Building Your Company on Conviction and Meaning

Building a company on conviction and meaning is to create a money making enterprise that also has balance with its employees, its clients, and its reason for existence. When your company means something, your clients will recognize that. Some companies suffer from an investor/management team that are willing to sacrifice the quality of their products, thinking that money is the most important thing to the company. It causes problems in the long run though, like unhappy employees, soured clients, and a product that looks rushed and unfinished. They are examples of companies that don’t have conviction, but you should build your company with meaning and conviction.

The Lack of Conviction and Meaning

There are too many money grubbing vultures out there, some of which are destroying companies. While it is true that in a capitalistic society a business must be sure that its number one focus is to generate profit, there is a fine line with which how it can get there and still contain meaning. A company without a meaningful purpose (other than to generate revenue) is just opening itself up to being consumed by the tiresome, never-ending and cyclical road to having employee retention and customer satisfaction problems. It is almost always often the case that the management teams and investment principals of the company are the direct cause of the lack of defining and defending this meaning.

This meaning, motive, and purpose needs to be defined in the “DNA” of the business; the core root of its existence; from the very top. The business needs to be absolutely convicted of its purpose, or it will only appear as a charade that camouflages its true existence as an after thought or gimmick.

All too often, investors demand unrealistic time tables or visions, requiring drastic shifts in the priorities of the products the company builds. What begins to happen is the breakdown of the quality of the products, almost as if they’re cheating on the very nature of what their market wanted in the first place.

An Example of Conviction

Enter Mike Lee. A visionary, commonly self-referred to as “the world’s toughest programmer.” He comes from Delicious Monster fame, a company run by Wil Shipley, a no-bullshit developer. They’ve shipped one of the most well known cataloging softwares of recent day for the Mac (Delicious Library and finally, Delicious Library 2). It’s won awards. Wil was Mike’s mentor. Armed with knowledge and a dribble of fame, Mike set off to start the Silicon Valley’s next-best-company.

He stood for meaning. Design and functionality was to be merged in a harmony of utmost quality. He pitched and pleaded a team of engineers to join with him, touting his ideals and promising a company that stood for something; a paradise in the midst of the desert. They followed. Tapulous was born, and began to generate a lot of buzz for their iPhone-based business, that embraced Apple design values, and a clear message of honor that dictated no sacrifice in quality. Mike Lee began to lead his team to victory; and some victories were won by Tapulous: Tap Tap Revolution and Twinkle, two of the most popular applications on the App Store platform. The Silicon Valley gossips began to talk about this company, and the future looked good. Clients were ecstatic about the products, and employees embraced their lives at the startup.

One sad day arrived, when Mike Lee posted on his blog that he has been thrown out of the company due to irreconcilable differences with his investors. It seemed that investors wanted to churn out buggy software, software less than perfect. Mike knew that his business was built on perfection. His niche market wanted applications that were champions. After all, they’re the kind of users that are champions too. And he’d convinced his army to join him at the company based on these convictions in the first place. But his investors didn’t care about that. They wanted quick, dirty, filthy profits from the hot, hot, and hotter iPhone market.

Here’s what will happen. While the outcome of their mistake is yet to be proven true, it will backfire. Other employees will quickly defect (even though Mike publicly encouraged that they stay), and the investors and remaining management will not have the conviction and honor to attract top engineers and designers. Products will begin to suffer because cocky junior and mid-level engineers will write buggy architectures and applications, and uncommitted designers will skimp on the details needed to make the products top notch. And tight, unrealistic investor deadlines will only exacerbate this problem. Soon, they’ll be charged with sub-prime developer status, and they’ll be dropped by their niche market. They’ll join the ranks of ugly, meaningless companies who’s products will sell, but won’t win any awards.

What Mike has done is honorable. He built a company on conviction and meaning, and then stood by his declarations. In his case, he was made a martyr by his backers; sliced away for standing up for his beliefs. But he had the right idea! He built a company that everyone was talking about. A company that made amazing products. (By the way, Mike is obviously already up to something)

What You Can Do

There are a few things that you can do, that if you truly embrace will make your company absolutely remarkable. They’re very simple things too, but you have to be convicted.

    1) Build a product that listens to what people want.

    How can you possibly build something for someone if you don’t know what they want? Architects don’t force a design on you when you build your home!

    2) Build a company that honors, appreciates, and nurtures its clients and employees.

    Give your employees the equipment they need and are familiar with to be productive. If they’re designers, yes, they need 30″ cinema displays. You’ll get that extra $800 back in productivity faster than you think. Don’t over work your employees; just because they put in 80 hours doesn’t mean it’s 80 hours of productive and useful code; in fact, it’s probably junk. Respect their talents, after all, you hired them for a reason. Give them the authority they need to implement your visions, because real talent wants to be challenged and respected, they don’t just want to execute mundane and repeatable tasks all day.

    Your clients are just as important. Give them the respect they deserve by listening to their gripes and complaints when they’re struggling to use your product. It’s easy to get frustrated with their negativity, but if you listen to what’s really bothering them and address their concerns, you’ll keep more of your customers. If your customers discover major bugs, acknowledge that you’re looking into the issue, and don’t wait until you’ve discovered a fix before you announce a solution like Apple does. It only serves to frustrate your customers more.

    3) Build a product that stands for quality by avoiding shortcuts.

    Stand for quality. Make the decision from Day 1 to never ship a product that has no intention of being remarkably perfect. Yes, ship it quickly and incrementally, but improve on it. If you’re breaking the bank to deliver a perfect product, chances are that you’ve made it too complicated! Strip it down, make it perfect, ship it. Then you can start adding additional, perfect features to make it the kind of product you’ve always wanted. But always have the intention to ship a meaningful and remarkable product. If you don’t intend to do something, it will never happen.

    4) Build a company that lives and breathes moral and ethical values.

    How about having a positive ecological benefit while having an economic one? What about protecting the soldiers on your staff from the vultures above? How about not over working your employees just because you think you’ll meet your deadlines faster, and instead empowering them to make great decisions?

    5) Build a product that solves real problems but is also a pleasure to use.

    Products can no longer survive to serve function alone. They need to be enjoyable and pleasurable to use. They should invoke emotion from their users; make people yearn to use it. They should look like pieces of visual art. They should be obvious on how to use them.

You Can Be Convicted Too!

What happened to the people who wanted to build a better product and not just make a significant number of dollars? What happened to the people who were willing to believe in a code of ethics, justice, and honor like the knights of the round table? People who want to build great products by building a great team, sustainably. What happened to the people with vision, innovative courage, and the desire to enhance people’s lives, and still make money?

These are the kinds of friends and business partners that I want. Ones with honor, compassion, conviction, and smarts. Ones that want to change the world. Ones that want to solve real problems, and add real value.

Are you building companies with conviction and meaning?

Team Cohesion and Building Great Things Quickly

Something caught my eye the other day that I thought had a very important message to all entrepreneurs and small business owners everywhere; true team cohesion and an ability to build things at a quick pace that a team is enthusiastic about. This is a feat that is not a simple task. Too many companies these days have difficulty allowing their teams to work together in creative and empowering ways, and often default to a lower level of efficiency because their teams are not enthusiastic about their jobs. In fact, since so many people are not enthusiastic about their jobs, they often fall off the ‘common message’ or ‘signal’ that the rest of the people in the company or product team are on.

But, these folks got it right!

A small company in the UK called Carsonified recently set out to build a fully functional and fully marketed web application in 4 days for $10,000. They stopped all of their normal activities for nearly a week to get together and build something fun, productive, cohesive, and useful for what is a considerably small investment for most businesses these days. [For those of you who are still confused with what the UK is: the United Kingdom is that really big island off the coast of the mainland of Europe! And yes, it’s part of Europe!] The end result of their effort is a free web application called ‘Matt‘ that allows you to send Twitter messages from multiple accounts without having to login to each one and post the message by hand each time. It’s fun, funky, fresh, and useful if you’re a twitterer.

Matt Logo

I had the opportunity to talk to Elliott Kember, the lead developer for Carsonified, and ask him a few questions about their experience. Since I recently talked about dealing with discouragement in “Be Who You Are, You Silly Entrepreneur You!” and financial models in the last post, entitled “You won’t be bought by Google, so Quit Fooling Yourself; you need a sound financial model!“, I thought a few of the questions that I asked Elliott should address these areas. The following is an informal transcript of our conversation:

    Kevin Elliott: So you put together a web application in 4 days. Why? What are your plans with this experiment? What did you hope to gain?

    Elliott Kember: We put the site together to see if we could! Every now and then we have an “ideas week”, where we turn off all our phones and email, and everyone gets together and works on a common project. This time, we decided to use a framework and language that we hadn’t tried before, and use the Twitter API to make a useful, fun little app. Not only that, it was also an app that we had a use for, and we figured that there must be others out there who wanted to be able to post to several twitter accounts at the same time.

    Kevin Elliott: How many people got together to do this in such a short period of time? How were you able to rope in a group of enthusiastic people to gel together on a common theme and goal for this project? Getting people excited about things, especially small projects, seems to be a difficult challenge. How did you overcome this?

    Elliott Kember: All 9 of our staff were involved in building Matt – blogging, copywriting, designing and developing. There was a bit of confusion over why we had so many people working on the one application – we could have built the same app with just two developers and our designer, but without all the marketing, blogging, and PR we’d never have got nearly as much interest. Not only that, but everyone in the team was also able to contribute great ideas and feedback to the process. We managed to get everybody involved because we’re lucky enough to have a creative and innovative team, and a fantastic environment here at the Carsonified offices. We have a four-day week, great equipment and a beautiful office, and we all thoroughly enjoy working here – so any excuse to get involved in something exciting is always welcome.

    Kevin Elliott: Did you have any major hurdles during this time? If so, how did you overcome them?

    Elliott Kember: We didn’t have too many major hurdles – in fact, learning Python and Django was probably the only real hurdle! Any problems we had stemmed from the fact that we were still beginners with both. It can be quite frustrating when you know exactly what you’re trying to do, but not exactly how to do it. Twitter’s API went down a few times, which didn’t help – but it’s pretty famous for that and we managed to patiently work around it. I guess we expected it to be pretty hectic and tricky, so we were pleasantly surprised when things started falling together. A late night or two certainly helped 😉

    Kevin Elliott: At any point in this project, from conception to completion, did anyone doubt or discourage you and your attempts to engage and deliver? How did you deal with it?

    Elliott Kember: Lots of people doubted us! Some doubted that we’d be able to produce a web application in four days, others said that it was just a bit of a publicity stunt. Many people missed the point and wondered why it took us so long to build. Quite a few people tried to copy what we’d done in less time and for less money, and others said that they didn’t understand the app, and thought it was all a big waste of time. Really, the only way to deal with this much negativity is to stay realistic about what you’re doing, and enjoy yourself. If people don’t like what you produce, then they’re welcome to their opinion – but at the end of the day, you’re not building it for them. The positive feedback makes it all worth it, and there were lots of positive message and compliments. Thanks to everyone who sent them!

    Kevin Elliott: Your site mentions that your goal was to build a fully functional web application in 4 days in under $10,000. Considering that you included marketing, PR, copywriting, and other activities this sounds like an excellent accomplishment. What considerations did you take for planning a financial model around it? When you sat down at the beginning of this effort, did you determine how this would “break even” and eventually post some kind of profit? (NEW)

    Elliott Kember: We didn’t actually plan against a budget – this figure just happens to be the amount we spent in salary during the time taken to build the app. Many readers took this to be the budget of the application, and it became one of the more talked-about parts of Matt week. So having said that, I think it’s fair to say that we didn’t have a financial model, and we didn’t expect it to “break even” at all. There’s no advertising on Matt, and it’s free to use.

    Kevin Elliott: How did you measure and enforce the budget as you moved forward? (NEW)

    Elliott Kember: Managing the budget was very easy. There wasn’t one! The only budget we did have was a time budget, and we basically just had to make sure we got everything done as efficiently as possible, even if that meant a couple of late nights.

    Kevin Elliott: What were your intentions for building this application in the first place? In other words, what were you hoping to gain by taking on this challenge? (NEW)

    Elliott Kember: We hoped to gain a better understanding of Python, and Django. As developers, we’d never used them before and were interested in the challenges of learning a new language and framework, as well as working with the Twitter API.

    Kevin Elliott: What are your future plans?

    Elliott Kember: As for future plans, we’ve got some fantastic events and workshops coming up, and we’d love to see you and your readers there. We’re not sure when the next Ideas Week will be, but we’ll be sure to let you know – It was so much fun that we hope to do it again soon!

    Kevin Elliott: Lastly, what were the three most important things that you learned about the team, the project, or the technologies after everything was complete? (NEW)

    Elliott Kember: Mostly what we learned was the structure and workings of Python and Django. It’s a very foreign thing, learning a new framework, and learning the syntax and structure took most of our time as developers. I could say we learned that Mike, our fantastic designer, can produce a fantastic design and template in about three days! We also learned that TechCrunch readers can be a very tough audience.

Thanks Elliott!

To read more about the Matt project, Carsonified co-founder Ryan Carson wrote a guest article for TechCrunch that details more about how everything went down.

You won’t be bought by Google, so Quit Fooling Yourself; you need a sound financial model!

Somehow, countless startups are still getting funded by investors without financial business models that are sound, proven, or even make sense. Even a couple of my colleagues have questionable businesses that have received infusions from angels and VCs (although, the products they’ve built seem brilliantly designed). Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy that all of these entrepreneurs are able to get funding. In some ways, it seems reminiscent of the dot-com-bomb days — lots of money flowing on interesting ideas, but no way to capitalize on them. I’m sure that many entrepreneurs say that they’ve got a well developed set of models that have been approved by their venture backers and would be crazy to share it with the public, in fear that their competition would capitalize on it. If that’s true, why does the performance of the business show no proof of one (think, YouTube, Twitter, and Yelp)? I mean, it doesn’t take a genius to see that Twitter is currently not able to generate more revenue than their implementing is actually costing them (research, design, development, graphics, legal, management, server scaling, code base refactoring, etc). Let’s be honest… everyone thinks they are going to make their fortune with each of their startups by being bought by Google or Yahoo!

For some, maybe that’s a realistic exit strategy. And for even a subset of those, perhaps that’s also a realistic revenue generator (i.e. the exit strategy IS the model). But for most entrepreneurs, this is unrealistic. You need a fallback plan, because, chances are, even if you plan your business like a perfect game of chess with the hopes of being purchased by a giant, it’s not going to work out. Even if it does, it’s likely to not be as lucrative as some of the deals that have already happened. What do we do then? We develop a financial model with realistic projections to create a cash flow that actually makes sense (uberly simplified: profit = revenue – expenses, not profit = 0 – expenses).

Before you get frightened by the idea of actually building a real business instead of one of these socially driven flukes, think about what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about building a business on a reasonably small number of investment/capital dollars, having one or more legitimate revenue streams, and eventually, a profit. As intimidating as some people think this is, it’s not rocket science (and it surprises me how many people “claim ignorance” by saying “I’m just a tech person, not a business guy” in order to avoid this basic concept). Having some idea of how you’re going to make money is a vital path to success.

Here’s how you start:

  1. Find and review example financial models, including forecast and cash flow examples.
  2. Think about your market and your products.
  3. Gather details about what you think it will cost for your research, parts, labor, prototypes, and other expenses.
  4. Gather details about what you think you will charge for your products and services, or how much you will be able to monetize from other forms of revenue.
  5. Build your financial model!

Find and review example financial models.

Before you can even start to begin building your own models, you should probably look at what other people have done (or, actually consider enrolling in a business course at a university). Examples can give you a lot of great ideas, and are a quick way to get introduced to the concepts of what a financial model really is. Just keep one thing in mind: it’s your money-making recipe from a financial perspective.

Here are some examples (and a few other introductions):

Think about your market and your products.

How can you build something for the people you haven’t even yet identified? You need to figure out who you’re trying to target; who you’re trying to sell your product or service to. This can be a little difficult, but it’s best to start with what you actually know. As you grow, you may be able to use some unique strategies of discovering what your market wants (market research reports, surveys, email questionnaires, and contests come to mind quickly).

Once you know what your market wants, you can consider what is consumable. Blindly building products that you think your community is demanding might not be the best idea. Keep yourself in it, because a large piece of your product is actually you (you can really mean the spirit of your company, morals, or views). Stay true to your vision, but don’t ignore what the reality of the market is telling you. Selling out to the demand may actually destroy the foundation you spent so long to build. Think about how to make money while delivering a product that is able to drive your client base wild.

Gather details about what you think it will cost for your research, parts, labor, prototypes, and other expenses.

In the beginning, you’re going to wing this one. But, you need to be conservative, and as thorough as possible. Ask what consultants are charging for research or labor activities. Look on the job boards to get an idea of what a full time employee will cost. There are too many questions to ask and consider, and they will be unique to your particular business. How many different components do you need for your device? What are the price points for various tiers of bulk purchasing of one component? How much time and labor do you expect you’ll need for your first prototype? What will it cost to form the business legally? How many administrators will I need on launch day? How many will grow over 3, 6, and 12 months? How about 3 years?

Write these out in the form of a FAQ or research paper if you’d like. But at a minimum, write it out in written language. This will make it easy to translate to attributes/variables in a financial model, but will provide the train of thought you had when you first sat down to put it all together. Trust me, you’ll find it valuable when you’re trying to figure out what “%vol / num. visitors” really meant, and how it was related to your project.

Gather details about what you think you will charge for your products and services, or how much you will be able to monetize from other forms of revenue.

This is the meat and potatoes of your financial model. Think of it as the framework of how you’ll make money with your business, but not the blueprint or implementation of it. For some, this is really challenging. For a born-to-be-an-entrepreneur, this might come very naturally (after all, you had a lot of experience with that lemonade stand; don’t lie, I had one too).

Ethan Zuckerman posted recently with a really useful enumeration of some of the ways you can make money. He focuses on the news industry (specifically journalism), but I think a lot of it applies to other industries too. He goes beyond the traditional ‘advertising’ and ‘premium services’ models too. This is a valuable way to get a start right now.

Build your financial model!</h3

No better time than to start building it right now. This really should be one of the first things you think about when you start evaluating your genius ideas. But don’t worry, this thing needs to evolve. It will change over a conversation with a colleague, and most definitely change over a time period of 6-12 months. And that’s good, so don’t get too stressed out if you think it’ll be too time consuming to do it all in one sitting. Get the basics down. Try to quickly prove that your idea will actually make a positive balance!

And if you already have an established business, building a real financial model for the first time can be extremely revealing! It can quickly show you what your real future holds (perhaps not as aggressive as you thought), and give you some ideas on how to refine your business so that you can actually target making progress towards that goal of early retirement.

If you’re in the sharing mood and would like to help other entrepreneurs develop their models, please feel free to link us to your model (or perhaps a model-in-progress) in a comment on this article and tell us what has really worked for you.

Free copy of the book “Six Disciplines: Execution Revolution”

Small Business Trends reported yesterday that Six Disciplines is offering a free book (up until July 6th only) titled ‘Execution Revolution’ which discussing execution strategies… what we believe our problems are with our businesses are possibly not what we think they are. This is a great promotion that is hard to pass up. They are even covering shipping!

Get yours here by adding it to your shopping cart, creating a new account, and using the promotion code ‘START’ when checking out.

Once you’ve finished reading the book, I’d really appreciate a small review back here at this post as a comment so that the rest of my readers can benefit from your time. We all benefit when we share information about what works and what doesn’t with each other.

I’d also like to remind you that I’m giving away copies of Guy Kawasaki’s upcoming book ‘Reality Check’ to several winners that share their story about how they dealt with others who discouraged their entrepreneurial efforts. You can read about it in the original post, as well as see what others have said. The deadline is July 1st, 2008, so you only have two days left!

Be Who You Are, You Silly Entrepreneur You!

I recently stumbled across a free e-Book written by Michael Simmons and Sheena Lindahl, of Extreme Entrepreneurship Education Corp fame. They’ve been acknowledged by ABC, NBC, CBS, and Business Week for their efforts to reach out and educate budding young entrepreneurs. While their e-Book is mostly written for a college audience, I thought there was quite a bit of value in their message for the rest of us. Here’s a piece of the introduction in their e-Book:

You know who you are. Ambitious, entrepreneurial, goal-oriented, values-driven, persistent, self-starter, etc. You can’t help it either. You can’t help but get excited by the opportunities around you. You can’t help but get excited by your own potential. You know your life will be about big things, although you may not know exactly what those will be yet.

Here’s the thing though. It’s not easy. It’s not easy being you, because sometimes you feel isolated from parents, teachers, and even peers. Sometimes you feel like something is wrong because you feel different than those around you. Furthermore, the people closest to you, the people with the best intentions, often end up being your main critics. They say, “What makes you different?”, “You’ll never make it”, “That’s impossible”, “You’re an idealist.”, “You sure you’re not overdoing it?” They cannot help it.

Many parents encourage a safe path because that’s what worked for their generation. Many teachers encourage the conventional path because that’s what they know. Many of your peers encourage you to relax and take it easy because that’s what they enjoy. But none of these ways of being feel right to you.

Download a free copy of Michael Simmons and Sheena Lindahl’s eBook.

I immediately identified with this message. Most people that surround a young entrepreneur feel like it is their civic duty to let you know that you may not be capable of accomplishing what you’re trying to do. Is this more because they are uncomfortable with the idea, and less that you can’t do it? Is there any truth in what they are saying? Are they just trying to save you face and protect you from failure? If so, they’re limiting your potential. Also, their commentary can often be discouraging. Realize that the only people who are going to be supportive of you are other real entrepreneurs that are willing to acknowledge your ability. Most people are not wired like you are, and this is why they aren’t successful entrepreneurs themselves. They’re not interested in taking controlled chances like you are. They want to play it safe.

The fact that they play it safe isn’t necessarily a bad thing though. You and I need people like them. They’re the fabric of your future company. Rest assured, when you finally do launch that business, and get the funding you were looking for, you’re going to need reliable people to count on, who do like to play it safe — eventually. They’re going to be the ones that keep your business alive, but they’re certainly not going to be the risk takers. They’re not going to be the ones that you recognize for bright ideas and that out-of-the-box thinking that helps to separate you from your competition. Chances are, they’re not going to be your future partners, lenders, or executive team either.

Regardless of what people say, do not let down your enthusiasm. Stop and think for a minute if their advice is useful, or driven by an alternative purpose, even if it wasn’t advice you asked or was looking for. You might find that even in a negative exchange, that they are offering you an opportunity to find an area that you could use some improvement. Take it on as a personal challenge to see if what they’re suggesting might be truthful; but don’t let it stop you or hold your focus for too long. Remember, failing fast has a lot of value, and if you spend too much time trying to perfect what you’re working on, you might miss your targets. You might even lose sight of what your customers want because a colleague of yours said that your idea stunk. What made him authoritative over your ideas, anyway? Who told him he was your client’s representative? You did!

Kelle Sparta recently wrote an article for Startup Spark that seems to resonate with this line of thinking. She acknowledges that employees and entrepreneurs think very differently. You just need to realize that most people are employees (and might very well always be). Her description of the Entrepreneur Mindset seems right on target. It is relieving to find out that others breathe just like you every day, isn’t it?

Guy Kawasaki\'s Upcoming Book Release!Tell me your story of ‘staying on track’ even when others brought you down and you could win a copy of Guy Kawasaki’s upcoming book titled Reality Check: The Irreverent Guide to Outsmarting, Outmanaging, and Outmarketing Your Competition. It is set to be released on October 30th, 2008 and will be the latest hardcover from Guy Kawasaki, a man who needs no introduction in the entrepreneur space. Enter the contest by Tuesday, July 1st, 2008 by simply writing your story as a comment to this post. Avoid too much brevity, but don’t make it too long either! I will be choosing the winning entry by July 4th by email, so don’t forget to include your email address when adding the comment (don’t worry, I won’t give this out!).

UPDATE: Jamie has won the contest. As an added bonus, I decided to give him a copy of any other Guy Kawasaki book of his choosing. Congratulations Jamie!

Wearing Multiple Hats, or, How I Learned To Do It All By Myself

Whether you’re running that top secret stealth-mode startup all by yourself, or have a few angel investors and a team of 12, all startups require their principals to wear multiple hats. It often makes us feel uncomfortable, because we’re always doing something we’re not really experts at! But that’s OK, because it’s our job to get the business profitable, a focusable future, and a home for invested employees… at all costs. We’re willing to jump into any role necessary to get things done. For most of us, we enjoy it, but often struggle with areas we’re not that familiar with.

For example, you might have a Software Engineering background and you are comfortable building a prototype, acquiring some initial funding, and building the first revision of your website. However, you may realize that you have absolutely no background in Design, Typography, and Page Layout, other than some lustful blog reading. This is a tough situation to be in, but you’re not the first.

Here are some more resources to help you figure out how to more effectively perform when wearing the blue, red, or purple hats.

  1. 36 Startup Tips from ReadWriteWeb. This article points out some really excellent tips for Startups, including “software engineering, infrastructure, PR, conferences, legal and finance.” It’s a must-read for anyone considering the idea of starting their own business by themselves or with a partner.
  2. Creating Web 2.0 Effects With Photoshop from sitepoint. If you have no clue on how to make your company’s logo get that Web 2.0 look, this is your starting point. When it comes down to it, you might not need to hire a graphics designer to set you up for your prototype or first release.
  3. The 50 Most Popular Web Design Blog Posts, Resources & Cheat Sheets of 2007 from crestock. Perhaps a little dated (I mean come on, we’re in 2008 right?), this is one of the most consolidated resources that identifies the best website design concepts of 2007. If you’re not worried about looking “too 2007” then there’s no other place to look. This is also a great way to get introduced into design, and very quickly learn what trends exist.
  4. 8 Web Design Mistakes That Developers Make from wakeuplater. Read and catch these mistakes before you do them, because you know you’re really just an amateur designer waiting for the business to make enough money to hire a truly fantastic expert.
  5. 100 Photoshop Tutorials for Creating Beautiful Art by 3dTotal. Well, this might not directly help you with your business, but you’ll learn a crap load more than you ever wanted about how to actually use Photoshop. Then, you’ll be able to apply what you’ve learned to your future projects.
  6. Illustrator Tutorials by Designer Today. Photoshop is great for some things, but it’s not a great tool to create your logo in because it doesn’t scale well. If you need to ever make your logo larger it’ll be pixelated. You’ll want to use Photoshop’s sister, Illustrator. This is just one of the many reasons to use Illustrator.

While most of these resources focused on Web Design, it mostly serves as an example of resources that can help you solve the problem of wearing a hat you’re not familiar with!

Web-based Project Planner Tools Galore!

Organizing your projects is essential to success. For years, Project Managers have used tools like Microsoft Project and OmniPlan to manage and organize projects for corporations. While these are the tools they use traditionally, there are a lot of limitations to these products, including the fact that contain clunky and unattractive interfaces. If you already understand how to use them, either because you’ve been forced to use them, or because you’ve actually been a project manager, then it may make sense to continue to use them. However, if you’re new to managing projects, or you don’t have time to really learn how to make these tools work for your projects, then alternatives exist that may just prove to drive the success of anything you’re trying to accomplish.

What constitutes as a project?

First, you want to understand what a project even is. In my opinion, anything that requires several tasks to occur is a project. For example, re-organizing your home or creating a spending budget are small projects. Building a website, or even starting a business revolving around building a website is certainly a medium-to-large sized project. Making a phone call to apply for a credit card is not a project. It’s a task. Keep in mind that any major activity requiring successive or related tasks is most certainly a project, and could benefit from some kind of project management.

What is project management?

In simple terms, project management is the act of organizing and managing a project from research (identifying requirements, researching on the web, identifying solutions), planning, to implementation. With projects requiring several people to be involved, this requires managing allocation of these tasks to various people, and following up to ensure the work has been completed. Time management is key, as inter-dependent tasks will be affected by slip-ups. A good project manager can take these sorts of things into account when the research and planning stages begin, to provide time buffers for standard problems.

The reality is, if you’re an entrepreneur, or you’re just trying to solve some problems around your home or workplace, and you’re actual occupation is not project management, then managing your project can be tedious. It can be even more difficult if you’re responsible for many projects that are all important for the success outcome. You’re not a project manager, and you have better things to do with your time than learn difficult management tools, or create one in Excel.

What tools can help with project management?

Thankfully, you’re in luck, because there are a lot of simplified tools that are available today on the web that can help. Most of these services offer a free trial or a completely free account that have limitations on the number of projects or people that can participate. It gives you a good opportunity to get a feel for the services, and actually use them to get something done.

Best Project Planning Services:

Basecamp

Basecamp is one of the original online project management tools to have surfaced over the last couple of years. It was designed by 37Signals, who also created several other interesting and useful web applications like Highrise, Backpack, Campfire, Ta-da List, and Writeboard. Unsurprisingly, they invented Ruby on Rails as a by-product of all the hard work they’ve done creating their products. Not only is it admirable that they’ve contributed the framework (translation: their framework also equals their best practices) to the public domain, but the success of Ruby on Rails has likely driven them a lot of business to their product lines. Too many companies ignore the fact that their IP (intellectual property) can be used to increase revenue is several different ways (companies like to focus solely on the products they create, and ignore the potential of selling/consulting using their frameworks, best practices, experience). But let’s focus back on the Basecamp product.

Pros:

  • Free account is available.
  • 30-day free trial is available for premium plans.
  • Dashboard consolidates information about your project.
  • To-Dos let you define action items or tasks.
  • Milestones let you track key moments of time for your project.
  • A time tracker exists, allowing you and other people track how much time they’ve spent on tasks for the project.
  • A clean and efficient design was clearly at the top of 37Signal’s priority list. They’ve made their interface very useful, and it isn’t very confusing.
  • The Dashboard shows basic calendaring details for your upcoming and past activities, such as milestones, To-Dos, etc.
  • The entire interface exudes AJAX elements, letting you make additions and changes without waiting for pages to constantly refresh. This translates to saved time!
  • Premium plans allow real-time chatting, messaging, and interactive writeboards between all the people on your project.
  • Premium plans also allow you to control who has access to various features of the site.

Cons:

  • The free account is very limited. You can not upload files to the project, and you can not have additional people as part of your project.
  • No advanced project management features, such as gantt charts, or detailed task management.
  • Plans are priced slightly higher than other services, arguably rightfully since they’re one of the first successful sites.
  • No concept of Tickets. As you develop a product, you will inherently discover bugs and problems. You really need to keep track of these as tickets, and then be able to associate them with tasks to fix the problem.
  • No integration with conventional planners like Microsoft Project or OmniGroup’s OmniPlan.

goplan

Goplan has a few things that Basecamp doesn’t. It is currently one of my favorite ones, but that is because their free account gives you a chance to really put their service to use, and Tickets are important for my needs.

Pros:

  • Free plan is very usable (2 projects, 15MB file uploads, 4 users)
  • Feels very similar to Basecamp, so it’s easy to learn.
  • Your project can have Tickets that users submit, so you can track bugs.
  • Your project can have a blog, so your team can share news and information with each other.
  • Your project can have notes, for more generalized information tracking.
  • A Dashboard exists to consolidate activity across the project.
  • Like the others, you have Tasks and File uploads.
  • A developer API exists, allowing you to extend and integrate their functionality with your own application.
  • You can subscribe to various feeds of information using calendaring software.

Cons:

  • No integration with conventional planners like Microsoft Project or OmniGroup’s OmniPlan.
  • Not enough use of AJAX functionality.

unfuddle

unfuddle has a fun design. And if you are writing code for a website or software project, they have Source Control (Subversion) as well. I personally do not like our intellectual property sitting on a remote server that we don’t control, so I don’t use this service. My big concern is that if their systems are compromised, your intellectual property is bound to get stolen. Otherwise, it’s a really pleasant service, that offers most of what goplan and Basecamp offer.

Pros:

  • Aimed at software and website development teams (Tickets and Source Control integration)
  • Free account has some things that are not available on Basecamp, such as 15MB file storage, Source Control, and RSS/iCal integration.
  • Prices are reasonable, and offer fair storage totals.
  • A Dashboard exists to consolidate information for your project.
  • Your project can have Tickets that users submit, so you can track bugs or issues.
  • Your project can have source control, allowing you to check in source control into Subversion, and track changes in their web interface.

Cons:

  • Source Control is hosted, with no current offering to integrate into a self-hosted repository. Even if it was integrated, this does not resolve the problem of your intellectual property being available to resources outside of your company.
  • Free account does not allow more than your own account, so you can not test out multi-user projects.
  • Not enough use of AJAX functionality.

Conclusion

All in all, if you pick any of these three services, you’re doing yourself a huge favor. You will have a greater chance of project success, and can keep historical evidence of your progress. None of the free accounts on these services are fully functional, but they provide a good opportunity to get a sense of the capabilities and general feel. Now that I’ve found (and used) all of them, I couldn’t imagine running even the smallest of projects without some kind of management tool.

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“Eye-Fi” Puts Use To Your Digital Camera Stills

Wow, one company is innovating, and it’s what I like to see. Backed by VC funding, and in development since 2005, Eye-Fi, Inc has developed a product (also called Eye-Fi) that automatically uploads your photos to online photo services and your home computer or network — but get this: right from your camera!

That’s right, this add-on SD memory card is also a WiFi card. It turns any SD-compatible camera into a wireless photo taking machine. It’s brilliant. They’ve managed to merge two distinct features (WiFi and Memory) and make it available for a reasonable cost, $99 to be exact.

I ordered one last week, and just received it today. I popped it into my MacBook Pro, and set up it’s WiFi access, and told it to upload to Flickr and one of my computers. Next, I threw it into a quick point-n-shoot camera, and I was instantly taking photos that uploaded to the web.

These will make excellent stocking stuffers this year for several family members. Of course, if you decide to buy one, use this link, and I’ll get a few bucks 😉

8 Great Internet Reads for ANY Budding Entrepreneur

Knowing where to go with your ventures can feel like looking for a needle in a haystack. Determination, experience, and learning from other Entrepreneurs are keys to becoming a success. To keep my own business on track, I make a habit to absorb experiences from peers and successful Entrepreneurs by constantly and consistently reading. This gives me the tools I need to make on-the-edge decisions that I wouldn’t be able to make without having prior experiences.

Here are a few great reads that I found helpful:

1. Key Secrets to Being A Great Entrepreneur By Laurie Hayes
Develop your ability to sell very early on. Your product, service, or idea doesn’t make you any money if you don’t know how to market and sell it. This short article touches on it. Quite a few grammar and spelling mistakes, but it’s still an important concept!

2. 10 Secrets of Successful Entrepreneurs by Isabel M. Isidro
Meat and potatoes on what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur. Articles like these can give you a very quick way to evaluate your strengths, and spice up your weaknesses. Being an entrepreneur expects that you’re willing to adapt and take on traits and roles that most people are unwilling to.

3. 75 Secrets to Startup
75 tips from Entrepreneur magazine for starting up a business. Thankfully, in this case, the tips are categorized so you don’t need to remember 75 distinct concepts.

4. 5 Secrets of the Authentic Entrepreneur by Aleta Pippin
Five traits that identify true entrepreneurs. These 5 seem to really mean a lot to me. Knowing these can prepare you for learning and growing towards mastering them.

5. 10 Steps to Open for Business
StartupNation is a startup that provides Entrepreneurs some guides and a way to communicate with others. This service was created ‘by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs.’ This particular article identifies 10 things you need to do to open your business.

6. Inventor, Innovator And Entrepreneur Success Secret #2: It’s All About ‘Them’ By James Laughren
A somewhat older article, written in 2000 by a Canadian, but still very relevant to the current day and companies being started around the world. It is important to realize that just because you like your idea, it doesn’t mean it will be a hit. A bad entrepreneur will find oneself in a trap designing products that will never be purchased. Be sure to balance your decision making process against feedback you receive from others.

7. My Odds of Success as an Internet Entrepreneur
Friends, family, and peers may just not trust your leap of faith as much, if at all, as you do. This can become very draining and discouraging! But you need to remember that you’re the one taking the risks, they aren’t. If they had the endurance, vision, and guts that you do, then perhaps it would be one of them starting a venture, and not you! One day, they will very likely regret that they didn’t offer you the support and encouragement that they really should have.

8. Tips for Young Entrepreneurs by Nat Turner
Nat Turner shares some very vital bits of information about things that are important if you are an Entrepreneur. Specifically, he mentions the importance of having a partner or co-founder. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve been saying this for quite some time, but others people that I have talked to lately have disagreed. I’m not certain why people think it should be done ‘all on your own.’ There is a different between ‘getting away from working for someone’ and ‘building a startup with someone.’ I happen to agree with Nat, you can’t do it alone. Businesses are social since they operate in the social world, so sooner or later you’re going to have to work with someone.

There you have it. Next time I’ll go into more details about great online tools for Entrepreneurs. If you’re a huge fan of a particular tool, drop me a note and I’ll be sure to include it.

The Cluttered Web, or Why The Web Is So Painful To Use

Which of the following images best describes how you would like your garage to look?

Cluttered
Cluttered Garage
Clean & Organized
Clean Garage

For most of us, the answer is fairly obvious: Clean & Organized. For the rest of you that actually prefer clutter, this article will likely make no sense to you, and you might as well stop reading right now!

Clutter is distracting. Contrary to popular belief, it does not help spawn creativity and get the juices flowing (unless perhaps you have had a dry spell in whatever creative function for many months). Your mind has to process every detail, and it is not given a chance to focus and concentrate. Ideas might immediately arise, but never mature since you are already on the next idea. A handful of crappy ideas is not better than perhaps 2 well thought out, matured ideas. In the clutter garage picture above, you would not be able to think in an environment like that (even if you managed to find a little spot to sit). But if you sat down in the clean garage, you might actually be able to feel peaceful. Those of us who have managed to keep our homes and offices by using a system have realized that we are able to keep our sanity, and have increased our productivity as a result. Additionally, without the distractions of clutter and lost things, we’re able to focus on the things that matter to us.

Experiencing the web is fairly similar. Most web sites try to accomplish too much. I don’t blame them when it comes down to it. High server bills, the cost of bandwidth and employees. It’s expensive to run a web based business, so in turn, companies like to maximize their offerings with targeted advertisement channels, Google AdSense banners, and features-galore. Most companies think that in order to see revenue growth, they need to retain and increase their target audience so that they can charge more for advertising. But in order to retain their user base, they add on as many features as they possibly can, betting that it will keep people around. What they don’t realize though, is they are reducing the chances that their users come back when they add too much advertising or too many features; when they clutter their site, it becomes overwhelming, and sore on the eyes.

Here’s an example:

AjaxWorld Website Screenshot

Why is it that the news posting and article on this site takes up only 1/20th of the space? There is so much extra navigation, advertising, and features that the whole purpose of the site becomes misunderstood and hard to find. This is a news site with articles about AJAX, and so the main purpose is article content. Yet they make it so difficult to read the articles. To me, they are saying that their articles are less important than their widgets filled with other cruft. They want me to work to get to the content. Instead, it feels dirty, and it doesn’t encourage my participation. I never return to sites like these.

Luckily, the Web 2.0 movement is about cleaner, more elegant, and simple designs. Many new web sites are taking hold of these concepts, and applying them. There is light at the end of the tunnel.