Heartfelt Story Of A Software Startup

September 30, 2009

I operate mainly on the Mac platform these days, having made the transition from Windows about 6 years ago. I was attracted partly by the elegance of the operating system (Windows was so damn clunky) as well as the wealth of innovative, unusual and often free applications.

In particular, applications for note taking. This may seem quite an esoteric niche but in all my consultancy and research work I found that taking ‘smart’ notes was something that easily repaid itself.

When I first joined the Mac community there weren’t too many note-taking programmes, now there’s a veritable flood.

In no particular order I’ve bought: Circus Ponies Notebook, MacJournal, Curio, Tinderbox, DEVONthink, Evernote (free version available), Omnioutliner as well as a few others. They all do very good note-taking.

In this category there is also Journler which was originally quite a rising star although sadly it has recently (formally) expired. So what went wrong, especially as Journler still does a really good job if you fire it up now?

journlerScreenshot Of Journler

There’s a heartfelt explanation here – this is an extract:

I attribute the downfall of Journler to its success. As the number of users grew so too did the problems. In response to feature requests the program’s code became exceedingly complex. Bloat crept in. The volume of emails increased to a level I was not able to manage. The forum exploded with activity and I was no longer able to read let alone address every post. The support requirements were becoming too much. I would spend hours helping a user with damaged data. It would take me days to track down an esoteric bug a single user was experiencing which I could not reproduce. I could easily spend all my time on support alone. I needed to hire extra help but was in something of a bind. I was still not charging for the application. I had in fact promised that I would never charge for Journler. But as my job ended I broke that promise and began explicitly to request that users purchase the program.

It’s illuminating to read the whole article, especially in conjunction with a previous post on this blog. A new business is a scary and frustrating place to be, expecially the financial and management aspects!

Lessons From A Dead Business

September 28, 2009

Informative and candid analysis of the lessons learnt in setting up and running a startup business. The points below have been edited from the full post which gives additional context.

Comment: the above site seems to have server problems today, presumably this will be rectified shortly.

1. Get advice from others, and listen to it.
It is easy to see those well-meaning comments and opinions on your venture as distractions, and I know I certainly did a lot of the time. The point is not about right or wrong, but about being able to constantly evaluate and analyse the business, the market, the products and the money and people that you need around you to make it happen.

2. Establish a well-functioning board (of advisors)
It took me a while to admit it to myself, but failing to establish a board of people that can provide strong advice from day one was one of my biggest mistakes. As a matter of fact, having an advisory board can be much more useful than a formal board, as it is much easier to recruit competent people to contribute as an advisor rather than as a director.

3. Investors don’t necessarily agree with how much money you need
Another reason for not having a board dominated by investors is that it may well cloud their judgement when it is time to raise more capital. Particularly if things aren’t going exactly to plan in the early stages, and they rarely do, you may find resistance to getting your board to raise sufficient capital for the next stage at a reasonable valuation.

4. Don’t put a value on your business – the market takes care of that
The investors that “buy” your numbers are in all likelihood not the investors that you want. Any savvy venture capitalist or private investor will make their own assessment regardless of what you say, and valuation (surprisingly for many) is relatively low on their list of investment criteria.

5. Numbers mean nothing until delivered
I am not for a moment advocating that you should not budget, but focus on budgeting for what you need to get the business to break-even, then double the expenses and halve the revenue.

6. Pay attention to the details
Richard Branson is a particular hero of mine who seems to be able to create new businesses through the glint in his eyes. But most of us mere mortals cannot do that. We need to focus on the details of the business to make it happen, otherwise it won’t. And truth be told, Branson’s books tell a story of a man that was obsessed with the minutest detail in his early careers, and probably still is.

7. Know what you don’t know
In retrospect, I also know that I was missing some key skills – or, rather, I was relying too much on learning on the job and flying by the seat of my pants. So make sure you know what you need to make it happen, and be absolutely certain to identify your own shortcomings. Nobody is good at everything.

8. Act early and decisively – admit mistakes and move on
No startup can afford to hesitate before rectifying a mistake. If things don’t work, be it related to the product, the market, your sales process or the people you employ, don’t wait. You are much better off risking a new mistake than trying to persevere with the one you already made.

9. Strive for what is possible – leave perfection to those who can afford it
Striving for perfection is a luxury accorded only to companies with deep pockets in mature and regulated industries. One of my early business mentors, a Norwegian entrepreneur with several very successful startups behind him, used to urge me to decide what was “good enough” to do the job – a state typically obtained long before perfection.

10. And finally… be prepared – leave something in the bank

Test Your Internet Speed

September 24, 2009


Handy and well-designed site: Speedtest

Speedtest.net is a broadband speed analysis tool that allows anyone to test their Internet connection. Ookla provides this service for free to anyone curious about the performance of their connection to and from hundreds of locations around the world. Whether you test just for fun or you really need to certify and validate the true speed of your Internet connectivity, Speedtest.net is the place to be. You can view all of your historical results, share them easily, and even compare them to others in your immediate area or around the globe.

Update: there is a simple explanation of the meaning of internet speed here.

Google And Tesla

September 23, 2009


I wrote previously on wireless electricity and mentioned the role Nikola Tesla played in this developing this concept in the early days. Interestingly Google celebrated his birthday with a special logo in July this year! More details here.

Shirky’s Law And Successful Social Software

September 22, 2009

I was playing around with social networking sites for scientists and came across, amongst others, the Nature Network which I found unsatisfying. Thinking about why this was so and why some social sites are amazingly successful, I came across a post on this very topic from Michael Nielsen:

Shirky’s Law states that the social software most likely to succeed has “a brutally simple mental model … that’s shared by all users”.

A few reasons are given on why developers find it hard to obey this ‘law’:

Reason 1: they have a flawed mental model of their own software:

Most developers are not stupid, and intellectually they know the user experience involves both the software and the network of other users. But their own experience, day in and day out, is of being a single user working with the software. At this stage the network of other users is a theoretical abstraction. It’s easy to get sucked into doing things that would make a single user’s experience better, but makes the experience of a network of users worse. This is a large part of why it’s so important to build a base of beta users as quickly as possible, and to release early and often.

Reason 2: the desire to do impressive-seeming things:

I’ve heard hackers brag that they could have built Twitter over a weekend. Underlying this boast is a misunderstanding of what is truly impressive. Coming up with Twitter required only a small amount of technical knowledge. The hard part was the social insight to realize such a tool would be useful. This is a social insight the bragging hackers didn’t have.

It’s no accident that many of the people who’ve been most successful at building social software have strong interests outside computing. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, studied both computer science and psychology at Harvard. Alan Kay, arguably the father of modern computing, has a list of recommended reading. There’s barely a technical book on it. It’s all psychology, anthropology, philosophy, and so on.

A strange consequence of all this is that much of the most successful social software was invented by accident.

Reason 3: it’s difficult to do it:

The most successful social software starts out doing one task supremely well. That task is simple, useful, and original. It’s easy to come up with a task which is useful and original – just combine existing ideas in a new way, perhaps with some minor twists. But finding something that’s also simple is hard. It has to be a single task that can’t be reduced or explained in terms of existing tasks. Inventing or discovering such a task requires either a lot of hard work and social insight, or a great deal of luck. It’s no wonder most social software fails.

It’s a nice well-thought out article and worth reading in full. He also points out in the comments that satisfying Shirky’s law is a necessary but not a sufficient criterion for success!

Corinne West At The American Museum In Britain

September 21, 2009

Corinne West

I visited friends in Somerset a couple of weeks ago and we all ended up going to The American Museum In Britain to see Corinne West, the acclaimed American singer/songwriter.

I’d never been to or even heard of the museum before and was pretty impressed, both by it’s location and also by its general setup. Well-worth a visit if you happen to be near Bath.


For the concert, everyone was in seats on the terrace (see above) or else just lay on the grass – all really laid-back and comfortable and, to top-it-all, mostly blue skies and sun!

Corinne, accompanied by Doug Cox, put in a two-set performance with impressive emotion and commitment.

Overall, a really good afternoon:-) The only mistake I made was not buying a couple of her CD’s that were on sale at the time!

Corinne’s tour in the UK runs until 29 September 2009 and venues are given on her web site.

A few more details here:

Hailing from California’s Sierra Mountains, Corinne West spins tales with a voice part velvet and part grit that is both achingly penetrating and highly addictive.

Her style combines the energy of ripping bluegrass, the nostalgia of American roots, the backbone of hard country, and the smooth silky richness of traditional folk. Her debut record, Bound For The Living, has had international acclaim.

In 2008, she completed her follow-up record, Second Sight, which was produced by Mike Marshall and features Jerry Douglas, Darol Anger and Tony Furtado. Corinne has opened for many amazing artists including Patty Loveless, Rhonda Vincent, The Doobie Brothers, Dwight Yoakam, David Grisman and Asleep At The Wheel.

She is forging her own contribution to Americana music, which fuses her distinct voice with the driving steam of an American roots train. Her latest album sees a smooth change in style, yet retains Corinne’s signature riveting vocals wrapped in powerful lyrics.

The record was recorded in a remote town called Harrison Hot Springs, British Columbia, in a cabin converted into a studio, resting on the quiet shore of a secluded lake. The stunning setting brought the best out of Corinne and the musicians involved in The Promise, resulting in a truly superb new release.

Picture credits: David Pottinger.

Signs For Tipping Points?

September 18, 2009


Ambitious and very interesting piece of research on the possibility of predicting major system changes (here and here for more details):

“We are repeatedly blindsided by disasters that come out of the blue. If we had better tools for anticipating those events, we could avoid some of them,” said Steve Carpenter, a University of Washington ecologist and co-author of a review Wednesday in Nature.

In 1982, physicist Kenneth Wilson won a Nobel Prize for developing equations to describe transitions that don’t happen in a linear, easily predictable way, but are sudden and massive, such as fluids becoming turbulent and metals becoming magnetized.

Since then, scientists have noticed similar shifts elsewhere. The theory provides the only models that make sense of the Sahara’s sudden flip from fertile grassland to sandy wastes some 5,500 years ago. Exploited fish populations fluctuate wildly. Futures prices on the S&P 500 displayed telltale skewing in the year preceding the 1987 stock market crash.

The proposition is by no means certain, but the possibility of being able to predict these sorts of events is tantalizing.

Tantalizing indeed!

Picture credit here.