January 02, 2017

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Ogilvy On Advertising

I read this years ago, but managed not to publish this blog post. I've just come across the draft again, so rectifying that mistake.

Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy ("Ogilvy on Advertising" on OpenLibrary "Ogilvy on Advertising" on BookBrainz) was an easy and enjoyable read. It's a pretty short book, but packed with lots of nuggets of interest.

Page 7

When I write an advertisement, I don't want you to tell me that you find it 'creative'. I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product.

Page 12

If you cannot afford the services of professionals to do this research, do it yourself. Informal conversations with half-a-dozen housewives can sometimes help a copywriter more than formal surveys in which he does not participate.

Page 16

Big ideas come from the unconscious. This is true in art in science and in advertising. But your unconscious has to be well informed, or your idea will be irrelevant. Stuff your conscious mind with information, then unhook your rational thought process. You can help this process by going for a long walk, or taking a hot bath, or drinking half a pint of claret. Suddenly, if the telephone line from your unconscious is open, a big idea wells up within you.

Page 19

'If you and your competitors all make excellent products, don't try to imply that your product is better. Just say what's good about your product - and do a clearer, more honest, more informative job of saying it.

Page 20

'Search the parks in all your cities.
You'll find no statues of committees.'

Page 24

The Benton & Bowles agency holds that 'if it doesn't sell, it isn't creative.' Amen.

Page 31

At the start of your career in advertising, what you learn is more important than what you earn.

Page 35

In your day-to-day dealings with clients and colleagues, fight for the king, queens and bishops, but throw away the pawns. A habit of graceful surrender on trivial issues will make you difficult to resist when you stand and fight on a major issue.

Page 42

[on applying for a job]
Be personal, direct and natural
You are a human being writing to another human being. Neither of you is an institution. You should be businesslike and courteous, but never stiff and impersonal.

Page 48

Brains? It doesn't necessarily mean a high IQ. It means curiosity, common sense, wisdom, imagination and literacy. Why literacy? Because most communication between agencies and clients is in writing. I don't suggest that you have to be a poet, but you won't climb the ladder very high unless you can write lucid memoranda.

Page 60

Above all, listen. The more you get the prospective client to talk, the easier it will be to decide whether you really want his account. A former head of Magnavox treated me to a two-hour lecture on advertising, about which he knew nothing. I gave him a cup of tea and showed him out.

Page 67

Don't keep a dog and bark yourself. Any fool can write a bad advertisement, but it takes a genius to keep his hands off a good one.

Page 71

On the average, five times as many people read the headlines as read the body copy. It follows that unless your headline sells your product, you have wasted 90 per cent of your money.

The headlines which work best are those which promise the reader a benefit - like a whiter wash, more miles per gallon, freedom from pimples, fewer cavities. Riffle through a magazine and count the number of ads whose headlines promise a benefit of any kind.

Headlines which contain news are sure-fire. The news can be the announcement of a new product, an improvement in an old product, or a new way to use an old product - like serving Campbells' Soup on the rocks. On the average, ads with news are recalled by 22 per cent more people than ads without news.

Page 80

Do not, however, address your readers as though they were gathered together in a stadium. When people read your copy, they are alone. Pretend you are writing each of them a letter on behalf of your client. One human being to another, second person singular.

Page 138

Some copywriters, assuming that the reader will find the product as boring as they do, try to inveigle him into their ads with pictures of babies, beagles and bosoms. This is a mistake. A buyer of flexible pipe for offshore oil rigs is more interested in pipe than anything else in the world. So play it straight.

Page 144

Next to the positioning of your product, the most important variables to be tested are pricing, terms of payment, premiums and the format of your [direct] mailing.

Page 161

Keep in mind E. B. White's warning, 'When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.'

Page 163

What price should you charge for your product? This is one of the most important questions which confront marketers, but, as far as I know, research cannot answer it.

Page 170

It is usually assumed that marketers use scientific methods to determine the price of their products. Nothing could be further from the truth. In almost every case, the process of decision is one of guesswork.

The higher you price your product, the more desirable it becomes in the eyes of the consumer. Yet when Professor Reisz of the University of Iowa tried to relate the prices of 679 brands of food products to their quality, he found that the correlation between quality and price was almost zero.

Page 202

[quoting ad-man Leo Burnett]

'Bug let me tell you when I might demand that you take my name off the door. That will be the day when you spend more time trying to make money and less time making advertising.

'When your main interest becomes a matter of size just to be big, rather than good, hard, wonderful work.'

Page 215

Billboards represent less than 2 per cent of total advertising in the United States. I cannot believe that the free-enterprise system would be irreparably damaged if they were abolished. Who is in favor of them? Only the people who make money out of them.

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May 04, 2015

Doing Business Support Right

There are a lot of business support organisations in Liverpool. I'm not sure if there are really more than I encountered in Cambridge - whether it's a result of the area needing to "be regenerated" or if it's just because it's a bigger city or if I'm just noticing it more now. If it wasn't for the fact that pastries and coffee don't make a balanced diet, you could probably close the food banks by giving people a business suit to wear and signing them up to the right mailing lists.

The projects are all well meaning, and there is definitely room for more people doing interesting things in the city, including running more businesses.

However, lots of the "business support" falls short of making any real difference to things. I'm sure they'll have the survey results to prove different, but no-one gathers any figures for the amount of time lost by businesses trying to work out if this latest networking event is worth attending...

For the past five years or so the best - by a good margin, although that's partly to do with the quality of the competition - support for the tech community in Liverpool has been from LJMU's Open Labs.

Sadly, it looks like their funding is coming to an end and with it the support. I'm writing the blog post partly to thank them for what they've done for the city, and partly to try to capture why they were so helpful, in the hope that those following in their wake can raise their game.

So, a non-exhaustive list of ways to do business support properly...

  • Be part of the community. Get out of the building. Go and find the businesses you're supporting. Get to know them. Get to a point where they know you, and what you can help with. Then they'll start to refer people to you. Seek people out, as the most interesting ones will probably be too busy to come looking for you. This is the most important point in the entire list, as it makes the rest of your job much easier. It also means that at times you'll have to give up evenings or weekends, as some of the community's activities take place then.
  • Experiment. Try new things out and be creative in thinking of ways to support people. Jelly Liverpool started as a fairly low-key experiment to bring the Work at Jelly concept to Liverpool, yet it brought together all manner of freelancers and more into a community, and spawned groups on the Wirral and in Crosby.
  • Look for win-win solutions. Open Labs were keen to find ways that their support would bring benefit beyond what was immediately being funded. For example, as part of the support for OggCamp the Open Hardware Jam included building a 3d printer from scratch during the event. That meant that once the weekend was over, there was a 3d printer which could live at DoES Liverpool and enhance its workshop.
  • Make connections. Part of getting out and meeting the community means that you get to know lots of people and what they do. Use that knowledge to put people in touch with each other where there could be synergies or similar interests.
  • Get out of the way. If you can't help people, don't waste their time even if it would tick off one of your "outputs". Take Open Lab's Andy Goodwin's phrase "I get paid to have meetings, you don't." to heart and remember that the time you take up from businesses comes out of their pocket. Make sure it's worth it.
  • Work with everybody. Open Labs were always happy, and keen, to work with anyone in the city, if they were doing something good. Looking beyond petty rivalries to the bigger picture is something that I struggle with at times, and Open Labs were always a reminder to me that I should do better.
  • Do the hard work to work out what support is needed. The real support that businesses need isn't the generic support you wrote about in your funding application. And while everybody likes free money, there are often better options than doling that out. Combine the first two points on this list and you'll have much greater impact. The most valuable support that DoES Liverpool has had was when Open Labs bought a laser-cutter and installed it in our workshop. We've bought another one ourselves since, but Sophia the smaller laser-cutter has helped no end of businesses, artists, architects and more over the past three years. Other initiatives - such as the "how to film a product video" course or lean startup workshops were only useful for a few dozen companies, but provided far more value to them than a hundred networking events.
  • Amplify what's already going on. Use your time and funding to boost what the community is already doing. I've lost count of the number of times that discussions about an event or project have resulted in a quiet "we can help with that if you want" from Open Labs. Sometimes it's the tiny bit of cash that means the event can happen at all - such as them paying for the building to be open on a Sunday so Liverpool Girl Geeks could hold their International Women's Day event at DoES Liverpool; and other times it's a combination of sponsorship and the more important organising skills to arrange catering, navigate the university hierarchies to book a venue, etc. that take events like OggCamp or NHS Hackday to the next level.

It's not complicated, but it is hard.

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May 04, 2014

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Sales on a Beermat

I bought Sales on a Beermat by Mike Southon and Chris West mostly for one section, the bit about the sales process. Coming from a tech/product background, I'd heard mention of a "sales pipeline", but didn't really know what it was.

So it paid its way in just letting me know it's effectively just a spreadsheet of leads, which stage in the sale they're in, and the likelihood they'll succeed. However, the rest of the book was also of interest, and a pretty quick and easy read.

As ever, the sections I highlighted while reading through it...

Page 16

What the liked non-expert must understand is customer pain. The salesperson needs to convince the buyer that their product will solve this pain. This is much better done by citing other happy customers than by describing the technology in great detail.

Page 21

Experienced salespeople may well face a drop in income if they move from a steady job to a start-up. Expect this: your reward is twofold. One: it is more exciting and interesting work; two: you get the chance to make really serious money. If you do make the change and the first venture fails, don't forget that being a sales conrnerstone [one of the key roles Southon identifies for a start-up] is an art in itself, which you will learn as you go along.

Page 39

These are the two most important elements of selling in any and every business.

Qualifying is about finding prospects, and, more important, finding out about them, so you understand their overall situation, specific needs and, very important, ability to pay.

Closing is actually getting people to make a commitment, such as (but not just) signing on the dotted line.

Page 82

[...] for the vast majority of sapling start-ups and established one-person businesses, partnerships and SMEs, it is necessary to have a more structured model of lead generation running alongside the networking model [where you just attend events, talk to people, etc.].

Page 92

Though the end product looks deceptively simple, it can take time to craft the Beermat intro email. This is time well spent.

Page 93

When you have sent your [intro] email, wait a couple of weeks to see what happens. Then contact all non-repliers. Strange as it may seem, the best way to do this is simply to resend the original. This is because the most likely reason for the recipient's failing to reply is either that they read the email, made a note to do something about it, then got distracted by other things; or that they missed it altogether [...]

Page 94

A subset of first-time non-responders will reply to this second email. For those that don't, wait another few weeks then call them on the phone. Some will be unavailable and not return calls; others will talk with you but say they are not interested. But a proportion will have been aware of the emails and will have a real interest.

For those who vanish - let them go. Contact them again once you have something new to say.

Page 96

[when sending out the intro email] avoid August or Christmas. I find that the best times to send Beermat intro emails are about a week after major holidays, i.e. the second week in January, the second week after Easter and the second week in September.

Page 102

You must emerge from [a meeting with a potential customer] with concrete outcomes, not just interest and vague promises. If the prospect 'will get back to you', you must know when (and then you must hold him or her to that schedule). A real result is a promise of contact by a certain date plus the promise of another meeting with other, more senior people in the organisation.
Page 115

A useful website with information on this topic [of late payments] is www.payontime.co.uk.

Page 118

The Beermat sales pipeline builds on the narrative of the last chapter. A sale is process, not a one-off event, and you monitor its progress by seeing whether it has passed certain markers or not. Passing each marker makes the eventual arrival of the cheque more likely, so you can attach numerical probabilities to each stage. Multiply these by the expected value of the cheque, and you have a 'pipeline value' for the deal. Add these up, and you have a 'total pipeline value'.

Page 121

[The sales pipeline] has three key uses: to stop sales getting bogged down, to estimate future revenue streams and to estimate future workloads.

Page 147

You do not have the option of doing nothing about sales.

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September 30, 2013

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: The Designful Company by Marty Neumeier

I read The Designful Company by Marty Neumeier a while back but just rediscovered it in my pile of books and realised I hadn't blogged the dog-eared pages.

It wasn't an amazing read, a bit of an "airport book" - some useful stuff in their, but a fairly light and quick read. My notes follow...

Page 40

Fear of failure, aversion to unpredictability, preoccupation with status - these are the prime assassins of innovation. The ruthless elimination of error is one of the givens of the 20th-century management. Yet error should be embraced as a necessary component of the messy, iterative, creative process.

Page 44

In the meantime, we're seeing the breakdown of a management model so bereft of ideas that it has resorted to "unlocking" wealth through financial manipulation rather than "creating" wealth through designful innovation.

Page 69

Roughly translated, [13th-century philosopher Thomas Aquinas] was saying beauty requires three qualities: integrity, harmony and radiance. INTEGRITY is the quality of standing out clearly from the background. HARMONY is how the parts relate to the whole. RADIANCE refers to the pleasure we feel when we experience it. And the language of beauty, according to Aristotle, is AESTHETICS.

Page 73

Buckminster Fuller once said, "When I'm working on a problem, I never think about beauty. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong." In mathematics, Poincare could judge the quality of a solution solely on its aesthetic elegance.

Page 78

Good design exhibits virtues. What virtues? You know, good old-fashioned virtues like generosity, courage, diligence, honesty, substance, clarity, curiosity, thriftiness, and wit. By contrast, bad design exhibits human vices like selfishness, fear, laziness, deceit, pettiness, confusion, apathy, wastefulness, and stupidity.

Page 87

Starbucks founder Howard Schultz put it this way: "Who wants a dream that's near-fetched?" If your goal is to out-perform the competition from day one, dream large.

Page 151

What wicked problems exist at your company? How can you turn hairy obstacles into high-status rewards? Who out there looks hungry for a challenge?

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March 04, 2013

Sun, SF, Startups and Sub-par Strategy

It's been a strange day. In the main it's been a lovely day - I've spent it getting brunch and hanging out with a load of engaging and interesting people in the SoMa and Mission districts of San Francisco (we're presenting Good Night Lamp at the Launch Festival this week). It was a warm, sunny day perfect for promenading and chatting, which is what we did.

They are all founders of, or working in, a startup. I don't think I've encountered that since I was in Cambridge, but the difference here is lots of them are startups you'll have heard of. I don't get that in Silicon Roundabout - in a grouping of a dozen or so people there'll be a sizeable number working at digital agencies, and in Liverpool even more will be freelance/agency and a few not in technology at all.

Some of the conversation was about startup culture and how, despite the obvious economic benefits for the winners, it's fuelling a bubble which is spawning lots of me-too and superficial startups, and pricing people (even relatively successful geeks) out of property and gentrifying the city (which is seen as a bad thing).

There's an element of "first world problems" and self-aware I-know-I'm-part-of-the-problem to all this, as I'll readily admit to with my influence on the Georgian quarter in Liverpool, but it's not clear what the solution would be.

At least it confirms that recreating Silicon Valley isn't what we should be aspiring to, but rather we should be looking for ways to combine the economic benefits of a startup ecosystem including some big successes with a skew towards solving "good" problems (where "good" is obviously rather nebulous, but is mostly about not just about creating economic value - so in addition to obvious social good, that would include Flickr, for example, but be less keen on SEO firms or Groupon). And look to avoid creating a monoculture where any one industry dominates the city.

Then when I got back to my hotel, an email to the DoES Liverpool mailing list pointed me at this report on high-growth companies in Merseyside.

It's not a particularly good, or interesting, report but it struck a strange juxtaposition with the conversations earlier in the day. As usual, it makes the mistake of equating "digital and creative" with digital marketing agencies (see Digital? Creative? Startup? for my earlier thoughts on this) and so entirely misses tech startups from its analysis. It also persists in segmenting companies on their local authority, as if Sefton and Knowsley, and to a lesser extent St. Helens, are useful separations from Liverpool for anyone other than local councillors.

It claims to be better than previous, similar reports because of its data-driven analysis. However, whilst using data from Yell.com and Thomson(!) will be an improvement over the SIC codes used by Government, I'm unconvinced that in 2013 it provides as complete a picture as the author claims, and also means it focuses on existing (at best, and historic at worst) companies rather than looking to the future and what could be.

As a result it seems an unconvincing piece of analysis to support the rather atypical local business accelerator programme Project EV. Which is rather apt, in a way.

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February 19, 2013

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Startup Communities


Back in October, there was a discussion on the DoES Liverpool mailing list about Steve Blank's review of "Startup Communities" by Brad Feld.

A few others had read it and recommended it following that, but I hadn't had chance to look at it until the weekend just gone. It's a fairly compact read, and I got through most of it on the train ride to and from Hebden Bridge for the Bridge Rectifier Howduino.

If you've any interest in encouraging more startups in your community, you should pick up a copy. Check out the Steve Blank review if you want a good primer on it, or read on for the snippets (lots for such a short book!) that resonated with me while I read it.

Page 7
[...] Boulder is an incredibly inclusive community. Although there is some competition between companies, especially over talent, the community is defined by a strong sense of collaboration and philosophy of "giving before you get." If you contribute, you are rewarded, often in unexpected ways. At the same time, especially since it's a small community, it's particularly intolerant of bad actors. If you aren't sincere, constructive, and collaborative, the community behaves accordingly.

Page 17
It's my belief that Boulder is unique because the entrepreneurs and other participants in Boulder's startup ecosystem have a greater sense of community than anywhere else in the country. The ethos of mentorship and support by the people who comprise Boulder's startup community were firmly in place when TechStars arrived in 2007. David Cohen's brilliant idea was merely the lightning rod that sparked one of the greatest job-creation engines our country has ever seen.

Page 18
The biggest observation I can offer from having a front row seat to seeing Boulder becoming one of the hottest startup markets in the United States over the last decade is that there was no strategic plan. Government had little to do with it and there weren't committees wading in bureaucratic quicksand wasting hundreds of hours of people's time strategizing about how to create more startups. Boulder caught fire because a few dozen entrepreneurs believed in their hearts that a rising tide lifts all boats and the derived great pleasure from helping make that happen.

Page 24
[In her book Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128, AnnaLee Saxenian] persuasively argues that a culture of openness and information exchange fuelled Silicon Valley's ascent over Route 128. This argument is tied to network effects, which are better leveraged by a community with a culture of information sharing across companies and industries.

Page 25
"The Boulder Thesis", Feld's framework for how to build a sustainable startup community:

  1. Entrepreneurs must lead the startup community.
  2. The leaders must have a long-term commitment.
  3. The startup community must be inclusive of anyone who wants to participate in it.
  4. The startup community must have continual activities that engage the entire entrepreneurial stack.

Page 26
I define an entrepreneur as someone who has co-founded a company. I differentiate between "high-growth entrepreneurial companies" and "small businesses". Both are important, but they are different things. Entrepreneurial companies have the potential to be or are high-growth businesses whereas small businesses tend to be local, profitable, but slow-growth organizations.

Page 27
Great entrepreneurial companies, such as Apple, Genentech, Microsoft, and Intel, were started during down economic cycles. It takes such a long time to create something powerful that, almost by definition, you'll go through several economic cycles on the path to glory.

Page 28
Everyone in the startup community should have a perspective that having more people engaged in the startup community is good for the startup community. Building a startup community is not a zero-sum game in which there are winners and losers; if everyone engages, they and the entire community can all be winners.

Page 32
There is no "leader of the leaders." The best startup communities are loosely organized and consist of broad, evolving networks of people. By having inclusive philosophies, it's very easy for new leaders to emerge organically. Furthermore, there are no votes, no hierarchy, no titles, and no specific roles. Since the leaders are entrepreneurs, they are used to ambiguity as well as a rapid and continuous evolution of the community.

Page 34
The startup community is always evolving. If the entrepreneurial leaders try to control this evolution, they will fail and undermine their previous efforts. Instead, entrepreneurial leaders should embrace this evolution, encourage and support new things, people, and ideas, and recognize that other entrepreneurs' leadership is additive to the system. Rather than view it as a zero-sum game, in which there's a leader on top, they view it as a game with increasing returns, in which the larger the number of entrepreneurs involved, the more great things happen.

Page 36
Finally, if you work for the government and are excited about entrepreneurship, don't be afraid to engage deeply as a participant in the startup community. This will be after hours and on weekends, just like everyone else. But you'll be welcomed. And who knows, you might decide to be an entrepreneur.

Page 37
Universities have five resources relevant to entrepreneurship: students, professors, research labs, entrepreneurship programs, and technology transfer offices. The first two resources, which are people, are much more important than the last three, which are institutions. The idea that people are always more important than institutions is fundamental to creating a healthy startup community.

Page 48
If someone is visiting from out of town, the leader should quickly introduce the person to about 10 people she thinks are relevant so the visitor can quickly get a bunch of meetings set up to explore the local startup community. Although a leader can occasionally chaperone a person around, it's more powerful to get the community to work by building a culture in which everyone in the community is willing to spend time with someone new in town.

Page 55
On the idea of giving people who say they want to help a simple task to do, that will aid the community
A quarter of the time the person does the assignment and reports back. This is useful, because I can now filter this person into the category of "a doer." Every startup community needs people to do things; there are an infinite number of specific tasks that are needed on an ongoing basis. Finding people who are good at just getting stuff done is hard.

Page 57
On experimenting and failing fast
One easy filter [for an idea or project] is whether leaders for the individual initiatives emerge on their own. If the leaders of the overall organization have to assign the initiatives, then these initiatives likely are of lower value. However, if participants in the organization or the broader startup community step up and take on the specific initiatives, their chance of succeeding is much higher.

Page 60
Interestingly, I did notice the patriarch problem when I engaged with the Denver startup community. It was something that stood out early on; Boulder operated as a network and Denver operated as a hierarchy. In Denver, it mattered who you were, where you went to school, where you had worked, and who you knew. In contrast, the only thing that mattered in Boulder was what you did.

This pretty much sums up the difference in attitude I felt when moving to Liverpool from Cambridge. Liverpool welcomed me regardless, whereas Cambridge seemed full of the old guard who were passing judgement over whose ideas were worthy enough to indulge. Not exclusively, obviously, in either city, but noticeable.

Page 66
Government is another instigator of feeder control. Although this happens at a federal, state, and local level, it's most obvious at a state level. A new governor is elected. After the typical six-month settling in process, he and the recently appointed head of economic development declare that innovation is a key driver of economic growth for the state and they convene an "innovation council." This innovation council takes another six months to get going while it recruits the appropriate high-profile members. It then creates a set of high-profile public events to spread innovation across the state. Everything is abstract, filled with pomp and circumstance, and usually disconnected from whatever is actually going on in the startup community.

Page 80
[At the BDNT events] We were also getting regular requests for nametags. Surprisingly, the event still felt intimate, even though it was 40 percent new and averaged 250 people per month. We opted to try something different and went for chaos over formality. At the beginning of BDNT, the seated audience was asked to take one minute to meet someone new. The room erupted into a roar and it often took five minutes to quiet everyone down and start the show. Today each event begins using this icebreaker technique.

Page 83
BDNT succeeded for the same reasons most startups succeed; a stubborn founder with a vision, an ability to creatively adapt to market demand, and free beer.

Page 121
A dozen years ago, Phil Weiser, now the dean of the CU Law School, started an initiative that is now called the Silicon Flatirons Center. I tease Phil constantly about the name because I strongly believe "Silicon [Insert Geographic Landform here]" is not a good name for anything. He responds, as every dean should, that a significant financial contribution will cause a name change.

Too right. It was a playful swipe at "Silicon Whatever" that gave us the name for the Cathedral Valley group.

Page 122
[The Silicon Flatiron Center] expanded the law school's entrepreneurial law clinic to get the law students out into the startup community via free legal support. They reached out to partner with entrepreneurship-minded individuals across campus to start the New Venture Challenge, a campus-wide business-plan competition. They used the Silicon Flatirons platform to regularly bring amazing, interesting people to the CU campus to engage with the Boulder startup community.

Page 142
Because many of the government leaders, and almost all of the government employees, have never been entrepreneurs, they can't relate to the dynamics of how entrepreneurship really works.

Page 144
Every quarter I see reports in the local newspaper about things like increased/decreased amount of VC activity in the quarter, the number of patents granted as an indicator of innovation activity, and monthly changes in unemployment. Our governor makes an annual state of the state address in which he focuses on the changes in the state's economic output. The business newspapers report annual earnings, change in stock prices, and total compensation of executives in the same way they report box scores in the sports section. Almost all of this information is irrelevant to a set of entrepreneurial leaders on a long-term journey to create a sustainable startup community.

Page 147
One of my deeply held beliefs to the secret of success in life is to give before you get. In this approach, I am always willing to try to be helpful to anyone, without having a clear expectation of what is in it for me.

Page 148
You rarely hear the words "What's in it for me?" around Boulder; rather it's "How can I be helpful?" Introductions flow freely, as do invitations. As I travel around the country, I hear people talking about how easy it is to engage with people in Boulder and how good karma flows freely. This is give before you get hard at work.

Page 150
In a hierarchy, when someone suggests something, the immediate reaction is to start asking questions and try to figure out why it won't work. In a network, the opposite approach often happens. When someone suggests something, just respond with, "Awesome - go do it." They either will or they won't. You'll recognize this as being similar to the approach of giving people assignments. You get a natural filtering process. If someone doesn't move forward with an idea, no time was wasted. If they do, then the results appear and often more people get involved.

Page 153
I've adopted this in Boulder. Whenever I want to have a long discussion with a CEO or founder who I'm working with, or need to work through something with someone, we often walk out the door of my office and make a loop around town. More and more, I see other entrepreneurs walking and talking to each other, working through whatever is on their mind, while changing the context from a small conference room to the great outdoors.

Page 160
Each city [of the four main cities in Colorado, all within 2 hours drive of each other] has a strong individual identity, and civic pride causes many to work hard to highlight their city as the best in the state. This results in another missed opportunity to connect the startup communities in an effort to amplify entrepreneurship across the state.

Page 161
Almost every person in the room was starting a business [...]. When they asked what they needed to get plugged into the patriarchs I met the night before, I said "Ignore them. If and when you are successful, they will come to you. Go do something great and don't worry about them."
[...]
In less than a year, the energy level in Colorado Springs is off the charts. Startups are coming out of the woodwork everywhere and the entrepreneurs are once again the leaders. The patriarchs didn't do it. The ones talking about it didn't do it. The government didn't do it. The entrepreneurs did it!

Page 173
Less than one in fie of the fastest-growing companies in the United States take any venture capital at any point in their history. Less than 0.5 percent of all new businesses in the United States ever raise venture capital. Where do they get capital if they don't get venture capital and they're too nascent for banks? The usual ways: friends, family, credit cards, and, the best way of financing a business - from their own customers.

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January 22, 2013

The Good Night Lamp

For the last few years I've been going on about the Internet of Things is going to change the world, and how connected devices can enrich our lives.

One of the people I've been working with over that time, on a variety of projects, is Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino.

Alex is a brilliant designer who really understands the nuances of connected devices, and we share a belief that the Internet of Things will only truly take off when it reaches everyday people and not just the geeks. So when she asked me to get involved with her latest project, the Good Night Lamp, of course I was interested.

Making connected devices that normal people, rather than geeks, want to use isn't an easy task. They won't put up with a complicated UI just so they can use the gadget, so we have to design and build a technology project that isn't about the technology. And as we're creating something that we want people to accept into their homes it also needs to be beautiful.

Whilst there's lots still to be done I think we're on course to create something really lovely, as you can see from the video below.

However, unlike in the software world, turning a prototype into a finished product takes more than just hard work. We need to get PCBs designed and manufactured, sort out the assembly process for the lamps, pass certification tests, etc. All of which will require investment. So, if you'd like to help, it would be awesome if you could back our Kickstarter campaign or tell your friends about it. Or both...

Thanks. I'll report back on how things progress.

Posted by Adrian at 09:27 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

November 26, 2012

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Founders At Work

I finished reading Founders at Work: Stories of Startups' Early Days by Jessica Livingston a little while ago, but finally found time to write up my notes on it over the weekend.

The book is a series of interviews with founders of an assortment of tech startups(/projects) from the early days of personal computing through to a couple of years ago (when the book was written basically). So in addition to the usual page numbers, I've also shown who was being interviewed - it wouldn't make a lot of sense otherwise...

Joe Kraus, Cofounder, Excite

Page 67

No, it was never clear that we were onto something huge. You never know anything. The hardest part in a startup is that you wake up one morning, and you feel great about the day, and you think, "We're kicking ass." And then you wake up the next morning, and you think "We're dead." And literally nothing's changed. You haven't made some big deal, you haven't sold something new. Maybe you wrote a few lines of code over the course of that last day. Maybe you had some conversations with people, but nothing's really moved.

Page 70

I love this stuff; the persistence part is the part that I like. It's actually not fun when it's happening, but you know it makes a difference because 99.9 percent of people give up.

Page 71

[...] get the legs of the business underneath it before you run terribly fast. We were always playing catch-up at Excite and I never liked that feeling. You always felt like the traffic, the momentum, the deals were all ahead of where the business naturally was. You want to be ahead of where it naturally is, but you don't want to be two times ahead of it. So, I think really taking the time to understand the dynamics of the business, so we can scale it, is important [...]

Dan Bricklin, Cofounder, Software Arts

Page 85

Stay out of lawsuits if you can help it. It's bad for both sides, especially small businesses. That's lawyers' business, to them, solving things through lawsuits. But it's very, very expensive. It's a sport of kings, and it uses up a lot of time. Unless you're a very big business that can make it a very small part of what you do, it's much better to find other ways to solve things. Frequently, individuals can do it better face to face. People who are the heads of companies understand that.

Page 87

On disagreeing with his business partner

[...] By arguing with others about it, that's how you learn. And, if somebody can't take the arguing with it, then maybe they don't really believe in what they're talking about and they don't understand it well enough.

We'd argue and then we'd go out to lunch together, because it wasn't based on animosity.[...]

Mitchell Kapor, Cofounder, Lotus Development

Page 98

Our original business plan called for $3 to $4 million in sales. Ultimately, in 1983 it was $53 million. So it was a 1,700 percent forecasting error. And then it tripled the next year to $150 million. I was totally unprepared for the magnitude of the success and the rate of growth. It would have been psychotic to say it was going to get that big that fast. Or you'd have to be prescient, but I'm not.

Paul Buchheit, Creator, Gmail

Page 170

People have a narrow concept of what's possible, and we're limited more by our own ideas about what's possible than what really is possible. So they just get uncomfortable, and they kind of tend to attack it [your idea] for whatever reason.

Paul Graham, Cofounder, Viaweb

Page 221

In response to the question "What advice can you give about raising money?"

The advice I would give is to avoid it. I would say spend as little as you can, because every dollar of the investors' money you get will be taken out of your ass - literally in the sense that it will take stock away from you, but also the process of raising money is so horrible compared to the other aspects of business. You can't work your way out of it like you can with other problems. You're at other people's mercy.

Joshua Schachter, Founder, del.icio.us

Page 230

I understand talking to the press as an essential part of marketing. At the same time, I understand that the consumers are the best marketers. If they love your product and you give them the tools to market it, they will.

Craig Newmark, Founder, craigslist

Page 248

[...] We do stuff, we follow through, and then we listen more. What we do is almost 100 percent based on what people ask us to do.

Brewster Kahle, Founder, WAIS, Internet Archive, Alexa Internet

Page 266

[...] if you're trying to get your company to think differently - to do something interesting - pick your setting carefully. Thinking Machines was set in an 1800s Victorian mansion on 100 acres of forest just outside of Boston. It was a park, basically. Working in an environment where, if you got stuck, you'd go for a long walk is very different than trying to do a startup and think differently if you're in Suite 201 in some major office complex. That was a lesson I've used every startup since.

Page 267

I prototyped it [WAIS] in my spare time. I guess there was very much an ethos that hacking was encouraged - playing around and doing fun things, spending time doing something that wasn't your exact job responsibility, but doing it at work, and getting support from work. [...]

Page 269

The best piece of advice that I got was from Bill Dunn, one of my mentors. He said, "Go someplace where people don't think you're crazy." Which sounds like a pretty simple thing to say, but it actually turned out to be a very wise piece of advice. Boston, especially back in 1990/91, was in recession and having trouble. California was also in recession, but in California there were dreamers. There were people who wanted to think about new and different things, and wouldn't think we were crazy to try to build this thing

Page 274

On competitors to WAIS

There were other systems around, but one thing I tend to do is do something that is far enough out there that nobody in their right mind would possibly want to do it. In general, I usually take things from the "you gotta be crazy" period to the "of course." And once it gets to "of course," then there will be competitors and I'm done. Because usually what I want to do is just get other people to do it. The best way to do that is to show that it's possible.

Ann Winblad, Cofounder, Open Systems, Hummer Winblad

Page 305

I think it's really interesting being a venture capitalist because, when you've got 30 years of experience, then your challenge is how to teach and not tell. Because you want people to figure it out. You want to make sure that you can grab them by the coattails if they are falling off a cliff, but you want them to discover the edges by themselves.

Philip Greenspun, Cofounder, ArsDigita

Page 324

So we worried about competitors, but it was an unreasonable fear. As a friend once pointed out, most gunshot wounds are self-inflicted.

Page 333

At the time, Anderson Consulting (now Accenture) didn't have any sales-people. They always had the people who were executing the project sell it. "You eat what you kill" was the phrase at Accenture. You don't have a salesperson go out and tell the customer, "We can do this," making promises and then handing it off to a programmer.

James Hong, Cofounder, HOT or NOT

Page 383

The biggest roadblock to the entrepreneur are liabilities in your life. It's not whether or not you can be a good entrepreneur, it's whether you have to make a mortgage payment or support other people.

Experience will come when you face certain problems and live through them. And the best way to do that is to put yourself squarely in the path of those problems.

Page 384

All these things come out of new ideas. If you're not in school and you're not an entrepreneur, you're not working on new ideas. You are just a cog in someone else's wheel, and you'll never make anything new. So the hardest thing is to say, "I'm going to put myself in the position of being an entrepreneur by having ideas and trying things, and not giving up when I fail."

Page 385

In response to the question "Any other advice about startups?"

One, do it while you're young.
Two, there's no right path. There is no one plan that fits every business; you have to figure it out yourself. There is no magic formula.
Three, 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.
Four, there's no such thing as easy entrepreneurship. It's going to be painful, it's going to be emotionally unstable, you're going to feel insecure. If you're not already bipolar, you will feel like you are.

Posted by Adrian at 10:43 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 10, 2012

Imagivisionating the Future(tm)

Last week I was one of the people invited to talk at FACT's evening on Digital Innovation. I mostly talked about what it might be, and how we're approaching it (not that we'd ever call it that here) at DoES Liverpool.

It seemed to go down pretty well, and I've just published the slides plus notes (and audio clips) over on the DoES Liverpool blog.

Posted by Adrian at 09:55 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 29, 2012

Delivering Entrepreneurial Enterprise on Merseyside?

Ian Scott has written an interesting paper looking into how to boost the number of entrepreneurs in Liverpool, something which is often a topic I ponder myself. He's also dug into some of what Liverpool Vision and the new LEP are planning to do, and is asking some question of it.

It's a difficult position to fulfil and not one that I envy the people at Vision, etc. The excerpts that Ian quotes feel like the standard using lots of words to say very little that's common of death-by-committee plans that try to walk the tightrope of promising lots while committing to as little as possible (not so that the implementers can slack off, just because they don't want to be held to account if they fail). Such is politics it seems.

Anyway, that's not the important stuff in the report. More interesting are the way he breaks down the standard SME classification into micro, small and medium, and then looks at their respective contributions to the economy:

"Thus, the second position [after large enterprises] on the turnover scale would be accorded to Merseyside micro
businesses, a sector comprising 78% of all enterprises in the region."

I'm less convinced than Ian of how important it is for micro-SMEs to have representation within the LEP, but partly because I'm not expecting them to make a lot of difference to whether or not I'm successful. That said, it's frustrating when the city is engaging in areas in which I've an interest and that I only find out about on twitter after it's too late. (For a recent example, see the recent Smart Citiy event).

What would be useful, although I'm not sure what to do beyond the sorts of chatting, and mixing up of events that already takes place, would be more cross-pollination and contact between the assorted groups of techies, artists, and entrepreneurs around the city. And not because then the LEP could deal with us better, but because we'd be building better businesses and bringing more prosperity to the city.

Posted by Adrian at 11:43 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 22, 2012

Open Source Entrepreneurship

Last week the Global Entrepreneurship Congress came to Liverpool - a massive conference about all things business. Alongside the main conference there was a massive programme of fringe events, and obviously DoES Liverpool was no exception. We had at least one event (and often more) each day - some run on our own, and others that we ran in conjunction with other like-minded groups in the city.

One of those collaborations was a panel discussion entitled Open Source Entrepreneurship, and Max Zadow who came up with the idea asked me to be one of the panellists.

It was all very free-form, but I think it worked well - I enjoyed what was basically a long discussion loosely centred on open source and encouraging more, and better, businesses. The other panellists were Francis Irving, Julian Tait and Jon Bains, but there was plenty of engagement and contribution from the "audience" too.

Luckily Defnetmedia had slung a camera in the corner of the room to provide a basic record of the event, and so you can watch it now:

Open Source Entrepreneurship from Defnet Media on Vimeo.

Posted by Adrian at 10:29 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 17, 2012

Running the Arduino + Ethernet - Building the Internet of Things course again

It's been a while since I last ran one of the courses to show people how to get their Arduino hooked up to the Internet and interfacing with services like Pachube and Twitter.

So, once again over at Madlab as part of their Omniversity series I'll be spending the day taking people through the basics of the Internet of Things.

Head over to course booking page to find out more and sign up.

Posted by Adrian at 01:43 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 05, 2012

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Small Giants, Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big by Bo Burlingham

Not sure how long this has sat on my Amazon wishlist (which is doing a great job of saving huge slabs of trees from sitting around my flat unread...) but I finally got a copy as a Christmas present. It's a good treatise on what's important about running a business.

Page XVII
What's in the interest of the shareholders depends on who the shareholders are.

The shareholders who own the businesses in this book have other nonfinancial priorities in addition to their financial objectives. Not that they don't want to earn a good return on their investment, but it's not their only goal, or even necessarily their paramount goal.

Page 37, talking about spin-off companies
[The] new ventures had the effect of giving good people an avenue to grow and take on new challenges without having to find employment elsewhere

Page 52
Explaining her decision to stick with her own company rather than sign with a major label, [Ani] DiFranco told the New York Times in 1998, "I have to know for myself that there is an alternative to big corporations. I want to live in a world where one can and does choose to go to the local drugstore on the corner - that old chemist who's been there with his wife behind the counter for thirty years - instead of going to the Rite Aid or the Kmart."

Page 79
[The book The Discipline of Market Leaders] argued that, to be really successful, a company had to focus on providing one of three types of value to its customers: the best price, the best product, or the best overall solution.

Page 88
[Brian Grunert said] "The idea was to make something worth buying and then put it out there so that people could be attracted - or not."

Page 156
As Elizabeth Conlin put it in her Inc. article, UNBT had been founded on "the heretical notion that a company's has organic, almost preordained, limitations," and that if you exceeded those limitations and grew too fast, you would undermine your ability to provide excellent customer service, create a great workplace for your employees, and maximize shareholder returns. "We could grow faster, but it would cost us everything," [Carl Schmitt] told her. "In the bureaucracy of growth, you lose your distinctiveness."

Page 165
[Gary] Erickson [of Clif Bar] said "[...] The long-term [aim] for me is to be the chair of the company and contribute where I can - not in operations. I play with ideas and throw them into the pot."

Page 195
To me, the owners and leaders of these companies stand out for being remarkably in touch with, and focused on, what most of us would probably agree are the good things in life. By that, I mean that they are very clear in their own minds about what life has to offer at its best - in terms of exciting challenges, camaraderie, compassion, hope, intimacy, community, a sense of purpose, feelings of accomplishment and so on - and they have organised their businesses so that they and the people they work with can get it. When outsiders come into contact with such a business, they can't help but feel the attraction.

Page 199, Norm Brodsky talking about how he feels about business
"I think you need to feel in your gut that whatever you do is the most interesting, exciting, worthwhile thing you could be doing at that moment. Otherwise, how do you convince anyone else?"

Page 217
In business, after all, it's easy to confuse size with greatness, and getting bigger with getting better. When you stop and think about it, the connections between the two are tenuous at best, but - with all the attention paid to getting big and growing fast - it's easy to understand why most of us tend to equate them. By deciding to go for greatness rather than bigness, the small giants remind us that the two are not the same [...]

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January 06, 2012

A Nice Way to Set Donation Levels

One of the perennial problems that places like DoES Liverpool and hackspaces have is how to spread the cost of running the space among the community that uses it.

At DoES we went for a more traditional fixed set of levels of use and prices, but some of the hackspaces go with a "donate what you feel is fair" approach (and then often end up with a recommended amount to guide people).

Just now I was reading about the Arduino commune that John Willshire has been attending, and they've got a lovely way of defining an "amount that's reasonable, but will vary based roughly on people's individual ability to pay":

"[...] if you’re coming along regularly, you might like to make a donation to the space (of, say, the amount of money you last withdrew from a cash machine or something like that)."

I like that.

Posted by Adrian at 01:18 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 22, 2011

Barcamp Liverpool 2011: What is the Point of Liverpool?

At Barcamp Liverpool last Friday I gave a talk entitled "What is the Point of Liverpool?". It was an attempt to look at Liverpool's place in the world and the ways that it might evolve over the coming years. Luckily the guys from PodFactory.org were roaming around with some video cameras and happened to capture the talk. Given that they weren't formally covering the event, I wasn't miked up and so the sound levels aren't as good as they would be normally. Still, if you want to hear what I said, you can watch the video after the jump.

I've included the slides here so you can see them better, and included my notes, which will give you an idea of what I was planning to say - I think it bears some resemblance to what I actually said...

And if you want to find out more about the event in general, there's my write up and more over at the Barcamp Liverpool Lanyrd page. Anyway, on with the slides...


What is the Point of Liverpool?

So, what is the point of Liverpool, now that it's no longer the gateway to the new world? Well, it’s a city. And that’s a good start.  A city is a small enough entity that it can change how it does things, yet large enough that if it works, it will influence the rest of the country, and maybe the rest of the world.  Hell, it wouldn't be the first time this city has done that.


What is the Point of Liverpool?

And that's how these things always start.  Well, actually, it's not.  It's some smaller group within the city, who listen to some crazy guy suggesting that there's a different way of doing things.  But that's handy, because we haven't got the whole city here right now, and I'm not sure I know what the better way of doing things is.


Some questions

But it is something I spend a lot of time thinking about, and I've at least made a start on some of the questions...


The Economy

There are big problems... The economy...


Climate Change

Climate change...


Unemployment

Rising unemployment – and even in places where the economy is showing some growth, like the US, we’re not always seeing the jobs coming back at the same time.


Skills

Coupled with a low skill base provides a challenge to the perceived wisdom that we have to focus on education and "knowledge work". But at the same time, means there's a huge resource of people available, if we can find things that they can do.


Career Options

It feels like, whereas in the past there was the opportunity to leave work without many qualifications and get an apprenticeship and, if you were good, work your way up - these days the career options look more like parallel tracks, where you either work in retail, or call centres, or the much vaunted "knowledge economy", and it's hard to jump the tracks between them.


Answers

So, do I have any answers?... Maybe...


Do you have any?

More importantly, do you have any answers?


Tesco

Because the problem is, if we don't come up with any answers, well, there are other people making suggestions and making plans, and we'll have to live with that.

More and more big chains taking over from the local shops and pulling the profits out of the area sooner.


Inward Investment

For the past thirty years or so the grand plan has been to focus on attracting "inward investment". Get some big firm to move in and create loads of jobs and we'll all be saved.


Peel Waters

It seems that the latest idea is that it hasn't worked because it wasn't big enough, or in a nice enough position, so of course the next step is to do it on an even grander scale...

The comment from a recent Seven Streets article really depressed me. This is the only option we can envisage?


The WAG Economy

Or maybe working in shops to service the WAGs and footballers... At least they’re supporting local car firms...


Inward Investment is a Lie

We’re still waiting for it to arrive in all sorts of places, and even when it does come it will be in the shape of call centres and regional sales offices, which is why the much vaunted skyscrapers will be cheap knock-offs pretending to be “landmark” developments.

The only real growth is going to come when we stop waiting for The Powers That Be to save us, and get on with saving ourselves.


A Vision of the Future (Guaranteed to be Wrong)

So I want to present another vision of the future. And like all visions of the future, this one will be wrong.


A Future.  Part 1

I don’t have any flashy fly-through videos, so you’ll have to make do with a couple of photos and your imagination as I describe how it will change...

It’s a warm summers morning, in 2015. I’m sat at a little aluminium cafe table, on the pavement just over here, checking my email. As I finish off, one of the waiters from The Rat Coffee Shop comes to clear my espresso cup and take it back across the street to the cafe. I walk round the corner and into the bottom floor of the DoES Liverpool building.

As I swipe my card to gain access the door reminds me that I need to go and talk to the web designers who are refreshing the MCQN Ltd website. They’re on the first floor, so I don’t venture into the ground floor workshop – which is packed with all sorts of interesting bits of machinery – laser cutters, CNC mills, 3D printers, lathes... But instead head up stairs.

The first floor has fewer of the machines, and it’s split into an assortment of open plan areas with desks and a couple of meeting rooms. There are more people working from laptops here, though there’s some soldering going on over in one corner and one of the meeting rooms is awash with bits of blue prototyping foam.

After checking over the latest designs from the web agency, I head further upstairs to my desk. The top floor-and-a-bit is taken up with MCQN Ltd, and it’s from here that we design, prototype and code the devices that are making peoples lives easier and a bit more fun. Bubblino is still sat doing his thing, but has been joined on the “shelves of things” by a wealth of other items.

As I sit down at my desk, one of the project leads gets a call on her mobile. It’s the factory, to let her know that the run of prototype PCBs she sent them yesterday is ready to be picked up. She grabs her keys, and a minute later is heading out onto Duke Street on the office cargo bike.


A Future.  Part 2

Ten minutes later, she’s parked up outside the factory. Most of the work is mechanised these days – there are all sorts of CNC machines, pick-and-place machines building PCBs, and reflow ovens doing the soldering, but robots are as cheap to run in the UK as they are in China, and this means we can see what working conditions are like and provide this sort of more responsive work.

There are still staff here, and there’s nothing to stop the talented and more ambitious ones from working their way up from supervising the machines to designing products.

We’ve also given over a bit of the building to DoES Toxteth, because DoES Liverpool is pretty busy these days, and not everyone wants to head into town to do their hacking...


Place Your Bets

I’m not a betting man, but I am betting my company that my vision of the future will be closer to reality than Peel’s.

The Internet of Things is becoming one of the “next big things” – and Liverpool has a good chance of riding that wave, but only because there are people here who are passionate about it and working at it. And if we’re successful, we’ll be hiring people from both inside and outside the city, and will attract others who want to work in the field to move here because that’s where the interesting stuff is happening.

But it might not be the Internet of Things that brings the city its big wins – I’ll be disappointed if it’s not – but it could just as easily be something around open data – with ScraperWiki based here, and the new open healthcare group that Ross Jones has co-founded; or maybe something around podcasting, given the success that Dan and Don McAllister are already enjoying.

Or it could be something completely different, that you’re passionate about. But that’s the key point – it’s not going to be something that the council has stuck in a strategy document somewhere. Not because we can make better bets than they can about the future, but because there’s someone already in the city who wants to drive it forward. It’s all about the people.

And interesting things can come out of Barcamps. The first Bubblino was built for the last one, and he became MCQN Ltd’s first Internet of Things product.


Stupidly Proud

And now we’re building all sorts of things. This is from an Internet-connected radio that Russell Davies commissioned, and I’m just stupidly proud that there are things going out into the world with “Made in Liverpool by MCQN Ltd” written on them.

It was also at the last Barcamp that I met Andy Goodwin, and without that connection, Ignite Liverpool wouldn’t have happened. It was where ScraperWiki was announced, and it’s where Thom and I hatched plans for Howduino and to start a regular meetup for Arduino tinkerers. That grew into Maker Night, which then grew into DoES.


Show Us Your Ideas

What’s going to come out of this one?


Show Us Your Ideas

All of the photos of old buildings in Liverpool that I've used in this presentation have one thing in common - they're all empty. Waiting for you to fill them with your ideas.

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Posted by Adrian at 09:27 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 01, 2011

Laptops and Looms: A Modern History Lesson

This is another post sparked by the recent Laptops and Looms event. To see the rest of my thoughts on it, and links to other people's reports, check out my main Laptops and Looms write-up.

One of the themes running through Laptops and Looms was the decline of the British manufacturing industry. Given the old mills that we visited, a lot of it was around the decline of the textile industry, but also the heavy industry of steel, shipbuilding, etc.

The heyday of most of those industries was in the 1800s and the first half of the 20th Century, and most were in steep decline before any of us discussing them were born. As a result, most of our experience of them is second-hand, and there was (quite rightly) a concern that we were romanticising the past.

Thinking about things after the conference, it occurred to me that in my career so far, I have already lived through the rise and fall of an, albeit much smaller, industry here in the UK. This is a very personal, and potted history, and so I'm not presenting it as the definitive story of how things happened. However, hopefully there's some value in relating the tale.

I graduated from uni in 1995, which was around the time when the Internet was starting to gain traction, and mobile phones were just beginning to reach the point were ordinary people might get one. It was a time when the ability to send text messages was a high-end feature that not all phones had, and portable computing was the domain of PDAs - devices like the Psion Series 3a or the Palm Pilot, which were standalone devices that only synchronised with anything else when you plugged them into your PC at your desk.

In the summer of 96 I joined STNC, a fledgling startup based in Cambridge who were writing software to add connectivity to PDAs. We worked closely with OEMs and low-level operating system providers to give them email and web browsing capabilities.

Thanks to a continent-wide standardisation on GSM, Europe was leagues ahead of the US in mobile phone adoption and innovation, but that's not to say we had it all our own way. As it became clearer that a combined mobile-phone and PDA would provide exciting new possibilities, it was US firm Geoworks who seemed to be in the lead. They'd managed to sign up two of the top three mobile phone manufacturers to use their GEOS operating system. However, their coronation as mobile OS kings was short-lived: although Nokia released it in the 9000 Communicator (and later the 9110), Ericsson fell out with them and canned their smartphone project at the eleventh hour - even after getting to the point of having it featured in the latest James Bond film (remember when he steers his BMW 7-series from his phone on the back seat...?)

Alongside software startups like ourselves, there were also people in the UK building hardware. One of those was TTPcom, based just South of Cambridge. They built mobile phone hardware platforms that the OEMs (people like Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola, etc.) could license and use as the base for their own phones. In 1997, a collaboration between STNC and TTPcom saw us create the first ever web browser on a mobile phone - a fully-featured (for its day) offering with HTML3.2 and GIF and JPEG image support.

Come 1998 and Psion morphed into Symbian, going one better than Geoworks and pulling all three of the top manufacturers as partners/customers - Nokia, Ericsson, and Motorola.

As the millennium loomed, the heart of the mobile Internet was firmly centred on the UK, but the sector was becoming big enough that it attracted the attention of Microsoft - who decided to refocus their efforts with Windows CE and build their first smartphone.

As it turned out though, that only bolstered the UK's position. In July 1999 STNC was bought by Microsoft, but unlike other technology or expertise acquisitions, it made sense for them to keep us in Europe.

There were other UK tie-ups with Microsoft too - Orange debuted the smartphone platform (which was completely unrelated to the work we were doing at STNC), in the form of the Orange SPV, and Sendo, based in Birmingham, were an early licensee before a controversial eleventh-hour switch to Symbian.

Integrating into Microsoft turned out not to be all it promised. An eight-hour and three-thousand-odd mile separation naturally means you've not got as much contact with surrounding groups as those based in Redmond, and the fact that funding was no longer a pressing concern meant that we lost our focus on getting customers and getting products out. Coupled with some short-sighted decision-making from the leadership of Mobile Devices Division, and in early 2002 our group was shut down and the scattered across the globe and across the industry.

I spent the next few years working with a number of other mobile-related startups in the UK: Trigenix, who were later acquired by Qualcomm, and the final iteration of Pogo Mobile, who had a rather nice Internet-focused, keyboard-less touchscreen device (ooh, who else has done something like that...) that sadly didn't get beyond prototype stage.

In the same time period Symbian struggled to make good on their initial promise, largely through trying to please all of its partners all of the time, Sendo went into administration and were bought by Motorola, who also acquired TTPcom a year later.

Not long after the acquisition of TTPcom, I spent six months contracting with Motorola. I led a skunkworks team hidden in an neglected corner of the ex-TTPcom-now-Motorola site just outside Cambridge where we prototyped a new (and most importantly, usable and not horrific) UI for a low-end handset.

The UI was developed by the team who'd done a really nice job on the Motorola Z8 (a Symbian-based handset from the Sendo group in Birmingham) and five of us learnt how to code for the TTPcom AJAR OS and built most of the basic apps in less than six months. Unfortunately, we then had to engage with the Motorola bureaucracy which deemed the TTPcom engineers too expensive, and so ruled out a small team in Cambridge/Denmark in favour of a big team in India or China or Russia, possibly project-managed from Italy. Not surprisingly, none of that came to pass, and I don't think it would have produced anything cohesive and usable if it had.

Within two years both the Cambridge and Aalborg sites had been closed, and with it the TTPcom legacy gone.

The ex-Sendo group didn't fare any better. There was a successor to the Z8, the Z10, released in 2008 but even in 2007 it was clear that the Motorola smartphone focus was no longer with Symbian, and the Birmingham site was closed in 2008

Symbian survived a little longer, slowly becoming more and more subsumed into Nokia, who then basically pulled the plug earlier this year with an announcement of their switch to Windows Mobile. With it the last glimmers of the UK's mobile phone industry (rather than third-party app development) died away.

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August 23, 2011

Laptops and Looms. Not Your Typical Conference

I spent the latter half of last week in the Peak District, participating in the rather wonderful Laptops and Looms conference. Russell Davies, Dan Hill and Toby Barnes pulled together an amazing selection of people and persuaded them all to congregate in an old mill in the village of Cromford just on the strength of spending three days exploring how to turn making into manufacturing.

For such a loosely defined event, we managed to cram in so many thing that I'm still trying to unpack it all four days after the event drew to a close. I'm going to try to provide some of the background and raw facts of the conference in this blog post, and leave the more thoughtful stuff to emerge in subsequent thinking and blog posts as it filters through my brain.

Background

Checking back through some of the emails sent before the event, it turns out I was wrong to refer to it as a conference. Russell says "This isn't a conference, it's a conversation." And he's right, that's a much better description, even if it's rather cryptic for anyone who didn't attend.

The agenda was deliberately loosely defined - the introduction to the themes was Russell's August column for Wired UK, and the organising principle was to get a bunch of interesting people, stick them into (one of) the world's first factory and see what happened.

How It Worked

It was an event which addressed a lot of the problems that I outlined in my long conference post. The mornings were the nearest to a traditional conference, with a number of presentations acting as scene-setters or almost provocation pieces, but they often veered off into group discussions on the topics raised.

The afternoons had flexible and varied activities which saw us taking a tour of Masson Mill; a kickabout on the nearby park; a train excursion to Derby to visit the Derby Silk Mill (which argues that it is the oldest factory); and rounding off the three days with an afternoon of cricket at Chatsworth House.

The evenings saw us exploring the delights of Matlock Bath, chatting over a communal meal, or just reflecting on the day in the pub.

All of which meant that there was ample opportunity to discuss things and get to know each other. I think I probably had at least a five minute chat with something like 90% of the people there, which was fantastic.

General Themes and Topics

So what did we talk about?

Digital fabrication techniques, how well they do and don't work. Mass personalisation, with Alice Taylor from Makielab giving an open and inspiring talk about how they're aiming to make everything in the country where it's sold. Matt Cottam made everyone (I think, he definitely did me) jealous of how he's got funding to let him run an awesome new project. Toby played devil's advocate about the drive for shedloads of growth, and asked whether there's a way that the oft-derided "lifestyle" businesses could be the answer. Matt Ward took a stab at defining some of the terms we were using and some of the conditions which fed into the debate (hopefully he, along with everyone else, will publish his slides somewhere). We talked about what's stopping more makers from turning interesting hacks into real products, and wondered how we can more easily replicate Newspaper Club's winkling out of printers in other areas of expertise. We noticed that we don't build our tools any more (coincidentally something that came up in a recent item about HP losing its way) and asked if that fed into the decline in manufacturing. Dan did an excellent job of setting things in a wider context, looking at the decline of the British manufacturing industry, and the rise of China, whilst showing that Germany had managed to cope with the changing world without losing its industrial base. At one point he challenged us to define "what is the point of the West?" How do we engage with the "dark matter" of policy and government so that we end up with a society more attuned to our ideals and values, and less towards finance or call centres. The Makielab guys were helped to build a Makerbot. We talked about ways to collaborate and new ways of working, and I talked a bit about DoES Liverpool. And we debated what is stopping the network of makers from becoming a new wave of industrialists?

There are people whose presentations I've missed, and hundreds of other topics that I wasn't aware that were discussed, because I was busy involved in a similarly interesting conversation elsewhere.

What Now?

In his closing comments, Russell asked us what we wanted to do next. He didn't have any grand vision or plan, he'd just had a hunch that interesting things might happen if he got us together.

He was right. I'm hoping that the discussions and connections continue to ripple out in the coming months. It looks like there'll be another event held in the future, which is excellent news, because I can't state how awesome those three days were.

Tom Taylor said that he hoped that it would spark a raft of good blog posts. I want to echo that hope, and this is the first of my contributions to the pool (and hopefully it won't dilute the quality too much).

There's very little that I'd change if it were run again. That said, I expect that the themes will be a little better defined after we've had a year to continue the conversation.

I think it might be useful to replace some of the industrial heritage sections with trips to some of the local "supply chain" sized firms. Rather than a tour of an 18th Century mill, visit a working injection-moulding factory or similar. See if we can unearth some of the remaining industry to give talks about how they work, so we can see how to use them and also look for new possibilities a la Newspaper Club.

What about having a "gallery" area, and encourage attendees to bring something along to show off. There was so much creativity in the room, and there won't be time for everyone to give a talk about what they do, so fill the area where people get coffee with objects or posters showing what the other attendees do. If you could find someone to staff it, you could even open it up to the public in the times when the attendees are out on some other activity...

Further Thoughts

I'll be revisiting some of the themes thrown up by the conference in the coming days (/weeks..?) and will add them here. I'm also going to try to collect any other writing spawned by the conference from others, and will include links to them too (and I've not read any of them yet - I wanted to get my thoughts down first before diving into the thoughts of others...).

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July 01, 2011

DoES Liverpool - mashing up co-working, workshop and studio space

Totting them up in a list just now, I reckon I've worked in over a dozen different offices during my career, and done the odd couple of days in dozens more. It's been a fair mix of buildings, sizes and atmospheres too: a Government DHSS site in Lytham St. Annes; the bedroom office of the early days of STNC; Microsoft's sprawling US campus; and plenty of standard science-park blocks. The best is probably STNC's Highwayman's Vineyard period: surrounded by an orchard for lunchtime walks and apple scrumping, and with an indoor, heated swimming pool - these days it's a gallery and B&B.

However, when I struck out on my own, an office seemed like an unnecessary expense. I already had a perfectly serviceable house, just sitting there doing nothing during the day, so why spend more money on somewhere else that I'd also have to commute to get to? And for the first few years I didn't bother, I worked from home.

Things stayed the same until I started looking for a space to house the Liverpool hackspace group and even then it was the workshop space that was the big draw. As it turned out, the first step towards that was something much closer to a standard office - four of us started renting a room in a serviced office last summer, with the only nod to the "workshop" being an extra table with a soldering iron on it.

A year on and I can safely say it was one of the better business decisions I've made. It's not so much that the office has made me more productive (although I think it would've helped more in the early days of working for myself), it's more that there are people around to share the trials and successes of running a business - you can get a sanity check on things, you're hooked into a wider network for picking up bits of work and meeting new people, and even some of the simple things like not having to worry about staying in for parcels being delivered.

So, I've finally seen the light on getting a desk around some other interesting people, but I've been thinking about how we can reconfigure what an office looks like, and what facilities it offers, for a while now. I gave a talk about co-working, hackspaces and other "new ways of working" a couple of years back, and I'm also a fan of Adam Greenfield's take on city-centre offices vs. edge-of-town, self-contained office campuses, summed up perfectly in this interview from last year:

[interviewer] Haegwan Kim: Could you please give me your opinion how we can create the best condition for innovative people? I've heard about that some of outstanding companies in the Silicon Valley set up as good condition as possible so that their employees can keep their creativity at a high level. Is your point that kind of thing?

Adam Greenfield: My feeling is that the apparently generous provisions of classic Valley workplaces like e.g. Google are set up to remove incentives for their staffers to leave campus, and to create incentives for them to remain there for the maximum amount of time achievable.

My idea of a good workspace is a little different: a small office, with windows that open and lots of natural light, in a dense and well-served neighborhood in the central city.

In other words, why isolate ourselves out on the highway, locked up in dreary, pompous, dinosaurian buildings, when our iPhones and laptops have made us mobile, untethered and free? Why surrender to the disciplinary space of the office, with its Taylorist constraints in time and space, when the city itself is well-provisioned with inspiration, strong coffee, good food and plenty of room to walk and ponder? Fortunately, I'm beginning to see signs that this is becoming a more generally accepted reality: see the coworking and Breakout movements.

Jane Jacobs reminded us in the 1960s that "sometimes new ideas need old buildings." I think it's even truer now than it was then.

DoES Liverpool

So why am I telling you all this? Well, the Liverpool hackspace group has moved out of the pub and morphed into the monthly Maker Night event at the Art & Design Academy, which has shown that there's the demand for making and tinkering.

A permanent workshop/studio was always a long-term aim for those of us putting on Maker Night, but just recently we learnt that the building housing our current office is being taken over by a screen school, and so we needed to find somewhere new to house our desks.

That gave us the push to bring our plans forward, and the last couple of weeks has seen a raft of paperwork filling, discussions around what sort of space we'd like (and what we can make do with), juggling of (just one) spreadsheet (we're geeks not accountants ;-), and visiting an array of different sorts of buildings and offices. All on top of running our usual businesses. It's been a frantic, but exciting time.

The outcome of all this activity is that we've formed a new Community Interest Company - DoES Liverpool CIC - which lets us rent a space, accept money from people, and generally provide a framework to let people do stuff in the space. None of us are taking any money from it, nor are we expecting to (most of us already have Ltd. companies to cover making our fortunes ;-) and because it's a CIC the profits have to be used for the benefit of the community. I expect that will be mostly around expanding the space, and buying tools and equipment for members to use - things like a drill press, or a laser-cutter, but it'll be guided by what the members want.

We're also on the brink of moving into our first DoES Space. We announced the details at the Liverpool GeekUp meeting on Tuesday, and you can find out more at the Introducing DoES Liverpool blog post on the Maker Night blog.

Basically it will be a combined co-working and workshop/studio space. We're still working out the details but there'll be a small meeting room, an office where most of the desks will be sited, and a more flexible open plan area. The open plan room will have a couple of desks and some workbenches for soldering electronics or messier work, and also let us reconfigure it to hold meetings like GeekUp.

There are two main levels of membership: workshop access gets you access to the workshop/studio space, and use of the shared tools, and is £30/month; the co-working desk is £150/month and provides the same as workshop access plus your own permanent desk. We'll also have drop-in hot-desking at £8/day.

The prices all include bills - electricity, Internet, etc., and the monthly options will be on easy-in/easy-out terms, so no minimum term, and you just give a month's notice.

Interested? Questions? Drop us an email at hello [at] doesliverpool.com, even if you're just thinking you might want a desk in a few months - it's useful for us to know how much interest there is, and what sort of split between desks and workshop/studio space we should be aiming for when setting things up.

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April 14, 2011

Why You Should Care About More Than Just the Look of Your Website

Pete Ashton has posted an excellent explanation of why you should care more about what your website does than how it looks.

It's an issue that often disappoints me, most often when the website in question is one that some publicly-funded agency has had built by a big-name web design agency. I'd expect the agencies to know better, and to produce good work, but that could also be solved by those commissioning the work having a better understanding of what they want.

Pete also touches upon the portfolio software of choice for non-web-designers, indexhibit (which I'm thinking we should maybe start referring to as inhibit...) which Alex covered well in her piece on online presence for design students.

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February 11, 2011

A Snapshot of the NW Tech Scene

As I was pulling together a list of techie events in the NW for a friend I realised it might be of use to share it with the wider world. So, undoubtedly incomplete, but here's something of a snapshot of the regular tech meetings and gatherings in the Liverpool-Manchester area. Feel free to add any I've missed in the comments section... (or email me if comments aren't working for you - there's a weird bug that I've not tracked down yet that means not all comments work. Sorry)

Liverpool

  • Ignite Liverpool - roughly quarterly events with a series of short, fast-paced talks on all sorts of topics.
  • Geekup Liverpool - a gathering for software geeks on the last Tuesday of the month, sometimes with talks
  • DoES Liverpool (formerly known as Liverpool Hackspace) who run Maker Night - gatherings for anyone interested in hardware hacking, electronics, Arduino, laser-cutting, 3D-printing, etc. on the third second (from May 2011) Wednesday of each month
  • Social Media Cafe Liverpool - monthly events for anyone interested in "social media" (i.e. Twitter, blogging, Facebook, etc.)
  • Liverpool Linux Users Group - first Wednesday of the month, a gathering for people interested in Linux, often with a talk.
  • Cathedral Valley - semi-regular lunchtime gatherings with a techie/entrepreneurial leaning, based loosely in the "valley" between the two cathedrals

And two I haven't made it along to yet (mostly because there are too many listed above to fit in even more :-)

Chester

I haven't made it over to Chester to any of these meetings, but know quite a few people who regularly attend:

Daresbury

Daresbury Business Breakfast is an always-packed monthly event for tech business-people to get together for a chat over free coffee and bacon baps.

Manchester

With so much going on in Liverpool I don't make it over to Manchester all that often, but do from time to time. Mostly to attend the language-specific groups that tend to gravitate to Manchester as it gives them a bigger catchment area (or at least doesn't have a catchment area incorporating a chunk of the Irish Sea...)

And ones I've not attended...

And finally, NW England Perl Mongers - a language-specific group which admirably roams around the NW rather than expecting its members to come to it.

Updates:

I've also updated the links for LivLUG and DoES Liverpool (formerly known as Liverpool Hackspace) who run Maker Night.

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November 08, 2010

Creative Regeneration Handbook for Politicians

Alex has written a superlative blog post about the recent Tech City announcements. Go and read it.

She sums up most of the problems with government interventions in regenerating or encouraging creative digital technologies. In the Tech City case it's the national government latching onto something that has been growing for a few years (Silicon Roundabout), but there are similarities with what the NWDA and local councils have been doing in here in the north-west.

It's why I think the Innovation Park and Media City UK are unlikely to amount to anything much, but also why I'm on the fence about the Baltic Triangle redevelopment and quietly optimistic about Liverpool itself.

Our office space is a smidge over £100/month and could be less if we had another person sharing the office, for which there's plenty of room. We're in the heart of the Ropewalks, which is where the creatives really are, regardless of where the council would like to corral us. Out of the office window I can see the Kazimier and Wolstenholme Projects. The Biennial is all around us, particularly the Independents strand; on my ten minute by foot commute, I can pass over half-a-dozen Biennial venues.

For sustenance there are a plethora of independent options: Bold St. Coffee, Leaf Tea Shop and Brew Tea Bar providing caffeine; the Egg, the Italian Club, Mello Mello, the Shipping Forecast for something more substantial or a beer.

There's still lots to do, but it's an interesting place to be. I'm looking forward to helping it develop over the coming years.

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March 27, 2010

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Cambridge Entrepreneurs

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February 14, 2010

Weeknotes

Over on the MCQN Ltd. blog I've decided to join the growing number of businesses posting weeknotes, a weekly update on what they've been up to along with glimpses behind the scenes at the day-to-day planning and running of a company.

You can read MCQN Ltd's first weeknote here and catch up with some of the other businesses' updates at the lovely weeknotes.com.

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January 02, 2010

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: From Concept to Consumer

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Blog All Dog-eared Pages: From Concept to Consumer

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December 27, 2009

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: How to Get Rich by Felix Dennis

Recently, one of my oldest friends (and my first business partner, back when we were both still at school) lent me the book How to Get Rich by Felix Dennis (of Dennis publishing fame). It's a very readable book, and full of useful and (from my limited experience) accurate advice and ideas. I'd recommend it to anyone running their own business, or thinking of running their own business.

Here are the sections that jumped out as particularly interesting whilst I was reading it, although maybe the choices say more about where I am with my company than anything else. Along with a few other things, it's been a much needed kick-up-the-arse for me, and has helped me to work out and put in place a few things that mean I'm entering 2010 feeling quite excited and optimistic about work.

Page 32, talking about all the people you'll encounter who have the "it'll never work" attitude:
How many millions upon millions of man-hours are wasted annually, I wonder, in all this doom-mongering? Personally, I've had a bellyful of it.

Page 60:
The three great quotes concerning 'luck' for me are these:
"Luck is preparation multiplied by opportunity" - Seneca, Roman philosopher

"The harder I practised, the luckier I got." - Gary Player, golf champion

"Luck is a dividend of sweat." - Ray Kroc, McDonald's founder

Page 128:
Without self-belief nothing can be accomplished. With it, nothing is impossible. It is as brutal and as black and white as that. If you take no other memory from this book, then take that single thought. It was worth a damn sight more than the price you paid for it.

Page 208:
If you own a company and that company's purpose is to make you wealthy, you will be content, delighted even, for any amount of glory to go to anyone who works there, providing you get the money. It is in your best interests to delegate whenever it makes sense in such circumstances.

Page 210, on the corrosive influence of the wrong sort of employees:
The whole point about getting rich is not to have to deal with this nonsense. Office politics can be fun, as can all forms of politics, but to many people they are upsetting. They reduce productivity and dent morale. They can take up astonishing amounts of time. They increase the number of 'sick days' in a department - which is often a good indication that a toad is in charge and needs to be winkled out of its hole.

True delegation is an entirely different matter and can often be a joy to be involved in. On both sides. As an owner, or an owner in training, you must always be alert for the telltale signs that here is a candidate for promotion and delegation. They are smart. Perhaps smarter than you are. They work hard and they appear to love the work they do. They ask intelligent questions and don't waste time gossiping and mucking about. They listen and correct their errors, and don't repeat them. They want your job.

Page 238:
Back up your managers. With delegation comes responsibility. Back up your managers, in public, whenever and wherever you have to. If they do not perform, speak seriously in private to them. If they still do not perform, fire them. But do not undercut them or engage in meetings that appear to undercut them. Reprimand other managers who bad-mouth their peers. Nearly everyone's ego and self-confidence is more fragile than the outside world believes.

Search out and promote talent. Talent comes in all shapes and sizes and is often inarticulate and shy. Talent isn't necessarily the woman in the Calvin Klein suit who talks the talk and bamboozles meetings with stunning graphics on her PowerPoint presentation. Talent is often to be found dressed in T-shirts down in the lower reaches of your organisation. Set a bounty on talent among managers. When you find it, test it. Groom it. Work it until it's ready to drop. Load it with more work and responsibilities. Praise it. Reward it. It will make you loads-a-money.

Page 239:
Sell early. Real money rarely comes from horsing around running an asset-laden business if you are an entrepreneur. You are not a manager, remember? You are trying to get rich. Whenever the chance comes to sell an asset at the top of its value, do so. Things do not keep increasing in value for ever. Get out while the going is good and move on to the next venture. More money is usually lost holding onto an asset than is made waiting for the zenith of its value. I should know - it's my own biggest defect.

Enjoy the business of making money. The loot is only a marker. Time cannot be recaptured. There is no amount of pie in the world worth being miserable for, day after day. If you find you dislike what you are doing, then sell up and change your life. Self-imposed misery is a kind of madness. The cure is to get out.

Page 253:
Your employees, your colleagues, your suppliers and your customers are all human capital. Choosing among them is an art form. Yet creating the right environment in which money can be made is essential. I repeat, you can't do it on your own.

It takes effort, experience, focus and skill. If you get it right, you will become rich with an ease that will astonish you and everyone who knows you. If you get it wrong, you will be running around like a headless chicken for a year or so and then you will be bankrupt.

And you will deserve to be.

Page 274:
Screwing up isn't criminal or deliberate or malevolent. But covering up is, if you get caught. And you will get caught - ask the shade of Richard Nixon.

Page 300:
You can forgive yourself for not doing something if you honestly got it wrong. But it is harder to forgive yourself when lack of impetus allows it to slip through your fingers.

Need will drive you, but you must not prevaricate. You must act at the slightest hint of a chance to make money. You must go, go, go!

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November 16, 2009

Flattered, But Keen to Prove Russell Wrong

Bubblino and I were supposed to be going down to dConstruct this year, but things were a bit too busy over the summer and the pieces didn't fall into place.

It turns out that we did still get a mention during the conference, as Russell talked about us in his presentation. Now that the audio has been released... well, I don't know what to write here. I'm still a bit stunned at the level of compliment. Good job I didn't make it to the conference, all of Russell's good work would've been undone by my transformation into an incoherent idiot.

I mean, Bubblino is cool, but "like the mother of all demos [...] or the mouse"? Really? I'm flattered and gobsmacked in equal measure.

Anyway, you can have a listen to it all here (and you should listen to all of it, but if you just want:to hear how amazing Bubblino and I are, then skip to 5m20s in):

Materialising and Dematerialising A Web of Data. (Or What We’ve Learned From Printing The Internet Out) on Huffduffer

Russell has stuck some words and pictures to accompany the audio over on his blog.

And in reference to the title of this post, I don't want to prove Russell wrong by making Bubblino less amazing, but by building something even better.

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September 25, 2009

Post Digital

One of my speaking gigs of late was at Post Digital down in Birmingham. It was an excellent one-day event put on by the guys at Mudlark to celebrate the launch of their company. It was great to catch up with some old (as in ones I've met before, not aged ones) faces, and to meet some I've long been an admirer of.

On the train back I decided that I should approach my conference write-ups differently, mainly because then I'd maybe get them actually written and published, rather than languishing on my to-do list. So, from now on I'm not going to try to explain all that happened. Instead I'll pick one or two moments that really resonated with me, or that gave me real food for thought.

The thing that interested me most at Post Digital was something that Dan Heaf from 4ip said in his talk. He was arguing that British companies and individuals should be more ambitious when pitching for funding, so they can achieve more impact. Ask for a million pounds, then you might get half-a-million. If you ask for tens of thousands then you'll be perceived as a small company, and treated as such; and the same is true if you act like a company that will have real impact and ask for an order of magnitude more.

But the really interesting question was one that Dan thought 4ip should be asking the companies it's looking to fund. Rather than "how much money do you need?", what would happen if they asked "what would you do with a million pounds in funding?"

That's a profound change in focus, and a really thought-provoking question. What would you do with a million pounds of funding? I'm not sure what my answer would be, but I'd like to explore it further.

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June 17, 2009

New Ways of Working

As part of their Climate for Change season, FACT held the unSustainable unConference, an unconference about sustainability.

It was on Saturday 9th May and I'd just returned from a chaotic week in Germany. It was full of passionate people trying to work out what could be done to help sustainability, but by the end of the day I was getting rather frustrated with how we were defining the Manifesto for Change by what we were against, rather than looking for aspirational and more positive directions to channel our energies. Sadly I was wiped out after my week away (where I'd also acquired a cold) and so wasn't up to engaging with my fellow attendees, so I just retracted into my digital shell and heckled them electronically.

Before reaching that point, however, I did present some thoughts about the growing co-working and hackspace scenes. The flexible working and community-building that seems to come with such spaces could fall easily into a more sustainable way of working. And to meet my aforementioned aspirational and positive approach I even ended with a rather grand vision for how such a movement might evolve here in Liverpool.

I'll leave anyone interested to find more details by reading through my slides, but by all means get in touch if you'd like to know more...

There are notes with the slides, but they don't seem to have come out in the Slideshare presentation. If you download the Powerpoint deck for the slides you'll be able to get an idea of what I was talking about when giving the presentation.

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March 25, 2009

Video of Me on the Front Page of the BBC News Website

I turned on my laptop this morning to be met by a number of emails and tweets from friends letting me know that my face seemed to be gracing the front page of the BBC News website.

Heading over for a look, I found out it was true - although it was a bit tricky to spot me behind a huge bubble... that's right, Bubblino was muscling in as usual. It's an article about some of the inventions and gadgets that were at Maker Faire, and there's some good footage of Bubblino doing his stuff, plus a bit about the Mazzini project and the Light Load Lamp (which I'll be blogging about soon).

As I write this, it's even top of the "Most popular video/audio" section! Take a look for yourself at BBC News | Technology | Tech Know: Bubbling Inventions.

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March 23, 2009

Hear Me on BBC Radio 4's Click On Programme

The BBC were out in force at the Maker Faire the other weekend, and the content they recorded is starting to make its way out into the world.

Yesterday, BBC Radio 4's Click On programme aired their report from the faire, and the interview I did with them on the Sunday was featured in two points in the show.

First off, about 3m30s in, you can hear me talk about Bubblino (whose picture also graces the Click-on programme details page)

And then there's a longer segment from the interview at around the 10m 50s mark. In it I talk about what the Mazzini project is trying to achieve and explain some of the things you can start to do with the technology.

If you missed it then you can listen to the programme again from the Click On website or download the mp3 podcast of the show instead.

Two things that didn't make it into the interview, but which might be of interest to anyone visiting from hearing about us on the BBC, are Homecamp and Howduino:

Homecamp is an unconference being held in London on Saturday 25th April, and will be full of people discussing and hacking with energy monitoring and home automation.

And Howduino is a day of hardware-hacking and learning about Arduino boards (which power both Bubblino and the Mazzini monitors) in Liverpool, taking place on Saturday 23rd May. So if you fancy getting into the maker spirit, come along.

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March 16, 2009

Maker Faire UK

The first ever UK Maker Faire was held this past weekend in the centre of Newcastle. Around 5000 people visited the marquee over the two days, and got to see a host of different exhibits, including a life-size, fire-breathing mechanical horse; a physical (rather than on-screen) version of the old classic Lunar Lander; a collection of 3D-printed ornaments; and of course Bubblino and the Mazzini monitors.

Annoyingly, as I was manning the stand on my own, I didn't get to explore the event as much as I'd have liked. It was good to catch up with the guys from the recent Makers and Hackers event and Alex from Tinker.it, and to meet lots of interesting people for the first time.

As well as the exhibits there were lots of practical hands-on workshops that the public could join. On Saturday there was a marching band procession through the marquee, made up of people playing their electronic instruments that they'd just built, and over in one corner you could learn how to solder whilst building a flashing-eyed bug or an LED throwie. There was a wonderful air of you-can-do-this-too throughout the whole event.

The kids all loved Bubblino, and there was also plenty of interest in the Mazzini monitors and what they were measuring. I spoke to three different crews from the BBC over the weekend, so once any of that surfaces online I'll be sure to post links.

Well done to the Newcastle Science Festival guys for bringing Maker Faire to the UK, and to everyone at O'Reilly UK for putting on such a great festival of making and hacking. I'm already thinking about what else I should make to take to the next one...

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March 13, 2009

Are You Going to Maker Faire UK?

If you're in the Newcastle area this weekend, then you might want to head along to the first ever Maker Faire to be held in the UK.

And if you make it along, be sure to say hello - I'll be on a stand in the marquee, showing off Bubblino and the latest developments (more soon) with the Mazzini emergy monitor.

Full details are on the Maker Faire UK website.

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December 12, 2008

Barcamp Liverpool

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The Award-winning Mazzini Project

Another piece of news that first featured in my twitter feed was the fact that I won the "Bitchin' Pitches" session at Barcamp Liverpool when I talked about the Mazzini project. It's been great to hear such positive things from people about it, and over on the company blog you can read more about the competition.

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December 10, 2008

BarCamp Liverpool: Don't Just Change the World... Improve It!

In the run up to Barcamp Liverpool I set myself a challenge, and was even stupid enough to spell out the rather ambitious idea here on my blog. I decided to prepare two talks: the beginners guide to Arduino I've already posted; and a second which would be about inspiring people to start a business, or work out what's "wrong" with Liverpool and fix it, or use technology to counter climate change.

I didn't want to steal two slots in the schedule if that would stop someone else from presenting anything, so I held off adding the second talk until late morning on Sunday. There was a slot free for the end of the day, which fitted nicely with my ideas of rounding off the weekend with something of a call to arms.

I tried to pull the possible threads together under the umbrella term of improving the world, but I think my current business-focus skewed things a little. Still, I hope the dozen-or-so people present take the general idea and twist it to their own experiences and passions, and that me rambling about doing great things does have some small effect.

I've done what I can, whether this is "the spark that started things happening" will be up to others.

As ever, the slides are on Slideshare. After the talk, Alex asked about the assorted business networking events I'd mentioned, so I've thrown a list of places that I find out about business events and networking onto the GeekUp wiki. Feel free to add to that if you know of any similar links in the NW. The other way to find out about more of the events I attend is to keep an eye on my Upcoming page.

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November 19, 2008

The Mazzini Prototype is Measuring

Over on the company blog, I've just posted an update of how things are going with the Mazzini project. Things are starting to get really interesting - I've got an old ice-cream tub filled with electronics that's measuring the power that one of my computers is using. It's also logging the temperature in the room, and how much light there is.

All that data is being uploaded to the Internet, so you can head over to the Mazzini project's Pachube page and see for yourself what is being recorded.

So now I'm looking at how to take the prototype forward, and turn it into something that's useful for more people than just me. Again, there are more details in the update.

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November 15, 2008

The Most Important Topics to Discuss or Disseminate?

In a couple of weeks it's the first Barcamp Liverpool. One of the "rules" of Barcamps is that everyone who turns up should have a talk ready that they offer to present. I've been pondering over what I should prepare for my talk.

So far I've generally hinted at doing something Arduino-related, and have been assuming I'd either talk about monitoring your home (show the Mazzini prototype, talk about that and some of the similar projects from others, or some of the things I learn about at Homecamp); or running a more general "Getting started with Arduino" session where I plug some LEDs and a switch into a breadboard and write a bit of Arduino code. And I expect I'll still have something along those lines as one of my proposals.

However, I've just realised that I should be turning my thinking on its head. Rather than coming up with ideas based on the knowledge that I've got that others might find interesting, I should instead be answering the question:

You've got the attention of a couple-of-dozen motivated and intelligent geeks; how do you want to change their lives?

Now you could improve their knowledge, which is what my initial ideas cover; but maybe it would be better to inspire them to go out and improve the world, or challenge their thinking and affect their future behaviour.

I'm setting myself the challenge to go to Barcamp Liverpool with two proposals: one along the lines of the Arduino tutorial, and another that falls into the second category. I'm just not sure what it will be about. Maybe I'll talk about starting and building businesses that make a difference; or lead a brainstorming session to work out what's going wrong in Liverpool and how to fix it; or implore people to find ways to improve the reuse and recycling of technology to improve the environment; or...

I'd love to hear anyone's ideas, comments or thoughts on what this second proposal should aim to achieve. I'd love it even more if you came along to Barcamp Liverpool and presented something along these lines to inspire me. How cool would it be if we could point to Barcamp Liverpool as the spark that started things happening?

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November 13, 2008

Liverpool Software City International 2008

Software City held its second annual event last week. It's a Liverpool software networking and pitch-to-investors event which sees a collection of companies present their ideas to a panel of advisors/investors (including ex-Dragon Richard Farleigh this year) who respond with some questions and suggestions. The rest of us watch and take the opportunity to chat to peers (i.e. others in the software business, not a collection of Lords), investors, development agency representatives and other hangers-on during the breaks and post-event drinks.

It was a good event and I made some useful contacts, including finding out about the NWDA's hi-growth business funding/assistance scheme and discovering that one-man offices are available on Liverpool Innovation Park for less than £150/month.

In lieu of a proper review, I'll just mention some of the more interesting companies who pitched during the event. Maybe they'll be some of the future stars I was looking for recently...

Momote

Momote have a cross-platform mobile phone development platform. I thought that's what J2ME was supposed to be, but looking at their website it seems more of an XML-based offering. That reminds me of the stuff I worked on back at Trigenix before they were bought by Qualcomm. I'd be interested to find out more about it, and see how their offering is different from the ones tried before.

New Concept Gaming

These guys are building some cool new devices to let you get more active with your games console. In a similar vein to the Wiimote for the Wii, but they have controllers for PS3 and XBox in addition to the Wii. They've got the jOG on sale already, which lets you jog on the spot to get your in-game character to move around, and have another product in development which also notices when you crouch down or jump.

Yuuguu

Yuuguu were the only company I'd heard of before, although I didn't really understand what they offer. I've got more of an idea now - they're trying to help people collaborate remotely by offering a product to let you IM, share your desktop and audio conference.

They want to make it easy to enable adhoc collaboration, without having to book phone conference sessions, etc. and now have integration with existing IM networks and the ability for users to collaborate with people who don't have the Yuuguu software installed by accessing the service through their web browser. I think they need to let people use it purely in the browser too, as that will help get over the initial "not sure I want to download and install yet another bit of software" reluctance.

Should I pitch at Software City 2009?

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November 02, 2008

Going Back to the Plans

Life seems to be a whirlwind of networking events at the minute, which is how I managed to have signed up for last Thursday's Life Is Too Short To Go Unnoticed without really knowing what it entailed. It's strange how the world sometimes throws you exactly what you need, and an opportunity to work on the business rather than in it was something I was looking forward to.

Quarter of an hour in and I was beginning to have reservations. It seemed to be shaping up to a formulaic "here's lots of snippets about successful companies, you should try to be more like them" - the kind of event where you sit there nodding and thinking "oh, how clever", but once you get back to your business you realise that you haven't discovered a new way of doing anything. I was even wondering how I could find a game card so I could play Buzzword Bingo.

However, that was just the presenters, John Leach and Simon Bailey from Winning Pitch, warming up. They started to win me over during the second presentation, when John pulled up a slide entitled "The UK Sales Mentality". Pictured below were Del Boy, Arthur Daley and Frank Butcher, and John set about explaining how he hates shows like The Apprentice and Natural Born Sellers with their ultra-competitive, win-at-all-costs sales mentality.

From there I enjoyed the rest of the day. They encouraged interaction with the attendees and had a few practical exercises which helped us to start applying their ideas to our own situation. At the start of the day they outlined their objective, which was for everyone to find the top three tasks to have completed (the first step of) before the end of Friday, and at the end we each took our turn to share some of them with the rest of the group.

Mine were:

  1. Write a basic business plan for MCQN Ltd.
  2. Finish the Mazzini prototype. This is well under-way, and I'd have worked on it anyway, but it's important to give me something to demonstrate.
  3. Apply for some funding. This isn't vital, but will mean I can spend more time working on Mazzini. There are a few possibilities I've come across lately and, even if I don't get the money, just going through the process will sharpen up my thinking and talking about what I'm doing.

The business plan is the big task from that. It's also the one I've been putting off for the longest. I'm quite annoyed with myself, and a little amazed, that I've avoided it for so long. I'm a strong advocate for having a plan, regardless of whether or not you manage to follow it to completion. I'd almost suggest creating a plan and then immediately throwing it away, as the process of working out your route forces you to think about what you want and how you might get there. Your subconscious is then primed so that it can spot opportunities when they present themselves. I doubt that you'll end up where you thought you'd be when you wrote the plan, but I bet that it's a better place than you'd have ended up if you hadn't made one.

I didn't manage to get my three tasks started by the end of Friday, but that's because I already had the day earmarked to finish my VAT return. So I've given myself an extension till the end of the weekend, and am well on my way to achieving that. I haven't been able to work on the Mazzini prototype because I'm not at home, but the first draft of the plan was done yesterday, and I'm pulling together a list of the funding opportunities today.

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October 31, 2008

The North-West Will Be a Tech Hub When We Make It

Techcrunch UK has written again this week about the need for a technology centre (a la Silicon Valley) in the UK and how it might be happening in London. As usual, there's been a ripple of debate in these parts about the article, and whether there is, or should be, more of a scene here in the North West.

It hasn't stirred up as much debate as such items in the past, and I wasn't going to bother commenting on it until I read an article about it by Rob Knight.

He argues that there's a good case for having such a tech hub in the NW and cites the great developer community as one of his top reasons. He also says that "[if] there’s anything that the North does badly, it’s probably self-promotion."

I hope he's right, because I can't list any big or up-and-coming companies from the area who are doing interesting things. And I've been keeping an eye out for them.

It's strange, because there is such a coherent and active developer community, and there are many more networking opportunities and discussions going on in Liverpool, Manchester, and the surrounding area than I encountered in Cambridge, and yet...

There seem to be a lot more people working to build things for other companies rather than chasing ambitious projects to change the world. If we do want the NW to become a tech centre then we need to get on and build it, which is why I've moved here. At GeekUp Liverpool the other night, John mentioned that it would be great to get some big tech companies into Liverpool, and I'll extend what I said to him to the rest of the North-West - that's a great idea, what's your big company going to do?

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October 08, 2008

Off to London for Energy Expo and Be2Camp

see you @ be2camp

On Friday I'll be down in London for Be2Camp, a loosely-Barcamp-style unconference looking at the intersection of the web and the built environment.

I'm particularly looking forward to the sessions from Pachube, Duncan Wilson and Rob Annable and also hearing more about AMEE.

It seemed to make sense to head down tomorrow rather than try to cram be2camp plus all the travelling into one day, and that meant I could fit in a trip to Energy Expo too. I don't know how interesting it'll be, but hopefully it will provide some useful fodder for the Mazzini project.

Just one day left then to finish some work on Mazzini, and finalise my slides for the be2camp Pecha Kucha event...

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June 10, 2008

Launching Booklert, a New Service For Authors

The launch day for a new project feels a bit like having a birthday. You know that it should be a special day, but if you're on your own it's hard to see how it differs from every other day - after all, the project isn't as new and remarkable to you if you've been working at it for the past couple of months.

It also feels like one of those things where it's bad form to talk about it too much yourself. Maybe that's just a British thing. Maybe it's just a me thing... you shouldn't wander round proclaiming that it's your birthday and expecting special treatment; at worst you should just mention it quietly, but preferably you wouldn't even have to do that as somebody else would bring it up and make a fuss for you.

Anyway, consider this the quiet aside that today sees the launch of Booklert, which will send authors updates (via email or twitter) on their book's rank on Amazon. Now if you'll all go off and make a fuss about it, I'll practice playing it down and saying "ooh, your shouldn't... really, you're too kind..."

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May 30, 2008

Would You Like More Control Over Your Electricity Usage?

For a while now I've been wondering about how to green our homes. Over on the company blog I've just announced the Mazzini Project, the latest idea along these lines that I've been playing around with.

It's a wireless power-monitor combined with a control unit so that as well as letting you know exactly how much electricity whatever is plugged into it is using, you can also turn it on and off remotely. I'm still just building the first prototype (I was wiring together circuits and measuring things with the multimeter just this afternoon) but I wanted to start talking about the idea to see what people thought.

I've put some slides together to try to explain it in more detail, so please have a look at them and let me know what you think. Is it a good idea? Would you buy one? How would you hack one to do things I haven't thought of?

If you want to see the slides full-screen, then you can do that from this page.

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April 06, 2008

Which Vision Thing?

Once again I'm late to the party with my blogging. A week or two back, Paul Robinson posted an entry to his blog lamenting the state of the computer industry. I agree with a most of what he said: services like Facebook could be a really good way to keep in touch and engage with our friends, but have devolved into an endless parade of me-too, frothy, time-wasting games.

By the time I'm getting round to writing about it, things have already moved on. There have been a few responses to Paul's initial post; he's posted a summary of them; and thrown up an area of his website to discuss "The Vision Thing". On there they've even started to draft a manifesto.

All of which is highly commendable, but having read through it I'm left feeling a bit like a goth who's arrived late to a rave. Paul talks about wanting some meaning, and a vision that goes beyond building something "a bit like eBay but with a social graph". I don't see anything like that in the draft manifesto. "Down with IE6" is just froth in geek flavour. "Look after yourself" is just good advice, not something to fight for.

It's a very British manifesto: full of good intentions, but lacking ambition. Microsoft didn't set out to "make businesses lives a bit easier", they wanted "a computer on every desktop and in every home". We should be aiming for "renewable power generation on every home and every office" or "computer and Internet access for every single person in the UK" or...

I know that I'm doing no better than Paul in just writing this blog post. I don't have a solution. Yet. tedium is hardly going to revolutionize the world, but similarly it isn't just froth. It's also just the first step towards building something bigger. I don't have a full handle on my mission to change the world, but I'm beginning to grasp the strands that will weave together to produce it.

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April 04, 2008

I'm Now More-than 25% More Productive

The first quarter of 2008 is over, which means that I've just received my quarterly Productivity Report from tedium.

I can't make a direct comparison just yet because the last report was for a whole year, but if I maintain this rate of completing tasks for the rest of the year, I'll have done more than 25% more things in 2008 than I did in2007. Of course, I'm still managing to add new tasks faster than I can complete them, but you can't have everything...

Tasks are also spending less time in the "system" before I complete them. In 2007, on average it took just over a month for a task to be completed, but so far in 2008 I've almost halved that time.

Anyway, that's enough retrospection. I need to get back to doing things to keep my completion rate up for the next report!

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March 20, 2008

Telling Your Friends What You Do Isn't Marketing

A few days ago, Tom Reynolds posted an entry on his blog highlighting how poorly some marketers try to reach out to bloggers. In it he holds up an earlier post of his about a film from one of his friends as a prime example of how people should market to bloggers.

I can't see how you can call that marketing, apart from in a very small limited sense. My friends all know that I've written a to-do list web app, and I'm sure they've mentioned it to other people, but that isn't going to take me very far in my quest to reach everyone that might be helped by my software.

It's difficult to know how to present my arguments, without coming across like a disgruntled outsider, but I'm interested in finding out what I'm doing "wrong" and hopefully also improving how marketers interact with bloggers.

In the comments on that post, Tom says:

"Actually posting about Gia's film is perfect, because you have to ask yourself *why* I'm her friend, and it's because of the things that she writes on her blog, and does in life that have endeared me to her.

That's why - it might not scale, but then there are people out there who trust *me* and will be influenced by my recomendations."

and Gia (whose film Tom was talking about) adds:

"I'd say if you are working in online marketing and want to 'use' bloggers to spread your word, then invest your time and yourself in blogging."

The only problem with that is that, as Tom says, it doesn't scale. People who are marketing are looking for things that scale. If Tom is right, then either we end up with lots of marketing people trying to become our friends, or people like Tom who are touting the "How to market to bloggers" talks are selling snake oil. The former sounds like a terrible pollution of the blogging "community", and if it's the latter, can someone please let me in on the secret so I can go back to looking for other ways for people to discover my software.

Don't get me wrong, I don't think that the mass-emailed I'm-throwing-this-at-as-many-bloggers-as-I-can-find-in-case-one-likes-it is the right way to market to bloggers either. I think the real answer lies somewhere in the middle, which is what I'm trying to do right now. But a lot of it is just leaving the odd comment (where I've got something relevant to add) or sending an out-of-the-blue email to someone whose blog I've found (and spent some time reading, and checked to see if there are any indicators that they won't be interested) that might be interested.

I just think this "immerse yourself in blogging" as a marketing strategy is bollocks. I love blogging, and my blog has helped me make all sorts of connections and helped with all sorts of things in life and in my business. But it hasn't helped me market tedium. Maybe I've been too much on the fringe of the "UK blogging 'gang'" that Gia mentions? Or maybe I'm not good enough at self-promotion? Maybe people don't realise that I've got something to promote, and so don't help out?

So, in case anyone hasn't realised...

I've written a web app that helps you stay organized and even tells you how well you're doing, called tedium.
I'd love it if you could tell anyone who you think might find it useful.
I'm still getting to grips with marketing, so if you've got any pointers I'd love to hear more.
And finally, if you've got any thoughts or opinions on what I've been ranting about above, leave a comment or write about it on your blog.

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February 10, 2008

Let a Thousand Niches Wither

I've been thinking about getting paid. I was going to say I'd been thinking about revenue models, but that's just a fancy way of saying getting paid, which is maybe part of the problem.

Basically, the web has promises to be the best way for people to connect to each other, and so should be the perfect marketplace. The long tail promises that there are an almost unlimited set of niches waiting to be filled.

In parts, this is true. Take the process that sparked this blog post for example. This morning, Russell Davies wrote on his blog that he'd like a twitter feed of changes in the Amazon sales rank of his book. The idea piqued my curiosity, and an hour or so of poking round the web later, I've found out how to query the Amazon API to get the sales rank for his book and found out how I would hook into twitter to submit the updates.

Now, if I was just knocking something up for myself, I'd be about half-an-hour from having it all finished. But as Russell says, it's the sort of thing that other authors would find useful, so I've been pondering making it into a full-blown service.

"Making it into a full-blown service" is a bit over-the-top, but as Eric Sink said, it's a non-trivial step to go from something hacked together for me to something that I'd be happy letting other people use. There'd need to be a way to sign up, a way to stop the updates, and then the ongoing maintenance if either the twitter or Amazon APIs change.

It still wouldn't be a grand undertaking, but it becomes more like a day's-worth of work now, and then an undefined amount more in the future (but again, probably not too much). It's at this point that it stops looking like a fun problem to spend a while solving, and more like work. I don't want to launch services that I can't maintain, and obviously there's a limit to the number of services I can maintain - particularly if they're being maintained in my spare time.

What the web is missing is an easy way to charge for such small, niche services. Surely something like this is worth the price of a cup of coffee to authors? The problem is that, at present, the assumption on the web is that it should somehow be paid for by advertising, which means that the only things which get built are either a by-product of delivering audiences to advertisers, or things that geeks build for themselves.

If there was a way for people like me to cover their costs (plus a little extra) then we could solve all sorts of niche computer problems for people who can't code, without having to spend all our time working out how to force them to click on adverts.

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January 25, 2008

Annual Report 2007

Productivity Report 2007 picture
I don't really do New Year's Resolutions, and I prefer to do my longer-term dreaming/planning as an ongoing background process rather than picking some fairly arbitrary date. However, the start of a new year has happened to coincide with developing a major new feature for tedium, and I've learnt some interesting things as a result.

At the end of each quarter, tedium now compiles a report showing you how much you've achieved and how you've achieved it. The report at the end of the year looks back over the entire year, rather than just three months, and so I can now show you my Annual Productivity Report 2007.

Over 2007 I completed over 700 tasks, although I replaced each of them with something new and a hundred or so more for good measure. Still, that's only a 12%-or-so rise, which doesn't feel too onerous.

If you look at the graph of new tasks over the year, there's a clear peak at the start of November which matches the start of my 30-in-30 challenge but isn't matched by a similar rise on the graph of completed items. I'm quite pleased with how flat both of those graphs are - I'm just steadily getting things done.

The biggest bump in the completed tasks occurs in July, which is when we were getting things finished on the house and organising moving to Italy, and you can see that reflected in the tag clouds. House and Italy are two tags I used to track everything we needed to fix up before renting our house in Cambridge, and things we needed to do for our move to Turin. The other big tags hyperfocus and thisweek show a different way that I use tags - when I'm reviewing what I need to do, I use those tags to flag the tasks that are a priority for me to address.

The main thing that the punctuality section shows is that I don't assign dates to my tasks very often. It's generally only things like dentist appointments and things that have to happen on a particular day. Fifteen tasks out of seven hundred isn't very many.

Things get more interesting in the productivity section. My productivity seems to steadily decline over the week - starting strongly on Monday and Tuesday before fading on Friday and Saturday before a suprise resurgence on the 'day of rest'. The hourly breakdown is more predictable, although it looks like I have a tendency to add new tasks late in the evening - preparing my todo list for the following day, no doubt.

Moving into 2008, I've still got a lot to do, but 253 remaining tasks is only a third of what I completed last year. There's plenty still to do on tedium, and I'd like to do a fair bit more on learning Italian. I'm looking forward to the end of March when I can compare how I've done in the next report.

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January 05, 2008

The A-Z of Personal Productivity

The A-Z of Personal Productivity

I don't blog about work very often, mainly because I'm immersed in it all the time and so it doesn't occur to me that it would be newsworthy. However, given that part of my current focus is to help people become more productive and achieve their goals, it seems foolish not to promote that on my blog.

Over on the MCQN Ltd. blog I've started collecting useful links to articles about how to get more organized and have also been writing the A-Z of Personal Productivity.

The latter is a collection of tips and techniques on how to tackle and track everything we want to do; from the day-to-day picking up the groceries, to achieving your hopes and dreams for the future. There's a new article posted each week (usually on Wednesday) and so far we're up to D.

Obviously, the methods all work well when paired with an excellent online todo list app such as tedium, but it isn't a requirement for making use of the ideas.

And if you know anyone who might find this useful, or if you've got a blog, I'd be most appreciative if you could spread the word and help me find more people to help.

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December 03, 2007

If Not Hot Water, Then Something Else?

In a recent email (after my follow-up posting about the solar-water-utility), Jeff wondered if I'd heard of heat pumps and whether they'd be a better solution than solar water panels.

They are something I'd heard of, in fact I saw one in the flesh during the tour of the AC Architects practice a couple of years back. They also had photos taken during the installation, when they sunk the boreholes for the pipework. More recently I'm sure I've heard about air-to-air heat pumps, which I imagine aren't as efficient but don't need you to dig deep holes in your garden.

It isn't something I'd considered with respect to the Green Utility (I can't call it the Solar Water Utility now, can I?) and I'm not going to invest any more time looking into it now, but it's a good idea.

However, today the House 2.0 blog has a post about some experiments that Barratt have been carrying out with Manchester University which give some interesting data points for anyone who would be building the Green Utility. Not taking into account inflation (or presumably other possible energy price increases), they've calculated the payback period for a number of green technologies:

Domestic wind turbines
Although in theory these are a useful approach, with the current technology (possibly the electrics side, rather than the wind "capture") in practice they aren't any use.
Photo-voltaic panels
A £4,500 solar electricity generation system would take 37.5 years to pay for itself
Ground source heat pump
Not as efficient as makers claim, but still worthwhile. A £7,800 system will reduce a home’s carbon emissions by 62% and has a payback period of 15 years.
Solar hot water
They didn't work out the payback period for solar hot-water but did comment that, although they heated water to much higher temperatures, the evacuated tube collectors didn't really provide any benefit over flat-plate collectors, so weren't worth their extra ~£1,000 cost.
Micro CHP (Combined Heat and Power - units that generate both heat and electricity)
No payback figures on these either, although they give figures for the power generated during the year's testing. It might also be worth reading another House 2.0 entry about micro CHP which comments on a report casting doubts over their validity in domestic situations.

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November 26, 2007

The Green Marketing Manifesto Hits Italy

A couple of days ago as I was passing the little bakery in the bottom of our apartment block the lady who owns it called me over. She wasn't checking if I wanted another siciliana loaf, one of the cool things about life in an Italian apartment block seems to be that one of the shops acts as an informal parcel collection point. Pop in for some bread, and pick up that Amazon delivery that arrived this morning...

Or in this case, my signed, bloggers-review copy of The Green Marketing Manifesto (Amazon UK, Amazon US).

And just to prove that it has made it all the way out to Turin, here's a photo of me holding it in Piazza Bodoni, just down the road from our apartment.

Picture of me holding the Green Marketing Manifesto in Piazza Bodoni

I had intended to make up some stupid pun about the Green Marketing Manifesto and the verdigris on the statue of Alfonso Ferrero, but whilst I was sat in the piazza I realised that I could mention the two green Torinese initiatives which were metres away from where I was sat.

Of course, this being Turin - home of FIAT and Lancia - both initiatives are transport-related. The first is the Autobus Elettrico, an electric bus service. The Star 2 route (so there are at least two electric bus routes) started recently and runs past Piazza Bodoni. The buses (see pic below) don't produce any emissions, and are much quieter than normal ones; they are still loud enough that you hear them coming, which is something I'd wondered about when I'd heard of such schemes before.

The other scheme is the Car City Club car-sharing club. They have lots of parking spaces dotted around the city-centre (like the one at Piazza Bodoni pictured below) and cars are available from 2 Euros/hour during the day (or there's some monthly payment system too).

I must admit I haven't used either of these services, but that's because we live in the middle of town and either walk or cycle (Turin is quite bike-friendly) to get anywhere locally.

Picture of one of the electric buses in operation in Torino Picture of one of the Car City Club parking areas and one of the cars

Tags:

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November 08, 2007

The Green Marketing Manifesto

In a blatant plot to promote his new book The Green Marketing Manifesto, John Grant is giving away a free copy to each of the first 50 bloggers to link to him.

It looks like an interesting read, and if I can get a free copy then all the better.

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August 12, 2007

Tony Wilson

Tony Wilson, the man who gave us New Order and the Happy Mondays, died on Friday.

He was always outspoken and often controversial, but was also someone who followed his own path and beliefs rather than blindly following convention.

He often seemed arrogant or pompous when I saw him interviewed, but I much admired his business ideas and his unwavering support for Manchester and the North-West. He showed that you don't have to head to London to have an impact. The rest of the country (and the North in particular) needs more people like that.

Stuart has a round-up of obituaries although I'll add the one from the BBC.

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January 22, 2007

I Don't Sound Like That, Do I?

You'd have thought that with all my karaoke experience I'd have a reasonable idea of what I sound like. It was still strange to listen to myself being interviewed on Shareware Radio.

Mike Dulin (the host of Shareware Radio) collared me when I was at the European Shareware Conference at the end of last year (my notes from the conference) and the interview is now available online.

The interview covers a bit about what tedium is and how it works; and my thoughts on the conference and some of the business side of MCQN Ltd.

My big concern when I sat down for the interview was that I'd "umm" and "ahh" all the way through, which I don't appear to have done. But that could be because Mike has done a good job of editing them out, I don't know. I need to work on my enthusiasm levels though - I'm much more excited about tedium and the company than it sounds in the interview. For an unexpected and un-rehearsed interview though, it could have turned out a lot worse.

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November 21, 2006

ESWC Roundup

This is the last of my posts on the European Shareware Conference 2006. There might be the odd update to the posts if I find links to the presenters slides. I'm missing notes from two sessions - on the first day I missed the start of Tony Edgecombe's talk on Trust and couldn't take notes as my laptop was stranded at the other side of the room on charge. Gavin Bowman's has published his notes for that session. Then on the second day I skipped Thomas Wetzel's presentation about protecting your application (again, Gavin's notes are available) because I was being interviewed.

Mike Dulin had converted one of the rooms in the hotel into something resembling a radio studio and was quizzing me about tedium and the conference for his podcast - Shareware Radio. It was my first ever interview, but Mike does a great job of keeping things moving, and we'll have to see what it's like when it gets aired. Watch this space...

Here are the links to all of my notes from the conference:

Day One

Day Two

Final Thoughts

I thoroughly enjoyed the conference. There was lots of information to soak up from the presentations, which covered a full range of topics useful to anyone running a business online. As a direct result of the conference I'm going to be ditching Google Analytics in favour of another web server log analyzer (not exactly sure which yet, there are two I want to try), and I'll be trying out Infacta's GroupMail for managing my mailing lists (I've been looking for something to do this for a while, and this looks good and there was a conference offer of a free Personal Edition copy!).

It wasn't just the sessions that were good. I met all sorts of interesting people over the three days (I'm including the evening spent in the pub on Friday as part of the conference).

It was nice to meet both Bob and Gavin after trading emails with them in the past. Plus there were some locals attending who I hadn't met - Tony and Stephen, and one (Martin) I used to play footie with but haven't seen in a while. Then there were all those I met for the first time. It was great to meet you, and illuminating talking to you all.

As always seems the way when I attend conferences, I came away from the event buzzing with ideas and thoughts. Now I need to sift through them and start working on some of it.

Postscript

A final note about my note taking during the conference. It was the first time that I'd used my tablet PC in anger, and it acquitted itself well. The battery lasted half a day before it needed recharging, so I could just leave it to charge over lunch; and handwriting my notes in Microsoft OneNote was much less intrusive and distracting than typing would've been. The handwriting recognition has also been pretty impressive - by which I mean that the process of converting my handwritten notes into what's been posted up here has been: convert the handwriting to text in OneNote; then check the text against the original handwritten version and make corrections. There's generally been something to correct on every line, but I think it was quicker than typing them up manually would've been.

I'll leave you with some of the more amusing mis-conversions I've encountered whilst writing up the notes:

Original
Auto-converted version
Taming your visitors
Gaming your visitors
How many customers
Have mangy customers
FAQs are good
Torsos are gout
Analyze your logs
Downcast your loss
If you're lucky with an engineer
If you're bully with an engineer
Adwords
androids or bywords or woodworks or pollards
Windows
windups
~8000
igloo

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November 19, 2006

ESWC - Website Critique

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ESWC - Michael Lehman: Project Glidepath

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ESWC - Panel #4: Supporting Your Users

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November 18, 2006

ESWC - Dave Collins: Google AdWords - Taming the Beast

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November 15, 2006

Last Couple of Days to Try to Win a Year of tedium

Things have been a bit manic round here of late, so I haven't had chance to point to a very nice write-up of tedium done by GTD Wannabe.

Luckily, there are still a few days left to leave your thoughts and comments about tedium over on the write-up and be in with a chance of winning a year's subscription.

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November 13, 2006

ESWC - Panel #3: eCommerce Advances and Advantages

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November 11, 2006

ESWC - Dave Collins: Websites That Sell

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November 05, 2006

ESWC - Thomas Wetzel: Grow Your Google Adwords Account Successfully

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ESWC - Sinan Karaca: How to build extreme installers

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ESWC - Panel #2: Technical Issues

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ESWC - Marcel Hartgerink: Next-generation Software Protection Tools

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ESWC - Panel #1: Marketing - What Are The Opportunities In 2007

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ESWC - Robert Martin: Marketing - It's What We Do

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ESWC - Gary Elfring: On Selling Software

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ESWC - Search Engine Optimisation/Optimization

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ESWC - Keynote Address: Bob Walsh

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ESWC

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November 01, 2006

A Good Weekend For Cambridge MicroISVs

This weekend the European Shareware Conference is taking place in the Crowne Plaza hotel in the middle of Cambridge. There are a lot of interesting talks about all sorts of topics relating to writing, marketing and selling software. See the link for the full schedule.

I'll be going along, and will also be heading down to the pre-conference pubmeet on Friday. It's down at The Anchor at 7:30pm. And, because a number of the people who hang out on the JoelOnSoftware.com "Business of Software" forum are going to the conference, there's a JoS meetup happening in the Crowne Plaza at 6pm and then probably moving onto the Anchor a bit later on.

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October 09, 2006

CHASE: Mobile Content and More

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October 05, 2006

tedium Hits Version 1.0!

Screenshot of my tedium session for tag 'rc1'

On the left is a screenshot of all the tasks in my tedium account which are tagged with the "rc1" tag.

What's interesting about that is that they're all crossed out, which means that I've finished them all.

And the interesting thing about that is that "rc1" stands for Release Candidate 1, which basically means version 1.0 of tedium. And I've completed everything that needed to be done for it. Which must mean that tedium is now at version 1.0 and is no longer in beta testing! Woohoo!!!

I don't think I've written too much here about the ongoing improvements that have been made to my web-based to-do list application during the beta testing; I've tended to do that more on the MCQN Ltd. blog.

So, a brief roundup of all things tedium...

What is it? It's a website where you can keep track of all the things you need to do, and which helps you get more of them done. It does that in a couple of ways: firstly by getting out of your way - at its simplest you only need to fill in one box to add a new task to the system, and at its most complicated there are still only three things to fill in (what the task is, some keywords or tags, and a due date). Secondly, being able to tag your tasks lets you view your tasks in a number of ways - by project; by who you need present to do it; by location... whatever suits you best. So you can tailor what tasks you see to all the different situations when you're trying to get things done. Less distractions mean you can focus on what needs to be done now.

What's been added since it was launched? There have been all sorts of little things done here and there, but the big, most noticeable changes are:

  • Timezone support. So it works properly regardless of where you are in the world.
  • Filtering on multiple tags. Lets you narrow in on a set of tasks even more by showing just the ones which are tagged with one tag AND another tag (AND another AND another AND....)
  • Multiple lists displayed at once. Choose up to four different lists (either by tag, or due date, or a mixture) to show on screen at the same time. Then you can drag and drop tasks between the lists to manipulate their tags and/or due dates.
  • Tailor the tedium interface to suit you. You can choose which lists are available from the linkbar across the top of each page, so you can quickly switch between those views that you use the most.
  • The help system. From each page you can get help about how to use what's on that page; and there's a beginner's guide to get you started and the first of a number of tutorials.

How much does it cost? Everyone gets the first thirty days absolutely FREE, and then being able to stay on top of everything should easily be worth the less-than-$2-per-month cost. To save us billing you lots of tiny amounts each month, we've just made it $19.95/year.

How do I try it out? The easiest way to have a play with it is to jump straight in with a temporary account. You can always convert the temporary account into a proper one later, which will keep any tasks and tags you've entered.

Feel free to let me know what you think of it, or things we could add, etc. either by email or in the comments.

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September 03, 2006

Get Football News On Your Phone

One thing that I've done recently, but didn't mention in the roundup is this set of Premiership football team news feeds for mobile phones.

An IM conversation with Geoff about Dave Winer's BBCRiver.com lead to me knocking up a basic service to give you a list of the BBC Sport headlines optimized for display on a phone or a PDA, whilst Geoff registered an assortment of domain names and setup the index site at newsrivers.com.

To see the headlines for your team, you just need to visit <team-initials>FCRiver.com or find your team on the index page. So, for example, get the latest Liverpool news at LFCRiver.com.

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July 18, 2006

CHASE: Screen Technology

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June 23, 2006

Less Copying, More Innovating

More lamenting why we aren't Silicon Valley via Ellee Seymour, only this time worryingly it's the shadow chancellor complaining.

To begin with, I thought there were some good points in his article, but the more I think about it the less convinced I become.

Why does it matter how many universities we have in the world's top 20? I don't remember any of my peers at school even thinking of going abroad to a different uni, so we aren't losing tomorrow's startup founders there. My experience of university was that it tended to be rather academic, and not too tuned to business, so encouraging that would be more useful to foster more startups.

I'm also unconvinced as to how useful patents are. Myspace doesn't have anything in that hasn't been done before (and given how ropey it is, most likely done better before).

All these efforts and initiatives trying to emulate Silicon Valley are pointless and will ultimately be futile. If I wanted to be part of Sililcon Valley I'd have gone there. I'm not yet sure what we do need to encourage more startups, but we should be looking at how to build our own success, not copy someone else's.

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June 11, 2006

CHASE: Half Minute Media

I thoroughly enjoyed this month's CHASE meeting. Richard Konig gave a very open and engaging presentation about his company, Half Minute Media - quite impressive given that it was his first go at public speaking.

Half Minute Media have some digital fingerprinting technology that they use to recognise ad-break "bumpers" - those programme idents, or sponsor messages that come before and after every break for adverts. They use the technology in an entry-level PC to identify when the adverts have started, and then switch to a different channel for the duration of the ad-break. This lets them provide a service for pubs, bars, gyms and health clubs that shows more targetted advertising or details of upcoming promotions or events at the venue. Revenue comes from the sale of advertising, although the venue showing the adverts gets 30% and the opportunity to use up to 4 advertising slots for their own adverts.

Richard also covered some of the lessons they've learnt in starting the company. Funding and cashflow are vital - the DTI loan guarantee is expensive (although they couldn't have coped without it), and lack of funding has hampered their growth somewhat. Patents are expensive, and it's too early to say whether they've been useful or not. They have taken the very clever step of patenting some of the methods of attacking their main patents, to help prevent any competition. Don't start a family at the same time as starting a business - at present there are four employees of the company, and two of them are on maternity leave! And finally, get rid of time-wasters as quickly as possible.

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June 05, 2006

Why Haven't You Started A Startup?

The article which indirectly sparked my Is Cambridge The UK's Startup Hub? post has been causing further conversations through a number of other blogs that I read. Not all are centred around working out how to encourage more people to start their own businesses but that's what intrigues me most.

Having thought about it some more, I think that the most important factor in encouraging more startups is people. A business can't start without a founder.

That sounds obvious, and maybe it was to everyone else, but I'd spent some time thinking about all sorts of other factors like location, availability of staff, living costs, and so on before realising that the best way to gain more new businesses would be for more people to decide to start them.

Almost everyone I know has at some point speculated about starting their own company, or getting out of the rat race and having more control over their own life. Yet far fewer have actually done so. Why is that? I'm not well placed to answer the question, because I've started my own company - there are all sorts of challenges and problems that I've encountered, but solving them would just have made the startup journey easier rather than affecting whether or not I embarked upon the journey at all.

So, what I'd like to know is have you ever thought of starting your own business? And if you have, why didn't you continue with it? Or did you start it but decide to stop? And what affected your decision?

Or is it the case with starting your own business that those that are going to do this do, and those that aren't shouldn't be encouraged?

What would it take to persuade you to start your own business?

Bonus links, if you want to read some more about the debate

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June 02, 2006

KISS - Keeping It Simple Sells?

Harvard Business School has recently published a report entitled "Feature Bloat: The Product Manager's Dilemma". In it, they discuss one of the big problems facing anyone building products today - that when faced with a choice, people will often be initially drawn to the product with the most features, but in the long run they prefer simpler products that they can actually understand and work.

I'm definitely tending towards the cleaner, simpler, more understandable side of building products. DataCocoon doesn't offer the ability to burn your backup onto a CD because most people know how to copy things onto a CD, and it defeats the "backup software you can forget about" if you have to remember to put in a CD regularly. And with tedium I spend a lot of time working out how to add new features without cluttering the basic mechanism of getting my to-do items into the computer as quickly as possible.

The problem is then how to persuade people to use my software when at first glance it doesn't seem to compare well against some of the competition because they have more features. I'm hoping that the Internet, and the conversations and communication it allows through blogs, forums, usenet, etc. will give people the knowledge to look beyond the initial shiny baubles of an extra feature and choose the product that will best solve their problems.

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May 24, 2006

How I Get Things Done

"How do you keep track of all the things you need to do? Whilst developing DataCocoon I found that there were so many things to keep track of - finishing the software itself, building the website, getting the artwork done, setting up the Ltd...

On the bigger scale ("bug X needs to be fixed", "there needs to be a help file") I just tracked everything in my bug database, as I have for years with any software project. But that doesn't work very well for the day-to-day, finer-grained list of actions that need to be done in order to achieve the bigger goals.

After reading the excellent Getting Things Done and being overrun with to-do lists jotted down on scraps of paper, I decided it was time I got things computerized."

Over on the MCQN Ltd. blog I've posted an article about how I keep track of my daily to-do items.

The main reason for the post is to announce that everyone else now has the opportunity to use the same tool to keep on top of everything they need to do and so become more productive. I've polished up the web app that I've been using for the past few months now and tedium is now up and running on the Internet.

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May 17, 2006

Is Cambridge The UK's Startup Hub?

Tom Coates makes a very interesting post asking whether or not the UK could foster more startups, and where would it make sense for them to congregate. In it he draws up a shortlist of Oxford, Cambridge, York, Bristol and Brighton.

I don't know much about the other locations, but living in Cambridge it seems to me that Tom has fallen into the London-centric, new media (he says, stereotyping wildly but it fits in with my story :-) trap of complete ignorance of anything going on outside the M25.

Things have cooled a little since the dot-com bubble and there's less talk these days of the Silicon Fen, but there are still lots of startups in and around Cambridge. I think there are two reasons that Cambridge startups aren't as well known:

  • Lots of the companies produce products which are hidden behind the scenes - for example Cambridge Silicon Radio provide over 50% of Bluetooth chips, ARM's processors are in all sorts of things, and Zeus build web server software.
  • And for some reason, there's a tendency for startups to sell out rather than go it alone and so the startup becomes just the Cambridge office of a bigger (usually American, sadly) company.

I don't know if life in Cambridge is perfect for startups, but I've found it pretty good so far. The concentration of software companies in the area mean that I've been able to find bits of contracting to help fund MCQN Ltd. and also make it less risky for employees to join a startup - if it all goes wrong, it's easy enough to find another to join. Plus there are plenty of opportunities for networking: Cambridge Network have the grander, more corporate/VC networking covered; CHASE is a friendlier group aimed at the smaller businesses; and there are groups like CETC and the Cambridge Women's Lunch Club.

That said, maybe I'm not the best person to comment on why more people don't start their own company. What would it take for you to start your own startup?

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May 01, 2006

Just Where Is My Personal Data?

Over on the MCQN Ltd. blog I've just started a series of posts to help you find out what you should back-up.

The "My Documents" folder is an obvious candidate to be backed up, but programs like Outlook Express squirrel away your data elsewhere, often in a location that isn't immediately obvious. What I want to do with the series is build it up into a useful repository of instructions on where to find the data, organised by program name. So, if you can think of any program you use which doesn't store its data in the "My Documents" folder, I'd appreciate it if you could leave a comment about it or send me an email.

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April 22, 2006

If It Isn't Blogging, Then What Is It?

Ellee Seymour and Geoff Jones have persuaded local newspaper the Cambridge Evening News to run a column about blogging and business.

However, as Ellee explains, they aren't sure whether or not to use the word "blog" in the title.

I can understand why... it doesn't sound particularly good, but I think we're stuck with it now and if the column is to draw in people who aren't already into blogging then I think it's important to use the same term as everyone else. Maybe the extended version - "weblog" - would be close enough and a bit more business-like?

Regardless of the term they choose, I hope they set-up some sort of blog to go with the column. It would help show the value of blogs if there's a place for the readers to find the links to the original articles mentioned in the column and, more importantly, somewhere for them to discuss and comment upon the column.

UPDATE: Oops, in my rush to get outside and enjoy the sunshine, I forgot to include the proper links to Ellee, Geoff and the CEN. Added them now.

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April 14, 2006

DataCocoon Is Released!

The big moment has arrived! Today sees the launch of DataCocoon!

The website revamp is also live, so if you head over to www.mcqn.com you'll see it in all its splendour. Whilst you're there you can download the full version of DataCocoon, which is free to use for thirty days so that you can decide whether it suits you as a way to keep your data safe.

Then it's an easy process to buy a licence key to unlock the program to work forever - I know, I tried it out last night. If you're one of the first few people to buy it, you'll even get a phonecall from a nice lady at www.plimus.com as they're taking care of keeping all your credit card details safe and sending you a licence key and they need to ensure that there's nothing dodgy with my new vendor account. Good to see that they're careful not to let people use stolen credit-cards and the like, though do let me know if you have any problems with the purchase process.

Now the real fun starts, as I get thrown headlong into the sales and marketing side of things. But first I need to finish off the speech I'll be giving tomorrow afternoon somewhere just outside of Bolton or I won't be deserving of the title "best man"...

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March 14, 2006

CHASE: Global Warming and Wikipedia

Last Tuesday's CHASE meeting was the best that I've attended. And the first given by someone with a blog. Which means it's a bit easier for me to talk about it because I can just provide a link to his write-up of the event.

William Connolley's presentation was split into two topics. First off he talked about climate change, which is something he's involved with professionally as a climate modeller; and then moved on to discuss Wikipedia, where his work as an "admin" is done in his spare time.

It was refreshing and interesting to hear someone talking about global warming without the usual emotionally-charged doom-and-gloom or "there's nothing to worry about" attitude. Lots of graphs showing a variety of possible predictions, from the optimistic to the pessimistic, which he did a good job of explaining. I'd recommend having a look through the presentation slides which are available at the above link (unfortunately you'll need OpenOffice to read it, but as I found out the other day, that isn't too terrible an install. Shame they don't provide a viewer in the same way that PowerPoint does)

The Wikipedia section of his talk contained less information that I didn't know, but I still learnt quite a bit about the structure of the community and some of the details of how they prevent it from degenerating into a loop of opposing factions deleting each other's content. And it's an area that William has some knowledge of, given that one of the pages he's contributed to most is the one on global warming.

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March 13, 2006

PeerBackup Is No More. Meet DataCocoon.

As alluded to in the previous post, the Release Candidate release of my easy, automated backup application that went to the beta testers on Friday was the first to bear the name DataCocoon.

PeerBackup was always just a work-in-progress name; it doesn't mean anything to non-techie users (and it's aimed squarely at helping them keep their documents, photos, etc. safe) and due to its architecture shifting slightly during development, it's misleading to techies.

After much brainstorming, pondering, poring over dictionaries, and searching for domain names which weren't already taken (www.nameboy.com is very useful for this kind of process, although I didn't buy the eventual domain through them), a shortlist of possibilities was sent out to a handful of carefully chosen non-techie beta testers.

Most of the possible names fell by the wayside early on in the voting, with DataCocoon seeing off two other strong contenders to emerge victorious and gain the honour of having its name engraved onto the title bar.

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PeerBackup Update

It feels as if (and has probably been quite apparent that) I have been struggling to post regularly to McFilter recently, and in particular, I think it's been a bit light on content about how the business is going. As is often the case with blogging, a lack of posts is mainly down to a lack of time, because things are rather busy.

So although there hasn't been much talk about the business, there has been plenty of work on the business. Which is the way it should be, of course.

On Friday I made what I expect to be the final release of PeerBackup to the beta testers! (Well, strictly speaking, the final release of PeerBackup was the previous release, but more of that in the next post...). I'm pleased with how well it all hangs together, and with the new artwork it looks like a pretty professional, polished application (which of course it is ;-)

Now I need to concentrate on finishing off the revamp of the MCQN Ltd. website and getting the payment processing up and running, and then you'll be able to go out and buy it!

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February 08, 2006

All Roads Lead To Doncaster

postwatch is the watchdog for the postal service in the UK, and last night two of their East Anglian team gave a presentation at the CHASE meeting.

It was actually a much more interesting talk than I was expecting. We got to hear a bit about how the Royal Mail operates; about what postwatch does; details of how the postal market is changing; and a look at some of the technology in use elsewhere in the world.

At the start of this year, the government opened up the postal service to competition, so anyone (once they've got a licence) can set up as a postal operator. It seems unlikely that there'll be many people taking on the Royal Mail in the "last mile" of delivering things to people's doors, but there seems to be lots of inefficiency and scope for improvement in the sorting of letters. You can then get the Royal Mail to deliver your sorted items for 11p per letter.

Royal Mail process 80 million items each day, and only 44% of that is sorted by machine! The rest is sorted by hand, most likely by someone in Doncaster, as all post is taken up there in lorries for sorting. So if I send something to my next-door neighbour, it will make a 230 mile round trip...

Other countries seem to be doing better with regard to innovation and technology in their postal services. In Germany, 85-90% of mail is sorted mechanically, and they have a network of (around 130 at present) Packstations (the linked site is in German, of course...) - secure, automated collection boxes put into stations and similar convenient locations where users can register to get parcels delivered. So there's no working out how to get to some Parcel Force depot that's only open when you're at work. There is a service called eBox starting to do something similar in the UK (one of the guys involved with was at the meeting) where they'll have secure lobbies like some banks do. They are (or will soon be) doing a trial in East Anglia.

Talking of East Anglia, or more specifically the Cambridge area, the Royal Mail are proposing some changes to the CB postcode area. Apparently, there isn't enough room in the postcodes for assorted outlying areas given the expected new developments, so there's a proposal to change an assortment of CB1 through CB5 postcodes to CB21 through CB25. Consultation begins on 14th Feb, at which point there'll be a letter sent out to anyone affected. However, there has already been a mailing out to some of the parish councils, and Paul Oldham has transcribed the letter sent to Milton parish council which has a list of the affected postcodes.

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January 14, 2006

CHASE: Introducing i10

Just before Don's presentation, Catherine Atkins gave a quick talk about i10, an association aiming to improve links between businesses and ten (hence the name) universities across the East of England.

I won't reproduce all the information that's available at the i10 website but basically they can help arrange things like the use of university facilities (like the room at Anglia Ruskin where the CHASE meeting was held); hiring of equipment (universities often have specialised and expensive equipement which they aren't using all-the-time); or licensing of intellectual property. There's also the Ask i10 service where you can submit questions (for example "How can I market my product in X") and if any of the ten universities think they can help they'll get in touch to discuss the matter further.

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CHASE Presentation: PC Security - Viruses and More

This month's CHASE talk was given by Donald Forbes from Starlite Solutions. Unfortunately, it was a rather disappointing and difficult to follow presentation.

Donald is obviously a very clever man, but his slides were pitched at too in-depth a level for the audience and he has a tendency to become dragged off on a tangent to answer questions in far too much detail. For example, when asked what the letters RSA stand for, he would have been better stopping after explaining that it's the initials of the people who invented it - Rivest, Shamir and Adleman - and that it's a system of encrypting data. Instead, we got the beginnings of the theory of public key cryptography.

The takeaway message from the talk was if you want to keep your PC secure, don't connect it to the Internet. Strictly true, but not particularly useful advice for the attendees who, I think, were more interested in practical tips on mitigating the risks of being online whilst still being able to take advantage of the benefits of the Internet.

Jeff Veit made a valiant effort to keep the discussion on a level where more of those present could participate - asking for explanations of some of the jargon, and prompted the following list of "Top things to do to keep your machine safe":

  1. Make sure you've got a firewall between your machine and the Internet. Preferably one that's a separate hardware box, rather than just some software on your PC
  2. Use anti-virus software, and ensure you keep it up to date
  3. Regularly check your PC for spyware
  4. Finally, make sure your data is backed up so that you can recover from any problems. (After much goading from Jeff, I did get to briefly plug PeerBackup :-)

The other interesting bit of information I gained from the discussion afterwards is just how poor the UK banks' approach to security is - in Poland, one of their banks issues scratchcards with one-off security codes for each transaction (you scratch off a new panel to reveal a code you have to enter, which is then invalid for any later transactions), and another sends you an SMS with a code in whenever you're performing a transaction. Much better than the basic "enter the first, sixth and fourth" letters of your password that NatWest uses!

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January 13, 2006

Bob Walsh - Providing Information to Small Software Companies

Bob Walsh seems to be fast becoming a one-man micro-ISV information and promotion shop. Not content with helping to moderate the Business of Software forum on Joel Spolsky's site and writing on his own blog, ToDoOrElse.com he has recently compiled a book of interviews and tips for anyone running or thinking of running their own small software startup.

I haven't read Micro-ISV, From Vision to Reality as it isn't shipping just yet, but it sounds like it contains plenty of information of interest to me, especially if the related (and also just launched) www.mymicroisv.com website is anything to go by.

Posted by Adrian at 08:48 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

December 22, 2005

The Final Beta?

Last night I made the sixth beta release of PeerBackup, which will (fingers crossed) be the final release of the beta testing.

With the software itself almost finished, I'm spending more time now looking into the marketing side of things; revamping the website; sorting out the payment system... that sort of thing. So there's still plenty to do, but the big release edges ever closer.

Posted by Adrian at 10:21 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

December 08, 2005

CHASE Meeting: Microfabrication

This Tuesday evening I made it along to my first CHASE meeting. CHASE is the Cambridge Hi-tech Association of Small Enterprise, a local networking group for, well, people like me I guess.

Since meeting Jeff, who runs CHASE, through my helping out at OurSocialWorld I had decided that being able to recognise when I'd found the right people was the final push I needed to start attending some of the CHASE events.

The first event I made it to was one of the pubmeets. Held on the third Thursday of each month at The Free Press Pub, they seem a pretty relaxed and friendly affair. There wasn't too much to report, but it was good to chat to some other people who've been through or are going through the same experiences setting up and running a business.

On the first Tuesday of the month there's a slightly more formal event in the form of a talk. They are on a wide variety of topics and this month's was about microfabrication. The CHASE website described it thus:

"TTP is a technology development company active across a wide range of technology sectors. As part of these developments, TTP has direct experience of setting up small-scale manufacturing facilities to deliver high-value products. These include high-spec clean rooms, laser-machining facilities and traditional assembly manufacture.

Fred Hussain is a microfabrication expert at TTP. He has been involved in commissioning and operating a number of these facilities for TTP and other organisations and his background covers all aspects of the microfabrication production cycle.

Fred will be discussing the details and practicalities of setting up small-scale fabrication facilities, what to spend when, and how to get the most for your money."

I still wasn't quite sure what it was about, but was curious enough (and the free wine and nibbles always help sway things...). So I now have some level of understanding as to what a clean-room is (it's a humidity, temperature and particulate [dust, etc.] controlled environment where you can do research or small-ish scale production of things like computer chips or nanotech components); how much they can cost (around £0.5million for a small one, up into the millions for larger ones like Intel have); and what sort of processes you might perform in them (casting, electroplating, metal evaporation, etching... all at the microscopic scale).

Not at all applicable to what I do at work, but interesting to hear about, and I had some interesting (and more relevant) conversations in the break and after the talk.

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November 19, 2005

PeerBackup Beta 5 Released

PeerBackup edges ever nearer to completion. I've just made the fifth beta release, after fixing a mixed bag of bugs: a couple of crashes (basically if you cancelled things in the middle of a backup or a restore); a few less serious problems; and some fit and finish items for the user interface.

There are still a handful of bugs left to fix, and the big thing left to do is change the name - PeerBackup isn't quite accurate yet from a geeky point of view, and doesn't mean anything to non-geeks, so it'll be changing before the big release (PeerBackup was always just a working title anyway). More on that no doubt when I start changing the code to the new name, as then I'll be 100% sure what the new name will be, rather than the 99% sure I am now...

That means there'll probably be one more beta release, but I don't think there'll be any more after that. So it's the final call to get a sneak preview!

Posted by Adrian at 07:53 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 16, 2005

How Fresh?

A while back, I signed up for the Stormhoek blogger's wine freebie. Not the initial round, as I'm not that into wine, but there's a limit to the amount of time I can pass up free alcohol...

I ended up not blogging about it when the bottle arrived because I didn't think I had anything much to say about it. It's pretty nice wine, and I'd consider buying some if it was on sale somewhere when I was buying wine. I found it quite drinkable, which I guess is an achievement given that (1) I don't really drink wine, and (2) I much prefer red wine, and this was white.

To be honest, I was most impressed with the protective polystyrene box it arrived in :-)

One thing that seemed a little odd at the time, and in the light of Hugh's post about the issue seems even odder, was the labelling.

The blogger's wine freebie bottles all come with a personalised label featuring your name and blog, and a little booklet - "Wine Blogging as Marketing Disruption". Just under half of the booklet is devoted to what makes the wine special (with the rest being about how the marketing approach is revolutionary) and apparently it's because "Freshness matters". To quote from their booklet:

"Hence the Stormhoek 'Ultimate Freshness Indicator' on the back of the bottle. It's that little dial that tells you when the wine you're holding in your hand is at its freshest i.e. when is the best time to drink it.

"This is the logical next step from the screwcap. It seems pretty idiotic to spend all this time making wine and not letting your customers know when the best time to drink it is.

Now, I don't know anything about the freshness of wine, but to me it seems pretty idiotic to spend all this time going on about a freshness indicator and then not include one on the bottles you send out to get people talking about your wine.

Unless of course Hugh is a marketing genius and realised that omitting the label from my bottle would be the only way to get me to talk about Stormhoek...

Posted by Adrian at 10:48 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

October 31, 2005

Marketing Links For Software Developers

As part of the work I've been doing to prepare for the launch of PeerBackup I've collected a list of some of the marketing articles I've been reading. I figured it might be useful to other people if I published them here. So, in no particular order...

Then there's always the Cluetrain Manifesto. I haven't finished reading it yet, so most of my knowledge is second-hand, but it's the definitive "markets are conversations" tome for marketing on the web in the age of blogs.

Posted by Adrian at 12:20 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 21, 2005

PeerBackup Beta 4 Released

The beta programme rolls on. This release improves the information available to users if things go wrong - if any of the files fail to backup or restore, clicking on the error message will bring you through to a special page on the MCQN.com website where you'll get the latest information about what caused the error. And hopefully also how you can fix it.

There's also been a pretty big improvement to the feedback during a backup. The problems with the old version were pretty obvious really, but I'd got used to them and so hadn't really noticed. Nothing like giving your software to some real people to get a wake up call about such things!

It's still not too late to get involved!

Posted by Adrian at 01:01 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Not An Idea. A Question.

Ideas for Startups is an interesting article from Paul Graham (he of Painters and Hackers fame) debunking the common myth that you need a killer idea to build a startup.

He claims that a question is a much better starting point - it's harder for a critic or detractor to attack, and lots of startups end up producing something quite different from their initial idea after it evolves through their trying to solve the initial problem. (Flickr is a prime example of this - it started life as an online game, and morphed into the photo-sharing site as they watched what the users were doing with it)

And then he goes on to explain why it's useful to have more than one person in the startup (which I agree with, despite being in a single-person startup), and rounds things off with a discussion of getting acquired.

Posted by Adrian at 10:31 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

October 12, 2005

Is That Like Directing Traffic?

In the past week I have become a company director, now that MCQN Ltd. has come into existence. It was a fairly painless procedure, Mike Lewis sorting out most of the details for a very reasonable 95.

It isn't going to change things too much - there's a bit more paperwork I'll have to send to the government, and I can retire the stop-gap current company name of "Adrian McEwen trading as McEwen Technology" (a bit of a mouthful I'm sure you'll agree!)

Still, it feels like an important step, that it somehow makes it more of a "proper" business venture.

Posted by Adrian at 04:05 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

October 04, 2005

Bang Bang

It seems that Cillit Bang have created a fake blog to help market their "super duper cleaning gunk".

Yay! More proof that blogs are starting to go mainstream?

Err... No.

On Friday, Tom Coates posted a very personal entry on his blog about hit first contact with his father in 28 years. Barry Scott, the fictional Cillit Bang blogger, left a comment claiming he'd been through the same experience. I'm incredulous as to how the person who invented that comment could not realise that it was inappropriate.

Still, Cillit Bang are getting a lesson in why blogs aren't just another way of marketing stuff - Tom wrote up the sorry matter on Friday and news has swept round the "blogosphere" since. It surely won't be long before Tom's post is above the Cillit Bang website when you google for Cillit Bang (it's the next entry at the minute).

At least Cillit Bang seem to have learnt from the Kryptonite bike lock debacle and have apologised to Tom.

Posted by Adrian at 11:59 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 22, 2005

PeerBackup Beta 3 Released

The third beta release has just gone out onto the web. A bigger gap between releases this time, mainly because I didn't think it'd be too useful to make a release just before I was away from the office for a few days in Florence.

Sign up here if you'd like to get in on the action...

Posted by Adrian at 01:33 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

September 12, 2005

The Reluctant Marketer

Marketing is a new field for me. I know "we are all marketers now" and so I must have done some marketing, but this is the first time I've tried to market a product. And I've known that from the start of MCQN.com. The sales and marketing of whatever I was doing was always going to be the part I'd struggle with, the weakest link in my business proposition as it were.

I could have reduced the risk in what I'm doing by finding someone who knew about sales and marketing (which aren't as tightly bound together as that makes it sound, it's just that they're the two gaping holes in my experience and expertise) but I never considered that as a option.

Well, I suppose I did consider it as an option, but soon dismissed it because this isn't just about being successful and making money, it's about me learning new things and challenging myself in new ways. So trying to do it myself was always part of the plan. I might be useless at it and fail miserably, at which point then I can consider hiring someone, or partnering with someone who can do it, or whatever... But the trying myself comes first.

However, deciding I was going to do it myself didn't make it any easier, or more importantly any less scary. For about the past year I've been aware of that fear slowing the development of PeerBackup. Not in a big way, just a little more fuel to the procrastination - the longer I can put off finishing, the longer it'll be before I have to face this scary, unknown stuff.

As I knew it was something I had no experience of, whilst I've been developing the software I've also been trying to learn more about what marketing is. The Product Marketing Handbook for Software was a good primer to the different methods of marketing and selling software, although it's a bit out-of-date as more and more software is sold over the Internet, and The Anatomy of Buzz and You Are The Message were also quite interesting reads. More useful, however, has been reading some marketing-ish blogs - Hugh, Creating Passionate Users, and Evelyn Rodriguez. Posts I've read on those blogs have most often sparked off ideas for ways that I might be able to market my software.

So I've been amassing knowledge, and noting down random thoughts and ideas, but it's still all theory. I don't have any actual, practical experience to back up the ideas, and as usual I've trapped myself in the cycle of not wanting to get started as I've not got the experience to "do it right", but as I don't start I'm not getting the experience so that in future I might know how to "do it right".

Until Friday that it. The conversations I had with Hugh and Jim Byford, and the session with Johnnie Moore at Our Social World showed that life is for experimenting, and that it's alright not to get it right.

So it's time to stop worrying that my marketing ideas aren't any good, and just spend some time getting them to coalesce into a plan for how the marketing of PeerBackup is going to start. Then if need be I can tune them or throw them away once I've seen how effective they are. If nothing else, it'll give me more things to blog about...

Posted by Adrian at 03:42 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 05, 2005

OurSocialWorld

Met up with the guys organizing the Our Social World conference this afternoon, as one of my promises to myself was to get more involved if I signed up - so I'm helping them out a bit.

Having heard a bit more about what they're planning, it sounds like it's going to be really good. It's going to be a fairly intimate event, with things arranged to promote interaction between the delegates and provide access to the presenters in smaller groups as well as the usual presenting to everyone model. There's also a really good ratio of presenters to attendees. Definitely worth the 100 it now costs for individuals, and there's still time to sign up before Friday.

There are also rumours that there'll be a pubmeet on Thursday evening for any attendees and presenters around by then...

I'm looking forward to it.

Posted by Adrian at 07:19 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 30, 2005

Who's Your ISP?

There is now a forum on the MCQN.com website for people to report bugs, and post any suggestions or comments.

It'll mainly be of interest to people in the beta testing, but there is an opportunity for everyone else to help out too!

To make PeerBackup easier to set up, it comes with a set of ISP webspace details pre-configured. So if you aren't using your ISP provided webspace for anything else, you can store your backup there. Obviously the more ISPs I have details for, the more people will be able to set things up easily, so I'm putting a call out for ISP details.

So, who's your ISP? If you could tell me the name of your ISP, and ideally a link to their website or even better a link to details of their webspace details, either in the comments or over on the ISP details discussion I'd appreciate it. Thanks.

Posted by Adrian at 08:11 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 24, 2005

PeerBackup Beta 2 Released

Another step towards completion. The second beta release was sent out today, so more people have access to the new improved version of PeerBackup.

Remember, there's still space for you to sign up for the beta programme if you haven't already.

Posted by Adrian at 08:08 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 19, 2005

Lies and Statistics

Steve Pavlina does an excellent job in exposing the problem with the oft-quoted "80% of businesses fail within the first five years".

Whilst I don't think that everyone should rush out and bankrupt themselves starting a business, I think the black-and-white assumption that businesses have to last for many years in order to be a success is flawed. The main difference between starting a new business and getting a new job is that you have more visibility of how well things are going :-)

Posted by Adrian at 12:42 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 11, 2005

It's Getting Beta All The Time

As of yesterday, when I sent out an email to the first group of lucky users, the PeerBackup Beta Test Programme has started!

Woohoo!!! A pretty major, and slightly scary milestone - I've sent my software out into the world for real people to use. Hopefully they'll all like it. Or at least tell me if they don't, or what about it they don't like, or want to improve, or wish that it did.

As with most things software-development-related, Joel Spolsky has written an article about running a Beta Test programme. In it, he advises at least four beta releases; at least a fortnight between releases; 100 beta testers, making sure that for each release there are some testers getting your software for the first time.

Before reading that, I'd been slightly optimistically expecting to spend around a month beta testing before the first proper release of PeerBackup. I'm still aiming to come in slightly under Joel's "eight to ten weeks", if only so that I'll still hit it after adding the extra things I've not realised I need to do yet...

Making sure that for each release there are some people getting PeerBackup for the first time makes sense too. I know that I would spend the most time playing with some software the first time I get it. So if you've signed up for the beta programme, first off: Thanks! and secondly, don't worry that you've not heard back from me yet, you'll just get an even more solid and fantastic version soon...

I'm also a bit short of the "recommended" hundred beta testers, so if you're running Windows and have broadband, there's still plenty of time to pop over to the PeerBackup page and sign up. Go on, you can tell your grandchildren that you were there at the start of the revolution in easy-to-use, Internet-enabled backup software. Or something.

Posted by Adrian at 11:13 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 22, 2005

Code Complete!

PeerBackup is now code complete. That doesn't actually mean that it's finished, unfortunately, just that I've finished implementing everything I think I need to implement.

Now it's time to sort through the bugs that I know about, spend some time testing to (no doubt) find some more, and fix the ones that need fixing.

So not finished, but the second most important milestone (obviously shipping is the most important!) reached.

Let the alpha testing commence.

Posted by Adrian at 10:07 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

June 02, 2005

Testing... Testing... 1... 2... 3...

I can't believe it's been over three months since my last update on how the business is going! So much for making it a "regular" feature...

Anyway, as predicted, things have been mainly heads down coding, and it's all starting to come together quite nicely. For the past month or so I developed a test harness and have been doing lots of alpha testing.

Traditionally, alpha testing only starts once the product has reached "code complete", when all the features have been written, but haven't been fully tested. PeerBackup isn't quite at that point just yet, but getting the automated test harness up and running means that I can be testing whilst finishing off the last few bits and pieces (and whilst playing football, or eating, or sleeping...)

So I now have a couple of machines dedicated to thrashing the software non-stop, all day and all night, and which send me an email if they find any problems. The last couple of weeks have been spent fixing the problems that the testing threw up, and it feels good to get the level of confidence in the software now that it can stand up to such a pounding.

The next step will be to reach code complete, at which point the release will be in sight!

Posted by Adrian at 10:54 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 02, 2005

Meet Me At The Bank

Just back from a meeting at my business bank, Lloyds TSB. No, nothing worrying, just a surprisingly refreshing chat about pensions and the like - they didn't try to sell me anything, in fact, given my current lack of income they just recommended my calling back in a few months when things are more settled.

Anyway, the meeting was at the Gonville Place branch, which I think is a "business centre" rather than a normal branch. It's a while since I was last there, and I was impressed by the makeover the place has had in the interim: a receptionist to greet you on arrival, then a nicely appointed waiting area surrounded by an assortment of meeting rooms. The seating in the waiting area is all comfortable easy chairs, there's a TV showing BBC News 24, newspapers and business books are available to leaf through (or borrow, in the case of the books), and there's a machine which makes a reasonable attempt at a cup of coffee (although still not a patch on the stuff I'd had to leave in the pot at home)

The important point, and the reason I'm writing an "ooh, isn't the branch nice" post, is that the meeting rooms are available for business customers to use to meet clients. Apparently, I can just phone up and book a room, for free. I don't have any clients to meet just at the minute, but if I did, the facilities there are much more business-like than my dining room. A nice idea from a bank for once!

Posted by Adrian at 12:24 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 21, 2005

Further Funding

In a not at all recent email, Richard MacManus wrote:
"how's your business going? I keep waiting for you to write something about it on your blog (hint hint)"

Good point. Well made. I should blog more often about what's happening with the business, and my first product. So, as promised over a week ago (good to see my predictions are as reliable as ever...) here's an update.

It doesn't feel like much has happened, but I think that's because to me, it only feels like things happen when progress is made towards finishing PeerBackup. And there wasn't much of that over the last couple of months of 2004. Instead, there was a very useful injection of cash into the business from my fifteen weeks of contract work. The initial twelve week contract which took me through to Christmas was extended by a few weeks to the end of January.

That's eased the cashflow considerably, and I now expect to get PeerBackup finished and launched without needing any further injections of cash. One fewer thing to worry about, although there'll no doubt be a host of other things to worry about in its place :-)

It's taken a little bit of time to get back into the swing of working from home again; the first two weeks of February I had long weekends booked which meant the weeks were short and also meant I had additional things to sort out before the weekends. Still, progress is being made, pretty much according to plan and the end is in sight.

The plan for the next month or two remains head-down coding, but as time progresses I'll have to work out how I'm going to come up with a plan to market and sell it...

Posted by Adrian at 11:33 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 27, 2004

Steve Pavlina Is Blogging

I've linked to some of Steve Pavlina's articles in the past and now I can get a regular fix of his ideas because he's started a blog (and I no longer have to check for updates as I've subscribed to his RSS feed!)

With him running his own software business, a number of his articles are focussed on software, and in particular shareware. However, the aim of his blog is to focus "purely [on] personal development." For example, for the past day or so he's been talking about how finding people who've already achieved what you want to achieve; picking their brains about how they did it, or how they think you should proceed; and modelling your behaviour on theirs can help you reach your goals.

Today's post pointed to some useful tips about common concerns when attending your first few networking events.

So, Steve Pavlina's blog - useful for everyone, not just geeks.

Posted by Adrian at 08:18 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 25, 2004

Hecticity

It seems that the rest of the year will be busy. I was going to claim it was an experiment in fitting too much into my life, but on thinking about it, I conducted such an experiment, well, about this time last year and concluded that it was a bad idea. STNC. (That's Some Things Never Change, or maybe Seasonal Thing, Normally Cyclic in this case...)

The cause of this fitting too much in is the contract work I started a fortnight ago. I hadn't been looking for any other work, but the cash reserves were starting to get a little tight and this was too good an opportunity to pass up. Not the ideal time to put work on PeerBackup on hold, as I was deep in the push towards code complete; however it should secure the company's future until mid-2005 so I feel it's a compromise worth making.

That would be fine if I had just completely mothballed PeerBackup development until the contract terminates at the end of the year, but I'm hoping to get some development done in evenings and at weekends. I'm expecting not to make any real progress on my own stuff this year, but I've set myself the goal of two days-worth of progress per week: spread over a few evenings, or the weekend, or a mixture of both.

So far I've met my expectations, and not-quite-completely failed to meet my goals. I'm attributing that partly to settling into the new job, and mainly due to the last few weekends being pre-booked for other things. As is the case for the next couple. November should give me chance to get to grips with the new schedule.

As has no doubt been apparent, my blogging is one of the casualties of my increased workload; even though it had already suffered quite a bit from my focus to getting to code complete. I'm going to look through my collection of draft postings to hopefully find some interesting links to serve up in lieu of any real content, and fend off the dreaded "empty main page."

So you'll miss out on the no doubt fabulous writing that's supposed to accompany the links but which has been floating around in my head refusing to take any useful form. You will get pointers to some stuff I've found interesting and that otherwise I'd probably never get round to posting, so on the whole, I think it's a win...

Posted by Adrian at 12:40 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 04, 2004

Networking For Business And Personal Success

As part of my ongoing quest to understand the value of "networking", on Monday night I attended the British Computer Society Young Professionals Group's Networking For Business And Personal Success. I think I've been searching for that "Aha!" moment when I suddenly understand the value of networking. While Monday's event didn't provide that, it did impart a number of useful tips, and I've realised that I haven't worked out how other people can help what I'm doing right now. I expect networking will make a lot more sense in a while, when I've got the bulk of the software written.

The main speaker for the evening was Craig Goldblatt, an enthusiastic, go-getting salesman - not quite Frank T.J. Mackey in Magnolia (played by Tom Cruise), but in a similar vein. Despite this, his presentation was interesting and contained some useful tips and ideas.

Preparation and planning are just as vital in networking as they are in anything else. Do you know who your ideal person to meet would be? Spend some time working this out, and then take a couple of hours to write down all the questions you can think of that you'd like to ask them. And think about what the ideal answers to those questions would be.

Before the event, contact the organisers and request a delegate list. Then you can work out in advance who you should be looking to talk to. Work out what makes you unique within the group, and find a novel or "shock tactic" approach to introducing yourself; we all meet so many people that you need to look for ways to make yourself memorable (presumably memorable in a good way...)

When it comes to the actual event... Take the opportunity! Get excited about what you're doing, but don't monopolise the conversation. In a fifteen minute meeting, a bad networker would talk for maybe twelve of those minutes; a good networker maybe seven or eight; and a great networker would only talk for two or three minutes, and ask a couple of great questions.

The second speaker was Ben Booth who (IIRC) is in charge of IT for MORI. His presentation was much shorter, but I felt it was more suitable to an audience of geeks. He agreed that planning is vital, and pointed out that networking is something you have to put some effort into: keep a spreadsheet with details of people you've met, and note something personal about them so that next time you meet you can show that you've taken an interest in them.

Networking begins with one person, and a good way to approach that person is to ask their advice. If need be, contact them and ask if you can meet with them for twenty minutes, then use that time to tell them a little about yourself, listen to their advice, and ask them if they know anyone else that you should talk to. And so on. Be persistent.

Rounding up the presentations, the Chief Executive of the BCS, David Clarke, outlined his plans for the BCS. They are in the process of moving the headquarters to new offices in Covent Garden, which will include a lecture theatre and a drop-in centre, and so be of more direct utility to members. The recent changes in membership criteria are part of a drive to make the BCS more relevant, and provide more value to the public: there'll be 50,000 Members of the BCS this year, and the aim is to have 100,000 MBCS next year; the Society is starting to have an impact, it is involved with the government select committee on technology, for example; but things can take a while compared to a commercial organization when the Privy Council only meets a few times a year, and the meetings must be scheduled such that Her Majesty The Queen can attend!

Posted by Adrian at 10:05 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 02, 2004

The Distributed Utility Company

HBS Working Knowledge: Social Enterprise: Sun Shines on Business Plan Winner is an interesting interview with the guys from SunEdison.

SunEdison have a ingenious new take on solar power. Based on the premise that the main obstacle to solar power adoption is the up-front cost; they pay for the solar panels and installation, and then sell you the electricity. They're building a network of miniature, environmentally-friendly power stations on roofs across the USA.

They seem to be targetting businesses at the moment, but given there's a ten- to twenty-year contract for the customer to allevitate some of the risks for SunEdison, it isn't very consumer-friendly just yet.

It's a similar idea to one I was mulling over not long after visiting the Centre for Alternative Technology last year. Only I was thinking about incorporating the cost into a "green mortgage" given that it's effectively just a home-improvement. I still think that's got some merit, and I'd be quite interested in getting such a mortgage myself, however I think my social entrepreneurism will have to wait awhile.

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May 07, 2004

[Bouncing Back] Marketing Without A Budget

This was the first session of the day, so we were all getting used to how it was going to work. The format was an open discussion amongst the group, facilitated by the session hosts, so things jumped about a bit. My rough notes...

  • Speaking at trade shows/seminars is a good way of raising your companies profile. After a while, the organisers will tend to increase pressure to have stands, attend shows where you'll be a paying customer, etc.
  • Trade Partners UK will help with costs for trade shows (possibly just those abroad)
  • Google and Overture adwords well thought of within the group
  • Annual reports for competitors often include information about the market, and are generally freely available from their website
  • Hiring MBA students as interns can be very cost effective, and hopefully provide good prospective employees in a couple of years
  • Providing free tech papers or books as freebies can drive traffic to your website

And as a couple of the attendees were involved with journalism, there were a couple of pointers on dealing with the press
  • Noticing technical errors in news stories and (politely) suggesting corrections is a good way of introducing yourself to a journalist. There's a fair chance you'll be noted down as a "friendly expert" on the topic, and then contacted for quotes on related stories in future
  • Target the right journalist at the paper when sending out press releases. Shows that you've spent some effort, and helps stop your press release being lost in all those just sent to the paper

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April 22, 2004

[Bouncing Back] Presentation by Robert Swann of Alphamosaic

No notes for this I'm afraid. It was at the end of a long day, and the remaining stragglers were getting a little shell-shocked. If I remember rightly, the main "take-away" was to be flexible, and listen to your customers. The market with which Alphamosaic is having quite a bit of success isn't one they had initially targetted.

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[Bouncing Back] Protect Your Idea

Notes from the session with Bill Thatcher.

There are two main ways to protect your ideas: the legal, enforceable way through Intellectual Property (IP) rights; or just by keeping them secret. Of course, the latter doesn't work for all kinds of ideas, but also the former tends to favour bigger companies over small ones, as they can afford to pay the lawyers :-)

Some IP rights you gain automatically:


  • Copyright

  • Database rights

Others you have to register:


  • Registered design rights

  • Patents. It can be cheaper to file for a patent through European office than UK office (although that might be just because you get multiple countries at once and so is cheaper than doing each one individually). There are some ways to delay the costs involved, for example, sometimes the patent office has a backlog, so you don't need to pay until they're ready to proceed.

    For small companies the main (only even) value of a patent portfolio is to add value to the company in the eyes of investors or potential purchasers.

    Employees usually have to sign any inventions over to their employer and aren't necessarily suitably rewarded. They can claim compensation if their idea provides "great worth" to the company, but in practice no-one has ever won such a claim.

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April 15, 2004

Online Business Networking

Through this interview about online networking, I found Online Business Networks.

For someone who still doesn't fully get Orkut, I'm hoping that the eBook The Five Keys to Building Business Relationships Online, and networking-focused weblog will help me understand the value of such activities. Then I can use their guide to online social networks and business communities to choose which ones to join.

They never covered any of this in the networking module I did in my degree!

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April 06, 2004

[Bouncing Back] Doing More With Less

This was the least useful session I attended, but that was probably due to the title. "Doing More With Less" promises the world but is hard to pin down to any specifics - doing more of what? With less of what? None of us delegates really knew, so despite the facilitators best efforts, the discussion never really got going.

I suspect it may have been more successful had the original speaker not been unable to attend at short notice.

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March 30, 2004

[Bouncing Back]

Bouncing Back was an event put on last Tuesday by the Cambridge Network to provide an opportunity for entrepreneurs to get together to network and discuss common issues.

As I've mentioned in the past, I'm still working out what the term "networking" entails. Other than milling around a room feeling like Billy-no-mates. Like most of these things, it's not as bad as it first seems - things were a little awkward initially, but by the end of the day I'd started to get into the swing of it. I found it encouraging just to talk to other people in a similar situation to myself, and the exposure to new ideas adds valuable fresh blood to the creative gene pool in my head. When my software is further along then such opportunities will be of even greater value.

The seminars were the main draw for me, and over the next couple of days I'll devote a separate post to each one I attended:

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March 04, 2004

The Reasons Behind Acquisitions

Gamasutra has an interesting article exploring
why independent game developers sell their companies, and why their companies get bought.

It looks a bit deeper than the usual "woohoo, we get loads of money" assumption, there's definitely more to being acquired than that (although it helps :-). I remember it feeling quite strange when STNC was acquired by Microsoft; very mixed - we suddenly switched from being a tiny little startup to part of the biggest software company on the planet. It validated what we were trying to do, and that we were good enough to interest the biggest players, but I was also saddened by the end of our great-startup-adventure.

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February 24, 2004

Using Stock To Motivate People

Stock-options seem almost a default part of the compensation package in computing start-ups these days. However, it's not clear that the rich pickings will return following the dot-com crash, so is a 1% or 0.5% chunk of the company any more than a nice bonus?

HBS Working Knowledge: The Leadership Workshop: Is Equity-Based Compensation a Good Thing? discusses the pros and cons of offering stock in order to motivate employees
, and it's something that Joel Spolsky pondered whilst deciding upon his company's compensation policy.

Thank God I've got a while yet before I have to start worrying about such things.

Posted by Adrian at 10:12 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 17, 2004

Your Career Plan

Similar to the goal setting article I pointed at a while back, Boxes and Arrows: Planning your future advocates writing down what you want to do and achieve, and helpfully sketches a skeleton of what such a plan should look like.

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February 04, 2004

PR About PR

Rainier PR have produced a white paper on PR for Startups. Whilst it doesn't go into any great detail, it does identify the different target audiences for PR and gives some other hints and ideas.

Posted by Adrian at 11:28 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 21, 2004

Leadership By Asking Questions

This week's Harvard Business School newletter contains an interesting article on How Leaders Use Questions.

I particularly like the section Using "how" and "why". Repeated use of "why" was very enlightening when I was discovering the root reason for buying my company's product, and it is interesting to note that "how" lets you move in the opposite direction.

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December 31, 2003

The Problem With Presentations

In The Problem With Presentations, Doc Searls gives a good introduction to audience centred presentations, and how to not get caught up in making your slides look pretty in PowerPoint.

If you like what he says, then you should check out Working The Room, which covers similar ideas in much more detail and offers lots of useful information for anyone doing any public speaking.

(Via IDblog)

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November 27, 2003

Introduction To Business Finance

Eric Sink has written Finance for Geeks (The Business of Software), a good introduction to accounting, profit margins and funding. I don't think it's just for geeks...

I'll be checking out his Marketing for Geeks too.

(Via Archipelago)

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November 25, 2003

The Rhythm Method of Time Management

This article on prioritising tasks splits them along two axes - importance and urgency.

More interesting, however, is the discussion of the rhythm of tasks. Once you've split your tasks into the four categories (urgent and important, non-urgent but still important, urgent but not important, and non-urgent and not important), then many people find that they're still drawn to the "urgent but not important" tasks over the "non-urgent but important" ones. The article suggests that the reason for this is that you get used to the rhythm of the urgent tasks, and so feel guilty for not working as hard when in fact you've just switched rhythm to the lesser pace of the non-urgent but important tasks.

That's something I'm very good at doing, even to the level of trying to find more urgent but unimportant tasks to do when I've run out of them :-)

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November 24, 2003

All Sorts of Business Information

Microsoft's bCentral website has all sorts of information about business-related matters.

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November 19, 2003

Rebranding Networking

This post has been in draft for far too long, partly because I think I wanted to add something to the discussion rather than just quote Chris' newsletter, and I also wanted to decide how I was going to apply her advice.

However, I don't really think there's much I can add to what Chris Carling said in her October newsletter, which she's generously allowed me to quote here. The newsletter regularly has such thought-provoking nuggets, subscribing is recommended.

"NETWORKING IN ANOTHER LANGUAGE

Taking a leaf out of my own book, I'll mention one of my own achievements, which is to have run a number of successful workshops on networking based on a tool originally developed by Thomas Leonard called the Team 100 (anyone wanting further information, do drop me a line). As a result I tune in to media mentions of networking such as the recent piece in a Saturday Guardian from Sandra Deeble who suggests that, for some at least, there's something slightly dodgy about the word 'networking'. 'It suggests,' she says, 'a world of back scratching and trouser hitching.'

At the same time, however, she stresses that networking is a necessity for business development and career progression, and gives a set of useful tips for the networking novice. One of the most useful that I picked out was: 'Find a new language.'

Actually it was a tip Sandra picked up from John Lees's 'How to Get the Perfect Promotion and How to Get a Job you'll Love'. 'If you say to people 'networking', they think it's a form of selling,' says Lees. In other words, people can be put off by the term 'networking, assuming it's a dark art that has to be practised in a very specific way.

But suppose you don't call it networking. Suppose you call it 'fact finding', or 'broadening my horizons by meeting new people', or 'sounding people out.' After all, that's the kind of activity that networking involves. Or choose a term you're comfortable with, a term that sums up for you that 'taking the initiative, asking for whatever information you need, chatting to people, opening up a bit so they can see who you are' kind of activity that some people call networking.

Suppose you say to yourself: 'I'm going out to get some new ideas, new knowledge, new contacts, new information about my field and what's the latest developments.' What could be wrong with that? And if you think of it that way, you're more likely to feel focused enough to ask the kinds of questions that will generate new ideas, information, contacts, that will plant seeds that may lead, now or later, to a new opportunity. And that, after all, is what networking is all about."

And echoing some of the sentiments of that, plus adding some more practical tips are these networking tips from The Chilli. Not quite sure yet how I'm going to put this all into practice, but I'm getting more of an idea of the sort of things I should be doing.

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November 17, 2003

When Will You Break Even?

This month's Inc magazine has a useful formula for working out break-even point, see the "Sidebar: Are You on Track to Break Even?" at the bottom of the article.

Now I just have to work out my overheads, costs, pricing, and sales figures...

Posted by Adrian at 05:18 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 30, 2003

Wanna Buy A Link?

Having trouble selling things? Not sure where to start? I just might be able to help. See, I've got this nice link to justsell.com, although the registration has put me off exploring further just at the minute. However, they do host Sales Talk, an interesting discussion forum of all things sales (probably, I wouldn't really know, not being a salesman ;-)

(Via the Inc.com blog).

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October 13, 2003

Because You're Worth It

Marcia Yudkin takes the five most common myths about pricing and explains why they aren't true. Still not sure whether that makes pricing any easier mind...

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September 16, 2003

Cambridge Technopole Report

The Cambridge Technopole Report is a bi-annual report from an informal group of business support organisations from around Cambridge and provides a useful list of networking groups, development locations, and investors in the Cambridge area. Lots of useful links and information for entrepreneurs.

Posted by Adrian at 01:46 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 18, 2003

More networking opportunities

The latest newsletter from the Cambridge Network has details of Connectwork, a new networking org in Cambridge.

Looks quite interesting, mainly because of their work.place.space scheme to help small/new businesses find shared office space, and also as it's focused on small and new businesses.

However, it costs to join (100/year), and I'm still not sure what the benefit of networking is - it sounds like something I should be doing, but I guess I'm just suffering from my usual "I don't see what there'd be to immediately discuss/benefit from", so I don't attend and don't get any benefit. Hmmm.

Posted by Adrian at 05:03 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 08, 2003

Having a direction is only a tool to get where you want to go

When I graduated from Uni, the grand plan was to get a few years experience, then go contracting - earn enough that I wouldn't have to worry about money, whilst doing something I enjoyed. (I was very techie focused, one of my favoured sentences being "If I'd wanted to be a manager, I'd have studied management"...).

Actually, the grand plan had started before I graduated, my choice of final year project was made so I could learn C++ and Motif, and I was trying to run it as I thought a commercial project would be run (maybe that's why it failed to ship ;-).

Fast forward a few years, and I was doing technical management for a small but promising startup. Not exactly what was laid out in the grand plan, but I firmly believe that it was because of the plan. The important part of the plan was the financial independence whilst enjoying work, which has been much furthered by my work at STNC. The contracting was just the direction that looked most promising given my limited work experience at the time, largely influenced by the contractors working for the ITSA where I worked during the summers of my degree. They looked pretty financially secure whilst discussing the 100k they were spending on a trackday Porsche 911 (see, it's all linked, cars had to come into it somewhere :-)

But basically, having a plan meant I could see the opportunities when they presented themselves, and take advantage of them. Something Steve Pavlina discusses in The Power of Clarity, although he puts a good case for going even further and writing down specific, measurable goals.

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The road is long...

But at least I've set off. Steve Pavlina gives this interesting analysis of Shareware Amateurs vs. Shareware Professionals. Whilst in theory it's about shareware authors, I think it's pretty applicable to the small-startup-guys too. Guess I should continue to work on my self-discipline, and stop reading the web and do some work :-)

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June 04, 2003

The rise and fall of ArsDigita

Joel Spolsky links to this interesting article - Diary of a Start-Up: the rise and fall of ArsDigita. Another tale of the fun, exciting, different start-up killed in the .com boom by VCs.

However, the comments at the end are good, and provide some balance to the anti-VC content. I like this quote:

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face in marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat." - Theodore Roosevelt

Just shows that we didn't do so badly at STNC, with limiting our VC funding, and selling out to Microsoft, although how much of that was luck and how much judgement is a matter for individual speculation ;-)

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The growth of software companies

Joel Spolsky's latest essay about Fixing Venture Capital is an interesting read, and he describes his theories about the growth of a tech start-up.

More grist to the distrust of VC (in early stages of start-up) mill...

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May 30, 2003

Puzzling interview questions

A nice list of technical interview questions, although unfortunately it doesn't have an RSS feed :-)

(via Critical Section)

Posted by Adrian at 12:43 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 08, 2003

Worthwhile expense?

The CHASE newsletter that's just arrived contains details on CEC Summer School, which is a week long entrepreneurial course. Costs 600, and would take up a big chunk of my holiday entitlement... is it worth doing, or is it just more "playing at being a businessman" - i.e. would I be better taking a week off and spending it coding (and having another week or two after this contract [similar cost] to code too)?

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April 14, 2003

Is that your final answer?

Well, the decision was made on Friday. Maybe I need to look into moblogging too, seeing as posting stopped over the weekend when I wasn't sat in front of my PC all day :-)

Anyway, back to the dilemma, "security", or life in Cambridge won out. I started the new work this morning. It's been quite an interesting day.

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April 11, 2003

Security or dreams?

Why is life never simple? ;-)

I have a dilemma. One that any other time this week I think I'd have killed for. Having spent the week on a downer as finding some work was looking difficult (for those who don't know, I'm currently in early stages of my start-up, and looking for some contracting to ease the cashflow during development), I should today be hearing from a friend about some work he wants me to do, and then I get a phonecall from another company about the work I interviewed for with them a few weeks back.

Which would be cool. BUT they don't want me as a contractor, they want me as a provisional permie. I guess they know how useful I'd be to them, so would like me permanently, and I'd be cheaper.

I guess things stack up like this...

Work for my friend:
+ It's a contract, so I'd still be operating as my own company
- It's only for a couple of months (my current estimate is ~2 months work, although their thinking is that it'd be less)
- It's in London, meaning a 1hr+ commute each way, on crowded trains, plus no football/ultimate frisbee in the evenings :-(

Work for the other company:
+ It's in Cambridge, so I'd be around for football, etc
+ I could cycle to work
+ Initial 3 month contract, with option to extend to permanent
- Option to extend to permanent
- Permanent rates
- Wouldn't be working as my own company

Technically (i.e. knowledge/skills I'd gain) both things are very similar. I guess the real stickler is the pay. It's not quite the "security vs. dreams" I alluded to in the headline, as I can always leave the permie job when I've finished developing my own stuff, but it would be nicer to do the work under the umbrella of my own company.

Well, I guess it'll have been decided by the end of the day, seeing as that's when I have to get back to them...

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