Boing Boing: There’s More than One Way to Start & Run a Company

Of course there’s more than one way to start a company, or run it.

But when you’re in the startup echo chamber that tends to be full of venture capitalists (VCs), you might start to believe their promises of easy money, giving up little control, and really making a splash in the world.

So I was pleasantly surprised to read of Boing Boing’s alternative path to run their small but successful blog. Boing Boing started off as a print magazine, but migrated in the early days to the web. It’s been a cornerstone of the web ever since. At first, it was just like Yahoo! — a directory of other stuff you could find online. Boing Boing differentiated itself by only linking to “cool stuff” the editors liked. Which, as it turns out, was sometimes some pretty cool stuff you’d never find elsewhere.

Back in the early days of the web — 1995, 1996 — it still seemed like a manageable amount of data and information. You could literally find new websites that just came online and help promote them by sharing them with others. (Before social networks, we did this through simple linking on a website. Directories still exist online, but they’ve long been surpassed by search engines like Google. Yahoo even shut down its own eponymous directory at the end of 2014.)

Boing Boing thrived because it linked to cool stuff.

And, as it turns out, it made a business of itself by keeping things small and manageable. But I like this the best:

One thing I wondered is why successful blogs like Boing Boing and Laughing Squid chose to stay small. Other early blogs like Huffington Post, Mashable, and Gigaom took on VC investment in their efforts to scale. Even Gawker’s Nick Denton, who long resisted outside investment, recently sold a sizable chunk of equity.

“Sure we could get investment if we wanted it,” said (Laughing Squid’s founder Scott) Beale. “But we see companies destroyed by it too. You give up a lot of control and then there are demands put on you by people who don’t know anything about your company.” He pointed to Gigaom, a tech site that ran out of money and laid off its entire staff last year, as an example of what happens when a media company can’t scale at a rate that would satisfy investors.

(Boing Boing’s founder Mark) Frauenfelder was similarly disdainful of the idea. “We were just paying bandwidth out of pocket before we started selling ads, and then we became profitable right off the bat in 2004,” he said.

“We’ve never been interested in getting funding to grow it in a big way like those sites because it’s just not sustainable. There’s no way they’re making enough money from advertising to pay whatever their burn rate is. There’s an obscene amount of money they have to pay for their office space and salaries. We all work in our home offices and spare bedrooms, and everyone makes a living on the advertising income we bring in. I am just looking at these huge companies that rely on a lot of VC money, and they’re unsustainable, artificial things, and they’re going to die off.”

If they do die off, they’ll end up in a graveyard alongside the millions of tiny blogs that have shut down over the past decade as users migrated to social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. Sure, some will find homes on Medium or Tumblr, but many bloggers these days don’t feel the need to go beyond the 140 characters afforded to them.

As for the remaining holdouts, those writers who continue to pen screeds at their own obscure web domains, bloggers like Frauenfelder and Beale will continue to scroll through their feeds looking for the nuggets worth featuring to a larger audience. “At some point I just really realized there aren’t very many independent blogs left,” said Beale. “The more obscure ones that I subscribe to on RSS, they’ll just suddenly announce that they’re stopping and can’t do it anymore.”

How it Relates to My Business Philosophy

Although I began Psych Central in 1995 — before any of these others sites were online — I didn’t focus on the site as a full-time concern until 2006. That’s when I realized enough advertising revenues to cover the costs of running the site and pay myself a salary. That’s also when I realized that the various startup worlds I was immersed in for the previous decade were also a lot of horseshit.

Too many startups don’t think small first and build upon initial, tiny successes. Instead they think big — world-changing, even! — and then go out to VCs to raise funding. I think this is a fundamental mistake too many founders make. You don’t have to change the world with the next Facebook. Because chances are against you — 1,000 times over — and you’ll likely fail.

Instead, disrupt one tiny part of with your idea, product or service. Bootstrap the heck out of it with whatever you can beg, borrow or steal. Prove there’s some traction, some “there” there. That people you don’t know are truly interested in your idea and want more of it.

Here’s some things I learned about online startups in my business experience:

  • You don’t need fancy office space to work with a group of people; any office space will do (even shared space, or heck, even somebody’s home or apartment). The importance of company culture is largely a myth and won’t much affect your business (unless you regularly hire bad people).
  • Don’t spend too much time worrying you need to keep everyone together during working hours in the same space. If you trust the people you hired, you can trust they’re going to give you the work they promised to do. (If you don’t trust the people you hired, that suggests a whole other problem with your management style.)
  • Spend early money on the things you absolutely need to get started, like computers for people to work on if they can’t use their own to start off with. Don’t spend in on complicated infrastructure, hosting services (like dedicated servers), or over-engineering everything at the onset.
  • Design for traffic or popularity, but build quick and dirty to get version 1.0 of whatever it is you’re doing. If you’ve designed things properly, your code should scale with little problem if and when the traffic comes.
  • Do not over-build. I see this all the time in startups — money wasted on engineering the “perfect” product for millions of concurrent users. Most startups never get anywhere close to there.
  • Don’t be too quick to go out to raise money. If your product or service rocks, let it prove itself with your prototypes or beta versions. Get some customers using it and giving you actual, real feedback. Don’t forget to ask them what they’d pay for it.
  • Freemium is a bad business model unless you know whatever the add-ons you’re offering are absolutely going to be critical to some of your customers. Look at existing businesses to understand the wide breadth of working business models. One of Twitter’s most difficult challenges is finding ways to monetize their customer base — something they never gave much thought to in the early days. (Hint: they should have.)
  • Be quick to fire people who aren’t working out. Too many founders spend way too much time keeping the wrong people doing the wrong jobs in their company. It’s easier to fire someone early on when you’re still getting acclimated to one another when it appears their skillset (or personality) don’t mesh with your immediate needs. (Don’t keep someone around for “future-proofing” — the job market is always robust enough to find another new hire when the time arises.)
  • Give people what they need to be successful, then get out of their way. If you’re spending half your day looking over your employee’s shoulders, you’re doing it wrong. Completely, utterly 100% wrong.
  • Don’t just work with other smart people, but work with other smart partners too. Look for firms that mirror your company’s way of doing things, and find ways to work together. Not every partnership needs to or should involve money changing hands. You’d be surprised at what some companies are willing to do if you just ask.
  • Connect and keep connected with other smart founders like yourself. There are plenty of social networks for just such things.
  • The consumer market is so much larger and harder to crack (because of its size) than the business market. B2B concerns have always been easier and more likely to be successful than consumer-facing services or products. Go into your idea with that in mind — is there a way to focus on businesses instead of consumers?
  • Don’t lie or “stretch” the truth. I can’t tell you how many folks I’ve met in leadership roles who would out-right lie to their employees about the future of a product, service or the company itself. Employees just want the truth, even if it’s not pretty. If it means you might lose one or two as they search out other jobs (e.g., if the money is running out), that’s the cost of doing good, ethical business.
  • Please don’t let your business idea by “Facebook, but for…” or “Facebook, but different because…” If you’re skating off another person’s hard work and idea, you’re not likely going to get very far. Remember, even Google couldn’t build a social network that could compete with Facebook.
  • Get a mentor or adviser and listen to them; but don’t do everything they say or suggest. You still need to make a judgement call about what’s going to work for you, in your particular situation.

I don’t pretend I know much of anything about business, but these ideas have helped me in starting and running my online business. I’ve seen too many startups spend money — significant amounts of investor’s money — on things that don’t matter to the success of their business (like Class A office space in the best building in the city). Or started with no idea on how they were going to monetize the idea. I run away from such startups now. You should too.

Make America Great… Again?

So next time you’re a Donald Trump rally (seeing as he’s running for President of the United States in 2016), ask him this one simple question:

If America isn’t the greatest country in the world, who is?

I would argue, and I think it’s a pretty easy argument to make, that in virtually all the ways we measure success as a country, we are indeed “great.” And I’d go one step further and say that, at this moment in history, we remain the world’s greatest country. To live in, to work in, to express oneself freely, to practice whatever religion you want (or, increasingly, no religion at all).

I find it odd that people resonate with the message that America is no longer a great country. Who is? China? Really?!? Russia? Umm, no. The UK? I love Brits, but there’s a lot more things wrong in Britain than here. Is Canada the world’s greatest country??

Seriously, I just don’t get it. As a statement of fact, it makes no sense whatsoever. And it suggests an underlying inferiority complex. Which you get into even more when you listen to Trump’s campaign speeches.

We have the world’s greatest military that’s been modernized and reorganized to better respond to the kinds of wars we’re now fighting. If you combined the next 8 largest militaries in the world, it still wouldn’t be large or good enough to take on America’s military. Yet Trump claims — with a straight face, no less — that it is in shambles and needs even more money thrown at it. (This despite the fact that we spend more on our military than any other nation on earth.)

He wants to build a wall along our Southern border to keep out illegal immigrants, turning America into a place with walls. Reminds me of Berlin in the 1960s. Or a prison. This is your thoughtful, nuanced answer to America’s immigration concerns? Remember, too, that immigrants take all the jobs Americans don’t want and no longer do… much of the food service industry and agricultural industry — who do you think works the fields these days!? — is done by immigrants. If there was an easy way for immigrants to come into the country just to do these jobs, I’m pretty sure they’d take it. But since we put up so many paperwork barriers to allow for proper legal immigration from Mexico, we have an illegal immigration problem.

America is great. If you’re a citizen of these United States and think otherwise, please point me to the data — not hyperbole or fear-mongering — that demonstrates how bad America is as a country. I’d love to hear it.

Touchscreens: Decreasing Usability of Automobile Controls

I have to write about this horrible trend in automobile design of interior controls — touchscreens.

Touchscreens in automobiles are one of the worst ideas in the world of usability design. Period.

The reason is obvious. Touchscreens require your visual attention in order to read and understand the controls displayed on the screen. Since screens act as multi-function devices, it also means the controls will be different based upon what different screen you are on. You will have to consult the screen for what new controls are available each time you change the screen’s function.

So not only do you have to review your screen options with your eyeballs — taking your attention away from driving and road in front of you — but then you have to also conduct an eye-hand coordination task to bring your finger to the right touchscreen button you want to access. And do this reliably every time you need to change something in the car’s interior (temperature, radio station, etc.).

All of this sounds easy in theory and I’m sure on the drawing board. However, driving with one of these things is another story altogether.

In non-touchscreen cars, need to change the temperature? Rotate a knob one way or another. Need to reduce the fan speed? Rotate another knob. Simple, easy, single-function tactile controls that work quickly and easily. In most cars, you can make these adjustments without even needing to take your eyes off the road.

Try that in a car that has only a touchscreen control and tell me how easy it is. In some cars, it may be easier than others. (Some cars have “fixed” the problem by providing climate controls in their own module, separate from the touchscreen.)

Same with the radio. Changing a station, or switching from your smartphone’s music to the car’s radio shouldn’t be a task that involves multiple menus and button touches on a screen. It should be a single button (like it is on many stereo receivers or your TV) that controls the input source. Boom, done.

That tactile feel of buttons is so important to our hands in immediately knowing where I am on the dashboard. It also  reduces the need for cognitive cycles of our brain to process new information. When driving 65 MPH on a highway, even a couple of seconds of your attention away from the road can translate into thousands of feet.

That’s why, pre-touchscreens, automotive makers came up with the single-control interface (such as the iDrive in BMW) to manipulate the screen. While you still have the same problem of touchscreens in that the screen’s options change enough that you’ll have to take your attention off the road to understand your options, the actual input device and effort remains static throughout the process.

It essentially halves the attention and cognitive cycles needed for changing options on the screen versus that of a touchscreen. Why? Because with the touchscreen you will need to use and position a finger in just the right spot on the screen to effect a desired action. That takes more cognitive effort than simply using a single, unmoving device controller to change options.

Worse still is that of course every automaker approaches touchscreen use completely differently. So although 10 years ago, you knew in whatever car you were in how to control the climate knobs and change a radio station, you’d have little such luck in cars that have touchscreens. Instead of things being intuitive from carmaker to carmaker, touchscreens make everything cryptic and hard to decipher. With no standards, it’s like having to learn the differences between operating systems each time you change cars. This is progress?

Automotive makers have traded off ease-of-use and usability to worshiping technology for technology’s sake. I’m certain engineers thought there were making things easier to use, but the end result is technology that is actually harder to use and requires more effort to understand. They’ve completely killed off usability between auto manufacturers, too.

I’m certain touchscreens have a use in cars. But only as a way to replicate controls that already exist and are easier to use elsewhere.

Lifehack: Easy Chair Mat Fix for Desk Chair on Carpet

I’ve bought my share of those crappy chair mats they sell in Office Depot. They never really work well, and they are a bear to move around. I thought there had to be something better that wouldn’t deform under the weight of the chair when you put the chair mat on carpet.

I had some leftover old Pergo engineered wood flooring I wasn’t using from an old home improvement project. I snapped together 4 pieces, to create the perfect chair mat:

IMG_5083 IMG_5084

Best part about it is that it took 2 minutes to snap together the flooring. If I ever have to move it, it’ll take a minute to break down.

(I understand I’m not the first person to think of this, but it felt good to solve this problem with materials I had lying around. If you don’t have some spare wood flooring lying around, this might make less sense…)

 

Google’s SSL Signal Penalizes Ordinary People, Small Businesses

With Google’s short-sighted stand that SSL will now be used as a ranking signal in its algorithm, the giant technology and marketing company has finally shown its hand — it doesn’t care about the ordinary web.

SSL is the technology we use when we need to connect with our bank or credit card accounts online. It ostensibly ensures a “secure” connection with the company’s servers. But SSL is not some sort of  cure-all to securing online data — it is prone to other kinds of vulnerabilities and attacks.

SSL can readily be implemented by spammy websites, because those people have a financial incentive to do so. How that makes the web any “safer” is beyond me, but that’s Google’s belief — that just because a website is running SSL, it’s somehow “safer.” SSL still allows viruses and malware to be downloaded. SSL still allows a person to read a website from owners who’ve stolen their content from other websites.

In short, requiring SSL does little to make the web safer for the vast majority of websites. Why? Because most websites are still static, requiring no user interaction or login.

And that’s why SSL won’t be readily implemented by the average Joe running his own personal website. These websites rarely need a login or require any personal data be exchanged.

This means that Google is now penalizing ordinary people — and most small businesses — who just run simple websites without any user interaction.

And with us running out of IPv4 addresses, this move even makes less sense. Each SSL website needs its own unique IP address, and the Internet is virtually out of the old-style IPv4 addresses that are still the Internet’s standard. A new style IP system — IPv6 — addresses fix this problem — but still aren’t used widely. Worse, they are not backward compatible with IPv4 without hardware updates — something a lot of people are loathe to invest in until they absolutely have to.

For websites like Psych Central, it means thousands of dollars in new annual costs and maintenance. It also means an initial development cost that is substantial — and crushing.

Google simply whitewashes over how easy it is to make this sort of move. After reading the Google Webmaster forums (that they refer you to) and consulting with our developers, I find that it is instead a complicated and risky process. It could significantly negatively impact our search rankings if done incorrectly.

And if we implement it on our main website, it means significant and unacceptable slowdowns for people trying to access our mental health information. (Well, we could avoid those slowdowns, but again, at a large monthly monetary cost that Google glosses over for high-traffic sites like ours.)

We prefer to keep our meager budget focused on producing the high-quality content that Google still values more than this SSL signal.

But the writing is clearly on the wall. Small businesses like ours that don’t implement SSL at some point will be penalized for that high quality content, even when there’s little evidence to suggest doing so will improve the safety of the web.

 

 

What iPhone 6 Needs to Fix

I’ve enjoyed using my iPhone for years, since its second incarnation. But there remain a few vexing problems that are amplified whenever you try and use the device for many of the tasks it was intended for. Here are a few that I hope the iPhone 6 will finally fix.

Focusing On Largely Unimportant Innovations

In smartphone makers’ neverending battle to offer more pixels per square inch than any other smartphone, Apple has lost sight of what’s really important to end-users. I could put three generations of iPhones next to one another and ask people to say what display is best, and I suspect 9 out of 10 of them wouldn’t be able to pick out the “best” technologically-advanced display. It’s like the old CPU clock speed wars — at some point, you have all the pixels your eye can see and any more doesn’t really help you.

Oh, and of course, the constant upgrade of the CPU to one that consumers more power, resulting in lower battery life times.

What’s more, such higher-density displays inevitably consumer more power as well. So while they make incrementally larger batteries to compensate, today’s iPhone battery life is basically the same as it’s been since the iPhone 3 GS.

Stupid, Poor Camera

Every iteration of the iPhone says it’s offering a better camera than its predecessor. Perhaps Apple has been unaware of what most people use their smartphones for — snapping photos of their life being one of those main things.

So why does even the iPhone 5’s camera suck so badly?

I just came back from a trip in Europe and found that in virtually any low-light situation, this crappy excuse for a camera just couldn’t come close to my point-and-click pocket camera. I see people with Samsung smartphones taking photos that are just amazing. I wish Apple would spend 10 minutes improving their camera and its accompanying app. It needs some serious attention.

Forget All Day Use Outside of US

I rarely could take my iPhone 5 out for the day and use very light app usage for the day while in Europe. It was just horrible. I mean, the extent of using it was to take an occasional (crappy) photo, looking up stuff on the map to where we should head to next, and checking both email and Facebook once or twice a day.

In other words, standard tasks any smartphone user would expect to be able to complete in a day while on their smartphone.

Going to another country shouldn’t cut the usefulness of my smartphone in half. And yet that’s exactly what happened with my iPhone 5 — it reliably dying in the evening while I was still out and about.

As I mentioned previously, iPhones have constantly sacrificed increased battery life for more power and more display density. iPhone battery life has not increased significantly since the iPhone 3 GS — maybe an hour per generation.

I want a phone that can easily go 2 days without charging — in the US or Europe. Don’t make me worry about where my next charge is going to be.

Wires Are So 20th Century

I can’t believe that not only does Apple still embrace wires, but went so far as to say, “Hey, this old style wire no longer works as well for our technical needs, let’s make everyone change over to a different, still-not-industry-standard new wire” with the iPhone 5. Instead of embracing awesome technologies like inductive charging, Apple still leads the charge for proprietary, old-technology wires.

At least iTunes will update apps over the air. That only took 2 years longer than it should have.

New Features that Stagnate

Siri was a ground-breaking feature when it was first offered. However, since its introduction, Siri has stagnated. It’s had some marginal improvements during its lifetime, but it still can’t do simple tasks that would make our lives easier.

For instance, “Remind me the next time I talk to my boss that I need to bring up topic X.” Siri hasn’t a clue.

“Next time I’m at the bank, make sure I ask them to update my address.” Siri is confused.

Siri was a great feature that hasn’t kept up with the times — or its competitors.

Stupid Changes That Did Nothing

Hey, I understand you have a dozen UI guys and gals sitting around looking for something to do. You need to update things from time to time, including the UI design. But the whole “Hey, flat icons look more modern than 3D icons” design move was just a waste of resources and time — and got you nothing but bad press when foisted upon users who never complained about that part of the interface.

The things users actually complain about in the UI — confusing and ever-changing shortcuts that you bring up by mistake due to a mis-swipe, for instance — aren’t addressed. Forcing users to put apps (like the New York Times) in a special folder for no reason other than you think it’s the “right” place to host the app is just plain dumb.

More Changes for the Sake of Change

I don’t care what the case is made of. I don’t care if you offer it with square corners or rounded ones (although obviously a rounded-corner device slides and lives more gracefully in the front pocket of men’s pants — where most men put their smartphone). I don’t care what kind of glass you use on the front of the unit, because I have never dropped my phone (and buy your Apple Care protection plan in case I do).

In short, when you make changes that you flaunt as some sort of “innovation,” my eyes glaze over and I stop listening. I just assume that an Apple device will be tough, durable and reliable in its casing. If you start making cheap, plastic devices, then I’ll care.

If you do something stupid, like not accepting a standard headphone in a standard headphone jack, I’ll just assume your engineers were bored — not innovative. Or, more cynically, that you did it to increase your profit margins — which leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

In short…

Change for the sake of change is boring. Battery life remains paramount in a device that people use for as a personal assistant in their lives. One of those key personal assistant things is taking photos — so improve your camera. Spend more time innovating on the 90 percent of things that are important to your customers, instead of the 10 percent of things that nobody cares about.

 

 

Auto-Play Video: Worst Idea Ever

As a matter of principle, I try to avoid any website in the future that’s shoved an auto-play video (usually with audio enabled!) into my face while trying to access their content. Whether it’s an ad, a promo, or whatever — I don’t care.

The choice of whether I want to play a video on my computer is mine and mine alone. A publisher who takes that choice away from me is not a publisher I want to grace in the future.

So why is auto-play video such a bad idea? Here are 5 good reasons.

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More Government Cameras Are Not the Answer

I find it a little odd that the answer to the question of how to prevent future bombers like the Boston Marathon bombers is more government intrusion into our lives.

These are one-off events that, frankly, cannot be stopped. I know law enforcement and government officials believe otherwise, but they are delusional.

So because the government was able to piece together images of the bombers taken from private security cameras, I now hear a rallying cry from local governments throughout the country saying, “See? We need more security cameras throughout the city (town, suburb).”

Ummm, no, we don’t. That’s a very Orwellian response to this situation.

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The Sad State of Web Design Today

My monitor — like yours — is capable of displaying over 16 million colors (I bet you didn’t even know there were 16 million colors!).

So why is it that when I visit website after website, day after day, I see variations on a single design theme for websites — white.

White on white. White on slightly less white. White with a pretty blue bar at the top. White with no borders. White with borders so faint, you could only see them if you were told they were there.

Some brilliant designer is sitting back in his Aeron right now thinking, “Ahh, my next design, yes, I’m going to do white. But the background is going to be an off color of white — like glacier white — and it’s going to be absolutely striking.”

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Another Security Breach: Living Social

You know, these security breaches — where people external to a company break-in (usually virtually) and steal the company’s data — are becoming increasingly common. Living Social is the latest “victim” of a breach, compromising 50 million accounts. Fifty million!

Yet if you’re a digital company operating solely on the Internet and mobile platforms, you have only one asset you need to protect — your data. Your customer’s data is like gold. You have only one chance to protect it.

Living Social, like so many companies that have come before it, has lost another customer.

So when I went to close out my account, guess what I didn’t find anywhere in my account’s profile page? “Delete account.”

Wow. Just wow.

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