It’s been about twenty years since I first met Eoin Ryan, the artist behind Space Avalanche. While spreading the news of his latest Batman-themed comic everywhere and anywhere I can think of, an odd thought struck me – The reason we first met and eventually became friends was Batman.
Twenty years ago I was five feet tall and had an outrageous twang to my voice as a result of six years of American schooling in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Apart from the desert heat, great sports fields, and pools, Jeddah was fantastic for it’s imported technology at bargain prices, and access to freely pirated music and movies from Asian countries. This meant that I found myself in a small Irish town with access to the summer’s biggest blockbuster several months before it would appear in Irish cinemas – Tim Burton’s original Batman. Not a bad bargaining chip for a fish-out-of-water twelve year old in a new school in a country he didn’t really remember very well.
Long story short, Eoin hatched a totally transparent plot to make friends based entirely on the fact that he’d be able to watch Batman before everyone else in the country. Minor disagreements aside, we’ve been good friends ever since.
Twenty years down the line, we’ve been working on this web comic nonsense as a bit of a labor of love in our spare time. Eoin does the creative bit, and I play the part of the town crier who moonlights fixing webservers. In the meantime we’ve been nominated for the Irish Web Awards, made the front pages of Digg and Reddit, and become rich and famous. What have we learned in the process?
Well, mainly that it’s bloody hard work. In a later post I’ll go into the various ways we’ve tried to spread the word and how it’s affected our traffic.
I’ve been living in Berkeley for about a month now, and have passed by one particular pizza restaurant a few dozen times but never gone in. Why? Every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights there are lines from the door of this restaurant back to the start of the block. Eventually we decided that the food must be good enough to hang around in a queue for a while and after hearing a few recommendations from friends we decided to check it out.
This particular restaurant puts on a jazz band, so the wait wasn’t going to be too terrible. There must have been 25 people in the queue when we joined. How long did it take to get our pizza?
About 4 minutes.
A restaurant this popular has to have dozens pizza toppings, right? How many different types of pizza were there on the menu?
By focusing on creating one style of pizza a day, this restaurant succeeds in being able to rapidly produce delicious food that people will queue around the block for. People sometimes come as much for the jazz band as they do for the pizza – after collecting their box they’ll sit on the street median eating pizza and listening to jazz. It’s not uncommon on a Saturday evening to see dozens of people sitting out. That they can focus on creating this one type of pizza means the queue moves rapidly. Also, they only accept cash, and the pizza is priced to be easy to manage – 10 dollars for half a pizza, 20 dollars for a full one. Perhaps slightly more expensive than your standard pizza, but how did it taste?
If you care about the software you write, then you’ve read “Getting Real” by 37signals. Think of this pizza restaurant the next time you’re creating software - Build less, but make the “less” amazing. Your customers will love you, and if you get it right they might just queue around the block.
At the moment I’m going through the process of trying to get a business idea up and running with a friend. After doing some cost analysis on our prototype, getting some initial research and determining costs on the (many) IP issues, and some excellent advice and mentoring from a very smart guy, I managed to just about cram a few words in edgeways to a rather unimpressed business advisor from Enterprise Ireland. While we didn’t walk away with an enormous sack of Nazi gold, he did give us the benefit of the doubt and recommended us for the Enterprise Start 2 program run at the Guinness Enterprise Center by the Dublin Business Innovation Centre.
Enterprise Start 2 Program
I can wholeheartedly recommend the program as a very practical, well-grounded course. Not only is the content and presentation excellent, but the program puts you in touch with people trying to launch their own ideas. The feedback and advice from other people in a similar situation is invaluable.
The program is broken into five modules which bring you through the process of identifying and addressing the unknown quantities in your business concept. The primary aim is to determine what value you will bring to a specific customer, how many customers are in the market, and what sort of marketing and sales channels to use to target them. We started off with a prototype product (non-software), which wowed everyone we showed it to. The vast majority of people who see it, love it.
Therein lies part of the problem. While people love the concept, those same people are unlikely to fork out some of their hard-earned cash for it. Trying to drill down into a market which would consider the product a “must have” item didn’t yield a lot of success – any markets the process discovered are areas which we have little or no experience in. So, after re-jigging the concept somewhat we’ve found a market segment that we understand, and who will happily give us money for the idea.
Finding a product / market fit
It’s just as well we hadn’t spent a year of product development before this revelation – which leads me to Eric Ries‘ fantastic presentation on how to build a “Lean Startup”. The basic concept that he espouses is that while Waterfall development makes the assumption that both the problem and the solution are known entities, and Agile concedes that the solution is unknown and needs to adapt – neither is actually correct for a lot of startups. It is possible to build a working, bug-free product, and fail spectacularly as a business. Without verifying your design ideas continually against the people who are actually going to use your product, you’re setting the scene for a party that nobody’s going to come to.
Over at Carsonified last week there was a bit of an uproar about a competition to design a holding slide for one of their forthcoming events. Almost immediately after the competition was announced, there was a comment made which suggested that the competition was an example of “Spec work”, and pretty soon afterwards the comments on the post descended into chaos and name-calling. Speculative work is a phrase that is synonymous with exploitation and opportunism in the average designer’s mind, where solid design effort is traded for a lottery ticket. The announcement that something is “spec work” is the designer’s call to arms.
There are several crowdsourced design sites such as 99designs and crowdspring, where a design specification is provided for designers to submit designs for. From the specification owner’s point of view, this must seem like a gold mine – a real-life version of the experiment where a million monkeys on a million typewriters try to produce Shakespeare. The designer’s perspective on things might not be as rosy – instead of winning a tender to develop a good design at a happy price for a specific client they’re now competing against any designer at any skill level with spare time on their hands.
But is that really accurate? From the client’s perspective it might seem like a free buffet lunch, but there can be legal downsides to the process such as receiving plagiarised designs or designs that use copyrighted images, to just generally being inundated with poor results. Perhaps lowering the barrier to entry to such an extent allows students or people who can’t get a paying gig to compete, but in a normal situation would you ever be likely to pick their designs? Design is normally a two-way conversation where you gradually hone your idea to match the client’s vision until the result is perfect. Crowdsourced design skips this step in favour of the “harder, faster, more” approach. The benefits are based on the “diamond in the rough” gamble that perhaps your competition will somehow attract that elusive “Good Will Hunting” character out of hibernation to produce genius. I believe that the bell curve statistic in combination with the fact that the odds are overwhelmingly against any individual designer winning (thus preventing their entry) proves this to be a fallacy. Renderedred has a tale of one designer’s experiment in the area.
Crowdsourcing has also been applied to the market of “ideas” whereby contestants submit creative ideas to solve problems. Where design has a limited barrier to entry in that you at least have to have access to graphics software, idea-sourcing has no barrier – and therein lies the problem. Having to wade through the effluent of a hundred monkeys to find your next “great idea” is time that could be spent actually brainstorming a creative solution. Where twitter provides a level of credibility in that at least your respondents have some sort of connection to you (or at the very least you can determine to a certain extent whether they are mentally unhinged by skimming through their previous messages), idea-sourcing opens the floodgates to anyone regardless of qualification, experience, or competency. Lowering the barrier to entry is the main benefit and the main drawback, trading an initial vetting process based on credibility for a post-mortem where you can’t tell the qualified from the insane.
I think there will be a continuation of crowdsourcing, mainly along the “me too” category of design competitions as it seems to have struck a chord with a segment of design customers who have had bad experiences in the past. Overwhelmingly, designers are opposed to speculative work (see no-spec.com), but I’m wondering how many may be driven to entering these sorts of competitions in the current economic climate. One hypothesis is that twitter’s revenue stream could come from harnessing the power of their network to incorporate crowdsourced design, idea sourcing or similar competitions.
Last week I was in a total funk – after a week of fourteen hour days spent trying to get a new design working I had to cut my losses and revert every single change. It was a mix of trying to implement something a little too ambitious and being stuck with a large, relatively inflexible codebase that wasn’t receptive to the loving embrace of my new ideas. At any rate, it put me in a miserable mood. Let’s put things in perspective though – millions of people survive with no clean water on a pittance every day so whinging about some code that didn’t work is akin to complaining my big bag of gold bricks is too heavy. Boo hoo Dave.
My whinging aside, I thought I’d share a few ideas for dragging oneself out of a miserable mood and getting back to productive work/play/creativity/whatever-it-is-you-do.
- “The body is the outermost layer of the mind“. There is a widebody of research linking regular exercise to improved mood. Trying to pull off someone’s arms (in a friendly way) works pretty well for me, but any sort of activity that gets your heart rate up a little bit can really improve your disposition. Exercise clears the mind, lets you sleep better, reduces anxiety and depression, and can introduce to new friends.
Motivational videos and articles
- If you’re feeling sorry for yourself or just in need of inspiration, there are plenty of fantastic articles on the web that will reframe the circumstances you’re in and help put things in perspective.
- Admittedly this is going to sound obvious, but I’m a big believer in letting your subconscious mind take care of intractable problems. Have a nice glass of wine, watch something mindless on TV or read some light fiction and go to bed early. I find that I usually wake up with a new perspective on a problem or a handy solution that my brain has figured out which I was catching zees.
Get to bed and don’t sleep
- Alternatively, find someone attractive and go to bed with and don’t sleep for a while. While strenuous exercise releases endorphins (natural happy-chemicals) into the blood stream, so does sex. (Caveat: If the reason you’re miserable is because you have nobody to go to bed with, skip this step perhaps… ).
Consider the silver lining
- Every problem has an upside, no matter how slight. Take a moment to reflect on what the problem you’re facing has taught you, and then think about what’s important in your life. Don’t waste energy getting frustrated about things that aren’t that important, and don’t obsess about things you can’t change or have no control over. If you focus on the things that you can change, then taking even the smallest steps towards fixing the problems will have a great effect on your mood.
What are your favourite ways of dealing with stress and anxiety?
The best ideas are the simplest. Tuesday Push is a way for Irish companies to leverage community and get a little extra recognition. Every Tuesday a company is nominated and a small but dedicated army of altruists get to work testing the company’s product and giving it a bit of a plug via blogs, twitter, and other social media.
The reasoning is pretty simple – You write about the company and people who have never seen it previously get it put in front of their eyes. If they like it, they tell their friends or colleagues and it spirals towards a tipping point where the product can become mainstream.
The idea successfully implements several of Robert Cialdini’s concepts from “Influence: The science of persuasion” in that people are more easily persuaded by people they like – A recommendation from a blog they subscribe to is far more effective then a random link from a stranger. Additionally, social proof indicates that it’s more likely for people to try a product if they believe others are using it – The catch-22 of a lot of startups; You can’t get customers until you have customers.