Category Archives: Technology

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.

No Medium is an Island

Isn’t print dying? Marketing dollars are all flowing online, right? These are samples of things I hear on occasion when I tell people we’re creating a brand called the Community Magazine Network. I’m big on prefaces so here’s mine: a magazine is both a medium and a story telling technique, generally they are one in the same and reside on paper but that will not always be the case. As a result, the word in our brand that I focus most on is Community.

All that being said, I was flipping through Inc Magazine (turning pages not swiping on a digital device) and what did I see? A print ad from… GOOGLE! Google is the company that prints money from it’s online ad network (oh, they do let you buy ads in other mediums too but that’s beside the point for now). There ad has a call to action that requires readers to go online, you can see you get a $75 trial so it’s a compelling offer for new customers.

What’s the lesson here? Digital is powerful but can’t do everything. The very first marketing class I took at APU talked about the importance of Integrated Marketing Communications and I buy into it. The premise is simple and extends the Reach x Frequency concept to say, you want action get your message in front of your target audience as much as possible and in as many (relevant) ways as possible. That means that brands need a diversified approach that includes a variety of mediums and messages.

Wouldn’t you know it but empirical research has shown that magazines drive web traffic and search more than other mediums. The key in all mediums is contextually presenting your message to the right group of people knowing that if done right the cumulative effect will have a whole that is greater than the sum of it’s parts.

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?

Innovation Boom or Apocalypse?

The last 10 years has been pretty blah as far as innovation is concerned. Sure the web has evolved and we all love Facebook and Twitter and couldn’t imagine living without Amazon or Google (Bing anyone?) but these are all web properties and thus not very diversified.

Where are the medical breakthroughs, the truly revolutionary transportation inventions be they car or plane, even household tech doesn’t feel all that different other than flatter TVs. Clearly people haven’t been standing still but I don’t feel there have been many innovations or inventions that have impacted us in a how-did-we-survive-without-that kind of way.

As a consummate optimist I’m convinced that the next decade will see some pretty interesting breakthroughs that leave my son’s high school years looking very different from mine – and not just because he’s texting or listening to MP3s. My gut tells me that some of the biggest innovation will be around business models and service – the offline varieties (although I’m sure they’ll leverage the web).

What industries do you think are ripe for a leap forward?

P.S. I hate that people use innovation to describe any progress. Innovation is incremental, often a re-purposing of existing tech for new uses – often affecting the fat part of the bell curve. Invention is new in a that’s-never-been-done sort of way. Help me fight the good fight by replacing innovation with invention when appropriate.

I made it!

Yesterday was a good day, I got the news I had been waiting for. I opened the e-mail and there it was, “You’ve been selected.”

No, this wasn’t the TechStars acceptance e-mail (although I’m hopeful I’ll get one of those next week) this was an e-mail from John Cook of TechFlash fame inviting me to join the TechFlash foursome for the WTIA’s Annual Golf Scramble on July 26th. John wrote a blog post asking for submissions by people who were interested in filling out the foursome and I replied with 100-words that I’m sure could only be described as brilliant… I also gratuitously leveraged my cute toddler, I suspect the pic to the right is the real reason I was chosen.

Playing 18 with John Cook at a tech-related golf tournament is going to be a great way to spend a Monday in July (although, I hope the round is the sub-6-hour variety).

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 bootstrapping… seriously, we have no money

Let me start by saying I fully appreciate the “would you rather own an entire grape or part of a watermelon” argument for pursuing angel and VC funding. That said, my hope has been that we’d be able to bootstrap and wouldn’t need to raise external dollars. (I started writing this post a few weeks ago and for a variety of reasons things may be-a-changin).

Our team is mostly MBA’s, that means we’re in the glorious position of having guaranteed income (in the form of student loans). As individuals that’s fine but as a company we’re poor. We’re not interested in raising significant money at this point, see my post “How are you funded?”, but we could use a little more cash in the ‘ol bank account.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to recruit people who are willing and able to work without cash compensation but it’s been tricky. Since returning to school after the holiday break I’ve been asked a number of times, “hey, how is the startup going?” My response has become, “The BizDev and Strategy is going great but development is seriously lagging.” We’re building the first feature of our prototype web application in India and they are working for free (great) but it’s been sporadic (boo). I can’t blame them, they have bills to pay and they engaged us because they’re a new small firm looking to build its brand and get a US reference customer but that doesn’t cover payroll.

I used to talk about our company as a sales and service organization built to be scalable on a web platform but, lets face it, we’re a tech company and we need a tech lead and developers – if you know people… Anyway, I’m not naĂŻve, I know that good devs with experience are hard to come by but despite the tough environment finding an entrepreneur incentivized by equity hasn’t proven as attractive as I’d hoped.

So, if you were and enterprising MBA student looking for find a talented and passionate Rails guy or gal to join the world-changing company as a technical cofounder but couldn’t offer immediate cash compensation what would you do? The business is reaching the point where fundraising is plausible but definitely not a given, particularly in light of our full-time MBA status, and the valuation still would be quite low. Are tech folks more interested in the cash today than equity tomorrow? If so, perhaps raising cash would just act to shift most of the allotted the equity from the “founder” to the investor while finally accelerating development in the direction of a revenue-producing product? Startups are fun.