Now Hiring: Animals

When posting the Bonanzle co-founder job opening on Jobster this evening, I found myself remembering one of the very first and very best articles I read on entrepreneurship, authored by Paul Graham, back in the Spek days. This article makes more brain-sticky points on entrepreneurship than any other I’ve read. It’s good stuff, but lengthwise, the article might as well be an article of the Constitution. For today’s discussion, I’ll discuss Graham’s suggestion for how to approach the most important (and challenging) element of making any startup work: selecting the right people to work with.

The short answer: “hire animals.” Specifically, Graham says,

One of the best tricks I learned during our startup was a rule for deciding who to hire. Could you describe the person as an animal? It might be hard to translate that into another language, but I think everyone in the US knows what it means. It means someone who takes their work a little too seriously; someone who does what they do so well that they pass right through professional and cross over into obsessive.

“What it means specifically depends on the job: a salesperson who just won’t take no for an answer; a hacker who will stay up till 4:00 AM rather than go to bed leaving code with a bug in it; a PR person who will cold-call New York Times reporters on their cell phones; a graphic designer who feels physical pain when something is two millimeters out of place.”

As I’ve considered this since first reading it, I’ve found that this characterization rings true with many of the top performers I’ve known, regardless of their discipline. Of course, if someone asked me what a “programming animal” was, I’d probably stammer and be slow to find the words to explain it. But when you work with them, and you see them cut through logic problems like a hot knife through butter (borrowing the analogy I used to describe Jordan Phillips when I first met him), you know you’ve found yourself a programming animal.

A very common question I’ve received from fellow entrepreneurs when I talk about Bonanzle is “Where did you find these bad-ass programmers that are working with you to create Bonanzle?” The answer is that I am fascinated by people who are excellent at what they do. In a nutshell: fascination leads to inquiry, inquiry leads to friendship, and friendship leads to working together. Of course, I’m also fascinated by and try to learn from people who I will probably never work with. But when there’s something to be done, you best bet the first people I’ll be talking to about it are those people I respect most, who also happen to be best at what they do, who also happen to be friends.

My long-term dream? I’m hoping that I can meet more people who are great at what they do every year. As I meet more and more such people, I want them to join me and each other at my weekly summer barbecues. It’ll be like Hollywood for nerds, where the common thread amongst attendees will be the respect we have for one another and the shared intent to make good happen to each other and the world around us. Then we will drink too many margaritas, Jordan will lob his three-egg hamburger into the pool, and we’ll double-dog dare whoever’s drunkest to jump into the pool immediately and save the hamburger before the 10 second rule applies.

Go-Go Gadget Design!

Another milestone in Bonanzle’s history was reached this week when we finally found a design partner up to the task of imagining the site’s design future. So without further ado, Ladies and Gentlemens, I present to you Bonanzle’s deity of design: Geoff Harrison of geoffco. His site is filled with a number of attractive and well-thought-out sites that geoffco has created as part of its design portfolio.

In his relationship with Bonanzle, Geoff will help us lay out seven of the site’s most critical pages. He will also assist us in creating a design template that can be reused across the site as new pages arise during development. We like to believe that Bonanzle will be a defining site in geoffco’s portfolio, and that we can continue to work with geoffco as the site reaches its future development milestones, expanding its reach with each month that we draw closer to beta.

** Posthumous Update **

Summary. I see this is pretty high in the search results for “geoffco design,” so let me comment posthumously on the experience we had working with geoffco. First of all, we are a CSS-heavy, web 2.0 site whose design emphasis is on simple, simple, simple. When we worked with geoffco (from about March to July of 2007), Geoff was one of the most impressive designers I could find from the Seattle freelance mailing list. Plus, he gave us a great price on what we were doing. He stuck Adam Faja on our project, while Geoff worked in an overseer/advisory role. I will henceforth refer to the Adam/Geoff combination as “geoffco”, though I worked more closely with the former.

Results. I was very satisfied with the overall process of working with geoffco. I entered the relationship with geoffco only having a vague idea of what our site might look like, and geoffco was very patient with the many iterations it took to get the design looking the way I wanted it to look. Our process was usually that I would give geoffco a high-level overview of the requirements/goals I had for a certain page, and geoffco would send me back a PDF (presumably created with Photoshop) to get us on the same page. The first pass usually wasn’t what I was looking for, so I would either ask geoffco to revise things (which they grew a bit weary of toward the end, given that I did it quite a bit), or get into Photoshop and re-arrange things myself to send back something that was more in line with my vision (they seemed amendable to this arrangement).

After a couple design revisions, geoffco would create the HTML for the pages. At first this was something of a touch and go process, as I believe Adam didn’t have a lot of experience writing HTML (the HTML we received appeared to have been auto-generated… lots of font tags, spacer gifs, entirely table-based layouts, all the good web 1.0 stuff). After talking with Geoff directly about our needs (div-based layout, well structured markup with nothing extraneous) we reached a compromise and Adam started learning CSS-based layout. He was a quick study, and after a couple pages, the quality of the markup was consistent with other design-first web designers I’ve worked with (which is to say, not all that great, but serviceable without all that much tinkering).

In the end, I thought that for the price we paid, we got a great deal, and I would work with geoffco again. If we needed our design to ultimately end up in HTML, I would probably double-check that the designer we were going to be working with had some experience with tableless layout. But other than that, it was a good experience, and the design we ended up with was sound starting point, especially since they really had to start from square one in figuring out what our design was going to look like*.

* At this point, about 6 months later, we’ve revised (I believe) every page that geoffco had given us, but the skeletal layout for what-goes-where on those pages are still very similar to what geoffco had provided us, a sign of their knack for UI.

I ? Logo

I question whether logo matters.

Think about it: What aspect of your site/business is more subjective than your logo? At its most concrete level, it may subconsciously communicate some aspect of your business. But from everything I can tell, determining whether a logo is “good” or “bad” is about as scientific as determining if a painting is “good” or “bad.” In this sense, it is true that there is such a thing as a truly great painting and a truly awful one. But 95% of paintings/logos fall in this middle gray area where nobody is qualified to say what is right and wrong. I have a hard time justifying great costs on a collection of a few pixels that fall within the 95% of pixel collections that everyone else has.

Of course, the logo apologist will be quick to retort, that “gray area or not, the logo is the face of your business. It is who you are. It is how people remember you. When people think of you, they think of your logo. ” And of course, those facts are to some extent true.

So then I extrapolate to myself : Who am I? I am Bill. How do people remember me? As Bill. What is the face of Bill? Uh, it’s the face of some dude with short blond hair and green-blue eyes.

But even if people remembered me as “Pedro,” with “Sleek black hair and dark brown eyes,” I think I could still succeed in my goals if I had something unique to offer.

So I assert it to be with the logo, and so I save me mucho logo dinero.

Forward Ho!

One of the quickest lessons I learned in mingling with the indy business persons is that being an indy business person sort of sucks. In many cases, you are vying amongst numerous able competitors for a tiny pie. Times are lean and times are fat. Potential clients treat you like old meat. Investors try to take over your company. So why do you do it? One of the most common reasons I’ve heard is some flavor of “I have no choice. I can’t stand working for some bozo. It’s in my blood.” Well, yeah, but… I can stand working for some bozo if it behooved me intellectually and financially to do so. Does it still make sense for me to wander up the path of most resistance?

Most definitely. And here’s why: because if, after maximizing my potential as an entreprenur, I still had complaints, I’d keep on a’movin. I think Oprah or someone said that the most important part of being alive is challenging yourself daily. To me, this doesn’t mean challenging myself to keep putting up with a situation I hate and have hated for years. It means “doing something exciting to me that I’m getting better at.” I can’t imagine a time in my life where I could be concurrently growing and discontent. I can imagine obstacles to growing: habit, excuses, and of course, contentment. But all things being equal, I think that, for both entrepreneurs and employees alike, feeling alive (and thus feeling content) is assured when you dedicate your existence to consistent improvement.

People

As Karrie Kohlhaas put it to me a couple months ago, “there’s no faster way to kill an idea than to keep it to yourself.” Taking that sentiment to heart, I’ve met more people in the last month than I probably have in the last five years. It’s been a revelation of sorts to see how many people I don’t know that are doing interesting things and who I respect greatly. And who aren’t that hard to meet. The previously-plugged Biznik is one great way to do it, but Meetup also has hundreds of local interest groups for damn near anything (Eastside Paranormal Group? Check). And best of all, you minimize the luck needed to meet people with similar interests when meeting through interest-based sites. The very first (and probably still my favorite) person I’ve met through Biznik was Ben Woosley. Ben was at the event not because he was pitching a business, nor because he needed to find partners or make contacts. He was there because he figured that all sorts of wise & talented people would end up at an indy business person get-together, and those were the people he wanted to know. I concur. I wish I would have thought of that five years ago.

What’s So Bad About Getting Paid?

Yo non-profiteers, ye so virtuous, ye so in touch with your internal belief set, and working every day to further your altruistic cause: you suck!

Yo for-profiteers, ye so obsessed with pennies in a billion dollars, ye so proud and ascribed to the adage “It’s business, it’s never personal”: you suck too!

Yo Mickey Mouseketeers, ye with such freakishly proportioned ears, ye so happy on the inside and somehow also happy on the inside: you suck three!

Is that everyone now? Good. Let’s continue.

I want to meet people who are benevolent and like getting paid. From what I can tell on TV and even in real life, it seems that people are largely split into the two groups. The non-profiteers want no part of the capitalist, affluenza pandemic that has infected rappers and America and especially for-profiteers. The for-profiteers, on the other hand, want money severely. They want money so badly that they will pollute environments, defraud geezers, or otherwise embrace whatever vices blacken the bottom line.

In the middle, there is an island upon which I hope to find some fellow refugees. What’s so bad about getting paid?

This Party Is Started

With six beers and one big-ass veggie/supreme pizza to mark the occasion, work on Bonanzle has officially commenced!

We spent a lively afternoon and evening in the basement on what I believe may have been an otherwise lovely Sunday afternoon. The first matter was applying some further tweaks to our fancy new Mac Mini Server (running Trac, Apache, and Subversion); then we began creating the model layer for the most integral parts of the site.

Hard to say after only using it for a couple hours, but Ruby seems to be a suitably high-octane development language. I was especially impressed with the very straightforward syntax by which the database layer was created. Also a lot of high-level programming concepts built into the language, which makes me optimistic that time spent programming will be more concerned with the meat than the mundane. For someone that was developing GBA games in C only a few years ago, I can particularly appreciate a language that takes care of the obvious stuff for you.

Meeting up with some web-designy types tomorrow. Hopefully we’ll mix a spark of creative content with this high-octane language and get ourselves some fire before long.

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.