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You don’t need 1 blog: you need 3.

One of my clients last week asked me about beta blogs: why, how and what’s the tradeoffs? It got me thinking both back to 2004 when I first started a blog as a brazen and shameless way of getting some attention for my first microISV product. And it got me thinking forward: If I were a developer in my 20s who preferred being at the top of the payscale instead of the bottom, would I blog and if so what about?

If you are that archetypal 20’s developer, working for The Man but burning with a desire to do a startup, I see three blogs in your future:

1. A “professional me” blog where you get to geek out about the languages, frameworks and algorithms you get to play with. That blog will be your communications endpoint as a developer; it’s how you connect with other developers blogging, how you build a body of posts over time that prove your technical chops to prospective clients, employers and partners.

Professional blogs are just that: professional. Skip posting the cell phone pics from your last big party, complaints about your boss and other personal stuff. Instead, share your passion about what you are spending most of your waking hours doing, cool techniques that save you time and in general, reach out to the online programming community.

2. Your private beta blog. Somewhere between being a gleam in your eye and being credit card bait, your desktop app or SaaS needs some place that makes it dirt easy for your private beta testers to funnel you honest feedback. Note the word private. It used to be that betas were periods you traded free software for a chance to try your app out on a variety of other people’s boxes; Google’s perpetual betas and the realities of Internet marketing circa 2008 have moved “beta” from the engineering to the marketing column. Put another way, everything on the public ‘net is beta.

But private beta testers are another matter: they are doing you a huge favor and the easier you make it for them, the better your results will be. You want to create a trusted place on the net where you and they can say things not part of the public discourse about your product or service.

For example, you can create a free blog at wordpress.com, password protect it and only make it available to beta testers (35 or less: if you have more, spring for a workpress.com upgrade for $30/yr.). Or you could do the same thing at Vox.com, with the catch that your beta testers would need to create free vox.com accounts. For that matter, you could create a blog at TypePad and initially password protect it.

The point is, you want to make it as easy as possible for your beta testers to give you real feedback. And blogs are all about feedback.

3. Your product’s blog. Actually, product blog is a misnomer and a pit trap: you don’t want or need a product blog, you want and need a blog about the intersection between your [prospective] customers and your expertise, passion, perspective and occasionally product. If you’ve launched a startup or microISV, presumedly you know a lot more than the problem domain your product or service lives in than do your customers. Share that knowledge and passion – it’s a great way to establish your expertise, authority and standing.

You can start your product blog before, when or after you launch; blogging is one of the best ways a startup or microISV can get the word out and get market feedback in. Just go light on the marketing mayo and provide your readers with plenty they can sink their teeth into: everything from customer stories to solutions, workarounds and fixes that complement your product are fair game.

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Bob WalshYou don’t need 1 blog: you need 3.
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Bits and Pieces

Busy week, but here’s a few things that I squirreled away you might like to finish your Friday with:

Tim Haughton is having entirely too much fun with SSH, posting 3 Things You Didn’t Know About SSH – Part 1. This post is how you can use SSH to tunnel your web traffic to your server; just the thing to get past your boss’s “no facebook here” policy.

Let’s talk about money – other people’s money. If you’re contemplating seeking VC money, you need to get familiar with how much blood equity you are going to have to fork over. One good place for this is The Funded, which back in January started posting the term sheets of VCs. Interesting reading.

Of related interest, Y Combinator did the startup community a huge favor by having its lawyers draft all the documents a startup needs for initial round of financing. Unfortunately, seems there’s a problem with those docs and Y Combinator took them down again. Let’s hope for the early return.

Speaking of Y Combinator, Kevin Leneway is up to #19 in his Y Combinator Challenge – post an idea for a startup or microISV a day. Kevin – Who creates tols for Microsoft’s Developer and Platform Evangelism group – has some interesting ideas. Good reading if you’ve not decided what app you want to create.

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Bob WalshBits and Pieces
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Calling all microISVs/startups! Be on the lookout for…

makeingnews.jpgWell, I guess for me. I’m writing as of today for CNET’s Webware after quitting my previous blogging gig. Webware is all about web applications and CNET – which is owned by CBS now by the way – is all about the web apps that are changing how people live and work online.

If you’re a microISV or startup with a good story to tell and starved for some major media attention, I’m all ears: bob.walsh@47hats.com. And if you’re wondering does this mean I think the days of desktop apps are over – nope, but the days of desktop apps ignoring the 1 billion people on the net are.

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Bob WalshCalling all microISVs/startups! Be on the lookout for…
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Constraints are a good thing.

Something I’ve noticed working with a fair number of microISVs and startups: constraints are a good thing.

The digital entrepreneurs who’ve been successful and therefore have the luxury of time and money are the those less likely to get to the point of releasing a new product.

Another version of this is the developer who wants to do a microISV, but is overwhelmed by all the possible kinds of software they can create, all the possible markets they could sell to, all the possible programming languages and frameworks they could use. They get lost in a hall of Internet mirrors.

Constraints give you a structure you can create in. Whether you code, write poetry or design web sites, constraints make things work and make you work to a higher level.

The trick in this business is realizing you no longer have a Manager to set constraints on you therefore you are free to pick and choose your constraints. That’s the good news. The bad news is you’d need to think about what those restraints on what you are going to do will be and commit to them before you lose focus.

Here’s five constraints you need to think about and make decisions on:

Time. This is the biggie. Unless you are working against a deadline, set X number of hours a week to work on creating your product, then work those hours and stop. Three good things happen with this approach:

  • You are much less likely to meander down trivial features just because you can and because it is fun (or at least what we programmers think is fun).
  • It forces you to get something working. It might not be the absolutely best in all the world solution, but it works and that above all else is the criteria for judging code, IMO.
  • It forces you to make productive choices.

Money. Money is time’s evil twin if you’re not working for someone else on salary. You need to be very hard-headed about how much current income reduction you can tolerate in order to free up time for development. And, while development itself is free or nearly free, the things around development such as online backup service, custom art/web design and legal necessities such as accounting cost money: budget these and other expenses in advance rather than running short.

People. This is a two-parter: are you going to build a one-person microISV or join forces with other people to do a full-fledged startup in the traditional sense? Second part: who do you tell? Partnering brings to the table its own share of rewards, risks and to-do’s: there is no right answer here.

Regarding telling people, my advice is be conservative about who you tell and when. I don’t recommend telling anyone except your spouse until you know damn well you are going to have a product. And thereafter, be cautious. There will come a time and place to start talking about whatever your Project X is: at the beginning is not that time.

Features. Developers love to develop, that’s a big part of why we do what we do. But working for yourself means you’ve got to be as tough as the toughest boss you’ve ever had and ruthlessly par the not must have day one features away. Your goal, your only goal, is those features that make what you hope to sell worth the price you hope to get in your customer’s eyes. Everything else is a nice to have.

Case in point, I have a slew of features I wanted to have in the first release of Project X, but because they’re not core value features, they are going to wait until I (hopefully) release the next major build after the initial build. Some of these features were among the first ideas I had for this product and that most excited me at the beginning; but they are not the features the people I hope will become customers (you) will be most excited by.

Technology. It’s so hard to resist the siren call: should I have a iPhone interface on day 1? Oh look, there’s a cool jQuery-based grid! What about AIR, what about Siverlight, and on and on. If one of your full time jobs as a startup is tracking new technology that can have an immense effect on the app you’re building, another full time job is saying no to all but the tech that is going to be worth the time/money investment because it will generate revenue. In other words, prioritize adoption by revenue. IPhone interface? Nice to have, not for 1.0.

There are lots of other potential constraints out there – and that’s a good thing, they will help you get the job done. The trick is being proactive and defining as much as you are able to what you want those constraints to be.

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Bob WalshConstraints are a good thing.
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51 Steps to Startup Success – Not!

Stanislav Shalunov – one of the people I track in Tweetdeck when I’m in online network mode – tweeted an alert a moment ago to this post, “Startups – The Essential To Do List”.

Now I’m hoping like hell that its author, Dr. J. Basil Peters, was just in a fiendishly funny mood today and did this post as a send up. Dr. Peters runs an Canadian angel investment fund, has been named Entrepreneur of the Year, does speaking engagements and looks to know his stuff.

But you are better sticking a pencil two inches into your ear than following his Essential To Do List of 51 items.

“This question comes up frequently, so I started this list to help other entrepreneurs ensure they don’t miss one of the essential structural components,” Dr. Peters’ says. Let’s have a look:

  1. Build a startup team (if it’s still just you, repeat step 1).
  2. Agree on an idea (the idea is much less important than the team).

Okay, two items in and we’re in trouble.

Just as the greatest chefs in the world are not going to be able to turn mud into anything but mud, I don’t care how great your team is: a lousy idea is a lousy idea. And having a great idea – that is, finding something that people need and want – is step 1, not 2, if you think you should be in charge of either a startup, a microISV or a lemonade stand for that matter.

Onward: Steps 3 through 11 sort of make sense: figure out where you and the other founders want to be in three years, decide on a fair, equitable pan for founder compensation, equity, vesting and who gets to play with the credit cards. Not bad boxes for a checklist, but wait.

#12 is “Ensure the startup team is still in alignment.” Shareholder alignment, (unlike say tire alignment), “is all about human behavior and group psychology”, Dr. Peters says. If your team is not in alignment, Bad Things will happen. “(Get someone outside the team to do a Phase 1 alignment check. If the alignment is not perfect, consider having the first offsite strategic planning retreat with a really great facilitator.)”

Assuming you all are now facing in the same direction, pick somewhere to setup the company, your officers and corporate directors, recheck your alignment and by the way, find one very experienced advisor, mentor and/or coach who can review and confirm these steps.

Excuse me, but wouldn’t it make more sense to do that before setting up? No matter, onward:

After another strategic planning retreat with an excellent facilitator, celebrate your continued alignment. “(It looks like you really do have the ingredients of a promising company.)” (no, I did not make this up.)

Twenty steps down, 31 to go. Steps 21 through 32 cover the legal waltz known as incorporation – everything from deciding the amount of equity to give future (unaligned?) employees to hiring yourself and oh yes, doing a 12 month budget and a 3 year revenue projection before you realign in step 33 again.

Now write a business plan. Not to raise money, or even to say, plan the business, but to check founder alignment. And make sure someone can sign checks for your company. Dr. Peters thinks writing a business plan might be a bit of work: time check your alignment again (step 36) and if it’s not absolutely perfect, off you go to another punishing offsite strategic planning retreat (step 37). Don’t forget to celebrate (step 38).

No rest for the weary, so get that bank account open (39), collect checks from the founders (that’s you) and set up an accounting system (42) and learn what taxes your company will have to pay (43). Now, if it were my money, I think I’d like that accounting system in place before I hand over the cold, hard cash, but that’s a quibble. And quibbles don’t keep you in alignment. Hang in there, you’re almost done! Learn about those tax credits (apparently they’re pretty sweet in Canada), get some insurance, an alarm system (sic) and start planning how you’re going to get money from friends and family and what, if anything, your friends and family will get in return.

Got all that? “Celebrate completing all of the absolutely necessary steps in building a successful startup.” (50) Finally, “As soon as the hangover clears, start working on the product, marketing, sales, recruiting, strategic relationships and exit strategy – the fun part.”

Fun indeed.

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Bob Walsh51 Steps to Startup Success – Not!
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Bits and Pieces.


Here’s a few things on the web that caught my attention recently you may find interesting:

Keith Alperin of Helium Foot Software posted his second podcast episode in his series, Mac Software Business, Year One. He and Scotty Scott, Kevin Hoctor and Gus Mueller kick around Mac specific issues and general topics like licensing, PayPal as your credit card processor with more than a little help from e-Junkie, where to find good web site designs and more. I missed episode 1; looking forward to #3. Good listening!

Speaking of listening, Mark Gladding Text2Go reached 3.0 today. Text2Go converts text to near-human quality speech with one click; 3.0 adds powerful community driven features to differentiate from competitors and deliver a better customer experience. Sheesh! I’ve been hanging around Microsofties too much, I’m beginning to speak their lingo.

Speaking of Microsoft, Kevin Merritt, CEO of web startup Blist has some advice for the 900 pound gorilla: instead of beating your chest and trying to grab Yahoo, start funding startups the way Google is rumored to be planning. Details here.

Gold discovered at One Infinite Loop, or at least in the iPhone App store for some microISVs. John Casasanta names names and tells numbers about their microISV’s iPhone products. In my opinion, the world is divided into two parts: those who own iPhones and those who will. While Apple has caught some flack about MobileMe, the $999 do-nothing app and the kill-switch, it’s laughing all the way to the bank. Maybe you should think about going along for that ride?

And last but not least, Peldi Guilizzoni of Balsamiq gives back to the community some excellent Startup Marketing Advice. Peldi has been on a tear with Balsamiq Studio, posting $10K in revenue in the first 6 weeks. Want to know how? Read this post.

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Bob WalshBits and Pieces.

Striking a balance of user needs in technology development.

Melanie Baker
Community Manager
AideRSS

For those of us who live and breathe tech, it can be easy to forget how different our online habits are from those of the average internet user. We at AideRSS, and folks like us, have assimilated RSS into our information processing and now look ahead at how to improve it. Bring us more of what we want to know; save our time and attention (or do those things for our audiences and customers). We talk about RSS going mainstream, though it hasn’t gotten there just yet.

And so there we are at one end of the spectrum — the innovators — already thoroughly accustomed to technology many people have barely even heard of. We know what RSS is, how it works, what its applications are, and what it doesn’t do yet that would be really, really cool.

At the other end of the spectrum are people who don’t know what RSS is, how it works, or potentially don’t even do enough online to need it. Many of those folks are what you’d call a “missionary sell” for those of us working in the space.

In the middle, though, is ripe, juicy opportunity. People with pains we can alleviate, workflows we can enhance, and time we can save. However, to borrow from George Bernard Shaw, we must get at these people through their own level of interest and experience, not ours. The techies want to know everything, but our potential mainstream audience does not.

Just make it work. Read What Matters. Okay… here’s your list. It’s important to remember as well that the corporate world often falls squarely within the mainstream based on level of interest and pains they want to solve.

As a result, it’s a strange balance our company has struck, working to build a service that is friendly even to newcomers to RSS, but at the same time working with and keeping our existing fans happy, many of whom are extremely tech savvy (often developers themselves).

Fundamentally, however, what we’ve focused on building for the future of RSS is flexible enough to be valuable at any level of technical familiarity. It’s just that some people will set every filter to “Best” and forget about it, and other people will integrate the PostRank API into entirely new applications.

Being techies ourselves, though, makes product planning challenging. We want to build bigger, better features and take on the juicy challenges posed by our techie audience. It’s hard on the ego, then, to learn that a majority of your audience may not understand or want those features.

Ultimately, though, it’s not about us. Sure, we’ll go on playing with cool, bleeding edge stuff and pushing each other to deliver ever more interesting developments. But a lot of the cool stuff will never see the light of day. And even in internet time, a lot of cool stuff won’t become mainstream potentially for years.

In the mean time we all have bills to pay. And the money? It’s mostly in the mainstream. With the average joe and the average company who are just trying to get the job done the best way they can.

My guess is that the future of RSS won’t look terribly sexy to some of us. And there won’t be just one tool that provides the perfect solution. To succeed we will need to provide the same “Wow!” moments to mainstream users that we once experienced. And, let’s face it, we can’t NOT tinker, so under the hood… there’ll still be some pretty cool stuff.

Blurb: AideRSS, Inc. is a Canadian startup located in Waterloo, Ontario. They launched the service in July, 2007, allowing everyone to tame information overload by ranking and filtering their RSS feeds to Read What Matters. AideRSS’ algorithm is based on the “5Cs of social engagement” providing a PostRank score to blog posts, news articles, and other forms of online content based on how much audience response sites’ content received. In addition to the service on its website, AideRSS provides a widget, a Google Reader extension, and has released an API to allow developers to add PostRank functionality to their own applications.

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Bob WalshStriking a balance of user needs in technology development.
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The law is the law.


…and you are far better off knowing the laws as it applies to IT about copyright, trademarks, domain names, software patents, trade secrets, NDA’s, NCA’s, open source licenses, consulting agreements, SLA’s, beta test agreements, EULA’s, SaaS TOS, commercial distribution agreements, privacy, digital content agreements, videogame publishing agreements, foreign distribution agreements, and what happens if you try to sell your encryption software to a Denied Person.

Oh my aching head!

Fortunately, Gene Landy has summarized all the above and more into language understandable by people not attorney’s, added 38 juicy contracts and forms and authored a book you need, now: “The IT / Digital Legal Companion: A Comprehensive Business Guide to Software, IT, Internet, Media and IP Law”.

I’ve been reading up on Software as a Service, chapter 13, and in 24 pages Gene did an excellent job of summarizing what you need to know about SaaS from a legal point of view. This book, published in June, is very up to date, logically organized and includes the seasoned judgment of a practicing IT attorney.

Now the Legal Companion is not a light read in any sense of the word: at 1,204 pages and 2.5 inches thick; you are not going to whip through this before lunch. But if want a good EULA, a software consulting agreement that favors you for a change or want to understand open source duel licensing or any other legal topic you’re likely to run across as a developer, startup or microISV, you need this book.

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Bob WalshThe law is the law.
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Do it in front of other people.

37liveuse.jpgI and over 800 people sat down this afternoon and had a cozy 1-to-1 with Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson of 37signals.com, courtesy of online video streaming company ustream.com.

Now if you’re not a 37signals.com fan as I am, or Basecamp/Highrise/Campfire/Backpack user, you could care less, right? Wrong. Developers, startups and microISVs, I have seen the future, and the future is television.

Not the kind of tv you grew up on, or one of those videos of questionable moral rectitude that ping pong around the old cube farm. You on television, because the cost, complexity and general hassle has dropped to zero and video byte for byte remains the most persuasive medium we’ve yet come up with.

Video streaming companies like ustream.tv, viddler, myshowroom.tv and livecast want to make you and your startup or microISV a star with your very own channel. You get their infrastructure for free; sponsors and advertisers foot the bill.

Two things impressed me about 37signals live: it was “good tv” although the sole prop was the backdrop consisting of a brick wall in Jason’s house and that at one point 890 people were popping questions and comments at the Dynamic Duo.

While some of those comments were what you’d expect from video couch potatoes (my favorite was “Some people call me the Space Cowboy” over and over), most of the comments were serious, engaging questions that Jason and the redoubtable DHH fielded. For example, their sequel to Getting Real is done; they’re shopping it to traditional book publishers presently and it’s much more about starting a small business than web development.

For exactly zero dollars, 37signals was able to reach out and converse with their customer base, something that small ISVs of whatever stripe absolutely need to do if you want to succeed. It would be interesting to know what either Jason or David thought of the experience.

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Bob WalshDo it in front of other people.
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Product blogs don’t have to be boring.

tugboatuse.jpgOne of my clients, Tugboat Enterprises, launched its “Rising Tide: Tales from The Land of Selkie” blog last week, and if you’re wondering about some of the finer points of doing a product blog, it’s definitely worth a visit.

When you get there, you’re not going to find a blog extolling the wonders of Selkie Rescue (which is actually pretty hot stuff, if your primary box is a PC and you want to have a hope in hell of recovering your data when it dies).

What you’ll find is a mix of topics that are in part about the product, but much more about the people, passions and values of Tugboat. It’s those things that readers will remember and respond to and respect.

Want four pointers to effective product blogging? Here goes:

  • Never, ever “market”. Marketing has its place in the scheme of things; your product blog is not that place. Instead, focus on the where your interests and passions and the the interests and passions of the people you want to be your customers intersect.
  • People are interested in guess what? People. With the exception of sites that feed our inner child – like Engaget – blogging is about people. Sometimes the people you hate, or you love, or that anger you, or that you wish you were. It’s a conversation between people. What that means for your microISV blog is that posts about moving from 1.0.3 to 1.0.4 are fine, but posts about who your customers are and what they’re doing with your product are better.
  • Be remarkable. That means, have opinions, say things you care about even if some – or most – of your customers may not agree. If you’re blogging about the right things your prospective customers will soon figure out you are on their side. If they don’t because you’ve watered down all the passion in an effort to be “businesslike” or worse still, “corporate”, you lose.
  • Don’t be afraid to show off and have a little fun. I love Tugboat’s film noir/Raymond Chandler promo they have in the middle of their blog. It’s funny, cute, hokey and self-effacing. It works. Besides, if running a startup isn’t fun now and again, why are you doing it?

It was a lot of fun working with Judi, Emma and the rest of the Tugboat gang helping them find their voice for blog. I guess they thought so too:

“Bob Walsh’s knowledge of the world of blogging helped guide us in getting our company’s blog, “Selkie – Musings from the Island of Misfits” up and running. We found his insights and advice valuable, and reading his book
“Clear Blogging” was very useful as well.”
– Emma Larocque, Sales & Marketing Coordinator – Tugboat Enterprises Ltd.

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Bob WalshProduct blogs don’t have to be boring.