Monday, July 30, 2012

To Share or Not to Share that Great Idea

Scott Mace and I used to exchange ideas for businesses all the time. We called it the Business Idea of the Day (BIOTD). We were both paying close attention to startups while we were running our own little company on the side, and we were generating a great idea just about every other day.

We've long-since stopped exchanging these ideas since Scott is busy building his company, AppSling. Its too bad, because we really made a good team when it came to generating/vetting ideas. We were both driven 'wantrepreneurs' and we built neat software, its just that at the time we weren't brave enough to start selling it. That's a separate subject in itself, but lets just leave it at that: fear.

My calculations have changed. I am brave enough to build software and then ask people to pay money for it. It took quite a while to get there. More on that in an upcoming post. But, the idea-generation has been hard(er) lately. I'm not sure why. Perhaps its because I don't have Scott anymore. More likely, I've been sharing ideas with the wrong people.

People who aren't inclined to entrepreneurship have a hard time seeing the potential of any idea. I spent a couple of years trying to convince another buddy of mine I worked with at a big company to work on various side-business ideas with me. I could never break through. Either he felt that the idea wasn't good enough, or he just didn't have the level of interest in participating at the ground level. This kind of constant-zero-value feedback from others has a net-negative affect on your ability and willingness to generate ideas and build products.

When they say bad friends can drag you down, its also true of entrepreneurship. A super-driven entrepreneur friend can fuel your fire to build products. A friend that poo-poohs every idea tends to extinguish your flame. I guess I'm saying that if you're driven, you might want to keep your ideas to yourself, lest you lose steam from interacting with negative people.

I do have about 5 ideas in my queue that I feel good about and that I want to share with someone, but I'm not sure I will. I think from now on, I'm going to wait to talk about ideas until after they get built. At which point, I'll have something interesting to say about the true potential of the idea. Until then, mum's the word.

Friday, July 27, 2012

A Marketing Idea for the Mobile Minded Business

"The reality is that SMS can be used for online lead generation as well as any web form can. And in the physical world, its hands-down better than the non-alternative of QR-codes."

In 2010, I worked alongside BoldChat founder Kent Johnson to build a startup called TextMyOffice. We were trying to find ways of invigorating his group-messaging company, SendGM, so we started it as a spin-off to try to chase vertical markets.

Before long, we had chatted-up a couple of potential customers and found that there was some interest, but we felt like no-one was really gung-ho on the TextMyOffice idea[1]. The problem was that everyone, including us, felt that SMS products were in the middle of their decline. Since smart-phones were taking over and QR codes were becomming popular, everyone just assumed that some set of apps would completely dry up the SMS market and it would die. Kent eventually lost interest in chasing the product, and he signed it over to me.

I didn't do much with it either, and in 2011 I finally mothballed the website. But, that seems like a mistake now. It seems quite obvious that SMS isn't dying. It has stayed strong despite an onslaught of chat apps and other communication tools. In fact, quite a few really smart companies have sprung up around SMS lately that suggests a very bright future for the medium. SendHub, for a great example.

The reality is that SMS can be used for online lead generation as well as any web form can. And in the physical world, its hands-down better than the non-alternative of QR-codes. If you're a realtor, you can put a short code on your realtor sign in front of houses and send information to customers who want price and size information. If you're a dealership you can put short codes on all your cars and in all your ads to provide info and capture leads. The best part of TextMyOffice, and the reason I am bringing it back to life, is that we can not only capture leads information, but hand-off the automated responder-initiated conversation to a live chat agent in your office.

We're not only bringing TextMyOffice back to life, but we're working to build the most advanced toolset for live-chat found anywhere in the SMS marketing world.

[1] TextMyOffice is an SMS company that lets you capture a lead (they text to a short code to get some automated reply with information) and then it allowed the customer to ask a question which either starts a live chat with you on your mobile, or directs the question to your office email addresses where a live coversation can continue with the customer.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Mystery of Creating an Online Business

At least once a month, I have these recurring thoughts:

  • Why isn't every possible market saturated yet?
  • Why do I sit here, observing all these opportunities, and rate-limit myself by not attacking more of them?

I can tell you, from experience in running a small software company in a horizontal market, that it continues to baffle me that there is still room for more competition and more growth in the markets. I mean, I habitually create simple products in areas that you would consider a long-ago-solved-problem, and somehow I'm making it work. Granted, I'm not making a killing, but I have found it amazing[1] that I can even turn a profit!

Creating a successful business, I have found, has more to do with being willing to spend the time to execute on it rather than having to do with foresight, existing knowledge, or having sudden, miraculous market insights. Regardless of the kind of business you start, whether its a warm niche (something you know a lot about) or a cold-hearted horizontal market, you will never know how to be successful in it unless you actually start doing it, and keep doing it.

To illustrate my point:

Reading so much of Rob Walling's content as of late, I feel like its helping me get back to the fundamentals and re-energize myself to take on more of these opportunities I've been neglecting. Its helping me realize that building a business can be deliberate, formulaic, and mysterious at the same time. The cool thing is the mysterious bits fall away as you execute. Following Rob is also helping me realize that the opportunity-cost of dithering on picking the right idea or waiting for that one-in-a-million idea to come along is way too high to keep stalling.

Time to get building again!

[1] What's more unexpected in my travels is how your mindset changes after you pass a certain threshold. You stop doubting that you can succeed as a solo-entrepreneur or a small company and you stop waiting for success to happen. You begin to see that success in many kinds of businesses can be formulaic... and repeatable! Once that happens, your fear ebbs and the biggest barrier you face is dithering on the best idea to attack next.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Rob Walling Diet

So, I committed to a Rob Walling-only information diet last Friday, the reasons for which you can see in my previous posting. A quick status report will show that, thus far, I've failed miserably... but not for lack of trying!

It turns out, it is incredibly hard to maintain a focus on one source of content! But, I'm sticking to this. It will be totally worth it.

To my credit I have been reading/digesting a lot of Rob's content. The most surprising thing is that I've seen/heard most of this before. But, I've decided that's ok. I think my goal is now more about about building a frame-of-mind for niche-entrepreneurship.

To be clear, my new, more succinct goal is:

  • Consume all of Rob Walling's content (and perhaps his suggested content) and completely avoid the dopamine-inducing hamster-wheel of Reddit, CNN, and Google News, and also avoid the chase-this-fad-technology posts from Hacker News, for the purpose of creating a zen-like frame of mind that is focused on entrepreneurship and building products.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Time to Stop Acting as the Content Filter

I remember the early days of Techcrunch, I tried to read everything. Before long, I wasn't keeping up, then I quit trying. It didn't help that Mike Arrington bashed my startup, CalendarHub, at the Under The Radar Conference. But after I stopped trying to read everything, I foolishly promised myself that I would eventually go back and read ALL Techcrunch articles. Silly, I know. But, I wanted to absorb as much good information as I could. I wanted to become a tech-startup dictionary.

I certainly don't feel that way anymore about Techcrunch. I haven't for a long time. The articles stopped being relevant to me sometime in 2007, quite a while after they had shifted from covering startups. But, I still have that feeling like I need to do a deep-dive like that. I have had the same thought about Hacker News. What if I just started from comment #1 and started reading? That's so unrealistic because of the number of comments, but it also poses the same problem. I don't want to have to read too much garbage just to extract a few good ideas.

Then, there's what Daniel Tenner said about brainwashing yourself by what you read. I think there is some merit there. If I'm going to do a deep-dive, I need to find a place where I can absorb everything and not be afraid that I'll come out with the wrong ideas about entrepreneurship or how startups should work.

So, then I thought, why not pick a startup founder/blogger who knows his stuff and literally read everything he's ever written? Surely this would finally rid me of this strong, long-held desire to deep-dive into startups and software entrepreneurship. It would also help me understand strategy and perhaps learn some new tactics that only a true deep-dive can uncover. So, my criteria seemed to be:

  • Someone I've heard about who has impacted my thinking on startups.
  • Has been writing about this stuff for a while.
  • Doesn't write too many empty, fluff articles.
  • Doesn't self-promote to the point that it's a distraction
  • Someone who has actually built a successful startup.
That's a tall-order to be sure. Honestly I don't know of anyone who fits this description other than Rob Walling and Patrick McKenzie, though the former is almost disqualified by the amount of self-promotion he does, the latter is certainly disqualified by the lack of writing (but not by quality).

So, I guess what I'm saying is that I'm tired of acting as the primary filter to a storm of articles that want to infect my brain with their sales pitch. So I'm going to tie my wagon to someone for a while. Probably Rob Walling. My regimen will be to consume nothing but Rob's content until I've covered all his writings and videos. That means no HN, no CNN, and no Reddit until I come back up for air. Like the Twinkie Diet, this may be incredibly unhealthy, but I think it will have some positive results.

Granted, I'll still be meeting with founders, and will still occasionally watch the stray TV show, but I want as much isolation as possible so the ideas can soak in. A bit like the guru goes to the mountain to meditate. So, like a seminary student studies the ancient texts, so I will study Rob and his companies. It'll be like a one-way apprenticeship.

I'll let you know how this turns out.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Top Online Software Marketplaces

One of the perks of being a resident entrepreneur at a small consultancy is that you're given more freedom on developing new products. The downside is that with the freedom comes the expectation that you can figure out the nitty-gritty of getting a new product to market, despite having a background in engineering.

On the fortunate side of things, I do have a head full of splendid business ideas which I attribute to 10,000 hours of practice (reading HN, that is). So, I can usually spin up on an idea rather quickly. I can hash through all the technical bits in a jiffy and usually track-down and kill the technical unknowns in good time. The problem always comes when you actually have to start thinking in terms of how to get people to find the product in the marketplace. Here is where fortunate outcomes rely less on fortune and more on sheer willpower, as we shall see.

Turns out, in the last 3-5 years, lots of software marketplaces have sprung up to satisfy the need for developers[1] to get their products to market. That's a great development, but generally what that means is that every marketplace has its own platform and its own low bar for entry. And, because of the low bar, once you get inside the marketplace, the noise is so high that its hard to compete.

So, what's a guy to do if they want to avoid the business software CPC money-pit and get the cost of a customer acquisition down to $0? You have to acquiesce to the demands of the many marketplaces, and build a relevant/related product for each one in the hopes of driving enough traction through to your core application. Ugh! See, willpower.

That said, here is a list of the top marketplaces that you should be launching into with the hopes that you can create a compelling enough product to get to the finish line:


Mobile


Platform Core Marketplaces:

These marketplaces are the well known, OS-centric marketplaces that are generally controlled by the OS manufacturer. The names and standards should be familiar:

  • Apple App Store)
  • Google Play
  • Palm Software Store
  • RIM App World
  • App Catalog (HP/Palm)
  • Nokia Store
  • Windows Phone Marketplace
  • Blackberry Appworld

Third-party Marketplaces:

There are other pay-to-play and free marketplaces where you can list your app for sale. These basically offer a tad more exposure for apps and should be considered supplemental, if not necessary. The importance of these marketplaces is that they help solve the discoverability problem that an OS-centric marketplace can't really solve on its own.

  • Amazon App Store
  • GetJar
  • MobileRated
  • FastApp
  • Handango
  • Samsung Apps
  • Appitalism
  • CellMania
  • Handmark
  • LG Application Store
  • MobiHand
  • Mobspot
  • SlideME
[2]


Web

The mobile marketplaces are certainly the hot commodities these days. However, there is still lots of life left in web stores and platforms. When targeting a $0 customer acquisition spend, one shouldn't ignore these great markets. You'll notice a lot of them are CMS platforms and that isn't a mistake, you might think that Facebook is the promised land of web app distribution, and while it shouldn't be ignored, the CMS platforms are where the most valuable content creators are:

  • Wordpress Plugins
  • Wordpress Themes
  • Blogger Gadget Directory
  • Facebook Apps.
  • Weebly Developer API

And I wish these guys were on par with Weebly in terms of integration, but if you have a crack bizdev team, you can probably reach them:

  • Posterous Developer API
  • Jimdo
  • Yola
  • Wix
  • Webs
  • Bravenet
  • Site2You
  • VistaPrint
  • Homestead

The long tail marketplace, though often sub-par in many ways in terms of reaching an audience, are also an important supplementary tool. Some examples are:

  • BloggerPlugins
  • DivTagTemplates

Well there are plenty more to be sure, but that's about it for me... lots of platforms to build an audience from, and quite simply if you have a lot of time on your hands, its much cheaper than pouring money into Google Adwords. However, this is a long-term strategy, not a short-term one.


[1] They weren't built FOR the developers, I should say, but rather to LEVERAGE developers. I think this distinction is important to keep in mind. Know when you're being used, and account for it.

[2] Sources: http://www.quickstonesoftware.com/blog/2011/04/25/mobile-marketplaces-a-review http://www.pdasnews.com/articles/mobile-app-stores-comparison-i-believe-windows-marketplace-sucks-the-most.html http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_mobile_software_distribution_platforms