May 15 2012

In Defense of Business Plans

John

(I’m cross posting this from my Blog since I think it makes sense here too)

An interesting conversation took place at DOCC (Denver Open Coffee Club) that easily could have filled that hour. It was about Business Plans. Those in favor of them were in the minority by a large margin. WHile I’m not 100% business plans are evil, I think they’re a crutch like Brain crack.

I didn’t chime in during the conversation, because as I said that topic alone could have filled that hour, and I love DOCC for it’s variety. That doesn’t mean i can’t expand here tho :)

And despite the title, I’m anti business plan. Tom and I started 360|Conferences without one. We’re not rocking millions worth of sales and such, but we’re doing ok.

My strongest (and it came up at DOCC) argument against a business plan is that it forces you into the conventional wisdom of the sector you’re looking to get into. Had we known about conferences we either wouldn’t have started the company, or would have started YAOC (Yet Another Overpriced Conference). But not knowing anything about events helped us to avoid that path. And frankly if you look at the market, we led the space on conferences that don’t cost an arm and a leg to attend.

I watched Tom try to do a business plan for another company (he fired me from it) and it went nowhere. He spent weeks, maybe months fussing about the business plan, making it just right etc. And since he wasn’t shopping the idea for funding the plan really just sat there.

Like I said I’m not 100% Plans are bad, it might make sense for you. But the argument that you can’t start without one is bunk. It was funny, we talked about white boarding and the pro plan folks threw out “That’s a business plan too” which i don’t know that I agree with.

So yeah, play it by ear on your needs, but if someone tells you that you won’t succeed without a business plan, they’re trying to sell you their services in writing business plans. Or they’re not running a business and are trying to scare you out of doing it too.


Dec 22 2010

Digital Analog – 2010 Year End Review

Ben

I’ve been making a living as a Flex consultant for a number of years, but in 2010 I made it official by starting a company called Digital Analog, LLC. In honor of that achievement and in the spirit of being open with the development community, I’m “open-sourcing” my revenue numbers for 2010. I can’t give you the full line-by-line details of course (client confidentiality), but I am posting summaries of a few key areas below. If you find this post useful, educational or at least entertaining please consider recommending Digital Analog for any projects that pass your way in 2011.

$109,959 Dollars Later

This isn’t a very big number for a company, but rest assured I enjoy putting six figures on my tax forms each year. To my friends and family who might now expect better gifts, see the 2010 costs below. To the fellow consultants and business owners who expected me to be making more, see the Hours series in the 2010 Revenue by Week graph in the next section.

In this chart Taxes include both personal and business (SE) taxes (as I don’t file the business separately yet). Travel costs are split almost evenly between conferences and client travel (which is reimbursed). Operational costs include office rent of about $600 per month, test hardware/device purchases, software, and service costs for hosting, version control and bug tracking. It’s also worth noting that since I file as a sole proprietorship I didn’t list salary as a cost. The full net income can be considered my take-home income (with no benefits), but to compare it with salary expectations you need to add about half of the taxes back in and take away any benefits I had to pay for personally (~$5,000). In other words my income is probably on par with a ~$75,000 salary, but if I see you at a reunion or something let’s just go with the first number.

20 Hour Work Weeks with 2 Months Off

It turns out there are a lot of tasks that are required to run a company that just aren’t billable – including emails, calls, quotes, estimates, invoices, software/IT issues, open-source development, product development, conferences, travel and general decompression time. I did try to take it easy on billable hours this year, but it’s hard to say how much non-billable time I “worked”. My best guess is that I put in an average of 30 to 40 hours a week at the office, but I did take two months off this year (which is a great advantage of owning your own business).

An interesting part of this chart is that it clearly shows the delay between billable hours and money in the bank. If you’re going to start a service based business, you need to have three or four months worth of income in the bank to float this gap.

$100 to $150 per Hour

I’ve had discussions with a number of other Flex developers about rates, how to set them, and why they are what they are. To the best of my knowledge Digital Analog is the first company to disclose rates directly, and I do plan to continue this practice in 2011. That’s because, in truth, developers don’t set rates. The market does. In my opinion these are mid to high level Flex development rates. These rates may go down when I have unused availability or they may go up as demand for work increases.

4 Clients Down, 1 to Go

I had 5 clients this year with projects ranging from 10 hours to more than 300 hours. The average project length was around 165 hours with an average cost of around $21,000. Out of those 5 clients I’m still actively working with only 1. All of my clients were found through third party (mostly developer) recommendations. This means that going to conferences and creating open-source projects doesn’t introduce me to many new clients, but it does introduce me to developers who are then willing to recommend me for projects. It’s clear to me that without this, I wouldn’t have the advertising or sales ability to land steady work on my own. Some effort will need to be given to improve my reach if I want to grow the business in 2011.

In my talks with other consultants I’ve also found the most diversity to be in clientele. Some developers have only a few large clients who exclusively send them work making/skinning video players, others work with dozens of clients each year making sites for advertising campaigns or media companies, and still others work exclusively with start-ups that need to create enterprise apps. In order to increase demand for services and grow my company in 2011, I’ll have to find a way to break into multiple verticals.

Summary

2010 was an average year in terms of the services business for Digital Analog. I succeeded at prioritizing my own time (something that was lacking in previous years), but failed to convert enough of that extra time into viable products or R&D. I did, however, have a few successful trial runs at managing sub-contractors which resulted in some of the best client relationships. Focusing on development goals and client relationships in the same breath is hard. Some separation in thought processes has to be given to do both well.

Along those lines I’ve come to realize that my ability to effect a client relationship is directly related to my control over a project. In projects where I have little control over the project as a whole, my focus is purely on development and I have little opportunity to build a strong client relationship. Although hourly work is probably a safer bet, taking control of whole projects (on estimate) may improve satisfaction on both sides. Adding developers in-house may also be required in 2011, although both would be done against the best advice of my peers. 2011 should make for an interesting year.


Dec 19 2010

Introduction and 2010 in Review For My Startup

Dusty

Hi, I’m Dusty Candland, husband, father, software developer, and entrepreneur. And now, blogger for Our Startup Story! I’m going to be sharing my experiences starting up and working with startups.

I started working full time for myself this year. I did have one large client ready to start work, so I wasn’t starting completely from scratch. I like building web applications and being a part of growing businesses. With that in mind, I decided my target clients would be other startups with web based technology of some kind. I help these clients build out their web applications. Anyway, here’s a look at where I’ve been and where I’m going.

Some thoughts about how this year has gone.

My target clients, startups, can be a hard target. Most don’t have a ton of money lying around and want to make sure they are spending it wisely. Plus they can be hard to find.

Selling is hard. Especially when talking to people is hard. I need to get better at that, and I have been, but I have a ways to go. My first step was to just get to events and talk to the people there. It seems crazy when writing this, but I really have to try to be extroverted.

I’ve found keeping my focus is harder on my own, partly because I don’t have a set schedule or place to work. Also, partly because there is a ton of stuff that I’m interested in. I’ve recently heard a good tip about time boxing tasks and sticking to it, I’m going to give that a try for a while.

I’ve mostly been going this alone, I have advisers that help a ton, but no one to help keep focus and motivation on a daily basis. I really think that is key, but I’ve also found that finding partners is a hard task. I thought working at a co-working space would help me feel connected and social, but I’m not so sure now.

Some thoughts about next year.

I’ve outlined some specific offerings for startups that I think will help show value to prospects. Offering open ended custom software development is good, but too large and scary for many.

I have to get better at talking with and meeting people. I need to find a ToastMasters club and just get over my fears of public speaking. That’s going to be a top goal for this next year. This is critical to the success of any startup, I know it, however, doing it is what matters. Suggestions welcome.

I’ve tried to keep some time set aside for working on my own projects. I plan to keep doing this and think it’s critical to keeping sharp and up to date with technology.

I want to help grow the startup community in Denver. There is an awesome community in Boulder and I think there should be an awesome community in Denver as well. I hope to help get it there.

I hope you’ve found this review interesting and maybe helpful! If you want to learn more about me or my company checkout my web application consulting site and my software development blog. I’ll be contributing here once or twice a month.


Dec 9 2010

First Rule of Fight Club Does NOT Apply

jonrossi

The first rule of fight club is you do not talk about fight club.

Well that might be the case with regards to any fight club but it’s certainly not the case when it comes to your idea about a project, website, or startup you want to work on. One of the first things I learned in the startup community is that if you think you are the only one in the world working on this “Top Secret” project, then you are not giving proper credit to the other 5 people that have the same idea and are working on it.

The one thing that does matter and separates you from the other 5 people, is how you execute your idea. It is important to discuss your idea to anyone that will listen and give you feedback. After listening to Co-Founder and CEO Alex White of NBS (Next Big Sound) talk at an event in early November at the Techstars Bunker, he had this amazing idea about what he wanted to do but was afraid that if he shared his idea about NBS then people would take it and run with it. He kept his project under lock and key for 3 years while trying to decide how to move on it and in what direction he would take. He finally approaced some local friendly contacts at the University he was attending and decided to ask them for their input. As it turned out the 2 people he talked with in the beginning ended up becoming Co-Founders of NBS. Alex mentioned to the group that he wished he had been more open about sharing the idea because he would have been 3 years ahead of where NBS is today.

I mention this because if you think that you can’t share your idea unless you have someone sign an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) then be prepared to sit and wait a long time until someone takes you seriously. If you have an idea and your not really sure who to talk to about it or your immediate network of friends are not familiar with the startup industry, then here are some possible resources for you to use: reach out to your friend’s networks, use LinkedIn to connect with people, attend local events by searching Meetup , or even consider attending on of the StartupWeekend events. Remember an idea is only an idea unless you do something with it.


Dec 3 2010

Our Startup Story – No plan is foolproof

John

If you looked at 360|Conferences now, and compared us to the early days after 360|Flex San Jose ’07, you’d see a lot of differences.

As 2011 approaches, and we’re working on our last event of 2010, it’s clear (as much as these things can be) that 2011 will be a big year for us.

Things that Tom and I started that were, according to us, at the fiber of our beings, are changing. 360|Flex, at least for 2011 will only happen one time. Ditto for 360|iDev. Going to 1 event a year, was something were were firmly against, but the realities of business and the community can’t be argued with indefinitely.

Having an event 2x a year, obviously means our expenses are doubled. Sure something can be bought in bulk for both to save, but mostly, things like hotel rooms, venues, food, AV, etc are just doubled. However having an event every six months makes it very easy for folks to “skip this one, I’ll come to your next one” because really they only have to wait 5-6 months. That’s all well and good, but for the business to work, we need folks coming to both. I mean it’s not like 1 is a repeat, both events are unique and offer a ton of stuff, but I can’t count how often we heard, “I’ll see you at the next one”

So as we wrapped up 360|Flex DC (Failure BTW) and 360|iDev Austin, Nicole and I decided that 1 a year, a bit larger in size to make up for the second one going away, made the most sense for us and the community. Looking at the other events in the space, most are annual conferences. Those that aren’t (from the outside) seem to be struggling to put butts in seats as well.

So yeah reflecting back on the start of this business, it’s clear, you can have one vision, but when you look back a few years later (assuming you’ve made it that far) you’ll see that the initial vision was a bit blurry and out of focus.

Here’s to 2011 being the year that 360|Conferences makes stable money, can grow, and do even more cool things for the communities we serve!


Jul 29 2010

10 Mistakes made in starting up.

John

I saw this post on quicksprout, and the first one pinged right off the bat. It’s a great post of 10 common mistakes.

When I saw that #1 was “Speed” i knew I had to post something there. Tom and I argued… ok fought about speed a lot. I’m a very now now now, let’s do it now vs. wait around and do it later person. Tom is the opposite.  So is Nicole for that matter, but she’s at least open to letting me convince her I’m right :)

#3 is a good one. Hard to make work, but a good one. It’s really hard to remove emotion from the equation. A sponsor being lame, or backing out, or people abusing press passes, it hurts. It’s an affront to you, and feels like a slap in the face, and it’s hard to not do the first thing that comes to mind. But I agree it’s often (I don’t know if I’d say always) best to let logic win out.

#7 Is interesting. 360|Conferences wouldn’t exist without Tom and I. Neither of us is likely to have done it on their own. I know it wasn’t on my mind, and pretty sure it wasn’t on Tom’s. But the two of us together bootstrapped the company into 4 anchor events a year, plus a few one-off trial events etc. And not to be all horn tooty, pretty sure we’re why several others have created events. A business partner is a huge asset, but as Tom and I learned, you need to be more than just friends. You need to be on the same page. Turns out Tom and I were rarely on the same page, and only sometimes reading the same book.

The rest of the list is great, and I agree with each item. I take vacations, sometimes a weekend off, etc. I plan for just enough of tomorrow to know what I want to do the next day, but if you were to ask me what 2012 or even 2011 looked like for us, the best I’d be able to say is 4 events, a possible location. That’s it.It’s grand to plan out to 2015, but it’s the stuff in between that’s FAR more important.


Jul 27 2010

10 Tips for Bootstrapping Your Marketing

John

i saw this and thought it was it an interesting list. With very little budget, beyond what I spend on Google adwords (Not a huge pay off, but does get a few registrations) and some moo cards from time to time, the marketing budget for 360|Conferences is very much bootstrapped.

The twitter rule is a big one. I manage about 7 twitter accounts. tweeting discount codes, RT’ing things I think the communities those accounts care about would be interested in, etc. It’s damn near a fulltime job on it’s own. but it does pay off over time. It’s not huge, or fast, but when looked at cumulatively, it’s a steady building wave. The more I tweet, the more people RT, the more widespread the message gets. For events, it’s especially important to leverage the network effect. the 360flex account has about 1500 followers, each of those has their own number, etc. so each person who helps spread the word, has near infinite reach.

#5 is something I need to do better at. I’ve got awesome friends, who introduce me to new people when we’re out. They do a great job of talking up the particular conference they’re tied to, but then it’s my turn and I nod, agree with their statements, and maybe add something boring. I’m working on that aspect. Not quite an elevator pitch, but a short burst of “Why you should be attending as well”

#6 is timely. We started video taping sessions this past spring. They’re very successful, each is $3.50 there’s currently a buy 5 get 1 free deal, and they’re selling pretty well. Not paying my phone bill, but covering hosting, etc and giving me lunch and beer money. Which is great since even if I’m at an even keel, that’s better than spending what little I have. We’re already planning to increase the video quality for the fall events, by buying some HD flip cams. Not everything this time will be HD, but we’re phasing out SD.

We’re also going to get more testimonial, man on the floor type video this fall, to produce some fun/cool videos to show people why they should be at 360|events.

#7 I think we came close to pioneering :) We reach out to our speakers to help get the word out. We don’t demand it, but we ask each one to help make noise, help raise awareness, etc. After all people pay more attention to the speakers, they’re big names in the communities, well connected, etc. When they speak people listen. It works really well. Leveraging their names, and fame to help increase attention on the event, is a big boost.

#10 is a tough one for me. As a developer and person who’s on lots of lists, every email campaign I create I have a mental block to get past of “is this too much?” For the most part, and this was awesome advice from Liz.. Go just past your comfort zone on sending emails. If you think you’re getting close to annoying, you can probly send one more email. Our own filters are naturally strong, so it’s tough to reach past them. But it’s true. My mailing lists for the most part grow weekly/monthly as I send out more and more interesting things.

What works for you? Leave a comment, share your thoughts.


May 21 2010

Shady business practices – Not required

John

I’m always amazed (sadly) when companies do things that are just plain shady. Not dishonest, but boarderline, more just icky, things most people would feel guilty about.

Case in point (I’m not naming names… at least not right now)

At the most recent 360|iDev conference I met 2 guys who run a small software developer newsletter/newspaper. They also do events. One of them paid for a regular attendee ticket, they other asked for and received a press pass.

They came and said hello when I was at the desk, and nicely let me know they were planning their own iPhone conference.

More the merrier, sure I’d love to be the only show, but I’ll settle for being the best. They expressed their desire to not overlap, or in any way interfere with 360|iDev, and presumable receive the same from me. Cool.

One thing that stuck with me was that they flat out said in the course of our conversation, “we like to think we’re the good guys in conferences”

I didn’t see them much the rest of the conference, turns out the “press” only came for 1 day and posted a nice post on his personal blog about the conference.

The other guy spent (to the best of my knowledge) the rest of the conference poaching speakers (and possibly/most likely sponsors)

Now, don’t get me wrong, poaching speakers and sponsors is par for the course. Recruiting speakers to your events, involves seeing them at other events. However I find it completely slimy that I basically helped finance the poaching by giving a press pass.

Sure passes are largely a soft cost, but there’s an expected quid pro quo in giving someone from the press a pass. IF they even come (a lot will ask for a pass, but then never show. I don’t get it, but whatever) they write about it. Heck even a “X event was nice” something to show that you appreciated the pass, and the courtesy extended for the press.

I finally wrote one of the offenders, expressing my feelings of being taken advantage of, and got back

“There wasn’t any hard news  (ie, product announcements) that were picked up but Alan did blog about the conference:”

No explanation or denial that I had indeed helped fund their fishing trip, no apology for an act that didn’t come across as the actions of a “Good guy”. Just the above and “If you want to come to our event, let me know” Not even a “here’s a discount code”

Off the top of my head there was the merger of two indie iphone dev companies, Fastmac had all kinds of cool new products they were announcing/showing, we had a round table discussion about Apple’s SDK agreement clause 3.3.1, we had a 12 year old who had several apps in the app store, and was working on iPad games in attendance, we had a 12 hour game jam going on over night,  and more. Other press had no trouble finding plenty to write about (see here)

It’s sad that there are businesses who find this type of behavior ok.

It’s sadder still that as a result, the “no longer allowed press credentials” list has an entry on it.


May 4 2010

When the formula works you’ll know it.

John

360|Flex San Jose made over 110k…. We of course were in huge debt coming out of 2009, so we cleared no where near that. but that’s the most a 360|Event has ever made.

Clearly we’re doing better at this than before :)

Not super terrific awesome, but better.

I think we’ve found pricing that works ($499 first 100, $599 the rest), and stays true to our “Not breaking the Indie bank” ethos. We’ve also found a rhythm in selling sponsorships. Turns out I’m actually pretty good at it. These two things combined, with really aggressive selling to the community, seem to be paying off.

Our sponsorship package has gotten more wide ranging, and I think truly offers our sponsors a great value. For 360|iDev, I actaully had to turn people away, we simply didn’t have anything left to make into a sponsorship, and I refuse to simply take people’s money without giving them the absolute more value for their spend.

As the transition from 2 man team to 1 man team (Actually my wife is a major part of the company now) finishes it’s 6 month progression, I find myself even more excited about 360|Conferences. There’s lots to do, and plenty of uncertainty, but that’s exciting. I’m working hard to get 360|Mobile locked in. I’ve already begun looking at locations for 360|Flex and 360|iDev Fall. I’ve even started the ball rolling for 360|iDev Spring 2011, if you can believe that!

Oh and Europe. We might actually make it to Europe in 2010. Still TBD.


Nov 20 2009

8 Secrets of Success

John

Some dude I’ve never heard of, has 8 words that are the secret of success. They’re below with my thoughts on them. I found them over on Small Biz Bee.

1. Passion – Duh. If you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, why are you doing it. I’ve found (although i never would have guessed it) that I’m passionate about bringing people together, helping people meet, creating an atmosphere were great things are born.

2. Work – Yeah it’s work. Doing what you love feels less like work, but it’s still work, it’s still hard. Possibly harder than a “job” since failure is on you, you don’t just punch a clock go home, and not care.


3. Focus – This is hard. Tom and I have struggled with this. We’ve been lured to Europe earlier than we probably should have (though we learned good lessons there). We’ve tried to expand into things without looking, etc. Focus is important it’s something I’m trying to get a better grasp on.


4. Persist – I can’t agree more. It’s hard, at least weekly I wonder if I should fold up. Do our last two events and try to find a job. It’s hard, we’re not making much right now, though I feel that’s on the verge of changing, i know it is, but i’m in the now financially, which is tough. I know though, if I persist and work hard and as Gary Vee would say, “Crush It” I’ll succeed.


5. Ideas – This is the fun part. I’m usually not short on ideas. Ditching paper surveys, USB Drives instead of CDs, an AIR app for surveys, etc. It’s fun to think of ways to 1. be a better company, and 2. innovate the completely whacked out, old school conference business. Some ideas are awesome, some, not so much. Tom and I are at our absolute best when we’re throwing ideas at each other, sharing the “Ah snap! That’s awesome!” moments.


6. Good – This is important. Tom is a bible thumper :) I’m not, but I do believe in Karma, and we both agreed, even before we had money to give that we’d make sure we gave 20% of each event’s profit to charity. Whether it’s a check, or service, or something else. We agreed, and as Tom moves on I intend to continue the tradition, that 10% goes to the community out event serves, and 10% will be to a charity making the world a better place. I firmly believe that any business not doing good for the world around it, isn’t doing enough. We haven’t always been in a position to write a check, and it makes us sad, but when we are, it’s the best feeling on Earth.


7. Push – This is tough. My wife pushes me. She pushes me because she wants to see me succeed, and she pushes me because she wants the company to make money so we can pay the bills. Both are incredibly important. I also push myself, for both of those reasons, but also I push myself (And I push Tom for a few more months) because I think we’re doing a good thing, and I want to continue to do that good thing.


8. Serve – Easy. Tom and I have never lost sight of who we serve. We serve two masters; sponsors, and attendees. Sponsors pay us to get in front of our attendees, to meet them, to introduce them to their product or service. Sometimes they sponsor just to help the community. But we owe it to them to make the event the best it can be, have the most attendees we can, etc. The attendees on the other hand, pay us to see and hear the speakers, to meet the rest of the community, and to learn. We owe it to them to make sure the event delivers all that and more. It’s not always easy, but we’ve never lost sight of why we do events. We do them to serve the community with something we believe it lacked. We’ll continue to serve them, until they tell us otherwise :)

I’m not sure these were necessarily secrets, but they’re truths for sure. At least in my opinion. What do you think? Are there more? Are there other ‘secrets’ you think valuable?

Watch the video it’s a good use of 3 minutes. My take away. Success is charging people $4000 to attend an event, that they they have to be invited to… ok it’s not, but damn talk about reinforcing “A fool and his money…”