No Lines

One of the key metrics to indicate you’ve found your passion: you can’t tell weekday from weekend.

I love my weekends. It’s the time I get to spend with Katy and my friends at large. It’s the time I go on vacations. It’s the time I get to be outside and enjoy the ever-nicening weather around the ‘Sound. But it is seldom a Friday that I even realize the weekend is about to begin.

Not so when I was in school. I can recall feeling a palpable joy every Friday. In class, I took to watching the second hand of the clock dilly-dally in slow, ambling circles. The same was true when I worked at the University Bookstore. I have met a fair number of people who claim to like their job “because it gives them plenty of time to cruise their favorite Internet sites,” but I can remember no slower, more agonizing days than the ones that I had to try to find website after website to keep my brain occupied in five minute intervals. I wonder if these same people would want a job that required them to watch daytime TV for 8 hours a day?

To someone whose weekends were discernably more satisfying than their weekdays, I would hasten to remind them that weekdays are the 5:2 winner in how they will spend their life. That’s a problem if you don’t love ’em.

And So Forth

Sorry about the neglect, blog. I just haven’t been feeling profound enough I suppose. The idea orgy that typified the first month of business is over, and has been replaced with the part of the rollercoaster where you get hooked by the chain that pulls up up up toward the top of the coaster. Each of the clinks that you’d hear on the way to the top is one more piece that gets put together. But face it: when people talk about their favorite roller coaster, the trip up that first precipice is an oft-neglected component of their story.

That certainly isn’t to say that it isn’t fun and fascinating to look over the side at how high up we already are. In the last couple weeks, I’ve continued building information and partners, to the net effect that real live development should be getting underway in the next two weeks. We’re now three developers strong, and I can honestly say that if we were on the playground and I had the first three picks of whoever I’d want to be helping, I got ’em all three. Not only good for the project, but good for the developers themselves, because if there’s one thing that my day job has taught me, its that programming enters a whole new dimension of fun when you get to work with great people who can amaze on a daily basis. And if there’s one other thing my day job has taught me, it’s that the opportunities to work with people like that can be few and far between in the real world.

Wheeee!

The Farmer

I don’t doubt this analogy has been used before by some other observant entrepreneur, but starting a business is a lot like starting a farm. First you plant seeds. Lots of seeds. Thousands of them if possible, because you know most of them won’t grow. Then you start watering and nourishing the seeds. To this point, you could plant the seeds whenever you decided you wanted to become a farmer, and water them whenever you decided you wanted them to start growing.

Then they start growing, and things change. There is life all around the farm, and there becomes a certain responsibility that goes along with keeping these plants alive. The schedule is now dictated in equal parts by your needs and the needs of the crop. If you’re a good farmer, a lot of those thousand seeds probably took, and now you’ve got yourself a challenge: which area gets watered first? Do you need a new tractor or farmhand?

It is an evolution. After a couple months of planting, this farmer has found himself with more plants to water than days to water them, so it’s time to cut back the less important sprouts, and figure out what’s most important amongst the rest. I’m putting the “busy” in “business,” and it’s just where I want to be.

Realitivity

When’s the last time you heard that you did a “really great job”? Even better, when’s the last time you heard that you did a “really great job, and here are some ideas as to how you can do an even better one”? Hopefully in the last few weeks, but working at the average company with average boss, chances are that it’s probably measured more in months or years. As an individual in search of constant improvement, I am severely bugged when I see this happen. When one acts as their own sounding board, the veracity of the evaluation they give to themselves will be inherently more random. And with randomly correct data about what was and wasn’t good, the precision with which you can determine how to improve your actions is low. After working even one year without meaningful feedback, you end up with a lot of data points representing tasks that you completed, but no bin to sort them into. They are points in space, and the value of that experience is largely diminished because of it.

So, not getting feedback=bad. But is getting feedback=good? Sometimes. A concurrent epidemic that seems to have infected many of the noble feedback givers is that of not assigning degree and example to feedback. Did you ever have a class that was graded on a curve in college, and sit in class on a day where the professor jubilantly declared that “everybody did so well on this test, I am so proud of you all!” Seldom was there a compliment that I less wanted to hear. In reality as we know it, there are few, if any, absolutes. So feedback such as “you did well last week,” ranks only slightly higher in data conveyed than no feedback at all. A disclaimer is in order here that this is coming from a computer programmer who works in a world of logic and quantifiable principles, but in my eyes, a compliment that does not come attached to a comparison and an example will still be only marginally informative. Strictly speaking, whether you are “smart” or “good at what you do” does not exist in an absolute world. It only exists relative to other people (or your past self) who do those same things worse.

“Harsh,” you might be thinking, because it is. Society likes to sugarcoat the reality of comparison by labeling those that see the world as a place of relative degrees as “competitive.” Competitiveness of this type is often discouraged in casual affairs, or even in some business settings where it is important to preserve feelings. But whether you’re winning or not, the relative nature of success is here to stay. Deal with it and grow richer in your understanding of yourself and the world. Deny it and protect your self esteem while you remain ignorant to how you could do better.

It’s “Realitivity.”

Bonanzle!

Productive evening! My business name, “Bonanzle,” is now trademarked with business cards en route. The basis of “Bonanzle” is the “Bonanaza,” but I couldn’t tell you what that means or why it is yet. So sit back and enjoy my newly-minted business cards. Thank you Photoshop CS trial version.

business card

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.

Consulting

I had my second visit with business consultant Karrie Kohlhaas yesterday, and continued hammering out the most effective way to spend my time. Karrie is one of the first bona fide business-minded people I have had the opportunity to sit down with over a meaningful length of time, and as such, it has been a very intruiging process to watch her work.

As far as I can tell, a good business consultant is part entrepreneur, part investor, part psychologist, part buddy, and part client. It can be hard to toe so many areas. Take yesterday’s meeting. Karrie sees the research I have done on trying to determine the different target groups for the site. She sees that one of the groups is collectors, and that I have written that I believe that collectors are motivated by having a community of like-minded collectors. At this, she squints her eyes slightly, and in a split second I witness her thought process dart through a sequence something like “Real sellers don’t care about community” to “Though I suppose what that really means is its hard to say what these groups want,” at which point she’ll say something like “Hmm, that’s interesting. Community.” Because one of your roles is client, and the customer is going to get the benefit of the doubt when there is potential doubt.

This is surely the most difficult set of balls to juggle as a consultant, because on one hand you need to use your expertise to tell your client that you disagree, but on the other hand you need to instill confidence that leads your client to believe in themselves and become more productive. And though this is not altogether dissimilar from an employee telling their boss that the blink tags proliferating the new company web site sort of clash with the progress mankind has made in the last 10 years, it is different, because A) your boss isn’t paying you to tell him he’s wrong B) you’ve known your boss longer than 10 minutes C) you aren’t charging your boss $125 an hour and thus D) time is less of the essence. It’s extremely complex, and yet paradoxically, the complexities add up to the result that conversation has to move faster.

Analysis of the peculiarities aside, finding a good consultant can definitely be an extremely productive experience, especially if, like me, you’re new. Karrie’s part entrepreneur has helped me come up with catchy ways to think about and describe my business. The part investor has helped me be extremely needs-met-centric in my consideration of the site’s success. The part psychologist has made more observations on my nature in three hours time than many of my friends have tried in three years time. Part buddy chatted with me about how the body will steal back sleep cycles during the day if you don’t let it sleep proper. And part client wraps up all of the above in as rosy a container as can be expediently created.

I’m sure your mileage may vary by consultant. I picked Karrie by her prickly (in a good way), unorthodox profile on Biznik, which, in a nutshell, reminded me of me. Now that I’ve visited a couple times, I’ve been most impressed by her focus and follow up. This is a topic that I may revisit in a future blog once I have more data for comparison points. It can certainly go a long way toward helping one escape their own mind.

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.

Inertia

I had an interesting talk with an intelligent young man this evening, and it got me to thinking about an entrepreneurial question that runs right past mere entrepreneurship, and straight into the human condition. That question is: “Why aren’t people more productive?” Or, as my brain construes it: “Why do so many people watch TV five nights a week?”

The cynics will tell you it’s because we’re lazy and brainwashed. The idealists will say it is to relax and to understand the world we live in. The intelligent young man (who also had a name, “Ben”) said it’s because people will take the path of least resistance to personal satisfaction. I say “dunno.” I think Ben might be thinking along the right track, because the act of turning on television/turning off brain is easy easy enough to initiate, and it’s interesting for the first few minutes. But after those five glorious minutes of watching the contestant pick random briefcases in search of $1,000,000, the question re-surfaces: “Why aren’t people more productive?”

My best guess is that the watcher has failed to discover what it is that they’re really interested in. Because once you know what you love doing, you have an option that both passes time and prevents brain decay.

It’s not hard to see how this relates back to entrepreneurship. I consider myself a ridiculously lucky human to have been given a consciousness that innately craves challenges and is action-oriented. I enjoy thinking up and organizing ideas the same way that others enjoy stamp collecting, gossiping, or theatre. But despite the feelings of well-being that I bask in every time I tackle a new entrepreneurial challenge, it still takes some time to climb up the stairs before I get to sled down that hill. TV is the other way around. When you first turn it on, there is ramp-up pleasure to be derived, but after the brief fun, your brain turns off and an hour later you suddenly wake up feeling dirty.

I know that entrepreneurs aren’t always so hot with math, so I’ll work this one out for you. One hour of spare time + TV = 5 minutes fun, 55 minutes flub. One hour of spare time + hobby = 5 minutes pain, 55 minutes passion. I will not work out how those numbers extrapolate to an entire evening, because if you’re the TV watcher it would probably hurt your feelings. Suffice to say,

Harding: 1. America’s Favorite Past Time: 0. Booyah.