Posts in DeveloperTown
Persistence
The following is an excerpt from an email I sent to DeveloperTown in December 2016. 

Last week I finally had a chance to read (listen to) The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday. It's a highly acclaimed book - especially in professional sports. I'd classify it as a modern (almost pop-y?) look at stoic philosophy. It was a good read.

There was a particular quote that jumped out at me while listening. It's from the chapter titled "The Timeless Art of Turning Adversity to Advantage:"
"It’s okay to be discouraged. It’s not okay to quit. To know you want to quit but to plant your feet and keep inching closer until you take the impenetrable fortress you’ve decided to lay siege to in your own life - that’s persistence.” ― Ryan Holiday
I'm a quitter

Before DeveloperTown, my longest job out of college was two years. That was at Liberty Mutual working with Julie. Before working with Julie, my average time with a client/employer was probably five months. Now, in my defense, I was mostly a consultant. So I'd jump in, work to solve a problem, and then jump out. But I was good at what I did. Many companies asked me to stay longer. Why did I always leave?

Because it was always easier to find a new gig than it was to figure out how to change the culture of the team I was on. Changing culture is hard. Arguably one of the most difficult things you can do in an organization. Someone on the team who acts like a jerk? Cool. I'm only here for two more weeks. Management keeps failing to communicate why seemingly arbitrary deadlines are set? Cool. I've already committed to start that new project in Chicago next month. Stories getting delivered where quality was so poor I couldn't even exercise the basics of the feature? Cool. I'm going to work with CompanyA/CompanyB/CompanyC in two weeks. They will be better, right? (Wrong.)

I'd quit. I didn't leave after I had changed the thing that was bugging me. I left before even attempting to. This has resulted in a critical problem for me - lack of experience.

Over the last seven years, I have been figuring out how to really influence others for the first time. I acted like a child in early partner disagreements. I had never really had to argue with someone for something I wanted. I don't really know the right ways to hold someone who reports to me accountable and how to coach them to higher performance. Coming into DT, I really only had four years of management experience. I still struggle to detach myself from a situation and look at it objectively. Something you have to learn to do if you really want to identify systemic issues so you can pull the right levers to influence sustained change. 


"...to plant your feet and keep inching closer..."

I've decided to plant my feet here at DeveloperTown. I'm learning a lot, but it's still hard. So how does one develop persistence? Some un-researched ideas:

  • I think stoic philosophy is a good place to start. I have a dog named Seneca for a reason. Maybe I'll name next year's pigs Marcus and Aurelius. Is that wrong? If you want to give stoic philosophy a shot, I'd recommend either Gates of Fire (a super fun read, with some deep meaning hidden in the story) or On the Shortness of Life (my first read in stoic philosophy, hugely impactful).
  • I also think you need role-models around you. People whom you see persist in the face of adversity. For me, that's many of my peers here at DeveloperTown. I'll resist naming some of them, because all of them have at one point or another shown me persistence in the face of adversity. I also see persistence in many of our clients. Sometimes I may think that persistence might be wasted on a particular product - but it doesn't negate how inspirational it is. To see someone pushing their idea/business/goal forward in the face of overwhelming odds is simply awesome.
  • Practice persistence in smaller ways by doing other things in your life that are hard, but not quite as hard as what you're trying to do at work. I've wanted to quit aikido a couple of times now. Early on it was because of the pain from my back injury. And later it was because of frustration with slow development of technique. There were two times I drove away from the dojo thinking I was done - never going back. Both times I ended simply deciding I wouldn't let myself quit. Not for those reasons. Once I have my blackbelt, if I want to quit then - I'll let myself. For you, it might be the book you've been working on. It might be a personal fitness or health goal. It might be a broken relationship in your family or past friendship you've been putting of mending.
  • Find someone you can talk to about the challenge you're facing. I still want to quit DeveloperTown when it's hard. Michael - almost annually - has to talk me off the ledge. I know that sucks for him. I'm sure a third of those gray hairs on his head are from me. Even though I know it's difficult for him, when I need that annual pep talk it's critical for me. He provides a perspective I often forget. He reminds me of why I want to gut it out. That's immensely helpful. When you have someone to talk to, you're not alone.
  • Breakup the journey into smaller victories. We will likely never finish "changing DeveloperTown's culture." That's an impossible goal. Because our culture is an amorphous thing that changes over time and is impossible to fully understand and measure. However, I can affect it (hopefully for better) to move in a specific direction for a period of time. I'd love to see us get better at giving each other feedback. (reminder: When you do X, I notice Y, going forward can you Z?) I might win a small victory by beating that drum over the next year, but while I'm focused on feedback, I'm not focused on other aspects of culture. I need to focus on that small victory. As Holiday puts it, that's "inching closer until you take the impenetrable fortress" of company culture. Win the inch. Over time, you'll win the fortress.
Why talk about persistence?

As we grow, I'm sure we all see things that we'd like to change, we wish things were different, or we hit a wall on a specific project, team, or relationship. The easiest response is to get frustrated and checkout. Even if you don't move on right away, you can be checked out for months. Sometimes that instinct might be the right answer for a very short period of time (calm down, detach from the situation, reflect on your own behavior in the situation), but you need to check back in at some point. When you do, how will you respond? Will you keep inching closer to the outcome you want? Or move on?

I hope you inch closer. I plan to.

Feedback welcome. (See what I did there?)
Researching an Idea

The following is an excerpt from an email I sent to DeveloperTown in September 2016. 

As most of you know, we hear a relatively large number of ideas for products and businesses. This week I thought I'd share my process for how I do research for an idea, and maybe share some examples from the past.

Each of us who hear pitches have our own process, but most of us run a quick checklist of questions (no particular order):

  • Is there an obvious market for this product? How big might that market be?

  • How would/could it make money?

  • What are the complexities of a product like this?

  • Is it technically feasible?

  • Is this a zero to one product (aka the iPod - your entire music library in your pocket)? Or a derivative product (aka Uber for lumberjacks)?

  • How would you have to market or sell this product?

  • Can this product "work" with a small number of users or data - like what you'd see when first launching?

  • Are there eventual network effects for a product like this?

  • What might it cost to develop this kind of product?

But by far, one of the most important questions is:

  • Is there anyone already doing this?

And the answer to that drives a couple more important questions:

  • If someone is already doing it, how have they performed?

  • If someone isn't doing it, has anyone tried it in the past?

  • If someone isn't doing it now, who would they be displacing in the market even if they aren't a technology competitor? (Think Uber vs. taxi companies and municipalities.)

Researching competitors and finding traction

There are a number of ways to do research on competitors. Google is an obvious place to start. And you may be surprised how many ideas pitched to us fail the basic Google test. But let's assume you've done a couple of obvious searches and not turned up a competitor. Where would you go next? Here's a short list of places I often search...

I use these the most:  

These can sometimes be useful or have hidden gems. This is the list if you need to go deep:

Or, sometimes you have to check specific accelerator portfolios. I like checking http://500.co/startups/, http://yclist.com/, and http://www.techstars.com/companies/.

If you find a hint of a company that might have been a competitor in the past, but is now defunct, the Wayback Machine is a great place to do some research on them: https://archive.org/web/ Another great place for dead startups (with some details around the failure) is Autopsy: http://autopsy.io/ (I only wish they had more companies listed.)

All of those above sites can also provide traction information, but I also like Startup Tracker (https://startuptracker.io/) which has a fairly nice Chrome Extension. It's not super helpful in helping you find competitors, but once you've found a company you want to research, it's great at providing a summary of where they are at.

A quick example

Here's a fairly solid recent example from Jacob Cloran. I asked for his help in researching an app idea that I knew wasn't great, but the person who had the idea has some serious credibility. So while I suspected that Jacob would end up killing it with his research, I wanted the prospect to have a great experience with us. I wanted him to see that we took him seriously, and that we did our homework.

Here's the idea:

<removed from the blog post version - sorry> 

Here's a summary of Jacob's findings (using some of the above resources, and some of his own):

<removed from the blog post version - sorry> 

Killer right? On multiple levels. Great research, and killed the idea (for now). The entrepreneur has gone off to do more research. I hope he comes back in a few months with his next idea - because I definitely want to work with him.

Outsourcing some of the hard work (Fancy Hands)

Sometimes this kind of research is easy to handoff to a transactional service. There are a lot of them, but I'm a fan of asking Fancy Hands (https://www.fancyhands.com/) to do research for me. I've had them do research similar to what Jacob did above. It wasn't nearly as comprehensive. But for a "fast" low-cost search, it can be a nice place to start. A better way to use a service like Fancy Hands is to give them a spreadsheet of companies and ask them to fill in the blanks around traction data. Or you can ask them to hunt down a specific detail across a number of companies (like pricing).

Here's an example from about a year ago where I asked them to help me run down competitor pricing:

<removed from the blog post version - sorry> 

Pro-tip: If you want to get really fancy (see what I did there?), you can ask them to take a data dump like that and try to turn it into a chart of some sort. That kinda of chart can look awesome in a deck or business plan.

What does traction look like?

Once you've found a competitor (or twenty), how can you tell if they matter? Here are some things I typically look for:

  • Funding - Have they raised capital? How much? When?

  • Users - How many page views do they get? How many app downloads? How many reviews?

  • Marketing - I've seen Briggs (and Eggleston before him) produce killer reports and data around SEO rankings, AdWords traffic, referral traffic, and ad networks.

  • Social - Do they have followers? How many? Are they still active?

  • PR - Are they ever in the news? How often? When was the last big PR push? Where did they get traction (local, national, niche, etc)?

  • Pricing - What do they charge? If it's free, is it obvious how they make money?

It's hard to put hard and fast rules around how much traction is "too much" to compete with. But I feel like you know it when you see it.  :)

Have a great weekend,

Mike