end up achieving a state wherein you have lots of customers but very little profit. As a result, you have lots of demand, and even lots of potential, linear growth, but you've settled for linear and you've settled for thin margins and you are stuck.

The whole article is excellent and very much worth your time, though the Hacker News thread about it is curiously devoid of comments - perhaps because Matt has said everything already.

Good looking emails are killing your customer conversations  

Giuliano Iacobelli writes:

[U]sing Intercom and triggering 4,500 automatic email with a personal message for a specific segment of user and triggered on specific conditions: 1% replied.

Same logic, but only 110 raw text email with the same kind of personal message sent from my personal Gmail account: in less than 24 hours later I got 26 replies and established conversation ready to take off. 23% of replies. That's quite a good improvement, isn't it?

It's easy to lose sight of the point of regular customer conversations, which don't have to be over scheduled calls or meetings. Email automation and niceties can seem helpful at first, but not if they get in the way of actual learning.

Guiliano describes how he learned from more customers over email, just by emailing his users manually and in plain-text. The human touch goes a long way.

Four kinds of entrepreneurial contexts  

Context is everything when it comes to startup advice. It's not enough for the giver of advice to provide context, however. The receiver must also understand his or her own context.

Hidden in this article (superficially, a criticism of the Startup America initiative announced by the US government recently), is a list of four primary "entrepreneurial contexts":

  1. Small businesses: businesses which do not aim to scale to huge sizes, do not get venture funding, and whose success criteria is to "feed the family and make a profit".
  2. Scalable startups: businesses which shoot for the moon, have a chance of getting huge, tend to be disruptive, hire the best and brightest, and often attract venture investment. Their purpose is to search for a repeatable and scalable business model and then pump money into it to scale it up.
  3. Large companies: businesses have existing competitive advantages, are already making a lot of money, but are looking to innovate either because their cash cow is eroding, or they are being disrupted by competitors (startups or other large companies) or even are looking to be the disruptors themselves).
  4. Social enterprises: businesses, non-profits, or hybrids whose purpose to make the world a better place (rather than to take market share or create wealth for the founders).

Each of those is a unique entrepreneurial context, and advice that works in one may not work in another, or not without significant adaptations (which the best startup mentors understand and provide). Make sure you know which context you're operating in and understand whether advice being offered to you fits in with that context.

For example, E-Myth is a great book for the small business contexts, but its suggestion to design your business to be operated by the "least skilled operatives possible" will sink your scalable startup like a stone.

4 steps to starting a startup  

Joel Gascoigne's four steps:

  1. Have an idea
  2. Cut it down
  3. Share the idea, get feedback
  4. Go with your gut

Of course, Joel gives a fair bit of detail about each step. Have a read, and then throw in the following points:

  • First of all, these steps are not sequential. The idea needs to keep evolving and mutating based on the feedback you receive. Don't let the idea become static.
  • Follow these tips from Paras Chopra if you want to increase your chances of actually making money.
  • The importance of getting feedback cannot be overstated. Feedback from potential customers and fellow entrepreneurs needs to happen throughout the whole process.
  • Once you think you're ready to get started, don't start by building code. Start by listing out your hypotheses.
How to detect a toxic customer  

Excellent article, and vital information. The less time you spend on toxic (and unprofitable) customers, the more time you can spend on good (and profitable customers). Recognising toxic customers is a vital skill.

Warning signs (see the article for more details):

  1. Disrespectful or Abrupt
  2. Asks for a Discount (With No Reason)
  3. Multiple Contacts, Often Through Multiple Channels
  4. Unrealistic Expectations
  5. Multiple Questions that Can Be Answered from Your Website

The article also describes an amusing encounter with a toxic customer, recognised early, and, unlike many such stories, it actually finishes well.

Update: excellent response from Joel Spolsky on HN.

Mocked and misunderstood  

Fred Wilson:

When your company and services gets mocked and is misunderstood by most everyone, particularly the mainstream press and media, just smile and keep doing what you are doing. You are on to something big.

Or, in Paul Graham's words:

Don't be discouraged if what you produce initially is something other people dismiss as a toy. In fact, that's a good sign. That's probably why everyone else has been overlooking the idea. The first microcomputers were dismissed as toys. And the first planes, and the first cars. At this point, when someone comes to us with something that users like but that we could envision forum trolls dismissing as a toy, it makes us especially likely to invest.

Of course, that's only true if you are actually seeing traction - although I suppose the mainstream press would not bother mocking you unless you've done something right to catch their attention.

The obligatory counter-example would be Color, which was mocked right off the bat, for good reasons, and now seems to be using its insanely high $41m pile of cash to pivot into something that perhaps will still be mocked, but will actually be used (and hopefully they'll achieve that before all the founders bail out).

3 Lessons from launching a product  

No completely new advice in this article, but a very good point about design/usability of your first version:

However, your first design shouldn't matter. You should be solving such a huge need that users and customers will do anything to use your product to solve their needs. When your hair is on fire, the look of the firehose doesn't really matter.

If poor usability or bland visual effects push away early adopters, then you haven't actually solved an important problem (at which time you pivot).

As Sean mentions earlier, though:

Not all advice is created equal (...) If the advice doesn't sit well with you, don't blindly follow it

Not all startups are created equal. Not all startups are solving a hair-on-fire problem. Twitter, which he uses as an example later in the article, certainly did not solve any critical problem initially.

Working smarter in a startup  

Elliot Loh:

There's this misconception that everyone needs to kill themselves at a startup. Certainly you're working by a countdown clock that is usually wound by funding. But you're not trying to do "whatever it takes" as much as you're trying to do "only what it takes".

Elliot provides a number of approaches to work smart instead of working hard:

  1. Devote time to meta-work; spend some time thinking about the bigger picture.
  2. Cut to the chase; keep the goal in mind so you can sidestep issues on the way.
  3. See if someone has already done what you want to do, and if so, use what they've learnt.
  4. Measure things so you can identify and shut down failed attempts.
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