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  • Entries Tagged 'software' ↓

    Stop Talking and Build Your Business

    While I’m deeply involved in entrepreneurship, breathing it day in and day out, and actively follow many discussions around it, I tend to shy away from writing about it most of the time. Why? Because I’m generally too busy doing the entrepreneurship to talk about it. In the end, it’s the facts of our accomplishments that will speak far louder than some hollow words.

    But every once in a while it can be helpful to take note of where one stands and what one has learned. This is one of those moments, and I’d like to take a moment to share a few thoughts on what it takes to start a product company. (Most recently, I’ve been hard at work building and launching Mailstrom through my company 410 Labs.)

    • Building a sustainable business is the only thing that matters. Entrepreneurs get caught up worrying about all kinds of shiny objects: tech trends, investors, hot markets, compensation schemes, founder personalities, community — you name it. Those things are interesting, but there’s only one thing that matters: building a sustainable business. That means recurring revenue and controllable costs. Watch those two items and then maybe you’ll have something to talk about.
    • Know your CAC/CPA and LTV. If you’re building a recurring revenue business, you need to know your customer acquisition cost and lifetime value of the customer. You need to understand this really, really well. To understand customer acquisition cost, you need to know all of the costs that go into acquiring a new, paying customer. To understand lifetime value, you need to understand your customer retention rates really well. If this makes your eyes glaze over, you’re not an entrepreneur.
    • The hard part comes after the funding. It may seem like securing funding is a great milestone, and you’ll be tempted to pat yourself on the back. Do that for a minute, but get the hell back to work. You have real work to do now. If you don’t understand how to deploy that funding, and more importantly have a plan for what happens when (not if ) you run out, you’ll be out of options. Be humble. This stuff is hard.
    • The Series A crunch is real. The funding environment today is quite brutal and you can expect to spend several months of your time working just on securing a “Series A” size funding round (for the sake of simplicity let’s define that as a post-seed round of $1M or more). Investors are looking for not only traction, but real revenues, social proof, and growth. They want to know why you are the entrepreneurial team that’s going to survive and thrive. There are thousands of other teams out there who won’t, so the odds are against you.
    • My dog can raise a seed round in this climate. With the myriad startup funds, accelerators, and crowdfunding available today, it’s easier than ever to raise a seed round. While raising a seed or small angel round is definitely a validation that you may not be insane, it’s no validation that you’re sane either. Startups are hot and these days, everyone’s an “angel investor” (even me.) But just because you raise that seed round doesn’t mean you will have a clear path forward.
    • You are responsible for your success — not your investors or advisors. It’s tempting to think that having a rockstar list of investors and advisors is going to catapult you to success. In fact, that’s just not the case. While having “name brand” people on your team can accelerate the growth and create additional options for your successful business, the onus is on you to deliver that successful business. They are not going to make it happen for you. It’s ALL on you.
    • Building products is hard and requires tireless analysis and iteration. Building products is ridiculously hard work. Every day you need to devise new experiments and analyze the results. You need to continuously iterate and improve every aspect of your product. You have to make clear headed choices about what is important and what’s not, frequently leaving even good ideas unfinished. In short, if you’re not comfortable with scientific method, numeric and statistical analysis, and ambiguity (yes, ambiguity ALL THE TIME) then you have no business being a founder.

    I hear new entrepreneurs talk all the time about how everything is going so great — they had a great pitch meeting or secured a funding commitment, just hired a new person, or setup some shiny new piece of technology. And those things are all great. But remember, until you have a product that is generating real recurring revenue and you fully understand the dynamics, you don’t have a business, you have a conjecture.

    And don’t get me wrong, as a fellow entrepreneur, I love a good conjecture. But what is really impressive is when you can start to make make it sing and scale. That requires tons of hard work — hard work that’s not flashy, doesn’t let you write upbeat self-congratulatory status updates, or put out self-serving press releases.

    All that matters is your customers, the value you’re creating for them, and the dollars and goodwill that value generates. Let’s talk about that, because the rest is noise.

    Design, Affordances, Emergence, Appeal: An Innovator’s Primer

    A lot of people talk about innovation in terms of fulfilling an unmet market need. Specifically, there’s a lot of emphasis on “solving problems.” (I’m looking at you, Dave McClure.) The theory is that entrepreneurs should work on solving a problem that lots of people have, and not get too focused on some technology. That’s fair advice.

    However, when entrepreneurs hear this, their first instinct is to often to go ask people about their problems and then try to solve them. Or they look for markets where there is a lot of money being spent.

    “The best innovations are those that solve a problem that people didn’t even know that they had,” says Paola Antonelli, curator of design and architecture at MoMA. Twitter certainly falls in this category. In fact most people were sure they didn’t need Twitter, but now it’s a central part of our media landscape.

    This class of innovation is the sort you have to shove down people’s throats at first, but then changes the world forever. And they’re tricky to find because no one will tell you they need them. And there’s no market study that outlines the opportunity.

    Thinking about this, and stealing some good ideas from design thinking pioneers like Don Norman, Tim Brown, and Daniel Pink, I’ve settled on four key elements that entrepreneurs can use to think about innovation: design, affordances, emergence, and appeal.

    Design

    Steve Jobs is famously quoted as saying, “design is how it works,” and he’s right. How it works is determined by the design specifications and constraints. If it is software, the major design elements include aspects like synchronous vs. asynchronous, private vs. public, one-to-one vs. one-to-many vs. many-to-many, market size, viral reach, and mode of access. There are many other elements that determine the nature of a product’s design.

    The outward aspects – how it looks and feels – are important insofar as they impose an additional set of operational constraints: what’s possible, what’s most likely, how the “happy path” feels, and how brittle the experience is.

    When most people think about design, they think about “how it looks.” We’ll get to that in a minute. When you think about design, you really are determining “how it works,” and it’s the most critical part of creating an innovative product.

    Affordances

    Affordances are the possibilities that a particular design allows. If your product allows for a particular use, then its design affords that possibility. Sometimes there are negative affordances (a part allows for a hinge to open too widely, possibly damaging the product), as well as positive affordances (an iPod Touch can display streaming video, so it afforded the possibility for HBO to make a mobile subscription TV app.)

    Every design offers a wide range of affordances, and you should think critically about what they are.

    Emergence

    Sometimes a design enables new behaviors that its creators did not predict. Users of the product start behaving in a new way that was not anticipated, though it is allowed by the original affordances (say hashtags on Twitter).

    Sometimes the emergent behavior is incorporated back into the original design (such as when Twitter adopted hashtags and @ replies, and tracked their trends).

    Emergence is usually a happy accident. Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, says, “always allow a seat at the table for the unknown.” That is an excellent design goal. By leaving a few doors open, one allows for this kind of emergent behavior to occur, and to capitalize on it.

    Designers almost never consider all of the emergent possibilities that their designs afford. Being open to emergence, and incorporating it into later designs, is key to innovation.

    Appeal

    This is really a subset of design, but it’s worth discussing all by itself. Your product should have curb appeal and create an emotional connection with people that causes them to return to it again and again.

    The finest Swiss clockwork will not go anywhere if it is packaged in an ugly shell. While design is “how it works,” your product’s human appeal has everything to do with “how it works with people.” Because without ongoing engagement from people, most products cannot survive.

    So, how it “looks” certainly matters, but only insofar as it affects its ongoing appeal, and “how it works with people.” We know the best products are those that create that emotional, nearly-religious connection, and this can’t be overlooked.

    Utility Is Difficult to Predict

    I think asking about utility is often the worst way to evaluate a design in its early phases. “Why would I use this? What’s it good for? Who needs this?” are questions that are worth contemplating, but it’s also OK if the answer is “I don’t know yet.”

    If a design affords a range of emergent behaviors, if it can be distributed to a large group of users, and it can be made appealing and inspire devotion, odds are it’s something worth experimenting with. The odds that the ultimate utility of an interesting design will exceed early predictions is very high.

    I love engineers, and do some engineering, but engineers are particularly prone to evaluate concepts in the frame of “how is it different from XYZ that already exists,” or “what technology does it employ?”

    The success of the Wii is one of the wins that stymied many engineers. “The graphics sucked, the games were primitive, and there were better technologies on the market.” And those things were not the point. The Wii won because of its design, it affordances, its appeal, and the emergent behaviors (and user communities) it enabled and reached.

    So be playful in your designs. Give things a chance. See what happens. Learn from emergent behaviors. And always leave a seat at the table for the unknown.

    Real Innovation Takes Time

    Combinatorial Innovation

    There are so many new technologies today: tablets, geolocation, video chat, great app frameworks. It is easy to cherry-pick off “combinatorial” innovations that seem compelling, and can maybe even be monetized readily.

    But all those innovations are inevitable. If our technologies afford a certain possibility, they will occur. “That’s not a company, that’s a feature,” is one criticism I’ve heard of many “startups.”

    These combinatorial, feature-oriented “X for Y” endeavors are often attractive because they can often be built quickly.

    Startup Weekend events send an implicit message that a meaningful business can be fleshed out in just a couple of days. And I argue that is not true. That might be a good forum to get practice with building a quick combinatorial technology and working with others, but a real innovation, much less a meaningful business, takes real time.

    I think people are often looking in the wrong places for innovation, often because they don’t really take the time to do the homework, observation, and deep reflection necessary to arrive at a true insight. We want things to be quick and easy.

    Changing Minds, and Behaviors

    The biggest innovations require asking people to change their beliefs, habits, and behaviors.

    iPhone: “why would I want a smartphone without a physical keyboard? It’s too expensive. I can’t install apps.”

    Twitter: “what is this for? Why would anyone do this? Who cares what I had for breakfast?”

    iPad: “an expensive toy. Could never replace a real laptop. Can’t run real office applications. The enterprise will never adopt it.”

    Foursquare: “only hipsters and bar hoppers would ever do this. They are letting people know when to rob them. I don’t want people to know where I am.”

    And these innovations have taken years of constant attention to bring to their current state. And they are not done.

    One Innovator’s Story

    Dennis Crowley, founder of Foursquare, was in the room at Wherecamp in 2007 where I was giving a talk about location check-in habits via Twitter (a subject I knew well because of my Twittervision service, which allowed this.)

    Dennis, of course, also founded the precursor to Foursquare, Dodgeball, which he sold to Google in 2004 (they promptly killed it.)

    But Dennis wanted to see his vision come to pass, and he knew it would someday be possible — though at that point the iPhone had not been released and it would be nearly two years before it supported GPS location technology.

    But there Dennis was, doing his homework in 2007, studying user behavior to figure out exactly what behaviors he would have to encourage to make Foursquare work.

    He asked me, “so, people are really putting their home and work locations formatted inside tweets in order to update their location?”

    “Yep, a few thousand times a day,” I replied.

    “That’s cool. That’s really cool stuff,” he said. And from that, and years of similar evidence-gathering and study, Foursquare would be born.

    So, creating Foursquare took about five years. (I could have “stolen” the idea and built Foursquare myself. But I didn’t execute on that; it was his vision to pursue.) Dennis did his homework. He was prepared. And his vision preceded the technology that enabled it.

    Why, not How

    Real innovation doesn’t come from a weekend. It comes from passion, years of study, understanding deep insights and the “why,” and persistence in seeing something new to market, along with the marketing and cheerleading that will make it successful.

    The iPad owes much to Steve Jobs’ love of calligraphy. He cultivated a sense of aesthetics because of that initial interest. He didn’t set out to “make money” but rather dedicated himself to changing the world for the better using the entirety of his humanity. Time studying art wasn’t “lost,” it was R&D for the Mac, iPhone, and iPad.

    Many of today’s entrepreneurs could stand to do less “hustling” and more reading, exploring, reflecting, and gathering input — and when it is time to make stuff, set their sights as high as possible.

    There is more to this world than money, and there are countless opportunities to make it a vastly better place. Rather than using our CPU cycles just playing with combinatorial innovations, let’s devote ourselves to making the world as amazing as possible. Try to take time to reflect on how you can make the world better, and not just on what current technology affords.

    Always Tell a Story

    Thinking about what works for entrepreneurs and what doesn’t, it occurred to me that it’s not always enough to do the right things. You have to do the right things in the right order.

    That sounds hard. It is tough enough to know what the right things are, without also knowing what order to do them in.

    But the order matters. Adding a particular investor first helps you get the interest of others. There is a right order to seek investors.

    There is a right order in which to seek press and PR for your products, and possibly a different order that’s best for your company as a whole.

    You could call it “strategic,” but that implies that it might be hard to figure out, or that a wrong move might cost you dearly. That’s probably not quite right; but there is usually one story that’s better than the others.

    I think in the end we are all just telling stories: about ourselves, our companies, and our products. We tell a story to prospective employees, and all sales is really storytelling.

    So here’s the trick: tell a good story. If you tell a story that has good characters doing interesting things in a compelling order, you’ll win.

    And the inverse is also true. Tell a sad story, or a boring one, or one where the elements don’t build towards a climax, and odds are, you won’t get very far.

    So the next time you’re worrying over strategy, or wondering how to get investors interested in what you’re doing, start thinking about your story: the characters, their beliefs, the heroes, and the villains.

    Write a story that motivates you, and odds are, others will want to play a part too.