Five Articles I Wish I could Take Back

Drawing by Romancement on Flickr. Used by Creative Commons.

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?,

Rules for Entrepreneurs: Release Early and Often

hiwteboard

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.

Rules for Entrepreneurs: Compete and Collaborate

competition

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.

Collaborate

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.

Compete

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.