Category Archives: entrepreneurship

On why I don’t want to work on a tech startup (yet)

A friend of mine asked me if I’d considered creating a tech startup or advising one. The subject came up again when I was talking to another entrepreneur. With more and more tech startups hitting the news, it seems like the idea’s on everyone’s minds.

After reflecting on it during a few bike rides to and from work, I have a clearer understanding of what I want from these business experiments. A tech startup isn’t for me, at least not for the next few years.

image

I think of it as minimizing risk by learning only small chunks at the time. Working as an employee was like learning how to ride a tricycle. The company gave me a stable platform so that I could build skills, confidence, experience, and capital. I experimented with intrapreneurship and found that it worked well for me.

When I had reached my savings goals and picked a good time to leave, I started my own business. Two months in, I’m discovering that the path I took is just like graduating from a tricycle to a bicycle with training wheels. By taking advantage of well-established business models, markets, and concepts, I can focus on learning how to run my own business without simultaneously trying to create something new and tremendously risky.

Going from the employee world to the startup world would have been much more of a stretch. I think of startups like riding on a mountain bike down a rocky hill where you’re not quite certain the trail will get you all the way down or whether that promising fork up ahead actually ends up going over a cliff. Actually, it’s like riding a in a pack of mountain bikes where other people might make it easier to spot cool opportunities (ooh! look! waterfall over there!) but they could also crash into you and send you all tumbling down the hill. Too many things to learn at the same time, I think.

Startups might be something I eventually grow into. I want to be more confident in my ability to handle paperwork, manage cashflow, hire and manage other people (or coordinate with contractors, or delegate in some other way), and negotiate with clients and suppliers before I take on trickier challenges. For example, it’s easier to practise negotiating with clients than with partners. You can fire a client, but there are much bigger consequences if you have problems with your business partners. By learning all these business skills with the training wheels of well-tested business, I can get ready for riskier projects and ventures.

Sure, it would’ve been pretty cool to hang out at all these meetups and tell people about my new venture (making sure to use phrases like “minimum viable product” and “pivot”), but it’s okay to learn about business in this somewhat less glamorous but more step-by-step way.

Besides, most tech startups brag about their horrible work-life balance lifestyles. I think that’s partly the self-fulfilling image we have of what it’s like to be in a startup, and partly because people have to scramble so much to learn all these different things at the same time. I don’t mind growing a little more slowly if it means still being happily married. =)

So that’s why even if I’ve got web development skills, contacts, and business/design interests, I’m not working on a tech startup. Small steps first, and that’s all right.

Getting ready for my “The Shy Entrepreneur” talk at the Toronto Reference Library tomorrow (Apr 10 Tue, 6 PM)

Here are my notes (click on the image for a larger version):

shy entrepreneur

I’ll tell stories along the way. =) Looking forward to it! (I may even remember to record it if I don’t get too flustered…)

Sketchnotes: William Mougayar (engagio) at Third Tuesday Toronto

20120327-william-mougayar-third-tuesday

(Click on the image for a larger version)

William Mougayar shared lessons learned from serial entrepreneurship at the Third Tuesday Toronto meetup. He also demoed his recently funded startup, engag.io, which promises to be a social inbox for comments and conversations across different websites.

My thoughts after the talk:

  • Blog comments and online interactions are great ways to build trust relationships. (Hear that? Comment more! Winking smile )
  • It would be nifty to have a social inbox, particularly one that’s also a relationship management tool
  • $500k seed funding can get people pretty darn far
  • It’s fun getting speakers to autograph the sketchnotes =)

Were you there or have you attended other talks by William Mougayar? Have you used Engagio? (Seems to be down at the moment, pity.)

One nifty thing about Third Tuesday Toronto is that they fly speakers in and they coordinate with meetups in other cities to get the maximum coverage. Join the meetup to find out about upcoming events.

Related links:

If you like this, you might also like my other sketches. I like turning presentations and books into quick, easy-to-review images. Enjoy!

Here’s the text from the image to improve people’s ability to search for it:

William Mougayar @ Third Tuesday Toronto
@wmougayar @engagio
See also Paul Graham’s chart

Stages of a startup
Clear vision or Blurry vision (more realistic)

When Christopher Columbus set sail, he didn’t Google America.

Social Capital
Got to know people through blogs
I’ve made 3,000 comments on Fred Wilson’s blog
Got asked to moderate Fred Wilson’s blog
8 weeks to a minimum viable product
Demo of engagio
-inbox
-My contacts
-Person’s profile (one place to follow)
-Sites
Neat, would like to try this out
5 Lessons
1. Be wary of selling enterprise software
Very difficult to sell to a large company when you’re a startup
2. Have an original (but simple) idea
3. Don’t believe your own
4. Relationships don’t matter. Trusted relationships matter
5. Don’t quit trying

Fragmentation of the social web
Commenting is important = Potential relationships
Value in the conversations
Bet a beat story about startups & alcohol from blog conversation

Replying
Sharing/Linking/Liking
Monitoring/Listening
Signal
Noise
Online advocacy is on the rise

Q&A
Platform? Rails, MySQL, Solr, Twitter Bootstrap
Multiple users? Next week
Yelp? Maybe if API
Equentia? Some ideas for discovery. Get to 100K users first.
How did you get away with looking like Gmail? Haven’t gotten a call from Google yet.
Business? Focusing on end-users.
Funding priorities for spending?
Engineering & marketing
product development users
Building more social features into the product
Summarizing comments?
Maybe talk offline after.
Pivot reactions?
Excited. Still had other clients, but could move on.
Personal profile?
Automatically populated, can be edited.
Profile resolution?
Merging profiles with authentication
Mobile app? HTML5
Track other sites? In road map, may have to create plugin.
Business model? Get to look users first also, business intelligence/analytics.

Notes: SachaChua.com
Twitter: @sachac
March 27, 2012

Making space to plan for visual summaries

Consulting is going well – so well, in fact, that I’m going to make myself take a three-day break, Monday to Wednesday, so that I can focus on building a business that is different. I want something that doesn’t focus on the time = money equation. Besides, there’s so much to learn.

I keep coming back to this idea of visual summaries. People respond to them. I want visual summaries even for myself, so that I can quickly flip through visual triggers for the books I’ve read. (We’re talking maybe hundreds of summaries, even if I’m just focusing on books worth keeping instead of the thousands of books I’ve probably read by now – and even more over my lifetime!)

In terms of copyright, I’ll probably have to arrange for permission from authors before I can publish a book of graphic summaries. In the meantime, I can test the idea as book reviews, which should fall under fair use. When I put together a book, I think the paperwork will be a good excuse to reach out to my favourite authors. =)

I thought about whether I should hire an illustrator so that I can focus on the key business questions: Would people be interested in this? Can I make money at this? How can I scale? There are talented artists who do graphic recording and illustration for a living, and I regularly flip through their work to inspire myself. (I’m getting better at not being intimidated by the gap between our skills!) If I outsource parts of this work, I might get to answer those questions faster, iterate faster, punch above my weight class with beautiful illustrations and more content.

I’m holding off, though. I can learn slowly, immersing myself in this, understanding it, imagining new things because of it. And besides, maybe this fabled minimum viable product doesn’t require a totally awesome illustrator. Maybe it’s fine with an authentic voice.

Sure, a big outfit like Soundview could easily swoop in and do this while I learn. All the better, because they already have a lot of the summaries and rights agreements. If a startup is an experiment in validating an idea, then having someone else take over that idea frees me up to create the next one. It’ll all work out.

I’m thinking about other possibilities, too. People who give webinars or write e-books might also be interested in visual summaries, and I’m better set-up for those than I am for the large form-factor needs of graphically recording in-person events. I can also offer transcription, or connect with other people to get transcription covered. Established executive summary companies probably won’t cover webinars or e-books anyway. We’ll see!

Here are a few things I can work on next week to move this forward:

  • Highlight visual summaries on my blog
  • Create a landing page
  • Plan a site redesign
  • Get inspired to draw more colourful sketchnotes by looking at examples and trying out techniques
  • Draw more books! This is fun
  • Start building a graphic vocabulary and a lettering vocabulary
  • Look for people who give good webinars or write decent books on topics I like, and see if they would be interested

It feels good learning about these things. =) Looking forward to drawing better and making stuff happen!

Sketchnotes: Sal Sloan of Fetching! at the Toronto Public Library: Small Business Networking Event

fetching-small

(Click on the image to see the larger version)

The Toronto Public Library hosts monthly networking events for people who are interested in starting a small business. Most people have not yet started a business. It’s a good opportunity to ask questions and learn from someone who has figured some things out.

Sal Sloan came up with the business idea for Fetching! when she got a dog. She had signed up for a fitness bootcamp, and the combination of exercising herself and walking her dog wore her out. Why not combine the two activities – help people exercise with their dogs? With a $10,000 loan from her parents, Sal started Fetching! by focusing on exercise for people and obedience training for dogs. With early success, Sal broadened her scope to focusing on helping people have active fun with their pets. She has been doing the business for two and a half years, and continues to work part-time on another job. This helps her grow the business organically by avoiding financial pressures.

One of the lessons I took away from the conversation was the power of delegating work to other people. Sal knew that other personal trainers could run sessions much better than she could, so she hired good people whom she could trust to represent her company. She’s looking for someone who can help her with the business side so that she can grow more, too. After I bank some money from this consulting engagement, I might start my delegation experiments again.

The session was an interesting contrast to last month’s meetup with Kristina Chau of notyouraverageparty, who had been in business for three years and who was struggling to scale up beyond herself. Sal has clearly put work into figuring out how to scale up, and it’s great to see how it paid off.

Visual book notes: 6 Secrets to Startup Success

20120229-book-notes-6-secrets-to-startup-success

(Click on the image to see a larger version, which could be good for reading my teeny-tiny handwriting. If you need a text version instead of an image, leave a comment or e-mail me at [email protected].)

You know how I was looking for books about people-centered entrepreneurship? Checking the Amazon list of books on new enterprises led me to 6 Secrets for Startup Success by John Bradberry. Its main point is that entrepreneurs tend to fall in love with their ideas and end up ignoring reality. Bradberry points out six common failures associated with being too attached to your idea, and suggests ways to avoid those pitfalls. One of those ways is to focus on people instead of on your product or service idea. This is more of an overview book than a step-by-step guide with concrete tactics, but it’s a good wake-up call if you’re starting to get lost in your own dreams.

In addition to the chapter about focusing on people, I particularly liked the chapter on figuring out your math story. Bradberry points out that companies go through different stages and that your core question is different in each stage. In the first stage, the question is: “Do we have a concept that anyone (other than us) cares about?” After you successfully answer that question through prototypes and experiments, you can move on to the question, “Can we actually make money at this? How?” Validating your business model lets you move on to the next question, “Is this business scalable? How can we create significant value over time?” Many businesses struggle because they get all wrapped up in the third question before they’ve answered the first. It’s a good idea to keep those considerations in mind, of course, but it’s important to pay attention to the steps that will get you to that point instead of jumping ahead and pretending you’re a huge company.

What I’m learning from this book: Yes, it seems to make sense to focus on people and let them teach you what they want. (The Lean Startup makes this point as well.) There’s room in the world for wildly visionary companies, but it’s perfectly okay (and much less risky) to start by creating something people already want.

Whom this book is great for: Worried that you’re getting too wrapped up in your entrepreneurial vision? This book might help as a reality check. If you like answering questionnaires as a way of learning more about yourself, you’ll also want to check out the appendix, which has a long self-assessment for founder readiness.

You may also be interested in The Lean Startup (Eric Ries, 2011; see my visual book notes), which has lots of good ideas for testing your business and iterating your way towards success. The Lean Startup book will help translate the chapters on the pull of the market and startup agility into concrete terms.

6 Secrets to Startup Success: How to Turn Your Entrepreneurial Passion into a Thriving Business
John Bradberry
2011, AMACOM
ISBN: 978-0814416068

Buy this book: Amazon.com (Hardcover, Kindle), Amazon.ca
If you buy stuff through the links above, I get a small commission, yay! Commission-free links: Google Books, Toronto Public Library