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daily articles for founders

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

How to work with designers  

At some point in your startup life, you are going to have to work with a designer, even if you're a designer yourself. Knowing how to give good design feedback is a useful skill in that context.

Here are the key points:

  1. Make sure you're giving the right feedback. Don't give feedback on the content when it's all filler content.
  2. Evaluate based on whether it achieves the design objectives, not whether you like it.
  3. Not knowing anything about design doesn't stop you from seeing whether the design meets your business goals.
  4. Don't try and spare the designer's feelings. When the design doesn't work, say it.
  5. Be direct. Don't spend 5 minutes to say "This design sucks".
  6. Start with general feedback over the whole design and then drill into specific elements.
  7. Relate feedback to goals and user needs. Don't be subjective ("I don't like this") or prescriptive ("Move the buttons over here").
  8. Don't redo the design in photoshop and send it to the designer as feedback.
  9. Ask questions as the design is being presented.
  10. Don't give contradictory mandates.
  11. Set up a time to go over the feedback in a structured way.

Worth reading for the details on these points. I would add one more point, in the spirit of Orwell's famous essay:

  • Break any of these rules sooner than accept a design that just doesn't work.
Dangerous data for startups  

An interview with Patrick Vlaskovits, posted on the chart.io blog, outlining some good points about dangerous data:

Many people, especially those handicapped with a graduate level education, like myself, think that data is only interesting and can only be acted upon if it is "statistically significant". In the context of early stage Customer Development, I believe this is well-intentioned, but ultimately, misguided.

and

Evidence comes in a diversity of forms. It can be anecdotal, it can be in aggregate or it can be a trend line. If you take an open-minded approach to the types of evidence you'll accept, and adjust for their biases/problems/problems accordingly, you'll likely fare better in the chaos of startup-land than just simply jettisoning what you feel is low-quality data.

and

In my opinion, trying to make CustDev formulaic, well-that's a road to perdition. Some of the techniques that may work now, might not work as well in two, five, ten years, so there is no point writing a hyper-specific rule book because no book can know exactly the context you are operating in and when you are operating there.

There are a lot of other good points made, generally pointing to the fact that not all business decisions can be reduced to a statistical A/B test, and how techniques and methods for customer development need to remain contextually sensitive to be useful. It's worth reading the full article.

How designers and developers can work together  

Matt Gemmell has written two excellent articles recently, aiming to help developers and designers to work together:

Both are solid and worth reading. The key points for developers:

  • Know what you want
  • Examples are helpful
  • Trust your designer
  • A sketch goes a long way
  • Consider sample data
  • Present all the work up-front
  • Remember design constraints
  • Be responsive
  • Don't assume it's easy
  • Don't micro-manage
  • Use the same tools
  • Speak the same language
  • Allow use as a portfolio piece
  • Pay on time
  • Don't condone spec work
  • Understand the model
  • Source code is extra

And the key points for designers:

  • Use an intelligent method of version control
  • Keep your layers
  • Name all your layers meaningfully
  • Use groups, and do so sensibly
  • Prune unneeded layers
  • Use Layer Comps
  • Keep everything as vectors, and scaleable effects
  • Learn how to preserve rounded corners while resizing
  • Design at 72 ppi
  • Snap to whole pixels
  • Always use RGB mode
  • Asset-preparation is part of your job
  • Be careful with fonts
  • Mimic the platform's text-rendering (where possible)
  • Be sure of design dimensions
  • Use the platform's idioms
  • Design once for landscape, then design again for portrait
  • Design for each major screen-size, and their contexts
  • Use genuine or at least realistic content
  • Consider localisation
  • Respect the global light source
  • Make navigational or organisational constructs explicit
  • Export cut-ups without compression
  • Ask about shadows
  • Understand how buttons are constructed

Read, bookmark, and remember.

Is it OK to Want to Make Money?  

"Mark, you talked a lot about money in your presentation. Most Silicon Valley legends seem to say ‘it's not about the money - it's about changing the world or solving a problem' that they had." Gulp.

(...)

Clearly different people have different motivations but I believe the majority of entrepreneurs would love to make this initial money (I call it "feed the family money") to get it out of the way. Just knowing that you have enough money to make you feel comfortable (however much that is) is enough for most great entrepreneurs to focus on what really makes us happy: building a company, building great products, taking on the establishment, bucking the rules, leaving a footprint on society and in some small way trying to "make a difference in the world."

Some people have an aversion to making money. They subconsciously feel there's something wrong with that, and so they'll push money away. To make that stockpile of money that will "feed the family", you need the opposite temperament: a hunger for money. Getting rich rarely happens by chance - it's something that you have to work hard towards.

If there is a culture in Silicon Valley that "it's not about the money", that culture should change. It's ok for someone who's got $50m in the bank from their last startup to say that it's not about the money, but that advice is a disservice to someone who is just starting out and has no savings.

On the contrary, the advice should be "make sure your startup is making money, and make sure it's making enough that you'll personally get something out of it, and you'll be able to use it that money as a tool to achieve what you want."

Money should not be the ultimate objective, but to achieve many other worthwhile objectives it is a necessary step.

What does the business guy do pre-launch?  

I don't quite understand why this idea keeps cropping up lately, even from reputable sources. For example, this one is from Seth Sternberg, the CEO and cofounder of Meebo - so he's hardly a nobody or a slouch. And yet, what to make of this:

For most consumer internet products, there's not a whole lot the business person can really do pre-launch. All of the company's value will come when the team builds and launches a product, so that should be the primary focus. There aren't any partnerships to be struck yet, as the product has yet to build any credibility in the market. There aren't any folks to interview, as you can't afford to hire a full team, and you're wasting your time looking for pre-launch financing—a controversial statement these days, I know, but that's a topic for another post.

The funny thing is, he answers that in the same article, as things to do "2-3 weeks before launch" - all those things can be done long before launch:

  • Get incorporated (how does that need to wait until launch?).
  • Figure out the launch strategy (I sure hope that's being done earlier than a month before launch!).
  • Find good mentors.

Here are a few other things to do if you're the business guy on a pre-launch startup:

And that's just looking through the articles in the Founder's Library.

The truth is, if you followed some kind of discipline like Hypothesis Driven Development to map out the unknowns ahead of you, you should have plenty to do before even starting to code, let alone while the coding is going on.

Anatomy of the long sales letter  

"Long sales letter" landing pages, such as this one, are often used in the Direct Marketing/MLM industry, because, well, they work rather well. In this article, Paras Chopra interviews copywriter Jeremy Reeves about how to put together a long form salesletter, why it works, and so on.

Question: Do you think "sophisticated" web designers lose a lot because they are not ready to embrace techniques employed by long sales letter pages?

Absolutely. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that if they started testing long-form salesletters… they'd very soon be able to buy themselves a new house.

While the long-form salesletter format has certainly proven its worth in some industries, one would do well to apply a thick layer of context to this advice. In some cases (for example, a site targeted at geeks, a long salesletter would be simply disastrous, because it conveys a certain product image that Github's market has a strong dislike for.

So, it really depends who you're selling to, and, as Paras himself would probably advise (update: he has just done so here), the solution to this is not to decide in theory which one works, but to do some testing and figure out which one converts best for your product and your market.

Regardless, here's one of several gems in the article:

Question: What are your favorite copywriting tips and techniques?

The best technique you can ever use in copy is simply understanding the dominant emotions going on inside your prospects mind at the exact moment he/she is reading your copy. If you can understand that… it paves the way for every single word on the page and the copy flows like water.

Who owns the rights to the stuff you do in your spare time?  

An interesting discussion over at the OnStartups stack-exchange:

I was interviewed by a lady from Zynga and she told me that Zynga doesn't allow developers to have side projects. Is this true for companies in general, or just a minority that Zynga is a part of? Is this sort of restriction legally enforceable? I'm in California, for what it's worth.

The HN discussion is interesting, particularly this brief comment thread by startup lawyer George Grellas. If you are working for one company while starting up on the side, this is critical information.

More about pricing books  

Sacha Greif comments on a series of guest posts, starting with his own earlier effort:

All three are great reads and well recommended for thoughts and experiments about pricing. Different books, different desired outcomes, different approaches, all analysed in some level of detail. Worth poking through over a break for ideas about how to test and refine pricing.

The articles focus on pricing ebooks (and additional materials), but the ideas and methods apply to other products too.

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.

More on thinking small  

Following on my earlier article about thinking big and small in the right context, I got into a small exchange on twitter with Joel Gascoigne, who had retweeted Gabriel Weinberg's article.

Joel pointed me to two blog posts on this topic which seem worth adding to the discussion: Steady yourself, those world-changing thoughts are not productive and Start something small.

Quoting a few passages from the first:

It may be healthy to be ambitious, but often these thoughts occupy more time than they should and stop us doing the real work we need to do to get anywhere near to those thoughts becoming reality.

It is easy to look at the success stories of the world and think they started at the top. Let's try and question that and think how all successful ventures or entrepreneurs started with something small.

And the second:

What I'm starting to notice more and more, is that great things almost always start small. Most of us know that Branson started the Virgin brand with a student magazine, but Virgin is just one of many examples which shows that the reality is counterintuitive: actually, the best things we know and love started as tiny things.

I've found that if I look into my own life, I find similarly that some of the most important achievements I've made started as little projects. My startup Buffer itself is a great example: it started as a two page website and in addition the short blog post describing this process has now turned into a talk I've given more than 30 times.

This is more evidence that thinking small is an essential first step before you start thinking big, which opposes the usual Silicon Valley advice of thinking big and choosing ambitious startup ideas.

Why is this idea so prevalent if it leads to lesser chances of success? One theory would be that most of the "think big" advice comes from investors (directly, or indirectly via entrepreneurs they've funded). Typical investors definitely wants all their investments to think big - that's how they make their returns.

That doesn't mean it's good advice for you.

Instead: Think small, make it work, and then think big.

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