In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike talk about attending conferences, opening business bank accounts, project management tools, and more listener questions.
Items mentioned in this episode:
- Startups For The Rest Of Us Episode.167
- Startups For The Rest Of Us Episode.277
Rob [00:00:00]: In this episode of “Startups for the Rest of Us,” Mike and I talk about attending conferences, opening business bank accounts, project management tools, and we answer more listener questions. This is “Startups for the Rest of Us,” episode 315.
Rob [00:00:21]: Welcome to “Startups for the Rest of Us,” the podcast that helps developers, designers and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching and growing software products. Whether you’ve built your first product, or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Rob –
Mike [00:00:31]: And I’m Mike.
Rob [00:00:32]: – and we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. What’s the word this week, sir?
Mike [00:00:36]: Well, I recently added another MicroConf sponsor, and I don’t think we’ve talked too much about some of the previous sponsors that we’ve added. One I want to talk about this week is stagingpilot.com, and this one – the sponsor for it was from Hire Auto last year, and he sponsored – he didn’t really have a product at the time – his name’s Nathan Tyler. This year after coming to MicroConf, he validated his idea, went out there and got a bunch of paying customers. Now he’s got what seems to be a pretty viable product going with stagingpilot.com. Essentially, it’s all built around the idea of being able to automate the testing environment for a WordPress install. So, if you’ve got a series of plugins – maybe you may be running Agency or something like that – and you’re trying to build plugins and manage the WordPress infrastructure for some of your customers, it allows you to automate all of the different tests behind that, similar to like you might do unit testing, for example, to make sure that your deployments go well. This allows you to do it at scale for Word Press deployments. It’s a little different than what you would get from WP Engine, where WP Engine makes sure that the site itself works. This makes sure that the site isn’t all jacked up with all the different things, because obviously that can happen when you’re doing WordPress plugin development. I had a pretty extensive conversation with him about it, and how it fits into the audience, and I think it’s a really good fit.
Rob [00:01:52]: Awesome. And if you’re interested in becoming a MicroConf sponsor yourself as you’re listening to this, email us at email@example.com.
Mike [00:01:59]: So, what about you? What’s going on this week?
Rob [00:02:01]: Well, last Friday – I guess I should set the stage first here. As you scale an app up, you’re going to run into certain performance issues, you’re going to have certain bottlenecks, certain pages, certain cues, certain things that just slowly grow, and they get slower and slower over time. At a certain point, you just can’t wring any more optimization out of the code and out of the hardware. So there’s a couple things that we’re looking out and we’re seeing, like, “We’re going to hit that here soon.” DRIP’s obviously still doing well, and we’re ahead of stuff in terms of performance and in terms of spam complaints and such, but there’s been this one issue that we’ve been trying to solve, and it’s always been, “Well re-write this piece. Add another index. Add more RAM to the database.” By the time you get a quarter of a terabyte of RAM in your database and it’s still not performing the way you want it to, you’ve got to take a different approach. This thing, on and off, has been plaguing for us for, like, two years, but every three to six months we’ll see a decline, and then we have to come back and revise it. So, Friday afternoon, we were getting ready to take a really big plunge and do a major lind of overhaul, something that would’ve taken a lot of developer time and would’ve probably fixed this for good, but it would’ve added a ton of complexity to the database. We’re basically like, “If we don’t think of something better by Monday, this is what we’re doing.” It was, like, Friday at three, and Derek and I were just sitting there looking through the app. I was like, “What really are the pages that don’t work?” I kept saying, “What if we just load this asynchronously?” “What if we store this in a completely different database?” “What if” – I just kept throwing what-ifs out, and we were just bouncing back and forth. Then we eventually – it was almost like magic, but we stumbled upon this approach that was a massive breakthrough. As soon as Derek’s eyes recognized it, he looked at me, and he said, “That’s how we’re going to approach it!” It was a totally different approach. What was interesting is like the hair stood up on the back of my neck, and I could feel this electricity, like “We just stumbled on something that is an absolute game changer.” It seems like we have maybe one or two of these a year, is kind of what I’ve been saying. I think of when we realized automation rules had to go in the app, or workflows, or these other things. This isn’t necessarily a new feature, although it does allow us to build some other features, but it is just a complete game changer for us. It was stoked. Then four or five hours on Saturday we just could not stop talking about it. Then we were texting about it. Yesterday, it was like, “Oh, and this could also do this.” and, “This is how it’s going to change this.” I mean those moments – those are the moments I realize this is why I do products. I love those huge breakthroughs where you launch something epic, or you figure out how to solve a really hard problem, and you just figure out a completely new way to do it. It’ll take like one to two weeks. It’s actually not that much work. We think it’ll go pretty quick, but it was quite an eventful weekend, at least in our heads.
Mike [00:04:44]: And the interesting thing about that is that your customers will probably not notice it or see it [laughs].
Rob [00:04:50]: Yeah. Well, there’re some customers who are at the edge – in terms of list size and history – with us, who are just starting to see the cusp of this, and that’s where we knew, “We need to address this now before it gets bad.” But you’re right. The vast majority of our customers will never know. They just will know that it’s lightning-fast and, I guess, that’s thanks enough.
Mike [00:05:12]: Yeah. That’s one of those things like the typical story with an IT department. Whenever things are going well, they’re like, “Why do we pay you?” When things go wrong, they say, “Why do we pay you?” [Laughs].
Rob [00:05:22]: Yeah, [laughs] totally. Exactly. Obviously, it’s been a good few days because of that, but other than that I am actually leaving to go on my annual, semiannual – I’m not even sure – retreat. Since we moved to Minneapolis I haven’t been outside of the city, really. So I’m driving four hours north. I’ve heard that Lake Superior’s really pretty sweet. A lot of people have recommended it to me, and I’m looking forward to taking a couple days away from the family and just really relaxing. I haven’t slowed down since the acquisition started, really, so it’s been since January. I haven’t even thought about what’s next, in terms of for DRIP, or me personally, or all this stuff. So, I just feel like I’m backed up on the vision process for the next several months.
Mike [00:06:05]: Very cool. So, are we talking about this week?
Rob [00:06:07]: This week we’re actually resuming the questions that Corey Moss had sent us. He’s from gelform.com, and he sent us an email with a big chunk of pretty interesting questions. In fact, when we did a call for questions 10 or 15 episodes ago, we were down to basically zero questions in our queue, and now we have a nice chunk that’ll last us a little while. So, thanks to everyone who has sent us questions. Let’s dive into this first one. Corey asks, “Do you guys still go to conferences anymore aside from MicroConf? Do you still go to Business and Software? What do you hope to get out of them? Do the two of you really need more networking?” Then he has a smiley face there. How about you? Do you go to other conferences?
Mike [00:06:43]: Not as much as I used to. I think that probably four or five years ago I probably went to more conferences than I do now. I think at this point I tend towards the smaller ones, so obviously I go to MicroConf. I haven’t been to Business and Software, I think, in two years or so even though it’s kind of right in my backyard, but the audience is, I would say, not quite the best fit for me, just because I remember one of the last times I went there I sat down and somebody next to me introduced themselves and said, “Hey, I’m so-and-so, and they talked for a minute or two. So, what do you do?”
I said, “I write software, and I bootstrap a company,” and this and that.
He was like, “I’m a venture capitalist.”
I’m just like, “Okay. We don’t have much to talk to you about,” [laughs] and that was literally the end of the conversation. We really just did not have anything in common. I’ve started to find that that’s more common in the upper-end conferences that I go to.
I also go to the Big Stone TinyConf conference, which is coming up in, I think, January or February.
Rob [00:07:37]: Which is more like a ski retreat, right, with a dozen people. Yeah.
Mike [00:07:40]: Yeah.
Rob [00:07:40]: I almost wouldn’t call that a conference, because you don’t sit down in a chair and listen to talks and such.
Mike [00:07:45]: No, no. It’s a little different. I tend more towards the smaller gatherings of people, I think, these days.
Rob [00:07:52]: Why do you think that is?
Mike [00:07:53]: Lack of time, to be honest, and part of it’s just I like the aspect of being able to get to know people as opposed to going and sitting there as an attendee in an audience where the talks may not necessarily be relevant to me. I think that’s the general feeling I have for a lot of the other conferences that are out there. Obviously, MicroConf is kind of an exception to that just because it’s aimed at people like me, but there’s not a lot of other ones out there in that particular space, so that’s probably it for me. I do enjoy the networking opportunities, and so when I do go to larger conferences that’s probably what I spend the bulk of my time on; talking to other people, learning what they’re doing, listening to what other techniques that they’re finding are working or not working, and just generally getting to know more people. I think that those relationships provide you value beyond the conference and for years to come, whereas, like a conference you go sit down – and that’s kind, I guess, a weird take on it from somebody who helps organize a conference [laughs]. But that’s a lot of where the value comes from for people who’re attending MicroConf. It’s not out of line with that. I think that it’s just a recognition of the place I’m at now is a little different. Obviously, it’s a very different story when you’re paying for a conference out of your own pocket, versus you’re being paid by your employer to go to a conference and learn stuff and bring it back to the company.
Rob [00:09:12]: Yeah, I think it’s hard when – we’ve essentially designed MicroConf to be the conference that we want to attend, right? That was the original goal in 2011, and each year that’s the question I ask myself. So, we invite the speakers that we want to hear. We make sure the right people show up, and we build the schedule around what we want to do. It’s hard – considering it is my idea conference to go to – I have found it harder and harder to go to conferences that are not exactly that. Like you said, if you go to a conference in San Francisco – I went to Jason Calacanis’ launch conference. I like Jason Calacanis and what he’s up to and what he’s doing for the community, but the conference itself just wasn’t applicable to me. I was hoping to connect and network and stuff. I knew I wouldn’t get much out of the talks from the VCs that would necessarily apply to what I was doing. It was cool, but I probably wouldn’t go back – not because it wasn’t good, but because it really wasn’t for me. It wasn’t for me, where I’m at and where I want to go. I guess all this to say I do still go to conferences, but it’s only when I speak. That pretty much tends to be my rule now, and the reason is it allows me to network with the other speakers, and that tends to be what I’m there for now. I think that’s where I get the most value personally, based on where I’m at.
[00:10:25] With that said, I, like you, went to a ton of conferences. When it was basically earlier in my career when I was trying to learn all this stuff and I needed to meet more people. What are conferences good for? They’re good for meeting a lot of people, building your network, learning from the talks. I think those are the main things and main reasons you’re going to want to go. If you find that either the talks aren’t geared towards you, or the talks aren’t at the level of advancement, or sophistication, or whatever that you’re at, you tend to have less and value over time. I still think there certainly are good conferences to be had out there; and, again, if I was earlier in my career, I would probably be going to more, because you kind of have to say yes to everything at that point until you get your feet under you.
[00:11:02] All right. Next question from Corey is, “How do you organize your bank accounts for side or lifestyle business projects? And have you tried opening an online business account recently? It’s a fiasco?” I have tried opening an online business account recently, and it is a fiasco. I’ll agree with that. But, Mike, it’s been a while since you’ve, I guess, had side projects. You have a corporation, right? That’s no longer a side project, because that has to have its own bank accounts and everything. But did you ever intermingle stuff, like do sole proprietorship and have it in the same bank account? How did you do that?
Mike [00:11:35]: No. I’m trying to think. I think when I first started out I probably had things mingled together, but that was more than 15 years ago. I kept track of what was going where, and I didn’t do that for very long, to be honest. I really moved over towards having a dedicated bank account and dedicated credit card for the business itself back in ’99 or so. It’s been a long time since I’ve done that. I do things in my books to keep things separate. So if I have expenses for a particular project, or for a particular product that I’m working on, I do try to keep some of the expenses separate so that I know what I’ve spent on it and what the return on it is. So inside my books I’ll give my bookkeeper explicit instructions about, “This particular expense,” or “this type of expense goes for this product. This one goes over here,” and try and keep the different revenue streams separate so that I can at least see what I’m getting in terms of revenue from a particular product and what I’m paying out for that product. It makes it easier to figure out, “Is this making money, or is it losing money?” If you have everything mingled together then it becomes very difficult. sS I try to keep those separate, but there are times when things are not so clear-cut. For example, I have a couple of different webservers, and they’re not dedicated. I have five, or six, or eight different sites running on one of them for example; and they run behind several of different products. What do you count that against? I don’t really count it against anything. I just kind of say, “This is kind of a blanket infrastructure cost for the business, and I’m going to pay for it regardless of whether I’m running this product over here or not.” I try to do that just so that I get a sense of where I should be spending my time, or what the profit margins are on different things. I think that that’s a generally good way to go. I’m sure that there’s better ways to handle it, but at the same time is it worth me spending the time to figure out the optimal way to do that? Chances are probably not. It’s just not a good use of my time, and at the end of the day it doesn’t matter. I’m really just looking for some guidelines, or data points, that I can look at, and that’s it. I don’t need down-to-the-dollar things, because I’m not buying and selling a lot of different apps. If I were to try and sell one of them, I’d have to go back in there, and I’d try to figure out exactly how much – what percentage of my hosting costs were attributed to this or that, and that would be a lot more difficult; but you kind of have to do that. The other question he has is, “What sort of a fiasco is it to open up an online business account?” That’s a total mess. I mean it –
Rob [00:14:03]: I think that was just a declarative statement rather than a question, yeah.
Mike [00:14:07]: Yeah.
Rob [00:14:07]: Yeah, it used to be easier. I think the Patriot Act really jacked it up here in the States. I don’t know if the rest of the world sees that as well. I have to admit I started the [Numa?] Group, which was just consulting – it was freelance projects – in 2002, and I made it an LLC I think it was 2009. I had seven years when it was just a sole proprietorship, and it was because I didn’t have a ton of liability, based on my judgment. I wasn’t doing things that I thought could get me sued. During that time, I started off, like you, using my personal bank account – like the main checking account – and realized within a few months that that was a [glooch?]. Even if it was only 1,000 or 2,000 bucks a month in side income I just wanted to have in a different place. I just then spun up another checking account under MySocial, basically, and that is pretty easy to do, actually. To open one from scratch with a new EIN, like for a new corp, is a pain in the butt. But, honestly, with Bank of America, or Chase, or one of these banks, it can be just a couple clicks. You submit the thing, and then they’ll just have it open within a day or two. To be honest, if you’re just doing small side projects and, by your judgment, you don’t think you have a lot of liability, and you’re not going to do an LLC or a corp and you’re going to do just a sole proprietorship, that’s not a bad way to go. It all depends on – say it with me, Mike – “risk tolerance”. [Laughs].
Mike [00:15:19]: [Laughs].
Rob [00:15:19]: Remember when that seemed to be every episode for a while. Haven’t had to say that in a while.
Mike [00:15:23]: Yeah.
Rob [00:15:24]: Cool. Next question is, “Do you think swag makes a difference in marketing side/lifestyle business projects?” With “swag,” I’m assuming he’s meaning, like, t-shirts and hats and – I don’t know – USB sticks with your logo on it. What do you think, Mike?
Mike [00:15:38]: I would seem to think that it depends on the type of business. I almost feel like if it’s stuff that exemplifies the things that you are doing for your customers, then it can make a difference. For example, the business credit cards from moo.com, for example? I think that those are an interesting thing that you can give away, and it does exemplify what your work is, allowing people to either order a single, custom business card, for example. Or, maybe you send it to them as an example of what it is that you can do for them and say, “If you want more of these, we can print more, and here’s what the price is for them.” or, “Here’s a link to the other stuff that we do. In terms of giving away things like t-shirts, I don’t know. It depends on what the context is. I think if you have a targeted list of people, or group of people that you’re going after that are all going to be congregating in one place, then that’s good from the marketing side of things. If you’re looking to build rapport with your customers, or just to give them a little bit more than what your competition is giving them. Let’s say that you have some accounting software, for example, and for every person who signs up and they’ve stuck around with you for three months, you send them a free t-shirt. There’s a few things that factor into that. First one is the t-shirt – you don’t want it to be something that’s extremely cheesy. It can’t be something that’s low-quality that’s just going to end up in the trash bin because, ultimately, that’s actually going to reflect worse on you than if you sent them nothing at all. But if you send them a really nice one, they’re going to remember that, and they’re probably going to mention it to their friends.
[00:17:04] I also think that you have to be careful when you do that to not plaster your logo over the top of it such that it’s so inherently obvious that it’s an advertisement for you and for your product. You have to position them such that it’s something cool for them that they’re not going to be embarrassed by. I have no shortage of t-shirts that I’ve gotten at baseball games that I’ve gone to for the kids where some local health insurance company is handing out their t-shirts, and they’re like, “Hey, here’s a free shirt,” and I’m like, “Okay, great. Now I have a new dish rag.” [Laughs]. You have to be conscious of those types of things. I think that it can work. It just depends really on what your goal is. Trying to establish that rapport with customers – especially ones who maybe talkative online – if you have a business that lends itself to being talked about online, that could be useful for the advertising. At the same time, I would probably lean much more towards giving those types of things that are inherently useful to your customers that you want them to remember you by – not because you want to give them free stuff or want free advertising out of it, but because you want to be genuinely thankful like, “Hey, I just want to say I appreciate you as a customer, and here’s something for you.”
Rob [00:18:14]: Yeah, I agree. I think it’s not super important. I think if this doesn’t excite you to print t-shirts or to get swag made, you absolutely don’t need to do it for a lifestyle business project. It depends on what we’re talking about here. When HitTail got to the point where it was doing 20 or 25 grand a month, yes, I spent, I think $700; and I got 100 t-shirts made. They said “I survived Panda and Penguin” on the front. They had the HitTail logo on the back, and Derek designed them, actually, when he was still a contractor on HitTail. I did that because it was fun, and because I wanted to have t-shirts, and I was kind of proud that for the first ever I had budget to print t-shirts, and I was going to MicroConf, so I wanted to give them away to people. It was just something I was talking about. But do I think that those ever moved the needle for me by spending that $700? Probably not. It isn’t something that I would because you think it’s going to grow the business, per se. But I think, like you said, if there’s a lot of word of mouth and you do send it to the first – someone gets their first keyword suggestion, or their first conversion, or their first whatever, I think it’s kind of a fun thing to do. Maybe that’ll get you a tweet here or there. But overall, I don’t think this is a needle mover, and so if it’s something that’s going to be a distraction and is not fun for you, I would say don’t even bother with these with smaller projects.
[00:19:22] This next question is, “Are you guys still in mastermind groups? Anything changed in the way you run them or how you participate?”
Mike [00:19:29]: I am still in a mastermind group. I’ve experimented with having more than one mastermind group, and it didn’t really work out well for my schedule. In our mastermind group, we’ve tried changing the format a couple of times a little bit. It used to be the three of us would just go for about half an hour each, and then the call would end. We’ve recently transitioned a little bit to doing more of a hot seat approach where one person gets about an hour, and each of other two people get about 15 minutes apiece, and that’s worked reasonably well. Not everybody always needs to be on the hot seat, but we do alternate it, so if one person thinks that they need it then we’ll just say, “Okay, yeah, it’s your turn. You can have that slot,” so to speak. It’s a little bit of experimentation, I guess. I don’t think that enough has significantly changed that I would say, “Yeah, this is something that really moved the needle for us, and you have to try it out.” Things are just going as-is, and I think that that’s probably pretty common for most businesses, or most mastermind groups. It’s either working out or it’s not, and there’s not going to be some major changes that you introduce that are so earth-shattering on a fairly regular basis. There will occasionally be some things you try and they work out, and then there’s just things that you try out and they don’t.
Rob [00:20:37]: If you’re interested in our take on how to structure a startup mastermind, go to episode 167, which is “How to Organize and Run a Startup Mastermind,” and then episode 277, “Five Ways to Structure Your Startup Mastermind.” We’ll link those up in the show notes as well.
[00:20:51] My answer is, yes, I am still in the remote mastermind, right? I moved from Fresno to Minneapolis four months ago, so the one with Derek and I and Phil Dirksen in Fresno, since it was in person, we just decided to put it on hiatus for now. We do still video chat with Phil. It’s probably every month or two, and so we kind of do a mastermind. It’s just a lot less frequent. Then my other one has had some type of membership and stuff in terms of people coming in and out, but it is definitely still on. I really haven’t changed anything in our approach, because what we’re doing is working. Corey’s next question is, “Both of you seem to be doubling down on products.” That’s kind of funny. That’s the whole podcast, right? Since episode 1, [it’s?] doubling down on products. We have 315 episodes of doubling down on products. “What did you think of Justin Jackson’s experiment of 100 products?” Are you familiar with that at all, Mike?
Mike [00:21:44]: Yeah, I am.
Rob [00:21:44]: Yeah. What do you think?
Mike [00:21:46]: I think Justin’s experiment with 100 products – it’s a really cool idea. I think that it’s something that, if you’re not sure what you should be doing, I would definitely advocate that you try doing something along those lines. There’s a few different, major benefits of building that many products. The first one is that you learn quickly how to get a product out the door and how to launch it and move on to the next product. It’s not to say that you should always move on from one product to the next, but you get that feeling of being able to launch, you get the process down, and you become more comfortable with it, because I think when you first launch your very first product it’s difficult. You’re very hesitant, but if you have a schedule that you have to get 100 products out there as quickly as possible, you’re going to get over those fears because you absolutely have to. You have no other choice. In doing so, you start to develop an affection for certain types of products that you develop. Over time, you’re going to be able to see that – after pushing out 25, 35, 50 different products, you’re going to start seeing which ones resonate with people and which ones don’t just based on the sales and revenue streams and things like that, and you’re going to figure out, “Where are my talents best put, and where are there places where I just don’t do as well?” I think that those things will help lead you back to what should you ultimately end up working on. I think that there’s definitely cases where there’re some people who are probably better at just launching a bunch of small products, and that’s – I don’t want to say that’s all they do, because that’s obviously a lot of work – but there’s a certain type of person who is attracted to that because it’s always something new. I think you’ve mentioned in past episodes that you get bored by the same thing after two or three years. I’m kind of the same way, because you always want something new. You’re always looking for either the next big thing or, the new, shiny object, so to speak. If you have that to such an extreme extent that launching a new product every three or four days works out well for you, then great. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But that said, maybe you’re the type of person who only wants to work on a couple things, or you want to work on the same thing for several years and build it up and then maybe sell it off. Building that many products gives you a much broader view than if you only worked on one thing and that was it. It’s almost similar to somebody who’s worked as a consultant for 50 different companies. You’ve gotten to see 50 different companies; whereas if you’re building those products, you get to see 50 different products getting launched, and you get all the inside view on it.
Rob [00:24:10]: Yeah, I think if I was early in my career, I would consider something like this. I feel like 100 products is overkill, and a little bit of a – I don’t know – like a circus or something. A “sideshow” is probably a better way to say it, right? It’s like picking 100 is just this huge, almost ridiculous number. It’s going to get you a promotion, and so in that sense I think Justin did a good job, because I’m sure this raised his personal brand and such when people heard about it. But earlier in my career I would have totally thought it might be interesting to launch a product a month for 12 months, or something. I actually really dig in. I think as I’ve gone on in my career I’ve learned you have to focus on something for long enough for it to have legs. You really can’t bounce from one thing to the next, or else nothing takes hold. That’s just been my experience, and I prefer to focus on things really intently for, like you said, one, two, or three years, and figure out if they’re going to work and push them into that place. Imagine if we had launched Drip and then given it a month or two and then said, “Nope. Not growing. We’re going to bail on it.” Could’ve happened, because it wasn’t growing for the first several months, because we didn’t have product-market fit. It took six months or whatever after a grueling five-month launch. Then it took another six months to get to where we had product-market fit. Sometimes you’re pushing a boulder uphill, and I think if you’re going to do something big and impactful – and I don’t even mean “impactful” like a $100 million company. I just mean a mid-six-figure or seven-figure company. I think bouncing from one thing to the next is probably not the ideal thing, but then again, if you’re trying to learn quickly, I think that – and if you are not shipping, like you said, and you’re kind of scared of shipping, or you just haven’t gotten there – shipping a bunch of stuff will just get you over that fear. Our next question is for Mike. Corey says, “Mike, does your wife understand what you do? How about your kids?”
Mike [00:25:47]: I really don’t know [laughs]. I think, to some extent, yes – much more so than I would say that my parents understand what I do, because my parents, if you were to ask them what I do, they’d say, “Oh, he builds computers” –
Rob [00:26:00]: Right.
Mike [00:26:00]: – which –
Rob [00:26:01]: Isn’t really it [laughs]. You did that 20 years ago, right?
Mike [00:26:05]: Yeah, exactly. It’s just not quite the same thing. I think my wife probably has a much better understanding now than she probably did when we first got married, because when we first married I was still dabbling in a lot of different things and trying to figure stuff out. At this point, I’m full-time on the stuff, so I talk to her on occasion about what’s going on, or how different things are going, or what some of the different challenges are, so she gets it I would probably say much more so than our circles of friends, so to speak. Most of them, they’re probably going to say – if you asked them what I did, they’re like, “Oh, he works with computers,” but they wouldn’t necessarily really understand what it is that I do.
Rob [00:26:39]: Yeah. I think back when I was doing all the micropreneur staff and I had a whole portfolio of products, and I had all these websites – I had eight or nine things going on, and I was buying and selling, and I was upgrading and rehabbing and all this stuff – it was complicated, and most people didn’t get it. But once I had HitTail and once I had Drip I could just say, “Look, I have two sides of what I do, the personal brand side and the actual software side,” and then just to say, “I run an email marketing app” – most people get that. Actually, my ten-year-old gets it pretty well. I don’t know that he understands what I do day to day, but he has a pretty solid grasp of it, and I bet he could explain it. If someone asked my six-year-old, yeah, he knows I work on computers and I check email, which is kind of cool. Next question is, “Do you work from home or from coffee shops? Any experience with co-working spaces?”
Mike [00:27:22]: I work from home. I’ve tried working at a co-working space, but it didn’t work out for me mainly because I had to work from my laptop. I can work from my laptop, but I’m not nearly as productive as I am at home, because I’ve got a two-monitor setup. I’ve got a 30-inch monitor next to a 20-inch monitor, and although most of my environment is duplicated on the laptop, it feels too constrained and limiting for me – just because I don’t have the visibility, all the different windows and the giant monitors. It just feels different for me. If I’m sitting there writing an article or something like that, I can kind of get that type of work done, but for most other stuff where I’m alternating between different browser tabs, or working with marketing software, it just doesn’t really work for me. I’ve never really found the co-working space to be particularly helpful in that regard.
Rob [00:28:08]: Yeah, I worked from home pretty consistently for about ten years, and towards the end I was definitely feeling it. I just felt isolated and wanted to get out more, and so as Derek came onboard with HitTail and Drip and we started having co-workers locally, so to speak, even before we had an office, we used to meet at coffee shops and work. I always felt a little less productive, because I didn’t have the extra monitor, although I did use to bring an iPad. I forget what that app is called, but you can actually use it as an external monitor, which is kind of cool. Aside from that, we did do a co-working space. When it first opened, it was called “The Hashtag” in Fresno, and it was the only one for tech folks like us, and I signed up as a charter member. I didn’t work from there very much, but then that turned into the [Bitwise] office building that all of us were in in Fresno when we moved away. That was actually really cool to get a little office. It wasn’t very expensive. I could leave monitors there, so we bought extra monitors. We had desks. We had a door that locked. That was the way to go. If you can find something inexpensive enough, and close enough – it was less than 15 minutes from my house – and then that allowed us to have a dedicated space to really hammer on things, and to be able to collaborate. It was two of us in this 10 x 12 office. We eventually, I think, had four people in that office, although we had to alternate days because we couldn’t all fit in there at once. It was kind of funny, but I think co-working spaces are cool as long as – I’d really like one with an external monitor, unlike you, where I take that for granted these days.
Mike [00:29:32]: Yeah, there’s a co-working facility near me where you can essentially get a dedicated office. I think it’s around $400 a month for your own private office. I’m looking at their website now. One of them is – it’s $225 a month to get a dedicated desk, so then you could put additional monitors and stuff there, and it’s $500 a month for a private office. Either one of those options would probably work well for me, but there’s waiting lists for them. I’m just like, “Eh, well, whatever.”
Rob [00:29:59]: Yeah. We had that 10 x 12 office with the door that locked. We basically put two, and eventually three, desks in there. That was only like 250 bucks, and that’s the beauty of bootstrapping in a place that’s not expensive. Fresno is one of the cheaper areas of California, and that was a benefit, I guess. His next question is about project management. He says, “What project management style and tools do you use?”
Mike [00:30:24]: I’m not even really sure what this question means [laughs].
Rob [00:30:27]: What the style is? Yeah. Well, I’ll go first on this one. My project management style is to figure out what we’re building next. It’s very agile – with a lower-case “A” – meaning we move quickly. We don’t define – I don’t even know what we’re doing in three months, right? It’s basically a 90-day – give or take – idea of what we have, and the roadmap just exists with Code Tree, right? We’re in Code Tree. It’s just a – imagine it’s like GitHub Issues, but with a nice UI sprinkled on top. We enter things in there. We spec them out per issue, and then we basically have them in the order the developers should be working on, and they’re just working through their stuff. We don’t do sprints, where we gather them all up. When a developer gets done we all test it, and then we throw it into production. I don’t know precisely what that style might be called, but it’s definitely just a fast way to do things, because there’s not a lot of overhead. We’ll frequently go in and – if we have an idea, or if we know we need to do something – we will go in, write it on a whiteboard, everybody gets a round – “everybody” being two or three people- and then we take a photo of it and throw that in the issue. Everybody who is there knows what the sketches mean, and that’s our spec. We don’t write up – I remember writing up waterfall specs 10, 15 years ago that were these 40-, 50-page Word docs. Just insane to think about doing that these days, how long that took. Then in terms of tools, like I said, we use Code Tree, which is actually the app that Derek built on the side, and then he sold it. I interviewed him about it a few episodes ago. We used that to manage issues, and that has both a [Camp?] and Trello view, and it has a list view. The developers like the Trello view, and I, as someone who needs an overview, I like the list view of it. Then personally, for my own to-dos and stuff, I use Trello for that and then my Google calendar all the time. Good grief! I’ve so many events in there that, like, ping me at two o’clock on this day to think about this, or to go through this label in my Gmail, or to make sure to do whatever. I mean, half the things on my Google calendar are not meetings. They’re almost like reminders to me or things to be done.
Mike [00:32:23]: Yeah. Most of the development stuff that we do is all based out of FogBugz, so we keep everything in there. Then if anything needs to get done we just assign it somebody, and then we have a couple of what are called “virtual users,” where we’ll assign something to a virtual user because we don’t necessarily have somebody to work on it, or it’s just not something that is terribly important for us to work on right now. For example, inside the Blue Tick project, there’s this Blue Tick unassigned user. It’s a virtual user. If anything needs to go in the backlog, or we’re not sure what to do with it, it just gets assigned to there. Then we have a couple of other virtual users we use for certain things, but generally speaking, if it’s on our to-do list – things that are assigned to you tend to be no more than about ten or 15 items long. Then beyond that there shouldn’t be anything on your open, assigned list that isn’t something you’re actively working in the very short term. It should all be stuff like, “This has got to be done, and it’s got to be done soon,” and by “soon,” within the next two to three weeks or something like that. It’s kind of like you said. You don’t really look too much further beyond that, because the things that are there need to get done. I think if you get too many things on your task list, then things will start to get lost. They start to get pushed, and if they get pushed, there’s always going to be other stuff that surfaces up as more of a priority. Once that to-do list gets too long, you start to pay attention to it less. I think that the whole project management system is – and I don’t mean just FogBugz. I mean anything that you can possibly think of, once you get too many things on it, you start to not pay attention to them, because they’re so far down on the priority list, or there’s other stuff that always comes up. Some things will always fall through the cracks, and they’ll always end up at the bottom, and it’s almost worthless to have them there. That’s why we use our virtual users to just kind of shuffle those things off to the side so that we don’t have to worry about it.
Rob [00:34:08]: Yeah, I think you make a good point there, and that’s, I think, being disciplined about what you let in your issue tracker is a big deal. I think just, in quotes, “throwing” everything in there that any customer requests is a really bad idea. I think for customer requests you maybe can have a label in your support software. Like in Help Scout we have that. It’s says, “Feature Requests.” That’s okay. I think there’s hundreds and hundreds of them in there. But if something catches our eye as it comes in, and we think we really want to build it, we’ll throw it in unassigned. If it’s obviously a critical issue or a bug, we’re going to get to it right away, but not just polluting and overwhelming your list, and getting hundreds of things in your issue tracker. It just becomes unmanageable. I think that’s a good point you’ve raised.
Mike [00:34:44]: Yeah. The other thing that I use is I have a Teamwork account, and I use Teamwork quite a bit for any of my recurring tasks. I have a set of Marketing Monday tasks that are in there that are recurring tasks every week, and I know that those things need to get done, and as I finish them off I just go in and check them off. I also have a special project off to the side that I use for household chores, to be perfectly honest. As things need to get done, whether it’s vacuuming, or mowing the lawn – things like that – I have all of our vehicle maintenance and stuff in there, so every three to four months I have oil changes and stuff like that in there. It’s mostly for those things that you don’t think about it until it’s way past the time that you probably should’ve done it, so having those things surface to me at that time allows me to say, “Okay. Now I need to pay attention to this. This is something that I need to do,” as opposed to getting four, five, six months down the road and you’re like, “Oh, wait. Did I get the oil changed?” “Did I have the tires rotated,” stuff like that. I have a lot of regularly recurring maintenance tasks that’re in there, whether they’re business-related or non-business-related. Then I have different projects in there for some of the different things that I have going on. I also have a separate project in there specifically for my bookkeeper so that anything that I have that comes up as a – like if I have a receipt, I have a special forwarding address that I just forward it over there. Then I can just add a quick, little note that says, “This is for that.” It just cuts off additional overhead or communication emails back and forth between my bookkeeper, because I’ve already said, “This is what this is for,” and I don’t have to answer it down the road, or wait until she goes in, looks at the books and says, “Hey, what’s this WP engine thing?” or, “What’s this thing from Digital Ocean?” I don’t have to worry about it, because I’ve already given her a heads-up, “Hey this is what this is for.”
[00:36:22] I think that about wraps us up for the day. If you have a question for us, you can call it in to our voicemail number at 1.888.801.9690; or, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our theme music is an excerpt from “We’re Outta Control” by MoOt, used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us in iTunes by searching for “startups” and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode.
Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time.
Episode 273 | Company Identity, Using Accountability Emails, and SaaS Project Management
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike answer a number of listener questions including topics about company identity, using accountability emails, and SaaS project management.
Items mentioned in this episode:
- Screensaver Ninja
- Big Snow Tiny Conf
- How to build an MVP with Rob Walling (7 Day Startup Challenge)
Rob [00:00]: Alexa, add Chocolate Chip Cookies to my shopping list. Xbox, turn off. Okay, Google, search for Boston, Massachusetts.
Mike [00:12]: This isn’t working, I don’t think.
Rob [00:13]: In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Mike and I discuss company identity, using accountability e-mails, SaaS project management and we answer more listener questions. This is Startups For The Rest Of Us, Episode 273. Welcome to Startups For The Rest Of Us, the podcast helps developers, designers and entrepreneurs be awesome at launching software products. Whether you’ve build your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Rob.
Mike [00:42]: And I’m Mike.
Rob [00:43]: We’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. What’s the word this week, Mike?
Mike [00:48]: Hate mail for this episode’s intro can be sent directly to you for turning on people’s Xboxes and ordering Chocolate Chip Cookies.
Rob [00:54]: That’s Miketaber@gmail – cool. What’s going on with you this week?
Mike [00:59]: I’m gearing up and trying to get a couple of things hammered out before I head out to Big Snow Tiny Conf next week. If you don’t hear from me, I probably ran into a tree because I haven’t skied in a while.
Rob [01:10]: That will be fun.
Mike [01:11]: I’m probably not very good anymore.
Rob [01:12]: That will be cool, and that’s Brian Casel’s conference city puts on up in Vermont and then in then in Colorado.
Mike [01:18]: It’s in Vermont with Brad Touesnard, and there’s also a Big Snow Tiny Conf West that is now headed up by Dave Rodenbaugh. I know that Brian Castle is involved with that. I don’t know to what extent but I know that Brian is going to that one as well. That’s a little bit after – I think a couple of weeks after this one.
Rob [01:34]: That will be fun. They’re really small, right? They’re like 10 people, or 12 people.
Mike [01:36]: Yeah. I think the one in Colorado is maybe 9 or 10 people. The one in Vermont, I think it has 11 or 12. I’m not sure on the exact number, but they are really small.
Rob [01:48]: By the way, it’s Brad Touesnard. It’s a silent ‘S’, yeah. Anyways.
Mike [01:55]: Apologies Brad.
Rob [01:57]: I’m sure that’s pretty common. So I had a fun chat yesterday with Dan Norris. Dan is the author of the Seven Days Startup. He did this seven day startup challenge where he got a bunch of folks to come on and do “Q and A” and talk with him about different aspects of doing a, we know what he calls a seven day startup, which is a really short timeframe startup that you get out the door within seven days. So a lot of productized services, and prototypes, and MVPs and stuff come out of it. There’s only a portion that is software. There’s also people doing physical products, and knowledge products, and other stuff like that. We did it on Blab, and it’s recorded. We’ll link it up in the show notes. It was really fun. We talked minimum viable products.
I had five minutes or so at the front where I was talking about how I understand minimum viable products, and the myths around them, and gave some examples. And then Dan said a little bit, and there were so many questions. We did almost an hour of Q and A, and there were some really good questions in there that we had to [?] back and forth. So if you’re wanting to know more about Dan Norris’, and my. thoughts and opinions on MVPs, and some clarifications that I think are important on this topic, check it out. We’ll link it up. It’ a long URL but it’s on Blab.im, and you can just watch it, like a video right in your browser.
Mike [03:06]: Very cool. Anything else going on?
Rob [03:08]: Yeah. The one other thing I want to mention is I’ve been watching the show called “The Profit”, P-R-O-F-I-T. Have you seen it?
Mike [03:14]: I have not.
Rob [03:15]: It’s a reality TV show. I’m not a fan of most reality TV because it’s so engineered and they act like it’s reality, but it’s loosely scripted or the producers set up these scenarios. I’m sure this one is similar vain. It’s a reality TV show about this dude who’s a billionaire and he goes in and buys hurting businesses, or part of them, and then he works with the people to improve them. So it’s businesses anywhere from – he’s done a car buying service, he’s done a gym type thing with monthly memberships, a candy store and stuff. It’s really cool. The guy knows his stuff. I like Shark Tank, but Shark Tank feel a lot like theatre. But there’s not many business lessons that I feel like you can take away from Shark Tank. It is this big spectacle. The Profit has some of that in it. The guy, Marcus, who’s running it – this billionaire guy – super sharp dude. When you hear him talk about stuff and explain it, it’s interesting. It airs on some weird network like CNBC or something, but I buy it on Amazon and watch on my Roku. It’s something I’d recommend. It’s the closest thing to business entertainment where there’s actually some lessons to be learnt from it that I’ve encountered. I wanted to mention it. I think, if you’re looking for a show and interested in this kind of stuff that it’s something to check out, called The Profit, P-R-O-F-I-T.
Mike [04:29]: Very cool. What are we talking about this week?
Rob [04:31]: Today, we are answering a bunch of listener questions. They continue to pile up. We have some really good ones this week. Our first one is about company identity, and this one is an anonymous question and he said, “I recently heard of your podcast and I became an instant fan. I’m working through your backlog. My startup at the moment has two products. We didn’t plan it this way, but my business partner quit and the original product was his idea and he was the domain expert. I’m maintaining that product but I found myself not being able to evolve it, grow it, sell it, etcetera. Since then, we launched another product, and we might have more in the future. This seems to be frowned upon in the startup world. It’s seen as lack of focus. I’m glad I found your podcast where this approach is not necessarily considered wrong. I’m not ruling out the possibility of one day finding one of these products perform so much better than the others that I will end up getting rid of them, but for now, that’s not the goal. My problem though is one of identity. When people ask me about my startup, I used to say “W”, where W is our first product. Then I started saying “Y”, where Y is our second product. Now I’m saying “C”, where C is the name of the company, and then I tell them about our products. But I find that most people immediately focus on the fact that we have more than one product and forget what they are. When you are a multiproduct startup, how do you identify yourself? How do you pitch for the sake of networking?”
Mike [05:39]: I think you and I have both run into this exact same problem before, haven’t we?
Rob [05:44]: Yeah, for sure, doing multiple things like MicroConf, and having software products, and the academy, and writing a book and all that, and the podcast. You got to figure out a way to talk about it from an umbrella perspective.
Mike [05:56]: Yeah. I think in some cases it makes more sense to talk directly about a specific product. It’s almost dependent upon the context of the networking situation that you are in. So if you’re at a conference for a particular line of business that you’re product is applicable to, you would talk about that particular product. I’m making an assumption here that these products are not necessarily related to each other, and that’s probably where some of the confusion comes from, because if they don’t have an overlapping market then it’s difficult to relate them to each other and to the person that you’re talking to. So that’s, kind of, the underlying assumption that I’m making here. But if you are in that situation, if you are in that networking mode where you’re talking to people and they’re applicable to a certain product, talk about that product.
I would just say, “We develop a product that does this,” and don’t really talk about yourself as a company, because if they want to find you as a company, they’re going to find you through that product. If you talk about your company itself, nobody cares about it, and it seems like you’ve run into this, where people don’t remember your business, they remember what you do. And that’s really the core of the issue is that people are remembering what you do, not who you are. That’s how you have to address this, because you want them to remember that product because that would backtrack the person back to you if you’re looking to network with them. When you are in a social situation where you’re trying to explain to a friend what you’re doing, you can give them a little bit more of the back story about the company and say “Oh, this is where we came from, this is what we do.”
When you’re in one of those in-between situations, where you don’t know whether or not the person you’re talking to is in the market for one product versus another, you, kind of, have to pick and choose. I’ve gone both ways where I’ve said, “I run a small software company that does this, this and this.” Then if they express interest in any one of those specific things then you can talk more about that. But I usually leave it a little bit more of a high level thing, so that you can let them talk a little bit, and feed off of whatever it is that resonates with them. I find it that works best for me. It depends on the social situation that you’re in.
Rob [07:54]: I think the key here is that he is in a different situation than, let’s say, you and I, because he has multiple software products. Whereas if you say that you wrote single founder handbook, you have a MicroConf and you have a podcast, you can say, “Well, I’m in the startup space,” and you can group that under a personal brand thing. He’s trying to network based on what these products do. He’s in a little bit different scenario. With that in mind, you hit the nail on the head when you said, “Figure out what the other person is going to be interested in.” If I’m at a cocktail party and I’m speaking to someone and I find out that they are a lawyer or that they work at a hospital or whatever, when they ask me what I do, I’m probably going to say, “I run a small software company.”
That tends to be my lead-in, because typically the next question then is something more about the company like, “Oh, what does your company do?” At that point, I would probably say, “Well, we have multiple products but our biggest one is X.” Because that’s what they’re trying to do is, kind of, figure out what you’re up to. However if one of my pieces of software was aimed at lawyers, of course, that’s the one I would lead with. I would say, “One of them is actually in the legal field and it helps lawyers do XYZ.” So, I think, getting a tiny bit of information before you answer this question is going to go a long way. I don’t think there’s a single blamket respons is going to be right for everyone. I would keep in mind that the simpler you keep it up front and then let people edge in with further detailing questions where they’re getting more and more information is probably the way to go in this scenario. I hope that helps anonymous.
Our second e-mail is not a question. It’s more of a suggestion and a look at something that has worked for one of our listeners. It’s from [AnderstoPeterson?]. He’s a multi-time, MicroConf attendee, an attendee talk in Europe. He says, “Hey guys. I send out an accountability e-mail every three weeks with status on my project time block, my biggest questions right now, and what I’m working on for the next few weeks. These e-mails have been the single most important thing that have helped me to speed up my progress building this new business. The amount of self-chosen pressure makes me wake up every morning and think, “I’ve done nothing yesterday. I have to get my stuff together, because I’m going to be e-mailing people about this in the next few weeks.” This, coupled with the advice I get from those who receive it, is invaluable. I’ve gotten a few of my friends to do a similar e-mail, so I thought it might be worth mentioning on your show.”
Ander suggests this in addition to mastermind calls that he does. If it’s a tactic that seems like it might work for you, wanted to throw it out there. If you do put this into place, and you feel like it’s something that works for you, and you find a few people who you can e-mail and it keeps you accountable, let us know at email@example.com and we’ll give you a shout out in a future episode and thank Anders for that helpful advice. Our next question comes from Chad Rogers and he says, “Here’s an interesting, more technical question that comes to mind about platform as a service versus VMs, Virtual Machines. Trade offs in considerations including cost scale ability, maintain ability and up time. In other words, merging your own VM servers versus using cloud platforms, like say a Google app engine, an Amazon EC2, a Rack Space cloud, that type of thing.” Ready, Mike? Go. It’s a big question.
Mike [10:54]: It is a big question. Some of this depends at what stage of your business you’re at. If you’re really early in and you don’t necessary care about bleeding edge performance – which is especially true when you are so early on that you don’t really have any performance concerns on the system – you can just spin up a VM and use that. The other option is to go with something that’s more of a platform as a service that you don’t have to worry about all of the underlying considerations. Now, the tradeoff there is the fact that you have to understand exactly what it is that you’re getting into when you’re using those platforms as a service, because if you’re not monitoring them and watching them, it’s very easy to have something that spins a little bit out of control, and then racks up a huge bill you weren’t necessarily anticipating.
First it’s something like a VM, where you generally know that it’s going to be a fixed cost. But with a platform as a service, that variable cost could be substantially lower on an ongoing basis as long as you’re managing it well enough. So in some ways it depends a little bit on where you want to spend your time managing things. Do you want to spend it at the virtual machine level, or do you want to spend it making sure that your infrastructure is not going sideways and monitoring everything to make sure that you’re not going to get a monster bill at the end of the month? Some places have different coupons that allow you to cut down on the cost and things like that.
One of the other advantages of a platform as a service is you have a tendency to scale out, and you basically just add resources to it – which is a very generic way of thinking about it – versus virtual machines which you tend to scale up until a certain point and then from there you also scale out. There was a story that went around years and years ago about the guy who ran the website “Plenty of Fish” when having 64 Gigs of RAM of a server was just this massive investment. It was 8 or 10 years ago. He decided to go to a SQL server that had 128 Gigs of RAM because he did not want to rework his code to make it more efficient. It was easier to just spend $50,000 or $60,000 to upgrade the machine and buy a new one than it was to reengineer a lot of the code. That’s basically the decision you’re making here, is what do you want to spend your time and effort on? Do you want to spend it on the infrastructure, or do you want to optimize the code [?]. It seems to like that’s a very similar trade off that you’re making in these cases.
Rob [13:12]: Yeah. I want to touch on something you said earlier on. I think it really depends on what stage you’re at, and how much control you need, and how much cost you can endure because if you’re really earlier on, you don’t have a lot of customers, then a platform is a service. It is so nice that you don’t have to maintain all the stuff and keep these servers patched. There’s just so much that goes into that. It’s a lot more time than you think it is. Even if you know how to do it, none of that moves your business forward. I would always opt towards going with a platform as a service at the start. What we ran into at DRIP, pretty quickly – it was even in just a few months – was that the cost was so high because all of the incoming requests. We were growing pretty quickl, and so we scaled up. We sent a bazillion e-mails, and we have all these analytics data coming back to us in real time. To try and get a pass to support that was expensive. We did move over to Amazon EC2 VMs and as a result we now have the burden of keeping these things maintained and doing all of the devop’s work. For us, it totally makes sense. We could frankly hire a full time person to do this, just based on the amount of money that we’re saving from a past approach. But the platform as a service is always where you’re going to want to start unless you know that you’re heavy duty analytics right off the bat. I hope that helps, Chad. Our next question is for me, actually. It’s about Trello setup. It’s from Finacis Poli Crinakis.
He says, “Rob, in a recent episode, you mentioned you only use a single Trello board for all you projects. How do you handle working with different teams per project? Is the board exclusively available only to you? Do you copy tasks to other boards where your team is?” And the answer is, “Yes”. My Trello board is a single one. I have a single Trello list for my to-dos, even though I’m working on multiple projects. I used to have multiple boards and multiple lists, and then you spend a bunch of time churning and not knowing what to do next. I want to be able to order everything in a single to-do list so that when I go to look for that next task, it’s right there and I’m not thinking to myself, “Oh, should I work on this or should I work on that?”
That means that I can’t necessarily share stuff with people because it’s all baked into the same board. So yes, if I need to assign a task someone else then I do wind up moving or copying that to where my team is. We do work with some shared Trello boards, but that’s not my main day to day to-do list. That’s the way I have it set up, and it works well for me and the way I work. Maybe it will work for you as well. Thanks for the question.
Our next question is about SaaS project management. It’s from J. Davis. He says, “I’m working on building a SaaS app that has a hardware component, and I’ve never undertaken a project like this before. I’m working with a partner company that already has an established client base, understands the market quite well, and assures me that their clients are in need of a product like this.”
So a little injection here; before I built anything I would figure out what the assurance is – like what data do they have, what have they shown you, aside from just them telling you, “Hey, yes, we have people,” Because if you go through a bunch of costs and do this and they really didn’t do their customer development or their due diligence on this one, it’s going to be a real bummer. That’s a sticking point for me right there just in the first paragraph. But let me continue with the email. Jay says, “I’ve built a proof of concept, and given the partner company a demo which they’re happy with. The next phase is to start organizing the project and I’m looking into scrapping methods form the Agile Management Framework to help me get things organized and to find the project goals. I already run my own IT company and can hopefully fund the project development with my consulting work as well as allocate it roughly 40 to 50% of my work week to it. I have some quick questions I hope you can help with. The first is how do you guys approach a new project as far as practical management goes? Do you have a set process? Have you tried anything like Agile? And the other question is what are some pitfalls, you would suggest, to keep an eye out for as far as project management Is concerned?”
Mike [16:40]: I think I’d echo Rob’s earlier question about how much validation has that company done for their own clients. If they’ve done that much validation for it, why haven’t they done it themselves? I would be a little bit more cautious about that aspect of it, because it sounds like you’re making an assumption that they have fully validated the idea and that you don’t have to do that work, when the reality is that that may not necessarily be true, or may not be true to the degree that you need it to be in order to make the financial aspects of it work out. So you might need to sell 10,000 units, but if their validation only said that they can sell 5,000 realistically, then you’re going to have a hard time being able to make ends meet. Because you’re either going to have an overrun with the supply, or you’re not going to have enough to meet the demand which, obviously, that’s a problem that money can fix. But if those numbers are off it can put you in a bad financial spot. Aside from that, how would you approach the project management from a practical management standpoint? That boils down to what are the different steps that need to be gone through in order to take the project to completion? So because this is a physical product, you’re going to need to have that POC System pretty well scoped out so that you can have it manufactured. I’m not a physical products guy, so there’s certainly a number of assumptions that I would probably have to make in doing that. But you’re going to want to know what all those costs are, whether there is unit cost, shipment cost, anything where you need to reship that stuff. So if it’s shipped directly to you or, if you have a drop-shipped, what are the cost components associated with each of those? You’ll also want to know what sorts of marketing efforts that you’re going to be able to have access to through this other company, and whether or not they are going to be funding it versus whether you are going to be funding it. You don’t want to have this list of questions about the entire process that you just iterate through and try to find the answers to all of those questions. I would do a lot of that work before you go down the path of laying out any money to have the product physically developed, because once you start down that path it’s very difficult to put the brakes on it. You want to have any unknowns, or question marks, answered well in advance of that, because you don’t want to have to put the brakes on it somewhere along the way because there was something that came up that was completely unanticipated that, had you just asked the right questions earlier on, you would have know that that was going to be an issue.
Rob [18:55]: If I were in your shoes, I wouldn’t get too hung up on finding a methodology, and finding too many things to apply to apply to this to offer heavy process. You’re going to be fairly agile just by nature – not capital ‘A’ agile – but just you’re going to move quickly. If you are a single person running this, and you can make decisions, and you’re in-charge of the development, then putting together an Excel Spreadsheet with estimates and costs, and getting whatever folks you’re working with in on that, some Google Doc, and having deadlines that are right in that spreadsheet could be plenty. It depends on the complexity of this. That’s where I would start. You can move on to a more sophisticated thing with milestones and things that get pushed and all that, and try to do a Microsoft Project like a Gantt Chart and all that. I would not start there.
I would also maybe read a book about Agile. I have used some of the stuff that came out of Agile, like daily stand up meetings can be useful with software. I don’t know how useful they are with hardware, because I don’t know how fast this project is going to move. Is it going to move quickly enough that a meeting every morning is going to have something new to say? Or should it be two times a week, or once a week? I think I’d just really use a lot of common sense, and try not to get hang up in the exact documents, the exact diagrams, the exact things in the naming and all that. If everyone else doesn’t know what those words mean – you know, because there’s a whole vocabulary that goes a long with Agile. If everyone else doesn’t know what that they mean, then it’s not actually that helpful.
And I think just talking about it common sense terms is where I would start, and certainly reading a book on Agile could be helpful, but I’d try to walk that line between being too obsessed with the process and trying to do the common thing that gets stuff done really quickly. In terms of the pitfalls, you asked, the biggest pitfall is no one ever delivers on time. I’m overstating it only a tad, but pretty much all deadlines and all costs are going to out the window. Expect it to take twice as long and cost twice as much. I think that’s the number one pitfall I would look out for. Don’t be too optimistic, and don’t let a vendor, or designer, or whoever, convince you that they’re going to be able to deliver something in X amount of days, because I bet it’s going to wind up being closer to 2X. You have any other pitfalls that you could think of?
Mike [20:56]: Not off hand. Like I said, the one thing I would be concerned about, to some extent, is shipping cost. For whatever reason, those can double or triple, and it doesn’t seem like much at the time. But when you start talking about a hardware component that you have to ship one or two of them out to each individual customer – depending on whether you’re drop shipping them, or you’re having them all shipped to you in one shipment, and then turning around and then reshipping them out, that can add a substantial amount of costs to the product you’re selling based on whatever the per unit cost is, especially if it’s a low priced cost. Then factor in the fact that you’re probably going to have to ship replacements and things like that. There’s going to be some margin of those things that you manufacture that, for whatever reason, they don’t work.
Rob [21:39]: All right. Our last question for the day comes from J. Pablo Fernandez, from screensaver.ninja. He says, “Hey Rob and Mike. I started listening to Startups for the Rest of Us recently. After a couple of episodes, I went back into my feed and downloaded them all. I’m still working my way through and learning a lot. Thanks so much for your podcast. It’s a great resource. I have question about a product I launched this year. We all have many websites that display information we want to stay on top of; Google Analytics, Case Metric, Twitter Feeds, Issue Trackers, Custom Dashboards etcetera. But it’s really easy to forget to check their state one day, lose the habit, and end up missing an important event. This is why I created Screensaver Ninja. It’s a screen saver that display web pages so you never miss this information, or any other information that keeps coming back to you over and over. I wanted to build this product by myself, and I also thought it was going to be popular with tech entrepreneurs, a group of people I’m very comfortable talking to. Unfortunately, sales to that audience were not great. My biggest sales segment is one that I have a hard time growing, because it’s unapproachable, big organizations such as banks, Ivy League universities, multinational conglomerates etcetera. What do you suggest I do? How can I increase sales?” Again his URL is at screensaver.ninja. What do you think, Mike?
Mike [22:44]: Rob, you and I talked about this a little bit offline. We have a little bit of a difference of opinion on whether or not the biggest sales segment qualifies, and how it is qualified. There’s not enough detail in this question to answer this question for us. The question that we have is, “How do you quantify that biggest sales segment? Is it the fact that there are people in these large organizations buying it? Or is it the sales quantities from these organizations?” I’ve worked with large organizations who have these enterprise level agreements with Apple, and they will buy hundreds or thousands of copies of a particular piece of software, and they’ll just essentially buy them direct through Apple, because they have those developer agreements in place and they’ll just say, “Okay, this is our master account. Let’s just buy 100 or 1000 copies of this.”
I could easily see a scenario where you’ve got a school of 2000 or 3000 students, and 2000 or 3000 computers at school, where they come in and they say, “Hey, we want the homepage for the school to be displayed on every single machine that’s here as part of the screen saver because we have these bulletin boards that go out there, and we want to be able to post messages to our entire school system using that screensaver. I could definitely see them wanting to do that. Because otherwise your other option is to redeploy a new screensaver to every machine in the environment. It’s kind of a non-trivia task. Rob, I think you had a different take on what he meant by the sales segment, right?
Rob [24:05]: Yeah, he said, “My biggest sales segment is one that I have a hard time growing because it’s unapproachable, big organizations such as banks, Ivy League universities, multinational conglomerates etcetera.” My take on it is that I was reading this as it was not the entire organization buying thousands of copies, like you were saying. I was thinking that it was individuals within these organizations buying copies on their own. So it was a guy in an IT department at a bank. It was a software developer at a Fortune 500 company, or a professor, or a grad student at an Ivy League university, not the actual organization. So I think the answer to this question differs depending on which case it is. If you’re correct and it really is enterprises buying this, then I would try to figure out how are they finding you? How did these enterprises stumble upon you? And what gave them the confidence to buy 500 or 1,000 copies? And how can you replicate that process? It’s not going to be something you can approach, unless you want to go through the whole enterprise sales cycle. Outbound stuff for a product like this could be a challenge. What do you think, Mike?
Mike [25:07]: Depending on the answer to that question, is it a few individuals in the company who are buying it and then using it, versus are they actually buying hundreds or thousands of copies of it? I think in each of those cases, depending on what the answer is, is going to dictate how you address the marketing effort. Because if you find that the use case in a large organization is for them to be able to put that screensaver out so that they can get bullets and word messages out to everybody in the environment, then that is a different marketing message that you’re going put on your website because you’re going to want to target those people. Another option would be to have a different section of your website that essentially addresses that particular type of marketing message.
Because if you go to screensaver.ninja, there’s really only one page for the marketing message. You can also put positioning in there to say, “If you were a school, this is what you can use it for. And this I how it can be helpful in your environment. Maybe you want to remind people of what the calendar is, or what those different sports events that are coming up.” All those types of things. If it’s a corporation they’re going to want to have a little bit different information in there, which in those types of environments, displaying a webpage on somebody’s screensaver – especially if it’s metric state of any kind – is probably not a good idea from a security standpoint, unless it’s all public information like their stock prices and things like that. So depending on what the specifics of the situation are is going to, kind of, dictate what you do, and how you position your product. I think it’s more about market positioning at that point, and getting the answers to those fundamental questions answered, rather than a blanket, “This is what I should do. I should go out and try to cold call, and reach into these organizations.”
Rob [26:52]: In either case, the question is, “How have they found you? How can you double down on that?” The one other thing that comes to mind, since it looks like you sell it through the Mac App Store, is, “What does your app store SEO look like? What are people searching for to find this? And how can you improve your app store SEO?” That will help you to a certain extent, but if you’ve already had some traction in a market that’s buying a bunch of copies, I would think app store SEO would be less important, and it would be more about figuring out how to replicate how those people found you.
Mike [27:18]: The other thing that he mentions is that the problem that it was trying to solve was being able to display information that you might want to stay on top of such as Google Analytics, or Case Metrics, or Twitter Feeds and things like that. It seems to me, in larger environments, that’s going to be much more not just proprietary information, but stuff that you would want generally secured. You wouldn’t want it just flashing up on your screen – maybe somebody is at a coffee shop or something like that, with their laptop – you wouldn’t that displayed there. You also wouldn’t want it generally displayed across the entire environment, especially if it’s like Sales Metrics and things like that. So in smaller environments, there’s a lot of different dashboard tools that I can think of that are addressed at smaller organizations that will essentially take new data feeds in. So Cyfe.com, for example, allows you to basically plug in data feeds from all over the place, and they have a ton of different integrations with a lot of different tools that allow you to look at all of that consolidated information in one place. DigMyData is another service that does very similar things. The UI and UX is different, but at the end of the day they both do those things. Yes, you have to log into them, but at the same time you don’t have to worry about somebody driving by your laptop or desktop and glancing at stuff they probably shouldn’t necessarily have access to.
Rob [28:37]: Also keep in mind that he’s selling it for $10. So the lifetime value on a single purchase is going to be too low to do any type of real marketing. You’re pretty much going to have to do free channels. It’s going to be app store SEO, or SEO, or some type of virality. There’s no advertising channels, or any type of outbound stuff you can do, when you’re selling something for $10 lifetime value. But if enterprises are buying it and they’re buying 1,000 copies, now you’re lifetime value becomes $10,000. So for that, you can afford to spend more time working on it, and more money to capture those people who are paying that higher dollar amount.
Mike [29:14]: Yeah. Those other services that I offer, both cyfe.com and digmydata.com, both of them are SaaS subscriptions. That dramatically changes the amount of lifetime revenue for those. But yeah, everything you said was spot on. So i think that about wraps us up for today’s episode. If you have a question for us, you can call it in to our voicemail number at 1-8-8-8-8-0-1-9-6-9-0, or you can e-mail it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our theme music is an excerpt from ‘We’re Out of Control’ by MoOt, used under creative comments. Subscribe to us on iTunes by searching for startups and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next time.