Archive for the ‘business’ Category

5 Reasons To Release Early

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

There has been a lot of writing about the need to release early and often already, but I feel after doing many projects, I need to write a few reasons down anyway.

1. You are building stuff nobody needs. No matter how nice a feature will be, without real users, you have no way to tell if you are spending your valuable time on something that will convince users to buy your service.

2. Nothing like real user data. Your software may work great in theory, there is nothing like real volumes of data to test it. Many things can grind to a halt if you start having serious amounts of data. ( Things like search with ‘%LIKE%’ or pages listing ALL entries of a table)

3. Nothing like real measurement data. You can ask potential users whatever you want,  there is nothing like properly measuring what they are doing and what they prefer. With real users you can use tools like  Analytics to confirm that users actually do what you need them to do.

4. Ranking in Google takes time. As soon as you’ve got something out there,  Google can start finding your site, you can start optimizing text and titles and build links. The sooner you get started, the better.

5. Enough chances on a first impression. If you are worrying about scaring your first users of, think about the vast number of internet users out there.  The changes of ruining a first impression with all your potential customers are slim. Just don’t start promoting the product till you feel confident about it. There are many ways to steer the first users, e.g. an invitation based beta program.

Why you should not rely on bug reports

Saturday, December 11th, 2010

After building websites for a few years, I’ve reached a very important conclusion:  you cannot rely on bugreports to find major bugs and flaws in your product.  Think about it, what do you do if a website has a major bug? e.g. the registration form doesn’t work? You will just go to a competitor, unless you have some special interest in helping the creator or you really really really need to use it.
The same goes for missing features or conceptual errors: users just leave if they do not like what they experience.

Users that send you feedback, only do so if they already committed to your product. Maybe they’ve already paid, maybe they just entered loads of content or maybe they just like you.  However, this will only get you so far: in most cases this will be exceptions, obscure bugs or obvious features you just didn’t get done yet.

So what do you need to do?

  • Create a list of all important user stories in your site.  For PicturePush I would write stuff down like:  signup, login, create an album, upload a photo to an album, delete the photo, delete the album,  change my profile, delete my account.
  • Test all of it in ALL major browsers. No matter how much you think you’ve made everything cross browser,  there are always subtile differences that sneak in when you add new features or fix stuff.
  • REPEAT this as often as possible. Fixing bugs and adding features, you are very likely to create new bugs, clutter and/or unclearity.
  • Measure if you can. Using Google Analytics or other tools you are able to track whether users reach certain goals. This will allow you to see if your users succeed in the most critical tasks on your website.

Furthermore you can encourage you users to send you feedback:

  • Offer rewards for feedback. You could give away a few months discount.
  • Make it easy for users to delete their account and have an easy option to indicate why they want to leave. I suggest having radio buttons for those that are in a hurry and an aditional text field for those that want to help you even more.
  • Respond quickly to all questions and bug reports, if you can fix their problem quickly they will not only become loyal customers, they will keep contacting you with feedback.

Why helpdesks will always suck

Saturday, November 20th, 2010

As a small business we don’t have the luxury of dedicated support staff. This means that for some products I am both the creator and support desk at the same time.  So,  in theory  contacting the support desk should give you access to all available knowledge and answer any question.         Unfortunately, that’s not the truth.  There are always cases that  I do not have an answer to.

  • Sometimes users want to know stuff we have never even considered (e.g. certain policies)
  • Or I will have to dive deep into code or configuration to find an answer
  • Other times I just don’t know (e.g. when a certain feature will be added)

If I can’t answer all questions about our product? How will support staff ever be able too?

Now imagine any company of reasonable scale.  Those will have separate support staff that is at best a user of their product. So the best thing they can do  is  answer problems that have been answered before. Which might not sound that bad, as similar questions keep being asked, as they have lots of customers. However, this is also what creates the dreaded queues and even more support staff, that is even further away from the product.

Now, recently I heard someone say that Google  does support right, so it must be possible.   Let me tell you,  Google does not do support right.  It is almost impossible to contact Google and get a timely response.  However, nobody knows about that, because almost nobody wants to contact Google.

This all leads up to a single conclusion: If you get the same question more than once, you’re doing it wrong.   You cannot fix the helpdesk, because a helpdesk is just repeating the same bandages over and over again. What businesses need to do is fix the product itself.      The only fix for a helpdesk is to render them useless.

Blurred Lines: Work, Idle or Leisure

Monday, November 8th, 2010

Being a business owner working from home makes the Seven Day Weekend very real to me. Although the book by Semler considers it as a positive thing,  I merely see it as a fact of my life.    As I started my business at 16 as a sidetrack while I was in school, since then I never had a clear separation of work days and weekend.    I spent time working on my business in the evenings,  spent time studying in the weekends, etc.

The last three years business has become a full time activity and without the structure of having to go anywhere the lines between work, idleness and leisure have blurred beyond recognition. This has serious consequences:  I feel busy all the time, but at the same time I feel I could create much more value in the same time.     If I look back, we have produced immense amount of work, but at the same time it does not live up to my ambition.  Which leads to the question:  how am I spending my time? The answer:  I have no idea.    Because all boundaries are gone,  I just lost track of time.

After this conclusion I decided it was time to really rethink everything. In order to feel confident about the choices I make considering the time I spend I need to be more aware of how I actually spend them.

My first observation: Sitting behind a computer does not equal work. As I started to develop some RSI related discomfort I believe I need to cut down on time behind the screen and therefore improve efficiency when I am behind the screen. Therefore I have invented a new rule:   You should only be behind a computer if it is either something you like to do, something that will increase revenue or something that is required by law.

Now I will have also have to live with the fact that not all work will move projects forward. Stuff like bookkeeping, recovering servers, etc. just needs to get done and will always take some of your time.

So, there are different categories of time spending:
Recharging – Sleep, Eat, Walk, Staring out of the window
Chores – Bookkeeping, Shopping, etc. (stuff that need to get done even if you don’t want to)
Tasks – Anything that moves a project in a predetermined direction, with a verifiable output
Urgent – Handling incidents
Expression – Writing, painting, drawing, etc.
Communication – Chatting, calling, etc.
Stuff – Checking E-mail, News, Stats, etc. without an immediate benefit

Now I assume that the best way to move forward it to maximize the time spend on tasks without cutting time from other important areas.   The amount of time spend on urgent matters and chores is probably roughly unchangeable. Although they feel like interruptions to your productivity, in reality I don’t think they are. They are just the easiest excuse for not having completed something more useful.

However, I won’t be sure until I measure.  Using the Pomodoro Technique I now have a fairly accurate way to measure the time spend on real tasks. And these first days,  it’s not that much, even though I am more productive than before, the actual time spend on the tasks is not that much.   Hence, there is room for improvement. Of course I’m doing some stuff that I not yet handle in a task-oriented way, but there is also time that seems to disappear and I really want to find that, so I will try to be much more aware of the time I spend besides finishing my tasks. One of them is obviously the busy/idle behaviour I described earlier. In order to find out more, I will ask myself often:
What is it that I’m doing?
Why am I doing this activity?
– Why am I doing this now?
– Is this an absolute requirement (e.g. by law)?
– Will this contribute to our revenue?
– Would there be a better way to spend this time?
(I believe some of these questions also appear in the Getting Things Done method)

In a few weeks I will update you on the results.

Getting Things Done: The Pomodoro Way

Sunday, October 17th, 2010

A few days ago I wrote about procrastination and by coincidence I came across an article about changing your working method to embrace the interruptions, instead of trying to find long stretches of concentration (‘the zone’). It is a nice read, however, more importantly in the comment section I came across something that really appealed to me: The Pomodoro Technique.   I had seen it before, but it didn’t jump out to me at that time.

The basic idea is:  work for 25 minutes on a single task, with a timer ticking back the time left  and then take a break. This is augmented by a few other important steps, such as: noting down your distractions, evaluate them only after the 25 minutes are up and crossing of the completed intervals per task.

As I don’t have a proper timer yet, I looked for a software one, that works under Ubuntu as well  and came across:  Focus Booster.   It makes the ticking sound and also very nicely automatically starts your 5 minute break timer after time is up.

I just started using it, so I’ve only done a few of these ‘Pomodoro’ intervals, but I feel very confident that this will actually work as it makes you very aware of the distractions you need to avoid/delay  and the time you have available.  Starting the timer gives a feel of commitment about doing something NOW instead of  in a few minutes. Furthermore, having a timer tick back, give you back a bit of that deadline stress that makes you feel productive, without the disadvantages of real deadlines. And, not unimportant: it feels good to cross of real productive time.

Deadlines Are Killing

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

My whole life I’ve been trained in sticking to deadlines.  School and University is nothing but doing a reasonable amount of work  for an event fixed in time (tests,  reports to hand in, etc)  Which, if you are anything like me,  means  procrastinating until the exact moment it can’t wait any longer an then work very hard.    Procrastination is rewarded:   it gives you more free time  and good results, so by the time  you get to your graduation, it has been perfected to find exactly the minimum amount of time needed to still get good results.

However, this skill gets you nowhere on real projects.  Projects like  your graduation or  developing a new product, where there is no fixed ending and you really want to get done as much as possible, as soon as possible.  ( I can probably make a todo list that fills the rest of my lifetime )  Of course there is the fun/interesting stuff that will never get you stuck, however every project (even the most fun ones)  have those tasks that you just need to get done. Not being able to do so in a timely manner is very frustrating.

The first obvious way to try and fix  this, is to create artificial deadlines, to get back that feel of urgency. However, deadlines that you set yourself don’t work, I’m just way to much aware how arbitrary they are.

Furthermore, on real projects, the amount of work is not known in advance. So there is no way to determine when to start to finish ‘just in time’. On the other hand lots of stuff you delay, might take far less time than you expected.  (You actually spend more time thinking about how much time it is going to take)

Procrastination is also closely related to getting ‘into the zone’ (Read: Joel Spolsky on that topic), but to be fair,  there are also lots and lots of activity that do not require any ‘zone’ at all. So, I feel a strong urge to  ‘solve’ this productivity mystery.   One of the obvious choices is reading about the ‘getting things done’  method. However I’ve never succeeded in making it work for me:  Writing everything down in a system, makes it even more overwhelming then just managing it in my head, as my brains are a lot better capable in hiding the ‘someday/unimportant’ stuff that I come up with.

I’m still in doubt though whether this is not just your brain telling you that there is only a fixed amount of productive time and the idle time in between is just needed to solve complex problems. However, there are a few things I did find, that do help:

  • Committing to a task, by telling someone that you will do it: ‘right now’.  (Not some time in the near feature, really: NOW)
  • Do another task instead, that you feel really passionate and confident about, to get going
  • Split up your tasks into such small subtasks that it’s impossible to not finish it (So every time you do any work, you actually finish something, instead of going from   ‘busy’ to ‘still busy’)
  • Work together on a project,  you can keep each other going  ( I believe that is one of the biggest arguments in favor of pair programming)

Are you a procrastinator as well?  And what do you do about it?

5 Bootstrapped Startup Reality Checks

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

If you’re in a bootstrapped startup,  looking at your bank account probably isn’t the most cheerful experience. You are probably still investing all that comes in and maybe even a bit more. So how do you know that you are still on the right track?

1. Are we there yet? Are you running a profit?  If you don’t know… do your homework and get back here ASAP.  If you are making a profit… why are you even reading this article?

2. Is there a future? So you are not running a profit… but could you?  If you would cut all development and investment related costs  and  would coast with whatever you have right now…  Would there be enough money for you to sustain this operation? If so: you are already investing in making more profit in the future, make sure though that the extra investments really contribute to your goals.

3. Can we make it? If your revenue is not high enough right now, you are walking a thin line. Is there enough money expected to bridge the gap?  Find out when you can get to #2 and sum all losses you expect to make in between.  Do you have that kind of money or can you get it?  This may be the time to adjust your plans,  either cut some costs or get some extra money.

4. Does it matter? What if you would sell everything right now? Would it be enough to cover debts and the income you missed?  If so, maybe it’s good to stop bootstrapping and get some money to prevent this value you’ve created to be wasted.   Keep in mind that you don’t want to wait till the last minute, because if you’re out of options… you are going to be a bargain.

5. Do you love it? Maybe your business isn’t that dependent on money, still, you are investing a lot of time in it, right?  If it’s not worth the money, at least make it worth for yourself.  Is this really the thing you love most to spend all your time on?    If you feel committed to a project you don’t really love anymore,  find someone who can take over,  or change it so that you can love it again.