swombat.com

daily articles for founders

The idea funnel  

Great, solid post by Stef Lewandowski explaining in some details how he goes about how to create lots of projects and then filter them down to a few working projects (an idea which I explored in this post, but which he seems to have taken to the next level!):

This last eighteen months, I’ve deliberately tried to go for a strong idea, loosely held approach — to allow myself to be open to lots of things, and to not be too convinced that they will definitely be right. The strategy was to try out many tiny ideas at an early stage, do a series of quick prototypes, play with them, often in public, and then invest in the ones that looked the most promising as the beginnings of digital businesses.

We’re at something of an inflection point in the process now, where three “winners” have emerged from the cohort and have the potential to turn into fully-fledged “startups” in their own right. That’s Attending, Wrangler and Hire My Friend. We also have made a few lovely little things that have a fair degree of usage but aren’t clearly startup material — Linkydink, for example.

Read more here.

Antilogs: How To Draw The Right Lesson Learned

Bill Barnett at Stanford comments how so many startup pundits fail to learn when observing failures. Indeed, not only are the lessons learned often lost, but also the opportunity to use others' failures as one of the fastest sources of actionable information.

Unfortunately, most observers skip the logic part. It is mentally easier to jump to the “obvious” conclusion: If the business failed, the business model must be wrong. Full stop. You can easily tell when this skip happens. The person will name an example as if it were a reason. Is online grocery delivery a viable model? No: Webvan. Is internet search a viable business? No: Alta Vista.

These examples are data, not logical reasoning.

Wannabe investors and startup advisors are particularly villainous here, often heard retorting loudly against future billionaires in this way.

John Mullins has a more constructive approach to analyzing these failures. He separates them into analogs and antilogs:

There are companies before you who have done something like you want to do that you can copy from, and others who have also done something similar, but that you choose not to copy from. These are your analogs and antilogs respectively. The process of going from Plan A to a plan that will work is to begin with these.

For instance, when Steve Jobs of Apple decided to get into the music business that eventually completely changed Apple as a company, he had a whole range of analogs and antilogs he could refer to. Sony Walkman had sold over 300 million portable music players, so he knew there was a demand for portable music. Also, people were (illegally) downloading music from Napster, so he knew that they were open to downloading music online (as opposed to buying CDs). Jobs also had a key antilog, which was Rio, the first mp3 player that had a terrible interface and was rather clunky.

Not only does this mean you have a plethora of data available to analyse and learn from, but it also points you to better sources and advisors.

You'd be surprised how many of these founders are happy to share lessons learned from their failures with you, and how much faster this can be than talking to customers or running your own experiments at first.

Talk to 10 customers and run a few experiments, and you could still be barking up the wrong tree in the wrong forest. Talk to a founder who's been-there-done-that, and you'll be more like a bloodhound on the scent.


Non-violent communication  

First Round Capital's written a thought-provoking guide to internal startup communication:

When startups experience conflict — particularly between leaders — efforts quickly become uncoordinated, motivations get misunderstood, and results fall short of expectations. You simply can’t produce an incredible product if the team building it won’t agree on fundamentals.

Avoiding problems only allows them to fester and impact more people, while hasty, non-strategic communication can turn a small fire into a blaze.

It centralises around a commmon mistake:

Watch out, because the jump from observation to judgment happens almost immediately,

Which is often surfaced in unhelpful questions:

A. Will you get your work done this week?

rather than

B. What do you need to hit your deadline this week?

Open-ended questions ... acknowledge the level of effort you’re already putting in and offers to help. It asks for more than a one-word reply — it seeks valuable input.

While a lot of startups aim for modern team structures, they're still riddled with old-fashioned communication norms. A common one is assuming your perspective is complete enough that your assessment is accurate. Then, you start asking for things without communicating the context; you remove the others' ability to assess for themselves. The conflicting assessments are the root of more visible conflict, but those remain unaddressed.

A lesson can be drawn from large design firms that have become effective with functional silos - they make sure they communicate the options they're considering and the trade-offs between them, so others throughout the company can share relevant factors.

Mehl advises preparing constructive statements ahead of time before heading into any confrontational discussion. Doing this will help you stay focused and minimize incoherent or incomplete explanations. Preparing also sends the signal that you're invested in doing the right thing. It demonstrates good will.

Separate the person you’re in conflict with from that problem.

The post shares a few in-depth explanations of how to do this well, but it basically means assuming positive intent from the other person, respecting their time and sovereignty, sharing your feelings and needs, separating those from the outcome you'd like - and offering constructive suggestions.

They also share techniques for when team communication breaks down.

“It’s incredibly helpful to talk about the early days — the inside jokes, the long nights, what brought everyone together in the first place.”

“It's like a game of tennis — the longer you keep the ball in play, the more you learn from each other.” And, just as tennis players are happy winning best out of three or five sets, colleagues may need to go multiple rounds before a solution is reached.

If you're a startup founder, you probably have a big ego and a strong sense of direction. If you're co-founders, its' communication skills and empathy with your partners that'll manifest the multipliers between you.

Coding isn’t easy, but it is learnable  

Pamela Fox, from Khan Academy:

These campaigns are telling students that “coding is easy,” and then they’re trying it, and now not only are they struggling to learn something new, but they’re feeling bad about themselves because hey, “coding is easy”, they shouldn’t be struggling.

Nobody should feel bad for struggling to learn something new. They should be commended for trying to learn something new at all.

It's interesting that most founders are brazen and keen to tackle a load of business challenges, figuring things out and learning new skills - but we often put "the technical stuff" in another category. Then, the only solution seems to be finding a tech cofounder.

I was introducing JavaScript to a few Roma kids the other day, and they asked “will this be easy or hard?” I had to fight my first instinct to make say easy, but I still wanted it to feel achievable. ” My answer: “It’s gonna be hard, but you’re smart.” They got mentally prepared — one step closer to being self-educating hackers, rather than “learning to code.”

Coding is getting easier to teach and learn, due to recent pedagogical advances. It's still not easy though - the question is, why is this stopping you?

More about NDAs  

Stef Lewandowski takes a slightly different angle about NDAs. Whereas I previously explored why I wouldn't sign NDAs in initial conversations as a recipient of those documents, Stef looks at why he used to ask for NDAs and how he's changed his mind about it:

Non-disclosure-by-default introduces the risk that your company culture could be poisoned by secrecy at an early stage. I distinctly remember moments in a previous “stealth startup” company where I and those around me were so tied down with non-disclosure that we didn’t tell our own families what we were working on.

The effect of this after we launched was that nobody was sure when or if they were allowed to talk about what we were working on. As we all know, regularly communicating about what your company is working on is a big part of a good marketing plan.

Stealth can be poison to company culture. Through secrecy, you accidentally push your company into a closed, rather than open, mode. And that can be hard to cure.

Stef also covers a number of other angles.

If the fact that other people won't sign your NDAs didn't convince you not to ask for them, perhaps this article will...

Building international relationships  

Irina Dzhambazova shares how Bulgarian startups deal with obscurity, and succeed building international relationships:

Serendipity and true partnerships

"Investing time in getting to know an organisation or a person, without looking for the immediate quid pro quo is the way to go. Just get to know people, interact with them in the manner you do with friends and leave the rest to chance." - Vesselina Tasheva

Good partners understand each others goals and can act proactively on each other's behalf. This type of relationship is much easier when you can relate this way at a personal level. Vesselina's advice is to start here - the deal's come more easily later.

She's the former partnerships manager for a large, multi-national IT company, and now runs community for the largest accelerator in Southeast Europe, so has seen this work in both contexts.

Getting in the door, with research

Max Gurvits, an internationally-connected investor, emphasises the value of a little research. He encourages startups to invest a few hours in a list of 100 desired connections.

He wants them to do the mental exercise and leap to realize just how many people are hidden in Linkedin, Crunchbase, or alumni groups. All they have to do is look rather than rely on the obvious choices. Probabilistically, this larger amount of people also increases the chances of a connection actually happening and being helpful.

A list of 100 might seem daunting at first, but it's easier if you break it down into categories:

  • ideal customers
  • distribution partners
  • investors
  • analogs (companies who've done something similiar and can share benchmarks and advice)
  • compeititors
  • antilogs (comppanies who've tried something similar and failed)
  • domain experts, including press

Aim for a minimum of 10 per category, and you'll probably start finding a lot more low-hanging fruit.

Being equal

Boyan Benev, learned the importance of equal terms early on in his real estate career. He now has a few startups behind him and is a national TV personality. "If you put yourself as an inferior, you effectively are saying ‘Hey I am different from you.’ People are very good at sensing that and, with the neediness that you exude, they would subconsciously judge you more harshly. We are in fact all the same, entrepreneurs, investors and venture capitalists and we should feel equal with each other all the time.”

Lino Velev, director of Obecto, a software development company, starts on the outskirts of a certain social groups. For him, getting to the core through the weaker connections is more practical than going straight for the big fish.

Lino relies on story-telling to be memorable. I also happen to know he parties a lot too!

All of these are viable, authentic, and easy approaches to building your international network. Sofia, Bulgaria now has a growing startup scene, but it happened because of founders like these, hustling their way up from the remote, Southeast corner of Europe.

You have to be prepared; it takes a while for your network to build. But it usually pays off faster than you expected. No reason to let your current obscurity stop you.

Take pleasure in the journey  

Jason Cohen:

Rather, you must understand that it is the building, not the result of that building, that matters.

(...)

Keep score, so long as you can distinguish between the game and life. Keep score, while also basking in the thrill of generating happy customers and launching unique products and gathering the energy and brainpower of brilliant humans tackling interesting problems.

Or, to put it in the poetic words of Constantine P. Cavafy:

When you set out for Ithaka
ask that your way be long,
full of adventure, full of instruction.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon - do not fear them:
such as these you will never find
as long as your thought is lofty, as long as a rare
emotion touch your spirit and your body.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon - you will not meet them
unless you carry them in your soul,
unless your soul raise them up before you.

Ask that your way be long.
At many a Summer dawn to enter
with what gratitude, what joy -
ports seen for the first time;
to stop at Phoenician trading centres,
and to buy good merchandise,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensuous perfumes of every kind,
sensuous perfumes as lavishly as you can;
to visit many Egyptian cities,
to gather stores of knowledge from the learned.

Have Ithaka always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But don't in the least hurry the journey.
Better it last for years,
so that when you reach the island you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth.
Ithaka gave you a splendid journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She hasn't anything else to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka hasn't deceived you.
So wise you have become, of such experience,
that already you'll have understood what these Ithakas mean.

The more I progress in my journey as an entrepreneur (and generally as a human being), the more I learn to enjoy the journey rather than live for the destination.

The Lean Canvas - wrong tool for the job?

Benjamin Kampmann, a reputable hacker and product manager, relays his experience with the Lean Canvas over the past few years, in particular how it removed his attention from the customers that actually wanted his product:

The likelihood of the end technology still being a great fit for the market you decided on at the beginning is rather small.

Lean Thinking emphasises the principle of minimizing waste. The common interpretation of Lean Startup assumes that the lead cause of waste is always a lack of commercially-viable demand. But research shows there's a wider range of causes of startup failure. In addition to customer demand, early-stage startups often die from team problems and a lack of connections. Later-stage startups from weak industry positions.

Benjamin goes further, explaining that even with a market-first, rather than product-first approach, assuming he knew his first customer segments, rather than researching them broadly, slowed him down.

Even worse, overly focussing on a [single] market creates a harmful narrowing of your focus: Deciding on how and to whom to sell a technology that hasn’t even been developed yet, leads to focusing on building something sellable rather than exploring the actual impact your technology could have.

Indeed, the Lean Startup approach is often misinterpreted as talk-to-customers-first, rather than find-the-right-market-first, and the way the Lean Canvas is taught re-inforces that.

It's worth looking at Lean's origins in Toyota. Their approach to early-stage product design is much closer to how Benjamin describes exploring needs and possibilities. Rather than picking a single market and determining their needs, there is a wide exploration phase, narrowing down on actual opportunities from multiple angles.

Customer conversations vs product experiments

Even though I’ve been in favour of taking potential markets into account from early on, the reality is that there is little point in doing that when you just started coding: This is an experimental stage, there is nothing to see, test or prove for weeks or months after you started your project.

This is true, but not in every case, which makes it dangerous advice to apply without consideration.

Depending on what you need to learn, another Lean Startup principle - iterating the product quickly - might give you regular and actionable learning faster. But if you start with tech, your experiments and releases need be fast enough. That's hard at first.

There are further issues. When building smaller products as experiments, there's more than the build time to take into account; you need a reasonable amount of time for the market to respond. You can fall prey to the Immediate Response Fallacy, where you don't leave the right amount of time for the market to respond, and incorrectly conclude the experiment failed.

Business model problems

Benjamin also considers his experience with multi-sided models, not just SaaS.

By narrowing your focus to build something you can sell, you can easily forget to make it attractive to the people actually using it – which aren’t your customers per se. This doesn’t only apply to ad-driven social networks, it is equally true for building a platform for fund-raising or petitions: if you don’t have active users, why would any “customer” ever want to run a campaign on your platform?

And lastly, he warns how using the Lean Canvas as his main de-risking tool led him away from noticing some fatal assumptions:

Ergo, instead of thinking of the “market” when building a tech venture, you should think about those who’ll ultimately benefit from the technology first.

Though the initial build is a vital part of a tech venture cycle, you have to hide it to make the Lean Startup Canvas work. Awkward.

Building a functional prototype gives you real data. You can actually observe user behaviour, rather than rely on people's descriptions of their behaviour. If you have an open mind, rather than a narrow focus on your idea of their stated "top 3" problems, that data can lead you in the right direction. In Benjamin's case, it's led him to completely new customers.

Choosing the right tool for the job

The key lesson I get from Benjamin that he chose the tool he liked better, but wasn't the right tool for the job. It's possible he didn't make himself aware enough of his options.

Often, the Lean Canvas is chosen because it covers keywords that people think are important at first, like "Problem" and "Metrics," or simply because it's called the Lean Canvas.

This reasoning doesn't answer: is this the right tool for the job I have?

My experience with a large number of startups in accelerators is that the Lean Canvas and Business Model Canvas are helpful in seeing key assumptions as a whole, and to spot gaps in thinking.

One problem is that both give the impression of being thorough and complete, but aren't. Other equally-important assumptions are covered in The Assumptions Exercise, Business Model Environment, and Seven Domains Framework.

In practice, canvases are also awful dashboards - you'll notice they're commonly abandoned when used that way - old post-its gathering dust on the wall.

For early-stage and market driven assumption spotting, I've found Giff Constable's Assumptions Exercise to be much faster and more effective.

The original Business Model Canvas is particularly useful in prototyping and exploring a range of options quickly. It's stood the test of time, for companies that have started and expanded in a range of directions. I've noticed more coherent and innovative business models from startups who use the BMC this way.

When considering the impact of trends, competition, and other aspects that investors scrutinise, the business model environment is effective.

A good tech creation canvas has to assists developers in thinking about their benefactors and user base early, without narrowing the focus of the technology to what can be sold only.

Alex Osterwalder, the creator of the Business Model Canvas, has also recognized the need for finding product / market fit - and from both directions. His new Value Proposition Canvas is actually designed to be split in two, product ideas and customer segments explored more independently of each-other, with customer problems and their jobs-to-be-done as the glue to finding the right match.

There are other great tools out there too, but as always, you need to look at your options.


How to ask for introductions  

Elad Gil on how to ask for intros:

One of the key things you learn when building a consumer product is to make things as easy, streamlined, and friction free as possible for your users. When asking an angel, advisor, or other person to make an introduction for you, the same rule applies. The structure below saves a lot of pain & back and forth for you, as well as for the person being asked to make an introduction on your behalf.

(...)

By spending a little bit of time up front you can make life dramatically easier for the person doing you a favor / offering an introduction. It also increases the likelihood dramatically that an introduction will actually occur and yield a follow-on conversation.

Elad rips into a couple of templates (good and bad intros) to show how it should be done. As someone who has frequently both been asked to make intros, and asked others for intros, I can only agree with his approach.

Make it easy for people to help you, and they're much more likely to do so! Worth also consulting this article, this presentation from Founder-Centric, and the "Reaching Out" section of this article for additional perspective (thanks Sal for the suggestions!).

Where does the customer's story actually begin?  

Des Traynor at Intercom, wrote a great guide about how to onboard users with stories and addresses a common problem in customer interviews, misunderstanding the customer's true motivation.

When conducting your interviews, try to keep the participants focused on their actual actions and feelings when making the switch [into an active user of your product]. People are notoriously unreliable at predicting their future behavior and attitudes, so framing everything around what really happened (not what usually happens, or could have happened) during their onboarding experience keeps your emerging story tethered to the realm of reality.

Asking for specifics also helps transport people back into the actual moment, which brings up lots of super valuable accessory details. Rather than asking them if they had an easy time with setup or not, get to specifics by asking which part was the trickiest, and deeply explore that moment. By way of a real-world example, while someone might not have a lot to add to “are you a safe driver?”, asking them to specifically recall the last time they were pulled over would immediately thrust them into a story rich with emotional details.

Also, be sure to track every story’s breadcrumb trail as far back as you can get your interviewee to remember. The narratives that lead up to our decisions can be surprisingly long — much longer than the surface would show. A journey to a car dealership may at first seem to begin with seeing a newspaper ad, but after even a little bit of digging it could turn out to have really started with a funny noise in the engine two months before. Onboarding always begins with the motivation to change, which always takes place before the user ever pulls up your site.

In customer interviews, it's helpful to look for particular triggers in their life. Des describes a motivational trigger here, but there are others like:

  • awareness triggers: when and how they became aware of new, possible alternatives
  • decision triggers: what happened in their life that actually got them to start shopping

Together, these provide you with key landmarks in the users journey toward being a customer. With this knowledge, it's much easier to figure out how to attract, onboard and keep customers.

In addition to Des' post, Mckinsey's Customer Decision Journey elaborates on this, and it's relationship to your brand and competitors, and Rob Fitzpatrick's The Mom Test elaborates on customer interview techniques.

The choices we make when we build startups  

Joel from Buffer on the impact of his strategic choices to the success of his company:

They have absolutely shaped what Buffer is today. However, if you were to try and attribute these choices purely to success (maybe take revenue as the metric), then I think we could probably be just as successful with different choices:

  • being a distributed team
  • not raising a Series A
  • doing retreats 3 times a year
  • choosing to not have a sales team and instead focus on self-serve
  • serving small businesses rather than large enterprise customers
  • establishing cultural values early and being disciplined about living to them

He contrasts this with another founder whose controversial values included creating a fun workplace, yet grew the business to $8 billion in revenue:

I kept saying that our values were not responsible for the run-up in our share price and should not be blamed for any downturns in the future.

Which leads Joel to:

I can't say that creating a company where everyone is happy is something that will make us more successful, and I can't say that being fully transparent about revenues, user numbers, salaries and other details helps us grow faster than other companies. The point is that our values should hold true in either case, and we should stand by them.

Values aren't independent to the key choices though. Principled decisions connect values to choices, and speed up decision-making.

For example, when Buffer was hacked, they responded quickly and transparently, and they were lauded for it. Joel refers to Buffer's core cultural values: Happiness and Positivity; and Defaulting to Transparency.

In my experience with Founder-Centric, our startup training business, our consistent values have always been Do The Right Thing, Make Founders Better, Be Intellectually Honest, and Choose Work That Makes You Happy. We started by teaching for free, then when we wanted to teach full-time, we only charged for big workshops. By keeping a free option, we stayed true to Do The Right Thing. But we started to burn out from all the travel, so moved into curriculum design. Choose Work That Makes You Happy. This also made more time for the right workshops, conference talks, deeper research, and making our content freely accessible.

We can navigate our business through various stages because we stay true to our values. This hasn't been simple, because four partners need to agree each time! But each decision is far faster and easier because we refer to what we stand for.

Take responsibility for your company’s actions  

Brad Feld writes about the responsibility of running companies:

I started noticing that many of the strong CEOs I work with owned whatever was going on at their company. There was simplicity in this - no blame, no excuses, no justification. They just took ownership.

He was clear minded. He knew what was working, what wasn't working, and what he needed to change. And he took responsibility for it.

There's a growing culture of founders to abdicate their decision-making, especially among first-timers. They either abdicate to processes and methodologies, or to advisors and investors. Since they don't own their decisions, they feel they're not to blame when things don't go as planned. It becomes a vicious cycle.

Experienced founders aren't afraid to ask questions, but they're usually looking for information rather than instructions. They realise that nobody knows more about their business than they do, so they've got to make the calls.

Taking responsibility is a key characteristic in any leader, not just a startup founder.

Lumosity spiked active users through complexity, not simplicity  

Sushmita Subramanian - director of product design at Luminosty - finally has some data which support a novel UX pattern:

When Lumosity launched in 2007 to help people strengthen their brains with mental games, it exercised a common theory: The easier your sign-up process, the more users you’ll bring in, the faster you’ll grow. And for the most part, they were right. But what happened next surprised them: As they made registration more complex, users actually became more valuable.

By adding friction to the on-boarding process, people who complete the registration flow are likely to be aligned with Luminosity’s target customer. The flow not only collects data from the user, but educates them how the product is valuable to them. If they don’t make it through, they probably didn’t want it. It’s auto-segmentation.

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.

Customer Development is not a Focus Group  

Steve Blank notes:

Any idiot can get outside the building and ask customers what they want, compile a feature list and hand it to engineering. Gathering feature requests from customers is not what marketing should be doing in a startup. And it’s certainly not Customer Development.

In a startup the role of Customer Development is to:

  1. test the founders hypothesis about the customer problem
  2. test if the product concept and minimum feature set solve that problem

Collecting feature lists and holding focus groups are for established companies with existing customers looking to design product line extensions

Startups are short on time. Serving multiple customer segments requires more features and pricing plans and support and marketing and everything. That's tough for a young startup to bear and few would intentionally choose the extra work. Still, we can fall for the trap accidentally as Steve described.

By consenting to every feature request, you end up serving multiple customer segments. But focus means saying "no". Part of the early goal of talking to customers is in determining which of the many available segments you really want to focus on. Then you can say no to everything else.

Swombat.com: a new beginning

Every once in a while, I meet a startup founder who tells me that he or she spent time reading through the Founder's Library and got a lot of value out of it. It helped them get up to speed with many essential startup concepts, it gave them ideas, it helped them avoid mistakes, and so on.

This makes me feel great, obviously - every one of my blogging efforts has been to help people, and swombat.com was explicitly designed to help early founders to avoid the obvious mistakes that we all tend to make in the early days. I'm happy that it's done that for at least some people.

I am not, however, happy that I have frequently neglected the site.

I posted the first post on swombat.com on November 30th, 2010, a respectable 1283 days ago. Over this time, swombat.com has grown into a useful resource for new startup founders, but it has definitely had some extended dead periods. If it had had sustained attention for that period, it could be an order of magnitude more useful.

Time and success

Unfortunately, I have come to realise that it is entirely impossible for me to consistently spend time to update swombat.com, for months or years on end. No matter how many times I have deluded myself into thinking that, reality has ultimately won again: I just don't have the time, energy, attention to keep up the promise of this site all by myself.

I have good reasons for that: GrantTree is a successful, growing business. This is really awesome - it's fun, rewarding, interesting, challenging, etc. It's also a ginormous time-sink, and something that ultimately will continue to drain my time and energy on such a scale that I simply don't have the time to do this site justice.

Swombat.com is useful, but it's ultimately always been more of a hobby. As such, whenever there's been a time squeeze (and these days I feel like I'm always in a time squeeze), GrantTree wins and swombat.com loses.

To make this even worse, my interests in terms of writing topic have shifted somewhat (towards more advanced matters of culture-building, for example), and I don't read Hacker News nearly as much as I used to, so this all compounds to make swombat.com's future gloomy to say the least.

But this site is valuable and helpful to people, so I don't want to just let it languish, unupdated, uncared for, unloved, forgotten until the millennia pass and it is unearthed by archaeologists and... erm, I digress.

In short, I want swombat.com to continue - and perhaps even to do much better than it has under my spotty stewardship.

A plan for the future

There are two essential things that make swombat.com, and the Founder's Library, useful:

  1. A good selection of quality articles that provide useful, actionable insight, tools and techniques
  2. The additional insight of having an experienced startup founder comment on these articles to provide an additional perspective

I don't have the time to do both, but I do know people who can help. I've called on my good friends at FounderCentric, Rob Fitzpatrick, Salim Virani, Devin Hunt and Jordan Schlipf, to help with this noble task, and they've answered the call.

Each of them is an experienced serial entrepreneur, they're just as opinionated as I am about bad startup advice, and they in fact have even more insight than me to add, since they spend most of their time teaching and mentoring startups all over Europe, so they've had the chance to gather even more first-hand data about what advice is useful and what advice is harmful.

In short, I am opening up swombat.com to more contributors, and seeing if there's some merit in the idea of swombat.com being more than just my own platform.

Next steps

This isn't going to be an instant transition, of course!

The first step has been to, quite simply, build multi-user support into swombat.com, and rejig the site to support that better. That, I think (along with some housekeeping like getting Resque to actually, erm, work) is now done.

The second step is obviously to get the process of us posting collaboratively working. Please bear with me while I figure this out.

Eventually, this new beginning for swombat.com may open new opportunities that aren't visible yet.

As ever, if you have feedback, suggestions, or other comments, please feel free to email or tweet me - or Rob, Sal, Devin or Jordan!


How to work as a CEO/COO team  

Sometimes, the best solutions are the simplest.

Joel Gascoigne:

I asked Leo to become COO in November last year. (...) The problem we found, was that it was almost impossible to clearly separate these two processes. If Leo was working with someone to try and set goals and keep to them, he inevitably had to make decisions which affected our direction.

It felt like with the new structure we were suddenly both involved in every decision. The goal of the new role for Leo was to speed things up, but with both of us discussing every decision, things were sometimes grinding to a halt, especially in cases where we didn’t immediately agree.

The solution? Split the CEO responsibilities across the two roles, with each doing what they do best!

This may seem really simple in hindsight, but it's the kind of solution that's just not all that obvious when you're first going through it. The article is well worth a read.

Hacker News transparency  

dang, HN's new official moderator:

Right! Let me try to set you at ease, at least a little. Yes, we will make an effort to make moderation more transparent.

(...)

there's no one on the team arguing for secrecy. The question is not whether to be more transparent, but how.

Great to see! That's a move in the right direction. I completely understand that the previous... opacity... was due to Paul Graham not having the bandwidth to deal with HN properly - but the result was the same: an arbitrary, fickle, un-transparent, unpredictable community site that feels like it's at the whim of a mostly benevolent dictator.

This new move is a great step forward towards making HN worth continuing to invest time in, imho. I know a number of old HN regulars who stepped away because they were frustrated by the secrecy of the moderation. Perhaps this will bring them back.

Either way, good luck to the new team!

An easy way to increase startup success rates  

Mike Thomsen writing for Forbes, about the culture of working ridiculous hours:

The irony of this increase in working hours is that it usually comes in service of extraordinarily bad ideas, the majority of which end in failure.

Yep. This is not a new point, unsurprisingly for such an endemic problem.

A study in Sleep, the journal of the American Sleep Disorders Association, found significant declines on “divergent” thinking, a category of mostly creative brain functions.

Sounds a bit like Modafinil's effect on me then.

Here's a constructive and effortless suggestion if you want to easily boost your startup's success chances by what, in my opinion and experience, will be a significant margin (more than double I reckon):

Sleep 8 hours a night minimum, and enforce a half-hour walk through a park every day. And a two-hour walk on Sunday.

Your best ideas will come during that walk, and they will make a very tangible difference to your business's likelihood of success.

Mutual Respect and the barking of dogs

Yesterday, I got involved in a little twitter spat where someone attacked Dave McClure to try and censor his company. The conversation is not important, nor is the person who was attacking him and 500 Startups. I won't link to them to give them greater attention, because they don't deserve it, but if you're very curious and you're reading this shortly after publication, you can look through Dave's tweet history and see parts of the sad excuse for a "discussion" that occurred.

In short, it involved someone getting terribly offended at what someone else was doing on the internet, and lashing out with all the verbal violence they could muster (which wasn't all that much, but was vitriolic enough to be quite sad to look upon). Swear words were used and reused and abused (on one side only), and there was a general lack of respect for Dave or his calm, measured, polite responses. Dave came out looking like a hero of good behaviour compared to his somewhat animalistic attackers.

What I find very interesting is that I got very upset at all this. I was clearly angered by part of this discussion. See, I find abhorrent the idea of a person trying to forbid another from doing something just because they find it offensive. It's deeply, deeply repugnant, scary, and ignominious. It brought to my mind this response by Philip Pullman about his book titled "The good man Jesus and the scoundrel Christ", where he responds to one critic who declares himself offended by the title:

No one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it. And if they open it to read it they don't have to like it. And if you read it and you dislike it you don't have to remain silent about it. You can write to me. You can complain about it. You can write to the publisher. You can write to the papers. You can write your own book. You can do all those things, but there your rights stop.

That response made me buy and read the book (which was not all that amazing, though intriguing). I felt it was inspiring, and was a very measured and civilised response to a topic which, in me, provokes red, stupid anger. To me, the attempt by one person to censor another based on what they find offensive is a kind of intellectual violence akin to rape (yes, I use the word deliberately - bear with me) - why is it like rape? Because it is the (usually intellectual, but, in some parts of the world, frequently physical) violent imposition of your way of seeing the world on another person, and it is a violation of someone's mental integrity.

Some of you may think that my use of the word "rape" was excessive. In fact, I know that some people will react to this word emotionally, seeing red, feeling very angry that this is desensitising people to rape, and so on. If you feel like that, great - I apologise for making you feel this way, but this is exactly how I feel about the mob censorship described above. So now we understand each other, let me withdraw the misused word "rape", and please forgive me for using this device to rouse your feelings.

This kind of bigoted censorship is like someone stepping into your head, declaring ownership of your thoughts, and deciding what you're allowed to express, marking some kinds of thoughts as improper, others as allowable, and, fundamentally, imposing their way of thinking on someone who is not them, by force or by threat. To me, this is a straight path to the thought police and the kind of 1984-style world which I do not ever want to set foot in.

Here's the kicker then: because I really care about this topic, I found myself getting angry, and had to make a conscious effort not to devolve into the kind of uncivil, frothing-at-the-mouth nonsensical verbiage that I was deploring in these very attackers!

The line between man and beast is oh, so fine.

Thinking about this further, and looking back at my own history of posting and arguing with people (particularly on the internet, where intellectual violence comes easily since you do not typically get kicked out of internet circles for being an asshole like you would in real life), I have myself descended into this sort of behaviour. I can't even claim it was rare: I'm quite certain it was very frequent, and even recent. Some subjects just get my goat and manage to make me see red, and want to fight, with words, to hurt the other side. It's as deplorable to observe this in myself as in anyone else.

I think it takes supreme self-control to be civilised at all times, even in the face of a heinous lynch mob who wants your blood based on a misunderstanding (often deliberate) or downright fraudulent misstatement of facts. I take my own hat off to the man with 500 hats, for his impeccable behaviour in this particular instance.

Mutual respect

But there's a reason for writing this article beyond getting this off my chest and handing Dave a medal. There's a lesson for everyone here, I think, because I really doubt that I'm the only one who feels the lure of the beast in all of us from time to time.

Here's a thought: beyond the fairly advanced disagreement hierarchy proposed by Paul Graham, or beneath it, rather, there is a more fundamental principle at play: conversation between civilised individuals should always begin, proceed and end with mutual respect. Without this, there is no discussion, no argument - merely the noise of dogs barking at each other.

So here's my challenge, for myself and for any others who lack the buddha-like peacefulness of a still pond, which can never be disturbed by the barking of dogs or wolves nearby:

When someone challenges you by engaging you on a subject which really gets you, which makes you want to hurl words at them for no productive purpose other than getting your anger out - take a deep breath, calm down, and find a respectful way to proceed.

Even if the other side is not being respectful, you owe it to yourself to be so. After all, a gentleman remains a gentleman even in the gutter.

If I ever fail to do so in the future, please do call my attention to it.


more
Google Analytics Alternative