You may have noticed that I haven’t been writing here a lot lately. My bad! Things have just been crazy though, and this blog has consistently been pushed down the to-do list.
The last 8 weeks have been insane. And by insane I mean insanely awesome. The thrill of finding a weapons-grade team, raising seed funding, and building an awesome product, all while fulfilling all the other duties that come with starting a business, has been amazing.
I will continue to update this blog, though it will be somewhat sporadically. One of the great parts about a startup is that there are way more things to do than people to do them. The plus side is that you get the chance to quickly execute on a large variety of issues. The downside is that you have to prioritize everything.
So, I’ll be around, though don’t check back daily. I consider this space a long-term project anyways.
For now, enjoy a couple of different articles that have been written about TripLingo in the past month:
If you want to read some of what I’ve written lately, check out the TripLingo blog.
I’ve got some interesting pieces for this blog based on my recent experiences- I’ll try to post something interesting once a week. If you need more, follow @TripLingo on Twitter!
After nearly 6 months of product development, I’m currently entering the dark chasm that is startup fundraising. I have a lot to learn yet, but I thought I’d share the insights I’ve gleaned so far. This post deals with competitor research, perhaps the first thing you should do once you’ve got the idea and nerve to get going with your own startup.
Don’t underestimate how well you need to understand the competition. Your competition is smart, and you’ll find it helpful to get in the habit of listening to what smart people have to say, especially your competitors. Learning about the competition upfront will make the rest of your work much easier as you move forward.
Your competitors have already thought of features that you are 3 mental steps away from, they’ve tested and optimized their site, and they are more or less telling you their strategy. Get a grip on what’s happening in your industry, and use that understanding in developing your own plan. Why are your competitors failing? Succeeding? What really makes you better?
In the industry I’m going after, I’ve identified no less than 30 competitors that do some version of what I’m going to do. Frightening, I know. One of those things where you might just want to leave the lights off rather than look at the scary monster under the bed. But no one ever said this was easy, and its incumbent on you to face up to the reality that your competitors represent.
Here’s how I got started doing competitive research. What am I missing? What have I got wrong?
Table of Contents:
- Find you competitors
- Use your competitors
- Quantify your competitors
- Synthesize your research
- Keep up with your competitors
Find your competitors
First you’ve actually got to figure out who your competitors are, and trust me there are more than you think.
- Search keywords related to your topic- anything potential users might search for. This is the fastest way.
- The enemy of my enemy is my enemy. Look up main competitors on Alexa, Compete, Crunchbase, and iSpionage to see who the competitors of your competitors are. Rinse and repeat.
- Get ahold of an iPod & Android and do all the searches you can for keywords related to your company.
- Google multiple competitors’ names at once- this way you’ll find lists that will likely include other competitors.
- Create a “Competitors” folder in your bookmarks. Every time you stumble across a new one, bookmark it there. Later, you can open all of them at once, which is a LOT easier than typing them in each time.
Use your competitors
Buy their apps, get an account, use their services, sign up for their updates, and explore their websites. Get a sense for what they do, check out their features, and fertilize your mind to prepare yourself for developing your own product. Keep notes (mental or otherwise) on what you like and dislike.
Quantify your competitors
Getting a feel for competitors is good and necessary, but you’re going to need to justify that “feel” and communicate it to investors. You’ll need some quantitative (and qualitative) analysis for that. Following the steps below will help you clarify your analysis of the competition, remember who they are, and communicate to investors.
Get Traffic Info
Nothing points to a potential market like a huge number of visits to your competitors. Trust me- you want as many people in this market as possible because you’re going to go after them later.
Get an account at Compete.com, and do site comparisons for 5 competitors at a time. Save each one as a group so you can do this again quickly later. Download the CSV traffic file, and create a table with visits to your competitors. Always keep your raw data, but in my final analysis I assume that compete misses 25% of visitors based on what I’ve read, and from my observations 25% is probably conservative (if not downright charitable). In any case, knowing an aggregate traffic number for your competitors will give you a good idea of how realistic your own projected estimates are.
Get the Visitor Details
Type in each competitor on Alexa.com and you’ll be rewarded with a wealth of visitor information. In my opinion, the most telling signs of strength are pageviews/user, time on site, bounce rate, and the percent of traffic that comes from search. In this graph, I’ve colord-coded cells using Excel’s Conditional Formatting to make it easy to do a quick scan.
Do Qualitative Research
Not every piece of data comes nicely packaged in a number. How good is their design? User experience? What’s the high-concept pitch embedded in their “tagline”? How well-funded are they? What platforms are they on? What’s their marketing spend (see iSpionage)? Of the 10 features you’ve identified as relevant, how many of them do they have? How are they positioning themselves?
To tackle this issue, you’ll have to dig-in, explore each site, and be diligent. It’s kind of bitch work, I know, but it ain’t all roses and you might as well get used to it.
Synthesize Competitor Info
Great that you’ve collected lots of data! Unfortunately, you can’t just send it on over to an investor- they’re not going to bother. You need to summarize it- your brain is the hammer, analysis is the nails, and your data is the wood. You need to build something out of it so that you can communicate it effectively.
Like any part of your business plan, every situation requires an approach tailored to your specific project. But here’s a list of tried and true ways to organize your analysis:
- Feature-based. You can use Harvey Balls to visually summarize the important features and who has what. Cliché, yes, and few investors will just take your word for it, but nevertheless if done honestly it can be useful. Don’t forget to include features that you will not have (part of the being honest part). You can download the Harvey Balls font here.
- SWOT Analysis- For the uninitiated, SWOT stands for “Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats.” Right off the bat might be a little too early for a full-fledged SWOT, but it’s a great tool for structuring the way you think about competitors.Strengths and Weaknesses refer to the present situation, while Opportunities and Threats relate to the future. If you’ve got a lot of competitors, rather than do a SWOT analysis for each, much better to group them into categories. If you want to sell cars, you might have groups like “Paper Classifieds”, “Online Classifieds”, “Online Dealers”, “Brick and Mortar Dealers”, “Consumer-to-Consumer”, etc.
- Detailed Qualitative Analysis for Fiercest Competitors- Your toughest competitors deserve the most scrutiny. Do a SWOT analysis for each. Take screenshots of their website and create a reference deck in powerpoint with them. If they are public, read their annual financial report- they are goldmines! Search the news and read their blog: find out how many employees they have, who runs them (and what else do they run), what makes them tick, what they had for breakfast yesterday. Twitter is the best tool for this- go through their Twitter history and you’ll be delightfully surprised. And remember how fierce they are lest you forget and have your lunch money taken.
Keep Up With Your Competitors.
Set a Google Alert for each competitor. Not only will this give you timely updates on what your competitors are up to, but its also a great way to keep track of people who might be interested in writing about your own startup. Glance over them each day and bookmark the ones with potential- this will help you down the road when you’re concerned about press coverage and backlinks.
Remember to sign up for their newsletters! I love checking the copywriting of my competitors- I’ve gleaned some very valuable insights from these, particularly about competitors’ future plans.
I hope these tips have given you a feel for how to approach competitor research. I’m sure I missed a ton though, and we’re only as strong as our weakest link, so share your own insights in the comments or hit me up at jesse @ this_website.
Part 1 in this “How to Come Up With Business Ideas” series explained that the Initial Spark is a new idea with the potential for practical uses. This new idea is essentially composed of the combination of two or more existing ideas. Part 3 covers practical ways to come up with new ideas.
Now that we have an (admittedly ambiguous) answer to the question of “What is the initial spark?”, we can discuss what kinds of forms it can take when we’re talking about startups.
In general, these ideas are potential solutions to some type of problem or market opportunity. So what do they look like?
Below are 7 different forms that business ideas can take. Some ideas will have many of these features (and indeed the more the better). Understanding these forms will give you an idea of the kinds of things to think about when trying to come up with new ideas.
Here’s the Table of Contents:
- Solve Your Own Problems
- Create a Totally New Problem
- Take Advantage of Change
- “Tweak” an Existing Idea
- Adopt an Existing Idea to a New Market
- Do it Better
1. Solve your own problems
This is standard advice for coming up with startup ideas, and there’s a good reason for that. Solving your own problems is a tried and true way to identify opportunities for new products. For me, every single company I’ve started has been an attempt to solve problems that I have.
There are several advantages to solving your own problems, which have been covered extensively by others. Basically, being a potential customer yourself, you’ll know firsthand what the needs of potential customs are. Moreover, since your problem relates to some type of activity you are involved in, you’re more likely to be passionate about it.
One implication of this is that the more problems you have, the more potential ideas you will have. If you are a rock-climbing, book-loving, traveling, concert-going, nature-loving young professional foodie in Oregon, then you’ll be exposed to all kinds of potential problems in those areas.
Not only will involvement in these areas give you ideas for problems that need to be solved, but exposure to the frameworks in these different areas will give you new perspectives from which to gain insights from other areas.
If instead you’re an alcoholic compulsive World of Warcraft lover, you’re simply not putting yourself in a position to have problems that can lead to new ideas. Thus, curious, active, and engaged people are more likely to come up with ideas.
An important caveat is that you shouldn’t take this advice too literally. You’re not actually solving the problem necessarily for you; instead, you’re using your experience to identify an opportunity. That’s only the inspiration part; the perfect solution for you, however, won’t necessarily be the best solution for the majority of your potential customers.
2. Create a Totally New Problem
Not every new idea addresses a well-known problem. No kids needed Pokemon cards until the other kids had them. I didn’t know I wanted biodegradable shoes until I was told I did by Crocs. And who knew that so many people needed to buy virtual seeds for their virtual farms and tell all their virtual friends about it?
New problems can come about because of changing circumstances, in which case they are literally “new problems”. However, new problems aren’t necessarily “new”. Many times, a new problem is just an old problem that nobody recognized before.
This is a tricky one to address directly. You can’t just start throwing darts randomly against the wall hoping you’ll come up with a new problem. Instead, this one comes direct from the imagination, and more on that in the next section.
For now, just note that in general these “new problems” aren’t what we’d call “real” problems. Most of the examples I’ve come up with fall under entertainment or games, or are essentially marketing gimmicks.
Now that you’ve read this section, go back and replace every “problem” with “opportunity”. Now you’re thinking like an entrepreneur!
3. Take advantage of change
Change is a powerful agent of opportunity. Google couldn’t exist without the internet. Below are a few different types of change that you might consider:
- Technological. New technologies create opportunities for new products or business models. The internet is the obvious example, but even within the internet the pace of technological change is rapid and creates a ridiculous amount of opportunity. For web-based startup ideas, here are a few relevant kinds of echnological change to look for:
- Hardware: The iPhone created a billion dollar market for smartphone apps overnight. In addition, as these devices get more powerful, they’ll be suitable for more and more services that wouldn’t make sense right now. (Just look at what geolocation has done for companies like Foursquare, Gowalla, etc.)
- Software: Commodity software stacks have made sophisticated technology affordable for bootstrapping entrepreneurs. Does your product require a maps feature or video streaming? You don’t have to make those from scratch anymore, and instead can license them cheaply from Google or Wowza. Your can make products combining these resources that weren’t available five years ago.
- Social. Social change creates demand for products that didn’t make sense before. For instance, as more people become comfortable using video chat, this opportunities in this place are exploding. The emergence of the Tea Party (shoot me now!) creates new opportunities to cater services to this group.
- Demographic. Demographic changes increase the size of target markets, perhaps to the point where there is sufficient demand for a product that didn’t have a large enough demand before. When thinking of demographic changes, be specific. It’s not just that there are more people aged 60+, but there are more people that are 60+ and have some familiarity with computers. There aren’t just more people that are have smart phones, but there are more people that have smartphones and are younger than 18 and want to play games.
Anticipating changes is a great way to take on large companies that spend their energies addressing the status quo. To generalize, larger companies are much better at incremental change than revolutionary change, which makes them bad at addressing new opportunities that emerge as a result of change. Your agility and fearlessness make you a daunting David to their Goliath.
4. “Tweak” an existing idea.
“Tweaking” implies taking an existing product or business model, whether successful or not, and changing a critical aspect of it to address a problem in the existing market or in a completely separate market.
Tweaking is highly dependent on the specific market or product, but below are some reasons why businesses may leave themselves vulnerable to a tweak:
- Something is “too hard” or outside the domain expertise of a company
- Its simply poorly-managed, and they’re letting opportunity glare them in the face
- They’re not current with technological trends (I’ve seen so many niche websites, apparently making money, that look like they were made in 2003).
- They’re in the wrong business. Maybe they have a great business model, but their product isn’t suitable, or vice versa.
This is not limited to the product itself. Perhaps there’s a huge hole that you’ve observed in their sales model, or maybe you come up with a brilliant way to market the product.
As stated above, new ideas are simply new combinations of elements of old ideas. “Tweaking” is simply dissecting an old idea and finding the critical points that could be adjusted to create something new.
5. Adopt an Existing Idea or Model to a Different Market
On its surface, this form of a startup seems less original than others, but the creativity involved shouldn’t be underestimated. The key is to extract value from one product or service, and adapt it to the customs, laws, and environment of another market.
OLX is the eBay for much of Europe and South America. Baidu is the Google of China. And while adapting old products to new geographies is a great way to start a new company, geography isn’t the only flexible aspect of a current idea or model. For example, Chegg applied rental economics to textbooks. Ning made it easy to create customized social networks for groups and organizations. Amie Street brought auction economics to music sales.
When companies create a product with a very wide target market, they have to compromise the value of that product within every single niche market within the larger target market. If I’m making a ballpoint pen for the masses, then i can’t include that fancy push-button top and multi-color option that only some people want.
To be attractive, a niche market must first be large enough to support a product. A niche market’s geography, preferences, demographics, or cost-consciousness are somehow relevant to the product and substantially distinguish this subset from other rest of the target market.
Find a group of people being underserved. Make the iPad cover for the traveler, with a waterproof seal and extra strong cover. Create a music-sharing service for hip hop enthusiasts, an online art gallery for Surrealist artists or an interior-design firm for coffee shops.
7. Do it Better
This is a tricky one, as it can be easy to underestimate the challenge of taking on a competitor’s market by trying to do what they do better. It can work, but you must be able to clearly formulate how you’re going to do something better than an established company that is already doing it.
Maybe a company is doing well, but only because they were first to market and not because their business model is the best to fulfill a certain service.
Perhaps a large company is afraid to move to fast and is innovating too slowly. Make an innovation in their area ahead of the competitor, and you could become an attractive acquisition target.
Maybe a brand has been tarnished beyond repair, or maybe they don’t have the network that you do, or they clearly have incompetent leadership.
For “doing it better” to work, marginal improvements won’t do. Marginal improvements can be quickly copied by your better-entrenched and better-funded competitors. But it can work. Does Hotmail ring a bell? Maybe not, because Gmail kicked their ass straight to the curb (atleast in the U.S.) with a vastly superior product.
As with many of the other ideas above, “doing it better” will achieve best results when combined with other tactics. Vimeo made a better online video player, but targeted it to higher-end and more serious video creators through its community. There were plenty of online t-shirt shops before Threadless, but conquered with amazing products.
The point of this post was to examine a few different forms that new startup ideas can look like. Sometimes incorporating just one of these aspects is enough to give an idea legs, other times it won’t be. Every idea is different, but hopefully this gives you some things to look for.
What’s missing from this list? I’d love to hear your praises, criticisms, or scorn! Leave it in the comments.
This is not a blog about productivity or technology tips, but sometimes those worlds intersect with the entrepreneur’s. This is one of those cases.
I’m currently writing the series on How to Come Up With Business Ideas, and a big part of coming up with new ideas is being knowledgeable and current in different domains. If you don’t know anything about personal finance, how are you going to come up with innovative ideas in that space? You probably won’t, because some knowledge is a prerequisite for coming up with new ideas.
The best way to do become knowledgeable and current within a given domain is to subscribe to blogs and commentary on that subject. If you read the WSJ every day, you’ll have a good foundation for thinking about the current economic environment. Similarly, if you read blogs on renewable energy or the toy market or manufacturing trends, over time you’ll become knowledgeable in those domains too.
Okay, so I’ve convinced you and now you’ve gone and subscribed to 23 different blogs on potato chips. Fantastic. But soon you’ll be getting 10+ emails per day on potato chips. This emails need to be read, but not necessarily right now or even today or tomorrow. And if you skip reading them for a day or two, soon your inbox will be clogged, obscuring more important emails that actually require your attention.
There’s an easy solution to this. It takes five minutes to setup, and will save you hours. The gist of it is that these emails are basically put in a separate folder and skip your inbox completely. When you want to go through them, you can open up that folder and browse through them.
Here’s how to do it:
- Create a new label in Gmail called “Feeds”, or whatever you want. To create a new label, just click on “Labels” and “Add New”.
- Each time you receive an email from one of the blogs, click “Filter messages like these…”
- On the next screen, make sure the email address in the “From” field is the one you want to filter.
- After clicking “Next Step”, then simply chick “Skip the Inbox” and apply the label that you created earlier.
That’s all there is to it. This simple little trick helps me stay focused on what’s important while not being distracted by interesting emails that I get throughout the day from blogs I follow. You can see that right now I have over 340 unread emails in feeds (actually its at 380 now), all of which have come in the last 12 days. Assuming 1 minute per email, thats over 6 hours of distraction-time prevented so far.
This won’t make your startup successful, but its on of the incremental improvements that help you focus on what’s important so I thought it worth including.
Introduction to “How to Come Up With Business Ideas”
I’m fascinated with the question of how entrepreneurs come up with new business ideas. An entrepreneur without ideas is like a writer without a pen. You can play a supporting role without ideas of your own, but to be a founder you’ve got to think of things or ways to do things that no one else has ever done before.
This is an immensely important topic, and frankly one that I feel is under-treated relative to its importance. Not that people don’t think about this, but usually inquiring souls are simply advised to go fix a problem that you have, or go work somewhere and find out what kind of problems people have and get ideas that way. This is actually good advice, but it certainly doesn’t give an accurate portrayal of the whole picture.
The fact is that coming up with good new ideas involves many factors. Even if you’re trying to solve your own problems, you probably have many more “problems” than you’re aware of. How do you recognize them? How do you prepare yourself to see them? What kinds of problems should you look for? This complexity of this process and the important role of new ideas in business creation make this a topic worth examining thoroughly.
Over the next three weeks, I’m going to work my way through some of these questions by splitting this topic into five parts:
Part 1: Introduction to the Initial Spark
Part 2: What New Business Ideas Look Like
Part 3: Where to Get Inspiration for New Ideas
Part 4: How to Prepare Yourself to Come Up with New Ideas
Part 5: What to Do With New Ideas
This article, Part 1, is a tad theoretical and abstract, and is intended just to clarify our understanding of what we mean when we talk about the initial spark. Hang in there, we’ll get our hands dirty in the following parts and talk about specific, practical things you can do to improve your ability to come up with new business ideas. As always, I hope you’ll contribute your thoughts in the comments.
Part 1: Introduction to the Initial Spark
You already know what the Initial Spark is. Its the moment of inspiration in which every idea is born. Its the “AHA” moment, when something clicks and a big light bulb above your head goes ding! before lighting up in a blaze of glory. The initial spark is the ultimate encounter between inspiration and insight within one’s imagination. And while most sparks are duds, every great idea began that way.
Of course, the spark on its own is meaningless. Ideas are worth nothing without action, and the Initial Spark is just the beginning of a long process before real action is taken. Still, as the genesis of every idea, its importance in the process of creation can hardly be understated.
This is a major topic, at the core of creation. Where do new ideas come from? How can we have “better” ones or more of them? How do we recognize them and what do we do with them when we get them? How can we prioritize them?
I’m going to try and tackle these questions over a series of posts. For this first one, my philosophy training is telling me to define my terms. So here I’d like to discuss the nature of the spark. What properties does it have? Forgive me in advance, as Part 1 is more abstract than the subsequent parts. The purpose is to place the initial spark in context so that we can talk smartly about it later.
At its most basic, the spark is simply an idea. Its a new idea, more exactly. At birth, there’s no telling whether its any good, because we know nothing of it until that moment. That doesn’t mean all ideas are born equal. In fact, that’s why understanding them is crucial. You can prepare yourself to increase the chances that each idea you come up with is good, or even great.
Ideas, and thus the initial spark, can take many forms. Ideas are composed of interlinked concepts. The concept of the utility of a car and of rental as a form of payment are linked together to create the spark that inspired Enterprise Car Rental. The concept that people want to find stuff on the web linked with the concept of search and the concept of targeted advertising come together to form Google. At its core, the initial spark is a new linking of different concepts. These concepts can be ones that already exist or newly created ones, but the initial spark connects them to form something whose sum is greater than its parts.
Ideas can be about anything, and not every initial spark is a business idea. Maybe you connect your mom’s affection for hummingbirds with her love of silver jewelry and decide on the perfect birthday present, or you realize that the trampoline is a fantastic way to realize your dream of dunking a basketball. And while those are great, the idea here is to understand and foster the ability to come up with ideas that have the potential to come up with practical ideas that can be turned into some kind of enterprise.
So what makes an idea practical?
An idea is practical if it has some use. An idea for a business has some use if it solves an old problem or creates a new opportunity. So that is what the initial spark is: a new idea that solve a problem or create an opportunity.
While these new ideas come in infinite variety, there are particular forms they often take. For instance, perhaps the initial spark is oriented toward identifying a certain niche whose needs aren’t being met, or maybe it is a method for applying a proven model to a new market. In the next installment, Part 2: What New Business Ideas Look Like, I’ll dive into different forms the initial spark can take.
But for those of you who have never created a website, I’m here to correct the misconception that its difficult or that you have to be some kind of computer genius to do it.
The process of launching a startup goes through many stages, from the initial spark, to figuring out exactly what your business is going to do, to then getting it running and launching, marketing, sales, etc.
But it starts with a spark, and inevitably we’re drawn to coming up with a suitable name for our would-be venture, which is often limited by the availability of that name as a “.com”, or sometimes “.net”. In order to prevent that precious “.com” from being stolen in the interim, better to buy it well ahead of any intended launch date.
Assuming you’ve bought the domain, if you actually intend to go through with the project you’ll be talking with a lot of people about it. And you’ll talk with someone important about it, tell them the name, and there’s a decent chance that they’ll go ahead and look it up online. But if all they find is a “Not Available” screen when they go to your website, you’ll look unserious and lose some credibility.
The instructions and video below are for the simplest of websites, when you need to get a blog up and running, or more commonly (for me), when you want to set up a placeholder page before you’re actually ready to put up a real website.
So, here’s how to do it:
- Buy a hosting account. I use and love Bluehost, which is $7 a month and allows you to host unlimited domains. For example, right now I have 20 domains hosted on Bluehost, but I pay just $7 a month for it. Also, Bluehost has great support, with 24/7 live chat with support, which I’ve used many times when I’ve been stumped or don’t understand how to do something. The last point is that Bluehost, as well as some others, have a one-click WordPress install button, which allows to create a website in just a few minutes. (Full disclosure: If you click on the Bluehost link, I get a referral fee. There are other options too, but I can’t vouch for them personally. Other options include Dreamhost, Hostgator, etc. Whatever you do, DON’T use GoDaddy. All you need to know is that GoDaddy is a pain in the ass.)
- Purchase the domain. I said to get a hosting provider first buying the domain you want through your hosting provider (e.g. buying the domain using Bluehost) will save you a couple of steps that can be confusing if you haven’t done this before (like changing CName, DNS, and MX record entries.)
- Assign the domain to your account. “Assigning” the domain is basically saying “I own this domain and I want it hosted on my Bluehost account.” This is easy. Just go to your Domain Manager, click on the domain you just bought, and there will be an easily visible option to “Assign” it to your account. You have to do this because owning a website name and having it hosted on a server are two different things.
- Install WordPress. One reason I recommend Bluehost is that there’s a on the front page once you sign in that installs WordPress for you. So just click the “WordPress” button on your control panel and follow the instructions. If you don’t use this option, you have to jump through a lot of hoops to install the proper files on your server (and do things like set up user permissions, create a new database, etc.)
- Once WordPress is installed, then you just need to use WordPress to edit the content of the page. So, you would upload a header image with your logo, remove widgets that don’t make sense for you (like Archives, Recent Posts, etc., since all you want is basic info on the homepage). Edit the first post to say “Coming Soon”, and then you’re done. You’ve got a website up and running that can serve your purpose during the earliest stages of your project while you’re still developing the actual website and content that be up as you approach launch and once you do launch.
To show you how easy it is, I’ve also created a video where I create a placeholder website in less than four minutes. The instructions above should suffice, but maybe some of you will find this video useful.
FAIL OFTEN: Ideas that challenge the status quo. Proposals. Brainstorms. Concepts that open doors.
FAIL FREQUENTLY: Prototypes. Spreadsheets. Sample ads and copy.
FAIL OCCASIONALLY: Working mockups. Playtesting sessions. Board meetings.
FAIL RARELY: Interactions with small groups of actual users and customers.
FAIL NEVER: Keeping promises to your constituents.
This great advice. Nay, sage advice. But I want to talk about a different kind of failure: when your company/idea/self runs out of cash and you have to stop operating.
The kinds of failure where the ship is going down, and everyone on it is going to drown: investors, employees, customers that rely on your product.
It seems like everything I read about these big failures, from guys like Gary Vaynerchuck and countless other entrepreneur bloggers tries to say one of three things:
- Its OK to fail, it happens and you should
- Whether something is a “failure” is up to how you look at it
- Don’t be afraid to fail
The intention of these “failure advocates” is good- they don’t want you to let the fear of failure to prevent you from doing something. And I absolutely agree with that: if you let fear of failure prevent you from doing something, then you’ll never experience the flip-side of failure: success.
But the possibility that you will fail at something needs to be taken seriously, because it can have serious financial, relationship, and psychological consequences. I know this from experience, and if you’re in charge of something and the ship goes down, the blame and ownership of the failure is all yours.
And failure sucks. Failing usually means that promises, explicit or not, were not fulfilled, that expecations weren’t met, and you, your employees, investors, and customers lose.
But in a perverse way, that failure sucks so bad is a good thing, because its a strong motivator. They say that entrepreneurs beat big companies because Big Co. employees don’t stay awake at night worrying about their work. I think a large part of this has to do with their passion for what they do, but I also think that there’s also an element of fear inspired by the very real prospect of failure.
But the failure of your idea to “work” or exist in reality is bad enough on its own to be quite a strong motivating force. All the other stuff that comes along just makes it worse. So the question becomes how to mitigate the other negative consequences: relational strain, financial ruin for investors, and psychological stress.
- Don’t exaggerate. Be honest with your employees, investors, and self. This doesn’t mean to lose that “We’re going to take over the world” can-do attitude, it just means that distorting the truth perverts people’s expectations and leads to frustration and a sense of betrayal when things don’t work out.
- Don’t take any money that an investor can’t afford to lose. This is especially true when you’re dealing with friends and family as opposed to professional investors. This cannot be conveyed implicitly. It is incumbent on you to say something like: “There is a chance that this will fail and you will not get back a single penny. If that’s too scary a prospect for you, then this isn’t the right match and I completely understand.”
- Have the right attitude. Failure is a fact of life, especially for startups. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go down fighting, but it means that it is very likely to happen to you. Your own attitude and strength will determine whether it makes you depressed or whether you pick yourself up from the ground and ask for more.
Of course, the best way to avoid the terribleness of failure is to succeed! That is your focus, and anything less than success is unacceptable. But don’t be naive and ignore the possibility of failure. Remember in your mind how bad it sucks, and then give everything you have to avoid it.
What are your thoughts?
Recently I said that I would post a link to a keyboard shortcuts file, and here it is. Frankly, I’ve been working a lot on more substantial posts, such as how to come up with ideas, but since I promised this I figured it was time to deliver.
You can download the file here: Download Printable KeyBoard Shortcuts File
If you’re an avid computer user, then using keyboard shortcuts will save you tons of time. In fact, when I worked as a consultant, if you didn’t use keyboard shortcuts not only would you be made fun of, but it would reflect poorly on your efficiency and proficiency doing analysis and getting a lot done in a short amount of time.
Here are a few examples:
- Press Alt & D at the same time. Neat, right?
- In excel, copy a group of cells that are determined by formula. Then press in order: Alt + E, S,V + Enter. It will get rid of the formula and paste the values as values.
- Press the Windows Logo + L at the same time.
Below is a link to download a spreadsheet that is readily-printable and that shows you the most common and useful keyboard shortcuts for Windows, Microsoft Excel, and Google Chrome/Firefox. Download it, print it out, and use it according to the following guidelines:
- Don’t try to learn them all at once. Figure out what things you do the most, and learn them one at a time. By printing this out and having it handy, you’ll easily be able to reference how to do the actions you do most often.
- Print it out and place it next to your computer. You’re only going to learn these through repetition, so keep them handy. Trust me, its worth learning them as it will save you lots and lots of time and will also demonstrate your technical expertise when the time comes that you’re giving a live demo or doing work in front of someone else.
- Try each of them out. Some of these you probably will not understand, and I opted not to post a description of each. Just try them, and that will show you what they can do. After that you can decide whether it is useful for you to memorize it.
I’ll update the file as time goes on, feel free to let me know what’s missing in the comments!
We should exercise. We should launch that product. We should be a different type of person.
“Should” is one of the worst words that exist in the English language, right above “regret” and below “addiction”. Its the worst kind of excuse for not doing something important. It just says “I know what I must do, but I’m not willing to do it.”
Should is a modal verb, meaning that it is the type of word that refers to whether something necessarily happens, possibly happens, or is an impossibility. “Should” means that something is expected, but circumstances might justify deviating from doing what we say we want to do. And that’s exactly what “should” does: it gives you an out for not doing something.
“Should”s are optional. The main problem with “should”, to put it crudely, is that “should” doesn’t light a fire under your ass. It doesn’t motivate you the way something does if you must do it. It doesn’t have the power of motivation because it just represents a possibility.
“Should” does not represent commitment, seriousness, or necessity. And if you’re neither committed to, nor serious about, nor driven by the absolute need for a given goal, then that idea is in dire straights. You’re not going to succeed, especially if its ambitious enough to classify as a startup.
So forget what you “should” do and stop fooling yourself. Better yet, find it within yourself to transform that “should”. Do what you must do instead.
If you’re like me, you spend a ridiculous amount of time in front of a computer. Below are some principles for setting up your computer to ensure that you spend your time doing the important stuff.
The main goals of your computer setup are:
- Quick access to the files and programs you need
- Intuitive organization
- Scalable setup that can adapt as your needs change
With that in mind, here are 7 tips that will help you to make your computer to work for you. Any further suggestions, leave ’em in the comments.
Here’s the summary:
- Use Folders to Organize Your Bookmarks
- Tape a Motivational Note to Your Screen
- Use the Taskbar for Easy Program Access
- Have an Awesome Music Playlist
- Simplify Repetitive Actions
- Learn Keyboard Shortcuts
- Organize Your Documents Folder Properly.
1. Use Folders to Organize Your Bookmarks
You will come across lots of items of interest for your projects and personal enjoyment on the internet. But if you indulge every interest immediately, you will destroy your focus.
The key is to create folders and sub-folders to organize these links. Folders give you quick access to items and allow for on-the-go organizing. I abbreviate the names in order to make them all fit. But I know, for example, that “E” means “Elance”, that “Arts” means articles, etc.
Here a few of folder examples that might be relevant for you:
- Projects: Probably my most important folder, with subfolders for each project I’m working on. If I run across a related article, find a competitor, it immediately gets dragged into that folder.
- Arts: Interesting articles that I like or want to read later
- Blog Ideas: Things that I find interesting and potentially will write about
- GP: Stands for “Guest Post”. When this blog matures a bit, this is a list of links to blogs I’d like to write a guest post on (which is a great way to help readers find you)
- Tools: Links to useful tools. For instance: Google Site Traffic Estimator
- Blogs: These are blogs I like. I have subfolders for each day of the week. Each day, I check the blogs listed under that day’s subfolder. This ensures that I don’t get overhwelmed each day trying to check every single blog I like and learn from.
- Learn: I keep links here for things that I’m studying (currently: copywriting, second-language acquisition, lean startup tactics, etc.)
- Design: Design is important on so many levels it deserves its own folder. Besides articles talking about good design, I also have a subfolder called “Designs I Like” which helps me keep tabs on examples of inspiring design.
- Random: Some things don’t have categories. Its the internet, after all.
- Net: Stands for “Networks”, and includes links to networks I belong to, such as thefunded.com, sandbox, triiibes. Makes it easy for me to remember to contribute to these networks.
2. Tape a Motivational Note to Your Screen
Mine says “Focus.” Taping a note to outside of your screen will get your attention and remind you of whatever you need to be reminded of. I’m a big fan of “Focus.”, but here are some alternatives:
- “Breathe.” For those who freak out and get overwhelmed a lot.
- “Do well, do good.” Reminds you to make things happen while being a good person
- “$10,000 in Sales.” Maybe you’ve got a specific goal that you’re after; this is a good way to remind yourself.
- “Smile”. Life is beautiful, don’t forget it.
Ok, you get the point. Just keep it short so it doesn’t become too big of a distraction. If you really like this, consider a tattoo.
3. Use the Task Bar for Easy Program Access
You use some programs more than others, and having them at the bottom of your screen can save you the time and tedium of having to look up each program every time you want to use it. Moreover, it keeps my mind on the task at hand and ensures that my flow isn’t interrupted everytime I need to start a new task. In Windows, you can add programs to the task bar just by dragging their icon there.
A few of the programs that I use most frequently and have on my taskbar: Notepad, Paint, iTunes, Chrome, Camtasia, Balsamiq, Photoshop, SimpleMind, Excel, Skype. Check out this previous post if you want to read about some of these programs.
4. Have an Awesome Music Playlist
I’m probably twice as productive when I’m listening to music. It keeps my energy up and helps maintain focus. As you probably know, music with lyrics usually isn’t good for this (unless those lyrics are in a language you don’t understand, e.g. Some Indian Music).
My favorite artist for “work” music is Pretty Lights. Its electronica without all the weird stuff; strong beat, light lyrics, full of energy. You can download their music for free here: http://www.prettylightsmusic.com/
Other good music genres are classical, reggae, foreign music, hip hop, and percussion. Mix and match, or find one that keeps you going.
I have a playlist called “Making it Happen”, and a brick wall couldn’t stop me when I’m sitting at my computer, bobbing my head and, yes that’s right, making it happen.
To get you started, you can listen to my playlist on 8tracks.com. Even better, send me yours and I’ll put it on my Resources page.
P.S. I think the reason music helps focus is because it provides a continuoum of sound and mood. Once you get into flow (check this from Wikipedia) , the music helps keep you there. When your mind strays for a second, the music makes it easy to hop back into where you before because you’ve got the music as a mood-stabilizer. This is just armchair philosophy/psychology on my part, but interesting enough to mention to you.
5. Simplify Repetitive Actions
Some things you have to do over and over again. For instance, sending files back and forth between project partners. There’s usually a way to simplify repetitive tasks, here are a few examples:
- Get Dropbox! Dropbox is a shared folder that automatically updates the file on someone else’s folder when you change it. Seriously, get Dropbox.
- Excel Macros: I’ll cover this at some point in the future, but creating macros in Excel is pretty straightforward. If you find yourself repeatedly having to do a certain series of steps, macros can save you time
- Get ExcellentAnalytics: If you’re job involves tracking website visits from Google Analytics, Excellent Analytics is an awesome tool that pulls data from Analytics and puts it in an excel file. Create a custom dashboard, or integrate stats with other reports with just the click of a button.
These are just a few examples, but the internet is full of useful tools designed to make your life easier. Find them and use them.
6. Learn Keyboard Shortcuts
One of the things I found in the consulting world is that using a computer mouse is amateur. Consultants are geeks like that- they’ll literally make fun of you for it. But there’s a reason, and I’m sure there’s a pie chart out there that explains why. (Kidding again; they’ll also make fun of you for using a pie chart, since it only conveys information along one dimension.)
Using the keyboard will save you TONS of time, especially in programs like Excel. My next post will be a file that you can download and print out that lists the most common/helpful shortcuts for key programs. It will be for advanced users, so if you don’t already know what happens when you press the “Alt” and “Tab” keys at the same time, then you really need to buck up and get with the program.
7. Organize Your Documents Folders Properly
This is key. If you don’t have your folders organized right, you’re going to create a giant mess in your documents folder. Its going to slow you down, frustrate the hell out of you, and you’ll lose documents. I made this #7, but only because I wanted to reward those that are still with me with the most important of tips. Its so important that you’ve probably figured it out already, but maybe this tips will help you a bit anyways.
Similar to organizing bookmarks, there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. But the following tips should give you some guidance:
- If you’ve got a “real” job, have a separate folder at the VERY top level of your documents folder. The other folder here should be called “Personal”. You don’t want to have your computer screen projected and everyone to see all the other stuff you’re working on.
- Have a “Projects” folder with a folder for each project you have. Inside the “Projects” folder should be an “Old Projects” folder where you put old files to keep it uncluttered.
- Once any folder has more than 10 or so individual files, its time to create subfolders. Common subfolder titles: “Design”, “Images”, “Business Plan”, “Research”, etc.
- Have two downloads folders. One should be called “Browser Downloads”, and thats for all the random documents and setup files you download during the day. Put “Browser Downloads” under “Downloads”. “Downloads” includes media and other download files that you will use more often, and keeps them separated from all the other items you download, use, and then never want to see again.
- In Windows, you can drag folders to the ”Favorites” section, which saves a tremendous amount of time when accessing common folders. This is particularly useful for folders that exist at different levels of the folder hierarchy. Especially if you’ve separated your folders into Work and Personal, this gives you quick access to the common ones without having to do so much navigation.