Category Archives: experiment

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Getting ready for my next experiment!

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It’s been four years of awesomeness at IBM. I’ve:

  • helped companies and communities collaborate
  • facilitated brainstorming workshops with executives from leading companies
  • built web apps in Drupal and Ruby on Rails
  • created popular tools for community newsletters and analyses
  • drawn comics that made people smile across IBM, and
  • learned from and shared with people around the world.

It totally rocked. Thank you!

Mid-February 2012, I’ll be on to my next experiment. I want to help people save time and make better decisions. Let’s see how we can make that a sustainable business!

I’m looking forward to learning more about business, and sharing the adventure with you. =)

Stay in touch!

Stay tuned!

Thinking about how to experiment with business and what I might want to do

“So, what are you going to do?” That’s always what people ask after I tell them that I’m leaving IBM in order to experiment with entrepreneurship.

“I don’t know yet,” I say. I explain that I haven’t yet experimented with anything that could be seen as competing with IBM, following our Business Conduct Guidelines – and that covers so much ground. I’m leaving without a solid business plan or a proven opportunity, just itch and curiosity and the sneaky suspicion that there’s probably at least one business that I can build considering how others have succeeded.

The first thing I’m going to do after I leave is to create a structure for experimenting. Despite the associated costs and paperwork, incorporation makes sense to me. Limiting the downside – building that part of the safety net – makes it easier to experiment.

How can I go about testing possible business ideas? There are some conventional things I’d like to try.

Writing: I love reading and writing. If I can combine that with drawing and design, maybe I can create engaging e-books that will help people save time and be inspired. People have earned money from information products, so this has worked for other people before. Some have even succeeded without sleazy marketing tactics and without preying on people’s greed, which is encouraging! =)

I can test this by researching topics I’m interested in, writing blog posts and chapters, and eventually building up to e-books for things that people might buy. I’ll be writing notes anyway, so I may as well invest time into making them more usable for others.

Coaching: I’ve gotten so much value from writing, presenting, and experimenting with life. People find these things intimidating. Maybe I can help build scaffolds so that people can gradually try things out, succeed, and then gain enough confidence to do things on their own. (And I can write about what we learn along the way!)

Self-tracking: I like the results I’ve been getting from tracking my life, and I’m curious about building and tailoring tools for other people’s lives. Can I turn that into a recurring source of income? We’ll see.

Sales and customer relationship management for development: Quite a few developers have told me that they don’t particularly enjoy this part of freelancing, and it’s one of the parts I’m actually the most curious about. Maybe I can get started by helping my friends take better care of their clients and leads, and then see if the arrangement works out well.

Community analysis tools: Considering the success of the Lotus Connections toolkit within IBM, it might be interesting to make it more available to other companies. Right now, some of the functionality is available externally in a plugin for Lotus Notes, but things are still difficult to adopt. If I write a new implementation from scratch and I build the tool based only on externally-accessible information, that might be okay. It’s been quite a useful service within IBM, and it would be great to share it with more companies.

Testing ideas: How meta is that? If I’m going to be testing lots of business ideas and possibly working with other people to help them test their business ideas, then it would be great to gradually build processes and infrastructure for doing so.

Freelance consulting and development: I want to focus on the other initiatives first before I get into freelancing. I’m reasonably confident that I can figure out freelancing (especially with a little help from my friends). The kinds of work I’m considering (consulting, web development, technical writing, data migration) are similar to my work at IBM, so there’s less uncertainty to resolve. Custom work often means fewer opportunities to build compounding value, and I’d like to see if I can build a business that can scale up beyond my time.

I’m looking for things in the sweet spot: the intersection between what people need, what I’m good at, and what I love to do. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ve probably picked up a good sense of what I’m interested in and how I might help you (and lots of people like you!). Is this list missing something that would help you even rock more?

Experience report: Incorporating a federal numbered corporation in Canada

This was not at all as complicated as I thought it would be. After twenty minutes, several multiple-choice and fill-in questions, and one credit card transaction, I had my very own company: a federal numbered corporation ($200) with extra-provincial registration in Ontario (free, yay). On a Sunday, no less.

The government publishes a guide to federal incorporation that explains the different option. The online incorporation form is easy to use, guiding you through the steps with an almost wizard-like interface. Common cluases are available as multiple-choice options, and you have the ability to fill in your own text as needed. The form will tell you what to print, sign, and keep with your records.

If you create a numbered corporation, then you don’t need to wait for name approval. I got my confirmation e-mail with the automatically-assigned corporation name a few minutes after I submitted the form.

In the process, the only thing that gave me pause was the requirement that 25% of the directors be resident Canadians, with “resident Canadian” defined as:

(a) a Canadian citizen ordinarily resident in Canada,

(b) a Canadian citizen not ordinarily resident in Canada who is a
member of a prescribed class of persons, or

(c) a permanent resident within the meaning of subsection 2(1) of the
Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and ordinarily resident in
Canada, except a permanent resident who has been ordinarily resident
in Canada for more than one year after the time at which he or she
first became eligible to apply for Canadian citizenship;

I have permanent residency in Canada, but I can’t apply for Canadian citizenship yet (all those trips cut into the physical presence requirement). I should be in the clear, especially as I plan to apply for Canadian citizenship a few months after I become eligible. (That should take care of any other trips I’ve forgotten to include in my history…)

Still, surprisingly not scary. My next steps would be to:

  • Put together the bylaws and other parts of the minute book: Many of the people I talked to bought a kit from their local office supply store and worked with it. Corporations Canada also has a good set of instructions, complete with examples of by-laws and resolutions. I’ll start with that, and then go for a kit
  • Check the zoning bylaws for my neighbourhood: Toronto City Hall 416-392-7539
  • Set up a business bank account: I’m thinking about either the BMO Business Current Account or the RBC Small Business eAccount. One of my Twitter contacts recommended BMO and there are quite a few blogs praising their business account, so I might go with that.
  • Interview accountants

… and work on sales and operations, of course, not just admin! =) (I figure I should eat the frog first and get the paperwork properly set up…)

Experience report: Renting a business mailbox

If you don’t want to give your home address out to everyone, a private mailbox (say, one from UPS, not a PO Box) seems to be acceptable for business. To reduce the risk of unwanted visitors, you can incorporate with that mailbox, receive business mail at it, and list it as your contact address. I didn’t know about that when I set my company up, but I’ve now changed my address over to the mailbox I just rented.

It took me about fifteen minutes to set up a mailbox. The shopkeeper explained the different options. I chose the Personal + box, which gives me a small mailbox that can receive mail for one business and two people. I filled in a form, specified my company name and other names that would receive mail, chose an available box (somewhere I could reach!), showed two pieces of photo ID, signed the paperwork, and paid the fees.

The 12-month price for this at my local UPS store was $245.50 + tax, including the $10 key deposit and the $15 setup fee. For that price, I get a street address that I can use for my business, 24-hour access to the mailbox, and the ability to check the mail status by phone. (“Not every day,” the shopkeeper said, laughing.) They’ll also accept and sign for packages, which could be handy if I can convince publishers to send me books for illustrated reviews. =)

Changing my corporation’s address to this mailbox was easy and free, using Corporations Canada’s web-based system. I filled in the corporation name and key that I received through e-mail, put in the new address, and completed the form. Now it’s listed as the public contact for the corporation.

See also:

People-centered entrepreneurship

Practically all Many of the books I’m reading about entrepreneurship assume that you start with a big idea for a product or service, and then you find and validate the market for it.

Many of the people I talk to start with the same assumptions, too. “Oh, I’ve always wanted to start my own business, but I’m waiting for the idea to hit me.”

Starting with the idea seems like putting the cart before the horse, and the cart is full of things you want instead of things other people want.

I was mindmapping where I’d like to start with this business experiment. Consulting is handy, but hourly billing’s not going to get me to where I want to go: a family-friendly business where value isn’t directly tied to time.

Every time I tried to come up with a snazzy business idea, though, I hit a brick wall. It didn’t feel right. It felt like I was approaching the challenge in the wrong way.

I thought: Well, if entrepreneurship is about going from having one boss to having a hundred bosses, maybe I can pick the kinds of bosses I’d like to work with. Maybe I should start by picking the kinds of people I’d like to have as clients, then looking for ways I can delight them, then looking for ways I can take advantage of my talents or skills to deliver more value than it costs me.

I figure that if I pick a segment of people who have demonstrated the willingness and ability to pay for products or services, and who have some idea of what they want, then that’s as good a place as any to start experimenting.

The wild “You don’t know what you want yet, but I’m creating it for you anyway” innovation can wait for when I have more business experience. In the beginning, it’s okay to take a well-known model and a well-known product, and look for ways I can put my own spin on it.

So I brainstormed personas representing some of the kinds of people I would love to learn more about and help out. Maybe I can make their lives better. Maybe I can help interesting people do interesting things. Here are some ideas:

  • Ive, the introverted independent
  • Ell, the Emacs enthusiast
  • Val, the visual thinker
  • Em, the excited entrepreneur
  • Quinn, the Quantified Self tracker
  • Pat, the practical parent
  • Bobby, the bashful blogger
  • Chris, the conference commando
  • Cathy, the cat cuddler

More details in this outline view of my mindmap

I “bump” into people like them often. Who knows, you might even identify with one of them. (Who? Tell me in the comments, or e-mail at [email protected] – I’d love to pick your brain!) Don’t see yourself there? Tell me what kind of person you are. =)

I think it would be great to look for small, cost-effective ways to make their (your!) life more awesome. I’m good at building systems, automating, sorting things out, and setting life up for constant improvement. There might be ways to scale across time or across more people. Hmm…

I described what I was thinking about to Mel Chua. She laughed and said it was like user-centered design. That made me think of Karen Quinn Fung, another friend of mine, whom I had met when she was working at the IBM User-Centered Design lab under Karel Vredenburg.

Where can I find more business/entrepreneurship books that start with people first instead of assuming you’ve got some genius idea? =) (Lean Startup is somewhat related to this because of pivots and watching how people actually work…)

Experience report: Opening the RBC Small Business eAccount

Having a business bank account is good for separating business and personal expenses. Reconciling your books is easier when you don’t have commingled expenses, and clean separation is important for minimizing legal liability.

After considering several options for business bank accounts, I narrowed it down to a choice between Royal Bank of Canada’s Small Business eAccount and Bank of Montreal’s Small Business Banking Plan. RBC’s Small Business eAccount was launched mid-January 2012, I heard, which could explain the lack of reviews on the Internet.

Here’s the side-by-side comparison as I understand it:

 
RBC Small Business eAccount BMO Small Business Banking Plan
Monthly fee $0 $9.50, free with a minimum balance of $4,000; new businesses (< 9 months of operation) pay no plan fee for the first three months
Included transactions Unlimited electronic transactions 15 monthly transactions, unlimited transfers
Cheque deposits $3.50 + $0.20/item $1/transaction over limit; Cheque plan: 20 items included, Cash plan: 10 items included; $0.20 per additional item;
Cash deposits $3.50 + $2-5 per $1,000 if cash $1/transaction over limit; Cheque plan: $1,000 notes deposit included, cash plan: $4,000 notes deposit included; $2.25/$1000 for notes deposited over plan limits, $2.25/$100 for coins deposited over plan limit
Withdrawals $1.50 + cost of cheque if needed $1/transaction over limit + cost of cheque

I do practically of my banking online, and I expect the business will be similar. Because RBC had no monthly fees to start with, free electronic transactions, and another person I know recommended RBC’s online interface, I decided to open an account and see what it was like.

I called the bank and set up an appointment on the same day. It took us one hour to set up profiles and bank accounts because I had never banked at RBC before. I brought my Articles of Incorporation and two pieces of government identification. A senior account manager asked me questions about what I planned to do in business, photocopied my documentation, and walked me through the forms. We set up a chequing account and a savings account (no monthly fee, two debits, free transfers in, $0-$9,999 0.100% interest). He advised me to ask an accountant about the best way to move money into the business: whether it should be structured as a loan, and so on.

When we reviewed the paperwork, I noticed that one of the forms mentioned the banking resolution in Form A. We flipped through the client agreement that the account manager had given me, and we realized he’d given me the consumer banking agreement instead of the business one. Score one for reading closely! Unfortunately, he didn’t know of an electronic copy of the form, so I may have to retype the banking resolution.

The account manager was filling in for the person who normally does business accounts, so he apologized for not being able to set up a credit card for the business as well. I’ll need to follow up on the phone or in person some other time.

I’ll see how I end up using the account. I may open up a BMO account to give that a try, too.

Apparently, banks charge for deposit slips, but other people have used accounting software or printed out their own templates. Your mileage may vary. You can order cheques from places aside from your bank, which can help keep costs down. If I ever find myself using either, I’ll share my experiences!