Category Archives: Startup

Business Lessons from Agile Development

Reprinted with permission of the Community Magazine Network – because I posted it there 🙂

As a small startup with limited resources and outsized ambitions we have to constantly juggle our technical, and business, roadmap to take advantage of new opportunities and information. We’ve adopted the use of Agile development practices, or at least a variation of it. The purest SCRUM Master would talk about backlogs, sprints, and iteration – basically that means planning and prioritizing, short bursts of activity, then improvement once you see what you have to work with. Why do community magazine publishers care about this? Because this process is useful for business too.

created at: 2010-09-15It’s too easy to get consumed with the work at hand and work head-down without coming up for air. Some people call this working in the business rather than working on the business. Don’t get me wrong, this is a useful skill to possess but if you get off track (or in our business the track itself moves) then when you do come up to surveil your surroundings you’ll find you’re lost. More than that, an Agile approach teaches that some planning is good but too much is a waste of time – I may be paraphrasing.

Knowing when to keep moving full speed ahead as opposed to when to surface is a tricky thing and definitely something we haven’t mastered but I have two suggestions both of which are probably pretty obvious. 1. Go see customers, as I tweeted about my visit with folks who publish 425 & South Sound Magazines, getting that infusion of fresh perspective and energy is a great reality check against what you’re currently consumed with. 2. Schedule times to step back and adhere to it. If you don’t make time you’ll find yourself working on those things that are merely urgent and not necessarily important.

It wouldn’t be a corporate blog post if I didn’t gratuitously plug one of our services. Giving publishers and their teams the ability to step back, even if only for a short time, to share and learn from each other is the reason we created the members-only professional networking environment on MagazineConnect.com. There are a lot of publishers and each are dipping their toes into new things, we bring them together to share and learn actionable insights for their business while still leaving them time to run your business. End of sales pitch.

I’ll close with a football analogy now that we’re heading into the Fall – great offenses need to be able to pass the ball and run the ball. Sure, one sided offenses can be effective for a while or against a given opponent but champions can do both. They’re balanced, able to adapt, agile. Make sure your business is balanced.

NWEN First Look Forum Top-20 Redux

I’m happy to announce that HyLo (and the Community Magazine Network) has advanced (again) to the Top-20 of NWENs First Look Forum. Sometime over the next three weeks we’ll be meeting with a few advisers and based on those conversations they narrow the field to 12… the final 12 pitch to investors in October.

Given our progress and some of the new things we’re working on I’m hopeful about our odds of advancing. That said, things have been very busy for us and it’s likely we won’t get to put quite as much time into the deck to give it all of the trimmings we’d like but hopefully traction speaks louder than PPT.

Customers (people) are funny

So we launched MagazineConnect.com last week as the website for the Community Magazine Network and with our new found eye candy I began prospecting again. We have a database of 800 or so community magazine publishers, which is one of things that came from a year of research, and I’m working my way through based on those publishers that seem to have the best mix of alignment with our mission of building community and forward thinking enough to bring it into fruition. (If you’re a publisher and I haven’t called don’t be offended)

Dialing for dollars is always an interesting endeavor and you never know what you’re going to get but it’s pretty funny to see the range of responses to our value proposition… the sharing of best practices with other publishers amidst the changing media landscape, an audit that is not quite as robust as the big-boys but still extremely valuable (and cheap), and participation in an ad network that will attract large regional and national advertisers to these mags for the first time because we’re bringing them a bulk-buy based on their demographic and geographic objectives yada yada. The most common quip we get is related to attracting large advertisers. Yes, it is challenging and will take some time. No, we have not placed any ads yet (our network is just gaining steam). Yes, we have a plan to attract and service advertisers in a way that is novel and value adding.

On the other end of the spectrum, most publishers identify with the premise that the media landscape is quickly evolving and it’s impossible to stay on top of the latest trends and opportunities AND run your business in the process. But every now and then I talk with a publisher that ‘doesn’t need any help’. What’s most interesting is that it’s not the people who’ve been in the business for decades who are saying this while the newbies want to learn in fact we’ve found some of the most enthusiastic collaborators are those that started their magazine in the late ’70s or early ’80s.

Some of the response is probably due to sheer skepticism about anyone calling out of the blue with an offer but I suspect the other drivers of this behavior are self-doubt and/or fear. Self doubt in the sense that if they realize there’s one thing they don’t know then what else are they doing wrong and they don’t want to deal with that type of uncertainty. The fear is related to fear they’ll get found out. Most community magazine publishers are amazing people who treat their magazine as a mission and not just a source of income in the sense that they give a lot more to their community than they take but, unfortunately, this is not true of them all. For those, I believe, they’d rather stay solitary than come clean (perhaps even to themselves).

With the couple dozen calls I’ve made since our launch (most resulting in voicemails) and couple hundred I made to recruit the prelaunch members you see on the For Publishers page I’ve had the full spectrum of conversations. Fortunately, the majority are with people who I’d enjoy speaking with just to hear their stories.

Am I completely off-base? Why do you think people respond the way they do?

What community are you a part of?

I’m watching the British Open, which is played this year at the home of golf in St. Andrews, and as the camera pans the 18th green you can’t help but see that the still-small town lines the last few holes of the course. The course is hundreds of years old and the town is likely a good deal older, I’m sure a quick Google/Bing search would confirm it. With images like these you can easily how community evolved and why it’s been so important to people for millennium.

With the rise of regional, then national, and, ultimately, global telecommunications the potential size of a community grew. Nevertheless, prior to the rise of the consumer internet ‘community’ was still primarily defined by geography.

With the web, and now with social networks, the way we define community either publicly or within our own minds has shifted. Now we define the community we’re a part of conditionally: I’m part of the startup community, the MBA community, the Christian community, etc. Yet, amidst our expanded ability to participate in a variety of communities it seems that to a great extent we’ve lost our connection to ‘community’ in its purest sense – a community of neighbors. How often have you walked through your neighborhood and passed someone on the sidewalk without either of you saying a simple, “hello.”

Rather than being freed from physical definitions of community we’ve fled from them. But this epidemic isn’t ubiquitous rather it’s strongly correlated to technology adoption – or, more accurately, reliance. In my post about unplugging I was inspired and refreshed by a trip to my hometown. When visiting small towns like Placerville you come to realize that there is still a glimmer of community out there. But we may be approaching an dangerous inflection point.

For years leading tech companies have tried to do local online but have failed because, I feel, they tried to address the problem with technology. Local is to the web like quantum mechanics is to physics. Cause and effect aren’t always predictably connected and understanding one doesn’t mean you can even conceive of the other. Now we’re seeing a good deal of startup activity around ‘hyper local’ with some attempts still being technical in nature and others taking the new tact of working with people in their local communities. Our startup, aptly named Hyper Local Media, is part of the latter movement.

We’ve created the Community Magazine Network to work with the 1200 or so community magazines in the US in an effort to rebuild community throughout the US, you can read the detailed story on the About Us page of MagazineConnect.com. There are a slew of potential local collaborations but local magazines are unique in that they are small and scrappy as opposed to corporate, their publications feature incredible images that are relevant to readers, and, most importantly, they highlight people in the community that as a reader you know or at least know-of.

There are a lot of startups trying a lot of different things. My hope is that ‘local community’ will be elevated as a result of our collective efforts. After all, I think our national identity and disposition may depend on it.

How would things be different if you made the same contribution to your local community as you do with the others you consider yourself a part of?

TechStars Seattle Selection is Out – We’re NOT In :(

Well, the good news is that we (Hyper Local Media) made the Top-30 out of an apparent 500 applicants for the first year of TechStars Seattle. The bad news is that TechStars was only looking for 10 companies. I look forward to learning about the teams that were selected, I’m sure they’re all doing interesting things and I wish them the best.

We haven’t formally launched but the Community Magazine Network’s website is now live. If anyone is wants to take a look and give me some feedback I’d love to hear it before we start actively promoting it in the coming week or so.

The importance of unplugging

I’m wearing out the keyboard on my laptop, literally. It’s just over a year old and I’m missing the F7 key (really? F7) with many other’s ready to jump. Thing is, I have a Dell with a good keyboard. Point is, I’m on my laptop a lot. Like many my age, when I’m unwinding in front of the TV at night – I have my laptop.

With the amazing improvement of productivity and access to information comes an increased dependence on, or rather addiction to, consuming it. There’s also an increased ability to become a work a holic because you can be productive from wherever you are.

But now, I’m back in my hometown for my wife’s sister’s wedding. Access to the Internet is limited despite being just two hours to the Bay Area (my mom just got access to DSL 3 months ago) and 3G is sparse. So while I’m home I’m finding myself disconnecting, going outside, spending time without a screen in front of my face and I’m finding something interesting – perspective.

My generation, and most of the people in cities like Seattle who embrace technology to the fullest, get very caught up in the web and the information available “out there” and we lose sight (not site) of what’s important “right here.” Each morning we’ve been staying at my in laws who have a garden and I’ve gone out and eaten about a pound of berries for breakfast, I get to watch my son pick berries and strawberries enjoying each bite and getting red juice on his face (and clothes). We are creatures who are made to spend time out in the world, often with nothing to occupy our thoughts so we can let them wander, not just consumed in our own little worlds.

Getting a chance to unwind and dealing with getting over my withdrawals (from the reduction of information consumption) is helping me to spend some much needed time thinking about priorities, where I want to go, and who I want to be. It’s easy to choose a course, get on the road and never stop to check your direction because you’re too busy making good time but when you take a break to take stock of things it sure feels like a good investment.

We’re TechStars Finalists!

I was excited to learn today that we (Hyper Local Media) have been selected as finalists for TechStars Seattle 2010. As you can see from Andy’s explanation of what it means to be a finalist, we haven’t been selected but we’ve made it through to the more detailed review round.

TechStars is a great program that has been proven in just a few years to give startups a leg up. HyLo is off to a good start but we’d definitely stand to benefit from the insights and introductions that comes from being a TechStars company plus there’s something special about being a part of the first class of startups to go through the program in Seattle – from the way the community has already started to rally to the friendly competition that the selected companies will have that pushes all of them forward.

Well, I better start working on the stuff they requested. Hopefully in a couple weeks I’ll have another positive update.