Archive for February, 2008

5 places to spend money on your start-up

Friday, February 15th, 2008

As a rule, most start-ups are short on cash and want to spend as little money as possible to give their business enough runway to take off. But there are some times that it doesn’t make sense to bootstrap because it may do more harm than good.

Here are the five places to spend money on your start-up to give you a better chance at success.

1) Get a good bookkeeper or accountant. This piece of advice doesn’t apply if you are a bookkeeper or accountant, but I am not. Having a good bookkeeper is worth every Stack of moneypenny. I love – no, I adore - my bookkeeper. Not only is she helpful in getting my budgets together, paying all my bills and cutting checks to all my contractor’s, but because of her past experience, she also has been able to help me with a number of other start-up issues, such as opening a bank account, wiring money overseas, setting up an LLC, registering a DBA, and a number of other business issues that it would have taken me hours to figure out how to do without her. Some people are able to find this experience and expertise elsewhere – with a business partner or advisor, for example – but it’s incredibly valuable to have someone on your team that has done the paperwork before. It will save you hours of work and will keep you from making costly mistakes.

“One of the hassles of ONElist was that I was the one managing the books the first year, as well as answering the 200 support emails every night, as well as doing all this other stuff. I guess I’m torn with how cheap do you want to go with a startup. Having an accountant is kind of a nice frill.” – Mark Fletcher, founder, Bloglines

“One [of the biggest challenges starting a start-up] is, in general, not knowing what’s ‘normal.’ Investors hand us ‘normal’ term sheets, consultants ask for ‘normal’ fees. I’m 21 – I haven’t seen enough of the extremes to know what’s normal.” – Blake Ross, creator, Firefox

“We knew what we knew, which was the product. But there were all these little things that you just have no clue about. It was incredibly overwhelming.” – Mena Trott, cofounder, Six Apart

2) Hire a great lawyer. Do not try to save money on a lawyer. A great lawyer will keep you out of trouble and out of court (which kills a lot of start-ups before they can ever gain traction). A lawyer will also help you when it’s time to raise money or sell your business. Spend money here – it may seem like a waste or too big of an investment, but it’s well worth the cash.

“They’d put in a right of first refusal. Since I was a young entrepreneur at the time, I didn’t understand that this basically meant that you couldn’t go to any other VC…We didn’t have a very good lawyer back then.” – Sabeer Bhatia, cofounder, Hotmail

3) Hire employees with special skills and experience. Stick with contractors vs. full-time employees as long as possible, but when you are hiring, it’s worth a little extra money to get someone who has the special skills and experience that you need. For example, I need a series of reports written in SQL Reporting Services. This is a customized list of reports, I know someone who has written these types of reports in the past, and I am going to hire her to do it for me again, even though it might cost me a little more than a rookie SQL programmer. I am willing to pay her extra because I know that she is good, and she won’t have to spend a lot of time making mistakes and fixing them (because she’s already made her mistakes in the past). Chris hired someone to handle his company’s regulatory issues with the FDA – and he spent a little bit more to get someone who had previous experience working with that particular government agency, which just might help get their products through the FDA pipeline a little more quickly. Plus, the inside knowledge of how the organization works will save them hours of time in preparing documents and submissions.

“The difference in almost any position between someone who does a good job and someone who does a great job might be 20% more in salary, but it’s 100% or 200% more in throughput. If you can have enough people in the company that work twice as efficiently as the person sitting next to them, because they just know what to do, what not to spend time on…It’s just, hey, you give this engineer a task, and it’s just done right in half the time as the next person.” – Stephen Kaufer, cofounder TripAdvisor

4) Splurge on occasional perks that make a difference. Sometimes small splurges can make a huge difference in the company’s culture, and are worth every penny. For me, that means something as small as taking people out to dinner (with their families and significant others) to celebrate whenever we hit a big milestone, to thank them and to mark the $20k espresso machineoccasion. Chris’ company, at a recent conference in Jamaica, instead of getting each employee an individual hotel room, rented a villa (for just a bit more money) that came with a private cook, housekeeper and butler. The experience that we had on that trip far exceeded what it would have been if we didn’t have authentic, home-cooked Jamaican breakfast every morning. The extra cost was worth every penny.

“We were very frugal and we didn’t spend money on frills, but after the IPO there was a really bad time for Marimba when it was very difficult to hire people, and all the early people that had been there 3 to 4 years were starting to leave. Morale was very low, and so I went to the CFO and said, ‘Look, I want to buy an espresso machine.’ And he said, ‘No, we can’t do that, it’s too expensive.’ A few weeks later when another senior engineer quit, I said, ‘Screw it, let’s buy an espresso machine.’ So Jonathan and I went online and bought this super-duper Italian, fully automatic, $15,000 espresso machine on his credit card and submitted the expense form. The CFO almost had a baby…They came and installed the espresso machine and it was the best money we ever spent. Every morning, people would meet and crowd around it…people loved it, they couldn’t stop talking about it. A month later, the CFO came and said ‘I’m sorry, we should have done this years ago.’ And it tells you something about where you spend your money and what you spend your money on. It’s not just business-related expenses. You also have to create an environment that you like so that people are happy and feel they are valued.” – Arthur van Hoff, cofounder, Marimba

5) Spend when it will accelerate the business. The first four months of my start-up, all my Web sites were running on a hosted server that cost about $40/month. Low-cost, low-bandwidth – and I didn’t need anything more than that. Shortly, I will be rolling out a Web application that will need a more robust server environment, so I splurged on getting my new servers set up well ahead of time. I started paying for the servers in January (I likely won’t be using them full-power until March), but having the extra time to set up and test and move all my existing sites will allow my business to hit the ground running when the application is finally delivered.

“I wouldn’t recommend [skimping on hardware sometimes]. We often had to replace stuff we bought because we had been so worried about costs.” - Mena Trott, cofounder, Six Apart

“As you’re growing…what I tried to foster here is an attitude of risk-taking, where all I want to know really is what’s my downside scenario in terms of time and opportunity cost?…If the amount of time spent making a mistake is small, don’t be afraid to make a lot of mistakes without a lot of time analyzing whether you should or shouldn’t do it. On the Web, it’s particularly easy to try something and get feedback. If it doesn’t work, drop it.” – Stephen Kaufer, cofounder, TripAdvisor

Eventually, even after a combination of saving and spending, start-ups often get low on money and need to look for additional funding. Next week, I’ll talk a bit about where start-ups can get cash, and the pros and cons of each option.

All of the quotes in this article are from the wonderful book Founders at Work: Stories of Startup’s Early Days, by Jessica Livingston.

Money photo by luismi1985
Victoria Arduino Venus Century Espresso Machine, $19,932.00.

5 ways to save money on your start-up

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

After you’ve made the decision to start your own company, and have gotten past some of the early emotional hurdles, the next issue that comes up is usually money. Specifically, how you can you use the money that you have – which is usually limited - and make it last as long as possible. In fact, when Jessica Livingston asked the founders that she interviewed for the book, Founders at Work, about their advice for would-be entrepreneurs, it was often “spend as little as possible.” (All the quotes that are used here are from that book.)

Here are five great ways to save money with your start-up:

1) Take as little salary as possible. When I quit my job to start Pure Incubation, I took a huge pay cut. I didn’t go salary-free, but Chris and I came to an agreement about the lowest salary I could take so that we could still afford to live the lifestyle that we wanted. I still take trips, I still eat out, but we have cut back in a lot of areas. Some people are even able (and willing) to not take a salary at all. Obviously, if you can go this route it’s ideal. Overhead costs from salaries often are a huge burden to businesses, and the lower the salary you take, the longer your money will last.

Some people aren’t able to take such a huge pay cut, so they keep their day jobs. This works for some people, who either don’t work long hours, have a job that isn’t very demanding, or don’t need to put in a ton of hours to get their business off the ground, either because they’re patient, or their business/idea isn’t time-sensitive. This is a great way to keep your salary down if you can do it - essentially, you’re being paid by the company for which you’re working 9-5, which is helping to support your start-up.

“We were…both working, so we decided to spend all of the time on the weekends and evenings building this product. Then it came to a point that one of us had to quit our job to focus full-time on it, so I told Jack, ‘I’m single and don’t have a family. Why don’t you quit and start working on this and I’ll give you half of my salary?’ So at least he could support his family. I didn’t need that much money.” – Sabeer Bhatia, cofounder, Hotmail

“Initially we put in a little bit of money, I think $25,000 each. If you don’t take a salary, that can last you a long time.” – Arthur van Hoff, cofounder, Marimba

2) Don’t get traditional office space. I live in a two-bedroom apartment. It’s a great apartment, second floor, ocean view – and it’s plenty of space for me and Chris. When I first started thinking about starting a company, I was planning on setting up shop in our second bedroom, which is where Chris worked when he was starting his company. But as I looked at the space, I realized that I wouldn’t be happy in that room. So I got a new desk (from IKEA, definitely don’t spend a lot of money on office furniture!) and it matched the rest of the house well enough that I could set it up in our sunroom – the view from my office is of the ocean and I love “going to work” every day.

Front porch officeIf you have a space in your house that you use for your office, do it. After overhead, the next biggest cost of business is often office space – and renting office space is like throwing money out the window. If you work with other people, see if they can work from home, too. Use IM, email and phone calls to communicate, and have meetings at your local coffee shop or at your dining room table.

If you must be in the same location, find as inexpensive a space as possible. When Chris got his first office, it was a tiny little space that cost about $400 per month in the Cummings Center, a converted shoe factory in Beverly, MA. But the great thing about that space is that there are hundreds of other office spaces in the building, so when he outgrew the space (which happened quickly), he was able to transfer the lease to a bigger office. The other great thing about the Cummings Center is that it’s close to the commuter rail, so when he needs to hire more people, he can look in Boston, as well as the outlying communities for talent.

“[We worked] in Robert’s apartment. His housemate was away that summer, and I moved into his room. Robert used to get up early, whereas I stayed up till four and got up at noon. So we would kind of work a 24-hour schedule.” - Paul Graham, cofounder, Viaweb

“We had a friend who was subletting a space, and he had a contract job that kept him out of the office all the time, so we sublet his subletted space. This was in 2002…there were failed dot-coms all over the place, so office space was cheap.” – Caterina Fake, cofounder, Flickr

3) Hire contractors vs. full-time employees. There are many reasons to start off hiring contractors vs. full-time employees. For one thing, contractors usually expect to work from home (allowing you to forgo the office space), and they often have their own equipment. Employers aren’t expected to pay for healthcare or 401k costs for contractors, and if you hire a contractor and they aren’t doing a good job, you can fire them without paying a severance or feeling completely terrible since contract work, by its nature, isn’t permanent. Chris’ first full-time hire didn’t end up working out, so he had to let her go, and it was one of the most traumatic things that he had to do in the early days of his business. He didn’t sleep for a week, and they ended up paying her a month’s salary in severance (mostly out of guilt, I think). Since then, he’s started hiring contractors and moving them to full-time when he’s ready.

I’m currently working with about 20 contractors. I’m the only full-time employee, but I am still able to get everything done, and I don’t have the worry about overhead depleting my bank account. And if there is a month when money is tight, I can cut back on contractors. Plus, often when you’re starting out, you don’t need 40 hours a week of a specific skill set – or if you do, it’s a temporary thing that will end after a project is complete. It is only when your business is at a point when it needs a dedicated 40 hours per week committed to a specific task or set of tasks that it’s time to hire a full-time employee.

“One of the things that I did…with Bloglines was rely upon an outsourcing site, in this case eLance, for a lot of things…So, if I wanted to put together a presentation and I needed a couple of graphics, I put up a proposal on eLance and ended up working with some lady in Australia who turned things around in 6 hours, for $50. So sites like that are so amazingly powerful, which is just one more reason why it’s really easy to do very small companies, because you don’t need a graphic designer necessarily.” – Mark Fletcher, founder, Bloglines

Save money sign4) Cut back on everything you possibly can. The other places where you can really save money will be different for every business. For me, I have kept expenses down by taking a chance on some less-experienced writers and designers who are working on building some of my sites and writing content. When I need a stellar design that only someone with vast experience can pull together, I’ll hire that person – but until then, I’m comfortable with getting my business cards designed professionally for $150 and printing them out at Staples (on high-quality card stock, of course). Other people find other areas to save.

“Do everything as cheaply as you possibly can.” – Paul Graham, cofounder, Viaweb

“Reduce. Do as little as possible to get what you have to get done. Do less of it; get it done.” – Joshua Schachter, founder, del.icio.us

“Even if you raise money, spend it as if it’s your own and you have none. Your organization has got to remain smart and lean. Be cheap. There’s no shame in being cheap. I still fly coach.” – James Hong, cofounder, HOT or NOT

“We basically sat in the garage coding for around 18 months. In retrospect, it was really fun…It got cold in the garage and we didn’t have a heater, so we would use the dryer for heat. We’d tape the little button down that made it run with the door open.” – Joe Kraus, cofounder, Excite

5) Take on some contract work. This isn’t exactly a money-saving strategy, but it is a way to build a little extra cash, which amounts to the same thing. I have been offered a number of contract projects since starting Pure Incubation, most of which I’ve turned down. But on a selective basis, I have taken on a few projects. The ones that I’ve chosen have either been in my power alley of experience (meaning that I didn’t have to work too hard to get them done and could charge a premium for my expertise), or have allowed me to be paid to extend my skill set in an area that I didn’t previously have experience.

For example, I recently took on a marketing project that involved sending out a direct mail piece. I own an Internet-based company, I do everything online, typically. But I realize that I may need to do some direct mail at some point in the future. By taking on this project, I learned about the issues with the U.S. Postal Service, international mailing and made contact with local printers and marketing copywriters. The best part – I was paid to learn.

“The consulting company was a means to an end. It was to get cash flow, so that you could build a real software company.” – Joel Spolsky, cofounder, Fog Creek Software

“We were chosen under a Request for Proposal bid to build a student accounting system for a vocational school in the state of Minnesota, which helped us focus on what we were going to do…It was really a one-off. It also told us how we could underestimate a project, how we would manage a project, how we would manage engineers, how we would manage or own time. And we got paid for learning on the job.” – Ann Winblad, cofounder, Open Systems

Although it’s great to save as much as possible, there are times when you still need to spend. I’ll talk about those times tomorrow.

Front porch office photo by Daniel Morrison
Do it Yourself photo by colros

Four hurdles to jump after starting a business

Wednesday, February 13th, 2008

Making the decision to start a business is just the beginning. Along with all the actual work you have to do (which I’ll write about later this week), there are other early hurdles, some of them mental, to jump. Here are four:

1) Telling other people. For me, this one was tough. I had worked with the people at my company for almost 8 years, and many of them were like a second family. But telling them was nothing compared to telling my real family. Breaking the news to my parents that I was thinking of quitting my job was difficult, but they were supportive. Both of my parents were elementary school teachers, my dad taught at the same school, the same classroom and grade, for more than 30 years before he retired. He told me that doing something that I loved was incredibly important because I will spend too much of my life working to not love what I’m doing. Good advice, I thought.

But telling them that I was starting a company – and an Internet company that starts other companies – was a whole different story. My mom’s response: “Thank God Chris has a job.” The real issue, though, was that they didn’t (and probably still don’t really) understand what it is that I do. This is not surprising because very few people understand what I do. But I knew for sure that they were both on my side when I went home for a visit at Thanksgiving, and my mom had print-outs of my Web sites (she actually printed copies of the sites on her color printer) propped up on her hutch in the dining room. Adorable.

“My mother and father thought I had lost my mind, because I had this great job at Xerox, a nice big office overlooking the whole Bay Area. They said, ‘What are you doing?’” – Charles Geschke, cofounder, Adobe Systems

“[I had to tell my parents that I wasn't finishing school], but what was actually harder was having to go to the president of the university and ask for a leave of absence. I had never met him before. It was quite interesting because he apologized for having to try to disuade me from it. After he finished his speech, he wished me the best of luck and shook my hand with a big smile. I rememberd that, and ironically, 20 years later he’s one of RIM’s board members.” – Mike Lazaridis, cofounder, Research In Motion

“My parents thought I was pretty much over the top because I had this very prestigious job at the Federal Reserve Bank and went to work every day from my apartment to this beautiful bank and got promoted and made a bunch of money for my age. Why would I quit? It was very hard to communicate to people who weren’t in the very small software industry what you were doing. People didn’t question you; they couldn’t even converse with you. At Thanksgiving: ‘What do you do again?…OK, thanks, that sounds really interesting.’ …People didn’t quit their jobs and start these companies. Although once you become an entrepreneur, it’s sort of like becoming an alien. You notice there are other aliens!” – Ann Winblad, cofounder, Open Systems

Hurdles
Photo by iowa_spirit_walker

2) Having faith that it’s going to work. You have to believe that your idea is going to work before you decide to start the company, but continuing to have faith in your vision is something that you have to choose to do every day. For me, it’s hard when I read articles about how many small businesses fail because I tend to make decisions based on probability and best-case scenerios. So the probability is (based on the stats) that my business will fail. But I have to have faith, I have to decide every day that I will beat the odds, that my company will not become a statistic. That I will succeed. The good thing for me is that my business model has failure built in, which is fantastic, because I’m already planning to fail. I’m starting a number of things at the same time with the full knowledge that some will not succeed. But the trick is to hold onto the faith that some of them will succeed.

“It took a lot of faith. You call it vision, but it’s a combination of vision and faith that 1) it’s going to happen someday, and 2) it has value, and 3) you can actually accomplish it in an economic way and promote it so that you can fund the development and growth of the business. That’s pretty tricky stuff.” – Mike Lazaridis, cofounder, Research In Motion

3) Embracing the uncertainty. When you start a business, you may be trying to hold onto faith that it will be a success, but you don’t really know that it will be. Along with that, you don’t always know where you’re next client will come from. Or employee. Or dollar. So you have to come to a point of accepting the not knowing, embracing the uncertainty. For me, it’s kind of a thrill to be working this all out as I go because I have come to believe that no matter what I face, I’ll figure it out. It might not be today or tomorrow, but eventually, I’ll either determine a way to get around the issue, find someone to help me with it, or overcome it in some way.

“Part of the excitement was just seeing how the world would respond. I kind of like uncertainty to some extent, because it’s a little bit of suspense and excitement and adventure, almost, right? And you can learn a lot even if things don’t work out. But not everyone likes adventure. A lot of people seem to be against uncertainty, actually. In all areas of life.” – Paul Buchheit, creator, Gmail

4) Remembering that there are pros and cons. I got married fairly recently (May 2006) and for at least a year following that event, almost everytime I saw someone I hadn’t seen in awhile, they would ask, “How’s married life treating you?” That exact question. Since starting a business, the question has morphed to, “How’s the business coming along?” I love that people ask about both my marriage and my business, but the truth of the matter is that with both, there are pros and cons. The trick is making sure that there are more pros than cons.

For the first few months after starting the business, I had a really hard time with the isolation of working at home, alone, with no one else around to talk to all day or who fully understood what I was doing. I tried a lot of things to overcome this, and the thing that ended up working the best was going to Panera Bread and using their free wi-fi. At least there I was around people, and the din from the conversations helped me feel not-quite-so-alone. Lately, that con has turned into more of a positive. I love being able to set my own schedule and to work at my own pace, and I’m able to get things done faster than ever. The good can become bad and the bad can become good in the blink of an eye – the key is remembering that, and working constantly to turn the negatives positive.

“Startups are just so amazingly fun; they are so amazingly stressful. Whether you are an engineer or whether you are a founder, at least for me, it takes every emotion you’ve got and multiplies it 100-fold. Higher highs, lower lows than any other work experience. A startup is all-encompassing, so do it when you are young and when you don’t have a family because you’ll lose it all.” – Mark Fletcher, founder, Bloglines

“It’s a combination of sudden freedom to run things as you please and crushing responsibility in which you know you have to do certain things in a certain way at a certain time. That eradicates all of that freedom.” – Joshua Schachter, founder, del.icio.us

Tomorrow, I’ll continue this series with a discussion of the financial issues that go into a start-up.

All of the quotes in this article are from the wonderful book Founders at Work: Stories of Startup’s Early Days, by Jessica Livingston.

How to get over the fear and start your own business

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

Starting a business all begins with the first step - the statement, which then turns into a belief, that later turns into a mantra  – that I AM STARTING A BUSINESS. This step happens differently for everyone, but this is my story of how I got over the fear and started a business, supplemented with the stories of friends and acquaintances and the entrepreneurs featured in the book Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days. (All the quotes below are from that great book. If you are an entrepreneur, buy it today, it will inspire you.)

Start image

I’m convinced that in order to be able to get over the fear and start your own business, most people go through some combination of the following things:

You can’t keep doing what you have been doing. I am pretty sure that starting a business involves some level of desperation. For me, when I made the decision to start my own thing, it was early 2007, I was working for Ziff Davis Media, heading the product development team for the Web Buyer’s Guide. Things were going great with the division – we were one of the favorites in the company, making money hand over fist with a long list of the top clients in the industry. I was working with an amazing team of people, I truly liked and respected my bosses and the people who worked for me. But I was growing increasingly dissatisfied with my job. The problem was, with things going so well, I had little hope that they would ever change. The better things went with the group, the worse I felt about the job because I had to keep things going, to make sure that the clients stayed happy, to just do more and more and more and more of the same.

I love building new things. I like the creativity of it, the innovation of it, the challenge of trying to figure out how to solve problems. I enjoy gathering a team of people who can all collaborate to get something done. And I like the thrill of launching something new. I couldn’t possibly stand to stay still, the lack of creativity was sucking me dry. I had to do something else.

You realize that the only way to do what you want to do is to start your own thing.  Once I knew that I wanted to do something else, I knew that I wanted it to be related to using the Internet, and I knew that I wanted it to be creative. But the more that I thought about it, the more that I knew that going to just some other company wasn’t going to solve my problems. I already worked with really great, smart people. And another company would make me specialize, as well. I realized that what I really wanted to do was have the flexibility to do lots of different things, all the time, just the way that I wanted them done. There is no job description that reads that way.

“I think the hallmark of a really good entrepreneur is that you’re not really going to build one specific company. The goal – at least the way I think about entrepreneurship – is you realize one day that you can’t really work for anyone else. You have to start your own thing. It almost doesn’t matter what that thing is.” – Max Levchin, Cofounder PayPal

You understand the odds are against you, but you believe that you will beat the odds. The statistics for businesses to fail are staggering. It’s something like 8 out of 10 businesses don’t make it past the first year, and 8 out of 10 of those don’t make it past the second year. Something horrible like that. But, I believe I will be one of the successful ones. Why? Because I know I can do it, which is not a good reason, I’m sure. But if I didn’t believe that I would succeed, I would never have started in the first place. There has to be some level of (sometimes irrational) optimism in every business founder.

You figure out your biggest points of fear and try to work around them. For me, the prospect of starting a company led to three major fears. One, I didn’t know how to do the stuff related to starting a business because I hadn’t done it before. So I found some mentors and a business partner who have vast experience in this area and who can help me when I have questions. Two, I was concerned about putting Chris (my husband) and I in debt because of the business. I overcame that fear by taking a very small salary out of the initial seed money. I took a fairly substantial pay cut, but having just a small monthly income gives me the peace of mind that I am at least not going backward in my financial situation. Three, I was concerned that everyone I knew would think I was crazy. That issue was not something I could fix, but it was a personality flaw anyway, so I decided that being faced with that type of opposition would help me to grow as a person so it was worth facing the fear. The fears will be different for everyone, but all business owners will have to figure out how to face them.

“About the next day after I said no to starting Apple…my friend Allen Baum called me in the afternoon and he said, ‘Look, you can start Apple and go into management and get rich, or you can start Apple and stay an engineer and get rich.’ As soon as he said it was OK to do engineering, that really freed me up. My psychological block was really that I didn’t want to start a company. Because I was just afraid. In business and politics, I wasn’t going to be a real strong participant. I wasn’t going to tell other people how to do things. I wasn’t going to run things ever in my life…I just couldn’t run a company. But then one person said I could be an engineer. That was all I needed to know, that ‘OK, I’ll start this company and I’ll just be an engineer.’ To this day, I’m still on the org chart, on the bottom of the org chart – never once been anything but an engineer who works.” -Steve Wozniak, Cofounder, Apple Computer

You realize that other people do this all the time. The other thing that really helped me was to realize that other people start companies all the time, which led to the feeling that if they could do it, I could do it too. Chris started a business in 2006, and it was doing well, so that was encouraging. I was part of a company that was a start-up that was acquired by Ziff Davis, so I had seen how it was done firsthand. Although starting a company was daunting, just knowing that other people had started companies in the past was helpful.

“We both had parents who were entrepreneurs, so the idea of running your own business was a normal thing. There are people who come from backgrounds where they’re used to working for a company, and they couldn’t dream of doing it themselves and not having that safety net. When your parents and family are entrepreneurs, you know it’s nothing special. I worked at big businesses and I worked at small businesses beforehand, so the idea of starting your own business was just a normal thing.” – Dan Bricklin, cofounder, Software Arts

You weigh the benefits vs. the risks and responsibilities. For me, the timing was right to start a business. I was married, with an income-producing husband (who is also an entrepreneur, but his company, which builds medical devices for spine surgeries, had four submissions into the FDA for approval and it looked good that they were going to make it). I didn’t have any kids, no mortgage, no debt. My risk was very low because my responsibility was light. This is one of the reasons that so many young people are starting companies, because it doesn’t hurt them too much to do it. If things fail, they can always put on their resumes that they were the founder of a company. People who have a lot of responsibility have a harder time making this jump, and it is really important that they carefully weigh the risks before starting anything.

You jump in, even if it’s stupid. At some point, after you consider all these things, you just take the plunge. For me, that involved going to my bosses, thanking them for everything they had done for me, and resigning from my job. I was lucky because I was able to make a slow transition, I gave them a lot of notice, and I took some time off between Ziff Davis and my new business. Not everyone will have the luxury, but at some point, that statement has to be made: “I’m going to start a company.”

“There are a lot of programmers that are very tentative about starting their own companies. There are a lot of working programmers doing something they hate, with some company that they hate, but they need money to pay the mortgage. So they figure, ‘I’ll develop something in my spare time. I’ll put in 1 hour every night and 2 hours on the weekends and I’ll start selling it by downloads.’…But because they never really take the leap and quit their job, they can give up their dream at any time. And 99.9% of them will actually give up their dream. If they take the leap, quit their job, go do it full-time – no matter how much it sucks – and convince one other person to do the same thing with them, they are going to have a much, much higher chance of actually getting somewhere. Because they either have to succeed or get a job. Sometimes ‘succeed’ seems like the easier path than actually getting a job, which is depressing. So quit your day job.” – Joel Spolsky, cofounder, Fog Creek Software

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about what happens after you make the leap.

Snowboarding

Friday, February 8th, 2008

I’m heading on vacation for the weekend, going to Jay Peak for a couple of days of snowboarding and relaxing with Chris and some friends. Next week, I’m going to be writing a series of posts related to entrepreneurship and starting a business based personal experience and the book Founders at Work. You won’t want to miss it, so subscribe to my RSS feed, or sign up to the email newsletter, and make sure you catch all the posts.

Until then…

Snowboarding
Photo by th0mi

Snowboarding 2
Photo by t a k k

Snowboarding 3
Photo by arriba 

(I don’t do anything hard like this, by the way. I mean, I can ride the lift up like the folks in the first picture, but the one time that I tried a jump and got 2 inches of air I was happy.   -melissa)

Microsoft vs. Yahoo: And the winner is…Flickr!

Thursday, February 7th, 2008

By now, everyone has heard about Microsoft’s unsolicited (and unwanted) bid to take over Yahoo. You’ve read Google’s evil(ish) response. And Microsoft’s counter. Perhaps you’ve even followed the commentary for, for, for, for, for and against, against, against, against, against the deal. And the analysis about whether it would be bad or not bad for start-ups.

My opinion: either way, everything’s going to be alright. If Yahoo is absorbed by Microsoft, the world will continue. If there are services that Yahoo offers that Microsoft eliminates, another company will build products and services to take their place. If Yahoo and Google make a deal and Microsoft is left hanging, and Google turns from the good guy to the bad guy and Microsoft starts being seen as the underdog, well, that will be weird, but it will be OK. If some third-party comes and bails out Yahoo (which is not likely at this point), things are going to be fine.

Either way, some people are going to be happy. Some people are going to be unhappy. But business will continue. Something similar happened when Adobe bought Macromedia, a deal that was bemoaned by many as the demise of good creative software. But the deal went through and there is still good creative software. There will be tough times, there will be struggles, but change sometimes fosters creativity and innovation – and both of those can be better than a company withering away on the vine, which may have been Yahoo’s fate if no one stepped in and did something.

But all of that aside, I think that the real winner in all of this hubbub is Flickr. Not Yahoo, even though they own Flickr, but Flickr itself.

I noticed early on in all the discussion about the possible Microsoft/Yahoo deal that various pundants would write an analysis of the situation and then would say something like, ”No matter what happens, don’t you dare hurt my Flickr.” I commented on it, and thought it was interesting.

Then a whole movement erupted.

Currently, 2,672 Flickr users have banded together to fight Microsoft’s acquisition of Yahoo because they are afraid that it might hurt their Flickr. This is just one of the thousands of protest photos that have been uploaded:

Microsoft Yahoo Flickr
Photo by robsv

You don’t see users of Yahoo e-mail worrying. Yahoo Small Business services, which are popular and have a lot of users, aren’t protesting. It’s just the Flickr users.

So in my scorebook, Flickr is the winner. They built a brand that people love, and not only do they love the brand, but they are willing to fight for the company. Flickr did this by creating a service that’s easy to use, allows interaction, fosters community, and is free.

Or do you think that these Flickr users really just hate Microsoft that much?

Twitter + Google maps + Super Tuesday = cool combo

Tuesday, February 5th, 2008

Google and Twitter icon on TwitterI have seen this written up in a number of places, but I just wanted to chime in to tell everyone about the Google/Twitter mashup that’s displaying political tweets real-time on a map of the United States. I first found out about it when I logged into Twitter today and saw the little image pictured above.

Twitter is a “micro-blogging” tool that lets users send “tweets” up to 140 characters long to the Twitter Website. All messages are saved to the user’s profile page and sent to anyone who is “following” that user. Today, all messages that are posted to Twitter that are related to politics, voting or the Super Tuesday primaries are being superimposed on a map from Google. It’s pretty cool to watch.

Here’s a screenshot, and again, here’s the link:

Google Twitter mashup screenshot

By the way, I’m planning to write more about Twitter soon, but if you are a Twitter user, feel free to contact me there or follow me: @mchang16.

My iPhone Web Clip icon

Tuesday, February 5th, 2008

This is pretty trivial, I admit, but since I heard that the most recent iPhone update allows you to create a custom icon for your Website that will be deposited on the iPhone home page, I have wanted one for 16th Letter. It doesn’t help that I saw BoingBoing’s and TechCrunch’s and had some Web clip envy.

And now I have one. So go ahead, add it to your iPhone (or iPod Touch)!

iPhone Web Clip icon

iPhone icon up close

Here are the instructions on how to create your own Web Clip icon, from Apple.

This is another set of step-by-step instructions.

I hear that this is pretty easy to do. (I had a developer who did this for me, but he said it was a piece of cake.)

The Industry Standard is back

Monday, February 4th, 2008

I just got an email with the subject line: “Thanks from the Industry Standard.” Here’s what the message had to say:

“You were one of the first in line to ask to see the brand-new Industry Standard. To show our appreciation for your interest, you are being notified of today’s official launch!

“The site is not only designed to give readers insights into technology and the Internet economy, but also provides a unique community feature — a predictive market.”

The new industry standard logoI’ve written about the Industry Standard in the past, related to the fall of the mighty business (print) publications that I used to follow. But today the site (as a Web-only property) is relaunching.

The site is positioning itself as a “prediction market,” offering analysis and opinion from writers and experts, and then giving its readers the opportunity to agree or disagree – and hopefully use the “power of collective intelligence” to predict the correct outcome.

From the site:

“The prediction market articulates the same emphasis on community knowledge and networking that is perhaps the Web 2.0 era’s most important contribution — the power of collective intelligence. Prediction markets have proven to be remarkably powerful tools for gauging events and trends, and we think that the addition of this technology to the site will provide a very special type of meaningful interaction.”

From my first look at the site, it is debatable whether it will have much of an impact. The contributors and analysis are good, but nothing to truly distinguish it from the content on any other site. The predicition market stuff is vaguely interesting at first glance, but who has time to vote on more news stories? Even so, my prediction is that the Industry Standard brand and the IDG parent company (with the top tech brands in its arsenal of sponsors – Intel is the “launch sponsor”) will be enough to guarentee a revenue-generating future.

Looks like I may be betting against TechCrunch on this one.

The yellow first down lines in football games

Monday, February 4th, 2008

Every time I watch a football game, someone asks “How do they make those yellow lines on the field that mark the first down?” And no one ever knows the answer. Yesterday, watching the (disappointing) Super Bowl, my sister-in-law asked the question and suggested that I write about it, so I thought I would oblige.

Sportvision LogoIt turns out that the “First and 10″ lines have been appearing on your screen since 1998 and are the invention of a company called Sportvision. The simplicity of the yellow lines, which show up on the ground to mark the first down line, and appear to be painted on the ground, with players and refs and the football able to walk over the lines, belies how complicated it actually is to create them on your television screen. I would love to simplify this for you, but it’s beyond me – so here’s the description from the Sportvision Web site:

“A laser placed in the center of the field is used to collect data on elevation points. That information is used to draw a computer map of the contours of the field, and the map is adjusted and overlaid onto the camera’s view of the actual field. Anywhere from three to five separate broadcast cameras are outfitted with custom Sportvision sensors and encoders to capture camera data so that the 1st and Ten Computers can enhance one camera “live” with the yellow line, and any of the others for use in replay. As cameras pan, tilt and zoom, this data enables the virtual line to follow suit, staying in perspective and getting larger and smaller, as needed.

“Drawing the yellow line so that it appears to be painted on field underneath the players is accomplished through a sophisticated process of color keying that allows the operators to tell the computers what colors to draw on (grass, dirt) and what not to draw on (skin, uniforms). And finally, after adding the precise location of the first down marker to the system and… voila … The Yellow Line appears like magic on your TV screen.”

It also turns out that we aren’t the only ones who think that the yellow lines are cool – they have a 98% approval rating from fans, and the company has won multiple Emmy’s for the technology. Sportvision also has other technology solutions that are used in baseball, basketball, golf, horseracing and motorsports, among others.