Wednesday, January 25, 2012
If I had a penny for every time I've heard “I've got a great idea for an app” or “I've got a great idea for a website”, I would have, oh, at least one pound. It's not much money, but it is a lot of ideas. Which really shows that ideas are worthless. You can't sell ideas. An idea will not build your business. And idea will not get you investors. You get my drift.
Still, you need to start somewhere. Some would even say that without an idea you can't even start! If you just thought of an idea right now (a product, a service, whatever to base your business on) then it's probably a bad one (especially if it sounds like it came from this site ). I know, I know, it's a slightly rude thing to say, but don't despair, it's perfectly alright, even expected. There are very few companies who became successful with their original ideas (Twitter and Groupon are two famous examples who failed with their original ideas). An idea is a live concept. An idea has to evolve, has to be refined before it can become a viable product. You might even have to kill it and replace it with another, better idea. And that doesn't mean your idea failed, business is all about evolution, change and innovation.
That's the first step. Evolve your idea early on. Write down your idea in simple words (the ones you will use to describe it to investors, say). Is it easy to do so? If not, simplify your idea so that it can be easily described. Those few words sound bites are priceless, by the way, and when you have written one you like, keep it, because you'll be repeating it hundreds of times in the near future! Write down a basic product development plan. Do you see any flaws or issues yet? Then solve these and update the plan. Rinse and repeat. Is the development too complicated? Find an alternative, concentrate on the core features to start with. This early evolution of the idea will make starting the research and development phase a more straightforward offer (and straightforward = cash saved!). Always remember, you have to be flexible with your plan. It's a good habit to have anyway, the technology world thrives on innovation, and your business will have to constantly innovate to remain competitive, or even relevant. Plus, anybody with even a small amount of product development experience knows that it never goes to plan anyway, so it makes sense to be ready to adapt very quickly.
The one single most important thing at this stage in the creation of your business, is that you have to be convinced that your idea is the right one, one that makes complete sense. Always make sure that you are 100% convinced your idea is valid. If you have the slight amount of doubt, reread the paragraph above, evolve, change, cut, rewrite, brainstorm, delete until you are 100% sure. Seriously. When you will have absolutely no doubt in your mind whatsoever that this is going to work, then you're on the right path. Never forget that you will have to defend your idea on a daily basis, that you're going to be grilled by people who want to find the flaws in your plan, that you will have to convince a lot of people your product/service is something they need, so it's crucial to be sure you have a clear mind.
What makes an idea a good idea? How long is a piece of string? Who am I to tell if you are right or wrong? I've read quite a few articles about this, the consensus seems to be that your idea needs to solve a problem, and preferably a problem people have (in short, a problem people would be willing to pay you to get a solution for). I'm not so convinced about that. Facebook solved a problem I didn't know I had. So did Twitter, LinkedIn, Flickr... Innovation in technology is as valid an idea for a business than solving problems, in my opinion. It might be slightly more difficult to start with, as you have to convince people they need your product or service, but it is entirely viable as a business, as far as I'm concerned.
And to finish this post, never forget that you can discuss your idea with other people. That will help you refining it quicker. Of course, as it is your idea, and you need to be 100% behind it, don't take on board all comments or criticisms ( I get the irony of me saying that... ). Discuss, argue, keep an open mind. Do bear in mind what the goal is here, to make your idea viable, to make it one you can develop into a product, service, whatever you can truly believe in, and hopefully sell to a lot of customers.
Monday, January 16, 2012
Disclaimer : This is the first part of a lengthy series of posts about starting a first business. This is based on my own experience, so this does not apply to any type of business. This is gathered from my experience starting and working for tech startups, growing and established businesses at different positions and levels. This is not supposed to be an exhaustive list, a „start your own business“ checklist or tutorial. This is more to get you in the right frame of mind if you’re serious about starting a business, or if you're not, it will show just how hard it is to be an entrepreneur.
So you want to start your own business. Good luck. I mean it. It’s one of the most meaningful things you’ll ever do in your life. And also one of the most soul destroying. Whether you fail or succeed. It’s safe to assume that you will fail. It’s safer to assume that you will fail. Right from the start, accept the possibility of failure. Failure will always be there in the background. You might forget about failure, failure will not forget about you. It will always be there, around the corner, waiting for you.
Congratulations on taking the mental jump. It’s a big decision. There are a lot of challenges ahead. But first of all, let’s start with the initiator, with the idea man, with the instigator. You. And especially, are you ready to take on these challenges? Do you have what it takes? In knowledge, experience and personality.
Let’s start with the basics : Do you have any idea how a company is ran? Yes, it’s a basic question, but I don’t expect a basic answer. Do you know what a CFO is? How about the expanding role of HR? Do you know how to price a product? Do you know how to talk to execs or board members in your current company? If you’ve failed to answer any of these questions, it’s back to the classroom for you. Seriously. You’re not ready. Nothing wrong with that, don’t feel down, we all have to learn. Get involved with execs and board members where you work now, ask friends if they can introduce you to execs, find a mentor, and make sure you fully understand how a business is ran, from the ground up. Especially learn who does what, who is crucial to an organisation, who can deputise for somebody else. It will come handy very soon.
So you’ve been working for a while, accumulated experience in your current job, and that has driven you to make the jump. Have you always been working in one discipline? Before starting my first business, while being mainly a software engineer, I also had direct and extensive experience in sales, customer support and management. I had a very good grasp of marketing, having helped and communicated regularly with the marketing team in a previous company. I had a very good grasp of product management. I had a good idea what business development was. And still, that wasn’t enough. I’m not suggesting you should have experience in *everything*, that’s clearly unrealistic. You’ll acquire plenty of skills as necessary. Bear in mind that as a young, cash strapped company, originally you’ll have to operate on a shoestring, and as the main man, you will have to wear many hats. It’s always better to have at least a good grasp of what it is you’re supposed to do when you're wearing those hats. It’s also a good position to be in later, when you can afford to hire specialised people. They can’t bullshit you if you know what they’re talking about!
One question I very rarely hear asked, and I really wonder why, is „Is your character shaping the company, or is the company shaping your character“. It's an important question because it illustrates the close relationship between you, the founder, your character, and the success of the company. I personally think that your character should shape the company, but it's difficult to make a definite statement in business, so expect the business to shape your character in some way too.
So now we can talk about your character. Probably the most important subject in this post. And the biggest too. Maybe I should have done a complete post on character alone. Maybe I should write a book on the importance of character in business! I have read a lot of „How to create your own business“ books, and blog posts, and they all, without fail, completely bypass talking about the character of the founder. Which is absolutely ridiculous. A business is, first of all, a human endeavor.
Are you a passionate person? I recently had a (short) conversation about passion in business. In my experience, when you are pitching something, a product, or a service, people expect to see passion. Try to imagine yourself on the other side, as a potential customer, or a potential investor. Who are you more likely to back? The guy who certainly seems very capable, but seems to go through the motion, or the guy who just spent half an hour talking about his company, and his product, whose enthusiasm is contagious, and who you have to stop talking because you're already convinced? Exactly. Without passion in business, you will never reach your true potential. If you're not passionate about your company and product, how do you expect other people to be?
Passion alone cannot get you there. I could make a list of some of the other character traits you will need as an entrepreneur, but it would make this post even longer than it already is. Needless to say, you need to be a special character to be an entrepreneur, to start and then lead a business to success. As most of the time, and especially at the start, you are on your own, being able to self motivate, being determined and driven is essential. When eventually you'll have employees, you'll still be driving the company forward, even during difficult times, and if you are still on your own at the helm, all that pressure will be on your shoulders, but you'll also have to listen to your employees, and be ready to accept their opinion, be ready to discuss ideas with them. You have to be able to „let go“, and it is far more difficult than it seems. I have personally witnessed an entrepreneur not able to let go, and it was damaging his company no end. And he simply didn't see it...
The most important part of your character, really, I cannot insist enough, is to know yourself and your limitations. I'll give you two examples from my own experience. The first one, I'm a control freak. I really am. I have to be in control. I have to know everything, and if I'm not 100% sure somebody can do a task, I'd rather do it myself. But I also know that it's a very dangerous position to be in when you're leading a team, let alone a business. So I force myself to not be a control freak, to let go. It's painful, but it is the right thing to do for the business. Were I not fully aware of that, it would very quickly become a problem, and I would be impossible to work with. Because I'm aware of it, and I'm acting on it, it is not. The second example, still to do with me, of course, is that I am a stress puppy. I need a certain amount of stress to perform at my best level. It's a delicate balance, but I mostly get it right. However, business has a way to throw you a curveball, and as an entrepreneur, as a company manager, you cannot manage your stress levels that easily. The stress is imposed on you. And I have been known to not react correctly to high levels of stress, simply because I do not fully accept, or understand I am under stress. But as I am now fully aware of this shortcoming, I assess the amount of stress I am under regularly, and especially, I monitor my output, how I deal with other people and react as soon as I see something unusual that may be stress related. Without a thorough knowledge of my character and limitations, both of these could be company destroying issues.
So that is a pretty long post so far... Maybe it's time to finish it! In short, it takes a special person to be an entrepreneur. Not everybody is cut out to be one. There are a lot of parts you can learn, but for example, passion and determination, you cannot learn. You either have them or not. Man management, I would argue you cannot learn either, but you can grow into it, as I did. Of course, you do not have to have all of these characteristics. Because simply, you don't have to face starting a business on your own. Some companies have been started by great teams, rather than one individual. (A post on partners is already planned in the series).
I hope I haven't turned you off the idea of starting a business yet. Maybe the next post in the series will!
Friday, January 13, 2012
First of all, I have to confess. I am a fan of Michel Hazanavicius. Ans especially when he's paired with Jean Dujardin. Both the OSS117 movies are very good comedies that I have watched numerous times. They easily rise above the glut of French comedies by the talent of both director and leading actor.
Combine my love for the pair, plus the promised 30s styling of the movie, and I had no choice but to see „The Artist“. And I'm glad I did. Short review : It is a must see.
Yes, it is a comedy. There are lots of laugh out loud moments. But it's a lot more than that. It has that very delicate balance of comedy and human drama that only French directors seem to manage. And yes, it may have been done in Hollywood, it may have big Hollywood stars, it may be fashioned on 30s Hollywood movies, but don't be mistaken, this is a French movie. It has all the quirkiness and subtlety of Michel Hazanavicius' previous movies. The relationship between the two main characters (Peppy and George) is a lot more complex that the simplistic story might suggest. It is the sort of human stories Hollywood simply cannot do.
So, it is really a 30s movie? Yes and no. Yes, it is in black and white. Yes it is shot in the format of the time. But it has been shot in HD, and it shows. Hazanavicius has smartly avoided degrading the picture quality in the name of realism, and as the movie develops, you realise it is an homage to the 30s. Some of the shots really have a 30s feeling (I'm thinking of a fantastic panoramic shot on a set of stairs) whereas others could not have been shot at the time (the scene where Peppy and George fall in love is more reminiscent of a 50s movie). Moreover, this is a story of the fall of a man, and the rise of a woman. Peppy is the strong character, and wants to help George as best as she can. Definitely not a 30s premise.
The movie plays in the hands of Jean Dujardin, who has always been a very physical, over the top actor, and in „The Artist“ he's true to form, without going overboard. But Berenice Bejo is the revelation of the movie. Her performance is more contained, more reserved than Dujardin's, but she manages to convey more emotions, and builds a more complex character than George Valentin. In the end you can see that both Bejo and Dujardin work very well together, as they did in „OSS117 : Cairo, nest of spies“'. There is certainly chemistry between those two.
„The artist“ is a movie to see. Even if you're not familiar with the movies of Michel Hazanavicius, there is a lot there to appreciate. This is a complex, feelgood movie. In the cinema, people applauded at the end. As I imagine people did in the 30s. I was one of them. Because it manages to capture all the simplicity and power of a movie of the era, and at the same time, it doesn't feel or look dated, quite a feat for a silent (mostly) movie in black and white. But mostly, I applauded because it is something special, it is unique. I really hope it's going to stay that way.
And the reason why George Valentin can't do talkies is plain hilarious. Hazanavicius humor until the end!
Saturday, January 7, 2012
The future is here! Finally I can edit a document on the go, I go home, the changes are already on my laptop. I can buy an album on my phone, and my music library is automatically synced. Yes, the cloud is a wonderful invention. Making life simpler, exactly the purpose of technology.
It's also great for businesses, services like AC2 provide the flexibility you need in server space and power at a fraction of the cost of buying new hardware.
Cloud gaming lets you play the latest games without having to constantly upgrade your hardware, and you can play the same game on your laptop, TV and tablet.
A wonderful invention. A scary one too.
Of course, the first issue with cloud based services, is that they're all businesses. Businesses die. What happens to your files when they do so? Who's going to make sure they're safely deleted from the servers? Where are the backups?
How good is their security? Are your files really secure from hacker attacks? As a software engineer, I know that any software solution can be cracked, that the bug free software does not exist, so hacking will always be a danger.
I buy a lot of music. On a lot of different supports. Vinyls (yes!), CDs and downloads. I don't use services like Spotify. I don't like them. For two reasons. The first one is that most of the music I listen to is not on Spotify. That's a major stumbling block. Yes, I'm a hipster, I listen to bands and artists you've never heard of. The second one, and I would argue that, for me, that is the main reason I have no intention of using services like Spotify or Deezer, is that it is incredibly difficult to discover new music on the service. It's just crowdsourcing, you can listen to what your friends listen to. And that's not gonna change, it's not in their business interest to help you find new music. Their business interests are to keep you on the service for as long as possible in the free version so they get more revenue from advertising, convince you to upgrade to the paying, premium service, and to spam your friends on social networks so they get more listeners/customers. No reason there to help you find new music. No reason there to cater for niche music markets either.
In my mind, it goes completely against what the internet changed in our consuming habits. It limits choices, and it lets somebody else decide what you should listen to or not. It's a step back, not a step forward. How does a young band get on Spotify without a label? You can through one of the artist aggregators, but once again, Spotify do not work with all of them. Less choice, a step back. And it's impossible to do any sort of efficient marketing on Spotify, they do not help with new artist discovery, so the band is basically shunted out of a service used by millions of people.
I've not fallen for the appeal of the Kindle. I love holding a book. That's my analog fixation in action. Though I'm not looking forward to lugging the hardback edition of 1Q84 around (it's 900+ pages) and reading it standing in the Tube. I could get a Kindle and get 1Q84 on it, it will be on my device for as long as the device functions. I don't have a problem with that. Nothing "cloudy" about that. But, Amazon also has the Kindle cloud reader Chrome app. Yes, cloud reader. Without a Kindle, all the books I'd buy would be in the cloud. Is that a problem?
What happens if a government, somewhere, decide to censor a book? Amazon just need a few clicks to edit the book, remove offending passages, or even worse, make it completely disappear. As if it never existed. That would make for a pretty bad version of Fahrenheit 451. In fact, there would not even be a Fahrenheit 451, you don't need a dedicated police force to click a few buttons. Joking aside, that puts a lot power in a very few hands.
I know what you're thinking. I'm paranoid. We live in a free world with very little censorship. On books, music and movies at least. You are wrong. France have censored music as recently as 2006 (a song by rapper Joey Starr, 'Sarkozy") and a movie as recently as 1999 ('Romance'). And we're considered a lenient country. In the UK, the recent superinjunctions showed that censorship is well and truly alive. Sure, it's not quite the level of censorship I was describing in my example, but it's not a reason to have the means to censor so quickly and efficiently in place. Temptation, you never know.
What's the legal situation when it comes to services like Dropbox? Can the police request access to your Dropbox space? Does it require a court order? What if services like Soundcloud, Flickr or Instagram suddenly change their terms and conditions, and decide "All this content now belongs to us". Do we have a legal leg to stand on? Some services already have attempted to do this, and the users have complained and voted with their feet. But what happens if the content is more valuable to the business than the user?
You think that's bad? Facebook timeline. You don't have to fill it completely, of course, I doubt most people will bother with editing their timeline before they joined Facebook. In fact I recently started a massive cleanup of my posts, getting my profile ready for Timeline. I'm nowhere near finished. I joined in 2006, I think. That's a lot of posts. So what about the kids being born and growing now? Quite a few of my friends are very happy posting pictures, events, birthdays of their kids, anecdotes about them. When that kid grows up, and eventually joins Facebook, his or her timeline will be filled from the moment of his or her birth. Isn't that a scary thought?
And this is just the beginning of cloud computing. At the moment it's mostly our entertainment which is cloud based. Are online banks cloud based? If we are going to a cashless society, will our currency be cloud based? We still have bank cards, but for how long? With no alternatives for payment, won't we be even more at the mercy of the banks, and even more vulnerable to their mistakes?
So I'm very cautious about the cloud. I can see the benefits, of course, as I pointed in the introduction. But the technology world always evolve much quicker than the necessary legality behind it. And even then, laws change. I'll hold on to my physical copies of books, movies and music, and to the files I've (legally!) downloaded. With backups on a non-internet connected disk. A little paranoia goes a long way.
Wednesday, January 4, 2012
"Health is not simply the absence of sickness."
Hannah Green (I have no idea who that is)
(Typical. I started writing this blog post last night, and today, here comes http://blogs.hbr.org/bregman/2012/01/your-problem-isnt-motivation.html with some overlap. A good point though, not the lack of motivation, the lack of follow-through. Tee hee)
I admit it. I'm not fit. I haven't been for years. A combination of bad lifestyle choices, laziness and simply not taking the time to exercise. So like many people at the start of a new year, I've done the unthinkable. I've joined the gym.
I know, I know, you're shocked. And I would be too if I were not that determined, not to get fit, but at least fitter. But one thing for sure, I will not let it become an obsession.
How many times have I been told "You need to go to the gym, you'll feel better for it"? Most of the time by people that, quite frankly, didn't behave like they were feeling better for it. Feeling guilty when they miss a session. And then smug when they finally do go. Surely there is a balance there?
I don't want to obsess about going to the gym. After all, it is supposed to make me feel better, not guilty. I can't help about the smugness, that's how I naturally am. So how to start a successful training program?
The important bit when going to the gym, is to know why you're going, and how you like to exercise. I did have a few bouts of going to the gym before, and always lost the impetus to go, it became a chore. So this time, I tried to analyse why I failed before.
First of all, goals. It's important to know what your goals are. And also to set realistic goals. I have short term goals, medium term goals and long term goals. At the moment I am concentrating on the short term goals, namely increase in energy levels and better sleep. These are really short term, which is good when you start, and it takes me to my second point.
Results. In order to keep at it, you need to see results. Previously I did set myself goals that were more medium terms, and the lack of results in the short term first made me lose the concentration I put into training, and eventually made me give up before I started to see my medium term results.
Another problem I have, I get bored. Very quickly. I can't follow a regular program. I tried that before, I had an hour and a half program, and I probably managed to do it fully twice a week for about two months. And then I found excuses to do less. And less. And ended up not going anymore. So this time, I'm taking regular sessions with a personal trainer. And I want a wide array of exercises, so I can pick and choose a few every time I go. I'd rather do more, shorter sessions than going full on for an hour and a half and then take three days to recover.
And more importantly, for me at least, going to the gym is not just an exercise. It's a lifestyle change. I need to make time for it. I need to curb my bad lifestyle choices. But not obsess about it. Oh no!
So here's my training plan. I'll let you know how I get on!
Monday, January 2, 2012
I love the cinema. I probably don't go as much as I'd like to, but I spend a significant amount of money at the cinema every year. And somehow I don't get to see all the movies I want to see. Last year I wanted to see "Cave of forgotten dreams" in 3D, and none of the cinemas where I lived showed it. So now if I want to see it, I will have to buy a 3DTV. Bummer.
I know next to nothing about the movie business, but after reading this article
http://www.deadline.com/2011/12/2011-movies-brands-budgets-bankability/ I see a problem with movie distribution. The independent filmmakers (the movies I'm more likely to watch) are moving to VOD. In the US at least. Here in the UK, I'm not aware of a VOD service showing movies before their DVD/BD release. Lovefilm VOD certainly doesn't. Sky doesn't seem to either. So if the movies do not get a theatrical release in the UK, I will have to wait for the DVD/BD release. And that makes the movie effectively a "straight to video" movie.
The parallel the article make with the digital distribution of music is an interesting one. Let's not forget that the first move into digital distribution was kickstarted by the appearance of Napster. The music industry originally actively fought digital distribution, probably influenced by the bricks and mortar distributors. And it took the might of Apple and iTunes to change their attitude. And now services like Spotify are changing the way we consume music (well, some people, not me. I'm still foolish enough to buy CDs as well as downloads). Books pretty much went the same way with Amazon first and now the Kindle/iTunes book store.
So why has the movie industry not moved to a more flexible model? In the examples above, an outsider brought a new distribution model, and challenged the established distribution giants. Stores like Virgin disappeared because they did not react to the digital move.
Don't get me wrong, I don't want the cinemas to close. As I don't want the bookshops to close either. But it is only a matter of time before an outsider challenges the movie release dates and stream movies while they're still in the cinema. In fact, I'm rather surprised a company like Sony doesn't already do this via the PS3. They've got the content, and it would give their platform a significant advantage in the war for the content delivery system. When the content providers (the studios) realise that there is a significant revenue stream outside of cinemas, they will not give it a second thought and the exhibitors will have to accept it, just like the bookshops.
So here's an idea. Why don't the exhibitors, the cinema chains themselves, do this? Why don't they offer streams of movies they do not show in their bricks and mortar locations? Hell, if you want the cinema experience, why don't cinemas smaller dark rooms where you can rent an iPad and view any of the current movies? Cinemas can still sell their overpriced snacks and drinks, I get to see all the movies I want to see as a theatrical release (of sorts). Partner with YouTube to provide the infrastructure, Google has been trying to monetise YouTube for years, I'm sure they'll welcome the deal... It's a new revenue stream for cinemas, new revenue stream for the studios, it's a win-win situation, really.
I'm not holding my breath though. As it says in the article, the exhibitors are resisting any kind of moves. Just like the bookshops, and music shops before. And we know what happened to them. They never learn.
EDIT : How about this for a business idea, and a way to rescue the cinemas? Micro cinemas. They have rooms for say, 10 people. Projector, jazzed up sound system, and all the current movies on demand. Book a room with your friends, choose the movie you want to watch, and you have all the advantages of VOD with the cinema experience.