Saturday, June 27, 2009

Ten Thoughts on what matters at a startup: Help

Why does help matter at a startup?

At a startup there’s a lot to do, you’re under-resourced, and you’re all in it together. You'll need help from your team and they'll need help from you.

"That's not my job" is not something that anyone wants to hear when a milestone is looming. "How can I help?" has a much better ring to it, and is much more likely to lead to success at a startup. Having said that, knowing your own limitations is fine. A willingness to help is what's important.

One of my favourite emails at Primal Fusion came in the days after we launched our product at DEMO. The influx of users led, inevitably, to issues that needed to be addressed. My manager and I dived into answering emails from users who encountered problems. We had good fun, and at one point he sent me this email: “All these years of professional services and you and I have finally been promoted to help desk ;)”

I'm pretty proud of that, even though it really had little to do with my job.

Finally, two things to keep in mind regarding your willingness to help. First, help isn't about stepping all over your team mates. Remember, “How can I help” is a question to ask, not a directive to interfere. Second, make sure that the work you’re actually accountable for gets done, or negotiate something else.

• • •

This is one in a short series of posts called Ten Thoughts on what matters at a startup. The thoughts started life as a presentation I made at VeloCity residence at the University of Waterloo. While they're far from definitive, and aren't a top ten, they've mattered to me in my software startup experience.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Sherwood Forest Incorporated

In my second post for this blog, I wrote about The Dam Busters and how that movie provides a fine metaphor for a startup company. I recently re-watched another favourite movie, 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn in the title role. The parallels with a startup company jumped out at me, and here's the resulting movie-as-metaphor post.

The Adventures of Robin Hood features a visionary founder (Robin of Loxley) with an innovative and disruptive idea (stealing from the rich to give to the poor) to solve a pressing problem (the oppression of the people by Prince John and his cohorts). There are co-founders (Little John, Friar Tuck, and a few others) who support Robin through the hard work (freeing various peasants, retrieving ill-gotten gains) of proving that his idea will work.

Having successfully launched his startup company (his band of merry men), Robin goes to market (larger scale interference with the Prince's nefarious looting of the countryside) and builds a loyal following (more merry men and supporters) who buy into his vision (now expanded to include freeing King Richard from a foreign prison).

Robin's success as a leader (his followers have clarity on his vision and work hard to deliver on it) makes the merry men a great success (they even steal from Guy of Gisbourne and the Sherriff of Nottingham). Their competitors strike back (capturing Robin during an archery contest) but Robin's team perseveres (rescuing Robin in dramatic fashion) and build on their lead in the market.

Robin and his men continue to work hard and when an unexpected opportunity arises (King Richard returns to England and finds Robin) he capitalizes on it (executes a plan that restores Richard to the throne in place of Prince John) to decisively win the marketplace.

Robin steps aside as CEO and turns over his company to an experienced executive (King Richard) while negotiating a great payoff for his team (pardons all around for the merry men). As founder, he is amply rewarded (various new titles from Richard) and retires (to marry Lady Marian).

The movie is loads of fun, if you like this sort of thing (which I do).

Saturday, June 20, 2009

June UX Group event is on Thursday

The June meeting of the UX Group of Waterloo Region is happening at 5:00pm on Thursday June 25 at the Accelerator Centre. This month it's a presentation by Qixing Zheng called From Concept to Production: Prototyping with Expression Blend 3. The event is hosted by the Infusion Angels Innovation Centre and registration is required.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The solace of a Quantum To Cosmos festival

I've written before about lectures that the Perimeter Institute puts on here in Waterloo. Their public outreach program is a wonderful part of life in Waterloo. Science, fun, and accessible? PI has it covered. They've recently announced Quantum To Cosmos: Ideas for the Future, an amazing 10-day festival to be held next October. The mix of science and the arts is quite inspiring to see, and I'm excited about this even though it's four months away.

I'm particularly lucky as PI is walking distance from my home — not everyone has that luxury. Everyone in Waterloo region does have access to PI and this festival, though, and living and working in here is strikingly enhanced as a result. Thanks, PI!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Why work at Primal Fusion?

As I've often written here, I work at Primal Fusion, a software startup in Waterloo. Some of the background regarding what we're doing can be gleaned in blog posts by our founder, Peter Sweeney. It's challenging stuff, and we think what we're doing is important and will change the Web. A bold vision? Certainly. Can we deliver? We can. Is Primal Fusion a great place to work? Absolutely.

We're always looking for smart, motivated people to join Primal Fusion and make the vision a reality. It's fun and rewarding work. It's also hard, and fast-paced, and even uncertain. We've made great progress, though, and with the help of new team members we can do even more. Try our thought networking service by signing up for our private alpha release. Have a look at our careers page and see if you might fit in.

Right now, I'm particularly interested in finding a couple of great developers with strong UI skills to join my development team. We're a Scrum shop, and my team builds products on the Primal Fusion semantic synthesis platform. If you have what we're looking for, you'll have a chance to put your skills to use and make a meaningful impact. If that sounds like what you're looking for, get in touch.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Popcorn, balloons, and heavy equipment

Every year, the City of Waterloo Public Works Service Centre has an open house. This year's event was today, and my boys and I made the short trip to the centre this morning. It's an amazing event at which kids can ride in a swing shovel or front-end loader and dig gravel, take a trip in a dump truck, go up high in the bucket of a hydro truck from Waterloo North Hydro, or explore a fire truck. There's much more too. Add a few hot dogs for lunch and our morning was perfect.

From what I understand, the staff all volunteer their time to be there, and everyone seems to have fun. I've been taking my kids for years and I enjoy it immensely. Thanks to all of you who make this event happen — your effort and commitment makes living and working in Waterloo that much more fun.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Ten Thoughts on what matters at a startup: Failure

Why does failure matter at a startup?

You will fail. What's important to understand is what failure costs and what you learn from it.

You may fail at a small scale by inadvertantly forwarding a stupid email to a customer or by missing an important meeting that you didn't put in your calendar. There's not a lot of cost here, though if you do these things repeatedly it will certainly add up. Aim to not repeat them too often.

You may fail at a larger scale by not delivering a project on time or by spending too much on a major purchase without having researched it. There's more cost here, but it's still not fatal. It does get more important to avoid future repetitions.

You may fail at a fatal scale by blowing through your cash without regard to revenue. Learning from this failure won't help in the short term, but the experience may benefit you at your next startup.

How do you learn from your failures? Start by embracing failure. For example, do a project post-mortem on failed projects and ask hard questions about what went wrong and why. Keep in mind that it's not about blame, but about supporting each other and learning as a team. Of course, you need to be sure that you understand what success looks like too.

Another way to embrace failure is to "Fail fast, fail cheap, fail often." That is, use inexpensive prototypes to quickly try out your product ideas and discover not just the ones that fail, but also the ones that show promise. Keep the prototypes small and focused, and do as many as needed to clarify questions about your products.

None of this is to say that failure is better than success. Success is definitely better. If you're going to fail, though, learn from it and control the cost.

• • •

This is one in a short series of posts called Ten Thoughts on what matters at a startup. The thoughts started life as a presentation I made at VeloCity residence at the University of Waterloo. While they're far from definitive, and aren't a top ten, they've mattered to me in my software startup experience.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

365 days and counting

Today is the one year anniversary of my joining Primal Fusion. I'm amazed that a year has gone by already, and yet I'm so fully immersed in Primal Fusion that I'm not altogether sure that I remember what work felt like prior to the move. During the last year I've been lucky to work on some amazing stuff. Some of it is already out in the world, and some of it is yet to come in future releases. All of it has been rewarding.

This blog is, in large measure, essentially an ongoing record of life at one particular startup. Today's post is an acknowledgment of a milestone on my Primal Fusion journey. I'm looking forward to many more significant ones down the road.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Thought Networking presentation at StartupCampWaterloo

I attended my first StartupCampWaterloo last night. It was great – well-organized (without feeling regimented), engaging, lots of energy. I managed to arrive late, having come directly from work and a late meeting, which meant that I didn't get to pitch my Primal Fusion presentation, but I did get to demo our Thought Networking product anyway. There were some good questions from the crowd and I had some interesting conversations afterward. Overall it felt like a positive response.

The other presentations were quite enjoyable to watch, and there were some interesting products on display. Waterloo is really a great place to work, with so much going on and so many people beavering away on their own thing.