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

Hacking customer technology adoption  

This is an excellent, long, and content-filled article by HN favourite Patrick McKenzie about how to compete against established businesses not by building a better product (though that doesn't hurt), but by innovating on distribution models.

There are too many good points to summarise the articles, but here are a couple of good extracts:

We often hear products described using something like "It's like Facebook, except for dogs." How about, instead, describing businesses like "It's like Quicken, except Quicken sells primarily through boxed software channels and we're going to sell primarily through banks which will deal with us for a cut of the sale price and the ability to deepen relations with small business customers, who consume lots of high margin services and stay locked in for decades at at time." (That may or may not actually be true.)

(...)

I have a wee little heresy as an engineer: I think that you can make a perfectly viable business out of a product which is not better than competitors, solely by improving on the method of selling it. Farmville (and whatever Zynga has reskinned it as this week), for example, is not superior to all other options for entertainment… it just beats the pants off of most of their viral spread patterns, because promoting your use of the game is the core gameplay mechanic.

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.

What sort of entrepreneur are you anyway?

From my father's blog about wisdom:

The trouble with values is that they are all good.

Most people will swiftly agree with most of the high values of humankind: freedom, happiness, truth, respect, justice, equality, prudence, compassion, courage, modesty, patience, moderation, harmony, industry and so on; but ask them which is the most important and prevailing. You will suddenly find in the pattern the striking differences that tell fascists apart from communists and religious fanatics from tolerant free thinkers.

Bad people have no problem with good values. Irreconcilable opposites are made from the same handful of values representing goodness. It is the weight of each that differs.

The same is true for entrepreneurial values. Everyone but the most psychopathic entrepreneur will agree that a business should treat its employees well, shouldn't waste money, should create value, should generate returns for its shareholders, shouldn't kill people or make them ill, and so on.

And, more specifically in the tech startup world, a great many entrepreneurs will agree that startups should hire the best people they can, should iterate, should keep an eye on relevant metrics, should have automated test suites, should have automated deployments, should have backups of valuable user data, should be running on secure, well-administered servers, and so on. For B2B startups, everyone agrees that making sales, creating a good brand and building strong customer relationships are good things.

At the very least in public, very few entrepreneur will disagree with those values. But, as with the more generic human values, there is a world of difference in how each entrepreneur orders those values. Are backups more important than automated tests? Is saving money more important than implementing good metrics measurements? Is it ok to treat your employees harshly in the name of shareholder returns?

If you're going to work in someone else's business, it is wise to try and determine how they have ordered their values before doing so - this is why interviewing with people who work there already can be so important for the job seeker.

And, similarly, for yourself! What sort of entrepreneur are you (or will you be when you start your own business)?

To be aware of your values and to examine their worth with your own mind is yet another subtle source of freedom. Keep Nietzsche's hammer at hand to gently tap on each value and to judge the sound. Depending on the place where they are hung, some of those bells may give an empty ding of hypocrisy. We tend to forget that values are man-made axioms agreed as beneficial. There is nothing God-given about them. You do have a right to examine them freely - in your head - to chose your own choices. This is not theory: your own chime, your arrangement of personal values chants who you are.


Positioning and differentiation  

Mikko Järvenpää, marketing geek, on positioning and differentiation:

Differentiation and positioning are strongly related. Differentiation is what makes you unique, it is your edge, how you differ (obviously). You can differentiate based on your technology, your experience, your niche market or your location. Features, benefits, quality, distribution can all be sources of differentiation. While it can be obvious to you how you are different from others, you still need to communicate your difference in order for it to work.

And how do you make it work? You need to position your difference in the mind of your target user or customer. This is a fancy way of saying that whoever you are marketing to must understand and remember your differentiation. And this the crux of the matter.

Excellent stuff, read the whole thing here. Here's another gem, in case you're not convinced yet:

Positioning can be explained in terms of psychology. We think in terms of representation. What is that person or company about? This is the most important thing in any elevator pitch. It has to stick. You want the person hearing it being able to recite it exactly the next day, regardless of how many they'd heard.

Public speaking for normal people  

Public speaking is a fundamental entrepreneurial skill. If you can't do it - you should learn to do it.

Tragically, many people come out of the European educational systems with little or no public speaking experience, not even in front of their classrooms. By contrast, in America, most children are regularly forced to do "show and tell" or other classroom speaking activities, which eventually takes away much of the fear of public speaking.

Ultimately, the only way to get over your fear of public speaking (if you have one) is to do it, repeatedly, until it goes away. One place to do so is Toastmasters, a non-profit organisation which has chapters all around the world.

However, practical tips are also welcome. Here are some tips from Jason Freedman. Summarised:

  1. Have a standard "routine" that you do before very speech, that gets you in the right frame of mind.
  2. Do not use powerpoint - if you do, have only a few words per slide and don't look at the slides.
  3. Pick two people in the audience and speak to them.
  4. Don't worry about your "Ums" and other filler words/sounds.
  5. Don't memorize your talk or, even worse, read it out.
  6. Practice in front of real people, not alone.

Read the whole article here.

How to handle lawyers threatening you  

Excellent article by someone who clearly has a fair bit of experience being threatened by lawyers. This is something that can happen to any business, particularly a successful business.

In short, Judd Weiss outlines three examples of his approach:

The more threatening the letter, the more references to precedent case numbers, the more terrifying the tone, the more they're covering up. The more they are compensating for lack of a legitimate case. Learn to smell a bluff.

When being bluffed, Judd's approach depends on the attorney's tone on the phone when he calls them. Reasonable, friendly sounding attorneys get dealt with reasonably. "Cold and technical" attorneys get served with:

The letter I received is without any merit whatsoever. You've given us 1 month to send your client $350,000 before you file a lawsuit. That's nice of you, but let's not drag this out and create movie suspense. Go ahead and file the suit tomorrow if that's in your client's best interest. But if I receive any more communication from your office beyond that this matter is dropped, I will sue your client and sue you personally for malicious prosecution according to CCP 128.7.

Finally, some attorneys are rude, nasty and condescending, and Judd deals with them by providing them with an answer they cannot seriously take back to their client without looking stupid.

Hacker News comments on the article are worth reading if you want to know more about this topic, as this approach will only work in the right context.

Every entrepreneur should write  

Jason L Baptiste makes a great case for why every entrepreneur should write. I agree with this - in fact, I believe that writing is one of those essential skills that you should somehow recruit on any early startup team, because of all the opportunities it opens up.

All the initial points really boil down to the last one:

It Is A Rapid Accelerator Of Serendipity

Startups are certainly impacted by luck, but I believe they are impacted just as much by serendipity. You never know who knows who or who you may run into at an event. By putting yourself out there and making yourself open to meeting as many people as possible, serendipity is much more likely to happen. Once you have even a minor audience, you are now likely to experience the effects of serendipity. One article might reach 500 or 50,000 people in a short span of time. Remember that we live in a world where content/information travels faster than ever before. Out of those 50,000 people, you never know who might be reading, who might reach out to you, or who might leave a comment. I can tell you this: The majority of good things that have happened to me in business can be traced back to my writing

Writing is a great way to create opportunities for yourself and your startup.

Jason also provides some tips about how to get started:

  • Keep it simple, worry about the aesthetics later on
  • Define a specific audience to write to
  • Set a regular routine
  • Don't force it
  • Initially share with close entrepreneurial friends
  • Watch your analytics
  • Avoid rambling
  • No linkbait, just thoughtbait
  • Make yourself easy to reach

All great points. If you're an entrepreneur and hesitating to get started, read the article. If you're worried about your writing skills, read this first.

How to get actionable data from Google Analytics  

Another good post by Kristi Hines from the prolific KissMetrics blog. This one explains practically and in some detail how to set up Google Analytics goals and funnels and use them to learn about your website's conversion. This is quite an unexpected blog post, considering that KissMetrics sells a competing analytics solution, but the article is solid, clear and easy to follow. If you were thinking of adding funnel analysis to your Google Analytics but didn't know how, read this.

Working for a no-shot startup  

Randall Bennett suggests, among other things, that you should not feel bad about working for what he calls a "no-shot startup" (one where inexperience meets enthusiasm and results in some kind of startup disaster), because you will still learn from those, and:

Crucially, the biggest advantage of working lower down the spectrum is that mistakes don't stick with you. In general, mistakes don't typically stick with you, but the further up the spectrum you go, the tighter knit the community. Make a mistake at the bottom of the spectrum, and there's enough people making mistakes that it's unlikely your mistakes will give you a bad reputation. On the other hand, screw up a company with $41mm in funding, and those mistakes are more likely to follow you.

That's a fair point. Conversely, I expect that most investors with $41m to swing around won't invest in a team that hasn't cut their teeth on previous ventures. And in fact, they didn't, since the colors.com team, to take the example Randall presents, is actually pretty solid and experienced.

Randall adds that after starting at the bottom, once your first hopeless venture dies out, you should work at moving up the ladder, into more and more successful startups.

I think there's a very valuable further point to make.

Startup MBA

Once upon a time, MBAs used to be designed for people who had 5, 10, or more years of business experience, to enable them to formalise and structure their knowledge of what makes a business tick. This was before the trend became to do an MBA 2-3 years out of university, or, god forbid, right afterwards.

The key point there is that until you have some of your own experience to drawn on, most of the things taught in an MBA won't stick, because deeply, viscerally, you won't understand why they're important.

The same is true for startups, but in reverse. Until you've worked (either as a founder or as a very early employee) in a broken startup, you won't know, deeply and viscerally, why the things that successful startups do matter. There are many lessons that you can only understand by contrasting them with the failure case. That's when the insights happen... "Aha! That's how you're supposed to do that."

In short, breaking your teeth on a "no-shot startup" before joining a successful one will help you make the most out of your time at the latter.

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.


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