Crumbs From The Table Of Giants

by Matthew on March 16, 2013

One of the most interesting bits of tech news this past week was the announcement that Google is shutting down Google Reader, and without very much official notice. My own experience seems to echo every other blogger’s: most RSS reader referrals come from Google Reader. So now there’s a mad rush of people either trying to promote their own feed reader service as “the defacto replacement for Google Reader,” or they’re trying to start their own feed reader service on short notice. The latter option is less likely to succeed, since they’re competing against people who felt they saw this coming and were prepping their business to capitalize on it.

Someone — more likely many someones — will make a non-trivial amount of money selling a feed reader service to folks formerly using Google Reader at no charge. In fact, many of these people have already been making money doing just that; the cancellation of Google Reader just presents more opportunity. Google’s dropping of Reader proves that even large, successful companies will walk away from a product or service that isn’t in line with their ultimate goals.

A business partner and I were working through some of the details of one of our projects and new areas of possibility began to really stand out. He remarked that “there are so many obvious areas we could expand into.” This is always true for entrepreneurs who always have more ideas than time/resources to execute on them. The more you develop an entrepreneurial mindset, the more of these things you see.

Thinng is, you don’t get rich by just thinking of a great idea; you have to see needs in the market and meet them effectively. Not every need will be the right one for you to fill, and some ideas will need to be dropped like Reader apparently was for Google.

Just remember there are plenty of very successful businesses to be started on the crumbs that fall from the table of the giants.

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The Year of Action

by Matthew on December 3, 2012

This has been the year of action. Incredible action.

Since we’re entering the last few weeks of the year, and getting into the throes of the peak holiday bustle, I’m doing the year’s look-back a little early. I can’t even remember off the top of my head what my New Year’s resolutions were this year (but yes, they are written down), but the year has already exceeded them.

Three major actions I have taken this year are leading to noticeable returns already. Here they are:

1. Take Personal Fitness to the Next Level

I’ve never been overweight or really terribly out of shape, but my personal fitness level depended a lot on the weather and what hobbies I had at the time. A winter like last year’s with no snow? I went skiing twice maybe, and neither was local.

Late this spring I decided to start AND finish P90X. That was my commitment. Just do the program the way it was supposed to be done, not take any shortcuts, and finish it. That I did, and I finished in late summer. I made huge gains in strength and endurance. Also, I set a goal that required ongoing commitment, and finished it.

One of the tips that’s frequently given to beginning law students is simply this…commit. If you decide you’re going to do it, you will. I contend that this principles applies to almost everything, but especially fitness. I’ve been through law school and it was a lot harder than popping in a DVD every day and for one hour doing the best you can.

This year when you’re making your  New Year’s resolutions, take at least one that requires commitment and COMMIT. Just get it done.

2. Bring One Anti-Rat Race Business Proposition to Reality

The one product I thought I’d bring to reality this year has not gotten to that stage, but that’s because a larger project took over my attention and is getting extremely close to public beta availability. When this product launches in beta (fairly soon, but after the holidays), you can be sure you’ll hear about it here. It’s not for all markets, but that way you can see what I’ve been working on (with a couple partners).

It’s a lot of work to take a product idea from conception to market. Everyone says that, but it really does require ongoing management, continuous progress, constant focus, and brainstorming. Starting a business might be like being a mom. You might not have to be the world’s best expert at doing 100 jobs, but you need to do them all the same.

3. Helping Others With Their Business Propositions

My wife is fully self-employed as of the first of this year, and this has been its own set of business pursuits. She already had some income from self-employment before, but the transition was definitely a change and has required some business brainstorming. This in itself has been great experience, as we brainstorm ways to make ongoing business decisions in an environment that’s always changing.

I’ve also done several paid freelance projects and offered free business and technical advice to multiple entrepreneurial businesses this year.

In Summary

I love reading about other people’s great success stories of having achieved greatness by putting their hand to the plow and giving it their all, but this year I’ve turned that around and decided to be the one doing the hard work. Less talk and consumption; more work and production.

Not every pursuit will pay off, but every one is a learning experience and is actually taking action. In planning for your New Year’s goals, keep these thoughts in mind.

More information on the product launch I’ve been working on coming in the new year. ;)

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Achievements: Brick by Brick

by Matthew on April 26, 2012

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but neither was it built by the mere passage of time.

One aspect of many corporate environments–and I noticed a similar thing in law school–is the concept of significant projects with deadlines out in the significant future. The waterfall software method (“we’ll release this sometime the first half of next year”) is but one example.

It can be hard to keep the big picture in view for long periods of time, and it can be equally challenging to just execute minuscule tasks without an idea of how it contributes to the whole.

I decided to take a few areas which are important to me and specifically carve some time out of my schedule to address them one step at a time, no matter how small that step is. First, I had to find some time.

This year, I’ve relentlessly whittled down the things I spend my time on. If something doesn’t give me great, obvious returns, I try to put it on low priority. As a result, I have spent far less hours simply surfing the Internet looking for good stuff to read. I also used to spend several hours a week blogging and I’ve intentionally cut that way back. Instead, I’ve been reading more printed books, spending more face-to-face time with people, doing physical activity like working in my yard, and I’ve actually begun P90X and am heading strong into the third week.

Each of these things contributes in some way to my big picture goal of being well rounded in life and making contact with real people whose problems I may be able to solve with a business venture. Several opportunities have presented themselves and I’m working on a handful of projects which will all be generating some income and waiting to see which prove most promising.

So, with this I would encourage you to first take an inventory of the things that matter to you. Then, force yourself to make time for incremental progress in each one, no matter how small the progress. On one of my P90X fitness sheets, I wrote “1″ for the number of reps I could do for one of the exercises. On another, I wrote “0″. Those number will be significantly larger by the end of the 90 days. In the meantime, I’m just taking every day as it comes and doing the best I can. Just don’t stop taking each extra step, no matter how small.

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Hosting Providers

by Matthew on March 5, 2012

I have used and been a huge fan of Dreamhost for quite some time, but several months ago moved this site over to Linode.com for test purposes because I know several clients who would benefit from the advantages of higher-quality hosting. Well, Dreamhost is having a meltdown at the moment, and I’m grateful for the alternate hosting to work from.

I’d still recommend Dreamhost as a general low-cost provider of hosting services, but if you’re running a serious business through a website, you need something more than low-cost hosting. For that, I’m leaning in the direction of Linode as my provider of choice. It does require more system management, but the value for the cost seems excellent.

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Learning New Skills

by Matthew on February 16, 2012

Inevitably, if you’re pursuing some entrepreneurial endeavor, you’ll find yourself having to learn some new skills. I’m in this situation with my latest venture; I have a handful of ideas, but no experience in one particular medium so I have to learn it.

There’s a split in the thinking out there as to whether you should contract this out or learn it yourself.

My thoughts: If you’re bootstrapping and it’s critical to bring this thing to market yourself, learn it. If you have the money and ability to delegate to a competent person, by all means consider delegating, but make sure the final result will be acceptable. You have to cost out both options and make a choice. If you’re the only one who can do satisfactory work, just bite the bullet and do it yourself. Otherwise, you have to accept the work of others.

I’m learning a new medium myself, for time and resource reasons. I’ll let you know later on if I made the right choice.

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Do As I Say…

by Matthew on January 20, 2012

I trust everyone had a great holiday season and happy New Year. I decided to take a break from blogging for the last several weeks as I worked through some business ideas and came up with some 2012 initiatives.

I’m wholeheartedly behind the idea that you should go out and find customers before you start investing lots of time and effort into something that perhaps no one is interested in. I’ve said this a number of times and it’s particularly apt advice for the software field. However, near the end of the year, I came up with a business idea that I’ve chosen to pursue and I’m deviating a bit from my recommended business method. I’m not exactly just running out to “build it and they will come,” but I am keeping the product confidential, sharing only with select folks who somewhat represent my target market. Why? Because I genuinely suspect that I’ve stumbled upon a “hole” in the market. That is, a noticeable gap between what certain consumers want and what is available to them in a particular area.

I’ll be spending the next several months developing this product and learning from the experience. I don’t expect this to be a full quit-my-job type business product, but I do expect to learn a lot and perhaps generate some interest in the type of product I’m working on.

If you’re searching for your own niche product to work on, consider the following factors, which my current project fits into for me:

  • Your interests (passions…things you do even when someone is not directing you on what to do)
  • Your friends’ interests (what do people you associate with enjoy doing, working, studying, etc.?)
  • Troubles or challenges you encounter when pursuing these interests.

If you can solve a problem for people regarding something they are passionate about, you have something to start working on that will pique their interest. Brainstorm passions and challenges together. For example, if you love golf but can’t seem to improve your golf swing, brainstorm ways you might be able to help others improve. Maybe it’s writing a book, creating a mobile application, creating a website of resources relating to golf swings, etc. This is a super short list, though, so try to brainstorm through and consider every angle you can come up with.

More info to come and my product will definitely be announced here when it’s ready! :)

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Making Things People Want

by Matthew on November 15, 2011

It’s almost a mantra among the current startup culture that you need to “make something people want.” I’ve discussed this before, but it helps to find a market before building something and hoping you can find a market later. Still, it’s hard when you’re not sure what people want and you have a day job where you feel like you have to take your small amount of free time at the end of the day and speculate about what people want.

With the exception of a week or so where I was sick combined with the freak northeast October snowstorm which knocked out power for thousands including us, I’ve been taking every available opportunity over the last few weeks to make contact with people outside of normal work and social circles. I want to find out what people want…what problems they’re having that I could provide solution to…what issues they themselves are having in their own businesses. But, it’s not easy. One of the toughest things of trying to escape the rat race is the fact that the rat race takes up so much valuable time that you could be using to interact with your future customers. I’ve love to have my days free to chat with business owners about their latest projects and challenges. Almost every time I’ve had a few days of free time with a business owner, I’ve found some paying project to take away from it.

In any ordinary day where I’m at work, businesspeople are making contacts to further their business while I’m “trapped” in the office. Even the company I work for will have vendors–some of whom must be entrepreneurs–come in to ask what kinds of issues they have that these vendors could solve. It’s hard to do all your networking at nights and on the weekends because some of the people you’d like to talk to about business are themselves at dinner or otherwise relaxing from their own workday.

But, at the end of the day, continue making contacts and explaining the kinds of problems you can solve. A few of the most mundane but lucrative things have come up over the last few weeks where there are opportunities for people to build businesses around particular problems someone is having right now.

Here are a few ways I’m trying to make good use of my time and get some visibility even if I have a day job:

  1. Pick a couple things you have skills in and make a prototype to point people to. I’ve done some playing around with geolocation and built a very crude prototype to use as an example of what is possible with the technology. If you have some kind of craft or artwork that you specialize in, make sure you have something to demonstrate your work. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just something to show the medium that you can work in. This might seem obvious, but lots of people have done so much custom work, they don’t have anything general to show someone new who might come along what they can do.
  2. Ask people if they know anyone who might need your work. This is another seemingly-obvious thing, but I recently found out my work was being highly recommended by someone I’ve never actually met. This person has seen some work I’ve done and knows people I have helped, but I’ve never made physical contact with this person and they are apparently pitching my services highly to others. If you help someone, ask them to tell other people.
  3. Dig into the obscure. This one is a little more off the beaten path, but there are some very profitable businesses out there are doing very esoteric things. If you’re the only company that does a particular thing needed by the market, you tend to get all the business. Once you do something well for a while, you become the de-facto standard and almost monopolize the market in that particular area.

While the day job continues, my approach to new opportunities and desire to make new contacts has changed. If you’re still working the 9-5 as I am and are looking to build an escape pod on the side, accept the fact that it might take a little longer, but continue to make contact with new people and promote yourself and your services. Once you find the right market for your products/services, you’re resultant product will give you the escape velocity you need.

Just don’t build most things out of speculation. Make sure the work you do will be compensated and you’ll soon find work which is reusable and gives you what you need to build a business on.

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Book Review: The House of Mondavi

by Matthew on October 24, 2011

For my birthday this summer, my wife bought me a couple of books on Robert Mondavi she thought I’d be interested in. One was The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty by Julia Flynn Siler. I found it fascinating because it blends together two things I love: good wine and business. It’s also a great story as well, and takes you on a journey through the personal lives and local gossip of the Mondavi family.

Prior to reading “House of Mondavi,” I had known bits and pieces of the Mondavi story from the quarreling brothers to the ultimate demise of the business and sale to Constellation Brands. I’d also seen the documentary Mondovino but wasn’t quite sure what to make of the story it tried to tell. The House of Mondavi pretty much lays things out, taking you through the good, bad, and ugly that was the Mondavi empire.

As a background to Mondavi history, the story begins with the immigration of Robert’s parents from Italy in the early 20th century. Robert’s competitive streak was obvious early in his life, and I personally could relate to a few of the ways he approached challenges and his constant quest for efficiency. One story described a competition he had with his brother to see who could build the most wo0den crates  in a single day. Robert studied the crate-building process to figure out how to make it as efficient as possible, then he trained all summer in preparation for the big final competition. He ultimately won the competition.

Robert Mondavi’s constant quest to do things well in large quantities while constantly increasing efficiency is what led to the rise of the Mondavi wine dynasty. It’s not like wine didn’t exist before the Mondavis came along. There also wasn’t some secret invention which was the only reason they were successful. In fact, Robert Mondavi began learning French winemaking techniques, believing they would help him produce world-class wines.

At the same time, businesses are made up of people and the human element is an interesting variable. In the Mondavi business, employees also included family: siblings, children, parents, etc. Regardless of what business you’re in, personal life continues on simultaneously and will affect your business in some way. In the case of the Mondavis, nepotism, family  feuds, and the challenges of personal/work life all placed pressures on the business. There are lots of cautionary tales and lessons to be learned along the way. The book is packed with nuggets of family gossip and scandalous revelations about the behind-the-scenes in the Mondavi home while the business was moving along.

The Decline

As all empires eventually do, the business ultimately began to crumble and was finally sold off. Ultimately, financial pressures forced the company into a sale, and a good case can be made that Robert’s quest for bigger/better/more-efficient got a little carried away.

In conclusion, entrepreneurs should read this book.

First of all, it’s motivating. Robert Mondavi was a second-generation Italian immigrant who was one of the most influential people in bringing California wine into international respect. Fifty years ago, California wines were not considered world-class in fancy NYC restaurants and the quality was nowhere near what it is today.

Also, the Mondavi tale dispels the myth of the “great new idea” being the only way to build a business. This giant business was built around a common element found on nearly every Italian dinner table.

Secondly, it’s sobering. Instead of just theory, read some real-life cautionary tales about running an ongoing business.

Lastly, it’s proof that it’s never too late to start a business. Robert started his namesake winery when he was in his 50s. Sure, he had some family money to get started with, but his motivation and quest to do something great finally came to the forefront at a time when most people start thinking about when they’ll be able to retire.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Any thoughts to add?

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Creating A Roku Channel And Other Stuff

by Matthew on September 30, 2011

The past couple of weeks has been incredibly productive and I’d like to share some of my progress and thoughts with you.

My recent free webinar series on getting up and running with a blog ended last Tuesday and was a definite success. Not only did I get the chance to connect with a number of different people, I learned things that bloggers were facing as they tried to use blogs to serve a need they had. I was able to help quite a few folks get beyond some current challenge they were having with their sites, and sometimes had spent hours trying to resolve on their own beforehand. The result was that I ended up with quite a bit of compiled content useful for beginning bloggers and discovered additional things I didn’t know new bloggers were facing. Good stuff.

I mentioned at the start of this blog that I wanted to build a business more Internet-based and less tied geographically to one place. For technologists like me, this is a very realistic goal since we tend to live on digital technology. I have done a lot of things with technology (sort of “jack of all trades…”) so there are lots of directions I could take, but I’ve been putting my time and energy into connecting with people, finding problems that they have, and trying to solve them. Of course, I’m still doing consulting as it comes along.

One significant thing I’ve been working on has been helping Mrs. ARR with her blog and an upcoming product launch. It’s actually very refreshing to work with a business not focused on doing some new tech thing. If you read Hacker News (which admit I do, a lot), it can seem that all new startups are just trying to solve a technology problem with more technology. Better blog platforms, better search technology, faster whatever. This is all good, but it can have the effect of pigeonholing your brain into only thinking along those lines. I try not to let myself get caught up in that. Someone else will build the ultimate universe recorder with telepathic search and neutrino transport networks.

In the last several weeks, I’ve learned about scores of business challenges which could easily be solved by an entrepreneurial technologist. Law firms, car dealerships, lumberyards, health clubs, nutrition experts…the list goes on….all with huge opportunities to dramatically improve their business in some way with comparatively rudimentary technology. Along the way, I’ve learned that Roku has a great SDK for creating your own channel. “Everyone” is going to video technology, but if you’re putting out regular video content and don’t have a Roku channel yet, think about it. There’s a surprising opportunity, in my opinion, to release video content early on this platform. Let me know if you have questions or want to ask about my consulting services for your channel. :)

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Horrible: Your Business Idea

by Matthew on September 14, 2011

I love the scene in the movie Office Space where Tom shares his secret idea for a product that will make him rich: the infamous “Jump To Conclusions” Mat. His co-workers aren’t impressed.

Lots of folks have commented that ideas themselves are worthless; In business it matters most if someone will pay you money for something.

I’ve been reading Jason Cohen’s blog for a while, and he has recently had a couple podcast episodes where he let people call in and gives them advice about their business. Actually, he asks them the hard questions, challenges some of their assumptions, cuts to the chase and offers some advice based on the little he quickly learns about their business. Episode 2 is here, and you should listen to both this one and the previous one. You can ask yourself the same hard questions about your business. I’ve noticed a pattern to Jason’s inquiries and am trying really hard to implement the same line of thinking to my own pursuits.

Top questions I’ve jotted down from listening to Jason that any company should have quick, accurate answers for:

  1. What does your product do? (Note: If this takes more than a sentence to answer, the answer needs work.)
  2. What problem are you solving? (Note: See note for Question 1)
  3. How many people have said they will pay you for solving this problem?
    1. Even better, how many people have already written you a check? (Yes, even if you haven’t started solving the problem.)

Answers to questions 1 and 2 generally just need some work so you have good, succinct answers when asked.

Question 3 is the money question (literally). Work on making the answer to that number as high as possible and you’re generally on the right track. Get this number north of 30 and you’ll have run the gauntlet farther than any candidate I recall hearing so far.

I’m thinking of actually trying to get this number to 30 and then trying to call in to one of these and see how things go from there. Or maybe you can beat me to it. :) Of course, if you find yourself enough customers, you then have a different set of challenges because you now have a functioning business.

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