Category Archives: Rules for Entrepreneurs

Rules for Entrepreneurs

The Science of Radio, Cal Ripken, Jr. and Pivots

Let’s talk science.

We all occasionally listen to the radio. Maybe not as much as we once did, but we still do. Most of us listen to FM radio because the sound quality is better and, as a result, music is more often the stuff broadcast over FM stations. Probably fewer of us listen to AM radio, short of talk news and sports talk stuff.

The difference between AM and FM is radical. FM radio waves, if you could visualize them are your typical sine wave. It modulates between a high and a low frequency and travels through the air like the waves of a sea. FM radio has better sound because this modulation can carry more aural information.

AM radio is far different. It’s much more a straight line wave that can’t carry as much aural data, so the sound quality is reduced. The tradeoff, however, is that AM radio can travel much farther. In fact, for AM radio, range is determined by amplitude, or strength, of the power generating the waves.

The side effect of this is that AM radio waves travel into the atmosphere and interacts with the ionosphere, the atmospheric layer that protects us from the most harmful radiation from the sun. During the daytime, the AM waves hit the ionosphere and largely fizzle out due to the layer’s interaction with the sun, but at night… the sun isn’t sending all it’s fiery goodness at that part of the earth and so a bounce effect happens. AM radio waves hit the ionosphere and bounces back toward the earth allowing radio stations to be heard hundreds of miles away from their source – often times well over the horizon.

As a result, the FCC has had a decades-old regulation that requires AM radio stations to reduce their signal or alter their night operations so as not to interfere with stations in other markets. Stations typically will do this by redirecting their antennas so that even if the signal is heard hundreds of miles away, it is heard in such a way to not interfere with other stations broadcasting on the same frequency.

Still with me? Whew. Good.

Back in 1995, I was sitting in a dorm room of a religious college I was attending at the time. There were pretty rigid rules for freshman. In my case, we were required to do a nightly “study time” in our dorms. The idea was to train students to focus academically. In later classes, the rules were relaxed and study time was not mandatory.

Still, you know how I am with rules. I sullenly sat in my room night after night and probably didn’t do the best job academically. I digress.

September 6, 1995 was kind of a historic day. Besides being my 19th birthday, it was also a big baseball day. It would be this day that Cal Ripken, Jr. would break Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game streak setting a new record of 2,131 games played in a row and becoming the new Ironman. Back in those days, before the 1997 debacle, I was an Orioles fan before changing allegiances to a much better team (sans this past year). I’m looking at you, Kate.

I grew up with the Orioles and I was understandably upset that I had to be in my room instead of watching the game on TV. I discovered, however, that I could hear WBAL 1090 AM in my dorm 17 miles south of Rochester, NY and some 300 miles away from Television Hill in Baltimore, where the station broadcast from. As a result, I was able to listen to that historic game on the radio thanks to science.

What’s the point of this already long-winded story, you may ask.

I’m glad you asked, since I actually do have a point.

I’ve talked about business a lot here. Startups, projects, whatever. I’ve been involved in a few in my career. I’ve advised several. I’ve been a Co-founder in one. I’ve been staff for others. There’s a concept in startups called the “pivot”. Pivots are when you change your business model or approach due to market demands or user feedback.

In some cases, pivots are major. Seesmic pivoted a ton from a video chat service to a video blog comment service to a social mass posting service. Every pivot was essentially a new company.

Other pivots are more minor. A move to focus more on user content aggregation from a company content aggregation. Or a move to a subscription model from an advertising model.

I’m a fan of the second form of pivot which basically suggests the premise of a company is sound, but based on the ability to listen to user demand and appropriately respond in the marketplace, a company can adjust and tweak and run with the concept that made them strong as a company to begin with. If I were to start investing myself, I’d want to be on board with a company that can stay true to itself, while demonstrating the ability to adjust.

Some people, like Jason, advocate doing market research to decide your premise. Ask questions. Conduct interviews. Find out, before putting time in, that the idea is something that someone will pay for. Others, like Eric Ries, also endorse The Lean Startup approach of building, collecting feedback, iterating and repeating to allow a company to evolve organically. These are all good ideas that help set the framework and paradigm for how your company operates and your product evolves.

Which brings us full circle to radio. I was able to listen to Cal’s historic day in 1995 because the company (or radio station in this case) was able to perform a pivot (literally) to redirect their signal without changing who they were. They knew FCC regulations when they decided to broadcast on AM. They knew the framework of science they had to live in. They built a radio station for reach and strength and adapted as they were required to and allowed to.

You may never start a company. You may never hire employees. But the universal concept is: Know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, don’t change who you are or the strategic philosophy under which you operate, but be willing to make the tactical choices needed to succeed.

Aaron Brazell, Rules for Entrepreneurs

Rules for Entrepreneurs: Release Early and Often

Last week, I wrote two articles outlining some philosophical ideas around entrepreneurship. This series of articles is all about giving away lessons I’ve learned throughout my five years as an entrepreneur in four different ventures.

When you’re in the product business, you have to continually improve on your product. As soon as you hit version 1, you’re heading for version 2. You create a roadmap and set milestones, which are just intermediary goals to help you get from inception to some point in the future.

The reality of roadmaps, however, are that they are susceptible to change based on market demands – or, as it’s sometimes called, “pivots”. You can have a great product idea that has a wonderful two year roadmap, but if customers don’t like it or demand other features that have never been thought of, then it would be wise to modify timelines and roadmaps.

Many successful products have been the product of a “release early and release often” mentality where the entrepreneur or product team did not wait to have a fully developed product, and instead, hurried to get something to market for the sake of collecting feedback and input and improving on the product.

Eric Ries in Lean Startup talks about principles of testing market validation by creating an iterative cycle of development where a product is released, tested in the market, feedback aggregated, assumptions tested against that feedback, and new innovation created as a result of those tests.

There are a number of rapid-cycle development philosophies including Agile, Scrum and others. These philosophies put a greater emphasis on involving customer feedback and direction over pre-determined plans where feedback is not collected until the development cycle is completed.

What happens if your assumptions were all wrong? Now you’ve got a product that no one wants to use!

The best way to avoid this problem is simply to release early, even before your product is near complete, and collect feedback along the way. Based on the feedback, you may need to modify your development trajectory but at least you’re able to do that before it’s too late and keep your product relevant to the consumer.

Next time, I’ll continue this series and talk a bit about business visualization to help you track your business and make effective decisions. If you’re not already subscribed to this blog, do so now. Also, follow me on Twitter where I’ll be talking about entrepreneurship, WordPress and a healthy dose of sports on the weekend.

Aaron Brazell, Rules for Entrepreneurs

Rules for Entrepreneurs: Compete and Collaborate

Photo by Roger Barker on Flickr.

Google and Apple are not only competitors… they are collaborators. Indeed, Apple and Google both offer top level smartphones – The iPhone from Apple and the assortment of Android devices by Google (Google not only has its own phones but is the main proprietor of the Android open source project).

In the same world, Samsung and Apple are rivals (and becoming even more rival-ous) with competing smartphones (Samsung runs Android) sparking ferocious lawsuits back and forth, but Samsung is also a major supplier of parts to Apple.

This segment of my continuing series on Rules of Entrepreneurship is all about knowing when and how to compete and when collaboration is a better option. They are not mutually exclusive. This is a natural segue from my last post where I suggest that entrepreneurs focus on doing one thing well.

Principle: Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

It frustrates me to watch startups (usually not very good ones) try to reinvent the wheel. A classic example of this was from back in 2007 when I was sitting in a Starbucks in Columbia, MD. We had a group of entrepreneurs who gathered there on a daily basis and cowork together.

One of the guys I was working with introduced me to a pair of African-American entrepreneurs and he wanted me to hear about what they were building. I sat down and listened to their pitch. They were building the “YouTube for the African-American community”.

Full stop.

What? Why? Why not use YouTube?

They were well into the process of building an entire video platform from the ground up, complete with their own video encoding technology, instead of leveraging what YouTube (and subsequently Google) already created.

The entrepreneurs real mission was creating a video-sharing community for African-Americans, not creating video technology for African-Americans to use. I told them that day that they should abandon attempts to build their own video service, and instead leverage YouTube (which is built and maintained by really smart people at Google) to build the community they really wanted to build.

Why re-invent the wheel? You distract yourself from your core goals.

Sidenote: I have never heard of or from those entrepreneurs since.


As an entrepreneur, part of the process is identifying your competition. We certainly have done that at WP Engine. Sometimes, it is to your benefit to team up with your competition to achieve a common goal. Remember, business is business and it’s not personal. Don’t let your desire to “win” get in the way of your ability to get ahead.

Also, remember the age-old saying, “A rising tide lifts all ships”. What is good for your competition is often good for the entire industry you’re in. Everyone wins.

Certainly that’s not always the case, but it certainly isn’t not always the case.


In my opinion, competition is a bottom-line issue and there are lots of ways to positively affect your bottom line. Usually, competition does not equate to a zero-sum game, an assumption that rookie entrepreneurs tend to make. (I did this a lot in 2006, 2007 while at b5media and trying to take pot shots at competing blog networks – years later, I find it all kind of silly).

When you do choose to take on direct competition, keep it narrow, precise and for a specific purpose. Don’t allow personal feelings to affect your business strategies and, in the process, keep the door open to cooperation with your competition in other areas.

Next week, I’ll continue this series and talk a bit about release cycles – which is always a fun debate. If you’re not already subscribed to this blog, do so now. Also, follow me on Twitter where I’ll be talking about entrepreneurship, WordPress and a healthy dose of sports on the weekend.

Aaron Brazell, Rules for Entrepreneurs

Rules for Entrepreneurs: Do One Thing Well

Photo by bartb_pt on Flickr
I have been an entrepreneur for just shy of 5 years full-time. Before that, I was engaged in entrepreneurial “things” for the previous 6 years. 4 companies. I am not a perfect entrepreneur and some would argue I’m not even a successful entrepreneur since I haven’t had a successful exit yet.

However, the odds on favorite number that people in the startup community like to throw around is that 9 out of every 10 startups fails. So, as I see it, I still have 5 more failures and a win to look forward to (although I think my current startup, WP Engine, is a pretty damn good company that probably is a win).

I can say that in all of my years in this world, I’ve learned a number of things. Many of these things are through trial and error, success and failure, and good old A/B testing.

Today I’m beginning a series (revisiting an old theme from years ago when Steve Fisher wrote the “Venture Files” track on this blog – before I simplified to a single channel site that is updated far less often than it was then) providing some “rules”, as I see them.

As of now, I have six rules to share from my experiences. That may increase over time, but they are slotted and ready to go.

Focus Your Efforts

As an entrepreneur, the carrot on the stick is to provide the best damn {product} that {your target audience} has ever seen. I’ll focus on web tech startups since that’s what I know best, but the principle can cross easily into other industries as well.

Inevitably, being the best damn {product} that your {target audience} has ever seen, involves taking an already existing idea and improving on it. It’s always nice when you can do something new and innovative, but most companies aren’t and maybe shouldn’t be. It’s hard to do something completely new. One quick peruse through Angellist will show you scores of companies who are pitching their products as the {blank} for {blank}.


  • Netflix for Digital Children’s Books
  • Twitter for images
  • Meetup for Professional Events
  • eBay for College Tutoring

While I go into manic twitching mode when I see pitches like this, I have to hand the entrepreneurs and startups credit in that they are able to clearly identify exactly what they are building and why it’s important. Sure, they have to leverage some other known entity to get their point across, but their idea is concise and communicable.

Don’t be Google

To leverage a known entity for the sake of this post, Google is a poster child for leveraging someone else idea in the entirely wrong way. Tell me what all of these products have in common:

  • Google+
  • Google Buzz
  • OpenSocial
  • Orkut

That’s right. Every single one of these products were attempts to be the entirety of something else – to take it to their biggest competition in the space. Google+ is a direct swipe at both Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Twitter. Google Buzz was a direct assault on Twitter. OpenSocial existed to provide a social networking framework and was a play to undermine Facebook. Orkut took a swipe at Friendster, both of which are essentially dead today.

In every one of these cases, Google decided to “go big or go home” and ended up going home. The most recent, Google+, is still trying to get some traction but everyone seems to be sitting back and saying, “I’ve got social network exhaustion” and don’t see the big value in Google+ over existing products that do the same thing.

The better approach, if you want to assault Facebook, is a limited, targeted, precision-strike on a single feature and knock it out of the park. Twitter already has the status update. Don’t go there. The concept of +1, is already being done by Facebook with the “Like”. In other ways, Tweetmeme has been doing the same thing by enabling users to share what they like (who’s really gonna share what they don’t like… even if they don’t literally “like” it because it may be controversial, it’s compelling enough for users to share… which is the essence of a “Like” or a “+1”?).

But perhaps Google could really target photo sharing and tagging. Picasa is already there. Make it challenge Facebook’s photo albums and tagging. No one has done social event planning very well. Even Twtvite and Eventbrite are just for event planning, but don’t do social very well.

You Have Finite Resources

As an entrepreneur, you have limited resources. The last thing you need to be doing is getting “squirrel eye” and being distracted by every cool feature you could make. Does it fit within your vision? Does it help extend the main reason for building the product? (A good example of this is Foursquare building an Explore Tab… it extends their business product vision).

Especially at the beginning, you don’t have a lot of resources. Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Stay targeted and laser-focused on doing one thing and one thing well. As your company grows, you can start exploring complementary features and products. You just can’t be everything all at once.

Next time, I’ll expound on this concept by talking about competition and collaboration. You’ll want to come back. If you’re not already subscribe to this blog, do so now. Also, follow me on Twitter where I’ll be talking about entrepreneurship, WordPress and a healthy dose of sports on the weekend.