Seattle Entrepreneur Blogs

I set an objective this week to get a feel for the Seattle Entrepreneurial blogging landscape, and have picked my three favorites from John Cook’s list of good ‘uns.

A Sack of Seattle: A. Sack (aka Andy Sack of Judy’s Book) is an honest guy with good observations. He’s also set up a forum for Seattle entrpreneurs to meet up over coffee, which is a benevolent gesture for an individual who has reached the “investment capital secured” promise land from which few bloggers return, and fewer still retain accessibility. Plus, his blog carries an extra bit of drama as he is currently in the process of trying to reinvent his site to capture a completely different niche (coupons) than it grew up on (reviews). Sounds like a hell of a trick to me, but I bet there are those who would say the same about taking on a $48 billion behemoth named eBay. Morons. They’ll obviously never topple eBay with that attitude.

Geeking With Greg: Greg is both a lucid and prolific blogger. He also seems to share my interests for Artificial Intelligence (I’ve architected the AI systems for most every game I’ve worked on for the last four years / he is making a web site that learns what kind of RSS you like and gives it to you) and productivity (I blog about it every other post / he blogs about it every other every other post). And if that weren’t enough, there is a funny quote about how engineers are leaving Google because MBAs have declared it their employer of choice.

Curious Office: Made by the founder of Imagekind, this site seems to fall into the “investment capital secured, accessibility retracted” collection. Comments are disabled on most posts. But you don’t have to be buddies with the writer to appreciate the piles of wisdom lying in plain site on here. In particular, there is a Steve Pavlina-esque article on their approach to getting funded. I like how he proposes that we wait until the investors come to us, rather than investing time on finding investors when there’s development to be done. Spoken like a true programmer. And you can bet that the story about the investor who tracked you down to give you $5 million is going to make for a great blog post/party story/pickup line when you can pull it off.

Anyone else got a local favorite local entrepreneurial blog not mentioned here? I’ve found that the defining characteristics of my favorites so far have been bloggers with experience and similar interests, who respect their readers and answer comments. It’s quite a treat when I uncover such a blog. The information that is readily accessible on any number of blogs these days (on the steps to getting investment, or generally being entrepreneurially minded) is stuff that simply didn’t exist 10 years ago. Let alone for free and in relatively unlimited quantities.

Kill the Gorilla

I went to see Sujal Patel give an intriguing talk on “Introducing Disruptive Technologies into Mature Markets” this Friday. Listed as starting at 6:30 (it actually started at 8, but that’s a different story), my expectations were high as I dragged myself out of bed at 5:30, after a mockingly short 5 hours rest. It didn’t disappoint.

In brief, his three keys to dethroning your gorilla:

1) Possessing a “disruptive technology.” According to Patel, for a new product to make a dent in an existing marketplace, it must be at least 10x better than similar existing offerings. Not twice as good, not five times as good. The logic behind this is that a product anything less than 10x better will not be able to cross the chasm into the early majority, because all breeds of majority adopters (early, middle and late stage) are compelled to adopt only when a product is so overwhelming better that it justifies the investment of time to learn it. This matches my intuitive perception of user adoption patterns — I’m certainly unlikely to adopt something new unless I can clearly see high benefit and low risk (i.e., of the new technology disappearing) to doing so.

2. Tenacity. Though this one is somewhat obvious, the depth to which it is necessary is something that new or non- entrepreneurs may not understand. Patel gave the example of spending literally three months in VC meetings for “all but two days. ” In many of those meetings, he was assured that his idea “was like so-and-so’s idea,” but worse. Other challenges in his case involved convincing VCs that two late 20-somethings, who knew almost nothing about storage, could build a successful storage company amongst a landscape of almost 100 competitors. An illuminating example that he didn’t give was that, as he lectured us, his company had dropped in value almost 22% in the last couple months on news of poor fourth-quarter earnings. Nevertheless, he had to show up, organize an hour-long show, and preach the perfection of his company’s execution. Guts.

3. Partners=results. If there is a single, overarching requirement for success, it is surrounding yourself with the absolute best people that exist. He specifically mentioned the need to find “high ceiling” people who have separated themselves from their peers. When asked in the Q&A session why he’d failed to mention “adaptability” as one of the core needs of a new business, Patel responded that “adaptability” is really a function of who you have. Do you have partners that hear the needs of the business and work together effectively to ensure those needs are met? If so, adaptability is already assured.

Overall, it was an extremely relevant topic for me. Thinking about the features of the site that are truly 10x better than their alternatives helps to focus on the core of the business model. And the need to partner was one that I had already understood, but Patel’s commitment to not compromising on a less-than-ideal partner certainly resonates, as my search for able accomplices extends into weeks from what I’d hoped would be days.

Be Better

In the last blog, I discussed the first half of the pivotal question for the great idea: How is your thing different and better? This time I’ll discuss the second half of that question.

To be sure, there are a lot of ways to be different than the competition. An eBay-like site that exclusively sold variously-aged Cheetos would pass the “different” test. Etsy would also pass the “different” test. So the question is, how can one tell if their idea is more like selling variously-aged Cheetos or artist-created handiworks?

The answer: ask around. This is a more difficult task than it sounds like for many entrepreneurs, because many of us introspective, visionary-types are used to listening to ourselves when an important question needs to be answered. It doesn’t help that other common qualities in entrepreneurs include the need for control and willingness to buck the norm. Simply put, most entrepreneurs at some point get used to living in a world of doubters and the short-sighted. So when it comes down to the most pivotal question of an idea’s existence, why would we turn to the same choir that has so regularly tried to stomp our initiatives… until around the point that said initiatives become unfathomably successful?

The first reason is that while people may not be able to imagine something better, they can often spot something they don’t like. Even if they can not absolutely determine why they don’t like an existing offering, asking people questions about their past experiences is instrumental in determining the relative degree to which certain opportunities exist in an established competitive landscape.

The second reason is that, if you’re asking your target audience, you are talking to the people that will ultimately determine your idea’s success. While human nature is naturally skeptical of all things “new” and purportedly “better,” ultimately it is the entrepreneur’s mission to dispel that skepticisim by creating a tangible product that resoundingly fills a need its competitors don’t. Without asking your target market about their needs and desires, what will guide you toward creating that tangible product that manifests your idea?

The third reason is that maybe you’re wrong. Yeah, you. Maybe your idea is variously-aged Cheetos. And if you spend thousands of dollars creating the perfect site for selling these, you will succeed only in becoming thousands of dollars poorer. Gaining feedback about your idea from the people that will ultimately use it is the ideal means by which to determine to what extent your idea needs to be adapted before it hits the bullseye.

Entrepreneurs are ultimately big dreamers and big dreamers are often very protective of their dreams. As such, I have found it difficult as a relative youngster in this game to take the first steps toward exposing my idea to the potential of Valid, Important criticism.

But that’s what this game is founded upon: having an idea, being wrong, and productively responding to that reality.

If all continues according to schedule, I should be able to report in the next week or two how being wrong feels.

Differentiation

It’s the three-inch titanium wall between you and the loot. It’s the ghost you feel on your ceiling in the middle of the night. It’s the $64,000 question challenging your otherwise-grand business idea: How is your thing different and better?

This question has been dancing through my head for weeks. It’s one thing to have an idea that could make people’s lives better. I have those every day, and you probably do too. In fact, talk of “how to do things better” has graced watercooler after watercooler since some business wunderkind had the idea that our lives would be improved if we didn’t drink from the tap. However, barfing out some idea of how things could hypothetically be better is not unique. If only the ideas heard by the watercooler were judged in a void where “degree of improvement” was the sole arbiter of success, then the world might properly appreciate the value of a good idea.

But they aren’t and it doesn’t. My idea kicks eBay where it counts, while providing a service that person after person has agreed they could utilize. But the $64,000 question remains, because the 800 lbs gorilla is often only of peripheral concern to the new business. Big businesses tend to lumber along with scattered focus, and as a result, are easy to be negatively contrasted with a nimble startup if one focuses on the idealistic: “Could I do a certain thing better?”

The crucial gauge of the great idea, then, is no more how it compares to the gorilla than how it compares to everything else. Once I find a site that seems to be trying to do something similar, I ask: How do I compare to what these people are doing? How will I compare to them once they see my idea and start trying to copy it? And of course, how well is this business doing? Quite frankly, this final question is an annoying one to ask, because if they are doing well it means more competition, and if they’re doing poorly it means the need we’re trying to meet might not be as great as anticipated.

From what I can gather, it would seem that there are a lot of “entrepreneurs” who don’t have the tenacity or wherewithal to ask this question, and their site ends up missing the key point of differentiation. For example, Powersellers Unite provides a list of the 20 most successful eBay copycats, er, Internet auction marketplaces. You visit these sites, and you see very little to distinguish them from eBay, save that they €™re willing to make less money with lower or no fees.

It takes tremendous courage, tenacity, and perseverence to honestly evaluate a competing idea and confront the question of why that idea won €™t work and yours will. But it alone is what charges a €œgreat idea € with the power to become €œa great, successful idea. € Over the course of refining my great idea, I’ve focused on learning to be honest about the similarities, and persevere through them with an even greater understanding of where are the cracks in the fortress of competition. There is no second option for businesses that want a realistic chance to succeed.