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Posts from the ‘Technology’ Category

Get More Customers by Design

(image credit:  anysizefitness.com)

Everyone wants more customers.  Paying customers preferably.  A lot is written about SEO (search engine optimization) and advertising strategies to drive more traffic to your website, but how can you simply improve your website layout to get more customers.  Traffic is good, but a customer is twice as nice.  Keep these 5 things in mind while you are designing your website – they have all been shown to increase customer yields by >100%.

#1  Make the “Sign Up” Button Really Big

Seriously.  I mean it.  From looking at a lot of test results, making the Sign Up button big, front and center, in your face, is the #1 thing you can do in your web design to help your business.  Dropbox.com is a great example of this.  Dropbox is a really complicated, feature rich service.  Let’s be honest.  Dropbox is way more sophisticated technically and visually than whatever you are working on. They are able to keep it simple; you can too.

#2  Use A/B Testing

I just mentioned “testing”.  That means A/B testing – where you present your customers with different versions of the same website and see which ones get better results.  This is critical for tweaking the site’s design in your favor…as opposed to guessing what your customer might want.  A great service for this is Google Website Optimizer

#3  Add Testimonials

Testimonials often boost sign ups by at least 50%.  I don’t know why; they are kind of cheesy in my opinion.  But they work, so don’t fight it.  Try it.  But what’s better than a testimonial from a random person?  A testimonial from a friend.  So don’t forget to push your customers to invite their friends during the sign up process.

#4  Focus Text and Graphics on Customer Action

Use the text and graphics to tell the customer about what they are supposed to do.  The customer should “Go…”, “Get…”, “Create…”, “Discover…” whatever benefit your website is offering.  Engage the customer on the benefits of the product and the wonderful things it will allow the customer to do.  That is just good marketing.  What would you do instead?  What everyone does – tell the customer about how great the product is, the specifications, the functionalities and everything else that has no direct benefit to the customer.

#5 Include Faces When Appropriate

Studies show that the way people use the internet is that they scan their eyes to see the pictures on the screen.  That is where they focus.  Pictures of people and of people’s faces catch our attention in particular.  Seeing faces on a screen release powerful neurotransmitters that make customers suggestible.  So use pictures of people’s face, whenever you can.  The A/B test show it is that easy.  And if that isn’t convincing, well, it worked for Facebook.

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The Design of Everyday Things: Action Summary and Outline

I recently finished “The Design of Everyday Things”.  I found Norman’s perspective on inanimate objects eye-opening.  But, I did find the book dense and if I have one criticism- it’s that the book isn’t designed to guide you towards becoming a better designer.  “The Design of Everyday Things” is a psychological treatise that is loosely organized with lots of examples.  So what I have tried to do in this post is breakdown the key points and rearrange them a bit, so that it reads more like a manual for better design.  If you haven’t read the book, you can buy it here.

Design Basics

“Design must convey the essence of a device’s operation; the way it works; the possible actions that can be taken; and, through feedback, just what it is doing at any particular moment. Design is really an act of communication, which means having a deep understanding of the person with whom the designer is communicating.”

“Each time a new technology comes along, new designers make the same horrible mistakes as their predecessors. Technologists are not noted for learning from the errors of the past. They look forward, not behind, so they repeat the same problems over and over again. Today’s wireless devices are appalling.”

“Whenever the number of possible actions exceeds the number of controls, there is apt to be difficulty.”

How People Do Things – The 7 Steps

1)       Forming the goal

2)      Forming the intention

3)      Specifying an action

4)      Executing the action

5)      Perceiving the state of the world

6)      Interpreting the state of the world

7)      Evaluating the outcome

Repeat back to #1 based on what has happened as a result of actions

The point of understanding How People Do Things is to avoid the Gulfs of Execution and Evaluation when designing products.

A Gulf of Execution arises when there is a difference between the intentions and the allowable actions provided by a system.  For example, if you want to open the sunroof, but there are no buttons to be found that might allow you to open the sunroof.  Alternatively, a long sequence of actions may be required that are unintelligible to you, so you just don’t open the sunroof.

A Gulf of Evaluation arises when a great amount of effort is required to interpret the physical state of a system and/or determine how well expectations and intentions have been met.  A good example of this is a CD player where it is impossible to tell whether there is a CD in the player or not.  In addition, a system that provides no feedback – i.e. you click a button and nothing happens affirmative or negative – resulting in a Gulf of Evaluation.

Building on these concepts, you can ask yourself 7 questions to make sure your design is inline with How People Do Things:

1)  How easily can one determine the function of the device?

2)  How easily can one tell what actions are possible?

3)  How easily can one tell if the system is in the desired state?

4) How easily can one determine mapping from intention to physical movement?

5)  How easily can one determine mapping from system state to interpretation?

6)  How easily can one perform an action?

7)  How easily can one tell what state the system is in?

The 3 foundations to good design serve to answer these seven questions:

A good conceptual model. The designer provides a good conceptual model for the user, with consistency in the presentation of operations and results and a coherent, consistent system image.

Good mappings. It is possible to determine the relationships between actions and results, between the controls and their effects, and between the system state and what is visible.

Feedback. The user receives full and continuous feedback about the results of actions.

What Knowledge Does Your User Have?

Common and instinctive visual knowledge is easily retrievable and visible/audible.  There is no learning required and ease of use at first encounter is high.  Challenges are that the user may need to try to interpret the design since information is not communicated explicitly.  In addition, the design may not be aesthetically pleasing given a common need to maintain a lot of information.

Remembered or learned knowledge makes for efficient use and minimalist design.  However, it requires learning to use, particularly before initial use.

How Does the User Know What to Do?

Placing constraints makes it easier for the user to know what to do

Physical constraints

Semantic constraints

Cultural constraints

Logical constrains

Allowing the user too many different ways to use a device by not constraining the controls/functionality is a common cause of poor design.

Make the invisible, visible

                Have a good display

                Use sound to enhance visibility

How Do You Keep the User From Making Errors?

Errors come in two different flavors- 1) slips result from automatic behavior and 2) mistakes result from conscious deliberations

Common slip errors

  • Capture error – a frequently done activity is swapped with another frequently done activity
  • Description error – the intended action has much in common with others that are possible
  • Data-Driven error – data-driven activities can intrude into an ongoing action sequence causing unintended behavior
  • Associate Activation error – internal thought triggers incorrect action – Freudian slip
  • Loss-of-activation error – forgetting to do something
  • Mode error – when a device has different modes of operation, and the action appropriate for one mode has different meanings in other modes

You need feedback loops in place for the user to detect that there has been a slip!

Happy Holidays: Craigslist is Giving Away $100MM Startups

(image credit:  craigslist.org)

I realized last night that Craigslist is the most powerful startup business generator that I’ve seen to date.  Please comment below if you’ve seen better (I am curious).  Here’s why:

#1 People tell you what they need on Craigslist.

Before building a product, that is what you need to know – what is it that my customer needs/is willing to pay me for?  If you are looking for a customer need to satisfy, you can see the frequency and magnitude of the need as well as the geographic distribution on Craigslist.  If you are worried about sampling error, don’t, it’s the 11th most visited website in the US.  Run with that.

#2 Craigslist is a list of services that are in demand that you can do better.

If it is a category on Craigslist or topic on Craigslist, that means there is demand for the service.  One of the key functions of the internet is to allocate excess inventory.  If that is too much jargon for you, think about that Google allocates advertisements better, Kayak allocates airline seats better, Daily Deal sites allocate excess retail inventory better, etc…Craigslist does this too.  It brokers exchanges between people who have too much of something and people who need that something.

Conveniently for the startup community, Craigslist does it kind of poorly and is content not improving and competing with you.  Just add better design, marketing and customer service and you can beat Craigslist at its own game once it has discovered a customer need for you.  This reinforces the idea that your startup isn’t about coming up with the next thing to solve the world’s problems that no one has ever thought of before – it is about doing it better.  Because honestly, whatever you are working on, Craigslist has probably been doing it for the last 10 years.  A few examples for your consideration:

Housing:  Doing airbnb.com before it was hot and probably before those guys were even born.

Community Section:  Doing meetup.com, relayrides.com, tutorspree.com for years.

Discussion Forums:  Doing twitter.com et al…for years.

For sale:  OK, eBay.com has been there for a while.  I’ll give you that one.

Jobs:  Careerbuilder.com, monster.com, indeed.com are all old hat.

Personals Section:  Doing facebook.commatch.comeharmony.comOKcupid.com, etc…for years.

…so what matters is how you do it!  Fortunately, Craigslist is willing to do it kind of mediocrely for you first.  Just remember to say thank you.

Lean Startup Action Summary and Outline

If you are like me and just read The Lean Startup, you are probably thinking – wow, I learned a lot, what do I do now?  What was the beginning of the book about again?  This action summary is designed to highlight the key points and action items from the book, so that you can go out and conquer.  If you haven’t read the book, you can buy it here.

What is the point of The Lean Startup?

“The goal of a startup is to figure out the right thing to build- the thing customers want and will pay for- as quickly as possible.  In other words, the Lean Startup is a new way of looking at the development of innovative new products that emphasizes fast iteration and customer insight, a huge vision, and great ambition, all at the same time.

A startup is a human institution designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.”

The key to successfully operating under these conditions is to gather a group of people and investors that can make the Build-Measure-Learn cycle as fast and as effective as possible.

Learn

You can only learn if you can validate your learning with data or experience.  So product development is not a department within a company, but a series of hypotheses that you need to test.  The Minimum Viable Product is the basic learning tool that you test hypotheses on.  It is the most stripped down version of the product that will help you learn what you need to know.  Once you have your idea, the MVP is what you use to measure, learn and adjust.

So you think people want to buy hot dogs online?  In order to learn, break that statement into its constituent assumptions – people are comfortable buying food online, people want hot dogs delivered to them, people look online for hotdogs, etc…Now go build a product as cheaply and fast as possible to show to initial customers.  It can’t be a static webpage, a sketch on a piece of paper, whatever.  But whatever you do, don’t just throw up a website.  Go sit down with your customers and watch them use it.  Your success will depend on your ability to design as many insightful experiments such as these as fast as possible as cheaply as possible.

No matter what hypotheses you test, don’t forget to test two hypotheses:  the value hypothesis and the growth hypothesis.  The value hypothesis tests whether a product or service really delivers value to customers once they are using it.  The growth hypothesis tests how new customers will discover the product.  These hypotheses are best tested on early adopters – customers who feel the need for the product the most.

When your hypotheses are being tested and generating positive results, it’s easy keep adding features.  So don’t forget to ask yourself the following questions before adding more features or developing the product further:

1)      Do customers recognize that they have the problem you are trying to solve?

2)      If there was a solution, would they buy it?

3)      Would they buy it from us?

4)      Can we build a solution to the problem?

Success is not delivering a feature.  Success is learning how to solve the customer’s problem.  You really can’t do this without A LOT of customer interaction.

Before we move on from “Learning”, a note on Minimum Viable Products.  They probably feel like they are inadequate to show to the world, but they are less inadequate than wasting money on something that no one wants.  Plus should users prefer the Minimum Viable Product to the full-featured one, then you will save yourself a lot of time and money.

“As you consider your own minimum viable product, let this simple rule suffice:  remove any feature, process or effort that does not contribute directly to the learning you seek.”

Measure

Don’t measure what your investors want to see.  Measure the component parts of what will make you successful.

So, what to measure?  First establish a baseline of relevant metrics with an MVP – conversion rates, sign-up rates, trial rates, payment rates, etc…Second, adjust the product to improve these rates.  Third, if the product features/marketing can’t be adjusted to make these rates into a business, pivot.  The hardest part about this is figuring out what metrics to focus on and then gathering data on those metrics.

Tools for helping you measure.  Cohorts help you figure out what customers are doing what on your site.  The more granular the data, the more actionable it can be to figuring out what features you should add and whether you should pivot.  Split testing means putting different versions of a product to different sets of customers to test whether different features are having the desired effect.  For organizational purposes, make sure the measurements are actionable, accessible and auditable.  If not there will be gridlock, indifference or disputes.

Pivots.  You built.  You measured.  You learned.  And the relevant metrics aren’t getting better.  It’s probably time to consider a pivot.  Here are your options:

Zoom-in:  A single feature of the product becomes the product.

Zoom-out:  The whole product becomes the feature of a larger product.

Customer Segment:  Change the type of customer you serve (i.e. corporate vs. consumer, for-profit vs. non-profit, etc…)

Customer Need:  The initial problem you were solving was not very important.  But because of your research a new problem becomes more pressing and you solve it instead.

Platform:  Moving from selling a killer app to building a platform.  Or vice-versa.

Business Architecture:  high margin/low volume to low margin/high volume.  Or vice-versa.

Value Capture:  How a product is monetized (usually an integral part of the product)

Engine of Growth:  Viral, sticky or paid.  Typically the engine of growth pivot corresponds with a value capture pivot.

Channel:  Mechanism by which the product is sold to customers.

Technology:  Same solution, different technology to address it.

Grow

Where does growth come from?  1) Word of mouth  2) As a side effect of product usage  3) Through funded advertising  4) Through repeat purchase or use

The 3 Growth Engines

Sticky Engine – You add existing customers at a rate and they stick around longer at a rate that exceeds the rate at which they leave

Key Metrics:  Customer adds.  Customer churn.

Viral Engine – New customers bring more than one new customer to the service.

Key Metric:  The viral coefficient.  The number of new customers each new customer brings with them.  You need this number to be greater than 1.  If not, your viral business model won’t work.

Paid Engine – The cost of acquiring customers is less than each customer’s value to you.  So you spend money on services like advertising to drive growth.

Key Metric:  Cost of acquiring customers/customer value.  The lower the number, the faster you will grow

A final word on growth.  Small batches actually lend themselves to faster work than large single batches with specialized functions.  This means functional areas of teams need to work together.

(image credit: cornerstonetechnology.com)

Best Quotes From The Steve Jobs Biography

The people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones who do.  -Apple’s “Think Different” Commercial, 1997

I always thought of myself as a humanities person as a kid, but I like electronics.  Then I read something that one of my heroes, Edwin Land of Polaroid, said about the importance of people who can stand at the intersection of humanities and sciences, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.  -Steve Jobs

The juice goes out of Christianity when it becomes too based on faith rather than on living like Jesus or seeing the world as Jesus saw it.  I think different religions are different doors to the same house.  Sometimes I think the house exists, and sometimes I don’t.  It’s the great mystery.  -Steve Jobs

If it hadn’t been for the Blue Boxes, there wouldn’t have been an Apple.  I’m 100% sure of that.  Woz and I learned how to work together, and we gained the confidence that we could solve technical problems and actually put something into production.  You cannot believe how much confidence that gave us.  -Steve Jobs

I came of age at a magical time.  Our consciousness was raised by Zen, and also by LSD.  Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life.  LSD shows you that there’s another side to the coin, and you can’t remember it when it wears off, buy you know it.  It reinforced my sense of what was important- creating great things instead of making money, putting things back into the stream of history and of human consciousness as much as I could. -Steve Jobs

This guy’s a goddamn hippie with b.o.  Why did you do this to me?  And he’s impossible to deal with.  -Don Lang, Steve Job’s first boss in tech

Coming back to America was, for me, much more of a cultural shock than going to India.  The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead, and their intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world.  Intuition is a very powerful thing, more pwerful than intellect, in my opinion.  That’s had a big impact on my work.  -Steve Jobs

If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is.  If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there’s room to hear more subtle things – that’s when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more.  Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment.  You see so much more than you could see before.  It’s a discipline; you have to practice it…I learned the truth of the Zen saying that if you are willing to travel around the world to meet a teacher, one will appear next door.  -Steve Jobs

He had the attitude that he could do anything, and therefore so can you.  He put his life in my hands.  So that made me do something I didn’t think I could do.  -Former girlfriend of Steve Jobs

This was the most wonderful offer in my life, to actually design a game that people would use.  -Steve Wozniak

There is something indefinable in an entrepreneur, and I saw that in Steve.  He was interested not just in engineering, but also the busienss aspects.  I taught him that if you act like you can do something, then it will work.  I told him, “pretend to be completely in control and people will assume that you are.”  -Bushnell, former CEO of Atari

I typed a few keys on the keyboard and I was shocked!  The letters were displayed on the screen.  It was the first time in history, anyone had typed a character on a keyboard and seen it show up on their own computer’s screen right in front of them.  -Steve Jobs

As the majority of hobbyists must be aware, most of you steal your software.  Is this fair?…One thing you do is prevent good software from being written.  Who can afford to do professional work for nothing?…I would appreciate letters from anyone who wants to pay up.  -Bill Gates

I was on one of my fruitarian diets.  I had just come back from the apple farm.  It sounded fun, spirited, and not intimidating.  Apple took the edge off the word ‘computer’.  Plus it would get us ahead of Atari in the phone book.  -Steve Jobs

I never wanted to deal with people and step on toes, but Steve could call up people he didn’t know and make them do things.  He could be rough on people he didn’t think were smart, but he never treated me rudely, even in later years when maybe I couldn’t answer a question as well as he wanted.  -Steve Jobs

My vision was to create the first fully packaged computer.  We were no longer aiming for the handful of hobbyists who like to assemble their own computers, who know how to buy transformers and keyboards.  For every one of them there were a thousand people who would want the machine to be ready to run.  -Steve Jobs

Al turned me on to this brilliant guy named Rod Holt, who was a chain-smoking Marxist who had been through many marriages and was an expert on everything.  ‘I’m expensive’, Holt said.  [Holt’s] switching power supply was as revolutionary as the Apple II logic board was.  Rod doesn’t get a lot of credit for this in the history books, but he should.  Every computer now uses switching power supplies, and they all rip off Rod’s design.  -Steve Jobs

Mike [Markkula] really took me under his wing.  His values were much aligned with mine.  He emphasized that you should never start a company with the goal of getting rich.  Your goal should be making something you believe in and making a company that will last.  -Steve Jobs

We will truly understand their needs better than any other company.  In order to do a good job of those things that we decide to do, we must eliminate all of the unimportant opportunities.  People DO judge a book by its cover.  We may have the best product, the highest quality, the most useful software, etc…; if we present them in a slipshod manner, they will be perceived as slipshod; if we present them in a creative, professional manner, we will impute the desired qualities.  -The Apple Marketing Philosophy

We are inventing the future.  Think about surfing on the front edge of a wave.  It’s really exhilarating.  Now think about dog-paddling at the tail end of that wave.  It wouldn’t be anywhere near as much fun.  Come down here and make a dent in the universe.  -Steve Jobs sales pitch to Bill Atkinson

The best way to predict the future is to invent it.  -Alan Kay

I will let you invest a million dollars in Apple if you will open the kimono at PARC.  -Steve Jobs

There falls a shadow between the conception and the creation.  -TS Eliot

Everything you’ve ever done in your life is shit, so why don’t you come work for me?  -Steve Jobs pitching Bob Belleville

Steve wasn’t much of an engineer himself, but he was very good at assessing people’s answers.  He could tell whether the engineers were defensive or unsure of themselves.  -Bill Atkinson

Steve is the opposite of loyal.  He’s anti-loyal.  He has to abandon the people he is close to.  -Andy Hertz-feld

We have to do something for your buddy Daniel.  Whatever [options] you give him, I will match it.   -Holt  OK, I will give him zero.  -Steve Jobs

I never worried about money.  I grew up in a middle-class family, so I never thought I would starve.  And I learned at Atari that I could be an okay engineer, so I always knew I could get by.  I was voluntarily poor when I was in college and India, and I lived a pretty simple life even when I was working.  So I went from fairly poor, which was wonderful, because I didn’t have to worry about money, to being incredibly rich, when I also didn’t have to worry about money.  -Steve Jobs

I think that he likes people to jump when he says jump.  I felt that he was untrustworthy, and that he does not take kindly to being found wanting.  He doesn’t seem to like people who see him without a halo.  -Jef Raskin

Jobs seems to introduce tension, politics, and hassles rather than enjoying a buffer from those distractions.  I thoroughly enjoy talking with him, and I admire his ideas, practical perspective, and energy.  But I just don’t feel that he provides the trusting, supportive, relaxed environment that I need.  -Apple engineer

[Jobs] is a dreadful manager…I have always liked Steve, but I have found it impossible to work for him…Jobs regularly misses appointments.  This is so well-known as to be almost a running joke…He acts without thinking and with bad judgment…He does not give credit where due…Very often, when told of a new idea, he will immediately attack it and say that it is worthless or even stupid, and tell you that it was a waste of time to work on it.  This alone is bad management, but if the idea is a good one he will soon be telling people about it as though it was his own.  -Apple internal memo

Each one thought he was smarter than the other one, but Steve generally treated Bill as someone who was slightly inferior, especially in matters of taste and style.  Bill looked down on Steve because he couldn’t actually program.  –Andy Hertzfeld

[Bill Gates would] be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger.  –Jobs

[Bill Gates] really never knew much about technology, but he had an amazing instinct for what works.  Bill is basically unimaginative and has never invented anything, which is why I think he’s more comfortable now in philanthropy than technology.  He just shamelessly ripped off other people’s ideas.  –Jobs

Well Steve, I think there’s more than one way of looking at it.  I think it’s more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it. –Bill Gates

The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste, they have absolutely no taste.  I don’t mean that in a small way.  I mean that in a big way, in the sense that they don’t think of original ideas and they don’t bring much culture into their product.    –Jobs

It’s too easy, as a team grows, to put up with a few B players, and they then attract a few more B players, and soon you will even have some C players.  The Microsoft experience taught me that A players like to work only with other A players, which means you can’t indulge B players.  –Jobs

Sculley was so eager for Steve’s approval that he was unable to stand up to him –Arthur Rock

If you want to live your life in a creative way, as an artist, you have to not look back too much.  You have to be willing to take whatever you’ve done and whoever you were and throw them away.  The more the outside world tries to reinforce an image of you, the harder it is to continue to be an artist, which is why a lot of times, artists have to say ‘Bye.  I have to go.  I’m going crazy and I’m getting out of here.’  And they go and hibernate somewhere.  Maybe later they re-emerge a little differently.  –Jobs

I guess I know where things stand –Jobs

We should expose him for the fraud that he is so that people here stop regarding him as a messiah.  –Bill Campbell

He took some top executives he had secretly lined up before he left.  That’s not the way you do things.  It was ungentlemanly.  –Markkula

I look forward to a great product and I wish him success, but his integrity I cannot trust.  –Steve Wozniak

The best thing ever to happen to Steve is when we fired him, told him to get lost  -Arthur Rock

Human relationships were not his strong suit.  –Mitch Kapor

Oh, wow!  I really get this, I get what it’s all about.  Our film was the only one that had art to it, not just good technology.  Pixar was about making that combination, just as Macintosh had been.  –Jobs

I stuck by my employee.  Steve doesn’t like to be treated like a supplier.  –Andy Grove

Questions Paul Graham Asks at Office Hours

Good investors are good at asking questions.  This is their craft – pushing, listening, pushing, listening until they arrive at the nugget of truth in an opportunity.  Watching Paul Graham hold office hours at Techcrunch Disrupt reminded me of how beautiful the mind can be.  While many of the questions Graham asks are obvious, you can see how skilled he is at leaving everything in without leaving anything out.  Paul Graham and Y Combinator have become famous for their mentorship of start-ups and this office hour session puts this gentle nudging on display.  The following will hopefully provide a useful blueprint for my tinkerings and your entrepreneurial ambitions.  The full video is available at the end of the post.

I’d summarize his line of questioning with each entrepreneur as follows:

1)  What is this?

2)  What does it do and who uses it?

3)  What does it do and who uses it really?

4)  Let me repeat back to you what this is and what it does to make sure I clearly understand it, is that correct?

5)  What is the hardest part of getting this off the ground?

6)  Is there nothing else that is hard(er) about getting this off the ground?

7)  What is the easiest way to do the hardest part?

8)  How do you get users to discover and engage with the site over and over again.

In my view, more than half the magic comes from questions #1-#4, which most of us are too bashful to ask because we don’t want to seem ignorant.  Instead we jump in around #5 and try to show how great we are at problem solving.

A summary of each question and answer session is below-

Dydra – social graph database company:

What kind of graph database?

Who uses it?

So this is for searching gigantic graphs?

Can you give me an example, of all the people in the world who needs you the most?

So collaborative filtering is the low-hanging fruit?  What is the low-hanging fruit?

Who has trouble with this now?  Who wants to do these computations faster?

Your advantage is that you can do the calculations faster then?

So people are going to run your app on their servers, is that how it works?

Is latency going to be a problem since it is cloud-based?

Is there anyone who wants to use this software now?  And they aren’t your friends?

How did those users know about you?  They must have read about you?

Who are your beta users?  And why?  And what is going on?

So is this like LinkedIn?  Why would your customers need you – why wouldn’t they use LinkedIn?

Are any of these people ready to pay you?

If they want to pay you, are they paying you?

It seems like it would be good to try to get their money, you never know how serious they are until you try to get their money?

Money would be helpful because investors may worry that you are a great solution in search of a problem.

Who is going to use your software in production first?  This is a combination of how desperately they need you and how quickly they make decisions?

Do start-ups need you quickly?  They can’t do what they need to do fast enough well enough?  Find this out.

Final advice:  Describe yourself to investors as solving whatever your customers’ problems are rather than describing yourself as a graph database.

Vidappy – low-wage job hiring site:

So the idea is for low-wage jobs, you don’t need a resume, you’d rather just see a video?

How do low-wage jobs get hired now?

How do you know what questions hiring managers are going to ask them?  What would you ask them?

How do you get to creating a marketplace for this?  How do you get the retailers and job applicants?

Which is the party that is harder to get on your side?  Retailers or job hunters?  Are you sure it is job hunters?

Is this site launched yet?  Do you have any users?

Maybe you could go to a big retailer and tell job applicants to apply through your website and get their applicants as your users?

What you could do is let stores pay other stores for their unused leads?

Final advice:  Launch now and get your retailers to draw in applicants.  Keep the applicants as your customers for the future, which will draw in more retailers.

DataCurious.org – Data visualization for investors:

What kind of visualization?

Day traders?  Individual investors?

So what you are building is a data visualization site that investors can use to follow trends?

Are you going to have research reports on each company?

So individual investors are not going to compare companies on the fly?  Can they do queries on the fly?

So there will be pages on a company and then you can do queries on the fly?

What kind of queries will be more most common?

Will this have a big enough gravity well to stay at the top of people’s heads?

Will this be something people do once and never come back for?

If someone were to come back over and over, what kind of queries would they be doing over and over?

Right, like what chart would it be exactly?

How many investors are there that are that into digging into statistics to come back over and over again?

Final advice:  People seek out start-ups only if they are offering something that they desperately need.  Unless they desperately need it, they won’t hear about it.  Daytraders need to run lots of queries, but long-term investors don’t, so why focus on long-term investors?

TvTak – makes every television interactive:

It does what?

How does it make it interactive?

What is going to be the biggest single case for people using it a year from now?

How is this better and different than IMDB or Google Search?

Why do I want to use your product if you decide what I can see with pre-determined queries?  What if I want to search some peripheral thing – like the location?

I would test this with actual people, can you get them to the point where they won’t watch television without it?  Try it with your family first, they will be charitable with you first – they should want to use it if this is mass market, right?

Could you try to get advertisers drive adoption?  Could you have viewers call in the way they do on radio shows?  You could check-in to TV shows – prove that your there?

Final Advice:  Can you make it so that it doesn’t have to be useful to consumers?  Can you make it so that it is useful to advertisers?  I would work on that in parallel.  Then get a big show to refer people to your app to verify that viewers are watching and then you would have a big user base for the other side of your company!

Flytivity – introduces people at airports:

The idea is that I am in an airport and you tell me who should I want to talk to who is around me?

Doesn’t this generalize to situations where you don’t usually go?

How do you know who I will want to talk to?  Is it people who I have been meaning to talk to?  Friends of friends?  With profiles?

How do you solve the chicken and the egg problem?

How can you find the small niche that is more driven to use this?

Could this niche be frequent fliers?  Is it really enough that people fly on planes a lot?

Is your name to airport specific?

This is sort of a pushed LinkedIn?

Are airports the right place for this?  Because airports collect people randomly, wouldn’t a more directed audience be better?

Final Advice:  You need to find the people who want to have this problem solved.  Don’t think of anything except who this tiny market of people is who want to be introduced to other people in the same area.  And they have to want it enough to seek you out.  If I were you, I would start over.  The very best start-ups solve a problem that the founders have.  Is this the worst problem in your life?

LuckyChic – Social shopping network for women:

I’ve heard of you, you make a lot of money?

Where did your 100,000 members come from?  How did they find you?

Ah, scrappy, not hapless.

What do you do for them when they get to your site?

You build gaming apps on your website?  What people do on your website is play games?

So what do they see on your site when they get to your site?

What is the most common thing your users do on the site?

So you are an auction site?  Is this a penny auction?

What is the biggest driver of traffic?

So a big driver of traffic to your site is penny auctions then?

So you are a penny auction site that pretends to be a platform?  You want to grow into other areas then?

Can you grow users and breakeven or does this cost money?

What do you count as 100,000 users?

On a given day, how many people use your site?

Do the users return to the site?

What is the growth rate like?

So you are looking for what is going to make your site go exponential?

Final Advice:  Like Groupon, you have a base of users that – when you find the right thing – you can launch your product on.  So what you should try to do, is figure out what you can do for those users that no one else is doing for them yet.

The full video of the live Office Hours can be found here.

(Photo credit:  snowizard.com)

Adult-Proof Your Internet

A lot is made of child-proofing the internet, but it could use some adult-proofing as well.  What does this mean?  Blocking the sites that adults waste time on.  I just figured this out recently (I am not the fastest) – that you can just block certain websites without buying an expensive “child-proofing” software package.  It was amazing – it added, like, 30% to my day.  Not only because I am spending less time wasting time on websites, but I am also spending more time getting work done in continuous blocks.  Working in longer continuous blocks, also means getting better work done.  Why websites did I block for myself at work?

http://www.facebook.com

http://www.techcrunch.com

http://www.twitter.com

http://www.gmail.com

http://www.youtube.com

http://www.hulu.com

How about that, I am blocking the Web 2.0.  Who would have thought?  Leave me a note in the comments about which websites you block.

The way to go about adult-proofing your browsers is to download a simple plug-in that lets you block websites.  The software won’t permanently block a particular website; it will just make it inconvenient for you to visit the website in the future.  And if your obsession with techcrunch.com is so overwhelming, you can always delete the plug-in and have unfettered access.

Where can you find these plug-ins?  I would recommend the following:

Firefox:  Give BlockSite a try.  It is very easy to use.

Chrome:  I use Website Blocker at home.

Internet Explorer:  If you are really using Internet Explorer, get yourself on over to the Firefox and Chrome websites- you are missing out on the internet.

(Photo credit:  Techcrunch.com)

Are Power Bands a Fraud?

The best answer is:  sort of.  They work as advertised, but not for the reasons advertised.  My mom recently got me a Power Band because I was in a rut.  And out of curiosity, I put it on.

If you don’t know what a Power Band is, I didn’t either until two weeks ago.  It’s a rubber bracelet (like the Livestrong ones) that has a hologram on it.  By wearing it, you are supposed to achieve maximum concentration, sleep better, be more relaxed, improve athletic performance – you name it.  The reason for this improvement is that the Power Band helps you improve your balance.  It has gotten the endorsement of Shaq and a number of world class athletes.  Sales have taken off.  Tens of millions of dollars of rubber bands have been sold.

According to the manufacturer, the mylar holograms help bring your negative ions and scalar frequency in line (seriously).  And the fact of the matter is that the Power Band works.  In a test suggested by Power Band, a person stands on one foot and holds out their arms, someone pushes down on one arm and the person falls over.  Now the person puts on a Power Band, stands in a similar position and has an arm pushed down.  The person never falls over.  Ta-daa!

So the Power Band works, but it has nothing to do with the mylar or the frequencies or any of that stuff.  It works because of the placebo effect.  Studies have shown that people know the push is coming and think the Power Band works, so they don’t fall over the second time.  Any old rubber band will have the same effect.

Avoiding Elance Scams: A Practitioner’s Guide

Elance can be exceptionally helpful for getting work done.  However, websites like Elance are filled with scam artists looking to take advantage of newer users or folks who don’t know much about writing code.  There are a lot of SEO optimized sites explaining how to avoid getting scammed and there are sites offering to advise you on avoiding getting scammed if you pay them money (smells like a scam about a scam).  This post is practitioner’s guide to avoiding those scams – I have hired dozens of individuals and firms on Elance and I’ve included a running DO NOT HIRE list of providers that perpetuate those scams.  So if you have been scammed, please send me an email describing the situation at newtomefeedback at gmail.com and I’ll add them to the blacklist on this post.

Here are six simple things that you can do to avoid getting scammed.  Just do these and I think you’ll have a great experience on Elance:

1) Ask Questions – Once you have received bids based on your initial specification, send a list of questions to all of the bids you receive.  Have a list of “how would you do…” questions regarding your project.  Don’t worry if these questions show that you are naive and don’t know what you are talking about – frame it is a simple query to screen providers.  Cap it off with a question asking for feedback on the specification that you laid out and how it might be accomplished more efficiently/at a lower cost.  This makes it easy to weed out the coders who know what they are talking about and those that don’t.  It also makes it easy to see which firms are just marketing organizations and which ones.  In my experience, this simple set reduces the chance you get scammed by 90%.

2)  Hire Individuals – This sounds counterintuitive and I have had to learn it the hard way.  There seems safety in the large firms on Elance with great ratings, but these firms manipulate these rating aggressively and will outsource your work to individuals anyway.  That’s right these large firms are really marketing organizations that hand off the work to coders who may or may not be good and are certainly not of your choosing.

3)  Don’t Believe Elance Feedback – Firms and individuals on Elance can manipulate the feedback in a myriad of ways – including getting Elance to delete bad feedback.  So use it as a guide, but not as a decision-making tool.

4)  Don’t Hire in India/Pakistan – This is a soft rule for me.  I bend it every once in a while if #1 and #2 check out.  I’ve only been scammed by Indian/Pakistani firms.

5)  Bad Communication is a Red Flag –  If you have to have conversation after conversation and email chain after email chain explaining the specification with multiple people – ABORT.  The opposite is also true – if someone wants to get hired with no questions about the job and can do it all perfectly immediately – ABORT.

6)  Google the People You Hiring – This is so obvious, but it took me a long time to start doing it.  It is a no-cost background check.

So with that, I’ll get to what you have been waiting for – the Elance Blacklist.  The firms and individuals below may have done good work for some people, but they have documented evidence that they have scammed trusting employers.

The Blacklist

Xicom – I have been scammed by them personally, but examples abound.

SynapseIndia – Click here for one example.

Hypeconcepts

Learn How to Program

I recently took up an interest in programming – no, not radio programming – but telling computers what to do.  Creating technology.  Sharing it with the world.  For a bunch of 1’s and 0’s, it is harder than it sounds.  But not because programming is actually hard.  That is the easy part.  The hard part is figuring out what is the right way to go about learning the right programming language.  There are dozens to choose from, so how do you choose?

Assuming you are totally new to this, which I was a few months ago – here is what I would go with.  My goals are to create web applications, databases and cool webpages that I can share with others, without spending 4 years learning a language.  A month would be preferred.  So I went with Ruby on Rails.

Here is why.  In order to have a user interact with whatever code you have written, you need a programming language like PHP, Javascript, Ruby, Ruby on Rails, etc…Of the popular languages, Ruby on Rails is kind of like a rocketship on training wheels, so when you need the training wheels you can use them.  And when you don’t want them, you don’t have to.  This is a stark difference from PHP or Javascript, where to make anything happen at a basic level of complexity, you’ve got to write a ton of code yourself…just to take the first step forward.  These are all great languages that can accomplish the same stuff, but when it comes down to it, the fact that you don’t have to set up your own virtual server to start using Ruby on Rails will be the biggest selling point from the get go for a newbie like myself.  If you don’t know what a virtual server is, you can spend dozens of hours banging your head against the wall with another programming language.  Or you can just take my advice and go with Ruby on Rails.

So how to go about learning Ruby on Rails?  I tried all the tutorials that are popular on Google, which all have their shortcomings:

Ruby on Rails Tutorial –  Learn Rails by Example – Is not that useful because it is written assuming you are on the Mac OS and using the Textmate text editor…so if you are a newbie, it is hard to follow along.  And you should probably learn how to build stuff with the command prompt rather than relying on the text editor to do some of the lifting.

Ruby on Rails Guides – Sponsored by the folks at Ruby on Rails, it really isn’t meant for beginners and is hard to navigate if you don’t already know what you are doing.

Rails for Zombies – Is a popular video, but just doesn’t take you far enough to go out on your own.

The winner is hands down Agile Web Development on Rails (4th Edition).  It has none of the drawbacks of other popular tutorials and takes you from total novice to expert with about two months of effort.  I can lose my patience with my computer quickly and don’t really know anything about programming, but this tutorial just made the whole experience very smooth.  Unfortunately, the tutorial costs $24.  I am so cheap that I tried all the other ones before going with this one – so at least save yourself the time.