The Idea Dude


Monday, July 28, 2008

Surely building software should be like building railroads

My friend, Steve and I were discussing project management over lunch. He left me with a wonderful gem. Since he doesn't blog, I'll share it here.

Imagine you were building a railroad and management wanted a timeline. So you diligently look at the costs of building the trains, the train stations and the railroad etc. and come up with a cost. Armed with the data based on all your years of experience, you're present this to your management team and board of directors only to be told it is not good enough. They need it much faster than that. You're told you have to be more innovative in your thinking. Here are some of the recommendations that were offered at the meeting.

  • Take an existing train and make it work on the track even if the track gauge is different. Can't be too hard, they all work the same way.
  • Don't wait for the seats to arrive. Passengers can stand for the first few months. We'll put them in the next time the trains are serviced.
  • Don't test the train or the signalling system. We could cut our launch date by several weeks. Better still, let our passengers tell us what's broken.
  • If the railroad is taking too long build, remove some of the tracks thereby saving materials and labor.
  • Don't advertise the timetables to save publishing and marketing costs. We'll spread the word virally by using our passengers.
  • Train drivers are too expensive, I have a cousin who's looking for work and he's pretty cheap. I'm sure he has friends too.

    The point is we don't build railroads or airplanes that way. So why do we consistently do this in the software world. Beats me. Do you know?
  • Entrepreneurial communism, an oxymoron

    Robert Scoble has an article about the Silicon Valley VC disease. His observation is that venture capitalists are only interested in investing in companies that potentially can make lots of money in a short period of time i.e. 1-3 years instead of 10 years. They also want you to develop solutions for broad platforms instead of narrow niches because logic says the broader the market the better your chances of making more money.

    I've seen the coin from both sides. Firstly in defence of the VC. They are not charities and their number one priority is to invest where they see the biggest return in the shortest period of time. Like it or not, that just makes plain business sense. Secondly, the good VCs get involved with their companies, many of them have been successful in the their own careers. So it only makes sense that they help you grow your business from within and externally.

    The economics of focus. For the VC it's about focus, if you invest $100k in 100 companies, you're no better than a bank. If you invest $1 million in 10 companies, you can spend your time figuring out how to scale them. So it makes sense for them to spend big and focus rather than lots of little investment and have no time for you.

    The need to go big. Despite best intentions and due diligence, the long tail concept applies equally well to VCs. i.e. if you have 10 investments, it is likely that 1 or 2 will hit it out the park, 2-3 will linger around and eventually make you money and the last 5 will either die or dilute you with subsequent rounds that it might as well be dead from an investment point of view. Given those odds, it's no wonder they spend most of their time trying to figure out which is going to be the home run.

    Angels of mercy. For small startups who needs $100k to $500k to bootstrap their companies their only recourse is to look for angel funding. It's always been this way. Angels are usually people who have money to invest, do it in smaller amounts and often add no other value to your business than the money they contribute. They do less due diligence, ask less questions and take less equity. Unfortunately, the number of savvy angels have substantially dropped due in part to bad experiences during the dotcom era.

    Incubators, the middle ground. Another source would be incubators. They typically invest enough to bootstrap your company, supply you with business development/marketing resources and even office space. The caveat is for taking an early stage risk they demand 50% or more of your company for very little money invested. The decision you then have to make is it better to realize your dream on someone else's coin or perhaps not at all.

    The bottom line is being an entrepreneur is tough. Being a new one without rich relatives or a deep Roledex is even tougher. You wake up every night wondering where you're next meal is coming from and you eventually start looking into the mirror questioning whether you're not just chasing windmills at the expense of your family. Then you spend tons of time chasing reluctant VCs instead of developing your application. Finally, you start doing consulting and ad hoc work to pay the bills which is better than chasing VCs but you're no better off because you're taking precious time away from your startup idea. Which by the way is starting lose it's lustre as the world moves on or worse still some other startup who manages to land a million dollars muscles in your turf.

    As they say, Caveat Emptor. Let the buyer beware

    BTW: Only the rich will tell you that having too much money is a bad thing.

    Monday, July 21, 2008

    Why you should not stop blogging

    New York Times has an interesting article called This is your life (and how you tell it). It's about people telling stories about themselves. The part that struck a chord for me was...

    ...We think that feeling you have changed frees you up to behave as if you have; you think, ‘Wow, I’ve really made some progress’ and it gives you some real momentum...

    It is not a coincidence that the majority of therapy sessions is spent getting patients to talk about themselves, their successes, their problems and their fears. Unknowingly, they may have some event that have been locked away in memory stopping them from being more than they really are.

    We always see blogging as a voice or a vehicle so others can hear. But it is as much a vehicle for us to rid ourselves of demons, to reinforce thoughts or inspirations. Doing in publicly makes them more concrete and less scary. Declarations that rid us of our fears and failures.

    Blogging about the insanities around our lives don't make them disappear but writing them down helps us deal with them maybe because once committed to words, they become more manageable.

    Of course, once they are declared, the benefit to others is that they see the parallels of your experiences to theirs and all of a sudden you are less alone and maybe it isn't whether it is you or not, maybe it just is.

    Momentum created and shared is infectious and is easily transferred.

    Seeking to find inspiration from around us is often easier than finding it from within.

    Where did you draw your inspiration from today?

    Sunday, July 20, 2008

    Learning to fail fast

    If you're a serial entrepreneur, Roger Ehrenberg's post mortem of a failed startup is a must read. It is unlikely that the exact same 7 deadly sins will spell doom for every startup nevertheless they are ones to watch out for simply because each one on its own is hardly a giant killer. Rather it is a case of circumstance and dying of a thousand cuts.

    There were two that resonated with me. Firstly, falling in love with the vision and the conflict between technology and product. Those how have failed many times and succeeded some times will tell you that the successful vision is often not the same as the one you started with. The difficulty is knowing when to stick your guns and when to know the vision is not financially viable. Usually it is an answer we can only tell after the fact and often too late.

    Questioning our assumptions has to be a regular event and not seen as doubting our capabilities.

    In fact it is the recognition that even with best efforts, we sometimes cannot predict changes in world around us. Also, our planning is based on what we know and we cannot account for things that we don't know.

    The second one is failing fast.

    From childhood, we are taught to be winners and success is a measure of personal worth. Everyone loves a winner and failure is a social stigma. So our fear causes paralysis. We delay product releases because we want the product to be perfect. The more features the better. We stop speaking to customers in case they tell us what they hate the most about our product and our company. In reality, following a path with closed eyes and ignoring the pulse of public opinion only makes the ultimate failure an even more bitter one.

    Gone are the days of quarterly or yearly product cycles. The internet has changed all that. No longer do you have to wait for months for customer feedback. The playing field has levelled which means whatever you do, the chances are someone else will claim to do the same in 30 days. The appetite of the technology consumers has accelerated. They expect changes in days not month. They expect responses in hours not days.

    While it is not the silver bullet, one of keys to survival in the modern technology age is learning to iterate quickly and often. To do that effectively, means constantly listening to our customers and recognizing and admitting to our failures quickly regardless of whether it is product of our incompetences or market changes.

    The regret I have the most often with many of my decisions?

    I wish I did it sooner

    Tuesday, July 08, 2008

    Living the moment

    We are taught as children that it is important to have goals. As teenagers we are encouraged to think about our where our university education will take us. In our workplaces, we are told that we have to set targets for our revenue, projects and business. Without a destination, how would we have a journey, and without a plan, how would we have a journey.

    But sometimes, in our rush to complete the race, to reach our goals and destinations, we forget to live the moment. I often think about how hard my grandparents worked so their children would have a better future and in turn how hard my parents worked so I would have a better one too. Is that the circle of life? or is it wheel of death? or at best a daily churn.

    I always get pangs of guilt when Harry Chapin's song Cats in the Cradle plays on the radio.

    When you comin' home dad?
    I don't know when, but we'll get together then son
    You know we'll have a good time then

    We will never be remembered for how hard we worked but rather by how much joy we brought to those around us. To do that means we have to spend time with the ones we love. We see the hills ahead but ignore the flowers at our feet.

    Sometimes it is not about seizing the day but living the moment.

    When was the last time all you thought about was the coffee clasped between your hands or stood for a few more seconds to savor the sunshine on your face?

    Did you live your moment today?

    Thursday, July 03, 2008

    The importance of reputation

    My daughter graduated from elementary school this last month. The following anonymous poem was quoted.

    Be careful of your thoughts, for your thought become your words.
    Be careful of your words, for your words become your actions.
    Be careful of your actions, for your actions become your habits.
    Be careful of your habits, for your habits become your character.
    Be careful of your character, for your character becomes your destiny.

    I thought about the importance of this blog and the impact on my reputation. I met someone a few weeks earlier to discuss a potential business opportunity. He had read my blog and it made it so much easier meeting the first time... at least for him because he felt he already knew me and what I stood for.

    Our blogs reflect our thinking and our values over time. It tells people who we are over a long time-line. Unlike resumes that objectively list our accomplishments or subjectively try to sell our talents, blogs are much more personal and much less presumptuous.

    Thanks to Google and internet archives, we have to be careful what we say for while they are not cast in stone, our words hang around for a very long time. They do become our legacy.

    Our reputations are what others think of us. It is a public opinion... a social opinion. It is how others perceive us irrespective of what we are really inside. If we are authentic, then the inner and the outer is consistent. If we are not, we come across as being slippery and false.

    Guard your reputation well. It will become your legacy.

    Tuesday, July 01, 2008

    Slipping back into Blogtown

    It's 1 July and Canada Day. Maybe a good way for a phoenix to rise from its ashes. I didn't intend to stop blogging. It sorta just happened. Too much work, too much exhaustion. Most of all, too little inspiration.

    Everyone blogs for different reasons. I believe there is enough sadness and depression without needing me to add to it in any shape or form. When I stopped reading, I stopped being inspired and not being inspired, I failed to inspire others, ergo, a slow blog death spiral.

    Even the short sporadic bursts of inspiration seemed too much to commit to words. I wondered what kind of example I had set for others. It's been too long and this isn't like me.

    I'm sure the road ahead tomorrow will be as murky as it is today and was yesterday. But if there is a legacy for me to leave behind, it is this blog.

    This blog is me and I am this blog.

    For when we are finally gone, what can we leave behind but our thoughts and hearts. How can we leave them except through our words. And how can we ensure they hear those words but through our blogs.