Tuesday, February 24, 2009

13 point checklist for startups

Paul Graham at Ycombinator recently published a great essay entitled Startups in 13 Sentences. The essay stands out for its elegant simplicity - clearly a lot of experience and data are neatly reduced to these thirteen tips about starting a company. Like all aphorisms, the tips don't apply to all companies and all situations, but they are surprisingly robust in my opionion.

The tips are great advice for someone thinking about starting a startup. I think it's quite useful as a diagnostic tool for all startup founders as well. Go through each of the 13 points and rate yourself on a A-F scale. Based on the the results, what would you do differently? What are you you doing well and where can you improve?

I went through the excercise for Personforce and found it illuminating. I'll spare you the results, but it definitely highlighted areas where we can improve.

Here's an abbreviated version of Paul's startup tips that you can use are a scoring sheet:

1. Pick good cofounders: ___

2. Launch fast: ___

3. Let your idea evolve: ___

4. Understand your users: ___

5. Better to make a few users love you than a lot ambivalent: ___

6. Offer surprisingly good customer service: ___

7. You make what you measure: ___

8. Spend little: ___

9. Get ramen profitable: ___

10. Avoid distractions: ___

11. Don't get demoralized: ___

12. Don't give up: ___

13. Deals fall through: ___

Definitely read the full version with Paul's explanations here before taking the test.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Email fax by RingCentral is amazing

When we started Personforce, I was amazed at how much faxing went on in the industry. Before this experience, I had used a fax machine maybe once or twice in my entire life. After we launched though, I was paying usurious rates to the Stanford GSB practically every day to send and receive faxes to and from clients.

When I graduated from school and started Personforce fulltime, one of our first purchases was our own fax machine. For a while I was pretty happy about it. Whenever the fax machine starting ringing my ears perked up - it was generally the sound of a new order coming in, which was very exciting. Actually, lots of times it was spam telemarketers which was quite disappointing.

When we changed offices we had to change telephone lines so I revisited our fax service. We decided to try out an email fax service (efax) because it just seemed like the modern thing to do. RingCentral seemed reasonably priced and full featured so we choose them.

It turned out switching to RingCentral has been an incredible experience. The software is well designed and easy to use. You can very easily replicate all the core features of sending and receiving faxes.

The best part of RingCentral is that it puts your fax "in the clouds". That means I can access it from my laptop, anyone else's computer, from my phone, or from any device that can connect to the internet. Now when I get a fax I can check it out on my iPhone whereever I am. I'd contrast this to having to physically go to the Stanford GSB fax terminal after class and see if anything came in.

The other great benefit of email fax services is that they cut down on paperwork. All your documents come to you digitized so there is no need to phyically file documents. I almost never need to file paper documents anymore now.

Anyhow, I highly recommend putting your fax in the cloud. I don't know much about other services but we're quite happy with RingCentral. I particularly like the nice "ding" sound when a new order comes in.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Getting your MBA online? I'm skeptical.

As part of a side project, I recently tried researching online MBA programs.

First off, I learned it's really hard to research almost anything in the online education space because of the vibrant lead generation business. Basically, there are a lot of companies that are willing to pay a lot of money for customer leads of prospective students. As a result, there are lots of spammy sites about online MBA programs that just try to get you to click on their advertisements.

As a rule, if a company is will to pay a lot of money for a customer lead, they are generally taking advantage of their customers. That got me thinking, is getting your MBA online worth it?

First of the pro's. An online education is accessible to lots of people because it's flexible around your schedule and personal life. Also, you can avoid the time-consuming application process for a traditional program. Some employers will increase your pay scale if you can check a box saying you have an MBA, so it seems worth it if you work at one of those places. Finally, I assume these programs actually teach you something about accounting, finance, operations, and strategy, and learning is generally good.

However, I think the bad certainly outweighs the good. First off, you're deprived of most of the benefits of the MBA - the network of alumni and the signaling effect associated with your school's brand. Second, a lot of the learning in an MBA program (specifically in areas like Strategy) is experiential; I'm skeptical that can be recreated online. Finally, these programs charge you an arm and a leg; it seems like highway robbery for a product which has very low variable costs.

What I would suggest is that instead of getting an MBA online, you should get an accounting degree online. I think most of the concrete book knowledge in the MBA program can be captured through accounting and finance. Moreover, accounting is the sort of thing that you can probably learn online well and that a deep knowledge of makes you immediately marketable. Just my two cents!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Reflections on Entrepreneurship from Stanford GSB

Going through an old notebook of mine, I found a page of things I had learned about startups and entrepreneurship from my time in the MBA program at Stanford GSB. I wrote it on 6/12/07, about a week before i graduated. I culled these from things I learned from various classes, lectures, meetings, books, and during the early days of starting Personforce.
  • Entrepreneurship is about building something with little to zero resources
  • Do rather than analyze. Err on the side of speed than precision
  • Building a company is an iterative process. Test and learn.
  • There is a mental inflection point when the startup moves from idea to actual business
  • The micro-details of the product, the sales pitch, the contract matter.
  • There is a way to solve any problem. There is a way to sell anything. It might just be harder than you are prepared to work.
  • Differentiated businesses require lots of hard work
  • Do the dogs want to eat the dog food?
  • Your sheer force of will is a competitive advantage
  • Work with people who have different skills but similar values to you
  • You have to give equity away to make the pie larger
  • You have to strike and scale while the iron is hot
  • Successful entrepreneurs are just normal people
  • You need to commit to something to succeed. Good things start happening and it provides focus. "Throw your cap over the fence"
  • Little is gained by secrecy, good things happen when talking to smart people
  • Act weak when you are strong. Act still when you are about to move.
  • Little companies can crush competitors
  • Achieving public success has an irrevocable price
  • Don't add costs to the business
  • To succeed, you need to be contrarian and right
  • Selling into existing markets can be easier to sell to. Creating new markets can be powerful.
  • Great businesses create an impact far in excess of the capital invested in them.
  • Every early decision has strategic and ethical implications
  • Before every fork in the road, ask your self exactly what it is that you are trying to accomplish
Perhaps at a later date I'll write about which of these points I found to be true, especially true, or not sure true in starting a business.

LinkedIn is Not a Social Network

LinkedIn is a fantastically useful service, but I'm not sure I'd call it a social network. LinkedIn's rich database of contact information is a highly valuable business tool, but the company's value as social network is limited.

In a social network, you get utility from fact that your friends are on it. On Facebook, I can see the pictures my friends upload, get invited to events, and generally keep in touch with my network. If I were on Facebook with a random set of people I didn't know, I'm certain the service would be of little value to me.

On the other hand, I get almost no utility from having "friends on Linkedin". Sure, it's a nice way to store the contact information of professional contacts, but I can do so in Outlook, through Plaxo, in an excel spreadsheet, or on my phone; each of these options is only marginally less useful than LinkedIn at saving people's contact information. LinkedIn has some value as a social network, but it pails in comparison to its value as business tool to find contacts.

LinkedIn's primary value is as a giant database of contact information. It allows you to get in touch with the right person, at the right company, at the right time. It's hard to emphasis how valuable this is (or will can be) for facilitating sales, hiring, and business development. If you are a paper salesman in Scranton, you can look up the contact information of who is the purchasing manager at the local law firm, send them a message, and then hopefully connect. If you are a recruiter, you can find people near you that have the skills that your client is looking for. Before LinkedIn, you were reliant on your own network of contacts or cold calling into the main company line and working your way through a phone tree blindly.

I'd say that 99% of the value of LinkedIn is that people on it are NOT my friends. In fact, the fact that I can only freely see the contact information of my friends is a clever "freemium" strategy by the company -- I have to pay up if I want to view the information of people who are not my friends.

By calling its self a social network, LinkedIn got its users to sign up, invite their friends, and populate the database. Calling its self a social network has been a great marketing technique to get users to build a data asset. In fact, companies that have marketed themselves as large databases of contacts (Plaxo, Jigsaw) have been far less successful than LinkedIn.

I think LinkedIn knows that its primary value is as a business tool to connect people who don't know each other but who should do business with each other. The company is still in the preliminary stages of developing this tool, but it one of the most valuable data assets in the world today.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Business School Acceptance Rates Will Be Brutal

When I got my MBA at Stanford GSB, I think the acceptance rate was around 12%. We all felt like we got in by the skin of our teeth.

In 2008, the acceptance rate at Stanford GSB was 8%. At Harvard Business School (HBS) it was 14%, and at Wharton it was 17%. Yikes.

For everything I'm hearing, this year is looking brutal. Round one results came in a few weeks ago and it looks nasty. I've heard of a lot of people that got rejected or wait listed at Stanford GSB that I think ordinarily would have gotten in; you know the type - saved babies while working at a top tier private equity firm, ran a hedge fund out of their ivy league college dorm, etc.

I guess it's not suprising that acceptance rates are low -- everyone is trying to wait out the recession from the sidelines at school. Not only that, but private equity firms, hedge funds, banks, and consulting firms have fewer job openings, releasing a flood of candidates into the market.

If I had to guess, in 2009 the MBA acceptance rates will be brutal. Here's my guess: Stanford GSB 6%, HBS 11%, Wharton 14%. Best of luck to everybody applying this year.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Text Links Ads + College Newspapers = BAD

Through my capacity at Personforce, I've gotten to know the college newspaper industry reasonably well. It's a delight to work with the students and faculty at these fantastic training grounds for journalism and media management. I can't say enough good things about the caliber of the people at these institutions and the journalism they produce.

Working with college newspapers , I'm struck that perhaps a pernicious force has infiltrated these otherwise sterling institutions - inadvertent influence-selling through text link ads.

In today's media landscape, it's very important to understand Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and make sure you abide by ethical online practices so that Google will find you. Google is the starting place for where most people find content. Jeff Atwood discusses that after launching his startup StackOverflow, he now gets 83% of his traffic (over 3 millions visitors!) from Google. So in today's media landscape, it's important to play by the rules or you'll get black listed and shut out of most of your traffic.

Almost all search engines use links as a currency to measure a website's authority. If you get lots of good inbound links from high profile websites to your website, Google rewards this by giving your site a high Page Rank. A high Page Rank means that people are more likely to find your content through Google. The more people can find your content, the more traffic, the more revenue for your newspaper.

One thing that struck me though is that most college newspapers have very low page ranks in Google. Even more startling - their page rank keeps falling. This was extremely surprising to me for a variety of reasons. First, all of these institutions publish first rate, original, sophisticated content. Yet somehow they have page rank of 4, the same as a mid-level blogger. Second, almost every college newspaper has been publishing online for over 10 years, but from Google's perspective they look like a brand new publication of questionable authenticity. Heck some of these newspapers have been around for over 200 years!

So why is this going on? Digging around the answer is clear - text link advertising. For some bizarre reason many college newspaper have insidious text link ads all over their websites. Text links ads are when an advertiser pays to have a link on your site so they can get some of your "google authority" and look like they have authority because your newspaper is linking to them. In essence, the advertiser wants the newspaper to link to them so their company shows up higher in search results and they willing to pay for it.

Virtually no reputable newspaper, blog, or publisher accepts text link advertising today for a big reason - when you sell a text link you are selling your influence. It is the technical and ethical equivalent of publishing a favorable article about a company in your newspaper because they paid you to do so. Ethical issues aside, Google thinks less of newspapers that do this and punishes them tremendously.

Matt Cutts, a Google search engineer and evangelist for the company writes:

Google (and pretty much every other major search engine) uses hyperlinks to help determine reputation. Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and link-based analysis has greatly improved the quality of web search. Selling links muddies the quality of link-based reputation and makes it harder for many search engines (not just Google) to return relevant results.

Remarkably, Matt Cutts specifically calls out college newspapers for selling text link ads:

When the Berkeley college newspaper has six online gambling links (three casinos, two for poker, and one bingo) on its front page, it’s harder for search engines to know which links can be trusted.

When text links ads are sold without using the "no follow" attribute, Google knows you are doing this and penalizes the newspaper as a less reputable source:

If you want to buy or sell a link purely for visitors or traffic and not for search engines, a simple method exists to do so (the nofollow attribute). Google’s stance on selling links is pretty clear and we’re pretty accurate at spotting them, both algorithmically and manually. Sites that sell links can lose their trust in search engines.

So if any college newspaper is wondering why it has a 4 or a 5 page rank instead of a 6 or a 7, this is probably the answer. Most likely some company is taking advantage of students who think text link advertisements are a conventional form of advertising. In reality they are the purest form of payola and taint a site's reputation. The New York Times, Washington Post, or any newspaper wouldn't touch them with a 10-foot pole.

Given the prevalence of all these text link ads for college newspapers, my next question is where are they coming from? Who is taking advantage of the students at these colleges?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

An experiment in audience building

As an experiment in audience building, I started a blog call The Police Jobs Review. I'm trying to see if I blog regularly about a fairly narrow subject, what exactly happens. A few things to note:

1. I don't know much about Police employment and issues
2. I'm trying to write most days
3. I try to scan the current events about police and work and see if i can comment on it
4. I don't plan on marketing the blog, participating in social media interactions or anything

It's a pure experiment. Let's hope I can blog enough to keep it going!

Thursday, February 05, 2009

FanBridge, stop spamming the crap out of me

Every day I get about 3 or 4 pieces of spam from FanBridge, the email delivery service for bands.

Normally email delivery services like Constant Contact, iContact etc make sure that you opt in to the list before they deliver email from their customers to you. They provide the valuable service of mail deliverability by ensuring that users want to receive these emails.

FanBridge claims on on it's website that users must opt in to receive messages, but this is a bold faced lie. So FanBridge, how about it? Will you stop spamming the crap out of everybody?

Monday, February 02, 2009

Tax cuts and police employment

Covering how tax cuts for business affect police employment over at the police jobs review. Obviously, we don't solve anything, but its an interesting example of the prisoner's dilemma.