Apr 17 2009

It often sucks being a non software startup

John

I love creating things, writing software was for a long time very fulfilling. The thought however of doing a software startup, doesn’t do much for me now. Or rather, me being the code writer doesn’t. Which poses interesting problems.

360|Conferences, Corp is a purely service business. Our offering is our abilities, our community, and ourselves. That’s it. No app, no website, no SAAS, nothing that can be bought, sold, or processed. (bonus points if you got that)

We can’t attract investment capital in the traditional tech start up way, since we don’t have any ‘out’ or clear return. To quote David Cohen (whom I hope to meet in person one day!) “i think raising money right now, especially for a business that doesn’t have the best scale economics, is just tough. there’s not much debt money available.

Our business however, works like any other, we require capital to continue, we’re bootstrapping, and that get’s us sorta kinda by, but the reality is we need capital like any other start up business that needs to expand it’s offerings. It’s quite the conundrum to be sure.

It’s one of those weird start up problems, that I never really thought about in starting on this adventure. We figured bootstrapping would be just fine, but in actually executing on our business we’ve found that we’re at a place where we can’t easily do more events without the free time of paying ourselves, but we can’t pay ourselves full time (or even part time) without doing more events.

I re-stumbled across this blog post and it gave me some hope, I think our ’13 months’ is a bit longer than 13 real calendar months since our events are spaced apart and there’s low periods.

I think 360|Confferences is at this tipping point right now, we just have to hold on. Hope we can.


Apr 15 2009

Partnerships: Business goals are not equal to personal goals

Tom

One would think that a goal of a business is simple: Serve customers and, hopefully, make money to allow you to continue doing that.  It’s true, business goals can be that simple.  However, business goals are not the same as personal goals by the business founders.

Individual goals can vary wildly from person to person in the same business.  For instance, Bill Gates did not have the same personal goals as Steve Jobs.  Heck, Steve Wozniak didn’t have the same goals as Steve Jobs.  And there in lies the topic of this post, goals of partnerships (though I think it can apply to anyone working as employer/employee or even peers).

When John and I started this business, it sorta happened by accident.  We didn’t have long term goals other than “Let’s start a business.”  The furthest long term thinking we did before the first 360|Flex was naming the company.  We chose 360|Conferences because of the thinking, “If we want to do another show besides 360|Flex, we probably should have a company name that supports that.”  We figured the “360|x” moniker would be cute and allow us unlimited growth.  That was it.  Discussion over.

Fast forward in jumps of several months.  You’ll see that discussions start to take place.  Ideas start to be shared that don’t resonate with both sides of the party.  Case in point: According to John, we’re not a business since it doesn’t pay us full time.  Whereas I think a business is something that provides a service or a product in exchange for money.

So what?  That’s just semantics and doesn’t really matter, right?  But it does, if you fast forward a few more months.  Now, we’re discussing being part-time vs full-time.  I’m think we were about a year into the biz when this discussion happened.  My goal, which I assumed was “our” goal, was to work the biz part time until it paid us enough to sorta make the jump to full time.  John’s goal, which he assumed was “our” goal, was to go full time as soon as possible.  If you look back at our earlier goal, it’s seems obvious that we’d have this difference of opinion.  Thing was though, it wasn’t obvious at the time.

Fast forward again and again, over the few years the business has been in place, we’ve had many such discussions.  Some were quirky revelations while others were heated discussions about how the other was flat out wrong.  Thing is though, these discussions and differences get old, quick.

John bought us books on partnership.  The one I got was The Partnership Charter and I really enjoyed it.  The premise of the book is how to do partnerships right.  It talks about laying things out for your potential partners before you enter the partnership.  Now for John and I, two new biz n00bs, that wouldn’t have worked out well.  We both really had no idea what we wanted from ourselves, much less our biz partner.  However, I think there was core ideas that we both had in mind prior to starting the business.

My advice would be to talk about concepts and ideas in regards to goals in business and life.  I think too many potential partners spend their time talking about ideas on what the startup should produce vs how they intend to produce the startup.


Apr 14 2009

Where do Value and Cost Meet in your Business Model?

Jeffry

This post comes out of a conversation that John and I had a while back.  We thought it would make a good post here; so this is my attempt at ‘summarizing’ the discussion.

We were discussing potential topics and sponsors for our podcast, The Flex Show and that led to a comment on pricing of various conference tickets.  Obviously that is a topic important to John.

Jeffry Said:

I don’t have the magic wand to tell us where the value / cost line should meet.  I do tend to agree that some conferences have crossed a line, where their cost no longer matches its value.

I think I read a blog post that made me think 360|Conferences was struggling with the same cost vs. value issue.

I was reading something about the down turn of the newspaper industry.  A lot of people complaining about the downturn seem to say that the newspaper “business model” was to sell news to people.  But, I read something that said the real business model was selling the access to people (community) to advertisers.  It makes a lot of sense to me.

The [current] business model of The Flex Show is to sell our community to advertisers.

The [current] business model of Flextras is to sell software to the community.  I worry it is not a long term sustainable approach, though.  I believe the real profit benefit to customers is going to be selling access (support) to myself [and other Flextras employees.  Plenty of companies (Redhat, MySQL) have had success with the “premium support” style models.  A lot of my support option ideas don’t apply to a company w/ no proven record and/or only one component, though.  This comes back to my theories on the difference between digital / infinite goods and scarce goods.  Many of these theories were fueled by reading techdirt commentaries.

I think the business model for a conference (such as 360|Flex) is to two fold.  You sell access to the community to advertisers. And to attendees you sell access to the experts.

John responded:

We’re actually in the opposite problem as some other conferences  (IMO). We offer way more, but charge too little. We’re realizing that we’re so bent on two very counter ideas. We’re obsessive about being less than everyone else, and equally obsessive about offering the most value. If we were wal-mart and conferences were made in China, that might not suck, but for Tom and I, it sucks.

We’re not thinking of raising prices, but realize our current pricing model’s biggest flaw is our price/attendee mix. we can’t do enough shows at that level to really be profitable. beyond paying our phone bills, writing a check here and there, but nothing FT Salary level.

Yeah I agree. it’s more about connecting sponsors to community, while providing community a reason to be there. That’s what I’m hoping to help us figure out with The Flex Show. we’ve got a very targeted community, there has to be some one who wants to talk to them.

I dunno, but these topics rock!!

Jeff Responds

I’d always recommend focusing on adding value and less so on cost through the door.  Companies who compete only on price die.  Because there is always someone who can come in and do it cheaper.  When I was doing focus groups for Flextras, no one blinked on pricing [as long as the components would help them get their job done].

I struggle with the difference between providing a discount (generally bad) and adding value (generally good).  I’m pretty sure that providing the pre-conference day free to attendees is adding value.  Most other conferences charge for such things.  Charging extra for that day might cause backlash.  But, I wonder if you offer a lower-priced 3 day pass for those that don’t want to / can’t make the pre-conference day?  I’m not sure.  I’m entering a realm where I don’t have experience to back me up; and I always have a sense of discomfort telling other people how to run their business.

Maybe we should turn this into an OurStartupStory post somehow.

John Responded:

Yup, exactly, wish we had realized it sooner, but yeah. We’ve woken up and realized low price is fine, but better value is better, and we have that in spades.

Shoot, Tom and I ran head first into a realm we had no experience with :) I actually prefer that, since experience leads to more of the same in my opinion, LOL

Jeff Responded

It is often hard to get out of the “more of the same” thinking, that is for sure.  Reminds me a bit of Courtney Love’s now famous article about the music industry.  Around that time she was quoted as saying she would hire non-entertainment lawyers who could offer a fresh view of the “indentured servitude” of musicians and songwriters.  Hard to believe she wrote that 9 years ago.

And for our readers, here is the post.


Apr 7 2009

Starting up is hard for a Tinkerer

Tom

Lemme rephrase that title:  Starting up for over 2+ years is hard for a tinkerer.

I’ll be honest, because I’m a horrible liar.  Conferences are fun.  Conference planning is even more fun.  However, I will never see myself as a professional conference planner, no matter how many shows I do.  It’s just not in my makeup.  Yeah, I like the social aspects of it.  Yeah, I like tracking the money in and money out.  However, when it comes down to it.  I really just like the people and making sure they’re taken care of.

I’ve been working the biz for 2 years now.  I’ve also worked a FT job during that same time frame.  In addition to these 2 FT jobs, I have 2 boys to raise, a wife to love and a faith to keep active in.  As you can imagine, that doesn’t leave much time to tinker.

Last week, I had an internal breakdown.  No one knew about it.  Not my business partner, though it shouldn’t have been a surprise.  My wife found out a few days later.  Only a close friend of mine, Daniel Brunk, knows the full details of what went down.  The gist of it was though, my spirit cracked.  Not my religious spirit or ghost like thing floating inside me.  No, no, I mean more like “the little 3 yr old inside me that likes to tinker” spirit.

You see, a lot of stuff happened this past 2 months, personal stuff that just left me with no free time at all.  I’ve had 0 time to tinker and for me, that’s rough.  Very, very rough.  So rough in fact, that I was very close to walking away from the biz.  Mentally, I was minutes away from walking away and not looking back.

It seems sorta silly now looking back, and surely for those of you looking in from the outside.  But for those of you in my situation, I can see that spark of understanding in your eyes.  I can feel you relating to my pain. It seems odd that a thing like tinkering can break an entrepreneur’s spirit more so than finances, inventory, products, or any of the countless other facets of business.

So how did I overcome it?  At the moment of breaking, I played loud music really loud on the headphones.  LOL  In the following days though, I worked my tinkering into the business.  Some businesses expand for global dominance.  Some expand to take out competition.  We’re expanding for more steady income.  Now though, more importantly, we’re also expanding so I can tinker.

The Kindle of my tinkering

The Kindle of my tinkering

John and I have Kindles now.  (Well, actually, I have both, but I’ll give John his tomorrow.)  I’m a huge book guy, so I wasn’t sure I was going to like it.  I have to admit though, I LOVE it.  It’s been allowing me to satisfy my desire to tinker as well as use my time exploring new business ideas.  (You can read my personal post on the Kindle experience for more details.)

Some may see the $800 as wasteful spending on eToys for two geeky founders ($400 per person for a kindle and case).  I’m sure there is some truth to that.  We do have plans that may include the Kindle though, so it’s not pure fun.  More importantly though, this $800 has probably saved the company, because a disgruntled founder is not a productive one.  When 1/2 of a 2 man team putters out, you can rest assured that no good will come of that.

Therefore, if your a tinkerer (like me) and have been starting up for a few years (like me), look for ways to expand.  Don’t go waaaay off course.  Find something that makes sense for your business, but is something fresh.  Then go ahead and spend a little cash to let you tinker.  Trust me, it’ll be worth every penny you spend.  If you check out and possibly get a Kindle, click here and support a struggling entrepeneur.  :)


Apr 3 2009

It’s nice when you find out you’re not alone

John

I got a message from Val yesterday on facebook. I had posted some info about 360|Flex Indy, and stuff. She saw our press release or the post we wrote about our changing how we do sponsorships, and wanted to let me know that Tom and I aren’t alone. When I sent Tom a copy of the message, his first thoughts were “It’s nice to know someone actually noticed and cared.” I have to agree, it feels good when people notice what you’re doing.

Val’s message really brightened our day. Val runs Flashpitt with her pal Joe, and they’ve been trying to figure out how to change things up as well. They came to the same conclusions as Tom and I, change sponsorships, make them easier to understand, and custom to each sponsor. Val you’re on the exact same page as us!

The Press release mentioned is here if you’re curious. It’s our first!

It’s nice to know the things we do get noticed. Sure there’s a bit of ego there, but hey, humans do most of what we do, so that it’s noticed (at least IMO, don’t lie to yourself). There’s so many other events around us, big and small, that we sometimes feel lost in the sea of them, even though few if any are direct competitors. We’re definitely in the David class right now and the Goliaths don’t notice us much.


Mar 31 2009

Sometimes the hardest part isn’t the business

Tom

I moved the first of February.  I had this dream:  I’ll get to Arizona, setup shop in about a week and then I can get cranking.  I’ll be able to work on the business, doing the stuff we’ve always wanted to do, while moonlighting on some Flex projects.

Life is funny.  Business is funny.  Neither really seem to care much about plans.

In the past 2 months, I’ve met and hired an attorney, moved homes twice and gone to the courthouse 3 times before settling a case with our slumlord.  That was just the life side of things.

My moonlighting didn’t really happen as quickly as I would’ve liked.  There was a learning curve, that was hampered by the fact that I was thinking a Jira assigned to me was in one area of the app, while I was being told it was in another area.  (That turned out to be a good thing though, as I learned more of the app than I would’ve if we were in sync.)  I finally got some good time to finish getting up to speed, when I did a 4 day on-site pit stop before our March event.  Once I got back home, I pulled off my first 16-hour day in a looooong time, working until like 2 am even.  The result: the project is fun but life and unforeseen business work detracted from my planned arrangement.

On the business side, our sites were hacked, so we tried everything under the sun to get them up and running.  The last ditch effort was to move off of our current cohost to another.  In addition to that, we switched from the blogger platform to the WordPress platform.  This entailed me learning how to write WP themes and converting our old themes so our customers wouldn’t notice anything.  I also had to wrap up our finances from 2008.  (One word of advice: avoid Google Checkout if you can cuz importing that data into Quickbooks is a pain in the butt.)

The one thing we did manage to do that we “wanted to do” was expand the business.  We launched 360|iDev, our iPhone/iTouch developer conference.  It was well-received by the iPhone development community.  By comparison, it was “easy” compared to the rest of what was going down in life.  Sadly, I was hedging that a potential partner was going to be coming on board.  They did…sorta, on the Friday before the show.  By then, it was too late so we never signed the contract.  The buzz I was looking for them to help gen never occurred and so we had a roughly $10K deficit.

Whether it’s life, hackers, prepping for taxes, or a partnership not coming through, you see that a bajillion things outside your control can and do affect your business.  It can be very disheartening.  From what I can tell though, it’s the norm.  LOL

Therefore, if you have a startup and are wondering if everyone’s non-biz stuff is as crazy as yours, I hope this proves it is.  Welcome to the party!  :)


Mar 9 2009

How Google can and does screw small business

John

One of the worst things that could happen to 360|Conferences, happened the week leading up to 360|iDev. Another site on our shared hosting server, had some sort of vulnerability, and let in a script kiddy who hacked our index files. Weak sauce for sure.

The first time we caught it. The next we got an email from Google telling us about it, and bam, we’re listed as malware.

We fixed the problem, (3 times, thanks to our hosting company not detecting the problem, :(  ) and that wasn’t enough. When your site is marked by the Goog as being an “attack site” Safari, and Firefox (probably IE I guess) all throw warnings up and do their best to keep users from entering your site.

what could be worse for a developer conference, than it’s website the week before and during a conference? mmm Not much. Attendees couldn’t download the schedule or the session description, without trusting that Google was wrong and that we weren’t an attack site. That sucks!

We’re still trying to get things right, our Hosting company has re-submitted our sites for re-scan, we’ve done it, we’ve even tried redirecting to blogpost sites, it’s been partially successful. Oh and according to Google’s webmaster tools site, “Please allow several weeks for the re-evaluation process. Unfortunately, we can’t reply individually to reconsideration requests.”

It’s kinda weak that Google can flag a site as malware, and in a matter of hours, it’s black listed, and unavailable to most (or all) browsers. Yet getting “reconsidered” can take several weeks, and they can’t be bothered to respond individually, to help the company who’s business they’re impacting to solve the problem as fast as possible.

What really sucks, I don’t know how to get around it :( we’re planning to move our sites to a hosting partner that we can use wordpress on, since blogger is the suck, but that doesn’t lessen Google’s impact on our business whenever they choose to act.

Weak google, really really weak. Guess causing harm to small businesses, isn’t included in “do no evil”


Feb 19 2009

fighting brain crack

John

Brain Crack is bad, mmkay.

I’ve had a similar conversations with Tom many a times, He’ll chime in, I’m sure, but the two of us are very different when it comes to ideas and execution. He enjoys having them, even if he doesn’t act on them or observes from side lines. I do not, either act on it or drop it.

Brain crack, according to Ze are the ideas you have, that you never act on (so they can’t fail) that you keep rattling around as your “When I have time” ideas. The trouble is, there’s no time like the present, if it’s a good idea, do it. Don’t wait around, who’s to say you’ll ever have the time? All you end up doing is refining the idea in your head, until it’s perfect and you’re make believe successful.

I think as an entrepreneur brain crack is especially dangerous, it gives you a false sense of security, “Well come what may, I have this idea to work on.” or “I’ll write when there’s more time later in life.” except there’s no way to know what “Later” will hold. The other downside to brain crack is, it’s distracting. Why work on the hard or boring things, when you can day dream or putter on an idea you have no (let’s be honest) intention of ever pulling out of your head and putting into the real world.

I’m all for instant gratification, and the high you get from doing something. As I do more and more startup’y type things, I find more and more ideas bubble up. If I can start working on them, I do. If they’re not something I can do, they go away, or get recorded, either way, out of my head and off the table. Good or bad, and Ze is right, usually bad, it’s better to throw something out there and do it, than plan and plan, until the time to execute has passed. But at least your idea is safe in your head, where no one can hurt it.

Don’t let brain crack ruin your life.


Feb 17 2009

The Power of the Partnership

John

Partnerships often suck. There I said. Tom and I often fight like an old married couple, in fact we’ve been called that by our wives, and even attendees of 360|Flex.

But I have no doubt in my mind, and have told Tom as much, that our strength is our differences, and that neither of us, could succeed without that other. Sure I don’t doubt that both of us could part company and be successes in our own right, but we’re like the wonder twins when together, an unbeatable force. We’re still interviewing for Gleek.

The number of business ideas Tom and I have bandied about are inumerable (freed, AntiMBA, more books than I can count as well), but the one that stuck was one that both of us were passionate about and could work together on. Conferences. It’s also the thing neither of us ever thought would be our ‘thing’.

I’ve tried being a software consultant (what developer hasn’t), and Tom fired me from Freed and went on his own, and well it didn’t go very far (I’m sure Tom can expand on Freed in his own post). But together we’ve not only taken the Flex Developer community by storm, but we’ve fired a warning shot across the bow of other tech conferences, putting them on notice that they cost too much, and offer too little.

What makes us work so well together is our differences; Tom is a planner, I’m not. I’m a risk taker, Tom tends to not be. I’m guided by my gut on a lot of things, and Tom likes proof/research. We balance each other out just enough so that we’re not paralyzed with “what if” but also not running off half cocked.

I think the true strength of a partnership is the same as a marriage, opposites attract. If you’re partner is on the exact same wavelength, there’s really no point in having a partner, you don’t need someone having the same thoughts as you, reinforcing each one. You need a partner that has the same goals but a different outlook, to act as a counter point.

Many business folks will poo poo the partnership, but I’m convinced that despite our differences and the shouting matches, 360Conferences, wouldn’t be what it is (or even exist) if not for the combined efforts of Tom and I.


Jan 26 2009

7 Sins of Success, or even close to success

John

Jeffrey posted his 7 sins of success, and they really hit home.

Gluttony

This one I find I’m ok with, mainly because I don’t take on too much. If there’s one thing I’m acutely aware of it’s my limitations, and how much I can take on. I find at 31 (hell at 21) I don’t have the energy for all nighters, and working like crazy all weekend. I’ve come to terms with it, and try to only take on what I can accimplish inhe hours I’m awake. So far so good.

Greed

This one I find myself struggling a bit with, but Jeffrey’s advice is spot on. My wife and I have an idea, and I’ve been trying to vet it to see if it actually makes sense. One opinion so far, that it doesn’t. I’m not 100% convinced yet, but open to feedback.

Sloth

This one Tom and I struggle mightily with. We seem to go in fits and starts, where one of us is super motivated for a week, firing emails like crazy, making calls, etc then there’s a lull of a week or two where the business seems to be the lowest thing on the priority list, sadly. I’m not a slow and steady person, but I am a moderately fast and steady person, so Tom and butt heads often as our two motivation/energy levels don’t often mesh.

Lust

Tom may see it differently but this is a big one. There’s tasks that each of us don’t like to do, and fall squarely to the other. It mostly works, until one of us suffers a Sloth moment, then that set of tasks doesn’t get done. Be it blogging, replying to emails, invoicing sponsors, paying vendors, etc. It sucks for sure.It’s frustrating when we don’t send invoices that will be net 30, or don’t follow up on emails and stuff, it’s one of my hugest pain points in our model.

Once we’re our own FTE’s I hope, this problem fades, my fingers are crossed.

Pride

Not a problem for us. It was earlier and who knows may come back, but right now, it’s not a proble. Italy taught us that “we are not as hot as we thought”. We thought our brand would precede us across the pond, and found that while a few knew who we were, most did not. The community wasn’t big enough or interested enough in us, and overall we just got our teeth kicked in. It was one of the best learning experiences we’ve had so far.

Wrath

Tom is a planner too. I’m not, not much at least. I’m more of a “set the larger plan, and move towards it”. Some of our biggest fights have been around this. Tom wants to plan, so he tries to extract a plan from me, which is about as easy as getting blood from a turnip. What sucks is without a plan, Tom get’s discouraged, and his work output drops to nil, and he’s in a funk.

I’m not complete anarchy mind you. I try to be about GTD, I use OmniFocus, but in general, for a phone call, I just do the call. If some new technology is available or something, i just try it. It’s the early adopter in me. Tom and I struggle with this since he’s more the “late, when it is free” adopter which I think doesn’t mesh much with being an entrepreneur. it’s tough some times.

Envy

From time to time, I find myself envying another event. Mainly it’s for their having more funds, or being FTE. But I’m working on realizing that in every case, they’ve been around a bit longer than me, and in every case, their event costs more, and offers less of what is important to me (and Tom), so it’s not a fair comparison. That helps, but I agree with Jeffrey, envy is the fast track to losing focus.

I also think there’s reverse envy. “we’re already better than X so let’s slow down and not innovate as much” which goes against my grain. I know being over innovative (over engineering) isn’t good, but I also know that when you slow down, and rest on your past successes, you’re over taken.

So those are my thoughts, I linked to Jeffrey’s, what’re yours? Have you experienced any in your startup?