Tag Archives: entrepreneurship

Aaron Brazell

Entrepreneurial Priorities if You Don’t Want to Despise Yourself at Age 80

With the exception of a general, “We’re hiring” post a few days ago, my site has been largely neglected for the past year. It’s not that I don’t want to write. I do. And it’s not like I don’t have things to say because, if you know me, I do. I really do. And it’s not even that what I’d like to say isn’t all that important…. because it generally is.

I feel the need to write today, however, because it directly relates to why I don’t write as much as I used to. And it directly relates to why I, in the eyes of the typical startup founder or venture capitalist, am not a great entrepreneur. In their eyes. I’ll admit that I’m a terrible day to day running a business guy. I’m a terrible “take care of the basics” like health care and witholding taxes” guy. I’m actually a pretty decent entrepreneur though. Put me on the phone with a prospective client, and I can speak their language and close a deal. At the end of the day, being an entrepreneur is all about making money so you can live to play another day.

Or is it?

It’s also about life and lifestyle.

I feel really compelled to write about this because, though I sorta took a mental break from the tech startup world for a bit while I focused on my job and my new life back in on the east coast (and, you know, survival and keeping a roof over my head), I’ve dipped my toes back into the water.  I am as alarmed today as I was two years ago about the entrepreneurial scam that is peddled by basically everyone.

There’s an entrepreneurial scam?

Funny you should ask! Yes. And it goes something like this: “If you’re not willing to give 24/7 to build your startup or company, you shouldn’t be an entrepreneur”.

Jason Calacanis, famously, said in one of his listserv emails on September 27, 2008, eight days after the market crash of September 19, 2008 and two days after the FDIC seized Washington Mutual Bank, that the sign of someone (paraphrasing here) worth being hired/invested in in the startup world is the person who will gladly come in on Sunday. This was the actual passage from that email:

Hold an optional off-site breakfast meeting on a Sunday and see who shows up: If folks don’t show up for you to grow/save the company on a Sunday for a two hour breakfast, they probably aren’t going to step up when the sh#$%t really hits the fan. You need to know who the real killers on your team are and you need to get close with them now. Again, it’s fine to have 9-5ers on your team–if you’re the Post Office. You can’t have them at a startup company. Note: if you reading this and saying I’m anti-family, save it. Folks don’t have to work at startups and some of the hardest working folks I’ve met have families and figure out how to balance things.

UGH. So much wrong with this sentiment. This sentiment screams, “I am what I do” and that is simply the most self-loathing sentiment you can have. It is neither something to be proud of nor is it healthy mentally or physically. I have a lot of respect for entrepreneurs who will go to the Farmer’s Market on Sunday morning. Or who take their kids to the park. Or who go to brunch with their husband/wife/girlfriend/boyfriend. Not so much for the person who opts to work instead of doing these things.

Here’s what that mentality of roughly 2003-2008 got me. It got me a career, yes. It also got me a divorce and years of my life I will never get back. At nearly 38 years of age, that is a lot to bypass in the service of the almighty dollar, ego, prestige and “fame” (whatever the fuck that means).

While I worked my corporate 9-5, I was coming home and then working another 8 hours on client works, building a company or other nonsense. I neglected my son (who fortunately still loves me to death) and my wife, at the time, by working every night until 3am just to pass out exhausted and wake up at 6:30am to go to work again.

Those lost opportunities to be present were squandered because I bought into the charade that if I work longer and harder, I’ll succeed more and have a better life. Rubbish, hogwash, nyet, NO!

After my ex-wife and I split, I naturally did some soul-searching. Work wasn’t our only problem. But I’d say it was a contributing factor to all the problems I could see. I decided to do a 30-day “work cleanse”… For 30 days, work normal business hours – 9-5, 10-6, whatever… and then put my work down and find something to do to occupy my time. That was a hard thing to do since my work was my identity and my habit. However, after 30 days, I realized I was feeling more energized. I got more sleep. This enabled me to focus better on my work when I was doing it. It helped me get things done faster. I felt more alive.

By and large, this 30 day drill has become my lifestyle now six years later. I typically still work Monday through Friday, 9 to 5. I avoid after hours work or weekend work if I can help it. Though I still take side work, one project at a time in digestible portions, because… a little extra cash every month is nice. But, today, I spend time with my girlfriend, cook dinner sometimes, and do stuff that is fulfilling to my life (usually!) instead of investing all my energy into something that will ultimately fade away.

My greatest fear is that, in my latter years, I will look back on my life with regret, building something that doesn’t last while sacrificing the things that really matter on the altar of snake oil salesmen. You are not what you do. Your time spent does not define your character.

In the words of Trent Reznor Johnny Cash, three months before his wife’s death and seven months before his own:

What have I become 
My sweetest friend 
Everyone I know goes away 
In the end 
And you could have it all 
My empire of dirt 
I will let you down 
I will make you hurt

Aaron Brazell

I Fired Myself

If we’re friends on Facebook or Twitter, you know about my new job in Baltimore. Technically, it’s not a new job yet, as I don’t start until February 4. However, it’s a new job and a return, for the first time since 2006, to a more corporate (if laid back) working environment. I’ve only worked for one company in that period of time, and I was a founder. That, of course, is the hugely successful WP Engine. However, I left that role in October of 2011. I still didn’t have the motivation to not work for myself.

A little about this new role, however, since I brought it up. I feel it’s necessary in proving the point I want to make.

Corporate Culture

Agora Financial, as a division of Agora, Inc. was named the 2nd best place to work in Baltimore in 2011 by the Baltimore Sun. As an adopted Austinite, that label carries a high standard. In Austin, “business casual” is cutoff jean shorts (“jorts”) and a tech swag tee shirt with sandals. In Austin, the chic commuter rides a scooter or bicycle. Maybe even walks. In Austin, drinking a beer is not something simply saved for off-hours. In fact, many companies keep a refrigerator stocked with beer because, hey, the workforce can be more relaxed, efficient and productive if given certain leeway. Thankfully, none of us are drunks… maybe.

At Agora, I found a company that matched this sort of comfort level I’ve come to expect. When I flew up for an interview (and job interviews have been something I’ve not really had to do seriously since 2002), I emailed Mark, the Art Director and my point of contact, and very politely suggested I wouldn’t be arriving at their headquarters in a tie. Manage expectations, and such. Mark’s response was simply, “That’s fine. Business casual works”.

Business casual can mean many things. It’s sort of a catch all phrase that means different things to different people based on different companies policy ideas. So I wore some decent dress pants, a button up shirt and a vest with no tie. The team had sandals, jeans with holes, and hoodies and plaid-pattern button up shirts. I felt like I was in Austin!


But company culture was just one aspect. The work they do perfectly fits who I am practically and ideologically.

You see, Agora is a publishing company first and foremost. I’m a publisher. I’ve written a book and worked with traditional book publishers. My first startup was a publishing company with, at our peak, 350 blogs. Agora’s model is different than those models, but they’re publishing. They are creating content that, hopefully, long outlives us.

They are a policy research publishing company. Those who know me know that I love policy, I hate politics. When I engage in politics, it’s usually from the lens of policy. Agora provides research analysis and white papers based on their policy research in a subscription format. So there’s also a revenue model. And they’ve been highly successful at doing this, historically through newsletters, for years. It’s a proven model, and they are a proven company.

In addition, their policy analysis generally comes from a libertarian (small “l”) perspective. As a left-leaning small-l libertarian, I enjoy this aspect of what they do (even though I suspect most of my colleagues and most libertarians as a whole are right-leaning small-l libertarians, I suspect that we all agree on a framework of responsibility and limited government in individuals life, and diverge on other less-important minutiae).

I was hungry for this job. It was a dream job for me. Join a company doing things I loved, in areas I loved, with tools (WordPress) I loved, with a style of corporate culture that I loved. When they made me an offer, I didn’t hesitate to accept and fire myself from my own company.

I fired myself!

Having the Balls to Fire Myself

Most people aspire to stop working for the man, and start working for themselves. There are entire classes at universities and colleges about entrepreneurship, and to be sure, entrepreneurship is the mode of decade.

The other night, I had the opportunity to guest lecture for an capstone course on digital entrepreneurship for American University. It was online and you can hear my story and lecture here. This course is a culmination of all the classwork done in this program and is largely a practicum of everything learned to that point. The lectures are a series of lectures from guests that give the students inspiration and motivation about their futures while they work on their individual projects.

During this talk, I spoke specifically about the time I left corporate America and went out on a limb. It was 2006. I had been working on a side-project basis for over a year building up a WordPress-powered content network and when we finally took funding, I was employee #1 or #2, depending on who you ask. I couldn’t wait to leave my computer-fixing job and go do something I really, really wanted to do instead and get paid for.

I’ve heard stories like that from hundreds of entrepreneurs. Most never look back with any regret, despite the struggles and sometime-economic instability.

I have a view that whatever I do, I do it because I want to. It’s very easy to look and say that running a startup, building a product, starting a company or, in general, working for yourself is, in fact, the holy grail.

From Happiness to Happiness

My view is that the holy grail should be happiness and motivation derived from what you do. Sometimes that means taking a more unorthodox step and saying, you know what… being an entrepreneur is awesome, but it’s a vehicle to happiness, not happiness itself.

So effective February 4, 2013, Aaron Brazell has been terminated by Aaron Brazell.

I don’t know if I would have fired myself to go be a developer in some developer-happy company that segregates the developer from the product line. In other words, a lot of developer-oriented companies have developers as a means to an end. Product managers go talk to customers, develop goals, milestones, wireframes or storyboards, make decisions on initiatives with corporate executives and the developers exist to make that shit happen.

Some people like that. Some people don’t want to be a part of the politics and roadmapping. They work better with a framework that defines what their role and deliverables are. For them, that’s happiness.

For me, happiness is seeing the vision, talking about what it means – the pros, cons, feedback – iterating, being a part of the process of both scoping and building and then allowing the idea to flourish. It means building something toward an end. In the idea of a startup, it means building a product and moving it toward acquisition, IPO or even failure.

As a consultant, there was no viable end. Unless I’m committed to building out a team (I’m not), increasing a production pipeline (without a team, I can’t), or other such motivations, a consultancy looks exactly the way it does in 10 years as it did on day 1 – find clients, build something for them, collect money, wash, rinse, repeat. There’s no glorious ending. To me, that makes for an unhappy Aaron.

Agora provides an exciting platform, an an innate sense of entrepreneurship internally, that makes me happy. If I have an idea, I can try it. If I think something could really work well, I’ve got a green light to work on it. All within a good developer situation where I also have deliverables, and things to look at and solve. The combination of such makes Aaron a very happy person.


What Makes a Community?

I normally write articles that carry a bit of authority. I usually write what I know about and have a high degree of confidence writing. I don’t write often because I want what I do write to carry authority and be hard-hitting.

This is not really one of those articles.

I haven’t done what people like Alex Hillman has done in creating collaborative working environments for independent entrepreneurs at Independent’s Hall in Philadelphia.

I haven’t been an organizer and champion of city-wide entrepreneurship like Josh Baer has in Austin.

I haven’t fostered a product community like they have over at StudioPress with the Genesis Framework.

What I have done is work within the context of a thriving WordPress community of developers, users, consultants and advocates.

I have lived in a city that has made it’s name on entrepreneurship and arts in Austin.

I have helped and supported entrepreneurs in their quest to build products in DC and find ways of succeeding both with and without investment money.

Moving Back to Baltimore

For some weeks now, I’ve made it clear that I’ve decided to move back from Austin to Baltimore. In 2008, I left Baltimore because I saw awesome things developing in technology in DC. At the time, there were guys like Peter Corbett who was just beginning to do technology advocacy work in the Nation’s Capital. By 2009, iStrategyLabs would launch the first Apps for Democracy contest that challenged contestants to create web and mobile applications with civic intent. That would morph into similar contest like Apps for America, etc.

You would also see some organizations that would flare out dramatically because of business model, ideas, weak leadership, lack of community involvement, etc.

I would then move to Austin where I would see a city immersed in technology. Lots of money flowing. Lots of incubator action, such as the products and entrepreneurs who would be graduated from the Capital Factory incubator. I would see ATX Startup Crawl occur several times a year as guests would have the opportunity to move around town and visit some of the great startups like TabbedOut, InfoChimps, uShip and more. Thousands of people would come through these offices and see the great technologies and ideas being built, all while enjoying local Texas beers and eats.

I would see awesome projects like We Are Austin Tech highlight influencers in that community (including myself) come up.

And I watched Baltimore grow as a technology community to the point where DC entrepreneurs started paying attention to their up and coming little brother 45 mins up I-95. I watched from afar as Dave Troy would put his heart and soul into building Baltimore as a center of entrepreneurship and tech. I’d watch as Greg Cangialosi would build his Blue Sky Factory marketing firm out and have a successful acquisition, all while continuing to personally invest more in the Baltimore scene.

I even watched great tragedies like the systematic destruction of Advertising.com by Aol.

I watched this all over the last 4 years and realized Baltimore was coming into it’s own. It had successes. It had failures. It had investors. It had bootstrap. It’s still not entirely cohesive, but from my seat, it looks promising.

So I’ve decided to move back to my home and put my money where my mouth is and see if I can take what I’ve gleaned from DC and Austin and apply it here in Baltimore. I may be one of those failures. Or I may not be, but I’ve got to try.

What Makes a Successful Community?

In the last few weeks, I’ve had several conversations with Baltimore business owners and entrepreneurs, and I’m finding a common question and point of discussion: What makes a successful community? The answers and opinions are intriguing. Again, I can’t say my opinion carries any authority. What I can say, however, is I’ve been in a bunch of communities and witnessed elements of success.

Some folks think a successful business community requires investors who are willing to commit their time and money. Anyone who has gone through the fundraising process knows that hands on investors are the best kind. If a VC or Angel investor can help a portfolio company supplement resources (human capital or otherwise) through their network, they bring quite a bit of upside to a startup. Investors who wire money and never pay attention to their portfolio companies, expecting the founders to execute according to plan, are in my opinion bad investors.

So in this light, some entrepreneurs here in Baltimore find the lack of investment money or engaged investors as detrimental to the community.

On the flip side of the coin, some entrepreneurs seem to be thinking that the mark of a good startup community is going to be in the number of entrepreneurs who are able to successfully bootstrap. There is some validity to this claim as well. The more you can do on your own, the less of your company you’re giving away (as I noted in the “Valleyboys” segment of this article a few weeks ago).

However, there is also value in bootstrapping and taking money, if the situation is right.

Other folks I’ve talked to feels the value is in the number of people attend professional meetups compounded by the sheer number of meetups. In Austin, we have a vibrant meetup community. From the Austin WordPress meetup to Austin on Rails to Austin Lean Startup to Refresh Austin and the list goes on.

My opinion is that a city startup community is built on all these things. It’s not money, really. Money will follow success. Perhaps Baltimore needs to have an IPO or high profile acquisition that allows the company to continue to operate and hire in Baltimore to put them on the map and in the conversation. I don’t really think it’s that, per se, but that certainly helps.

It would help if the State of Maryland was more business-friendly to small businesses, as Texas is. People come to Texas, and more specifically Austin, from California and New York because the environment is notably friendly to small business. More business would be created in Maryland with better business policy. It might even attract out of state growth.

Beyond that though, meetups are important but meetups don’t create value if the conversations end at the meetup. The idea of building something – a prototype – as you might get out of a Startup Weekend is good… if it continues afterwards from prototype to business product.

But I think the biggest thing that makes community grow is collaboration and the willing to share ideas without being defensive, sharing resources without being possessive, sharing physical space without being prohibitive. It takes more that an entrepreneurs flying solo behind his Macbook Pro in a coffee shop, but it takes less than structured office space with prohibitive managerial org charts.

It doesn’t take sacrificing lifestyle on the altar of work, but it does take entrepreneurs willing to gut out ideas by working with other entrepreneurs and customers and transparently sharing war stories of success and failure while helping to mentor others new to the space.

It does takes the karmaic “pay it forward” approach without fiefdoms and regional rivalries to ensure that a rising tide raises all ships. What you put in to other companies you have no direct stake in, but can help with informal advice (when solicited) makes for a circle of life that encourages a community to exceed expectations and move from one level to the next. Mentorship is not an ROI term, but it is critical to the ecosystem.

Am I off-base in my thinking here?

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.


Five Articles I Wish I could Take Back

Last night I was going through Google archives looking for a post (that I never found) from 2007-2008. I went through 30 some pages of search results and remembered some of the older content I wrote. Some of it is stuff I either wish I didn’t write or I don’t agree with anymore. So I figured I’d share some of these posts and explain why I feel differently today:

It’s a Read/Write/Execute Web and We Just Live in It.

In this post from 2009, I posit that the first generation of the web was a read-only web. It was website that were not engaged with outside of simply reading. The second generation of the web was a “read/write” web marked by social interaction. The third I called a “read/write/execute” web where I railed on the future of the internet being API oriented and that government should

Drawing by Romancement on Flickr. Used by Creative Commons.

get on board with open data initiatives at the time.

Where I have a modestly different view today and I did slightly alude to it back then, is that the next generation of the web would actually be mobile. That prediction would have been true, and while APIs have played a significant role in making that happen, the APIs were merely a means to an end.

There are hundreds of thousand apps on the Apple app store and Android Market, not to mention other available app stores out there. Games now are played largely on smartphones and tablets as the shift away from consoles, while mild, is undoubtable. Today, with HTML5 and CSS3, websites are being creative with “responsive” design that allows for appropriate displays on appropriate devices.

Fun Fact: In 2004, I mused about what a world look like if we were not dependent on keyboards and mouses. I think we see that world in front of us now.

Are People Talking About You?

Originally published in 2007, I rode a train of personal brand for a long time. Not in that I had it. Everyone has something and some people have more than others. It’s actually not personal brand. It’s just reputation. I have a reputation. I have a reputation as a no-BS guy that doesn’t have a lot of respect for drama professionally or personally. I’m a confidant and advisor and I know WordPress really well. I get clients via word of mouth because I have a reputation for great work that speaks for itself with a fairly in depth intimacy with the WordPress core code. That’s reputation, but if you must, you can call it personal brand.

Regardless, I wrote this in that article:

It’s important to create great “stuff” (define “stuff” for yourself). It’s really important to stand out above the crowd. It’s more important to get other people talking about you. You are a brand. You are a subject matter expert. Well, you have the potential to be a subject matter expert. But you’re not yet. Not if no one is talking about you when you’re not around.

Aaron, you had me until, “It’s more important to get other people talking about you.”

This is why I was completely wrong. Nobody knows Mike McDerment. Well a lot of people do, but he isn’t a household name in tech or startups. However, he is the CEO of the largest cloud accounting company in the world. He built Freshbooks from the ground up to solve a problem that he had in 2003 (I just read his back story today).

Similarly, do you know Jason Cohen? You might know him because I’ve mentioned him or because you use WP Engine but otherwise, Jason isn’t a flashy guy. When I got the call from Jason right before moving to Austin to come help start WP Engine, I was thinking he was another guy named Cohen. I had no idea how successful and amazing he was. He wasn’t worried about promoting himself. Product is everything and product speaks for itself.

So I entirely disagree with my 2007 theory of self-aggrandizement. The only reason you have to worry about personal brand is if you’ve got nothing going for you. Otherwise, shut up and do epic shit. The rest will follow.

Age of Exploration 500 Years Later

First of all, this story is all fluff. I tell a nice story of explorers and all but it takes me to the last paragraph to even make a point, much less a thesis statement. And even then, I’m unsure of my point.

Imperial Stout

Photo by Brostad. Used by Creative Commons

What I think I was trying to say is that technology and, more specifically, embracing technology and change makes us better business people, better communicators, better humans.

If I had to rewrite the end of this post, I’d say this:

All of these explorers that went before, discovered new lands, races, tribes, experiences and opportunity opened up the door to new innovations. They were able to lay the groundwork and stepping stones for new expansion of influence and find new technologies that would allow for growth into the Industrial age.

I would then use the example of the Imperial Stout created in England for the Queen of Russia:

Through the expansion of the Russian Empire, King Peter the Great of Russia discovered British Stouts. As they became popular among Russians, a problem emerged. There was no way to get these stouts in Russia because the trip was so long that the beer would spoil before arrival. In the 1800s, an English brewery, responding to demand, developed a way of “hopping” their stouts in such a way to allow the beer to be preserved and delivered to Queen Catherine of Russia. Thus, this more hoppy version of the typical stout became known as the Russian Imperial Stout, or just the Imperial Stout.

I would use that segue to explain that even in our technology-centric world, it takes innovators developing technology in order for other, new technologies to emerge. A classic example of this from the programming world is that of Ajax, an extension of JavaScript which has been around for years. Ajax is a technology that allows background communication with servers without the page reloading. Without Ajax being developed a few years ago, the interactivity we have come to expect on sites everywhere would not be able to exist.

So it’s not that I disagree with myself so much as I didn’t explore the real premise of the article enough.

Roadmap to Victory at the Washington Post

This article is still an interesting one. On one side, I saw the Washington Post, and traditionally print-based journalism, as a dying trade. On the other I made a naive assumption that newspapers exist for the sake of journalism.

Both of these premises are wrong. Let’s address both presuppositions.

Traditionally print-based journalism is alive and well, as it should be. It isn’t going anywhere, nor should it. Blogs and digital media are not in competition with newspapers. They complement newspapers. Both sides serve different roles. While it’s true that newspapers (print) can’t break news anymore, they should count their blessings.

There are no opportunities to destroy credibility with Dewey Beats Truman moments (or more recently, Mandate Struck Down, as famously misreported by CNN). There are plenty of opportunities for solid, in depth investigative reporting-style journalism. I know it costs money. So save money by not trying to break news and let the digital sources do that.

Secondly, my cynical take feeds right into that last sentence and is why the challenge lies in money. Journalism today is an art, and is a respectable skill, trade and profession. But news organizations aren’t run by journalists. They are run by business people. Many of them are not non-profits, so they are implicitly for-profit. That means the bottom-line, which is dictated by readership, circulation and sometimes the ratings of television sister networks, are what inform the decisions of the company.

Samuel Zell, owner of the Tribune Company, ran his media empire as an entertainment company and not a journalism company. Guess what? Tribune is still trying to emerge from bankruptcy protection.

Let’s get back to the Washington Post, though. When I wrote this story, WaPo was trailing in the digital race. Today, they did everything other than what I suggested in my piece and have become one of the foremost digital journalism centers around. Their blogs, including Capital Weather Gang and DC Sports Blog are stellar and I still read them regularly, even though neither pertain to me anymore.

Unlike when I wrote this post, WaPo’s digital and print operations are integrated, instead of separate. Online metrics are key and closely watched. Online traffic is the indicator of success at the Post. Circulation is not. Subscriptions are not. Traffic. Eyeballs on their apps, their blogs, their articles. That’s the important metric at the Post. No longer are digital operations a second class citizen. They are equal or greater than print.

Even the New York Times sees it:

They can look at where online visitors are when they read the site. And if their computers are registered with a government suffix — .gov, .mil, .senate or .house — editors know they are reaching the readers they want. “That’s our influential audience,” Mr. Narisetti said. “If a blog is over all not doing that great but has a higher percentage of those, we say don’t worry about it.”

The Washington Post is smarter than I am, clearly, and I applaud them for it.

Valleyboys: It’s All About the Money

Wow. How far off the mark can I be? This article, which matter-of-factly states something that was anything-but-fact, is a clear example o my lack of experience in 2007. In 2007, I apparently thought I knew everything there was about running a startup and raising funding. That from a perspective of someone who was  just over a year out of the corporate world working for my first startup. I wasn’t a founder nor had I raised money. I didn’t understand a thing about reputation (there’s that word again) of founders, the importance of co-founders, how to safely determine a valuation based on things like profit and loss, revenue, the value of burn, the value of users and more factors that go in to that process.

I don’t really know why I was so pissy at the Valley, but in 2012, let me go on record and say that it’s not all about money in the Valley and there are a lot of people working hard to create value. Many do raise money, but many bootstrap as well. There’s pros and cons to both, and that’s left to a different article.

In my defense, there is some absurd money flying around not just in the Valley, but everywhere. For instance, I still don’t see the reasoning behind a $30M raise on an 8x valuation for Path, a round that included Virgin empire mogul Sir Richard Branson. That company has pivoted so many times and still doesn’t seem to have a clue what it’s doing. Nor do I understand the $1 BILLION Instagram buyout by Facebook.

Here’s the money line (see what I did there?). Whether there’s a lot of money flowing or not is not the question. It is a question, but not the question. The question is whether there are good, innovative products being built that create value in the marketplace. If that can be done with no money, great. If it requires funding money on orders of magnitude, that’s a decision that the investors and entrepreneurs have to make. Money doesn’t come without strings. Big raises with low revenue and no profit generally mean the investors get more of the company and if the company sells, then the founders get less. But then big raises for profitable companies with low burn and high user numbers could also mean that the investors just want a piece of the action, even if they don’t get a big piece of the pie. But there’s always strings and the amount of money matters less than the percentage of ownership and the length of runway as it relates to a burn rate and overhead.

So if I believed in deleting articles entirely, this one would be a prime candidate. :)

In the spirit of making sure I’m not perceived as a douchebag, here are some good article I wrote many moons ago. Enjoy!

Friends vs. Fans, The Most Expensive Question, Social Media: How Much is Too Much?,

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.

Aaron Brazell, Hall of Fame

Everything I Needed to Know About Entrepreneurship, I learned from Star Wars

Star Wars. The original Star Wars. Perhaps those movies were defining films of our time. Though the first title (aptly numbered Star Wars IV) was filmed in the late 1970s, it continues to define movie nerddom today. Of course, Star Wars has seen somewhat of a renaissance due to the licensing of the intellectual property for the creation of video games like LEGO™ Star Wars and the continual memeage (is that a word?) of Yoda and Darth Vader quotes.

Nonetheless, it, like any good story, is successful in no small part due to the parallels in life that can be drawn. Much like how Office Space taught me about Public Relations, Star Wars taught me about entrepreneurship.

Don’t doubt me. The nuggets of wisdom are strewn throughout. In fact, I’ve developed my entire professional life around Star Wars. 1 You don’t believe me? Check this out.

Always Two There Are, a Master and an Apprentice

No matter how good you are in your professional life, there is always someone better. Yoda reminds me that, there should always be someone I look up to for learning. Sometimes this person (or people) is better than you at what you do. Other times, this person (or people) is someone who excels in a complementary way.

One of the founders of WP Engine, Jason Cohen, is one of these guys. Jason is amazingly technically (if I can keep him away from Javaisms while writing PHP code) and is the brainchild behind our infrastructure. More importantly, the dude is one of the savviest businessmen around in a completely unassuming way. He is not the guy who is going to walk into a meeting a toot his own horn like some investors or entrepreneurs do. He simply is and carries chutzpah. I have not known Jason very long but in the time I have, I’ve developed a real appreciation for him.

Likewise, Geoff Livingston has become a close friend but he’s also an incredibly focused entrepreneur. I’ve known Geoff since his early days where he was running a social media PR firm out of Alexandria, VA. Geoff and I became close but it wasn’t until I lived with him for six months in 2008-09 that I realized the drive this kid had. He frequently asked for my advice on things that were happening professionally, all of which will remain off the record in the circle of trust.

However, he has demonstrated since that he knows how to make tough decisions and go after what he believes in. Earlier this year, Geoff co-founded Zoetica to assist non-profits and socially conscious companies in their communications efforts. His drive has led him to lead in the CitizenGulf effort to raise money for oil spill cleanup in the Gulf, and to raise awareness and change in the policy world.

His dedication to his cause is something I’m watching and learning from.

Yahoooooo! You’re all clear, kid. Now let’s blow this thing and go home

Remember when the Death Star invasion was happening in Star Wars IV? The X wings were being pursued down the trough by TIE fighters. Darth Vaders fighter was on the hunt to blow Luke away. Han Solo brings his Millenium Falcon into play at the last minute and with some perfectly timed shot, knocks Vaders fighter into oblivion allowing Luke to handle his business and blow the Death Star away.

In business, the ultimate goal is always to have an exit. If it’s not, you’re holding it wrong. You don’t want to stay in a job forever. You may want to delay because you have more you want to do with the startup before selling it, but at the end of the day, if you’re putting blood, sweat and tears into a startup… you want the big pay day at the end.

This is what drives many entrepreneurs to settle for less money in exchange for more equity in the startup. Get less cash now for way more cash down the road.

Like the Death Star invasion, startup mode will have you fighting a guerrilla war at times… fighting for your survival… skirmishing to get a leg up. Once you’re clear and have done everything you can to get the company to a specific place, cash in! Blow this thing and go home. Live to fight again another day.

Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?

One of the more hilariously ridiculous quotes from Star Wars IV came from Leah when Luke rescued her from being executed by the Empire.

The takeaway from this quote is pretty simple… never let anyone denigrate what you do as an entrepreneur. There will always be second guessing and there will always be other entrepreneurs who feel like thy know better and can offer advice. You know your company better than anyone else. You know your decision-making fiefdom better than anyone else. Own your offense and maintain confidence in what you do, and what you are building.

Luke, there is another Sky….walker…

The dying words of the Jedi Master Yoda. These words were the clue to Luke that he had a twin. That there could be another Jedi candidate. That there could be another Skywalker to defeat the evil Empire.

In the Lean Startup mode of starting businesses, the idea is to fail and fail fast if you’re going to fail at all. That way, if you fail and fail quickly, you can learn quickly without having put a lot of time and effort into something that will never work. Taking lessons learned, you can move on to the next startup and try again. Keep in mind that, statistically, 9 out of 10 companies fail. There is nothing wrong with failure as long as you realize there is another around the corner.

There is another Skywalker. There is another idea. There is another startup. And there may be another failure.


We don’t know specifically what Chewbacca was talking about when the Millenium Falcon’s hyper drive system failed. If there are any Wookie translators in the audience, please step to the front of the room. However, we can deduce that, based on what we know of Chewie, that he was doing tactical consulting.

In other words, it’s my opinion, that Chewie was making sure Han knew that there was a lot of problems with the Millenium Falcon and it wasn’t like they had the money to fix the bucket of bolts. Chewie was suggesting solutions for Han to fix problems quickly without spending a lot of money. I mean, can you imagine if Han had to take a VC round to fix the Falcon? What would the valuation on that sucker be anyway? I’m sure it would be a diluted round.

Instead, Chewie was helping Han realize what he needed to do to fix the problem on a budget. Maybe even in bandaid fashion. As entrepreneurs, use your creative juices to find ways to self-fund and not take stupid money just so you can extend runway. Find ways to be revenue positive now instead of later. Find ways to cheaply outsource problems so core team members can focus on the core solutions.


See. Everything you need to know about entrepreneurship can be learned from Star Wars. It’s a geek favorite for a reason. I’m sure there are lessons you have learned as well. Feel free to share those.

In the meantime, may the Force be with you.

Photo by xtyler


  1. Not really. No, really.. not really.
Aaron Brazell

The Milk Machine: Finding Business Focus

You know how occasionally you remember things from your childhood which seem fairly mundane but end up being a moment of inspiration and, sometimes, an epiphany. I get these things all the time and I guess it just helps me appreciate my childhood even more.

Back in the late 70s and early 80s, when I was 4-5 years old and my memories were just starting to really stick with me, we were living in the inner city of Buffalo. The neighborhood is tragically drug-ridden today, and it wasn’t a fantastic neighborhood then either. It was inner city. My father grew up on those streets in the Lovejoy neighborhood as a brawler of sorts. Fighting was the problem, not drugs. How times change. But I digress.

One of the memories I remember from those days is the milk machine. This milk machine is an oddity these days. No one buys milk from milk machines and, I’ll be honest, I have no real idea why we did either. But there was a milk machine at the corner of Longnecker St and Lovejoy St and we went to buy our milk there quite often.

Considering there was a Wilson Farms (similar to 7-11) right there as well, one can only assume that mom chose to buy the milk from the machine because it was a better quality or offered a better value.

Which brings me in a long-winded way to my point. Whoever the hell owned that milk machine didn’t exactly have a huge demographic. It was basically people who could walk to it and chose to walk to it instead of Wilson Farms. I’m sure he wasn’t getting rich off the milk machine. But he was serving a very targeted audience and doing so in such a way that wasn’t trying to take over the world and be everything.

If you’ve got a startup… if you’ve got a venture… do not try to be everything to everyone. It just doesn’t work. Know your audience and what makes them tick. Figure out exactly who you’re serving and stay on track. Especially in early stages, venturing outside of the laser-like target is an expensive proposition, especially in the early stages.

Make your milk and make it good and find the machine that earns you money.

Photo Credit Robbie’s Photo Art