Saturday, November 21, 2009

Friday readership - lifetime value, saving money and discovering your productivity system

As always, it's Friday and I'd like to share with you a couple of blog posts/articles that caught my attention:

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It's a concept startup owners and entrepreneurs rarely embrace. The fact that customers, if happily using our services, are worth to us a lot more than their first payment.

In Nozbe very often people sign up first for a $7 monthly solo plan and later either upgrade to a yearly or 2-yearly plan (which give the customer great savings and us good cash-flow) or even upgrade to a higher plan first like Plus, Family or Team... so yes, it's really important to remember that customer's lifetime worth when selling them what we have.

Neil is a serial entrepreneur and he highlights the fact that his success also depended on the fact that he's "cheap", meaning - he spends only as much as needed, but never too much.

While I don't totally agree with that, as i believe buying really cheap stuff can be bad in the long run as cheap stuff usually breaks down a lot earlier meaning a lot more replacements and much more hassle with the product... I do believe in really researching and trying to get the best "bang for the buck" on your purchases whenever possible.

Right now we're finishing our new apartment and we're really watching our expenses but we're not trying to buy the cheapest chinese stuff we can get... we're aiming for the best quality at the most reasonable price.

Testing Time-Management Strategies by the Wall Street Journal

WSJ compared three time-management techniques - GTD (Getting Things Done), Pomodoro Technique (a quite entertaining technique where your main accessory is a kitchen-timer in a shape of a tomato) and Steven Covey's focus.

I really liked the conclusions there: "In the end, I expect I will embrace elements of each of these systems—the approach experts recommend for most people. The essence of good time management is sticking to rituals that make you more productive, and rituals are largely a matter of personal preference."

Question: Which article or blog post made an impression on you this week? Are you looking at a total lifetime value of customer when selling them things? Are you a cheap buyer? What is your time-management technique of choice?
--> me I'm Michael Sliwinski and I'm an entrepreneur who's also the...
.. Founder of Nozbe.com - a time and project management web application
.. Editor of Productive! Magazine - a global PDF publication on productivity
.. and a blogger as well as a producer of a weekly 2-minute Productive! show.

Monday, November 16, 2009

There is no such thing as customer support department

We want to move in to our new apartment in a little more than a week and we've got some stuff to buy before our new home is ready. Throughout the last two months I've been busy shopping for stuff like floors, paint, materials for building walls, etc. Big stuff, so big that most of the times I wouldn't be able to transport these things in my own car. Today I realized that throughout this "renovation time" I've been experiencing a very mixed customer support from the places went shopping to...

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Usually the purchase process was very smooth.

Again, I was buying stuff for the flat, so I wasn't buying peanuts for $1 a pack, I was usually spending hundreds (if not more) of dollars on things necessary to build and prepare our apartment for us to live in.

Sales people were nice to me.

Obviously, the sales people were happy about a client who as buying lots of stuff from them and they were really nice to me and offered advice, helped make decisions, etc.

But then I had to pick up the stuff...

However due to the fact that I was buying stuff in quantities or sizes, usually the place to pick up the stuff was in a totally different spot from the one where I was buying and paying for it.

And usually picking up stuff wasn't all that nice.

Contrary to the salespeople in the same company, the guys in the storage rooms didn't care how much I was buying. They had to just give me the stuff I bought with the least effort possible.

Going extra mile? Not really. Going the required mile? Well, if I was lucky.

So there I am, just bought lots of heavy stuff that I need to load it on to my car... and the storage guys, even if there is nobody else picking up merchandise, won't help me at all. Since I'm a guy who usually asks for help, I politely ask them and to my surprise they would very often either ignore me or flat out reply: "it's not my job." 

Again, I'm a guy who knows what he wants, so instead of asking, I'm telling them to help me and I'm already angry at them, the shop and the whole experience makes me upset.

Every department needs to be crazy about customer support.

Whatever the sales guy did to make my shopping experience great, the storage guys trashed with a vengeance. I'm really sorry for these shops, but I refused to buy there again. We're in the recession and there are many shops willing to have me as their client.

Luckily not every place was like this... but there were too many where the customer experience was sub-par. There is no such thing as customer support department, there should be a "customer support company".

Question: Is your company a "customer support company"? Have you had similar experiences as I have? Did you inform the shop owner about them? Where's the customer support department in your company?

--> me I'm Michael Sliwinski and I'm an entrepreneur who's also the...
.. Founder of Nozbe.com - a time and project management web application
.. Editor of Productive! Magazine - a global PDF publication on productivity
.. and a blogger as well as a producer of a weekly 2-minute Productive! show.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Tribal Leadership - how to convert organizations into tribes that change the world

I really like the event created by Y-combinator called "Startup School" as they invite really cool speakers who every year deliver incredible speeches. Last year the best one was by David Heinemeier Hansson "The secret to making money online" and this year I really enjoyed the talk by Tony Hsieh of Zappos about "Delivering Happiness" and he pointed me to a free audiobook they are offering - Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright

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I encourage you to get the book and listen to it.

It basically says that there are 5 stages of thinking in corporate environment:

Stage 1 - Life as we know it sucks
Stage 2 - Only my life sucks
Stage 3 - I'm great, and you're not
Stage 4 - We're great, and you're not
Stage 5 - Life's great

I just finished today standing in a traffic jam and in the meantime as I was stuck there I started analyzing how I behave as a manager and leader, if I'm cultivating Stage 3, 4 or 5 mentality...

Anyway, I don't want to spoil you the guts of the book so make sure to grab it and listen to it, it's an eye opener.

What particularly stood out for me as en entrepreneur is the concept of "triads" as opposed to "diads".

Leaders foster TRIADS to empower their co-workers.

What is a triad? Here's an example: If two co-workers come to you with a problem that they are having you can act in two different ways:

1. You talk to each one of them, forming a diad, a single relationship with each of them. You listen to one side of the story, listen to the other side and then you make a decision.

This is what typical managers do, as they want to feel in control, be decisive. Instead of creating a relationship between these two co-workers you make sure you have two relationships with each of them...

2. You tell them: "Guys, you're supposed to work together, remember? You're both experts in your fields and you know this problem can be solved - work together with the aim of solving this problem and later let me know how it went, I'm sure you'll do just fine."

This is what tribal leaders do - they empower their employees and make sure they work together and feel important, feel like it's them who have to decide and later they will not come to you with problems, they'll come to you with solutions. You've just formed a triad - a three-person relationship.

After reading this, I started examining my life as manager and my relationship with my co-workers and already thought of the ways I can improve my management and empower my co-workers even more.

Question: Are you empowered enough in your work? Do you feel like you belong to a tribe? Is your boss a triad-kinda-guy or a diad-kinda-sage-on-the-stage?


--> me I'm Michael Sliwinski and I'm an entrepreneur who's also the...
.. Founder of Nozbe.com - a time and project management web application
.. Editor of Productive! Magazine - a global PDF publication on productivity
.. and a blogger as well as a producer of a weekly 2-minute Productive! show.

Monday, November 9, 2009

How I work series on Inc. - how my guru CEO's love their work

I really enjoyed the "Way I work" series on INC. Magazine where they are portraying several very cool Internet CEO's so you can get a glimpse as to how their day looks like and how they get stuff done.

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He's not checking email first thing in the morning, he loves tea and goes to the office if he feels like it. If he doesn't he works from home. These days his top priority is writing copy on their pages to make sure they communicate clearly.

The famous chefs inspire Jason as they share all they know clearly with the audience without fearing that someone would just copy their recipes. They make millions sharing all they know with millions.

He usually orders lunch and on Thursday organizes catering in the office so that people can meet at least once a week. Cool idea to gather people who usually work from home. He likes cooking and eating out, but nothing fancy. My kind of a guy :-)

He doesn't believe in big long term plans, other than making cool and easy to use software.

He wakes up without alarm clock and starts with reading. He travels to many WordCamps (Wordpress Barcamps) and lots of conferences. And he still manages a big portion of the code (he's the guy behind Akismet - great anti-comment-spam filter).

He really likes lunches and enjoys the company of Toni Schneider, his CEO. He's got an assistant, Maya Desai, who bears a cool title of "anti-chaos engineer".

He loves to take photos, lots of them - has a photo blog formerly known as photmatt, now just ma.tt 

His vision for Wordpress is to create a long-lasting platform, a movement, and enable people to earn a living from their blogs. His mom started blogging recently, after 6 years of his involvement in Wordpress.

He wakes up early in the morning to ride his bike. He has 18 bikes in the garage and owns two dealerships.

Bob has a home office but also rides to his real office by bike around noon. He believes in investing money where it impacts the customer, so his office consists of cheap but functional furniture.

He doesn't do lunches, eats in the office where he's thinking about advertising - he believes that advertising affects most his bottom line - he even has software that tracks all of the campaigns they are running to make sure the bucks are well spent.

He is thinking a lot about his business, contrary to what other believe, he's not surrounded by Godaddy-girls all of the time and he lives by his brother's mantra: "We're not here for a long time; we're here for a good time."

What do all of these guys have in common?

1. They love their work and their companies - this work defines them and helps them grow.

2. They get lot of support from their assistants and co-workers - they wouldn't have accomplished all of that without their support.

3. They combine work and play - they don't stress, work 15 hours a day or live in the office (all have home-offices!)

Really great people to get inspiration from. My kind of life :-)

Question: Which kind of CEO do you want to be? How would you get things done as a CEO? How do you find your work-life balance?

--> me I'm Michael Sliwinski and I'm an entrepreneur who's also the...
.. Founder of Nozbe.com - a time and project management web application
.. Editor of Productive! Magazine - a global PDF publication on productivity
.. and a blogger as well as a producer of a weekly 2-minute Productive! show.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Constraints should be obligatory - limit your choice to make good decisions

Together with my wife we're almost finishing our new apartment and we're planning to move in very soon, in about two weeks. Definitely before the end of November.

That's our constraint, our limit, we need to have every "dirty" work done in the apartment one week before December to make sure we have the time to move and settle in.

Unfortunately, that's the only limit we have with this project - time, the options as to how to make the apartment, which floors to choose, which bathroom, bedroom, living room or kitchen furniture and other stuff to buy...

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... the choices are limitless...

...and that's a serious problem, 'cos very often we can't make up our mind about things, those tiny little things...

...and since everything for the apartment costs so much, there is additional fear of spending lots of money on something that will look like crap and that we'd hate every day for the rest of our lives.

This is why I'm always trying to limit myself, add a constraint to every decision.

Like when I'm choosing the material for bathroom, there are literally thousands of materials and tens of companies that offer them in different sizes, shapes, colors... and there is a simple process I'm doing every time a decision has to be made:

1) I choose just one company to go with, the one that looks has the best kinds of stuff overall for the fair price

2) I choose 2-3 options from this company's offer

3) I make the decision, choose one and don't look back.

Easy, right? Hell no. There are so many companies and so many colors that it's still hard... and since it's "our" apartment, we need to make the decision together - me and my wife - and she's a lot more concerned about colors and shapes than I am.

And she cares more for the entire vision of the finished apartment... like will this floor in the living room match the floor in the kitchen with the kitchen furniture... etc.

And it's not a bad thing that she's so concerned about these tiny little details - it's a good thing... but we have to remind ourselves not to get sucked in too much in all this. Why?

Because you'll almost never know if the decision you've made is right, directly after you've made it.

No computer simulation or 3D visualization will tell you - not until the stuff you chose has been bought and installed. Real life is different than virtual computer reality.

Most decisions are being made "almost" blindly anyway...

That's right. Very often the shade of brown we chose for furniture will turn up different after the furniture has arrived, the beige floor will be more brown than beige after it's been installed...

... so we trust our gut and instincts - we've chosen great looking stuff anyway!

That's why we have to remind ourselves not to get over-careful with our decisions.

The same principle applies to almost every aspect of our lives. We hardly see the outcome of our decisions right after we've made them. We need to trust our guts. We need to limit ourselves and if there is no constraint, put one ourselves to make sure we have only up to 3 valid good choices. And then act on them and choose the one and don't look back.

Just like with software development: "shipping is a feature", in life: "decision is a feature" too. And limiting our choices helps us make good decisions.

I've been in a similar situation (and I still am) during Nozbe 2.0 development - I have to choose - which feature to keep, how to implement it, what's the limit and how to limit myself so that I can ship it as soon as possible and show to my users. And now that I'm working on a second app, I need to limit myself again... to make sure I actually ship version 1 and avoid staying in a loop of adding more and more features before the release.

It's really good to embrace the constraints... and if you don't have them, create them yourself to make sure you can make a right and quick decision and move on... and never look back.

And if you do make the wrong decision, you'll later have plenty of time to fix it anyway. This is life. Nobody's perfect. Embrace it.

Question: With what kind of decisions have you been struggling lately? How did you make up your mind? What techniques, tips or tricks you're using to move forward and decide? 

--> me I'm Michael Sliwinski and I'm an entrepreneur who's also the...
.. Founder of Nozbe.com - a time and project management web application
.. Editor of Productive! Magazine - a global PDF publication on productivity
.. and a blogger as well as a producer of a weekly 2-minute Productive! show.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

This week's stories - be prepared when speaking, make sure you can handle trolls and go for a rapid growth

As I'm approaching my first week of daily blogging for this new posterous-powered blog I'm trying to set up some guidelines and some regular features on this blog so that you - my great readers - know a little more what to expect from me.


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As Friday is typically a day when everyone's thinking about weekend already, I've decided that today I'll post about the articles I've read throughout the week that have captured my attention.
Friday is the "stories from my RSS reader" day:
Speaker's Tip: Don't tell the audience you aren't prepared - is a great article by Jason Fried about a fact that also annoys me when I'm attending a conference or any other public seminar. When someone steps up and is supposed to tell you something, is supposed to be a speaker you've come a long way to listen to, and the first thing they say is this:
I'm not prepared ... I just did this presentation on my way here in the cab ... My presentation will be boring
They think they are funny. Hell no. There's nothing funny about not being prepared - it's making fun of the attendees, because what they actually are saying is this:
"I got here for free and I'm supposed to talk to you about something I have no idea about, and you suckers paid big dollar to listen to me - you should ask for your money back. Now.".
Friends, Critics and Trolls - from one of my favorite blogs by Michael Hyatt. It's really important to be able to differentiate between the three - to make sure you know who's your friend online, who's your critic and who is there to flat-out ridicule you.
It's also important to learn to take a deep breath when someone is offending you both online and offline. The ability to respond cordially and turn around is very important here. I'll dig into this subject deeper in one of my next posts.
Does Slow Growth Equal Slow Death - from Joel Spolsky made me think about my business which at this point is indeed in a very "comfortable" state with a "comfortable" growth rate and although we're working hard on giving more value to our users every day, we might be not doing enough to ensure a more rapid growth.
Although I also liked and agree to a certain degree with David's response, this is something I will be revisiting with my Nozbe team and checking where we can improve and make sure we can "handle success" staying "hungry and foolish" just like Steve Jobs said.
Question: Are you always prepared for your presentations? Do you like it when someone is not prepared and they make fun about it? Can you handle trolls? Can you handle critique? Is your company / startup developing fast enough?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Steady profits of a startup are not sexy, zillions of users are.

I really enjoyed the piece written by Jason Fried a while ago for their Signals vs Noise blog where he criticized the industry for having a "too low bar for success" in the startup world.

I've added a comment to Jason's post and would like to repost it here to highlight some of the problems with media coverage, users and profits of a startup.

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Here goes, my 2 Euro-cents:

I think Evernote is a great business and have a great app, but their up-front costs had to be big – just like Phil said – they have very high fixed costs – especially engineering and management salaries – they have teams for very different apps – Web app, Windows app, Mac app, iPhone app,... etc. It’s like having several apps in one and just one point of sale.

What Jason is trying to say (and I agree 100% with him) is that most of the startups have to figure out way to earn money quickly and profit quickly in order to survive.

My application, Nozbe is a typical bootstrapped startup where I needed to have fixed costs down to minimum in order to profit quickly and be able to re-invest later.

Sure, if I had the money Evernote did (from VC) I’d start with doing all the native apps around Nozbe right from the start, but since this wasn’t the case, I had to embrace the constraints and start with my web app, later invest in developing an iPhone app, later invest in doing a great re-design of Nozbe (Nozbe 2.0) and now I’m investing in a desktop app that will sync with Nozbe.com.

At each stage I have to watch out in order to maintain my fixed costs at a reasonable level and not hire too many engineers so that they eat all my revenues. These are tough calls one has to make.

After all, 37signals is now a 15-man operation and it all happened over time because both Jason and David had to watch out the bottom line and make the decisions NOT to hire so many people right from the start.

My company was a one-man shop, now we are 3 people and 2 more are coming and there are freelancers who also do stuff for us on a per-project basis.

There’s nothing wrong with Evernote – more power to them. Just in a bootstrapped startup environment one cannot invest so much money upfront and has to watch the bottom-line very closely in order to keep rockin’ and rollin’.

I just think that for media 1M users is a better headline even if it’s followed by just $79k/m.

I don’t have 1M users, but I love my app, users and I’m profitable by a large margin so that I can call my “lifestyle business” a “great success” by my own standards… and I’m mature enough to realize that my kind of success won’t make it to the headlines of the New York Times but who cares?

After all, what’s so spectacular about a guy from Poland in Central Europe who is developing a productivity web application that helps people mostly from the USA (across the pond) get stuff done so much that they actually pay for it (some even pre-paid for 3 years in advance!) and he’s passionate about his job and productivity and loves every minute of it… and he’s earning a lot more than a good programmer’s salary in the process?

Yes, I know, average, boring stuff. No media coverage here. :-)

Questions: Which startup or web app you've used recently impressed you not by media coverage but by actually offering a great value for a reasonable price? Which web app has improved your life recently? Did you learn about it from the mass media or from a fellow blogger or a friend?

--> me I'm Michael Sliwinski and I'm an entrepreneur who's also the...
.. Founder of Nozbe.com - a time and project management web application
.. Editor of Productive! Magazine - a global PDF publication on productivity
.. and a blogger as well as a producer of a weekly 2-minute Productive! show.

Monday, November 2, 2009

F1 Pit Lane - Iterate Quickly and Focus on the Essential

Yesterday I watched this season's last Formula 1 Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi. I'm a big Formula 1 fan, love the races and especially now when we have our own Robert Kubica as one of the drivers.

Although I really dig F1, the races can very often appear boring, especially when there is no rain, no crushes, no major breakdowns... just like it was yesterday, but if you take a closer look, what's happening on the race is always at the fastest pace, greatest speed.

And almost everything is being decided in the Pit Lane - the place where the drivers go to change tires and tank fuel. And they do it all in less than 10 seconds!

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That's right - it takes less than 10 seconds to tank tens of liters of fuel and change 4 tires. Incredible. And it's something all the industries should be watching and learning from.

Just think about it.

The mechanics are not wasting their time. They don't do anything unnecessary like washing the car or chit-chatting with the driver... nope, they need to get the car back on the track as soon as possible.

The F1 pit lane reminded me of the August's Nozbe 2.0 launch when we had to get the app ready as soon as possible.

We've been working very hard the past half of the year to get the 2.0 version ready and when we decided to launch exactly on August 11th, suddenly we knew we couldn't get all the features right on time.

We simply focused on the essential features, on the most important stuff to get the new shiny Nozbe 2.0 out there as soon as possible.

... it's because there is never enough time to get everything right.

We launched on August 11 and not all the users where really happy, because some features from Nozbe 1.0 were missing but what happened is that we embraced this fact and iterated quickly and guess what? Everyone was falling in love with Nozbe 2.0 and appreciated our effort.

Yes, we might have waited a little longer, or tried to "perfect" the features before the launch...

... but following this logic we wouldn't have launched very soon, as there are always things to "iron out" and "make perfect" and by launching fast and iterating quickly we also found out which features were the most important to our users and where we should improve the most.

Everyone should be learning from F1 Pit Lane.

Not only in a startup world - in most of the industries, it's better to launch a little early and iterate later with live user feedback. It keeps you in the loop with what your users really want and helps you stay ahead of the competition and bond with the users even more.

Someone once said: Things are never perfect and shipping is a feature.

Questions: Are you launching early or waiting till things are perfect? Even if you're not an entrepreneur or startup owner, in your life - have a look - where things could have been launched or started off quicker?
 
--> me I'm Michael Sliwinski and I'm an entrepreneur who's also the...
.. Founder of Nozbe.com - a time and project management web application
.. Editor of Productive! Magazine - a global PDF publication on productivity
.. and a blogger as well as a producer of a weekly 2-minute Productive! show.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Removing features, noise and buttons to make your product perfect

Today I visited our local Apple store to finally "feel and touch" the new Mighty mouse - world's first multi-touch mouse. Man, it's a beauty and pleasure to play with:

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This tiny mouse looks like one of the most powerful mice in the world and yet...... it has no buttons and no scrolling wheels!So it basically lacks everything you'd expect from a mouse.
And yet it's so powerful!And this doesn't mean you have to learn to use this mouse. Not really. Just move it around, click, scroll, right-click... Same old same old.
Plus it has new gestures even!This the typical Apple genious - remove noise, remove unnecessary buttons but improve the user interface and the way stuff works "behind the scenes".In the world where all mice manufacturers where adding buttons, scroll wheels, etc. - Apple removed them altogether.As a startup owner/founder my goal with Nozbe 2.0 was to do the same thing: remove noise, remove buttons, sliders, dropdowns...And yet when I look at it I see there is still a lot that can be done... So I decided to do "weekly reviews" of Nozbe in a search for something to remove.That's right. I'll be removing stuff from Nozbe. Literally.Follow Apple's advice:Keep removing noise while adding new features.
Make stuff work "behind the scenes" and not "in your face".
Question: Which product has made your life simpler lately? If you're a Nozbe user, which stuff you don't want to see on your screen?
--> me I'm Michael Sliwinski and I'm an entrepreneur who's also the...
.. Founder of Nozbe.com - a time and project management web application
.. Editor of Productive! Magazine - a global PDF publication on productivity
.. and a blogger as well as a producer of a weekly 2-minute Productive! show.