Why Accelerators Matter

(Albuquerque, New Mexico) – So I’m wrapping up a week-long accelerator program today: our pitch deck has been creatively destroyed over and over, we’ve made our pitch to a room of investors (both Angels and VCs), and in a couple of hours (New Mexico time) we will learn if we placed in the money among 8 other “creative” startups.

Time to unpack a few details. The accelerator is Creative Startups of Albuquerque, New Mexico, this is their second annual cohort, and we’re the only software startup among the nine startups. New Mexico has a strong, proud, and diverse community of “creatives” and artists of many sorts: Creative Startups’g goal is accelerating the success of creative entrepreneurs and economies by having 30-odd mentors (smart successful people) present and meet with these nine startup teams and founders, and introducing them to the tender mercies of VCs and Angels.

Tender mercies?

Actually yes. Unlike the typical startup accelerator programs you’ve heard of, let alone the dreaded (or at least I dreaded) Demo Days where your puppy-like startups gets tossed into a pool of sharks and the water runs red except for a very lucky few, the investors and mentors at Creative Startups have been wonderful, helpful, supportive, attentive and caring. These are not adjectives I as a (former) self-funded startup founder (SFSF) would have ever associated with VCs and their lesser brethren.

Well, you can learn something every day, You can learn something every day of every work hour if you immerse yourself in a setting with a bunch of really smart people with all sorts of experience – which is kind of the point of any Accelerator Program that lives up to their name.

So did it hurt?

Yes it did. We (TheRightMargin.com) started Monday with our killer pitch deck done, our messages on target and compelling, and perhaps a bit of cockiness coming from the center of the startup universe, San Francisco. We got our clocks cleaned, our deck murdered and our message clobbered within 48 hours as mentor after mentor tore into us in the nicest possible way (I’m thinking of you Lena! :)). But they didn’t just rip in and rain on our parade, they helped us understand the process, relationship and realities from their side of the table, the table where the money is. We sometimes quickly, usually painfully, but always with real support, learned how to turn the story of our utterly awesome software around so it would really matter and be worth the time of potential investors of money and time, aka potential investors and more importantly customers.

So get to the point already!

The point is that even if you publicly distain (and secretly are terrify by) investors, getting the opportunity to work with them and their like to understand your software, and your business, from their point of view is awesomely, totally worth it. The experience, with or without funding, if it’s focus is on the process of learning how to think like a real businessperson, will open your eyes. If you’re wondering would I recommend that next year you apply for Creative Startups, the answer is yes! And if you can’t get in, consider other accelerators only if it’s about the mentorship, constructive criticism, reality checks and yes, emotional validation they provide. The money is may be the end of the journey, but it really is all about the trip getting there.


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Bob WalshWhy Accelerators Matter

Quick prototypes and agile startups.

I don’t usually mix my day job at TheRightMargin with my various passions here at 47hats, but an experiment I and three other employees are getting ready to launch was just too useful for people here to pass up.

As self-funded startup founders (SFSFs?) we tend to code first and ask questions later. I’m a programmer dammit, and if I write a cool feature then users will love it! Maybe. But maybe coding is a way to dodge the emotionally hard work of talking to users (ick), finding out what they want, need, feel (more ick), and putting yourself and your ideas out there all alone on the internet stage. Makes getting picked last for a dodgeball team in high school PE sound fun.

But the reality is there are at least a few bits of all this relatively new Lean Startup/Customer Discovery/Gear Up touchy-feely stuff that’s useful, elegant and solves real problems.

Take, for example, testing a new major feature. Not testing in the code sense – rather, but testing if any of your users or prospective users want/need/will use that feature. It’s called “prototyping”: creating a non-code (even paper!) bit of interactive stuff that can test the value of a major feature before spending days or weeks coding it out.

Take for instance adding Timed Writing Exercises (TWEs) to TheRightMargin. The idea came from a common problem we heard from our interviewees–when you’re writing something major you can get horribly, painfully stuck. One way to get unstuck is to do some batshit crazy five minute writing exercise that gets the little grey cells in your head pumping again and makes you a happy writing camper.

So instead of coding this feature, I prototyped it in a quick, non-code way first. With a measly Google Form and a Medium post. Not one line of code. (please give my prototype a try!) We think we’ll get enough data from people’s responses to this prototype to tell us if it’s worth building out. It feels a bit uncomfortable – reaching out to people instead of writing code. But if it works (and I will let you know), we’ll know if we should build it out based on more than just intuition.

In fact, Art has built a ‘staying on track with your writing goals’ prototype (which is mostly him doing things for for you), Christine has whipped up some cool online prototypes for you to try (please let her know what you think!), and Shivani has set up a cool and fun way to onboard you and your writing goals. Please give them all a try, they take only a few minutes each!

Solo founders never have enough time. We have to pick our battles and our features carefully. Prototyping (non-code ways of testing out major functionality on real people) is a smart way of getting some advance intelligence on what the market is going to think of our latest and greatest.

So if you’ve tried prototyping at your startup, or are thinking now about prototyping that shiny new major feature before writing a line of code, share with the rest of us in comments here.

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Bob WalshQuick prototypes and agile startups.

Are your customers in enough pain?

Let me let you in on a little startup secret: you want your prospective customers in pain. Lots of pain. Really suffering, like if their hands were being held over an open fire and the flames were starting to make their skin blister, blacken and burn.

Now, I basically a nice guy and don’t want anyone (except most Republican Presidential candidates) to experience any pain at all. All rainbows, kittens, and puppies. But, I want your prospective customers to really be hurting when they hear about you – and so do you.


Here’s why: Pain changes behavior. While we all seek pleasure, pleasure is a weak second place when it comes to changing people’s behavior enough for them adopt a new product or service. Regardless of all the arguments you can make that your product will make this faster, richer, happier, more entertained or taller, customers will tune all that out as typical blah, blah, blah. Unless they are in pain and they decide your offering may take some or all of their pain away.

Keep in mind there’s all sorts of pain. From the manager who just got reamed by his boss to the mild, nagging boredom a 16-year-old feels when no one posts to them for like 10 whole minutes. And by the way, maybe your customer doesn’t even realize they are in pain, and with your help can get in touch with it (aka advertising).

But all and all, you, the self-funded startup founder (SFSF?), need to categorize, itemize, measure, and probe your customers’ pain, and decide if it’s enough pain to motivate them to listen to you, consider your offering, and ultimately buy.

I recently made that calculation with Solopomo.com. Sure, there are people out there who use Trello, and want to get their Trello work done using the Pomodoro Technique. While it’s a cool idea, and works, prospective customers are just not in enough pain to motivate the change in behavior Solopomo would need to succeed. (I’m keeping Solopomo around for a month or so, so if you haven’t picked up my nifty Trello tips, grab them before they go away.)

4129400323_03d17b79b0_mSo what’s next, side-project-wise? (I’ve got a day job that’s a blast) Time to return to doing a SaaS for a very specific group of people who are in real pain each and every day. They are feeling the pain of failing at building their dream. They are feeling the pain of sacrificing family time that can never be recovered. They are hating they day jobs. And they are starting to hate themselves because their best is not good enough to get the job done they way they’ve been trying.

I’m talking about you of course.

You’re reading this because you are trying, struggling, clawing to build your self-funded startup. But you are not making progress, or enough progress. You need a new approach, a whole new tool, for building your startup that make it possible to really make progress, not tread water week after week. You’re not sure I’ve got anything you can use, but your pain means you’ll at least give it a try.

So are you in enough self-funded startup founder pain to try something new? Let me know in the comments or drop me a line at bob.walsh@47hats.com.

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Bob WalshAre your customers in enough pain?

Rails Composer and Daniel Kehoe – well worth supporting!

Well, this Sunday evening was going to be the “official” launch of my brand-new side project, startupsuccessplanner.com. Like every rails app I’ve started in the past 3 years I was going to go start by going over to railsapp.com where Daniel Kehoe has been tirelessly making life immeasurably easier for people like me.

Rails tutorials, like fish left in the sun, do not age well. In fact, pretty much anything about Rails has a shelf life measured in weeks and months, not years. That’s why what Daniel has been doing with all of his tutorials and the many, many times he’s updated them is so important. Many rails developers use Daniel’s Rails Composer to kick start a new app – answer a dozen intelligent questions and 15 minutes later you’ve got an up-to-date Rails app with everything you want (your choice of bootstrap, foundation, stripe, rspec, etc., etc.) just the way you want it configured and ready for the secret sauce you’re going to add.

Now, Daniel is doing a small (already successful) Kickstarter campaign to take Rails Composer to the next level. I already know it’s going to be awesome, and I bought in a few minutes ago. You should too.

But that’s not why I’m writing this post right now.

Daniel reached out asking for some upvote love to his Hacker News post (” I Left My Heart in San Francisco: The Exile of a Digital Nomad“) about his very personal Medium story. So personal it hurt to read, mainly because of the many parallels in my life. It takes a brave man to tell the world what he did – and a braver man to despite all that’s been thrown his way to continue to strive to make it better for every open source developer.

So, read the story, upvote it on HN, and support Daniel’s Kickstarter project – you will be glad you did, and his project will make you a better developer.

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Bob WalshRails Composer and Daniel Kehoe – well worth supporting!

The Startup Success Podcast is back in business!

Well, it’s official with our second “third season” episode: The Startup Success Podcast is back in the business of finding interesting (primarily) self-funded startup founders to talk to, doing our homework so we can interview influential and thought-provoking leaders in the startup world without sounding like idiots and generally having a good time!

The startup podcasting landscape has changed since long ago 2013, and there’s lots of good shows for you to enjoy. Our slant, our focus, our reason for doing the show is that as long term observers/participants in the startup world we want to drill down to the insights, experiences and worthwhile advice that will give self-funded startups a leg up and a sharpened knife for building their successful startups. Unicorns, VC’s and other creatures of Silicon Valley we will mostly leave to others to fawn over. We are looking for information you as self funded startup founder (a.k.a solopreneur, solo founder, and yes, microISV) really, really need to hear.

So join us each week here and on iTunes and on Libsysn for your dose of startup secret sauce!

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Bob WalshThe Startup Success Podcast is back in business!

Losing your Productivity Religion.

Short Version: Current Task List Managers regardless of platform are fatally flawed. They churn out one-size-fits-all tasks in a never-ending assembly line from Hell, faster and faster, until the whole edifice comes crashing down on your head. I don’t want to build Yet Another Productivity App (YAPA) – even if that means pouring ten times more effort into the side project I’ve been working on. So the software that started as Solopomo is getting a reset, and becoming the embodiment of a new approach to online productivity that, rejecting YAPA, I hope becomes something truly useful.

About 3 months ago I could no longer deny I’d lost my productivity religion. I couldn’t deny anymore that there’s already thousands of productivity apps out there — from Asana to WunderList —  that see “productivity” as making it easy for you to track endless lists of stuff you need to get done — and no apps out there improving how you get those things done, let alone improving your skills, knowledge, and insights so you can really be more productive.

They all follow the same pattern. Put everything into lists. Every task no matter how important, complicated or long gets treated the same. So you start using a new “productivity application”, feeling good over how organized you are. Then less good as the tasks keep coming. Then worse as you realize your lists are getting longer, not shorter and you’re in a game you can’t ever win. At some point you declare “task bankruptcy.” Again. Sometime later, you see some new YAPA online and hope against hope that this time, this time, it will be different. Been there, done that, have the tee shirts to show and don’t want to play that game anymore.

My problem was that at the time I was (and am) deep into coding Solopomo, a productivity app marrying up Trello for managing work and the Pomodoro Technique for getting work done. But I couldn’t stomach building what was turning out to be a YAPA (Yet Another Productivity App). I’d done that twice before, and at their best they were just slightly better implementations of the same failed and flawed paradigm.

There had to be a better perspective, a better way of looking at productivity than endlessly churning through unimportant tasks. So, I stepped back, and started thinking hard about what “productivity” really means day after month after year when you work online.

I’m not offering up a David Allen-esque all-encompassing productivity religion – but I do believe:

  • All tasks are created unequal. Treating everything the same – from getting milk, to building something online that matters – is a doomed and dooming exercise from the get-go.
  • Productivity Software to be worth a shit must enable you to become better at what you do that matters to you, not just track items on lists. You can look at what you do in your life as task after task after task, or you can look at your life as a never-ending quest to get better at what you do. Not both.
  • We live in a world where your attention is fast becoming a natural resource to be sold, mined, exploited, harvested and ultimately taken away from you. Any actual software attempting to help you needs to built with this digital reality in mind.
  • When your work is digital, figuring out how to do the work, is the work. Industrial productivity is not digital productivity. And treating what we do as work online as if it were not online is literally unproductive.

So, now that I’ve got that all figured out :), I’m starting to code again, resetting the clock on the Solopomo page, and will get on with it – in my non-work time before and after my day job. Stay tuned.

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Bob WalshLosing your Productivity Religion.

Playing with new toys!

Short version: I’ve been hired as senior web developer at TheRightMargin, so Solopomo development is slowing down. I’m aiming to have it done by end of March.

Hi all! The good news is that after Brandle laid me and rest of its crack development team off and shut it’s office back in September, I’ve now started work as Senior Web Developer at TheRightMargin.

TheRightMargin is a collaborative writing platform that consolidates writing tools, makes it easy to improve your drafts and most importantly, solves writer’s block. TheRightMargin is going after three major pain points. First, for too long in the digital age longform writers have had to put up with tools all based on the paradigm of the infamous Microsoft Word application. (I can say infamous having written 3 books using it.) There are better ways – especially when it comes time to reference your notes, outlines and plans while you’re writing.

Second, this is the digital, integrative, online world where writers want to be able to easily share their work with fans, followers and friends, getting both qualitative and quantitate feedback to help them improve what they write. Let’s make that happen!

Third, as long as there have been writers there has been writer’s block. Few things are more painful than wanting to write, needing to write, but not being able to write. In many cases, being able to get some critical feedback from people you trust, fast, in an actionable form, will help you blast though the blockage and get your writing to done.

All of the above and more are the high goals we’ve set for TheRightMargin – if you write longform, please add yourself to our email list.

Meanwhile, Solopomo is almost to the point where I can at least use it, replacing my manual process of copying Trello cards to a paper list, estimating how many pomodoros I need for each task, then running a Pomodoro Timer on my iPhone and checking them off. Even this limited, klutzy process has meant I can get nearly twice as much done as I could accomplish doing Getting Things Done and a list management app (believe me, if it’s out there, I’ve tried it). It’s taken me more years than I want to think about but I finally “get” GTD is not about having the longest list of undone things imaginable: it’s about emptying your mind, cuing up your work, constraining your focus, and reviewing what you’ve done so you can do more important work better in the future. Thats’ what I hope to achieve with Solopomo.

Finally, if you’re a Trello user, please check out and sign up for the free email course I put together on improving your Trello Productivity. I wanted to move above and beyond the usual listicles you’ve read in countless posts to techniques that will actually make a difference and stick. Check it out at Solopomo.

And now that I’ve got the job thing and the side thing firing away, paradoxically you can expect a lot more content here about ways of succeeding as a Solopreneur and new and better ways of being productive in your digital life.

P.S. Hope you like the site redesign! Love it, Hate it? Share you thoughts in comments.

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Bob WalshPlaying with new toys!

A Scrum of One (solopreneur)?

So, what’s the right methodology for a developer or really small team for (hopefully) building and launching a successful SaaS? Do you bang out the minimalist of minimal viable products with no tests? I did that basically back in the day with StartupToDo.com and was overwhelmed by technical debt and bugs. Now that I’m back to being a solopreneur after 15 months developing for Brandle.net, and after seeing how other solopreneurs or small teams develop software, finding a better approach was very high on my to do list.

Yet, I always assumed that Agile development, the closely aligned practice of BDD (behavior-driven development), and in particular Scrum methodology was by and for teams of developers – that while it scaled up, they did not scale down. Two things post-Brandle.net changed my mind:

Talking two weeks ago with Aaron Schaap, CEO of the Grand Rapids, MI based development shop ElevatorUp. Aaron shared that ElevatorUp actually use Cucumber to have clients write and define user stories which are at the heart of Scrum and Agile, and that this approach actually worked extremely well both for his developers and their clients. A key benefit claimed by Cucumber and BDD is that non-developers could and would write stories instead of specifications. I had never before seen or heard of this actually happening. Aaron does it every day.

The other thing that changed my thinking about this for my own projects is reading Jeff Sutherland’s brand new book, Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time. Jeff is the inventor of Scrum, and if you do or are considering doing Scrum, you want to read this book yesterday. Why? Because it lays out in the clearest terms possible not only how Scrum should be done but exactly why it should be done in the prescribed manner. It’s not chance – there’s a deeper logic there that Jeff lays out in this book.

Understanding the deeper why behind Scrum practices after reading Sutherland’s book and finally talking to someone running a development shop where nonprogrammers really and truly writing tests opened my eyes. When next I do development for someone else, TDD at a minimum if not BDD and Scrum have got to be baked in – no more sacrificing code quality and test coverage.

With that being said, I’ve been hammering on getting to a Scrum of One for FlashCommand – what works and what doesn’t work when there’s only one developer?

After way too many hours over the last several weeks spent reading the internets and trying out just about every Agile-related bit of software out there, tapping the power of Zapier to integrate various apps, here’s my approach:

I’ve settled on using exactly one product: Pivotal Tracker. It both seems to be the most popular agile app in the Startup world and manages to make it easy to avoid all the “team overhead” that as a budding “Agile team of 1” I don’t want, plus it’s reasonably priced for one user.

So my software dev flow is:

  1. Evernote to capture the vision of what I am trying to create, the “shared understanding” core to Scum, with links to relevant web clippings, research, posts about code and PDFs, audio notes, you name it, plus
  2. Paper prototypes on large, cheap index cards I can then scan into Evernote and digitally reference, plus
  3. High fidelity mockups, especially for mobile and tablet views, in the awesome Sketch 3, plus
  4. UI Flows ala this seminal post: A shorthand for designing UI flows, which then I scan into Evernote. These first 4 steps “get handed off to development” (me) by
  5. Creating Epics and Stories in Pivotal Tracker, writing those stories in Cucumber nomenclature (see http://cukes.info/), and letting Tracker guide my iterations based on my actual velocity. For actual coding,
  6. Copying these stories into my RSpec integration and unit tests files, but only coding actual RSpec and not Cucumber tests. While I now “get” what Cucumber is about, the overhead of maintaining two sets of tests when there’s only one developer on my project – me – is too high a cost.
  7. Taking a “TDD+” approach of tests first, then code re the guts of FlashCommand.com, but being more pragmatic about when tests get written for the UI – since I know a lot of the UI/UX is going to get iterated and I want to minimize throwing away tests because UI/UX has changed.
  8. Two specific Scrum practices get scaled down:
    1. Daily stand up meetings becomes starting each coding day asking the key Scrum questions:
      1. What did you do yesterday to help the team finish the Sprint?
      2. What will you do today to help the team finish the Sprint?
      3. Is there any obstacle blocking you or the team from achieving the Sprint Goal?
    2. And limiting work to that which I defined for the current two week sprint.

That’s my “Scrum of One” approach as I go from several prototypes for FlashCommand to actual production code: what’s yours?

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Bob WalshA Scrum of One (solopreneur)?

Join fizzle.co now.


Continuing my experiments to make myself a better solopreneur, I’ve joined and started participating in fizzle.co – and so should you.

My first reaction to fizzle was skepticism – what, another online course that will make me all better? Been there, done that. But I decided to join anyway since being out here in rural Sonoma, California, I was feeling more than a little isolated. You want to talk about wine, come to Sonoma. You want to talk about the challenges and tribulations of being an online solopreneur, you’re in the wrong place.

Fizzle.co is an “Honest Online Business Training – and the community of entrepreneurs who won’t let you quit”. Part instructional video courses, part very active community. The first thing I noticed was how well done the site was – the production values. We’re talking the difference between YouTube and CBS. The next thing I noticed was how active and supporting the community is of each other. Not endless how do I precisely make a million dollars yesterday-type questions, but strong encouragement of each other, thoughtful questions about the courses, and a willingness to trust each other.

But what sealed the deal for me this morning was taking their “Productivity Essentials” course. I’ve interviewed for various podcasts and online publications David Allen 6 times. Major parts of my three published books have been on productivity. I’ve written and sold two productivity apps and am in the process of building a third. And none of the above comes close to the power, elegance and value of Chase Reeves’ Productivity Essentials course. It’s that good.

My strong advice to you if you want to be a solopreneur or successful developer is spend a buck (that’s right, first month costs just $1.00 USD; $35/month thereafter), join fizzle.co, take the Productivity Essentials course, check out the forums. You will be impressed, motivated, and learn good stuff.

(Here’s my affiliate link if you’d decide you want to try it AND you like what you’re reading here: http://fizzle.co?aid=6168)

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Bob WalshJoin fizzle.co now.

But seriously, folks…

Sometimes we developers take ourselves so seriously – these guys don’t. That in itself makes scrumy.com worth a look.

While I’ve pretty much settled on Pivotal Tracker as I (painfully) change from unAgile to Agile, reading Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time by Jeff Sutherland (creator of Scrum) has me thinking about ways/means for a Scrum of 1.

Anyone have any suggestions re Scrum for Solopreneurs?

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Bob WalshBut seriously, folks…