Episode 99 | Outsourcing a New UI, Two-Sided Markets, Handling Incoming Calls, and More…
[00:00] Rob: In today’s episode of Startups for the Rest of Us, we’re going to be talking about outsourcing a new user interface, questions about patents, handling incoming phone calls, and leveraging social media. This is Startups for the Rest of Us: Episode 99.
[00:23] Rob: Welcome to Startups for the Rest of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers and entrepreneurs be awesome at launching software products, whether you’ve built your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Rob.
[00:32] Mike: And I’m Mike.
[00:33] Rob: And we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. So, what’s the word this week, Mike?
[00:39] Mike: I am encountering massive contractor woes.
[00:42] Rob: Oh no. Do tell.
[00:44] Mike: So I think I had mentioned that I ended up letting one my contractors go, right?
[00:49] Rob: Yup.
[00:50] Mike: That was one that kind of ended up out of the picture. And then another one his grandmother went into the hospital and since his mother relies a lot on him for a lot of things. He basically, he didn’t drop off the face of the planet. We’ve talked about it a little bit. But basically his work effort has dropped to pretty much zero because he’s dealing with family issues which I, you know, go deal with your family issues. Those are kind of more important than other things that are going on. Another one is in the middle of applying for loans for like car and a couple of other things. So he’s got to deal with banks and everything else, so he’s really not available. Another one has just kind of drop off by the face of the planet. So it’s basically just me.
[01:27] Rob: Seriously. Wow. Yeah. I’ve had this happened to me before where everyone but a large number of people kind of flake or even just got caught up with other stuff all the same time and it’s a real bummer. It seems to happen in 3’s.
[01:41] Mike: Yeah. I think you’d mentioned before that happened to you a couple of months ago I think.
[01:45] Rob: Yeah. It was about six months ago and it was like a VA, a developer, and another developer within about three weeks of each other. But you know what, they were people who had not worked for me for very long. Have these guys been around for a while or are they recent hires?
[02:01] Mike: Well a couple of them have. I mean one of them has been around for along time and then the other two had been probably a little bit more recent. But one of them has been really good and the one I let go obviously wasn’t so good.
[02:12] Rob: Are these contractors do they do consulting full time or do they have day jobs and they’re doing their work on the side?
[02:19] Mike: They pretty much do this full time.
[02:20] Rob: Got it. That’s surprising then cause that’s like one of the questions I ask upfront. I tend to want people who are going to do it during the day and who are going to give it their best effort instead of doing it in the evenings and weekends. And I also found that people doing it at the evening and weekends since it’s not the primary source of income they do tend to take it less seriously. And if they have a rough patch, they’re just going to bail on you. But it sounds like two of them are temporary and they’ll be back.
[02:44] Mike: Yeah. Yeah.
[02:45] Rob: I’ve been reading or listening to a book called The Facebook Effect. It’s the flipside of the story that you see in the film, The Social Network. The Social Network was largely guessed at by Ben Mezrich. Ben Mezrich is kind of this author who goes after these really big sensational stories. He wrote The Social Network as almost like a narrative right where it reads like fiction. But he had to make up a bunch of the interactions cause it was a fiction book, so he has to have conversations that no one really knows what happened. And so then the movies obviously took it to the next step and just use that and dramatize them.
[03:21] And so the movie got a lot of criticism early on for people who are saying really it isn’t very accurate. I mean it’s kind of just somewhat made up thing. So anyways, The Facebook Effect is an authorized book about Facebook. So it’s going to naturally slant the other way since it’s authorized because this reporter have the cooperation of Mark Zuckerberg and a bunch of other people. And so he’s naturally more of a fan of theirs and slanted to their benefit. But it was really interesting to hear the kind of the flip side to the story about basically all the lawsuits that came about because of Facebook and how many times Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook were sued and to hear his side of the story.
[03:56] So it’s definitely not anything you’re going to listen to and it’s going to help you launch your micropreneur endeavor, build a product or anything. But if someone is looking for entertainment and then to get maybe a different side of the story I definitely was fascinated by it. And I was also impressed with some elements of Zuckerberg’s ability to dig into the social graph and frankly his persistence in the early years of getting Facebook off the ground.
[04:17] Mike: That’s really cool. I mean I watched The Social Network probably less than a month ago. There were a lot of things that went on I just really questioned how accurate they were. I figured they were some embellishment, but I didn’t necessarily figure out how much or kind of look into how much. So that made what you just said kind of make a lot of sense that it was dramatized forHollywood. But you know it’s interesting that there’s something else out there that you can kind of read the other side that’s a little bit more I’ll say official.
[04:45] Rob: Yeah. And to be honest, The Social Network is one of the few movies I purchased in the past five years and normally I just do streaming and rental and stuff. I really like The Social Network as a film. It like motivates me and I actually like the way the characters are portrayed. I love the dialogue. It’s written by Aaron Sorkin who is probably my favorite writer, television and film. So I actually like the movie at a lot. I mean even Aaron Sorkin said he’s never used Facebook. And it’s kind of hard to write the movie about the product without at least having an idea of the product cause it’s a pretty key part of the story.
[05:17] Mike: Yeah. I can definitely see that.
[05:18 ] Rob: What else is going on with you? What’s the update on AuditShark?
[05:23] Mike: That’s a pretty disappointing story right now. I mean between the contractor woes and trying to rework the database that I talked about last week, there’s two different sides of the database that have to be worked is the client side application and then the service side application. And to date I haven’t really distributed the client side application to anybody yet because there are authentication issues that I’m still dealing with. I just don’t have a mechanism for people to log into it and authenticate to the server. It’s not that there’s any security problem. It’s just there’s no security on it right now.
[05:54] So there’s no way to synchronize things between your local database and the server which is why I’ve been working on this stuff. And unfortunately until there is that mechanism in place I really can’t publish policies out to the server easily because there’s a web interface for building them but you have to go looking the database to find the guid of different things that you’re looking up and different objects. And it’s just not intuitive and it’s really really hard to use. I mean the customers just definitely couldn’t use it. So I would say I’m pretty far behind in terms of where I’d like to be right now. It just kind of take time to plug through it. I mean the early access customers that I’ve talked to and have it install and its up and running on their machines, it’s just not really doing anything.
[06:36] And it’s not going to be able to really do anything until I get to the point where the synchronization stuff is working and I can push those policies out to the server. And I had thought that being to do it on the server itself through the web interface was going to be enough. And later on I kind of realized that’s just not the case because you need to have the guid of some of these different objects to work with and nobody has access to them except for me because they’re not surface through the user interface for the customers.
[07:03] Rob: Right. This is why you do early access right. It’s like so good to be in the hands of the customer because as of two weeks ago you’re like I’m pretty much done with this thing and then they start using it. And this always happens, always, always with every project that I’d launched. So it’s good that they come up. If none of these comes up, it’s like I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. If you launch it, it’s like wait a minute. There’s no bugs. These people aren’t using it. If we haven’t found kind of like the major design flaw in the first week then I’m skeptical. So you say it’s disappointing but to me it’s almost to be expected. I guess it depends on how much time it actually takes you to fix. That could be the disappointing part. If its 40 hours of coding that’s a real bummer. It is what it is. I mean it’s certainly common stuff.
[07:45] Mike: Yeah. About 40 hours is probably ballpark accurate.
[07:49] Rob: Yeah, that is. That’s going to be tough. Hey we already got suggestions for our Startups for the Rest of Us drinking game. We got them from our editor. She has first look at all of our podcast. She says I’m all for a drinking game for the podcast. Drink when and then she list nine things. When Mike says to be perfectly honest. I think that’s a great one. When Rob says shout out. When either Mike or Rob tells people to be succinct and then goes on for another minute about being succinct. When either Rob or Mike mentioned their kids, mentioned their wives, mention the weather, say the word AuditShark, HitTail or Do Net invoice. When Mike says not a whole heck of a lot. When either say that about wraps us up. So awesome suggestions and as Mike says last week if you have any other suggestion we should incorporate into this Startup for the Rest of Us drinking game please do send them over.
[08:42] Mike: Have you noticed that I did not say to be perfectly honest or not a whole heck of a lot so far.
[08:47] Rob: I know. You didn’t. I guess that about wrap us up for that segment. Oh nailed it. I want to give a shout out to, how else do you say that.
[08:56] Mike: I don’t know, head ups. I have no idea. I don’t know what you’d say.
[09:01] Rob: Well we want to extend some special thanks to Eric Foster fromPortland,Oregon. He left a very complimentary call on our voice mail line. It was just kind of thanking us for the podcast, telling the things he liked. Yeah, we really appreciate hearing from you even if you don’t want us to publish it on the podcast. It just meant for us it still is great to hear people’s voice and maybe it’s more convenient to if you listen in the car just to dial up the number at the end and that was really cool. Thanks Eric.
[09:26] Mike: You know I forgot to mention on last week’s episode that I’m headed to the Business of Software Conference. And that’s a little unfortunate because by the time this episode goes live people will already be at the conference and they won’t hear me say hey if you’re there get in touch with me.
[09:39] Rob: Yeah.
[09:40] Mike: Oops.
[09:42] Rob: Yeah. It would have been nice to have it last week. So BOS next week. Very cool. Well I’m not going this year so I hope to have a full report in the following episode which I think will be 101; episode 100 listeners keep your eye out for it. We have some special guest coming on to assist us with that.
[09:57] Mike: I’ve been catching up on a lot of my podcast while I’d been traveling lately. And I listen to an episode of TechZing earlier this week and I was extremely disappointed. It was the wives episode where your wife…
[10:10] Rob: Yup.
[10:11] Mike: Yeah and it wasn’t the episode itself that was disappointing. I mean I though the episode itself was actually quite outstanding. But what I’m disappointed about is that you don’t bring out your feminine side on this podcast.
[10:21] Rob: Oh my gosh. [Laughter] And if you haven’t heard that, listen to that. Let’s see. She also said I like Project Runaway, right?
[10:28] Mike: I thought it was the Bachelorette.
[10:30] Rob: No that’s Jason Roberts cause I gave him crap about liking the Bachelorette in comments. And he said, “Hey, she said you like Project Runaway so you’re not one to talk.” Well Mike…
[10:41] Mike: I was listening to that episode and I’m just thinking to myself I am so glad my wife didn’t go on that episode.
[10:49] Rob: You know I got no editing say over what was said and actually Jason and Justin didn’t either.
[10:56] Rob: Let’s dive in to the listener’s question.
[10:58] Mike: So the first one comes in from Jeff Nobel and he says first off love your show. It’s really the very best podcast in the micropreneur vertical. I think we’re the only micropreneur vertical, isn’t it?
[11:10] Rob: Yeah. I think so.
[11:11] Mike: Naturally we’re the best but we’re also the worst. So it says “I can’t tell you how much I learn driving back and forth to a job I hope to eventually not drive back and forth to. I started working out a project over a year ago and I’d been working alone until about two months ago when I asked a friend to join me. I’m a senior software engineer. My friend is a great asset on the business side. I’m concurrently dealing with two issues so naturally I have two questions. The first is I currently have a site I paid a contractor for very early on the project but it just doesn’t work anymore. I had way too much content and the old design doesn’t give me a place to put it.
[11:42] I’m not a web designer and I know my limitations. If I go with the contractor via oDesk what’s the best way to work with them. Do I send screenshots of what I have and scribble what I’m looking for? Do I give remote access somehow? And if so, how do I protect my code? How can make sure that the html they provide will cut off well with master pages and is developer ready.” And there’s a few other related questions here. But I think there’s some basics of working with contractors via oDesk to get web pages build. And Rob you’ve done this a lot as well as I have so why don’t you kind of give your feedback first.
[12:13] Rob: Sure. So it sounds like he hired someone to build a site for him and the site is breaking like the layout comes apart when he adds dynamic content or something. And so frankly the first contractor didn’t do a very good job. It sounds like to me because this should not happen. So my thoughts if I had a site that did this and I felt like the first contractor was easy to work with and was good, the original person who built this, then I would frankly go back to him and let him know that you know what’s going on and the site actually isn’t working and figure out if you guys can work something out.
[12:46] Again assuming that he was reasonable, easy to work with, and you had a decent relationship. Maybe you don’t pay full rate for that stuff maybe you pay a discounted rate or he does some stuff for free. Because realistically just throwing up a site that doesn’t actually fully work, you know when I was working for people. You didn’t do that. I guaranteed my work. The second thing if that doesn’t work out, I would look on oDesk. I’ve found some several good CSS and html and designers on oDesk. If was in your situation, I would find someone who look reasonable, hire them. And I would probably start, yes I would give them access to the server. You asked do I get remote access or how do I protect your code.
[13:25] If you have a bunch of custom code with a custom database maybe you need to think about that. But really if it’s just html pages the odds of someone stealing your html pages is very small. So obviously, it depends on your risk tolerance. But I mean I’ve worked with 15 or 20 contractors in the past 5 to 7 years and almost unequivocally especially if the site is not live, yes, I give remote access. Because the more of a barrier and bottleneck you are trying to manually shuffle pages back and forth or something, the less it’s going to get done and the more frustrated both he, the contractor and you are going to be. So in terms of sending screenshots or what you’re looking for I tend to record a screen cast if I think that that’s going to be helpful, you know, if I can talk through what I want.
[14:13] If I need something more written then yeah I would actually probably I would consider marking things up like a paint program like paint.net or Photoshop. You know taking screenshot of your current situation and then marking it up or I would even print them out. This is going to sound so Archaean but I would print them out and I would handwrite comments on them. I’ve done that before. I found it a lot faster and I’m a lot better at that than using a paint program and then scan them back in and send them as a spec.
[14:41] I don’t know that you need much more than that. It really does depend on your changes of course. But that’s how I would begin to approach it. And yeah it depends a lot on your success with this project depends a lot on how good the contractor is that you find. And so that’s the key and we’d talked a lot about how to do that in the past.
[14:57] Mike: I’ve gone through some of this recently and what I ended up doing was I actually hired two people. And it sounds like Jeff is a position where he has a full time job, so he’s already spending job in the car and at work everyday. And that’s cutting into his time. So because this type of stuff is not necessarily core to your product, I mean it’s important to make your product look good because that’s what helps to sell the product. But I feel like these are the types of things that you should definitely outsource completely. I mean you shouldn’t be spending your time taking the designer stuff and put it into the program. What you really should be doing is and this is kind of what I did. I actually hired two people.
[15:37] I hired somebody who was just a designer and then I had him hand his stuff off to a developer, who put into a visual studio projects and created all the master pages and the basic layouts of everything. And then as I integrated that stuff into my code, into my source code, for the actual application then if there were problems with anything I would send them back and just kind of go through that process again. I put those two contractors directly in touch with each other. I said if one of you had questions, go to the other, talk to each other, log the time. I’ll pay you guys for it. That’s fine. And then just walk through that process.
[16:12] In terms of access to my server, I did not give them to my access to my server. What I did was I set up an automated built system where when they were working with things it would automatically deploy it into a development area that would go live but they didn’t have direct access to the server. So if anything in that deployment broke, it was up to them to essentially push code back into an [0:16:32][inaudible] source code repository and then the build will automatically kick off shortly and then it would deploy it to the web server and then they could see those changes live on the server.
[16:43] So that’s kind of how I dealt with most of things. But I think that making something look good is something that you definitely want to outsource to contractors that are going to do that. Because it’s not to say that it’s a waste of time but it’s just not the best use of your time.
[16:55] Rob: Right. And I think in terms of accessing the server I think he’s concern because he has existing code. It looks like he might have some custom code that’s been written. And you know he has how do I protect my code. I mean to be honest there is no way to protect your code. I mean try to give people access only to a single directory. But it’s never been worth my time to do that. Cause what are they doing to do? They’re going to take your code and do what sell it on the black market. Like no one wants it and if they try to compete with you, you need to be able to out market them. There’s going to be competition anyway so.
[17:26] Mike: I wasn’t worry about that so much as I was about them having access to like the other products I have on my server and production data from other products.
[17:35] Rob: That’s totally different. Yup, I agree. He has a non-production site and he just has you know I’m assuming he has this custom code for this web app he has. Now for you I agree if I have like a production like the HitTail server I don’t give contractors access to that. But I have a subversion repository that has the code in it. And when I get a new contractor I do just a simple four-hour project and if we communicate well and I trust him, he gets access to the whole thing. And he could feasibly pull the entire HitTail code base down to his box. You know at this point what is he going to do with that. That’s the question I have for you. What is the risk? So I’m not saying there’s no risk but for me if I’m going to have people working on my stuff they need to have access to it.
[18:20] Mike: Yeah and I think to kind of get around the server side access as well. I mean you could, if it’s a Linux box I mean there’s tons of places where you could just standup a Linux server for a really cheap price for a month or two months or however long it takes for this project to go. If it’s Windows it’s probably going to be more expensive. But again if you have somebody working 10, 15, 20 hours a week and you start weighing the cost of them for let’s say the 10 hours a week that’s a $100 a week. You got $400 a month. What’s the Window server going to cost you for a month, $50 or $60? It doesn’t seem to me like setting up a staging server for them to use that they have full administrative access to is a big deal.
[19:00] Rob: And then I think the last question of this part he asked about I purchased templates long ago. They looked great till I put dynamic content in them and then the whole layout came apart. How do I manage that with oDesk? And I think the bottom-line is you need to find a good designer/html CSS person and think about it as an ongoing relationship. So don’t think here’s this two week gig, go do this, and then you leave and you move on and then you’re stuck without someone to maintain it. This stuff always requires maintenance.
[19:31] All the designers I worked with who do designers CSS work for me I’m pinging them once a month for little changes or tweaks or fixes, browser issues. There’s always new stuff. There’s maintenance that comes up. So don’t think about this as a single project. Think about it as an ongoing thing. It will have an upfront stuck of hours. But then beyond that try to build a relationship with this person, you are going to be working with them ongoing a few hours a month. That’s a great part about oDesk is that it’s fairly easy to do that. You just ping them for a task and then you get only billed for what they work on. So that is one of the big benefits and I think keeping that mindset in place helps you get the setup from the start.
[20:10] Mike: And what you just mentioned they’re extremely important in terms of browser compatibility. Cause there’s been all kinds of things that I run into where I’ll see something or somebody will say something say hey this doesn’t work. I go in my browser and say what are you using? I’m using IE9. Okay. Well I just send it over to verify it, then just send it over to the designer and say hey this isn’t working in IE9 what can you do? And he just sends me a new set of CSS files. I just add them back to the site and I’m done.
[20:38] So Jeff’s followup question to that is my project relies on data from users. It’s a site that shares information from one user to another. I supposed forums may have some of the same issue but in your opinion what’ the best way to populate the site when it’s new. My biggest fear is that people will find the site once its launch, see it’s basically empty and then bounce, goes the graft. One idea I had was to populate the sites content locally myself and focus on marketing locally only in the beginning. But I worry that the overall products will suffer in markets that I have not put effort into yet. The web is a big place.
[21:09] Rob: Now you talked a little more with him, right. And then did you get an idea more of what he’s talking about, some specifics.
[21:15] Mike: I did. The best example that he gave me was something he called GasBuddy. Cause he didn’t want to share exactly what his product was or product idea was. So the best example that he gave was GasBuddy where if you’re not familiar with GasBuddy, it’s essentially an application where you go in and you can find cheapest gas prices in your area. And what that really relies on is people who lived around the country seeing these prices entering them and helping to keep the information up to date.
[21:46] So let’s say that you lived in an area of the country where nobody was using it, if you’re the only one using it then you got no data to go off of and you’re left with this chicken and egg problem. Where you’re relying upon the users to provide data but until they start providing that data, you’ve got nothing to share with people. So it’s definitely a chicken and egg problem.
[22:05] Rob: Yeah. If was going after something like this similar to GasBuddy, first you do have to have it populated. You’re exactly right. If people come in and there’s nothing there, they’re going to bounce. So a couple of approaches that come to mind is the first thing that you need to some type of motivation for people to take that. Even if its 5 or 10 seconds you need to have to motivation for them to do that. So gamification is a buzz words these days. You know it hold some value to have like a leader board of like these people are the leaders in these cities or these geographic areas whatever you divide them up to be.
[22:37] And people can compete against each other and they get a badge on the site if they’ve done the most updates. It’s kind of like being a mayor inFour Square. And Stack Overflow is another great example. They really focus on offering some type of benefit even if it wasn’t monetary. You know it was just prestige. It was just being good at something and being publicly recognized. So that’s an idea of how to get people motivated. Now I think initially that doesn’t mean anything if there’s no one on the site. So you’re going to have to do, well a couple of ideas come to mind.
[23:07] One is to go to Craigslist in each of the, maybe go up to top 10 metro areas. It depends on how much time you had to do this. But you can do the top 10 metro areas or top 20 metro areas assuming you’re in theUS. You can find that list and then go those Craigslist and post and ask people to do this. And initially you very well may have to pay them. You have to figure out a price point that works for you but you have to get that data in there. Since it doesn’t rely on your geography, you can’t just go, typically I would say if you just had form I would go and hire some people.
[23:35] If it’s a form for designers I would go to oDesk. I would hire 5 or 10 designers and I would get some discussion started and i would ask them to participate. Or, if I had an audience of designers, actually a good example isMicropreneurAcademy. There are forms in there and before anyone got in there I didn’t want dead forms before I launch it and so I had five charter members who people I’d been emailing with and I let them early and we had a bunch of discussions. So that the forms were reasonably populated when folks got in and they were like people are already posting.
[24:02] So if you have an audience that can do this, all the better. But my guess is you wouldn’t be asking this if you had an audience. So I do think initially you’re going to have to hire to do that. Now if there’s other sources of data that you could either buy or scrape to kind of get the thing populated initially, that would be another idea if you could do that online. This is really hard app to launch cause it has a true two sided market that you’re trying to get people to post data and take time to do that. Most people don’t want to do that.
[24:29]And then you’re also going to have to try to attract people to come and consume the data right because you’re going to presumably have ads or affiliate links or some ways to make money from this. And it’s a lot of work. You know without experience doing this before it’s going to be tough to get it off the ground well and to get both sides of the market coming at the same time. And it’s also going to be hard to do part-time without some help. So you definitely I think you’re going to need some budget to get people on there helping you.
[24:55] Mike: The other thing that comes to mind is if you’re building a mailing list you could ask them to fill out a profile beforehand and essentially as part of that mailing list maybe you have a thousand or two thousand people in there. And you ask everyone to fill out a profile. And of the people who do fill out a profile then what you could do is you can take that information and concentrate on different clusters of people and populate data explicitly related to where they are in the country or their interest or however your application actually works.
[25:27] And then from there just invite those people to kind of start with and then once they get in there, they’re using it. The people who come in after them are not going to see kind of a blank slate unless all the data that is truly localized. If you’re just relying on the specific group of people providing information that another group of people are going to use then you’re going to have to start somewhere.
[25:49] Rob: Yeah and I guess that’s the other approach you could take is really just doing one local area and doing in the one where you live cause you have real feet on the ground and you have probably friends, acquaintances in the area who can also help out. And so just to test the idea and to see if it’s viable at all, you may want to start with that. And truly starts small with it and then once you plan that out and I figure out how much traffic you can get for that area then you can say well is this worth scaling out to the top 20 cities in the US or is the idea not, you know does it not work. Kind of as an afterthought I think that maybe what I’d do unless the idea specifically doesn’t allow for that.
[26:25] Mike: So Jeff thanks for the call. Hopefully that helps you out.
[26:31] Mike: So our next question comes from Joshua [Hermann]. And he left us some voice mails. Joshua also emailed us about a week later and gave us some additional information. So here’s the voice mail that he’d left us.
[26:40] Joshua: Hi, Mike and Rob. My name is Josh and I’m looking at starting up my own business, working with some friends in getting it off the ground. In episode 75 a listener had brought up a question about patenting and if it was important. I was looking at doing that myself. And then in the search ended up finding out that said patent was already filed. Of course at this point that’s making me a little bit weary because my entire business idea kind of based around one of the processes that sounds like that it might be on.
[27:10] Is there any suggestions that you have if it looks like an idea that you know once was noble now is potentially patented by someone else and might get you in a little trouble. Now I love to hear what you guys think. Thanks for the show. It has been a great help for someone like me who’s looking to start up his first software based business. So thank you very much and have a good day.
[27:32] Mike: I don’t know this is kind of an interesting problem with patents. I never applied for patent and I think that you had said at one point that HitTail had a patent application in progress or some of its designs.
[27:44] Rob: That’s right. It did. Yup.
[27:45] Mike: Was it even worth pursuing though?
[27:47] Rob: Not really. I let the patent app expire.
[27:50] Mike: But I think having a patent versus what he’s referring to is somebody else has a patent on something. And he’s wondering what he should be concerned about, are there other ways around it. Should he try to buy the patent? I think there’s a lot of issues here that need to be dealt with. So I think you and I are probably both in agreement on our stance and feeling on patents. I mean software patents especially are just ridiculous. I mean there’s no way that 95% of these software patents should even be allowed in any way, shape or form. Unfortunately, because the patent office really just has no clue when it comes to software, they look at it as if it was a physical product. And they just really don’t know what they’re doing so they’re just rubber stamping a lot of these things without really looking at them in depth.
[28:35] Which we end up with is patents that have been approved for things like one click ordering systems. Sure, Amazon has that and allows you to just order something with one click but big deal. I mean that’s not exactly a novel concept. So I think that there’s a lot of these patents out there that are just garbage patents. But unfortunately as a micropreneur you may need to not only be aware of them but be aware of the risk that you may be getting sued over something that you have invented. So I think that for this particular one though I would be hesitant to give specific advice about whether or not you should try to buy this patent or try to fight it or just ignore it.
[29:15] That’s something that I think that you really need to talk to an IP lawyer about and find out from him what are the risk associated with. Is your idea realistically overlapping enough to the point that you stand a good chance being sued or are those risks minimal? And then judging from your own risk tolerances, figure out whether or not you’re willing to accept those risk and do it anyway or are they high enough that you want to make an attempt to buy the patent or just walk away from the idea and go for something else.
[29:45] Rob: Yeah. This really depends on your risk tolerance. Like Mike said we just can’t give specific advice about something like this cause there’s just liability involved. Let me say that I don’t know of an app that you could build these days that does not break some type of pattern or infringed some type of patent because some of the patents, a lot of the patents software patents that had been granted since 1998 when they became legalized I’ll say. Before that you couldn’t patent software. You could copyright it but you couldn’t patten any elements of it. And I have to be honest I’m heavy heavy opponent of software patents because they’ve gotten so out of control, because they’re so highly technical and because the patent and trademark office has allowed these obvious lot of obvious patent to get through.
[30:28] And some of them are so broad there’s no way that you can build an app without violating them. So I bet every app that I owned violates multiple patents if you actually went and dug. Because there are things that are patented that are like sending data back and forth between a mobile device and server. You know things like displaying search result in a table that’s sortable by clicking links at the top. Well if you have any type of applications that displays search results that’s how we display them and that’s how we’ve always done it. You put it in a grid and everyone knows you click the top to sort. So yes could I be sued tomorrow? Absolutely. Almost anyone could. And if in fact once you hit a certain size your chances of being sued are very high because all the patent issues and patent trolls and such that’s flowing around.
[31:14] So that’s my general thought on the situation. It needs to be fixed and it’s going to be so hard to do so because these patent trolls that are lobbying congress and trying to keep this stuff in place and the law today does say if you have this patent that it’s really hard to overturn. So I think a couple of things to think about if you do something and it never takes off then yeah your odd of being sued are probably pretty low. If you do something and it grows to 500 or 10,000 a month your odd of being sued are probably pretty low just because you’re not really on anyone’s radar. You know as you grow bigger then yeah the odds of you being sued period for anything for any of these patents, not just the one that Josh was pointing out, they absolutely go up. So again it comes down to risk tolerance.
[32:03] Mike: Our next question comes from Matt White and he says Rob I know you’re a busy man so I’ll try to keep this brief. I’ve read your book, loved it and started a small shuttle business with some friends. We decided early on that we wanted a phone number on our website wenatcheevalleyshuttle.com. So that people would feel like they can trust us and call to make sure we are real. The problem is we get a lot more calls than we expected and a lot of these people want to book our shuttle over the phone. We usually just do the booking for them but it’s very disruptive to our day. It’s not enough calls to justify hiring someone and I’m not aware of any call center that would want a contract that only sends them 15 to 20 calls a day.
[32:34] We would really like to get as many of these people as possible to book on the site instead. We could take down the number but we’re afraid we’ll lose a significant number of sales that way. We could charge an additional fee for booking over the phone but that only solves the problem halfway because it doesn’t reduce call volume, just call duration. Any suggestions or ideas? Thanks for everything Matt White. So, I think that this is one of those things where you could actually turn to a software solution for it. And if memory serves me correctly if you sign up for a Twilio account, you could probably build essentially a call center software solution that would do exactly this for you and could walk people through the essentially booking your shuttles for them.
[33:16] Rob: Nice like an IVR system interactive voice response where it’s like push 1 to book now and then some numbers for a date or whatever.
[33:24] Mike: Exactly. The other thing that I can think of is if you check with grasshopper.com they do small business phone systems and they may very well have something that’s similar to this that would just be out of the box that you wouldn’t have to build yourself. Twilio provides a lot of developer API that would make it possible for you to build this type of thing but Grasshopper may very well have something that’s already pre-built that you just do some customization to it and that maybe enough. It kind of depend on how much time and effort you want to put into this and how much pain you’re willing to go through doing the development yourself or outsourcing it I guess.
[34:02] Rob: Yeah. I have two thoughts on this. The first is to test and to not pick up the phone for one week and leave a voice mail message that tells people that they should book online that you’re currently not accepting reservations over the phone and see what happens. See, you know, watch the volume and you maybe need to do a two week test. But it may be you’ll know after one day. If suddenly your bookings plummet then you know to undo it. But I would test to see what kind of impact that has because of these calls really are impacting your ability to work then it may be worth your while to lose a few reservations. The other thought I had is that I’m sure you know your net profit margin per booking.
[34:41] And so if you make let’s say $5 per booking which I imagine is low and you’re getting 15 phone booking a day then you don’t spend up to $75 and not lose money. So obviously you want to spend less of that but that does justify potentially hiring someone to just handle the calls. And what I would think about doing, the way I would handle it is I would go to oDesk. I would find someone who takes inbound phone calls. I would post the project and I would say this is inbound call answering and reservation taking on an as needed basis. And I can almost guarantee on people that are on oDesk who do this.
[35:16] And I don’t know to be honest how they build, if they build per incoming call that would probably my guess is they would charge you per call and they just have to be around to answer for these eight or ten hours of the day whatever you specify. So that way if you do make $5 or $10 per call and you’re paying them too then you know scales up and down and you’re paying someone just to sit around. So if you find someone I would tend to look in theUSif you’re in theUSbecause you want the same time zone and give them a Skype number that dials over to them or use Grasshopper like Mike said. But I actually don’t think it’s a very hard problem to solve.
[35:52] Mike: So Matt thanks a lot for your question. I hope that the answers that we gave you will help kind of push you in the right direction.
[36:00] Mike: So this one comes from Mark and he says hi guys what’s up. First of all, I have to say I love the podcast. Not only does it provide me with actionable advice. It has also broadened my understanding of what a startup can be. The industry leads us to believe we have to aim extremely high, work crazy hours, and take huge risk but personally that doesn’t sound too interesting to me. I really enjoy work but I don’t want to be enslaved by it. My question is with regards to leveraging your Twitter and Facebook accounts to increase brand awareness, draw traffic to your site, etc. How often should you post update? Share too much ad people might unsubscribe, share too little and you’re wasting opportunities.
[36:32] To give you a little bit more background info on my particular case. I run a site called Beta List that covers pre-launched startups. We currently post about three posts a day and apart from the site itself, RSS, and the daily newsletter, we also share this post via Twitter to 9,000 followers and 700 Facebook fans. So that’s about three posts per day. I’ve been thinking sharing relevant links podcast, videos, popular post on the site etc. but I’m hesitant actually doing this as I’m not sure that’s what people subscribed for. I’m afraid this might hurt my company’s reputation. I’ve asked people and the response was mixed. What’s your experience? Am I worrying too much? Looking forward to your response, Mark.
[37:07] Rob: So my thought on this is especially with Twitter and Facebook, it’s kind of a stream of consciousness mediums anyway that when I subscribed someone on Twitter if they start posting more or they start posting something I didn’t exactly sign up for I don’t even think most people are going to notice to be honest. I think the only time you might run into unsubscribe is the email newsletter if someone signs up for a specific thing, even RSS. It’s just people just take it as long as in their genre and you’re giving valuable stuff like you said you’re going to aggregating links, filtering, sharing podcast videos, popular post like that stuff tends to be helpful.
[37:44] And so I would bet that you will not see many people unsubscribed. Via the email newsletter, I would just take the plunge and test it and put it in, I mean you’re going to need to just try it out. Three posts per day I’m assuming to Twitter and Facebook that doesn’t sound like very much to me at all for an active kind of newsletter that covers a lot of startups. I mean you really have a lot of content to share. I don’t’ feel like ramping that up would be a big deal. So if I were in your shoes I would probably just ramp it up and see what happens and yeah you make it a few people that unsubscribed but my guess is you may also take on new subscribers because you’re putting out as long as long it’s quality valuable stuff and my guess is you might kind of grow a tighter more engaged audience especially if you can give them just better information than they’re getting elsewhere.
[38:26] Mike: Yeah. I would agree with Rob. The only comment that I would make is that if you’re looking to do this on your email newsletter I don’t know as I would send out three emails a day. I would probably send one that includes a bunch of information in it with links back to your site. And part of that is so that you can get those people back to your site to drive traffic for other things because people generally read their emails. I think it’s one of the few mediums that really really works well these days. If everyone screams and raves about Facebook and Twitter and how many followers they have for this or that. But the reality is most people don’t buy things through Twitter or Facebook but they read their email pretty intently because in and I think Patrick McKenzie pointed this out in one of his blog post.
[38:07] That one of the things that you’ll notice with email is that people treat their email as generally pretty important. So when your emails appear next to other things that are important, they’re going to treat that as being more important to them. And I think that’s a good distinction to have. But obviously you don’t want to abuse it when it comes to email because people do read it more. They do treat it with I’ll say a little bit more care when they’re looking at their email. So definitely make sure you scale back on the post per day for the email but the other ones I agree with Rob just start blasting them out there and kind of see what happens.
[39:45] And if things really do tank you’ll probably be able to measure that pretty quickly with 9,000 people and scale that back as needed. But again there’s so much stuff going through people’s Twitter streams that they don’t even see 90% of it. So even if you post three times a day, the only people that you’re probably going to turn off are the people who are on Twitter all day and chances are that’s just a drop in the bucket for everyone else. So Mark thanks again for your question. Our next question comes in from another Mark, Mark Snider and Mark says hey guys I have a question. Do you typically work on multiple endeavors at once or do you try to keep things focus and stick with one idea at a time. Love the show and keep up the good work. Mark fromMilwaukee.
[40:25] Rob: So Mike as someone who is doing Altiristraining.com, forum software, AuditShark, anything else?
[40:32] Mike: I don’t think so. I think that’s it. Well I think it’s hard. I don’t know if I would recommend it to be perfectly honest. I think most of mine are kind of different stages. It’s starting to come to a head I guess but I guess there’s a distinction to be made between running multiple startups versus having different small products. And I think you can attest to that as well. And the other distinction I would probably make is there’s a different between running them and starting them. Because if you’re trying to start multiple side businesses at the same time, it’s really hard to do that but just getting one to a point where it’s maintainable and then start in a different one and then getting that to a point where it’s maintainable is kind of completely different story.
[41:16] Rob: Yeah. I’ve always been pretty hard line about this that I never try to build and launch two at the same time. I never try to revamp two at the same time cause it takes so much focus and commitment and all that and it’s like you said if you get it to the point where it is kind of a maintenance mode it can still be growing but it doesn’t require all that upfront work to get the processes in place, to get the marketing going, all that stuff. Once that’s done it really does, the workload really does reduce quite a bit and it’s much more easier to automate or outsource large chunks of it.
[41:48] I would absolutely not recommend trying to build and grow two endeavors at once but building one for a time and then putting in maintenance and doing another and then even coming to that first one at a later date once the second one is in maintenance mode I actually do that quite often. So Mike, do you feel like with your forum software and Altiris Training and AuditShark that that’s been like a detriment having too many things going on.
[42:11] Mike: I think that for the things that like for the forum software and the Altiris Training website I don’t pay nearly as much attention to them as I probably could. So because I’m not paying attention to them and it’s still I would say early on especially for the Altiris Training site I can probably squeeze more money out of it. I could probably optimize a lot more things but I’m not paying attention to it nearly as much so that’s not just happening. And then for the forum software that’s kind of a rebuild mode where I’ve had a developer whose been working on it and you know I’ve been making high level decisions and just kind of handing them off and saying here go do this.
[42:46] But because it really hasn’t gotten to the point until the past week or so where things I need to start paying attention to it, it hasn’t really been an issue. If I were trying to build all of them or trying to grow all of them at once I think it would be really hard just because of the level of effort that the marketing side takes. I don’t like to put it this way but marketing is kind of time sink. It can take you much longer amount of time to get you to where you want and it’s very very difficult to estimate. I would probably say it’s just as difficult to estimate how much time it’s going to take you to complete something from a marketing perspective as it is a very complicated program and problem because you don’t necessarily know when you end this.
[43:28]You can’t just say well I’m going to do search engine optimization and it will take me about six hours. Well chances are good that it’s going to take you a lot more than six hours. It can take you significantly longer and the problem is you don’t necessarily know when you’re done. And then couple with that it takes a lot of time to see what your results are. So it’s not like programming where there’s a defined end point for that sort of thing. But it may just be complicated to estimate. When you’re doing marketing it may take you two or three hours of work and then you wait a week to figure out okay well did that have any effect and then you have to measure it.
[43:59] So I think that those are two slightly different things and that the marketing side is much more estimate because there’s no hard ending to it. You just kind of have to make a judgment call and say I am done working on this because I have chosen to be done. So Mark thanks for sending in that question. Hopefully that helps you out. Rob, do we have anything else?
[44:15] Rob: That wraps us up for today.
[44:16] Mike: I think that’s a drink too. If you have a question or comment, you can call it in to our voicemail number at 1-888-801-9690 or you can e-mail it to us at email@example.com. Our theme music is an excerpt from “We’re Outta Control” by MoOt, used under Creative Commons. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes by searching for Startups or via RSS at StartupsfortheRestofUs.com where you’ll also find a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.