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Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurship

Can You Make a Business Without Doing Any Work?

June 8, 2017

What’s the only thing better than making a profitable side-business? Making a profitable side-business without doing any work.

First, a little background knowledge. I, like many programmers, enjoy working on the occasional side project. Bringing a program from idea to execution can be extremely satisfying. Although I’ve never made anything that I could monetize, there’s no real reason why I couldn’t. Except, perhaps, for time. Customer service alone is a big task – bigger than I have the bandwidth for when added to my workload.

That’s where outsourcers come in. We live in a world where people who can help with a multitude of bizarre jobs are just a click away. See sites like Fiverr, or Mechanical Turk (AKA MTurk), where these things are quite cheap. Both offer a huge array of services, and Fiverr in particular offers a few that interest me. After all, what do you need for a business?

  1. A target market – one with some cash to burn
  2. A problem that that target market needs solved
  3. An understanding of the organizations trying to solve that problem
  4. A point of differentiation from the competition
  5. A product
  6. Advertising for the product

And… you’re done, right? Of course, in real life, things are a bit more nuanced – but this should be a good starting point. I’m sure that a few of these will break down further – for instance, a product needs a name, branding (colours, icon, design), UI/UX, programming, etcetera. But for most of these points, I’m sure I can find someone on Fiverr who will help.

Starting a profitable side project without doing any work might sound a little far-fetched, but I think that it should be possible. For now, it’s time to break these steps down further. Stay tuned to hear what comes next!

 


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Entrepreneurship

What Data Will You Discover?

May 23, 2017

We live in the era of data.

Companies do all they can to collect “Big Data”; information from or about the people who use their products. This information shows researchers how users interact with products, who they’re connected with, and much more. Big Data is interesting because it’s so easy to collect data nowadays that special algorithms are needed to parse it.

This is important if you’re creating a product because you need to learn as much about your users as possible. This might mean tracking their usage of your technology product, or giving them a survey to complete. No matter how you collect it, it is key that you gain first-hand data.

Your companies’ unique edge should result in proprietary information.

No matter what you do, you can collect data about your users. If you have a website or app, you can learn about what makes users click. If you use social media for marketing, you can learn what kinds of posts have the best result.

This is what we’re facing right now. We’re trying to determine which of our users are leaders who are positive and sporty. Because we have access to a lot of their Instagram profiles, we can look at those. But how do we learn what we need to know solely through Instagram? When we figure that out, the information will be highly valuable to us and to other companies in the same space. But why should everyone do it?

There are many reasons to collect data, least of all monetization.

Whether you’re learning about your product, your customers or both, there will be information for you to discover.

  1. Discover what type of person uses your product
  2. Learn what your users like about your product
  3. Find out what your users want to see in your product
  4. Collect customer segment information to sell (if legal)

First, determine what your average and best users are like. Then, determine how your product can solve their problems. Finally, regarding the last point: conventional wisdom is that if you don’t pay for a product, you are the product. The information Facebook learns about you could be worth almost $60 per year to advertisers. Facebook learns about you from your usage, and people pay them to share what they’ve learned. Therefore, data might be your ticket to building a product you can monetize.

Your users can provide so much valuable insight. What will you learn?

 


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Entrepreneurship

1 Simple Step to Get Involved in the Tech Sector

May 9, 2017

An old friend of mine called the other day because he wants to break into the tech sector. His stagnant work in the health care industry frustrates him, and he wants to flex his entrepreneurial muscles. He was asking for advice because his lack of formal computer science education was concerning to him.

During my time in the tech sector, I’ve often heard this hesitation from intelligent people like my friend. What many don’t realize is that the barrier of entry for learning to code is really low. The problem is that the barrier of entry to the tech sector seems high!

This high barrier of entry to the tech sector is artificially.

Watching Hollywood “nerds” hammering away at keyboards makes learning to build programs seems abstract and involved. But in reality, executing on an idea is something that anyone can do, given time. The field is more accessible than ever!

But here’s the secret; you don’t have to wait for anyone or anything. No one needs to give you the go-ahead, you already have it.

My friend wants to do medical work. It’s a field with tons of potential users – patients, nurses, doctors, you name it. It’s a huge customer segment, as most people will go through the healthcare system at some point! All he has to do is think of an idea and build it.

That’s it.

Building something and showing it to people is all you need to do to become involved in the tech sector.

It will be tough to build something novel, but the rewards of building a big tech company are obvious. Social impact, huge monetary gains, you name it. It’s there for the taking. All you need to do to get involved with the tech sector is build your product and get it into people’s hands.

The time is now!

 


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Entrepreneurship

Look Toward Your Vision, but Focus on the Steps Ahead

March 31, 2017

When your company is full of visionaries, it’s easy to forget to focus on the steps you need to take immediately.

Maybe you’ve heard the phrase “Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal“, or “BHAG”. A BHAG is a lofty goal that outsiders might consider impossible, but your company works toward and believes they can accomplish. Ours is to energize every child in the world! What’s yours?

A team that believes in their big vision is driven to work on the cause. However, there are important pitfalls to avoid when focussing your company on the big goal.

  1. Your BHAG will take years to accomplish, and it is common to become discouraged on the journey.
  2. Your BHAG is nice to focus on, but the steps on the path are just as important.

You must remember to focus on the end goal, and also focus on the steps ahead.

When you’re climbing a mountain, focus on the summit. But don’t forget to watch where you’re climbing, or you’ll slip.

A proper BHAG will take years to properly accomplish. As well, it will be met with scepticism and naysayers. If it won’t, then perhaps it isn’t that audacious a goal!

Bill Gates famously dreamed of a computer in every home in a time when that was considered laughable. Who’s laughing now?

Prepare yourself for questions from everywhere, including from your harshest critic – yourself.

But what are you going to do – give up? How long are you going to sit around doing nothing or questioning yourself, while a problem you want to solve gets worse and worse?

You are better than that. And I know that, because I truly believe that we are all better than that.

Think about your goal, but focus on the steps to get there.

What you build in the short term will be smaller than what you want to tackle. It’s just not going to have the impact or the features. That’s a harsh truth that you must become accustomed to.

But – you must not forget that every step of your journey is key – your company can’t do great things if it’s dead!

Every time you make a change, think – how does this step benefit you?

Have your users requested this new feature, or do you just think it’s a good idea? Do you need to scale up, or scale back? Will you be able to put food on the plate tomorrow?

Use your big, hairy, audacious goal to drive every small step

Your dreams are important – there’s no point making your company without them! Remember to always use that dream as fuel for each small step. Because, trust me – you’re going to be taking a lot of small steps.

 


Thanks for reading this post. If you have any feedback (or just want to say hello), give me a shout on twitter!

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Teamwork

When Problems Become Jokes, They Don’t Get Solved

March 20, 2017

Team members joking about problems is a common trend across low-performing teams and organizations. Have you ever been on a team where bad behaviour gets glazed over, and problems become jokes?

“Uh oh, looks like Gaby is half an hour late to another meeting!”

“Jim forgot to record a client’s details again, classic!”

“Ha, why is Lana even a manager if no one ever listens to her?”

Does this sound familiar? Are you guilty of this?

Maybe it seems like it’s all in good fun because everyone in the organization is friends. Or maybe this office “comedian” thinks they’re influencing a shift in behaviour.

Unfortunately, neither is true.

The harm of laughing off an issue

When someone exhibits bad behaviour, they are at fault. When others don’t help them correct it, everyone is at fault. It might seem like a message is getting through when you jokingly prod into an issue, but it isn’t.

Think about it – if a bad behaviour is frequent enough that people joke about it to the person’s face, it’s a behaviour that people want changed but aren’t confronting. Does the person in question even know that the team wants them to change their behaviour if everyone is joking and laughing?

Jokes about things that people know are real problems will always have an underlying tension. Real feedback needs to be given, and change isn’t being made.

Give real feedback instead of letting problems become jokes

In general, feedback delivered in a constructive way will be appreciated. If you had something stuck in your teeth at a lunch, wouldn’t you rather someone point it out?

When behaviour needs to be changed, it’s time to evaluate if the person actually knows that their behaviour is a problem. Have they been told? Could you help solve the underlying issues?

One final note – is the behaviour one that can’t be changed? Perhaps a medical condition prevents performance from being exactly as you expect. If something can’t be helped, it should go without saying that you shouldn’t make jokes about it! The person probably knows that they have this problem, and highlighting it is nothing more than bullying by means of public shaming.

Remember – leaders raise the people around them, not just themselves. And you have the power to go forth and lead 🙂

 


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Entrepreneurship

Your Product Needs a Clear Market

February 23, 2017

WhatsApp, one of the most popular messaging apps on the market, recently released a feature that clones Snapchat’s Stories. This feature might be important for a number of reasons – but do their users actually want it?

Pressure to build what your market segment doesn’t want

It seems clear that WhatsApp is trying to cause direct harm to Snapchat with this release. Snapchat’s parent company, Snap, will soon publicly trade, and this moment could be make or break for the company. WhatsApp’s parent company, Facebook, might have pushed the feature to take the wind out of their sails. This raises the question – is harming Snapchat by bloating WhatsApp actually the best move?

WhatsApp’s biggest demographic is poorer countries, where the residents usually have less powerful phones. They use WhatsApp because it’s simple, fast, free, and lightweight. The addition of features that bloat the app will only make it harder for WhatsApp’s target market to use their app.

Define your market to define your product

WhatsApp seems like they’re having trouble understanding their market. They might have some metrics that prove that most of their users also use Snapchat stories, but I can’t imagine it’s possible for them to accurately make that claim.

Which features would their users use, and which are unnecessary? These are questions that product managers must always be asking. WhatsApp’s announcement came as a surprise because either few people knew about the change, or because the people who did know couldn’t reveal it. But that doesn’t mean that users weren’t consulted. Defining your market allows you to find the users you want to target, and to actually find out if they’d use your new features. For WhatsApp’s sake, I hope they did this kind of testing.

Even big companies build MVPs

Yik Yak’s recent foray into social networking is a great example of this. Hive comes from employees of the failed anonymous posting app, and is only available at one school. Their strategy is clear; they’re testing that users actually like their product before a wide release. That, and they’re building the buzz.

Even employees from $400 million dollar companies start slow. Define your market and test your product. Then, build something you’re sure that your market will love.

 


Thanks for reading! Feel free to share this post if you liked it, and come give me a shout on twitter!

 

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Software

Why I Cancelled Evernote

February 3, 2017

Evernote is a note service that allows synchronization across devices. The concept is incredibly useful – edit the same note from many different places. After 2 years of using Evernote, however, I’ve cancelled my subscription.

There are a number of reasons that users were pushed away from Evernote, including a privacy policy SNAFU. The lessons learned from their lack of communication or proper wording are worthy of examination. My gripe arose when Evernote made a change to their subscription plans. Free users, once able to synchronize notes across unlimited devices, were limited to 2. In doing so, they made an important assumption: synchronizing notes across devices is what users will pay for. Free users received a downgrade, and asked to pay for what was taken away.

Finding a profitable model can mean losing users.

In building startups of my own, I’ve come across the problem Evernote undoubtedly faced. Users will use a free version, but how can you get them to pay? Tech companies have a lot of expenses: developers, servers, and more.

With that in mind, creating a payment model can be difficult. A freemium product needs to do two things, draw in and upgrade users. The free offer needs to be tantalizing, and the paid version needs to provide enough value to call for a paid upgrade. In my personal experience, their choice of what to charge for is not something I’m interested in. On top of that, their limitations to the free plan eliminated what I liked about the platform.

The meaning behind big decisions

What this shows is their trend away from customer-centric to a business focussed on revenue. Perhaps they were unsustainable, or perhaps they were pushed by a stakeholder. To be clear, this isn’t my gripe. What I’m saying is that while there are many things Evernote could have charged for, they are charging for something I would not pay for.

Evernote has the right to do this, and we have the right to switch services.

Evernote is well within its right to change its plans. There’s no faulting them for that. But that doesn’t mean us users have to like it! To be clear, I don’t feel entitled to Evernote’s services. However, if they expect me not to switch to a different platform, they should entice me to pay by adding value to the paid version, not taking value away from the free.

Many people are very passionate about the services they use – see the Cult of Mac, for instance. For now, I’ll be sticking with Microsoft OneDrive. The OSX app still has a bug or two, but it syncs across all my devices, has absolutely everything I need, and runs smoothly. Running smoothly is, incidentally, another thing Evernote is struggling with.

Love Evernote? Hate it? I’d love to hear your feedback!

 


Thanks for reading! Next week I’ll dig into a business topic – maybe user testing?
Give me a shout on twitter!

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Software

Why Don’t People Use Strong Passwords?

January 12, 2017

Chances are that you use lots of online services, each one asking you to create new passwords. If you’re like most people, you’re only going to have 1 or 2 that you remember. After all, there are a lot of different sites to log into! Why bother making a new one every time?

Unfortunately, it’s time for a bit of a reality check – passwords are the bottom line of security. No matter how secure a service is, an attacker can easily access your account if you use a bad password. This is critical to note for a number of reasons – for instance, an attacker with access to your email account can reset the passwords on services you use, locking you out. As a result, you could find yourself without access to your online banking, professional email and more.

In this post I’ll explain a common way accounts are hacked, what weak passwords look like, and what you can do.

Why this is Important

Simple software used to hack into people’s personal accounts, like their Facebook account, will launch brute-force attacks. A brute-force attack, in this context, is when an attacker systematically guesses your password until they get the right one. Many pieces of software exist to automatically check every possible combinations of letters, numbers and words until it figures your information out. The reason why so many services lock you out if you incorrectly enter your password a number of times is to prevent this type of attack! To emphasize the point, a lack of lock-out protection is how hackers were able to steal photos in the 2014 iCloud celebrity photo leaks. They scraped interviews with celebrities for key words and phrases like pet’s names and familiar streets, then used programs to guess their passwords.

Common Weak Passwords

Before guessing random combinations, good software will guess from a list of people’s most commonly-used passwords. Companies like SplashData determine that list by scraping information from some of the biggest data leaks, like the Ashley Madison Hack. Using this information, we can determine the most common passwords that people used, listed here:

  1. password
  2. 123456
  3. 12345678
  4. 1234
  5. qwerty (if you’re curious about this one, look at the first 6 keys on your keyboard)
  6. 12345
  7. dragon
  8. p*ssy (let’s assume this one is about cats…)
  9. baseball
  10. football

A full list can be seen here. If your password is on this list, please try to come up with a better one! If anyone wants to gain access to your accounts, it will likely be trivial for them. Similarly, see below for a list of the most common 4-digit PINs (for iPhones, etcetera).

Most Common Passwords

Source in image: Nick Berry of Data Genetics

Most modern phones only give you 10 guesses before starting to lock you out, but that’s enough to get into almost 25% of phones.

Solutions

Keeping yourself secure is actually a relatively simple process. First of all, see how secure your average password is with an online tool, like www.howsecureismypassword.net. Then, consider implementing some of the following pieces of advice:

  • Don’t re-use passwords. One great password is useless if someone knows it!
  • Consider activating two-factor authentication (2FA) wherever possible. 2FA will occasionally use an emailed code or text message to confirm you are who you say you are.
  • Try a password manager like 1Password. Password managers allow you to make complex passwords on the websites you use, while only having to remember one simple password yourself.
  • Don’t needlessly share your password!

Well, that primer was a little longer than I was expecting to write. I hope you found it a useful starting point for protecting yourself!

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Programming

Your First Programming Language

January 9, 2017

Recently, I responded to Business Insider’s shamelessly sponsored fluff piece on what your first programming language should be. Their recommended language is Python, because it’s simple and popular in the job market. While that’s true, it doesn’t mean that Python is what a new programmer should learn. I’ll explain why the advice is bad, how to actually pick a first programming language, and conclude with examples.

Why the advice is bad

First off – many people who get started with programming have no idea what to expect, and for good reason. We have a societal perception of programming as boring, but everything we see on the screen is so exciting! Sorry to burst the bubble, but realistically, your first program is going to be simple, text-based, and kind of boring.

That said, your first programs could be much more interesting, while still teaching you the basics. There are many simple languages that will allow you to do interesting things quickly – like designing websites or putting graphics on the screen. Processing, for instance, is a language for art and design that will have you making cool things quickly.

According to Business Insider, in Python “if you forget your parentheses or misplace a few semicolons, it shouldn’t trip you up as much as it might if you were coding in another one.” This is terrible advice for a new programmer. Bracket counting should be automatically handled, and your code isn’t going to work if you forget semicolons. On the first point, the web is full of free coding environments that provide bracket completion and matching tools. They’re called Integrated Development Environments, or IDEs. Furthermore, you’re going to find that missing brackets and semicolons will almost always break your code. Finally, and employer would never hire a programmer who couldn’t remember brackets and semicolons. Don’t be discouraged if you forget them for a while, but that’s a skill that needs to be enforced from the beginning.

What your first programming language should actually be

Let me be clear: Python is a great language, and if that’s going to be your first choice, more power to you. But, most humans are motivated by results – and with Python, you’ll be seeing exciting results slowly. That’s why you should take a step back and think: “What do I want to program?”

Here’s the secret – you’ll be motivated if you pick something to do, and then learn how to do it. I’ll provide a couple of quick examples, but you should do your own research as well!

I want to make a….

Website. Try Javascript!

Mathematical Model. Try MATLAB!

Game. Try the Unity game engine!

…I’m not sure!  No worries. There are lots of good ways to learn the basics – writing code, control flow, and more. While Python isn’t a bad choice, I’d recommend Processing. With Processing you’ll be writing simple code that will have cool, quick results. It should be a fun exercise for anyone trying to get into the field!

Thanks for reading, and I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Software

Writing Good Technical Documentation

January 7, 2017

The time arrived to write technical documentation for our product, X Life. Our goal was to achieve the thoroughness of a wiki and the fun of Valve’s Handbook for New Employees.

We used Google docs so we could work together at the same time, which proved to be a fun exercise!

Building Good Documentation

Most of what worked in our documentation came from discussing it beforehand. The developers split up and brainstormed what they would want to see if they were reading new the technical specs. When we came together to share our lists, we were able to organize a rough framework very easily. We start a few notes for new developers, then an overview of the tech stack and details about the repository. Next is an in-depth look at some code, and finally, an FAQ section. This structure created a nice document that flows naturally.

A trick that helped readability was gradually adding code examples instead of overwhelming with them at the beginning.

Making it Readable

Our audience is mostly people familiar with the site who want a place for quick reference. With that in mind, we were able to cut out dry verbiage and keep helpful tips for new team members. Interestingly, following writing guidelines that help optimize blog posts for search engines helped keep to keep our writing sharp.

One of the most helpful tricks was to say exactly 1 or 2 things about each topic. This ensured that everything was explained, but brevity was enforced!

The End Result

What started as 5 pages of topics quickly became 25 pages of background and dependancy information, but we weren’t done. After 2 days of writing technical documentation, we ended up at 40 pages! Luckily, every section is brief and easy to reference, making the document quite readable. Many sites suggest using software to generate documentation. That might work for logging the usage of individual functions inside the code, which would be great for large companies. However, we’ve been recording function usage since the beginning, and decided that auto-documentation software wasn’t worth the money.

I hope that you find our experience writing documentation useful for yourself. Let us know in the comments if you have any of your own tips or tricks!

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