As the captain of your startup are you keeping your ship pointed in the right direction?

Ship wheel steer your startup

It’s funny how things tend to take a shape over time. Like this blog, I can see that it is becoming a kind-of anecdotal story of where we are going with our business and some of the lessons I have learned. That’s not what I had intended with it, but at the same time I don’t mind the direction it is going. I find that the direction of a company tends to take a shape overtime too. But you need to be careful, because if you aren’t the one defining the shape as the company grows, it may take a shape very different from what you would like it to take.

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B2B vs B2C – are you talking your customers language?

customer wantsEvery tech startup I know is trying to design their website to look and feel like Apple. Okay, okay, not every startup, I’m exaggerating to make a point. But Apple’s super successful, right? Every product they make people are buying, why not do exactly what they are doing? Here’s the problem, not every startup is communicating to the same audience as Apple.

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Are you asking your customers the right questions?

EPSON scanner imageAre you relevant? Is your product or service relevant? If you are trying to increase sales of a product you might have asked yourself these (or similar) questions. While relevance is in the top 5 most overused words of the last 5 years, it still applies to our businesses today. If your product or service is relevant to people they will buy it. It’s just another way of saying your product or service is of value to people. But words like value, relevance, proposition, niche, etc often get lost in the rubble of disassociation.

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Celebrate milestones or die

And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years
Abraham Lincoln

You work hard and want to see your business grow. Are you doing the simple things that can mean the difference between sustaining your businesses growth or drying up and dying? How many of you set milestones? I do. I was taught that when we set goals and write them down we are more likely to achieve them (there’s probably a really good statistic that could go here, but I don’t know it). I took that lesson to heart and now scribble new goals and pin them to my fridge whenever I can. Setting goals at the office is a near daily affair. We have to break our projects down into feasible milestones to work hard towards, and then go on to the next one. I’ve found setting milestones to be great. They help to channel all our energy into a focused goal.

Not that long ago I burned out. It was a pretty unexpected, and even though I was tired I didn’t see it coming. My experience had always been that when I became tired I would keep working and eventually I wouldn’t feel tired anymore. You know, the whole “push through it” mentality. It worked well enough for a long time until it didn’t work at all.

I have a good amount of respect for my friend who is a solid businessman in my city. One day after chatting with him he asked, “Do you set milestones?” I replied, “Of course we do.” Almost surprised by his question. They he responded, “Do you take time off when you achieve them?” I had nothing to say. The thought of taking time off to celebrate an accomplished milestone seemed wrong and counter productive. I grew up thinking that celebrating milestones was foolish. Maybe it was my thinking that was wrong?

Bart Simpson punished for setting milestones

Why is it important to celebrate milestones, when we’ve been told that it is a waste of time? If you are an entrepreneur starting your businesses the only thing keeping you moving is you. When you get a little bigger, it’s you and your team. But ultimately, if you go down so does the ship. What I’ve quickly come to learn is that when we celebrate milestones we recharge. Celebrations make the accomplishment real and reinforces the feeling of satisfaction from achieving our goals. It boosts our energy and our entire teams’ moral. However, when we immediately begin working toward our next milestone without taking time to appreciate the accomplishment of the first, the opportunity to recharge our energy can be lost. That’s fine at first, but not forever.

Sometimes we need to break from old school business mentality and create a fresh way of doing business. As Abraham Lincoln stated, “…It’s not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years.” So with that in mind today I am excited to announce the one year date of this Blog. Milestone reached! A year ago, to this day I published this article Life lesson #1: What do you need to do to succeed in business? You need to be inspired. Thanks for your support visiting this site. I appreciate all the comments and feedback I have received. Let me know what you think!

Google’s shocking announcement that it is dropping support for IE8

ie8 gets the bootOn Nov 15, 2012 Google will drop support for Internet Explorer 8, just 9 days after the U.S. election and 19 days after Microsoft releases Windows 8 and IE 10. Why? Because, with the release of Windows 8 Google expects IE8 to die with Windows XP.

This is big news for the web community and it makes me very happy! The trouble is that so many of our clients still use older versions of Internet Exploder. So with most of the web community chanting “What Would Google Do?” and picking up shovels of dirt to bury IE 8 along with the rest of the gang, I am left with a conundrum, who is going to tell our clients?

As an owner of a web development company I have experienced numerous times when I wished that we didn’t need to support older versions of Internet Explorer. I remember the glorious days reading .Net Magazine and discovering that the broader internet community was unilaterally dropping support IE 6. For those of you who don’t know, IE 6 is the scourge of human society (and IE 7 is a close second).

However, many of our clients hadn’t heard this glorious news yet, and still requested that we develop solutions that satisfied the unquenchable thirst of Internet Explorer 6. Those days are thankfully past. However, now it seems our clients are stuck with IE7. With Google discontinuing support of IE 8 it seems only natural that IE 7 will fade into oblivion, right? But by stuck I mean our clients are stuck!

So what do you think? Will Google’s decision rock our world? Or will the world remain largely the same, with late nights trying to make a perfectly designed circle fit the unforgiving squares of IE 8 and lower? Or do you think that Google should have dropped IE8? Why or why not?

Life lesson #3: What you are doing is great, now find friends who think so too

Focus on working with people who are passionate about what they are doing @rigelstpierre

I want to thank @rigelstpierre for inspiring this blog article.

It’s vitally important to have passion when you are running a business, working on projects and changing the world. Passion helps sustain us when very little else is. It’s also really important to know what inspires you. I learned this lesson the hard way. Inspiration is like the stream that brings life into your passion. I learned what it felt like to have passion dry up. There is another lesson that I’ve learned along the way as well. Surround yourself with people who are passionate about what you are doing and want to see you succeed.

I used to attend UBCO and I had this class in my third year where everyone sat at opposite sides of the room. It’s normal for people to spread out, but this was to the extreme. Everyone kept to themselves. Every once in a while I get little ideas. I don’t usually act on them, but one day, before the lecture started, I thought it would be fun to try an experiment and start a conversation with the guy at the furthest corner away from me in the classroom.

Long story short, it broke the ice in the room. What ended up happening over the course of the next few weeks was a major shift in the social dynamics of the class. An unexpected outcome was that I became a really good friend with one of the guys in the class. My new friend was disciplined, intelligent and very interested in what we were learning. Way more disciplined than I was at the time. His passion about what we were studying rubbed off on me. Looking back at my university days the subjects that I really enjoyed and still think about today were ones I shared with my friend.

A couple things happened. First my marks improved. We were both competitive and watching the other guy do well motivated both of us to do better. Second I became more passionate about what we were doing. It was way more fun writing a paper on a subject that I was actually interested in.

One of my favorite Steve Jobs quotes is “Great things in business are not done by one person, they are done by a team of people.” I think what is even more enlightening about that quote was his comment preceding it.

“My model for business is the Beatles: they were four guys that kept each other’s negative tendencies in check; they balanced each other. And the total was greater than the sum of its parts.” – Steve Jobs

He looked at four guys that when they worked together could create something better than when they worked apart. Why do you think that was? I think it was because their passion was infectious, not just because they balanced one another. The Beatles not only impacted their zeitgeist but their mark is felt in the cultures of all the generations since.

Many people are passionate about what they do. For example, a judge might be passionate about seeing justice upheld. However, is he always passionate about the cases that he is presiding over? Possibly, but not always. There is a difference between being passionate about what one does and what one is doing. My friend was passionate about what he was doing and that passion was infectious. Find people who share your passion for what you are doing and then hangout with often. You might just find that the total is greater than its parts.

Thanks Grooveshark

Grooveshark T-shirt and stuff

Apparently writing a blog pays in t-shirts. So a few weeks ago I responded to an article written by Gizmodo (which they posted about a year ago) proclaiming that Grooveshark was done for. Obviously they got that one wrong and I wrote about why I am glad Grooveshark is alive and swimming. I mean I love Grooveshark I use it everyday. Well after writing the post I got this tweet informing me that Grooveshark wanted to thank me for writing that article and would send me a tshirt, as long as I lived in the U.S.

Two things went through my mind. I thought first that it was probably a scam and then that I don’t live in the United States. But I responded anyways. Luckily for me it was real, and the kind folks at Grooveshark were nice enough to mail me this package anyways. Which I found in my mailbox today and am stoked on.

As a founder of a tech startup myself I thought this was really cool. I don’t know if you have experienced this too, but one of the things that I have found neat about the startup culture is the strong sense of community. Most everyone I meet is open to talk about ideas, brainstorm solutions and throw together an event for nearly any reason.

This is what makes startup businesses unique. (At least some of them). When they let that culture of openness and the desire to think different permeate into a company, they create something that stands out from the crowd. They embrace open conversation and in some cases even reward it. It’s also great advertising. I wrote about Grooveshark once and now I am writing about them again. Thanks again Grooveshark.

Remote teams part 2: Is it working?

Remote Teams

I like the photo above because I think it does a good job of telling the story of remote teams. Remote teams take work, and you need to be in it for the long distance. About four months ago I wrote a post about starting a remote team, I was pretty curious to see how things would go. And then things got busy, really busy. To be frank I thought creating a remote team would mean that things would get less busy. What I didn’t realize was how much communication was needed to keep everyone on the same page. I think the cliche “managing people” is a bad phrase. Instead I prefer “managing communication”, because that is what having a remote team really entails.

I kind of have a hard time delegating,… but I’m getting better at it. Taking the step to set up a remote team was really tough for me. I dragged my feet because I like being really involved in the production of everything. Just being honest here. Also, something that I love about our office is that we have a team culture. We are all in the same boat. I wanted our remote team members to feel they are apart of the team too.

4 months later you are asking, is it working? Yes it is. It did take a ton of time initially setting up clear lines of communication. But here are 3 things I have found have helped “managing communication”.

1. After a while I learned to set a regular time where I can meet via Skype with my core team members once a day. If we can’t meet for some reason we let each other know the previous day.

2. After spending tons of time communicating our core values, code practices, and naming conventions etc. I let our longest standing remote team member lead our newest team member. Now the job of passing on our culture and coding practices is largely his. So far that has worked out really well.

3. Remote teams work really well in pods. What I mean by this is that when working on a project remotely it feels natural to work with the same people during the whole project. Whereas when we are in the office we tend to pass projects on to each other at specific phases. For whatever reason remote teams work better in 2’s and 3’s. For programming I’ve found tools like github essential in this process.

If you are thinking about setting up a remote team, here’s what you need to know. It is going to take a lot of your time preparing for each work day. You need to prepare what everyone is doing. It’s not possible for a remote team member to pull you aside during the work day and ask you a question. So be ready to plan ahead. You will need to be actively thinking about communication and be really intentional with it. It’s easy to forget to book those Skype chats, but if you don’t projects could derail very quickly.

Lastly, spend a lot of time before choosing your first remote teammate or employee. I looked at well over 80 resumes before selecting a few and starting the interview process. I wanted a self-starter, someone who was eager and who I wouldn’t have to chase around or need to spend a lot of energy motivating them. So it took a while, but it was worth it because we are pleased with our new bigger (more remote) team. If you’ve been thinking about setting up a remote team, but are concerned about the unknown, I encourage you to just go for it. I was afraid too, but now I’m really glad I took the risk (at least so far).

What do cocoa beans and leadership have in common?

Cocoa Beans
photo from http://whiteplate.blogspot.ca/

I have a colleague who is passionate about chocolate. But not just passionate about consuming it, but radically passionate about where he is consuming it from. I discovered this passion one day after giving him a Mars bar. For the next two days the bar sat unopened on his desk until he could determine without a shadow of a doubt that the cocoa beans were not purchased from plantations that involved child slavery. He could not, and the chocolate was politely returned to me. An interesting conversation followed about the horrific world of child-slavery and African cocoa beans.

The thought that our everyday choices could be impacting the world around us is unnerving. As a business owner I am out there creating products, in my case it is web products, whereas you might be creating products in an entirely different space. And from my perspective the thought that is even more unnerving is that we are relying on consumers to make the ethical decisions. Are we creating a product that is ethical? Or are we making a product that makes it really easy to be unethical? Like the tasty chocolate bars fuelling child slavery. (Not all chocolate bars are made from plantations using child-slavery and Mars Bar may not use child-slavery either).

Some people don’t care about this. I’ve heard the following statement just a couple weeks ago, “First make money, then care about making the world a better place.” I wrote another post on the 10 traits of a leader, which is a summary of a talk given by Dave Olson. One of the points is that you can look around a room and see the leaders by observing where the buck stops. Who is taking responsibility for the problems and doing something about them. That is the leader. When we create products we often avoid the awkward questions and pass the responsibility onto either the consumer or the factory managers? We have the ability to empower people to make good decisions by giving them good products. However, if we aren’t taking responsibility for our product lines then we aren’t being leaders.

With the web we have a huge opportunity to use technology to empower the individual to shape one’s own self. Let’s give people more of the good choices. Let’s be leaders.