Start With The Bread

March 22, 2011

I’m a foodie. If you want to know what I miss the most about my Microsoft salary, it’s my restaurant budget. Which is probably why I’m eating a lot of sandwiches lately.

Every time I bite into a great sandwich, I notice the bread. When you order a gourmet sandwich, the bread is the last thing on your mind. Yet any great chef knows a great sandwich cannot exist without the perfect bread. A great sandwich can exist without the perfect ingredients; some bread is so good it doesn’t matter what you pair it with (if anything).

If you’ve ever been to Paseo in Fremont or Ballard for a Cuban sandwich, you know what I’m talking about. You can’t go wrong ordering any sandwich on their menu. Not to undermine the perfection of what goes on inside their sandwiches, they just wouldn’t succeed without the Macrina bread. And they know it: the bread is so important, they stop selling sandwiches when they run out instead of sending a runner to another bakery. If you think the meat is the most important thing, order the onion sandwich and thank me later. Likewise, bread is (part of) the reason so many people eat the mystery meat at Subway.

In contrast, I was very disappointed when I went to Salumi, Mario Batali’s father’s restaurant famous for its artisan cured meats. While I’m a fan of their meats, I would never order a sandwich from them again. The bread is so thick and dry that you can’t taste the meat. Great ingredients do not a great sandwich make. Sandwiches fail when the focus is on what’s inside, and the bread is an after-thought.

When you build your product, start with the bread. It’s easy to get caught up in the ingredients – the wonderful features – and overlook the importance of the structural platform that ties it all together. Yes, that BBQ brisket may be delicious, but if you put it in-between wonderbread you’ve failed.

At LazyMeter, we’ve already logged 100 features for task management, but we also know that those features are useless without a workflow that actually helps people get things done. There are countless task manager products with every feature from SMS alerts to collaboration, but there’s a reason most people don’t use one – none offer a workflow requiring less time and providing more satisfaction than pen and paper. They’ve ignored the bread.

My advice: start with the bread.


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.


Should you sell your viral app?

January 24, 2011

Congratulations! Your app went viral. Your traffic is growing exponentially. All the tech blogs are writing about you. Now what?

We live in amazing time when an application built by one or two people can quickly reach hundreds of thousands of users with no marketing budget. The applications achieving viral growth tend to be very simple and launch without a monetization plan, in most cases a side project gone horribly right. On the other side of the spectrum are highly monetizable products that don’t go viral. The question that remains to be answered is whether you can have both a monetizable product and viral growth.  Can a viral app become a business, or is it best to cash out early?

The most notorious viral app was ChatRoulette, which quickly reached 400,000 unique users, but traffic levels are now below ¼ the peak and dropping. Andrey Ternovskiy, the 18-year-old founder, turned down several million dollar offers for investments and buyouts. Last week, he admitted some regrets to FastCompany:

“After I declined the offers, I realized it was very difficult to execute something myself. I think I would accept the offers now, because I’m much more educated about it.”

So it was interesting to see, a more recent viral sensation, go up for sale last week. The site’s for sale page boasted 259,000 users, 5.1 million visits and 1.5 million entries. It was sold for an undisclosed amount less than a month after it’s first coverage on TechCrunch. Mark Bao, also 18-years-old, claimed he didn’t have time to focus on the site, but it’s likely he saw a fad and knew when to cash out.

Those in Seattle are well aware of Cubeduel, an app launched January 12th which lets you vote on who you’d rather work with. 50,000 votes were placed the first day. They had so much traffic that they were temporarily offline due to LinkedIn API limits. Regardless of downtime, Co-Founder Tony Wright claimed “hundreds of thousands” of ranked users only 3 days after launch. I’m eager to see what happens to Cubeduel. Will it be another fad? Will they monetize? Or will they choose to cash in?

It’s almost like we choose an app to go viral every week.  While writing this, an article is published on TechCrunch about what will probably be the next viral app. received 20,000 unique visitors in 8 hours.  Alex Tew previously created the infamous milliondollarhomepage, an example of a viral product that made money; it took a whopping 4 months to generate over $1 million.  He has some good insights into how the speed of viral growth has improved due to social media.“Ideas spread even faster because of social media,” said Tew, “Whereas before, the distribution power lay more with the news media and blogs back in 2005. If I had done MDH today, I might have made $1m in 4 weeks rather than 4 months.”

Should viral apps be sold? Did make the right decision? What do you think Cubeduel should do?


On Small Business Taxes

January 17, 2011

During political campaign season, it’s very common to hear politicians on both ends of the spectrum talk about their support for small business. I used to be satisfied by these statements, but now that I run a business of my own, I have to say I’m surprised by the investment of time and/or money required for licensing and taxes.

If you think your personal tax returns are complicated, get ready for some fun when you have your own business. First, you have to figure out the appropriate registrations (Washington Secretary of State, Washington State Department of Revenue, City of Seattle, Federal EIN, etc).  The overall process is poorly documented, and individual resources are disconnected. Then you have to keep track of all the various deadlines and paperwork that occur throughout the year, especially federal deadlines like paying personal estimated quarterly taxes and returns. For a small business with enough resources for professional financial support, this is just part of doing business. But a new small business probably doesn’t have these resources, or could benefit a lot from investing them elsewhere, and all the paperwork becomes a huge distraction. While it’s completely understandable why these requirements exist, I cringe every time I finish a form that says I owe $0.

If we want to see more small business, there should be a focus on supporting new small business. We should be helping new entrepreneurs dedicate their time and limited resources where it is needed the most: on establishing and growing their business. When they’re spending days navigating a system that ultimately results in a $0 bill, it’s a waste of everyone’s time and resources, including the government’s efforts to collect nothing.

To all my fellow entrepreneurs, I hope you get all your 2010 tax requirements swiftly, and get back to business.


Did You Grow Last Year?

January 10, 2011

I left Microsoft to embark on a one year experiment. 12 months later, much is still up in the air. I thought we could launch a product within a few months, and either gain traction or fail by the end of the year. While LazyMeter is almost in beta, it’s clearly taken longer than planned. This week, a few friends naturally asked how I feel about the first year of my experiment, and whether I have any regrets.

Life is good. I’m thrilled with the product we’re building, our LLC had significant revenue from consulting, and for the first time in recent memory, I can say I’ve grown. I’ve left my comfort zone, networking and returning to code, and I’ve rediscovered things I love to do like writing. This was very different than the years I spent distracted by things like salary, levels and promotions that now feel meaningless. While I couldn’t figure out the source of my dissatisfaction at Microsoft, I now realize I had to leave because I was waiting instead of growing. Looking back on the past year, I’m not upset with the opportunity cost, or things taking longer than planned. I’m thrilled that I no longer feel stuck and have made steps in the right direction. When I look to the future, I have countless options. I’ve never been closer to where I want to be, and I’m figuring out where I want to be at the same time. Leaving Microsoft to found a startup has been nothing short of a successful journey, no matter where I end up.

A critical component of happiness is continual growth. We should always try to make progress towards our goals. You don’t need to achieve your goal, but you do need to move towards it, even if just turning in its direction. While it’s easy to dream big for the future, these dreams are often intimidating, so it’s no surprise that so many New Year’s resolutions are abandoned. Each New Year’s, we look to the future, but we should start with the past. Specifically, we should ask ourselves whether we grew. Meaningful New Year’s resolutions are in response to this question.
This New Years, I suggest you resolve to grow. It’s fine if our New Year’s resolutions are lofty and unrealistic.  Dream big.  What really matters is whether we make positive progress towards our goals. If you’re not proud of your progress – if you feel stuck – then this is the year to make a change. I really enjoyed Marcello’s Open Letter to the Seattle Startup Community because it both sets goals for 2011, and appreciates the progress made so far towards the vision – have you made the same analysis for your life this year?