Can Part-Time Jobs Boost Startups?

February 28, 2011

Startups everywhere struggle to find good talent, which has recently become very apparent in Seattle. In February, SEOmoz announced $12,000 for employee referrals, and EnergySavvy offered $10,000. Despite so many engineers at large corporations in Seattle – many interested in joining a startup – hiring is very difficult.

Based on conversations I’ve had with local engineers, I’d like to suggest a new hiring strategy: part-time jobs. Rather than pay for referrals, startups could create part-time contracts. Engineers often want to explore a startup of their own, and stick with the corporation to maximize their salary until they take the plunge.  An alternative is to offer them a way to transition to a startup.  They can continue to make a good income, with the opportunity to pursue their own ideas and experience startup life. It’s likely many part-time employees would find that they enjoy working for a startup and stay on full-time.  Part-time jobs provide a way to lure highly qualified employees from their comfortable jobs and salaries, but unfortunately these opportunities are currently very rare.

Since leaving Microsoft, I’ve been surprised that it’s so difficult to find part-time work. Especially in this economy, I’d expect more businesses to be open to part-time employees. It’s understandable that companies want to invest in employees they know will stick around, but with a shortage of talent, part-time employees get the work done and are likely to grow into full-time employees, either directly or indirectly.  This alternative is also a great opportunity to move away from 40-hour weeks; some employees will be just as effective in half the time.

Part-time jobs are at best an effective recruiting mechanism, and at worst a way to support the local startup scene, whose progress benefits everyone.  It allows startups to test employees, and employees to test startups.  If startup and employee get along, it’s likely they will find an opportunity to work together gain; at the very least, they will provide referrals – for free.

I’m eager to know what you think. Would you be willing to work part-time while pursuing your idea? Does your startup have a reason for not offering part-time jobs?

Aaron Franklin is co-founder of LazyMeter, an application designed to end procrastination and forgetting. He works as a part-time consultant to support his startup.


Getting To Beta

February 21, 2011

LazyMeter has now been in beta for 2 weeks. Our first cohort of 50 users has already completed hundreds of actions using LazyMeter. After being told repeatedly to “just get to beta”, I now know why:

  • Extra Motivation: Having users adds purpose and urgency, so our pace has increased significantly.
  • Better Prioritization: Instead of guessing what to build next, we listen to our users. Our top priorities have changed, and we’ve discovered important features we hadn’t planned.
  • Validate Usability: What you think makes perfect sense can be completely misunderstood. The sooner you solve usability challenges at the core of your design, the better.
  • Improve Messaging: Beta isn’t just a test of a product – it’s also a test of its messaging. Beta helps you fine-tune your messaging so users get hooked on their first visit.
  • Data: Beyond user feedback, there’s a lot to be learned from monitoring usage patterns.

Some lessons we’ve learned from our beta:

  • Set realistic expectations. Many outside the industry will not recognize the meaning of the word ‘beta’.
  • Encourage negative feedback. Especially if your users include friends and family, you need to make them comfortable providing negative feedback. Ask “If you’re using it, what can be improved? If you’re not using it, why not?”
  • Don’t just ask for feedback – hunt it down. Speak with the users who aren’t responding to your requests feedback – they’ll have some of the best insights.
  • Listen. It’s easy to respond to feedback by explaining how something works, or why you did it that way. Don’t just respond to feedback – seriously consider if something should be changed.
  • Find patterns. If you get the same feedback or question more than once, take serious note.
  • Parent-proof your product. The user interface needs to be natural, and also backed up by detailed documentation from day 1. If your parents can figure out your product, your target audience will have an even better experience.
  • Beta is just the beginning. We have a lot of work to do.

We are making improvements based on the first group’s feedback, and then we’ll open up to a second cohort. Thanks to those who have been waiting patiently.  I’ll share more details about LazyMeter as we approach a more broad release.


The Private Entrepreneur

February 7, 2011

An advisor to several startups recently told me most founders he meets are unconfident in private. The more founders I meet, the more I find this to be true. There’s a big difference between a founder selling their idea on stage and how they carry themselves daily. While founders are alike in that they are completely confident in their product, the details are not so simple, and they question themselves constantly.

The reason for this disparity is simple: founders need to project 100% confidence as they woo investors, employees and customers. The side effect of this disparity is that many founders go through tough times in isolation. They don’t realize others go through the same challenges, and so they hesitate to bring them up. And it takes time to realize when you raise a concern with another founder in private, a wall is torn down and they usually say they went through the same thing (or something like it).

We’re all aware that there’s a bias towards success stories in the startup world. I started blogging a year ago when I left Microsoft to capture both the ups and downs of my journey. But I don’t write about the downs, in part because I’m waiting to see how my story ends, but also because I don’t want to do anything to take away from my total confidence in what I’m doing overall. I expect to see stories from founders with successful exits the most, but at that point they seem to either forget the challenges, not want to relive them, or be too distracted by their yacht.

Until there’s more coverage of startup challenges, we can at least seek to be more candid in our private conversations. The right network is critical to your success, but you also need to be upfront about what’s keeping you up at night and ask for help. Don’t suffer alone. I’m currently enrolled in a python class at the University of Washington. The first course was an introduction to Python by following a textbook. The second course is internet programming, and suddenly there’s no textbook. After a few late nights trying to figure things out on my own, I learned how important it is to ask for help from classmates. Going from a large company to a startup is similar – there’s no textbook, and you can save yourself a lot of trouble by simply raising your hand.