Always be working on 2 big things

About two years ago I grabbed Rod for a moment at the Xero AGM. Rod has a knack of announcing something that catches everyone off guard about once every six months. Things like getting Peter Thiel as an investor in Xero. I asked him what the secret was.

Always be working on 2 big things.

Simple.

It likely applies to all areas of your life, but in work you should ask yourself — what are the two big things I’m working on at the moment? It’s easy to knock something off and not pick another big goal to achieve.

I’ve been thinking lately about what a CEO should be doing and this is one of the first posts on that subject. I always love feedback so post your thoughts below if you have an opinion :-)

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Do not get comfortable

Don't do what Donny Don't Does.One of the things I regret most about my experiences with Mindscape happened in year 3.

You see, for the first couple of years we were laying the groundwork – building the products we wanted to sell. Due to the fact we were still building products to sell, the first couple of years had rather low product sales (duh!). We’ve always practiced releasing early and releasing often so there were dollars being made, just not enough.

By the third year product sales really jumped up to a level that made juggling the numbers a lot easier. And here lies the problem.

Things became comfortable.

I didn’t push hard enough to add new staff, increase marketing activities or really anything that would have led to expenses increasing and, with time, profits also increasing.

It’s an easy for this to happen to anyone starting a business. You really want to have a chance to catch your breath after enduring the stressful early days, but in the long run you’ll kick yourself. That’s exactly what I did – I looked back on our 3rd year at the start of the 4th and realised I’d wasted valuable time. Product revenues had risen nicely but I believe this was more from general product improvements and word of mouth spreading — not because we had really pushed hard to achieve it.

Our first two years had some scary moments but when things became comfortable it was easy to become complacent. The lesson seems to be that if you’re not at least a little bit scared, you’re probably not pushing forward hard enough :-)

Do only arsonists start match stick companies?

I’ve always wondered about the statement that you should be passionate about what you do. I’d look around at certain every day objects, like a match stick, and think “Who woke up one day and thought to themselves that building a match stick company would be a shit hot idea?”

Today I was reading a 37 Signals Blog post and saw this which nailed it for me:

These days, there’s lots of talk of “following your passion.” But can you really be passionate about credit card processing? “I’m not particularly passionate about payments, but I am passionate about trying to build a good company,” says Johnson.

Bingo! Awfully obvious when you think about it.

Stop obfuscating your email address!

I have a pet peeve. Actually, I have hundreds of them but today I feel like sharing just one of them :-)

How often do you come across a blog, forum or worse yet, a corporate site and have seen an email address displayed like this:

jd [at] mindscape dot co dot nz

I’m not talking about where people are working around the rules of a website – for example a dating or auction site. I’m talking about sites where that person controls the content and elects to write their own email address in this fashion for no reason other than to reduce their spam load.

Every time I see this I detest it. It is lazy – it shows the owner of that content would rather have me faff around decoding it (no matter how easy that may be), copying it somewhere to edit it and generally wasting my time. The likelihood that I just don’t bother contacting them is higher than if it was a simple copy & paste operation or mailto: link.

Anti-spam tools are pretty good

I’ve had my email address in full naked glory splattered all over the internet. I want to get feedback from people and make it as easy as possible for them to do so. Surprisingly my inbox is not chock full of spam like it might have been in 1998 because the quality of anti-spam scanners has improved remarkably since then. Sure, my junk mail folder gets filled with advice on pleasing my lover and making easy money but that’s the job of the junk mail folder – to handle the crap flow. I’d rather have software doing the heavy lifting than pushing additional load on people who want to get in touch.

Be accessible to everyone

Obviously email obfuscation is more common with technical folks. Consider an ISV website – many of the site owners assume their site users are technical, however this is not always the case. Take the Mindscape site for example – our users are technical but most of the people emailing us are management or accounts people and are not technical at all. We want to make darn sure that the people who pay the bills and who make the final purchasing decisions can get in touch easily with as little friction as possible.

Look professional

Chances are that if you’re geeky enough to want to obfuscate your email address you’re also geeky enough to write a basic online form. If you’re still concerned with all the spam you might get then build a nice form that allows people to email you without exposing your email address. Ensure that you make it clear you’ll reply quickly and word the page in a manner that informs the user that it is not an input box to oblivion. This is a much more professional looking solution than lazily obfuscating your email address.

Looking professional is important – it’s about building trust. Take Ayende’s blog for example. Ayende writes a heap of great blog posts and has built a solid following with .NET developers. On his blog he lists his cellphone number and email address prominently. When you visit his site, you see how open the person is it immediately which makes them feel more trustworthy and increases their credibility

Boosting trust and credibility is hard in the online world – consider this approach for your own website.

If you’d like to comment either drop one below or email me: jd@mindscape.co.nz :)

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Choosing a business name

What you name your company is important – it’s the identity you’ll operate under for the foreseeable future. You need to be proud of the name and feel it reflects enough about yourself and what you do, and is also unique enough in a crowded market. This post covers what we did in picking the Mindscape name.

Our approach

In typical geek fashion we decided to approach the problem by using a divide and conquer method. We each went away and wrote down as many names as we could think of over the course of a week. We then put them all into a spreadsheet and each ranked every name out of 10. Then we summed the values and sorted by the rank.

There were some really terrible names in there…

Dodging a bullet

I still have the old Excel spreadsheet floating around and thought I’d dig a few of the names out that did not make the cut.

  • Spawn – Great if we were starting a game company or a sperm donation clinic
  • Azure – I think we all can see why that wouldn’t have been wise in light of Microsoft’s cloud offering
  • Aeon – Supreme Commander was the game of the day and Jeremy liked that race
  • HydroDam – “Harnessing the power of the waterfall” ;-)
  • CodeRed – Naming your software company after a virus probably wouldn’t build trust
  • AsusOfBasis – We must have dreamed this one up at one of those many nights at the pub. WTF were we thinking?

There were hundreds of names in the spreadsheet. To be fair, many were very good and have used many of the other names for codenames, passwords, etc.

The .com

One of the biggest pains in your backside when picking a name is finding a .com that’s available. Hunting for something that was available was the biggest suck on our time. I’m fairly sure we could have looked up a GUID for a domain name and found it taken by a domain squatter. We didn’t start out with a truck load of cash so we didn’t want to spend up large on trying to pry a name from one of these sorts of individuals, so we simply gave up. We went with a local TLD – .co.nz (New Zealand).

In retrospect, should we have done that? Probably not – a lot of people still have a strong trust of .com’s and we’re a company asking for credit card details. Our audience is one of software developers and hopefully many of them realise there isn’t really any additional trust just because somebody has a .com, so I still hope it’s not damaging our potential for revenue. If you can find a .com or buy one for a small price, I’d say do it. Don’t delay the launch of your business for months just to find one though.

Why Mindscape?

Back to our spreadsheet – Mindscape wasn’t even on the top of the list. There were six above it. We ended up just talking through the top few and seeing what everyone was happy to settle on together. How very un-geeky of us. It also focused on the mind – something that reflects software development strongly since writing code is a very intellectual pursuit.

You’ll notice however that if you visit www.mindscape.com, there is a software publisher there also called Mindscape. This was frustrating as they’re a multinational company, however we didn’t let that deter us – perhaps it should have, but it didn’t. Their products include products relating to Thomas the Tank Engine and Carmen San Diego. We were fairly comfortable that software developers would realise they were not on our site if they ended up there (and if not, the queries about when Barbie would be integrated into Visual Studio 2010 would likely fall on deaf ears :-)

So we ended up living at www.mindscape.co.nz

Other things to consider

If you’re planning the name of your software company keep these thoughts in mind:

  • .com availability if possible
  • How early in the alphabet the name is – earlier is better. Start with “A” if possible
  • Keep it as short as possible (may conflict with the .com point)
  • Does it express anything about your organisation?
  • Is it easy to pronounce and spell?
  • Don’t start it with a number or symbol – it makes it hard to use in namespaces, class names, phone books, etc

I hope this post has helped tell some of the story about our name and help those thinking about starting a software company by providing some guidance on what to consider. If you’re enjoying these blog posts and want to keep up with what I’m writing about, please subscribe via RSS.

Any questions or requests for future posts are more than welcome. Drop them in the comments after this post.

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Starting out

This is my first blog post on this blog and since it is new I thought it appropriate to write a little about myself and the experiences of starting Mindscape in the first place. The intention of this blog is to document a little about the experiences and things I’ve discovered while setting up and running Mindscape. I’ve always enjoyed the stories from other software company founders such as Eric Sink, Joel Spolsky and Patrick McKenzie – each has their own style of writing and shares different types of information but all are interesting. I’m not going to suggest I’m even remotely as good as them in terms of writing style, advice, humor, looks, body odour, etc but hopefully you’ll still find this blog interesting and subscribe to my RSS feed.

The earlier years

Several years ago I used to work for a brilliant company – Intergen. They are a services company based in Wellington, New Zealand. When I finished university they offered me a job after I applied for their graduate program.

Rewinding further, back then I used to operate a computer repair business while studying – I would drive out to a person’s place and fix their machine for a reasonable rate. I built up a nice income stream and a lot of repeat business (lesson learnt #1 – repeat business is easier to get than initial business if you’re good at what you do and provide actual value. Old guys also appreciate that you don’t make a song and a dance about the fact their computer is screwed up because of the porn sites they tried to sign up on!).

I was tossing up if I should try giving the repair business a real go or if I should slot into careersville and see how that went. I decided on the latter as I expected that it was probably better to see how a “real company” operated before trying my own seriously. That turned out to be a good decision in retrospect in my opinion.

Leaving Intergen

Despite thoroughly enjoying my time at Intergen and meeting a fantastic bunch of people I eventually decided it was time to push out on my own. This was a few years after working there and gaining a bunch of skills:

  • Getting comfortable with public speaking
  • Networking better – both in the office and outside the office
  • Meeting fantastic people who are core to my friendships and networks now
  • Understanding how to deal with clients – both at pre-sales stages, through to delivery
  • Gaining some team lead skills

I felt that these skills, coupled with having put some money in the bank had adequately prepared me for striking out on my own. There were a couple of guys at Intergen that I thought would be absolutely fantastic to start a business with – Jeremy Boyd and Andrew Peters. I approached each of them individually about the idea of doing something in partnership with me. I also asked each who they thought would be an excellent addition to start with and both named the other – always a promising sign.

We then all met over beers (many beers…) at a local pub and discussed what we wanted to create. We all had similar opinions and what came of that was Mindscape.

Opening the doors

We had several catch ups and decided that we should focus on software products. We all liked the idea that products were more scalable than trading our time for money. There is also the benefit that you get to focus on trying to really build something awesome – you don’t make profit by just being “good enough” and delivering under the hours you estimated. We were passionate about software development as a craft and wanting to help other developers build better solutions – it was also a domain we were intimately aware of.

However, products take time to build – common approaches for companies wanting to build products are:

  • Get somebody to pay for you to spend six months building stuff
  • Save up some cash and build it while living off savings
  • Do it part time in your evenings over the course of six to twelve months

None of these particularly appealed. The reasons were numerous:

  • Taking money off people seemed more risky than just doing it off our own backs
  • We wanted the freedom to pick our direction and make decisions ourselves – fast.
  • We wanted everyone involved to be working on the business full time
  • We didn’t want to just burn our savings and be stuck if things didn’t go to plan as fast as we hoped
  • Doing things in the evenings can work out well but can be challenging if doing it as a team
  • All getting an office together and focusing on the work ensured it was at the forefront of our thoughts
  • The list goes on…

We each invested $10,000 to cover initial costs of rent, desks, chairs, some shelves and some monitors. We all used our existing laptops and hauled in our development books from home. Doing things as cheaply as possible was a very good idea and something I would advocate to anybody starting out – no matter how much money you could potentially invest. I have very fond memories of our very early days – the sense of adventure was fantastic.

So we set about with a hybrid model – doing some services work but only really to the extent of funding the product development. We knew that if one or two people were working full time (out of the three of us) on services work then we would have enough cash to cover the product development work. The intention being that as product income grew, our services income could drop back and result in being able to invest more heavily into the product development resulting in a virtuous cycle (improve products faster or release more products sooner results in more income, more income results in less need for services, results in improving products faster… you get the idea!). There’s much more to our business model than this now but that’s for another post :-)

BackgroundMotion, Microsoft and our kick start

Microsoft New Zealand came to the party – we had existing relationships with the guys in the DPE team and they heard we were off to start something new. They got behind us by providing us with a project to do for them – BackgroundMotion. They kindly agreed to partly pay in advance to ensure our business had some cash and we set to work. This lead to us to being profitable extremely quickly in our life and gave us a great start – I’m not sure they realise how helpful they were.

We all worked feverishly on BackgroundMotion – it was a great way to really get the business pumping. Late night coding, sometimes ordering in pizzas and tracking everything on whiteboards was a blast. I’m an absolute fan of getting a bunch of devs together and just going hard – you can really feed off each others energy which is awesome.

We delivered the goods with BackgroundMotion and got some press within New Zealand. It was open source and even now we still spy folks around the web picking it up and being very impressed with what we came up with.

The cash from the work we undertook helped in re-instating our salaries earlier than anticipated and covered the development of our LightSpeed O/R Mapper Version 1.0.

Happily ever after?

This post covers up to about the first six months of operation – up until about two years ago. We’ve had our share of ups and downs since then – there is plenty more of the story to tell – employees, product releases, trade shows, new offices, the list goes on. Hopefully some understanding about Mindscape’s start in life will provide value to others thinking of doing their own thing or just interested in the beginnings of the company.

On a more personal note, I have an absolute fear that the moment you start thinking you’re successful, you’ll fail (or at the very least everyone will think you’re a tool because you get arrogant about it :-) . I know a bunch of people consider me successful, but frankly, until I’m taking my private jet to my own island and lighting cigars with paper money, I won’t.

What’s next on this blog?

I plan to continue posting tidbits and things I’ve learnt but more importantly, I’d like to hear what sort of things you’d like me to write about. For all I know this has been the worst blog post I’ve ever written – if so, tell me :-)

I get a buzz from engaging with people – it’s why I love hearing from our customers so much – so if you have something you’d like me to cover drop a comment on this post and I’ll do my best to discuss it.

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