Building a startup you love is hard (BaSYLiH) – First Draft


This is the first draft of the content from the core conversation panel I did at SxSW earlier this year. When it’s done it will go up as a PDF and a blog post. I’m posting here so that I can start getting feedback if possible; and have kept things numbered for easier reference – feel free to comment to this post… ;-)
Once it’s final I’ll format it better too…

Dustin took some great photos on the day, so you might want to check them out on Flickr.

A short disclaimer:
These are obviously all my own opinions and as such I cannot take responsibility for anything that happens once you’ve read this document. Whilst I would think that the following are things that I have learnt over the last few years, I don’t profess to be anything more than someone who is trying to learn and apply these learnings – I’m certainly not going to say I’m on top of all of them!

Some questions to ask yourself before starting:
Are you a business owner?
Do you want to be a business owner?
What’s your age?
Do you mind hard work?
Do you have savings in the bank?
Are you a coder, a business person, an ideas person, or a generalist?
If you have a business, do you have a business partner?
If you have a business, is it a product or service business?
If you have a business, are you cashflow positive?
If you have a business, are you profitable or in debt?

I’ve tried to keep the content as short and easily digestible as possible, erring on the side of using point form. I’ve also tried to group things so that chunks digest together. If you’d like some elaboration then please feel free to ask.

Without further ado, here’s the content:

1.Ask yourself what kind of business you’ll love. Then start.
(a)Set SMART goals to make sure you know if you’re reaching them. Use the internet to learn more about SMART goals.

2.Your life won’t be normal, accept it.
(a)Dont use your “normal” friends as your benchmark, they’re generally not working under the same conditions you’ll be.

3.Embrace your fears, they are only fears.
(a)It’s the only way to start and make progress. There’s never a “right” time to get started, so just do it and work things out as you go.

4.Roll the snowball uphill, this is not an avalanche.
(a)I’ve seen very few people succeed without consistent effort. In the long run, persistence and continued effort pays off more.

5.Business is won in inches, just like in sports.
(a)Things seldom take as long as you hope they will, often twice as long.
(b)Doing small things first wins trust, and leads to bigger things when trust is earned.
(c)A sales cycle will typically take anything from 1 to 6 months to bear fruit, probably with a 10 to 20% success rate. Prioritise the small things that will help you to close a deal.

6.Build processes wherever you can to give yourself more time to do the things you’re good at.
(a)Processes you can generally optimise on or find services for are around invoicing, banking, timesheets, sales cycle documentation, proposals, quotes and your daily routine!

7.Abstract and automate wherever you can, you’re not an ISP.
(a)Use 3rd party service providers to make your life and administration easy.
(b)Don’t ever re-invent the wheel unless it makes sense to. Evaluate cost and cost of time against periodic or once off service costs.
(c)Examples are email, calendar (Google Hosted apps), customer support (eSupport), Project management (Basecamp), invoicing (Freshbooks)

8.Cashflow is King, always, without question.
(a)You should always always always have an eye on your cashflow, which literally means how much cash you have in the bank. When you lose sight of this, you will come unstuck and have to go to emergency measures. Knowing what cash you have frees you up to focus on bringing it in and to set your goals.
(b)Know what your cashflow needs are at the beginning of the month; then re-assess at around the 10 or 12 of that month. Start collecting or making arrangements for what you need from then.

9.Learn to leverage debt. Don’t let debt ruin your business.
(a)I categorically don’t recommend you get into debt if you can avoid it, as it’s a big risk. However, if you can bear the risk, and can manage it well, it can serve you without you having to find other less economical sources.
(b)I prefer credit cards as they don’t lock you into overly long payment terms, and you can squash the debt when you’re able to.
(c)Make sure you make your interest payments every month so you don’t affect your credit rating; know where you are within your limit at all time; revolve credit from one provider to another to get better interest rate deals.

10.Learn to network. Become good at it.
(a)I can’t stress enough how important this is. Learning to do this well is a lifelong skill that will always benefit you in business.
(b)Always be genuine, start relationships you aim to maintain, never abuse peoples trust, and always remember that you have two ears and one mouth which should be telling you to use them in equal proportion!

11.Define what success looks like for you, don’t fumble around and be wishy washy.
(a)Everyone has their own ideas and parameters for what success is, so you need to know what yours are before you find your success.
(b)Some good places to start are:
i.What kind of cashflow will you be happy with?
ii.What kind of people do you want to work with?
iii.Are you looking for industry or regional kudos that will indicate some level of personal and professional achievement?

12.Good people are your most important asset, absolutely. They’re generally the largest business cost, but more important than pretty much everything else.
(a)Will you invite them to lunch with your team?
(b)Would you introduce them to your Mom and Dad?
(c)Would you go into battle with them?

13.Learn the difference between “bread and butter” and “icing on the cake” work.
(a)There will always be work that is less exciting, more repetitive and which generates a lower profit. It’s called bread and butter ‘cos it’s likely that although it’s not great or ideal work, it puts bread and butter on the table and keeps the wolf from the kitchen door. More specifically, it’s likely to keep your business running, but not generate great returns or much profit. Generally it’s 60 to 90% of your workload.
(b)Conversely, if you can find it there will also be more ideal work, or “icing on the cake” which makes you happier, presents more of a challenge, is more rewarding both professionally and will probably generate more profit.
(c)You should aim to reduce the bread and butter and increase the ideal work.

14.Strive to find a work/life balance. Everyone will find the balance in different ways.
(a)Clearly define what your balance is; check-in weekly or monthly (or what makes sense for you) to make sure you’re getting there.
(b)Often your most important or rewarding work comes when you’re subconsciously working on it in your “off” time. A good example is the coder that finds the solution to his problem while in the shower (buy Crayola shower pens!).

15.Learn to push; learn to relax.
(a)Despite thinking that a work/life balance is necessary, I also believe that there are times when it’s just not going to happen for you for whatever reason. Learn to recognise these times and make sure you come out of them.
(b)Similarly, when you’re not in “push” mode, make sure you wind down and re-charge so that you don’t run your internal personal battery down.

16.Know what your role in the business is. Recruit around that. Play to your strengths.
(a)This seems obvious but many people end up doing stuff they didn’t intend to from the start. It’s natural to try to retain control by doing everything, but you’ll soon reach a point where you just can’t do it all. The best thing you can do is to find people that compliment you in other areas.

17.Read, apply and continually practise the following principles in your life:
(a)The 80/20 (or Pareto) Principle
(c)Getting Things Done (GTD)
(d)The 7 Habits of Highly effective people
(e)… and, don’t forget to eat your own dogfood.

18.Become a Jedi Master at getting things done. Start now.
(a)Most successful people I know have some sort of system they use to keep the stuff in their head from exploding. I’ve found that GTD with a few mods is a good system for keeping me sane and on top of things.

19.Know your limits
(a)Know how much sleep you need to function effectively.
(b)Know your skills around dealing with people so you can get help when you need it.
(c)Know how good you are at negotiating so you can improve or hire someone better than you at it.
(d)Know what you’re good at so you can keep doing it. Don’t assume you’re best at everything.

20.Save for a rainy day & for Vat or Tax (whichever your country uses)
(a)Having a few months cash under the mattress is a good way to get around your fears and to help you to focus.
(b)Saving cash to pay your government is a sure way to prevent you from having to dip into profit/loans/credit/salaries/growth funds when you need to pay up.
(c)I’ve found creating two separate bank accounts for each and putting money in them every month is a great way of consciously simplifying and managing.

21.Focus on your important relationships, don’t worry about the rest for now.
(a)Make sure you keep in touch with your family, good friends, accountant, bank manager, and partners.

22.There are only 3 ways to make more money. Do something in your business to optimise for each way.
(a)To make more money you can:
i.gain new customers
ii.get more money from existing customers
iii.raise your prices
iv.Start with one that works for you, and move onto the next as soon as you can.

23.Spread your bets, scale up if your bets pay off.
(a)Make sure you don’t put all your eggs in one basket, to mitigate your risks.
(b)If a bet does pay off, then scale it up quickly to get as much out of it as possible.

24.Charge more than you think you should. Go on, try it.
(a)It’s easier to earn more from less projects, then earn more from more projects. The inference is that you charge more, have less things to manage, but still earn more.
(b)You’re more than likely charging less then you should. Decide whether you think you’re worth more. If so, start charging more until people stop asking you to do work for them.

25.Get a good accountant. Then educate them about your business and market so they can give better advice.
(a)I can’t overstate the importance of a good, proactive, helpful, accountant, who knows that helping to make you successful will also make them more successful.
(b)Don’t be afraid to interview your prospective accountant – I would advise it’s always a 2 way relationship.

26.If you can at all, implement systems before you start. It WILL save you time and money.
(a)A system can be: simple as a checklist of things to do for a specific outcome, like SEO items or setting up a new client on your server;
ii.more detailed like creating document templates which will support your business processes (RFP, costing, quotes, spec docs, resourcing, timesheets, invoices, manuals etc etc);
iii.or more involved like setting up specifically to suit your business, to setting up an accounting or banking package that gives you the reports you need to assess financial situation
(b)Of course, in the heat of a start-up you might never get to it in advance, so this may be called wishful thinking. But the week or so doing this will pay off in the long run – you’ll sleep more, get more real work done, and you’ll feel like you’re keeping the ship in the right course.
(c)Always err on the side of simplicity; abstract the system so it can be used in as many scenarios as possible; use spreadsheets before buying expensive packages; and do backups!!!

27.Do one thing well at a time. It will revolutionise your productivity.
(a)Learn to tell the difference between distractions, actions, projects and priority. Learn to focus on one thing at a time and to do it well. Learn to say no.

28.Understand why you’re good at what you do. Then learn to communicate it to your parents, then your grandparents.
(a)If you don’t understand what you’re good at, and why, then how are you going to get someone to see it for themselves? Buyers buy for themselves, mitigating against their fears – they don’t buy for a skillset or go for acronyms.
(b)If you can explain this to someone so it’s easily digestible and easy to remember, then you’re onto something.
i.For example:
A.“I specialise in building CMS solutions that are well structured, portable on most any server, properly documented, easily maintainable and futureproof”; is better than “I’m a php coder that does CMS solutions”.
B.“I’ve worked on large scale LAMP community sites, building out code and infrastructure to manage Alexa 5000 ranking traffic”, is better than “I’ve worked on some cool stuff for community sites”.

29.Find, create, develop an outstanding elevator pitch. Then practice it until it’s second nature.
(a)You should be able to explain to someone what you do in about 20 seconds, and it should be interesting and unique enough for them to remember you and it. If it doesn’t do that, go back to the drawing board. Practise on people who do not work in tech.

30.Keep learning. Keep moving.
(a)I’ve always believed that individual stagnation is the killer of personal progress. Continually learning is one way not to stagnate, and IMO no one has nothing to learn. Similarly, staying in one place too long breeds comfort zones and complacency.
(b)If you’re in a comfort zone, ask yourself how long you’ve been there for, and why? If you’re complacent, then you need to ask yourself where that will get you?

31.Shave more. Invest in good shirts and shoes. Wear shirts to meetings. It works.
(a)I’m the last one to do the above willingly. I’m far happier barefoot and in the bush, wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Problem is I’m now in London.
(b)In my experience, people give you more credibility if you look the part relative to them, so learning how to clean up and present yourself is a lifelong skill that will help you more than you estimate.

32.You’ll need to work insane hours sometimes. Get regular sleep when you don’t.
(a)I’ve not yet met a business owner who did not work until the wee hours either regularly or often enough for it to show physically.
(b)So, like the soldier, practice and be strict about getting regular sleep when you can because at some stage you’re going to need to dip into your “sleep bank account” and use it to help you get through stressful and sleepless nights.

33.Tequila isn’t good for Mondays; but it is good on Fridays.
(a)This is really just a nice way of saying that you need to be able to let your hair down and have fun from time to time; but that shouldn’t come at the expense of your ability to perform the next week.
(b)So hit the tequila on a Friday, rest up on the weekend, then hit the ground running on Monday.

34.Exercise. You’ll handle stress much better.
(a)What is important is that you exercise regularly. What’s not important is what you do. Just make sure you sweat and do it often enough to make you sleep well at night.
(b)You can also use exercise to break up work periods, so you come back fresh.
(c)Aim for 3 x weekly, build up to 5 x weekly.

35.Get your bank manager to send you wine once a year.
(a)My father once said that you should know two people really well in your life; your wife, and your bank manager…
(b)My experience of this is that if you have a good relationship with your bank manager you’re more likely to be able to get out of cashflow scrapes if you need to, as well as get access to other banking facilities that you wouldn’t if your bank manager wasn’t your fan.
(c)Make sure it’s good wine, not cheap rubbish!!

36.Understand P/L statements & Balance sheets. If you do, you’ll make less mistakes.
(a)Accountants, bankers and financial people generally think in terms of Profit and Loss (P/L) and Balance sheets. At a high level, they’re health indicators for your business, and summaries of the way things are going.
(b)If you can understand them, your ability to communicate with financial people will be better, the benefits of which are pretty obvious.

37.Model your time, productivity and billing. You’ll be more productive and you’ll end up making more money.
(a)Your job as a business owner is to reduce inefficiency and optimise efficiency. If you’re able to model accurately what your time is worth with respect to your business and cashflow, then model that against productivity and your billing, you’ll be able to spot and rationalise weak spots much faster than if you let them hit you in the face. Promise.
(b)The simplest thing you can do is ask yourself the following questions, then answer them as honestly as possible:
i.How much time do I spend working on average per day?
ii.How much of that time do I spend doing something that will benefit my business?
iii.How much of that time can I directly attribute to revenue? [ service business ]
iv.How much of that time is making an effect on my product? [ product business ]
(c)Use spreadsheets to model resources against billing as far in advance as possible, so that you can predict cashflow and resource fluctuations in advance, and plan to mitigate them.

38.Get a life and / or business coach. Get advisors. Find a mentor who you respect.
(a)The best thing you can do for yourself is to acknowledge that you’re not perfect. Everyone can improve in some way.
(b)With that comes the realisation that other people who are perhaps older and more experienced than you, might also be willing to share their knowledge with you.
(c)Having trusted people on the outside of your situation might also help you to see things clearer.
(d)Most local successful businessmen will happily give up a lunch every month to 6 weeks or so, to help someone who is proactive and willing to learn. Find those people!

39.Reward yourself. You deserve it.
(a)One of my deepest regrets is that I haven’t given myself permission to reward myself for all the work I’ve put in. I’ve lived for a long time in a state of delayed gratification “I’ll go on that holiday to Greece when X happens”; “I’ll buy that camera I’ve had my eye on for two years when I have no debt”; “I’ll buy myself that TV for Christmas next year” – sound familiar?
(b)So, my recent learning is to let go and reward myself sometimes. I’m happier and more content, even though I may have spent more money this month that I wanted to. In the short term, being happier and content affects your life in so many other ways it’s worth it.

South African bandwidth at ‘fraction of today’s cost’?


From Tim (he who has no blog or site or anything to point to):
_ Business Day – News Worth Knowing

THE price of international bandwidth will plummet 80% when the Seacom undersea cable goes live on June 17 next year.

Seacom will be the first of several proposed cables to finally reach African shores and local universities have already been promised international bandwidth for just 2,5% of the fee they currently pay.

Seacom president Brian Herlihy said the $600m, 17000km cable running up Africa’s east coast, then on to India and France, was on track for a “dead-certain delivery date”.

Its bandwidth will cost as little as R267 a month per 1MB, compared to between R3500 and R11000 to use Telkom’s bandwidth on the existing Sat-3 cable, or a punishing R231000 for satellite connectivity.

So, is this good news or what?? Thoughts? Will SA people based in SA be able to take over the world now? ;-)

What’s happenning to Tech for Africa?


I’m the first to admit that I’ve had my head in the sand the last few months, and have received many emails asking what’s happening with Tech for Africa... So I thought that posting something public would be the best way to communicate what’s happening for everyone to see ;-)

Must say that the last few months have been a blur…
Since January of this year, Technovated has gone from 4 people, to 10, to a venture funded project with 14 people in all, over three office moves and many many late nights and long weekends.

There’s a blog post coming up about it all soon, but the long and the short of it is as follows:

  1. I’m responsible for getting our venture funded application out the door soon, so I’m stacked as it is
  2. I’ve battled to find dates this year that get the right mix of African and international speakers together at the same time
  3. I’ve battled to find the right kind of sponsorship early, which would mean the difference between something good and something mediocre – mostly related to point 2 (since sponsors like to be linked to speakers and topics)
  4. I’m convinced that it would be a loss maker if we didn’t get the right speakers – there’s a very fine line between raising enough sponsorship to make the cost for attendees affordable as well as afford to bring out good speakers; all before you have fixed numbers that are all paid up… and without a pot of cash to dip into, it’s harder to take risks

So, in truth I’m not 100% happy about it ‘cos I’ve been talking about it for a while and I’m the kind of person to do rather than talk wherever possible, but I’ve taken some good advice from people who are helping out, and the consensus is that we should be aiming for around March / April next year rather, to give us more time to get points 1 through 4 above right. I certainly don’t want to spend time, effort and potentially my goodwill only to get great speakers out to SA and the event is a dismal failure and costs me more money than I have or can afford!

Anyways, this isn’t a sob story if you were thinking you were gonna be reading one.

A lot of people have either told me to give the idea up, or told me that I’m crazy, but I believe that they’re wrong. I’m pretty sure now that the original format and idea that I had bubbling in my head is going to have to be re-thought to take into account the difference environment, the cost of long trans-Atlantic flights, and the relative expense that something like this is when compared to someones monthly salary.

That said, I think the direction to take is to adapt and give more time to finding the right dates so that the right speakers can congregate for the event. Once that is done getting sponsorship will be easier and therefore the chances of success higher.

So, bottom line is that I’m still personally 100% committed to getting this off the ground and happening in Africa, even if it has to be delayed some – I would rather delay by 6 to 8 months and make it a good one where everyone benefits, than rush to make it work in October and end up with something that is mediocre…

So, I ask you to bear with me, and to stay tuned. It will happen.

The Curious Incident of the Missing Market – Technology for Africa ’07?


Dave Duarte and Mike Stopforth have put together a regular marketing podcast for South Africans, which is shaping up to be a promising part of the ecosystem.

Recently there was an attempt to get a “web 2.0 conference” done in SA in May, which didn’t happen for whatever reason. Apparently there isn’t enough interest, which I can picture, but like Mike and Dave, I have my doubts about how the market was approached… Which is a shame…. but that leads me to my next point ;-)

They contacted me earlier in the week to do a Skype podcast, which I naturally said of course to, and after having swanky dinner with Tim tonight, over Flirtnik, I’ve come home and decided to listen to the podcast while getting some work out of the way.

Anyways, it’s always weird listening to your own voice, but I think I get the message accross about what we’re trying to do with the conference, much better than if I could write it here…

So, go check out the blog post, and listen to it.
Tell your mates about the conference, sign up yourself at the conference site so we can mail you more info, and get involved!

Also – while you’re at it – sign up for the Amplitude podcast, and you should also probably keep an eye on Dave and Mike’s blogs… ;-)

Also, while I’m thinking about it, if you’re interested in what we’re up to in London, then this is also worth watching, although in the next few weeks I might have to eat my shorts… but more on that when the time is right.

Technology for Africa ’07 credit card test passed, speakers announced


The last week or so has seen us sit with bated breath, waiting to see the reaction to the web and emerging technology conference we’re going to put together for Africans (with an African context of course). Well, we’re happy to say that the credit card test has passed, and the response has been really positive – At the moment we’re getting a sign up rate of 25% of visitors that view the site, which is not too bad I think. You can view what people are asking for at the conference, at our feedback results page.

So, that’s great but who are the speakers?
In alphabetical order, here you go for now (more on the way):

Andy Budd

Andy Budd wearing a suit but no shirt collar, sits with his hands clasped in front of him.Andy Budd is an internationally renowned user experience designer and web standards expert. Andy is a regular speaker at major design conferences and recently spoke at @media 2006 in London, and Webmaster Jam in Dallas, Texas. Andy is also the driving force behind our annual d.Construct web development conference.

Andy wrote the best selling book, CSS Mastery: Advanced Web Standards Solutions. In this book, Andy shares his years of experience in creating attractive, standards compliant websites.

Andy’s design experience and knowledge has been called upon many times as a judge in web design awards, most notably the Bubu Awards, the ReUSEIT Contest and the Web Standards Awards, which he founded in 2004. Andy currently sits on the advisory board for .Net magazine, the UK’s leading web development periodical.

A more personal side of Andy can be found at Blogography, a popular weblog where he writes about web design and web standards issues, as well as his passions for travel, photography and diving.

Andy is the creative director at Clearleft and runs their web standards training program.

Andy Clarke

Andy Clarke

Andy Clarke has been working on the web for almost ten years. He is a visual web designer based in the UK and started his design consultancy Stuff and Nonsense in 1998. As lead designer and creative director, his clients include local and national businesses, charities and government bodies and he has designed for The British Heart Foundation, Disney Store UK, Save The Children and WWF UK.

Andy is a member of the Web
Standards Project
where he redesigned the organization’s web site in 2006. He is also an Invited Expert to the W3C’s CSS Working Group. Andy regularly speaks at workshops and conference events worldwide and is the author of Transcending CSS.

Demian Turner

Demian Turner has been involved in web development for the past 9 years. His primary focus is on developing multi-tier web applications. He also has experience building standards compliant XHTML GUIs, acting in a customer-facing role and managing projects.

Demian specialises in PHP/MySQL/Apache development on Linux and also has experience in system administration, requirements gathering, UML and Object Oriented Analysis and Design. He is the maintainer for the Seagull framework project, and contributes to SimpleTest, Max Media Manager and the PEAR open source projects.

Malcolm Hall

President and CEO of Open Box Software, a 50+ team of .Net developers out of Cape Town.

Born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa, Malcolm was a founder member of a successful start-up (The World On Line) focused on Microsoft Great Plains—a mid-market ERP package—in the 1990′s.

Upon moving to the UK in 1998, Malcolm has, as a member of the Deloitte & Touché (UK) and then e2i (UK) management teams, managed consultancy teams in the London, Central and Northern regions of the United Kingdom. Malcolm has extensive hands-on technical experience and has also programme managed IT projects across the UK, Germany, France, Spain, The Netherlands and the US.

Since founding Open Box, Malcolm has divided his time between US, UK and South Africa overseeing operations and project delivery. He is also responsible for developing further relationships with prospective and current clients, as well as partners and suppliers.

We’ll be announcing more speakers as we confirm, and if you’re interested you can view what people are asking for at the conference, at our feedback results page.