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Archive for August, 2010

10 Ways People Find Relevant Information

Posted by Bob Warfield on August 31, 2010

Louis Gray has a dynamite post today listing his view of what the 5 ways people find relevant information are.  He missed some, which I will add to my list, but this is a valuable list.  In fairness, I’m not sure Louis sees this list as extending to search, he is focused on filtering what we already have, but I think search goes hand in hand with the process and fits very naturally.  You can tell because it’s easy to imagine combining some or all of these techniques to improve search and filtering for some specific problem.

This is important because having an exhaustive taxonomy or framework is the first step in analyzing or gaming what’s going on. 

Here are the different ways people find relevant information (the first 5 are from Gray’s post):

1.  Editorial Filtering.  Some expert is nominated who will tell you what’s important.  You follow that expert because you like their choices, or you just want the comfort of knowing those are the choices of an expert.  This has to be one of the earliest mechanisms and one we still see very commonly.   The New York Times is a great example of Expert Filtering.

2.  Global Popularity Filtering.  If a lot of people like a thing, it must be a good thing.  This one is just as old if not older than Editorial Filtering.  Examples are all around us ranging from our system of Government (though they sure can make themselves unpopular at times!) to American Idol.  Online services frequently present ranked listings based on popularity. 

3.  Social Filtering:  If my friends liked it, I probably will too.  Hey, this is what Facebook is all about.

4.  Explicit Personalization:  Tell us what you like and don’t like and we’ll use that to help filter.  Netflix and Amazon want you to rate what you have already consumed.  They use that information to find new things you will like.

5.  Implicit Personalization:  We will watch you and infer what you like.  In Amazon, “people who like this book also bought these books.”

6.  Keyword Filtering:  If the same words are used with the same frequency as something you like, the words probably describe something else you like.  Hey, that’s the life of a Search Engine.

7.   Crowdsourced Filtering:  Get on a forum and ask peeps what they think.  These are not necessarily your friends.  Anyone on the forum can answer.  Hopefully the place you’ve chosen is frequented by people who are more likely to know your kind of answers than a random person selected off the street.  I really like StackOverflow for programming-related questions, for example.

8.  Location Filtering:  Geolocation is big these days.  We can assume you are where you are for a reason.  Maybe knowing where you are helps us filter certain kinds of information.  Yelp is a beautiful thing for that reason.

9.  Demographic Filtering:  This is a very old mechanism for marketers to use when targeting, and often it is the first thing they reach for.  It’s effectiveness is surpisingly limited (Explicit and Implicit personalization can be as much as 10x more predictive, for example) but it can add value.  Demographics include age, sex, ethnic background, and the region you live in.  Dell wanting to know whether you want a computer for home use, small business, big business, or whatever is their way of trying to apply a little bit of demographic filtering to help you find what you want.

10.  Link Network Filtering:  If the Internet has taken the time to create links to a particular answer of some kind, it is probably a better answer.  This one is clearly related to some of the others, but I wanted to call it out on its own simply because of the importance of things like Google Page Rank and Retweets.  These are subtley different than a pure popularity score, for example.  One difference is people have to work harder to make their input known.  They may have to create a web site with links to the content, for example.  Another is that this type of relevance weighting usually requires a fair amount of analysis to collect.  Popularity contests are usually very obvious and up front.  Perhaps this could be referred to as implicit popularity too, or reference to authority.

There are probably other methods, but this is a strong set.  What can we do with it? 

Product designers can ask themselves whether their product benefits from the addition of one or more.  That’s cool.  One I am more fascinated with is Marketing. 

At its heart, marketing is the art of getting on people’s radar screens and passing muster once on the radar as something they have to have.  At a level of abstraction, this means gaming their information filtering strategies to a greater or lesser extent.  I think it would make a fascinating marketing offsite to take the list of 10 and go figure out how to move the needle in a favorable direction for each and every one of them.  Don’t think it’s important?  Don’t think it’s marketing?

Consider that SEO is basically the process of gaming Keyword Filtering and Link Network Filtering.  If you don’t think SEO is important to marketers, I can’t help you.  But one thing I believe wholeheartedly is that efficient marketing is the process of finding ways to market that are different.  When everyone is marketing in exactly the same way (i.e. using exactly the same channel to send the message and sending very similar messages), the noise level is just too high.  What if, during the course of that offsite, you discover that for your market some of these filtering mechanisms are hardly being considered and its pretty straightforward to walk right in that door?

Just to help with understanding, here is the linkage between the 10 and various kinds of marketing:

-  Keyword Filtering + Link Filtering = SEO

-  Editorial Filtering = PR

-  Global Popularity Filtering:  Sometimes I think this is all simple-minded marketing thinks about.  Yeah, we want to be popular, we want to be cool!

-  Social Filtering:  Of course Social Media marketing goes here.  But so do referral programs.  How can you get friends to tell friends they gotta have your product.

-  Explicit Personalization:  Can you get prospects to qualify themselves in some way?  Is there a referral service for your industry that asks a series of key questions and then suggests products that fit the answers?  And what is the impact of saying, “We don’t think you’re a customer.”  No Soup for You may just increase the appetite for it, oddly enough.

-  Implicit Personalization:  Targeting like-minded people is an old marketing technique.  You must have sat around a table discussing where your customers like to get their information, their likes and dislikes, and how to find more people just like that.

-  Crowdsourced Filtering:  This is a fascinating area that I’ve had a lot of experience with.  If you frequent social forums, there are people in them all the time asking for advice on what to buy.  It is rare that you see companies responding there, yet if it’s done tastefully and without being too pushy, it can be very effective.  Do you have a strategy to cover those venues?  Do you have a strategy to convince your customers to speak up for you in those venues?

-  Demographics:  I won’t teach you how to suck eggs.  Marketers have been focused on demographics for ages.

-  Location:  Does your business depend on location?  It’s a function of walk-in traffic.  If you depend on it, you have to avail yourself of every possible means of getting on the radar based on location. 

So there you have it.  A nice cut at a taxonomy for filtering information by relevance.  Doing that job better than anyone and monetizing it is what made Google successful.  Figure out how to make sure you’re successful at it too.

Thanks Louis for the post!

Posted in saas | 2 Comments »

Single Tenant, Multitenant, Private and Public Clouds: Oh My!

Posted by Bob Warfield on August 27, 2010

My head is starting to hurt with all the back and forth among my Enterprise Irregulars buddies about the relationships between the complex concepts of Multitenancy, Private, and Public Clouds.  A set of disjoint conversations and posts came together like the whirlpool in the bottom of a tub when it drains.  I was busy with other things and didn’t get a chance to really respond until I was well and truly sucked into the vortex.  Apologies for the long post, but so many wonderful cans of worms finally got opened that I just have to try to deal with a few of them.  That’s why I love these Irregulars!

To start, let me rehash some of the many memes that had me preparing to respond:

Josh Greenbaum’s assertion that Multitenancy is a Vendor, not a Customer Issue.  This post includes some choice observations like:

While the benefits that multi-tenancy can provide are manifold for the vendor, these rationales don’t hold water on the user side.

That is not to say that customers can’t benefit from multi-tenancy. They can, but the effects of multi-tenancy for users are side-benefits, subordinate to the vendors’ benefits. This means, IMO, that a customer that looks at multi-tenancy as a key criteria for acquiring a new piece of functionality is basing their decision on factors that are not directly relevant to their TCO, all other factors being equal.

and:

Multi-tenancy promises to age gracelessly as this market matures.

Not to mention:

Most of the main benefits of multi-tenancy – every customer is on the same version and is updated simultaneously, in particular – are vendor benefits that don’t intrinsically benefit customers directly.

The implication being that someone somewhere will provide an alternate technology very soon that works just as good or better than multitenancy.  Wow.  Lots to disagree with there.  My ears are still ringing from the sound of the steel gauntlet that was thrown down.

-  Phil Wainewright took a little of the edge of my ire with his response post to Josh, “Single Tenancy, the DEC Rainbow of SaaS.”  Basically, Phil says that any would-be SaaS vendor trying to create an offering without multitenancy is doomed as the DEC Rainbow was.  They have some that sort of walks and quacks like a SaaS offering but that can’t really deliver the goods.

-  Well of course Josh had to respond with a post that ends with:

I think the pricing and services pressure of the multi-tenant vendors will force single-tenant vendors to make their offerings as compatible as possible. But as long as they are compatible with the promises of multi-tenancy, they don’t need to actually be multi-tenant to compete in the market.

That’s kind of like saying, “I’m right so long as nothing happens to make me wrong.”  Where are the facts that show this counter case is anything beyond imagination?  Who has built a SaaS application that does not include multitenancy but that delivers all the benefits?

Meanwhile back at the ranch (we EI’s need a colorful name for our private community where the feathers really start to fly as we chew the bones of some good debates), still more fascinating points and counterpoints were being made as the topic of public vs private clouds came up (paraphrasing):

-  Is there any value in private clouds?

-  Do public clouds result in less lock-in than private clouds?

-  Are private clouds and single tenant (sic) SaaS apps just Old School vendors attempts to hang on while the New Era dawns?  Attempts that will ultimately prove terribly flawed?

-  Can the economics of private clouds ever compete with public?

-  BTW, eBay now uses Amazon for “burst” loads and purchases servers for a few hours at a time on their peak periods.  Cool!

-  Companies like Eucalyptus and Nimbula are trying to make Private Clouds that are completely fungible with Public Clouds.  If you  in private cloud frameworks like these means you have
to believe companies are going to be running / owning their own servers for a long time to come even if the public cloud guys take over a number of compute workloads.  The Nimbula guys built EC2 and they’re no dummies, so if they believe in this, there must be something to it.

-  There are two kinds of clouds – real and virtual.  Real clouds are multi-tenant. Virtual clouds are not. Virtualization is an amazing technology but it can’t compete with bottoms up multi-tenant platforms and apps.

Stop!  Let me off this merry go-round and let’s talk.

What It Is and Why Multitenancy Matters

Sorry Josh, but Multitenancy isn’t marketing like Intel Inside (BTW, do you notice Intel wound up everywhere anyway?  That wasn’t marketing either), and it matters to more than just vendors.  Why?

Push aside all of the partisan definitions of multitenancy (all your customers go in the same table or not).   Let’s look at the fundamental difference between virtualization and multitenancy, since these two seem to be fighting it out.

Virtualization takes multiple copies of your entire software stack and lets them coexist on the same machine.  Whereas before you had one OS, one DB, and one copy of your app, now you may have 10 of each.  Each of the 10 may be a different version entirely.  Each may be a different customer entirely, as they share a machine.  For each of them, life is just like they had their own dedicated server.  Cool.  No wonder VMWare is so successful.  That’s a handy thing to do.

Multitenancy is a little different.  Instead of 10 copies of the OS, 10 copies of the DB, and 10 copies of the app, it has 1 OS, 1 DB, and 1 app on the server.  But, through judicious modifications to the app, it allows those 10 customers to all peacefully coexist within the app just as though they had it entirely to themselves.

Can you see the pros and cons of each?  Let’s start with cost.  Every SaaS vendor that has multitenancy crows about this, because its true.  Don’t believe me?  Plug in your VM software, go install Oracle 10 times across 10 different virtual machines.  Now add up how much disk space that uses, how much RAM it uses when all 10 are running, and so on.  This is before you’ve put a single byte of information into Oracle or even started up an app.  Compare that to having installed 1 copy of Oracle on a machine, but not putting any data into it.  Dang!  That VM has used up a heck of a lot of resources before I even get started!

If you don’t think that the overhead of 10 copies of the stack has an impact on TCO, you either have in mind a very interesting application + customer combination (some do exist, and I have written about them), or you just don’t understand.  10x the hardware to handle the “before you put in data” requirements are not cheap.  Whatever overhead is involved in making that more cumbersome to automate is not cheap.  Heck, 10x more Oracle licenses is very not cheap.  I know SaaS companies who complain their single biggest ops cost is their Oracle licenses. 

However, if all works well, that’s a fixed cost to have all those copies, and you can start adding data by customers to each virtual Oracle, and things will be okay from that point on.  But, take my word for it, there is no free lunch.  The VM world will be slower and less nimble to share resources between the different Virtual Machines than a Multitenant App can be.  The reason is that by the time it knows it even needs to share, it is too late.  Shifting things around to take resource from one VM and give it to another takes time.  By contrast, the Multitenant App knows what is going on inside the App because it is the App.  It can even anticipate needs (e.g. that customer is in UK and they’re going to wake up x hours before my customers in the US, so I will put them on the same machine because they mostly use the machine at different times).

So, no, there is not some magic technology that will make multitenant obsolete.  There may be some new marketing label on some technology that makes multitenancy automatic and implicit, but if it does what I describe, it is multitenant.  It will age gracefully for a long time to come despite the indignities that petty competition and marketing labels will bring to bear on it.

What’s the Relationship of Clouds and Multitenancy?

Must Real Clouds be Multitenant?

Sorry, but Real Clouds are not Multitenant because they’re based on Virtualization not Multitenancy in any sense such as I just defined.  In fact, EC2 doesn’t share a core with multiple virtual machines because it can’t.  If one of the VM’s started sucking up all the cycles, the other would suffer terrible performance and the hypervisors don’t really have a way to deal with that.  Imagine having to shut down one of the virtual machines and move it onto other hardware to load balance.  That’s not a simple or fast operation.  Multi-tasking operating systems expect a context switch to be as fast as possible, and that’s what we’re talking about.  That’s part of what I mean by the VM solution being less nimble.  So instead, cores get allocated to a particular VM.  That doesn’t mean a server can’t have multiple tenants, just that at the granularity of a core, things have to be kept clean and not dynamically moved around. 

Note to rocket scientists and entrepreneurs out there–if you could create a new hardware architecture that was really fast at the Virtual Machine load balancing, you would have a winner.  So far, there is no good hardware architecture to facilitate a tenant swap inside a core at a seamless enough granularity to allow the sharing.  In the Multicore Era, this would be the Killer Architecture for Cloud Computing.  If you get all the right patents, you’ll be rich and Intel will be sad.  OTOH, if Intel and VMWare got their heads together and figured it out, it would be like ole Jack Burton said, “You can go off and rule the universe from beyond the grave.”

But, it isn’t quite so black and white.  While EC2 is not multitenant at the core level, it sort of is at the server level as we discussed.  And, services like S3 are multitenant through and through.  Should we cut them some slack?  In a word, “No.”  Even though an awful lot of the overall stack cost (network, cpu, and storage) is pretty well multitenant, I still wind up installing those 10 copies of Oracle and I still have the same economic disadvantage as the VM scenario.  Multitenancy is an Application characteristic, or at the very least, a deep platform characteristic.  If I build my app on Force.com, it is automatically multitenant.  If I build it on Amazon Web Services, it is not automatic.

But isn’t there Any Multitenant-like Advantage to the Cloud?  And how do Public and Private Compare?

Yes, there are tons of benefits to the Cloud, and through an understanding and definition of them, we will tease out the relationship of Public and Private Clouds.  Let me explain…

There are two primary advantages to the Cloud:  it is a Software Service and it is Elastic.  If you don’t have those advantages, you don’t have a Cloud.  Let’s drill down.

The Cloud is a Software Service, first and foremost.  I can spin up and control a server entirely through a set of API’s.  I never have to go into a Data Center cage.  I never have to ask someone at the Data Center to go into the Cage (though that would be a Service, just not a Software Service, an important distinction).  This is powerful for basically the same reasons that SaaS is powerful versus doing it yourself with On-prem software.  Think Cloud = SaaS and Data Center = On Prem and extrapolate and you’ll have it. 

Since Cloud is a standardized service, we expect all the same benefits as SaaS:

- They know their service better than I do since it is their whole business.  So I should expect they will run it better and more efficiently.

- Upgrades to that service are transparent and painless (try that on your own data center, buddy!).

- When one customer has a problem, the Service knows and often fixes it before the others even know it exists.  Yes Josh, there is value in SaaS running everyone on the same release.  I surveyed Tech Support managers one time and asked them one simple question:  How many open problems in your trouble ticketing system are fixed in the current release?  The answers were astounding–40 to 80%.  Imagine a world where your customers see 40 to 80% fewer problems.  It’s a good thing!

- That service has economic buying power that you don’t have because it is aggregated across many customers.  They can get better deals on their hardware and order so much of it that the world will build it precisely to their specs.  They can get stuff you can’t, and they can invest in R&D you can’t.  Again, because it is aggregated across many customers.  A Startup running in the Amazon Cloud can have multipe redundant data centers on multiple continents.  Most SaaS companies don’t get to building multiple data centers until they are way past having gone public. 

-  Because it is a Software Service, you can invest your Ops time in automation, rather than in crawling around Data Center cages.  You don’t need to hire anyone who knows how to hot swap a disk or take a backup.  You need peeps who know how to write automation scripts.  Those scripts are a leveragable asset that will permanently lower your costs in a dramatic way.  You have reallocated your costs from basic Data Center grubbing around (where does this patch cable go, Bruce?), an expense, to actually building an asset.

The list goes on.

The second benefit is Elasticity.  It’s another form of aggregation benefit.  They have spare capacity because everyone doesn’t use all the hardware all the time.  Whatever % isn’t utilized, it is a large amount of hardware, because it is aggregated.  It’s more than you can afford to have sitting around idle in your own data center.  Because of that, they don’t have to sell it to you in perpetuity.  You can rent it as you need it, just like eBay does for bursting.  There are tons of new operational strategies that are suddenly available to you by taking advantage of Elasticity.

Let me give you just one.  For SaaS companies, it is really easy to do Beta Tests.  You don’t have to buy 2x the hardware in perpetuity.  You just need to rent it for the duration of the Beta Test and every single customer can access their instance with their data to their heart’s content.  Trust me, they will like that.

What about Public Versus Private Clouds?

Hang on, we’re almost there, and it seems like it has been a worthwhile journey.

Start with, “What’s a Private Cloud?”  Let’s take all the technology of a Public Cloud (heck, the Nimbulla guys built EC2, so they know how to do this), and create a Private Cloud.  The Private Cloud is one restricted to a single customer.  It’d be kind of like taking a copy of Salesforce.com’s software, and installing it at Citibank for their private use.  Multitenant with only one tenant.  Do you hear the sound of one hand clapping yet?  Yep, it hurts my head too, just thinking about it.  But we must.

Pawing through the various advantages we’ve discussed for the Cloud, there are still some that accrue to a Cloud of One Customer:

-  It is still a Software Service that we can control via API’s, so we can invest in Ops Automation.  In a sense, you can spin up a new Virtual Data Center (I like that word better than Private Cloud, because it’s closer to the truth) on 10 minutes notice.  No waiting for servers to be shipped.  No uncrating and testing.  No shoving into racks and connecting cables.  Push a button, get a Data Center.

-  You get the buying power advantages of the Cloud Vendor if they supply your Private Cloud, though not if you buy software and build  your Private Cloud.  Hmmm, wonder what terminology is needed to make that distinction?  Forrester says it’s either a Private Cloud (company owns their own Cloud) or a Hosted Virtual Private Cloud.  Cumbersome.

But, and this is a huge one, the granularity is huge, and there is way less Elasticity.  Sure, you can spin up a Data Center, but depending on its size, it’s a much bigger on/off switch.  You likely will have to commit to buy more capacity for a longer time at a bigger price in order for the Cloud Provider to recoup giving you so much more control.  They have to clear other customers away from a larger security zone before you can occupy it, instead of letting your VM’s commingle with other VM’s on the same box.  You may lose the more multitenant-like advantages of the storage cluster and the network infrastructure (remember, only EC2 was stuck being pure virtual). 

What Does it All Mean, and What Should My Company Do?

Did you see Forrester’s conclusion that most companies are not yet ready to embrace the Cloud and won’t be for a long time?

I love the way Big Organizations think about things (not!).  Since their goal is preservation of wealth and status, it’s all about risk mitigation whether that is risk to the org or to the individual career.  A common strategy is to take some revolutionary thing (like SaaS, Multitenancy, or the Cloud), and break it down into costs and benefits.  Further, there needs to be a phased modular approach that over time, captures all the benefits with as little cost as possible.  And each phase has to have a defined completion so we can stop, evaluate whether we succeeded, celebrate the success, punish those who didn’t play the politics well enough, check in with stakeholders, and sing that Big Company Round of Kumbaya.  Yay!

In this case, we have a 5 year plan for CIO’s.  Do you remember anything else, maybe from the Cold War, that used to work on 5 year plans?  Never mind.

It asserts that before you are ready for the Cloud, you have to cross some of those modular hurdles:

A company will need a standardized operating procedure, fully-automated deployment and management (to avoid human error) and self-service access for developers. It will also need each of its business divisions – finance, HR, engineering, etc – to be sharing the same infrastructure.  In fact, there are four evolutionary stages that it takes to get there, starting with an acclimation stage where users are getting used to and comfortable with online apps, working to convince leaders of the various business divisions to be guinea pigs. Beyond that, there’s the rollout itself and then the optimization to fine-tune it.

Holy CYA, Batman!  Do you think eBay spent 5 years figuring out whether it could benefit from bursting to the Cloud before it just did it?

There’s a part of me that says if your IT org is so behind the times it needs 5 years just to understand it all, then you should quit doing anything on-premise and get it all into the hands of SaaS vendors.  They’re already so far beyond you that they must have a huge advantage.  There is a another part that says, “Gee guys, you don’t have to be able to build an automobile factory as good as Toyota to be able to drive a car.”

But then sanity and Political Correctness prevail, I come back down to Earth, and I realize we are ready to summarize.  There are 4 levels of Cloud Maturity (Hey, I know the Big Co IT Guys are feeling more comfortable already, they can deal with a Capability and Maturity Model, right?):

Level 1:  Dabbling.  You are using some Virtualization or Cloud technology a little bit at your org in order to learn.  You now know what a Machine Image is, and you have at least seen a server that can run them and swapped a few in and out so that you experience the pleasures of doing amazing things without crawling around the Data Center Cage.

Level 2:  Private Cloud.  You were impressed enough by Level 1 that you want the benefits of Cloud Technology for as much of your operation as you can as fast as you can get it.  But, you are not yet ready to relinquish much of any control.  For Early Level 2, you may very well insist on a Private Cloud you own entirely.  Later stage Level 2 and you will seek a Hosted Virtual Private Cloud.

Level 3:  Public Cloud.  This has been cool, but you are ready to embrace Elasticity.  You tripped into it with a little bit of Bursting like eBay, but you are gradually realizing that the latency between your Data Center and the Cloud is really painful.  To fix that, you went to a Hosted Virtual Private Cloud.  Now that your data is in that Cloud and Bursting works well, you are realizing that the data is already stepping outside your Private Cloud pretty often anyway.  And you’ve had to come to terms with it.  So why not go the rest of the way and pick up some Elasticity?

Level 4:  SaaS Multitenant.  Eventually, you conclude that you’re still micromanaging your software too much and it isn’t adding any value unique to your organization.  Plus, most of the software you can buy and run in your Public Cloud world is pretty darned antiquated anyway.  It hasn’t been rearchitected since the late 80′s and early 90′s.  Not really.  What would an app look like if it was built from the ground up to live in the Cloud, to connect Customers the way the Internet has been going, to be Social, to do all the rest?  Welcome to SaaS Multitenant.  Now you can finally get completely out of Software Operations and start delivering value.

BTW, you don’t have to take the levels one at a time.  It will cost you a lot more and be a lot more painful if you do.  That’s my problem with the Forrester analysis.  Pick the level that is as far along as you can possibly stomach, add one to that, and go.  Ironically, not only is it cheaper to go directly to the end game, but each level is cheaper for you on a wide scale usage basis all by itself.  In other words, it’s cheaper for you to do Public Cloud than Private Cloud.  And it’s WAY cheaper to go Public Cloud than to try Private Cloud for a time and then go Public Cloud.  Switching to a SaaS Multitenant app is cheaper still.

Welcome to crazy world of learning how to work and play well together when efficiently sharing your computing resources with friends and strangers!

Posted in amazon, cloud, data center, ec2, enterprise software, grid, multicore, platforms, saas, service | 14 Comments »

NASA Fiddles While Rome Is Burning…

Posted by Bob Warfield on August 26, 2010

Something about the “Golly gee whiz this innovation is great” tone of Alex Howard’s article about the NASA IT Summit really rubbed me the wrong way.  It was probably that there wasn’t really innovation that had anything to do with NASA or space travel, despite NASA and Alex’s best efforts to make it seem wonderful.

Sorry, but I grew up on NASA putting men on the moon.  I vividly remember getting up at the crack of dawn with my dad to watch the Gemini missions, and the “angry alligator” incident where a docking experiment failed to come off as planned.  I was 5 at the time and fascinated.  I remember the family gathered around the TV set watching that first “big step for mankind” on the moon.  Those early space missions launched me on a career in science and engineering that I’m still pursuing today.  It never occurred to me as I was watching these historic events that this was the peak.  It would be downhill from there. 

If only NASA was pursuing something remotely resembling the inspiration they once provided the world.  In February, next year, the last Shuttle mission is scheduled to be flown.  We can no longer put men on the moon.  The magnificent Saturn V rocket that lays on the ground outside the Houston Manned Spacecraft Center is just so much junk, slowly corroding away, like our dreams from that earlier time.  Soon, the idea of reusable space vehicles that would make it cheaper and more practical to go to space will also be put aside.

Now along comes today’s NASA, trying to get a little PR glory from IT technology others are working on.  Yeah, we get to hear Vinton Cerf talk about the prospects for building an Internet in space.  Nobody will be there to try to connect their iGadget to it, because NASA can barely get there anymore, but we’re going to talk it up.  We get Lewis Shepherd telling us, “Government has the ability to recognize long time lines, and then make long term investment decisions on funding of basic science.”  Yeah, we can see that based on NASA’s bright future, Lewis.  And then Gartner’s VP, David Cearley talked about Gartner’s view of what the technology trends are.  No news, nothing even remotely to do with space travel, but it’s all the latest tech don’t you know.  Gibson’s hackneyed, “The future is here today, it’s just not evenly distributed yet” is trotted out as if saying it will make it true. 

What’s with these guys?  Where’s my flying car, dammit!

Posted in saas | 1 Comment »

A Pattern Language for Game Mechanics

Posted by Bob Warfield on August 26, 2010

This is so cool, I have to pass it along, even though I won’t add too much to it.

Techcrunch has just published a card deck of game mechanics purportedly obtained from SCVNGR.

I wrote recently about how a lot of the time sinks in our lives, like E-Mail, keep dragging us in because of their implicit game dynamics.  This card desk is like a pattern language for game dynamics.  Each card gives a new pattern.  Take the email example from my earlier blog post:

People get a sense of accomplishment by moving things from the Inbox to the Outbox that is not unlike playing solitaire over and over again. 

Here is a card from the SCVNGR deck that relates to that concept:

6. Blissful Productivity

Definition: The idea that playing in a game makes you happier working hard, than you would be relaxing. Essentially, we’re optimized as human beings by working hard, and doing meaningful and rewarding work.

Example: From Jane McGonical’s Ted Talk wherein she discusses how World of Warcraft players play on average 22 hours / week (a part time job), often after a full days work. They’re willing to work hard, perhaps harder than in real life, because of their blissful productivity in the game world.

Pretty cool, huh?

Now there are likely a great many patterns absent from the deck, but 47 different patterns is an excellent starting point.   Now take your web site or product, take the 47 cards in the deck, and try to think of examples you can use to make each pattern apply to your web site or product.  You now have a good start on adding some game mechanics!

Related Articles and Links

The Art of Game Design, A Book of Lenses

Posted in user interface | Leave a Comment »

Content Trumps SEO and Links

Posted by Bob Warfield on August 23, 2010

For marketing, content trumps SEO and links back to your site.  That’s not to say there is no value in SEO or links, just that if you have to choose or prioritize, content is at the top of the heap.  If you’re a big company, you can probably choose to invest in all with far more resources than perhaps are even needed.  But the smaller your budget, the more likely you had better choose and make the right choice.  Pssst: the right choice is Content!

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks.  Several great articles came out that reinforced my gut feel about content, or raised the question in other forms:

- Leo Laporte’s BuzzKill post wasn’t the first thing I read that start the juices flowing, but it was the one that made me realize I had to write a post today.  What happened to Leo is that his Buzz feeds to Twitter quit working because his blog feeds to Buzz had quit working.  And nobody noticed.  Leo realized the real value was in the content he produces on his radio show and blog, because people notice immediately when he is absent there.

- Paddy Moogan suggests that the cornerstone of getting people to link back to you is creating content similar to what they already like and link to.  So even if you wanted to focus on links, the way to do so is through more and better content.

Paul Carr, after reading Leo’s post, discovered that Twitter is no substitute for real content.  He compared his pre-Twitter blog posts with the combination of Twitter and later posts.   Lo and behold, the quality later was much lower.  The reason?  It takes time to Tweet, time that takes away from producing content.   Paul (and Leo reports much the same) had unconsciously made the prioritization decision I refer to above.  Making decisions without realizing you’ve done is usually a bad idea in business, but focus on this idea that your time and energy are zero sum games.  The time you spend on Twitter is not available for creating content elsewhere.  The same is true of any other service.  Facebook is much the same lots-of-not-enough-content posts.  Are you getting enough time to produce great content?

- RedMonk (thanks Cote!) writes about documentation as a source of sales leads.  There is a link back to the original Forbes article that actually did less for me than the little blurb from RedMonk.  The reason is that my own bootstrapping experiments have shown me full well the value of online documentation for lead generation.  It really works well, as a matter of fact.  This is real authentic content, not marketing spam. Why are we surprised that someone out there is searching for it.  When they find it, they are hooked.  I’ll have more to say about sources of great content in a future post, but for now, let me tell you that product documentation, change logs, and a host of other things you would have thought were only interesting to folks who are already customers are dynamite lead sources because they’re interesting content.

Should you trust a blogless marketer?  Something I’ve wondered about for a long time.  If, in the Internet marketing era we live in, producing content is King, what do you do with marketing people who don’t love producing content?  One answer comes from Seth Godin.  Great marketers have limitless content about whatever they’re selling.  They’re passionate about it and know it deeply.

-  Apropos in some way I am not completely able to articulate, Dan Zarrella discovers through blind testing that people want to Retweet something new and fresh.  They want to be first to discover the content.  They are not just lemmings (kind of refreshes confidence in your fellow man) looking to Retweet only what others have made safe by Tweeting ahead of them.  It’s hard to be first and fresh unless the content is new and fresh and worth Tweeting about.

Rohit’s #1 bullet point for Social Media Optimization:  The better your content is, the more people will want to share it with their entire social networks whether they link it, like it, dig it or share it.

- Rob Cottingham at RWWeb asks who would win if you had just SEO or just Content.  His cartoon at the end makes the answer clear to me, at least.

- From Hubspot’s 12 Amazing SEO Infographics:  First step for SEO–content quality and value. 

- Do you think Seth Godin’s internal monologue would choose SEO or great content?  As a loyal reader, I have no doubt which way he would swing, but if there is any doubt, he says SEO isn’t worth the money.

I could go on like this for a long time.  I read a lot of blogs, but I have not cherry picked these examples.  The world is discovering what Leo Laporte experienced first hand:  content trumps SEO and links.  Suppose you’re fantastic at SEO, but you have nothing to say.  No content.  You own tons of top slots for searches people do every day.  They’re clicking that first result like crazy, and coming to your site in droves.  But there’s no content there.  The crowds are massed to watch the Emperor parading with No Clothes. 

Now look at  your own organization’s content.  Do you have a resource that anyone interested in the space (forget interested in your products) would want to be aware of?  Or do you simply talk about your products and expect that people who come there are only interested in you?  It’s pretty amazing how poor most marketing content really is.  When was the last time you found a press release that was really interesting and worth passing around to your friends?  When was the last time you saw an ad that qualified to be passed around because of what it had to say about the products or an industry (not just because it is funny in an unrelated way like Old Spice)?  You’re going to have to figure out how to get around that. 

If you’re a bootstrapper, this realization is particularly urgent for you.   You don’t have the luxury of dabbling in a little bit of everything.  You have very few resources and no money.  Yet, you need to get your idea discovered fast.  You need to produce great content. 

Look at some of the premier bootstrappers like 37Signals.  They probably wouldn’t like it put this way, but 37Signals is almost better at producing content than products.  They created Ruby on Rails and gave it away.  That’s content.  BTW, it has nothing to do with project management software like Basecamp, it’s just great content.  They have written best-selling books on Bootstrapping.  That also has nothing to do with Basecamp, it’s just great content.  They take interesting stands on issues while blogging.  Most of the time it has nothing to do with their products, it’s just great content.

Apparently, you don’t even have to write about your products so much as create a community (what Seth Godin will call a tribe) that wants to connect with what you have to say, and hopefully with what you have to sell. Boostrapper’s, you got time to produce that great content while you’re building your product.  Get on with it!

What’s your strategy to produce great content for your business?  Who will create that content?

Bootstrappa’s Resources

Links to the Bootstrappa’s Paradise blog series as well as other useful resources for Bootstrappers.

Posted in bootstrapping, Marketing, strategy | 10 Comments »

Intel & McAfee? Why Not GOOG & ADBE?

Posted by Bob Warfield on August 19, 2010

I don’t get the whole Intel buying McAfee thing.  Sure, security looks like a good business.  But Intel is a chip company.  Yeah, microprocessors are mostly software down under, but that doesn’t mean Intel has the soul of a software company. 

Call me Old Fashioned, but I’m in the camp of thinking there needs to be some kind of synergy for it to make sense to combine entities like this.  Vast amounts of data exist to show that most of the time mergers destroy value rather than creating it for all sorts of reasons:

-  Cultural misalignment destroys the productivity of one org.  Chip companies have much different cultures than software companies.  Not clear just how Intel and McAfee will fit.

-  The perceived value paid was way less than the actual worth when the calm light of reason set in.  Skype is a fine company, but it sure was a bad idea for Meg’s eBay.  The 60% premium Intel is offering is probably what it takes to move an otherwise healthy company into a merger.  But Intel’s track record of getting into new businesses is very spotty.

-  Skullduggery.  There’ve been notable cases where companies merge largely to offset problems with the numbers of another company.  Sometimes one or the other is completely unsuspecting and a very unhappy story ensues.  Look into Peregrine’s acquisition of Remedy for just one example.  Not suggesting there is any skullduggery.  I expect quite the opposite.  But I wanted to create a sense of just how many ways there are for these things can fail.

There are many more reasons I won’t go in to.  Synergy provides that margin for error that helps offset the elevated testosterone levels clouding judgments about a merger.  With proper synergy, mergers can do great things.  Ideally, companies need a merger strategy that identifies what sort of synergies they’re looking for and what the playbook is for replicating merger success.  Look to Oracle and Cisco as great examples.

Frankly, McAfee should have been snarfed by someone with major Cloud ambitions.  The Cloud needs serious security, and there are synergies with the Cloud I won’t go into here.  Suffice it to say that some powerful potential exists when you own a good-sized Cloud and can take responsibility for defending its inhabitants from outside threats.  That will be a more and more serious value add over time.  Oh well, need to check how much Symantec is up on the expectation someone will want the remaining player.  IBM?

And now, take the completely random thought about Google acquiring Adobe.  That’s not just linkbait; there’s a lot more synergy there than I can see for Intel and McAfee:

-  Google and Adobe are both software companies.

-  They’re both focused heavily on the Internet.

-  They’re both engineering geek cultures, of differing sorts.  You got your ponytail Unix guys and your designers.  If you can get them to peacefully coexist, that’s a mighty strong cocktail.  Adobe’s origins in Postscript as delivered by PhD computer scientists like Warnock fit the Google mold.

-  There is a nice synergy in their products.  From Google’s perspective, think of it as extending their dominance from not just search and advertising but to the “last mile” where the web sites are created.  For Adobe’s part, nothing says Internet more than Google.  We won’t get into which is the cream (Adobe) and which is the coffee (Google), but these guys go together well.

-  Not clear to me how well Google plays the Enterprise game.  Adobe would make a nifty Enterprise division for them.

-  I’ve talked in the past about Google UI.  Okay, I ranted, and in fairness I ranted a bit at Adobe as well.  But GOOG are the masters of min-UI.  I won’t call it thin client any longer, but they do minimalist UI well.  Adobe get rich UI ala RIA.  It would be interesting to cross-pollinate the two.

-  Google wants to own more of the non-textual world, and they’re pretty good at it.  YouTube is no slouch and image search rocks.  Adobe adds to that.

-  Maybe that Flash VM is not a bad addition to the portfolio just in case the whole Oracle patent suit gets out of hand.  GOOG is already very cozey with Flash.  Imagine them buying ADBE and putting Flash totally into the Open Source world.  It already has huge market share.  Totally Open Sourcing all aspects of it would end the proprietary bitch.  It’s a great phone and tablet app system.  Sure would be a game changer.

-  Python for server work and Flash for UI is a very modern powerful combination.  GOOG is adding some interesting image capabilities to AppEngine too. 

The whole thing would be a pretty amazing game changer if you think about all the implications.

Hey.  I’m just sayin’!

Postscript

I wanted to acknowledge that Google fixed my UI beef with GMail on the iPad.  Thanks, guys!

Posted in business | 3 Comments »

Bootstrappin’ the Buzz

Posted by Bob Warfield on August 17, 2010

How do Bootstrappers get the word out to customers that they have a better mousetrap?

They have little money to spend and little time to invest.  Yet there are ways.  Consider my humble experiments to see what one man can do as a bootstrapper during my current jaunt between day jobs.

Let me summarize the different means by which I have attracted folks to discover my site and my product, a specialized calculator for CNC machinists:

-  SEO:  Whereby folks searching for various topics on their favorite search engine (okay, 90% come via Google).

Referral:  Whereby some other site links to my humble site and folks eventually find their way to my product page.  In many ways, this corresponds to what Old School marketing would’ve called PR.  On the web, PR manifests itself as people linking to your site and helping to tell your story.

Direct:  Whereby folks type the URL into their web browser or have kept a bookmark to it.  Heck, I don’t know how they found me.  Not all things are knowable, but we sure do try to understand those things that are tragically knowable.  This could be another form of Customer Referral, word of mouth or whatever.  Think of it as Lead Nurturing as well.  Folks keep coming back for another bite at the Knowledge Apple until they understand what you’re up to.  It sure do help to have a whole tree full of Knowledge Apples.  Pass me another helping of content, Bootstrapper!

“Social” Referral:  Whereby I participated in some Social Web Site or another and by virtue of said participations, peeps thought they’d come check it out.  Yo!   In one case, I actually created said Social Site and only made it available to a Closed Community.  Somehow that only made peeps even more curious.  Do tell?

Pay Per Click:  Whereby after considerable deliberation on my financial status, I ponied up the princely sum of $30 a day for about 6 weeks to see what could be done with Google AdWords.  Yes Virginia, even a Bootstrapper can afford that potent marketing budget, perhaps by combining all Founders’ pocket change instead of throwing it into the Starbucks tip bucket.  I admit, I do consume a lot of Mochas.

Customer E-Mail Referrals:  They say you have to ask for the sale.  The corollary is you have to ask for the referral.  BTW, if you ask, they will come.  Cool beans!

At the proverbial 100,000 foot level, there are three high level conclusions I have reached after all this falderall.  

First, it is possible to bootstrap considerable activity with minimal cash outlay if you have the time, the energy, and the ability to do it yourself.  Remember, Bootstraps need Starters!  If, OTOH, you have to go hire an SEO firm, a web design firm, a product marketing consultant, an outside tech writer, a photographer, a Best Boy, a Gaffer (I dunno, but I see them on movie credits a lot), a caterer specializing in wholesome organic vegan menus, and a mural painter, maybe you shouldn’t be trying to Bootstrap.

Second is that content precedes everything.  Without content, none of this would have been possible.  Even content that is presented in the fairly amateurish way mine was (hey, I’m no web designer, I did it all in my spare time in Dreamweaver and Photoshop, and it shows!) can get some pretty surprising results.  The website I used for these bootstrapping experiments is focused on the CNC machinist’s world.  That world tolerates my level of commercial fit and finish.  Others may not.  If my Bootstrappin’ gets far enough, I will seek the services of my favorite Graphic Designer (Duke, you know you want to, I just can’t afford you yet!) to “Dukify” (yes, he is the Duke of URL) things a bit.  I know looking at it today would make him blind in one eye and wish he couldn’t see out of the other.

Third, this stuff can be optimized, but if you optimize the wrong metric you will get completely useless results.   It is impossible to navigate unless you can see the whole sales funnel all the way through to your closing event.  In fact, you’ll see over the course of the Bootstrapper series, the many ways I optimized to get better results.  When I get to telling the details, you will be amazed at how often the various metrics want to fight you on doing the right thing.  Speaking of which, I’m using Google Analytics and AdWords for my metrics, just as I discussed already.  I get a lil’ help from a few other goodies and a lot of Excel analysis elbow grease (hey, I can run a spreadsheet, I invented the notebook tabs on them) that I’ll get to in the later posts.

Okay, let’s peel back the onion a layer (not much oxygen at 100,000 feet anyway) and start digging into the data to see just how much activity was bootstrapped.

In a relatively short time, acting entirely on my own (sole founder, floor sweeper, web designer, developer, executive, and court jester of the whole shew) and with minimal cash available, incorporated and deposited a check for $5000 in the company bank account (and plenty still left for more Mochas!), we (must be the Royal “We”) have accomplished the following:

- Created a thriving community of not quite 2000 machinists using the product in less than 12 months.  That community is doubling approximately every 3 months at this point.  At some point that will certainly slow down, but there is decent momentum.

- 16.4 million hits on the product’s crazy name “G-Wizard” if you search Google.  Of course that nutty DJ guy is in those results too.  I get 1.3M hits for “G-Wizard Calculator“, a little cleaner search.  For comparison, top-tier CAD/CAM vendor Gibbscam gets 277K hits and Surfcam 346K hits.  Peeps sure are talking about it.

- Gotten more traffic to the web site that some of the leading CAD/CAM vendors get to theirs.  See these Compete.com results for a comparison against Surfcam and GibbscamI’m even beating #1 market leader Mastercam, well over $100M in revenue, by a whisker.

- Since most readers are probably not too familiar with the online landscape for CNC machinists, let me tell you it’s smaller more insular world than Social Software world.  Techcrunch and Mashable don’t write about it, so there isn’t much of the Echo Chamber effect to magnify your impact.  Even a relatively less noteworthy (i.e. not Google, Facebook, or Twitter) like a Xobni handily crushes my web traffic.  OTOH, I like it that way.  The Bootstrapper wants to be a Big Fish in a Small Pond and not have to compete against every Boy and his VC’s.  At this stage, CNCCookbook gets just about the same traffic as PeerIndex, the last startup Fred Wilson wrote about as I write this.  I think if Fred wrote about me it might just double my traffic with one blog post, LOL.  I’ve done considerable investment-related research on Vertical SaaS Companies in the past, and noted that they tend to spend less on both R&D and Sales and Marketing to generate their revenue than broader companies like Salesforce.com.  I think that’s a beautiful thing for Bootstrapping.

-  The site actually gets quite a bit more activity than Compete.com reveals, but if you’ve ever used a service like Compete to look at your own site, you know that.  It is more of a comparative tool.  As I write this, I get about 40,000 unique visitors each month to CNCCookbook.com.

Okay, and what haven’t I accomplished?  In the spirit of full disclosure, I haven’t yet charged a single cent for the product.  It’s coming, but for now, the product is in Beta test and is free to anyone who’d like to register.  I have announced pricing in the private CNCCookbook User’s Club Community.  Kinda makes you want to register just to go check that out doesn’t it?  Hmmm, could be there’s a plan there somewhere.  Also, in the spirit of full disclosure, a good deal of CNCCookbook existed before I undertook to Bootstrap.  I was using it as a vanity blog while I was learning the CNC business.  I’d been involved with it way back in college days, but a lot had changed.  FWIW, knowing how much time I have spent on that site pretty closely, I estimate it represents about 1 Bob Year of 40 Hour a Week Time. 

Can you do something similar?  I dunno, that’s why I called it a Bob Year.  I don’t even think you need that much content given what Google Analytics tells me about how it is consumed.  But I do know startups are often quiet while building a product for some months, and during that time you and all of your Bootstrappin’ Cronies had best be cranking up the Content Machine.  The other thing I know is that site is a Heck of a lot more interesting than most Corporate Web Sites because most of the time it isn’t trying so hard to sell you something. 

In conclusion, I am measuring success in terms of machinists participating in the Beta test and my ability to efficiently get more to join in.  Next post, I will drill down into how successful each source of traffic has been, and what some of the most successful types of content have been.  Eventually I’ll do a post about how to evaluate ideas for a Bootstrap, but my writing has to go with what I’m thinking about when the muse strikes, so this series is kind of out-of-order.

Bootstrappa’s Resources

Links to the Bootstrappa’s Paradise blog series as well as other useful resources for Bootstrappers.

Posted in bootstrapping, business, Marketing, strategy, venture | 2 Comments »

The Irony of Mobile Users Preferring Apps Over Web

Posted by Bob Warfield on August 13, 2010

Apparently, mobile users prefer apps over the web.  At least that’s Gowalla CEO Josh Williams’ view:

“People love apps, but it drives a stake in the heart of the build-once-deploy-everywhere model, and makes the market really fragmented.”

I’m not surprised.  Heck, I prefer apps too.  But the irony is that Apple has but a bullet in the one solution that lets you have apps and a build-once-deploy-everywhere model:  Flash/Flex.

Sure, Apple wants apps not rich browser experiences.  They’re trying to control developer mindshare before more open solutions get going with too much momentum, once more leaving them to their walled garden as happened in the PC versus Mac race.  There is only so much developer mindshare, and if you lock them down writing apps in dev tools that essentially only work on the iPhone or iPad, its hard for their great apps to be available elsewhere. 

We don’t hear tremendous talk about RIA’s (Rich Internet Apps) anymore, it seems.  Perhaps the concept is dated.  I continue to think it is a great idea.  People talk about Flash/Flex largely in terms of video and ignore the RIA side.  Some argue they don’t even like RIA’s, and prefer a basic web page-style UI.  Personally, I think the web page UI is fine for certain things, but it isn’t much better than the old 3270 green screens, which were also fine for some things.  The problem isn’t that apps need to be more like web pages, its that browsers need to support more app-like behavior.  Flash/Flex does that today beautifully, except Steve Jobs won’t tolerate it on his mobile platforms because he’s trying to deny developer mindshare to his competitors.

For those that think it’s slow and buggy, think again.  It’s actually capable of some pretty amazing stuff, even 3D games.  I’ve lately been spending a fair amount of time programming 3D graphics in an Open Source Flash package called Away3D and have been very impressed.  I’ve also spent a lot of time with Adobe AIR, and am likewise impressed.  Not only can you run on any browser, you can run disconnected on the desktop too.  It works great on PC, Mac, and Linux, same code across all desktops and browsers. 

I haven’t seen another option that gives so much flexibility.  HTML5 is a long long way from it.

Posted in flex | 6 Comments »

The Bootstrappin’ Team: All Starters

Posted by Bob Warfield on August 12, 2010

This is my third post on Bootstrapping a Company in the Internet Age.  We started with Bootstrappa’s Paradise where I explained why whether you plan to raise VC or bootstrap your idea all the way, both roads are bootstrapping.  The world will no longer give you a pile of money for an idea, a slide show, and a team. 

This installment is all about what kind of team it takes to Bootstrap an Idea into a Business.  Putting together the right team is a problem you’re going to face right up front, and if you don’t get the right team, your idea is going nowhere.

The Bootstrap team will consist of from 1 to 4 people.   The number, in and of itself, tells us a lot about the Team.   Let’s say we have a cool enough idea and enough motivated friends that we get 4.  Why not 5 or 6 or even 10? 

Remember, the goal of the Bootstrap is to get to cash flow breakeven as soon as possible.  The more overhead, the harder that’s going to be.  But there is an even more pragmatic goal than cash flow breakeven.  Cash flow breakeven sounds wonderful, but let’s be brutally honest.  The Bootstrap Team starves while the company is trying to get onto its feet.  They starve either financially, because they don’t have a Day Job to pay the bills, or emotionally, because they’re trying to do it all while still holding down a Day Job.  They aren’t paying themselves much of anything, so Cash Flow Breakeven can be a bit of a gray area.  Make sure you’re thinking Cash Flow Breakeven after the team quits their Day Jobs and needs a real paycheck.  It need not be a lucrative check, but it has to be enough to keep them going indefinitely.  That’s my definition of Cash Flow Breakeven because until you get there, you haven’t really completed the Bootstrap.  In the end, it isn’t clear that an extra 4 to 6 people on the team, more mouths to feed, will really get you there enough faster to be worth it.

This brings me to my second observation about the team.  They really have to want to do it.  They have to believe in the product and market and have the passion.  It’s not just a Job, it’s an Adventure.  Why else would they starve?  Figure its going to take up to 2 years to get to the ideal of being able to quit your Day Job.  That’s not a short haul.  Maybe you get there sooner, but plan for 2 years.  Some of the more famous bootstrappers talk about spending the first year building product and the second year building momentum.  Yeah, I know, everyone is yacking about slamming together a product in less than 6 months.  That’s cool if you can do it.  But I’m not talking about a free demo.  I’m talking about getting to the point of revenue.  Where someone will actually pay you for what you’ve built.  Yeah, that matters for a Bootstrapper.  Gettin’ paid is important!

Okay, what’s the last thing about the Bootstrap team to think about?  You need a critical mass of starters.  I’ve written about the idea of starters before, and much of my thinking was crystallized after reading 37Signals latest book, Rework.  Starters are people who do something other than manage other people.  They write code, create marketing programs, talk to customers to help them or sell them, and all the rest of the myriad tasks any business needs to get done.  You can hire it out to consultants, but that’s raising your burn rate again and making people starve more.  Some of it you’ll have to hire out.  With a team of 4, you’re not likely to have a bookkeeper or a lawyer to set up the corporation.  But keep it tight.  Ask who will do the key jobs:

-  Product Development:  Who will write the code, test it, and write any documentation you’re providing.  Who is your product visionary?  Who is the UI expert?  Who does the backend scalable server piece?

-  Marketing:  I’m talking about your demand generation and web presence.  Lots to do here.  Who will create your website?  Who will administer your marketing programs?  Who is coming up with the marketing content?  Who is doing graphical design work? 

-  Operations:  Who will deliver the service?  Who will set up and run your data center (trick question: you are wasting your time crawling around cages at a colo.  Put your service in the Cloud!).  Who will do Tech Support for your customers?  How are you fulfilling orders? Who manages the raft of software to do payment processing, order taking, manage customer lists, and whatever else associated with tracking and administering your customers cradle to grave?  You don’t have time to write all that software, it isn’t differentiated, so you have to buy it.  Nobody makes a one-stop suite to do it all, so you’ll be pasting together a patchwork and trying to make it seamless.

-  Leadership:  Who will be CEO, Product Manager, Office Manager, and Den Mother all rolled into one?  Who sets the priorities and directions?  It can’t all be run by committee, though there can and should be a lot of consensus.

Are you starting to get a sense of just how unique a Bootstrap Team is, what they have to accomplish, and how hard they must work?  Think very carefully before you add someone to the team.  The more hats they can wear, the better.  It’s all about rolling up sleeves and getting it done.  You’re sharing a foxhole that’s way forward in the battlefield.  Who’s got your back?

What about Stars?  Why didn’t I call for a Boostrappin’ All Star team? 

Stars aren’t always Starters.  When they are, hire them, by all means.  In my book, the real Stars are also Starters.  But, many Stars are those who are particularly good at managing people as opposed to producing any particular content of their own.  They are tall, charismatic, and went to the right schools.  Guess what?  That stuff doesn’t help you an awful lot to Bootstrap.  You can’t afford the overhead of that tall, good looking, sweet talking CEO if that’s all he can do.  You can’t afford the overhead of the brilliant developer geek who has graduated from coder to architect.  If he doesn’t want to get his hands dirty writing code, he’s not for you.  Send him to a bigger company.  Starters are often much more ordinary seeming people.  It isn’t because they’re less smart or talented, it’s just that they didn’t get there through the skill of impressing and manipulating people.  They got there by doing it themselves.

Beware the other end of the spectrum too.  Bootstrap teams are no place for interns, beginners, junior players, bad programmers, or anyone else that can’t pull a full load.  Nobody will have time to train them, check their work, or fix their mistakes.  You’re looking for the business equivalent of a tiny elite combat team that can be dropped behind enemy lines without money, weapons, or identification and they will make it back alive, well, and ready to do it again.

I’ll be talking next about coming up with the Idea.  Get your team together first, if you can.  I know it helps to have the Idea to sell them, but getting even one other person in the boat will help you to shape the Idea.  Plus, having a keen awareness of the Team’s capabilities will help you know what you can or cannot really deliver.

Bootstrappa’s Resources

Links to the Bootstrappa’s Paradise blog series as well as other useful resources for Bootstrappers.

Posted in bootstrapping | 4 Comments »

Once You Have Bad Programmers, You’re Doomed!

Posted by Bob Warfield on August 12, 2010

I love that line from Paul Graham’s post about what went wrong with Yahoo:

In technology, once you have bad programmers, you’re doomed. I can’t think of an instance where a company has sunk into technical mediocrity and recovered. Good programmers want to work with other good programmers. So once the quality of programmers at your company starts to drop, you enter a death spiral from which there is no recovery.

That observation is so true, as is this one:

Theirs was not to reason why; theirs was to build what product managers spec’d.

That’s in reference to Yahoo’s totally Product Managment-driven decision process.  It has seemed to me at times like Microsoft errs dangerously on this side too.  Product Managers are essential, and can be great, but if you place in a role where their job is to hand down stone tablets for the developers to slavishly implement, it doesn’t work.  It is not empowering to the developers who have tons of great ideas, insights, and vision themselves.  But ultimately, it’s just not a good idea to have guys in Ivory Towers thinking great thoughts they have no responsibility or accountability to deliver on.  It’s certainly not much of a team effort when things work that way.  I see great Product Managers as being the ultimate Customer Advocates.  Who else can say that they spend 100% of their time understanding the company’s customers and translating that into product requirements?  The trick is to balance those requirements against other sources of requirements, for example the need to innovate and differentiate, which far more often comes with vision rather than customer feedback.  It takes both as even the brilliant Steve Jobs discovers when his visions get too much at odds with what customers want.

The final great point from the post for me was:

In the software business, you can’t afford not to have a hacker-centric culture.  So which companies need to have a hacker-centric culture? Which companies are “in the software business” in this respect? As Yahoo discovered, the area covered by this rule is bigger than most people realize. The answer is: any company that needs to have good software.

Hacker culture often seems kind of irresponsible. That’s why people proposing to destroy it use phrases like “adult supervision.” That was the phrase they used at Yahoo. But there are worse things than seeming irresponsible. Losing, for example.

Yes indeed, there are worse things than seeming irresponsible.  Though I think the appearance of irresponsibility is only an appearance and comes from suits not being able to understand the hackers.

So let’s say you’re running a company that has Bad Programmers.  Are you really doomed? 

It’s an interesting problem to think about fixing it.  How did you get there to start with?  Here are some thoughts:

-  Like Yahoo, you had a culture that didn’t value Technology.  Great programmers can smell that a mile away and will general avoid it.  I have seen cases where most of a company didn’t value the developers much, but there was an elite core group where great developers could flourish.  It’s often hard for overly sales-driven cultures to value developers as much as they should.  As one friend put it, sales-driven cultures see the Customer as God and Sales as the Church.  There were certainly elements of this at work for Yahoo.

-  You outsourced or isolated your Developers.  This is not a guarantee you have Bad Programmers, but it is a virtual guarantee they’re not really plugged into your corporate culture the way they should be.  Developers can smell this too.  Sometimes they like being off by themselves, but its too easy for it to turn into a Stone Tablet scenario at which point they’re unhappy.  The opposite extreme is the Dev Group that has no customer contact and is just implementing whatever they feel like.  Also bad!

-  The fish rotted from the head.  Bad Leadership is a problem for Developers.  They have little patience for a lot of politics or a weak leader that’s easily snowed.  Dilbert is not a recipe for a great Hacker Culture.

-  Lazy hiring.  You started out with some great developers, but you did a poor job hiring and building an organization.

-  Lousy process.  Smart people abound, but the processes in use are not productive, or worse are destructive.  This is usually a function of poor change control.  If left to fester, you can get spaghetti code from the brightest of teams.

So back to the question of fixing it, and while we’re at it, let’s also look at avoiding it in the first place.  Consider these proactive steps:

-  Make sure your corporate culture values what Developers do.  They don’t call them Software Companies for nothing.  They’re not Sales Companies, Marketing Companies, or Finance Companies.  Make sure you act like it, while also recognizing the huge value these other groups bring. 

-  Keep the Developers well plugged into your corporate culture.  If they’re remote, work overtime looking for ways to make sure they’re still plugged in.  Rotate them through corporate.  Send the right people out to the remote locations frequently.  Never let it turn into a case of micromanagement from afar (Stone Tablets) or no management at all.  Make sure there is strong leadership in the remote locations and make sure the leaders there most of all are plugged back into corporate.  Let me tell you, this will be a lot of work.  You outsourced and offshored to save money.  Welcome to the first of many hidden costs that will make it seem less attractive, though not fatally so.

-  Get great Engineering Leadership.  You need leaders who are inspired, visionary, extroverted, technical, and downright fun to hang around.  They need to be great not just with the developers, but with their peers in the other functional areas.  The leadership, more than anything, has to move the cultural values both ways across the blood brain barrier that often separates Developers from the rest of the culture.  They’d better speak both languages (Geek and Business) to do that well.

-  Realize that Hiring is critical from day one, and it never stops.  I could write many posts on hiring, but I will leave it to one simple observation.   99% of the time people seem to regard hiring as a temporary distraction from what’s really important, such as delivering a product.  But hiring the wrong people will cause you to deal with more kinds of Hell for longer than any architectural mistake you can possibly make.

-  Keep tuning the process.   Start out with the obvious Best Practices, but don’t rest on your laurels from there.  Development organizations have two responsibilities: delivering Great Products and building a superior Software Factory.  They spend most of their time focused on the Products, but like Hiring, the Software Factory is not to be overlooked.  Any given product release is just a battle in the war.  If your Software Factory releases faster than the competition, if it builds better product every cycle, and if it does this more cheaply than the competition, it’s a huge advantage.

One last piece of advice.  If you already have a lot of Bad Programmers runnning around, find a way to isolate them.  Don’t just beg Good Programmers to come in and drop them piecemeal into a pit of Bad Programmers.  They won’t be effective and they won’t hang around.  Start out making sure you have great leadership, and build new groups with Good Programmers.  Preferably do this product by product, and through acquisition of Teams that are known good entities who know how to work together to accomplish great thinks.  Don’t hire Good Programmers and term them into Bad Programmers inadvertently, or drive them away altogether.

Posted in software development | 8 Comments »

 
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