Category Archives: startup advice

Euclideon: $2m scam for fake games tech?

TL;DR – notch reckons “it’s a scam” (I wouldn’t go that far – “scam” is a strong word, I reckon they’re just too naive/ignorant/foolish/arrogant to realise what a huge mistake they’re making)

My gut feeling is: this would be a terrible investment. By comparison, the middleware companies that sell for tens of millions of dollars usually don’t seek this level of investment until AFTER they have many licenses / sales already. Euclideon seems to be asking for money BEFORE demonstrating that any games company can do anything useful with it.

In the games industry, we have a name for this particular kind of exuberant, short-sighted claim:

“Infinite Monkey Engine”

(apologies to Demis Hassabis, a nice guy who created the term “Infinite Polygon Engine” intending it to be genuine. It backfired horribly when it turned out to have little or no value in game terms; IIRC it only shipped in “Republic: The Revolution”?)

IMHO … The Euclideon folks have shown no signs (in public) of being aware of what a complete waste of time and money their technology “probably” is. They apparently haven’t (bothered to?) spoken to any games-industry companies – this should be an absolute requirement LONG before they raise funding above the $50,000 level.

Maybe they have; maybe their own PR is a big confidence-trick – they know how misleading/wrong their claims are, and they’re just trying to keep potential competitors fooled. If so, I’d say that’s a rather … short-sighted … strategy.

More likely: they’re full of their own inventiveness, and have nowhere near enough startup / business experience to have run the analysis on *why* this tech isn’t used *any more*.

(public signs so far suggest they’ve picked up an old tech, convinced themselves it’s new and novel, and don’t realise that it’s a dead-end that the industry has already rejected)

A startup success story: “what … wouldn’t make us cry anymore?”

All in the same market/need/desire space:

First product: FAIL.
Second product: FAIL.
Third product: looks set for success

“Our last version was just Tian and I late at 3am practically crying that everything in the food world we were building sucked. So we asked ourselves what could we do well that would be fun and wouldn’t make us cry anymore. And we came up with this. And this version makes us happy.”

Particularly interesting to read how radically different the three *products* were, even though they were fundamentally selling into the same “space”, and there was a lot of crossover in the underlying technology.

This is one of the hardest real, day-to-day (and month-to-month) problems that startups face. Every case is unique, and I’ve seen lots of smart people crumble at that point – or just go round and round in circles till they run out of money, or give up.

Startup Weekend Amsterdam: Advice and insights

From the fascinating APPsterdam experiment / movement (“persuade a load of startups to move to Amsterdam for the Summer, instead of the more expensive California, and create an ad-hoc startup hotbed”) – http://mur.mu.rs/?p=243:

“You might think companies that have gone out of business are no threat to you, but if you’re trying to get funding, they are your biggest threat. The only thing worse than an unproven model is a disproven model. You need to know exactly why they failed, and prove that you are different.”

“When you’re pitching on stage, don’t bother giving a bio. You need that time to show off your products. Plan for failure. That means being ready to present without slides or notes. No live demos. especially ones that rely on WiFi. If this can trip up Steve Jobs, what chance do you have? Make a movie.”

“seasoned startup investors absolutely hate patents and the entire patent system. They compare it to a cancer in the economy. “

Yes! Yes, yes, YES!

Next time anyone in the UK hears an investor ask about patents (hint: they probably are ex-3i staff – and no, that isn’t a good thing), send them this:

10 Myths about patents

“Myth 3: Nobody would invest in startups that don’t have patents.

Fact: The seasoned startup investors absolutely hate patents and the entire patent system. They compare it to a cancer in the economy. ”

Rockstar’s LA Noire, McNamara, Team Bondi, Crunch, and Advocacy

Background

A month ago, PC Gamer reported that “The idea that crunch wasn’t all that productive was raised, but there was enough experience in the room to shoot it down. “. I found that unacceptable, both as a concept, and as something for the media to report without challenging it.

Last week, it became public that LA Noire was built on the living corpses of hundreds of developers, approx 100 of whom have been stripped of their hard-earned professional Credits (take with a pinch of salt – but the allegations are compelling).

The guy in charge – right at the top, where the buck stops – went on record to document some of his abusive behaviour, and to argue that his behaviour was perfectly acceptable. He implied that anyone who refused to be abused by him was … unprofessional or naive.

(aside: never, ever, EVER work for Brendan McNamara. Read the IGN article to see why. If you wonder: “but maybe this is ‘normal’ for the games industry?”, here’s the answer: No, it absolutely is NOT normal, it is NOT acceptable, and I believe many professionals would agree it has reduced the quality of the game that was produced. LA Noire could have been a better, more profitable game)

IGDA – a 10,000-member organization for game developers – refused to censure this behaviour. Despite having an entire (mostly useless) committee devoted to “Quality of Life”.

(UPDATE: IGDA’s now responded properly: “Brian Robbins, chair of the IGDA Board of Directors, said the association would fully investigate the issue. … ‘reports of 12-hour a day, lengthy crunch time, if true, are absolutely unacceptable and harmful to the individuals involved, the final product, and the industry as a whole,’ Robbins told Develop.”. Yay!)

Erin Hoffman – famously EA_Spouse, who campaigned hard for fair treatment of employees back when her husband was a victim – could only say (according to the IGN article):

“Ultimately, all the developers can do is work their hardest to get hired at better companies. It is every developer’s responsibility to know their rights, and be willing to fight for them,”

i.e. there’s no help for you. Executives, Management, Industry Organizations – have zero responsibility. It’s the problem – and the fault? – of the lowest people on the foodchain.

(“basically, … you’re fucked”).

The biggest issue in the professional games industry today

A conversation I had recently, someone posed the reasonable-sounding idea:

“[you can] provide advocacy on the benefits of eliminating crunch, or information about the crunch and overtime pay policies of various companies, historical crunch duration on past projects, etc.

But at the end of the day it’s up to everyone to make their own individual, informed decisions about how they want to conduct their professional lives.

My response, which I feel is too important to keep private (bear in mind I’m quoting myself slightly out of context here)

Society is based on contract: we sacrifice some things, and we take on extra responsibilities, in return for the benefits and the assurances.

One of those responsibilities is to look after each other. This has nothing to do with “personal choice”. It’s to do with dragging everyone up to a high standard of living. Without it, society functions poorly, and ultimately fails. Once society fails, people who had a high standard of living suddenly lose everything: you can never sleep safe at night. Nothing you own is yours. Everything can be taken from you, and there is *no* comeback.

The “payment” part of the social contract isn’t optional. It’s a binary thing, you have to take the whole package, or none at all.

What is the IGDA doing about this? What is Erin doing? What are you doing?

There was another part of my answer, relating to the idea that people were disseminating knowledge, and that was enough:

Yeah.

[but...] They could also grow a pair and say: “crunch fucking sucks. The only people who don’t know this are the ones at the top of the food chain exploiting everyone else. *OF COURSE* it doesn’t suck when you’re not the person doing it.”

They could say: “if you’ve never crunched, and you’re about to join a company that does crunch, DON’T DO IT. Find somewhere else unless you really have no choice.”

They could say: “here’s a list of companies that have publically admitted (or been outed) as using crunch regularly (or even permanently), or as a project-management tool.”

See how fast companies change in the face of that.

But it doesn’t work, fighting the employers. They won’t change

Yes, it does work. You just need a big enough lever.

[UPDATE: there's a lot more details now on GI.biz's bad website that requires login - use the email "fuckgi@mailinator.com" and password "fuckgi" if you want to read it. See what effect this has. Personally, I've now also added Vicky Lord to my list of "never work with this person ever"]

(an aside: is 10,000 members enough? Well, allegedly it was enough to scare one of the abusive employers – Mike Capps – into joining the IGDA board just to stop it from fighting for reforms that would have coerced him to change. There’s some reading between the lines there, but most of it comes from his own public statements)

Personally, I was treated extremely badly by one company (Codemasters). Weeks after hiring me, they fired me. They did it illegally, so it’s hard to be sure, but it seems I was intended as an object lesson to bully a large AAA team into bowing into submission. Perhaps: “we can fire him for no reason, we can fire the rest of you. STFU and work harder, SCUM!”.

Within weeks, something like 20 people had resigned from the team.

Within months, I was getting cold calls from people who’d told me they’d been offered good jobs at this company, but had turned them down *purely because of* hearing about what was done to me. I’d never heard of, spoken to, or met these people.

Within a few years, I was hearing stories of how the company had changed – had been forced to change – its practices.

In a way, all I did was what Erin describes: individuals fighting for themselves.

In practice, I had to lose my job to achieve it. As an individual developer, I was fucked. This is what’s wrong with Erin’s view of the world: it is NOT ENOUGH to tell everyone to sort their own problems, unaided. It’s our collective – and individual – responsibility to help each other.

Notes of interest from NESTA games-funding event

This (“NESTA: Investing in Video Games”) was last month, but I’ve been too busy to write it up till now.

The most interesting things that I noticed at the event:

  • Index is interested in spending SEED money on games companies [Ben Holmes]
  • Index can now “write cheques” up to $1m in the UK “in 1.5 weeks”; typically they’re writing them for $200k-$500k – they’ve done 20 of those in past 18 months [Ben Holmes]
  • Tony Pearce won-over Turner as an investor by saying he’d be bringing them detailed analytics on the social gaming industry [Tony Pearce]
  • None of the panel mentioned VentureHacks, even when it was the obvious answer to some of the questions from the audience. I had to grab the microphone and do it myself.

I felt a bit mean, hijacking their Q&A session. But, really … startups *need to know* about VH. It’s wrong for investment/government events to ignore it, or pretend it doesn’t exist; in the long run, everyone benefits from the existence and spread of VentureHacks.

UK games studios and basic business failures

Recently I had reason to contact a bunch of UK games studios. I thought the hard bit would be to find the names of all those out there. Actually, the hardest part was navigating their websites to do the outrageous thing of daring to send them an email…

Here’s a question for anyone lamenting the unlucky business lives of games companies: If your business cannot be easily contacted, how many opportunities do you miss before you even get a chance at them?

Plenty of failures, but some particularly amusing(ly bad) examples I’ve cherry-picked:

e.g.: http://www.freestylegames.com/contact.php

You can *phone* them on a pay-per-minute number (nice!), but you cannot email them. Brings new meaning to the phrase “(their) time is (your) money”.

e.g. http://firebrandgames.com/contact.htm#

The contact page shows up as the “games” page.

Wow. Great QA on your website there, guys. Did *no-one* check it before going live? Do you visit it yourselves?

(and the only things you’re allowed to talk about are jobs and PR. What does this tell you about their priorities, I wonder?)

e.g. http://www.fireflyworlds.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=330&Itemid=314

You can download PHOTOS OF THEIR OFFICES 11!!!!!!1111 (featured not just once, but twice, on that page) … but you cannot speak to them.

e.g.: http://darkenergydigital.net/contact.php

Apparently, the only two possible reasons anyone would contact them is because there’s a bug in their games (support@), or they want a job (jobs@). Hmm. Again: does this reflect studio priorities?

e.g. http://www.hanakogames.com/about.shtml

No contact address, link, or form anywhere. Nice!

e.g. http://www.full-fat.com/

When you click the “contact” button, you get this monstrosity:

javascript:location=’mailto:\u0068\u0065\u006c\u006c\u006f\u0040\u0066\u0075\u006c\u006c\u002d\u0066\u0061\u0074\u002e\u0063\u006f\u006d';void%200

(hackers trying to cross-site-script attack your browser? Or just a deeply incompetent web-designer? I’ll let you decide…)

HINT to Full Fat: webmail. Yeah. Think about it. Over 1 billion people use webmail as their primary mail client these days. Hmm.

e.g. http://www.nitrome.com/contact/

Their email is a Flash app.

A FLASH APP. To display 40 characters of text. Ya, Rlly.

Also: it doesn’t work. When you run it, it displays the text, but won’t allow you to copy it. Huh? I have to manually transcribe the letters. Why? Why, for the love of all that is good?

(and if your spam-protection is really so outdated (and FAIL: you really don’t understand where spam comes from, do you, guys?), then why didn’t you just put a static image in there instead?)

“I have never regretted firing anybody. Not once.” – Mark Suster

One of those things that most business people don’t talk about unless prodded. I’m not sure why, but I assume it’s one aspect of the fear “don’t burn any bridges; don’t let anyone think you can be nasty; don’t let anyone see you’re human”. None of which are healthy, long-term ideals IMHO – although they may be a good idea for many people. (they’ll often keep you in a job you’re unsuited for for longer than you would survive without them).

“I have on many occasions regretted not firing somebody quickly enough.

I’ve made every excuse to myself in the past, “I can’t fire him now, he owns the customer relationships and it’s a crucial point in our sales process.” Or, “I haven’t given him a long-enough chance to prove himself – let me see how he develops” or even, “it will have a big impact on morale because she is well liked. I can’t afford that right now.””

Some other good points in the post from Mark, including his list of 3 key ideals in hiring. Although … I still don’t agree with his “if [you change jobs] 5-6 times there is probably a pattern that isn’t completely the fault of some asshole boss.”. Well, I agree with the deduction – I’m sure there is a pattern, something interesting causing these rapid job changes – but I don’t agree with his conclusion that this is a bad sign in a jobseeker / candidate *for a startup*. (for a corporate role, it’s a huge red flag; for a startup, it might even be a positive selector; IMHO it’s too complex an issue to make catch-all pronouncements like Mark’s)

(and c.f. my previous comments on hiring, e.g.:

“I’ve noticed practically no correlation between skilled people going on to fulfil greater potential – many did, but many got worse. I’d still hire very skilled people – you know they’re useful – but … and this is a reflection of my own interests … in a startup environment, I’d tend to look for the enthusiastic ones by preference.”
)

“startup fundraising isn’t about convincing skeptics but rather finding true believers”

(From an aside by one of LinkedIn’s founding team (interesting blog post on what it was like raising the first Series A funding for LI))

This is one of the hardest things for “old style” European VC firms and Angels to get their heads around, IME. And it’s entirely true, IMHO.

In general, if you find your startup is like swimming uphill against a stream – no matter that you’re succeeding – then it’s either a crummy startup hardly worth doing, or you’re going about it the wrong way. In most startups there are many occasions when it’s difficult or hard work – but in each case, the “working hard” part is optional: you could keep working at a normal pace and still succeed; you just choose to work harder in order to take your “success” and make it “a bigger success”. If you have to work hard just to avoid failure … forget it.

I suspect it’s the infamous protestant work ethic that (perhaps) leads vast swathes of UK and EU people to believe:

“if I work hard, and I suffer, I’m (deserve to) going to succeed; I should expect it to be hard, and cultivate difficulty; easy things are to be suspected and – ultimately – avoided”

IMHO, it’s more likely that a lazy person will find a great product/market/timing and be successful … than that a hard worker will take a weak product/market/timing and force it to succeed by working their ass off. A startup is a company; more than any individual – if the idea is great, other people will join, and tend to pull the work-output closer to the average.

Think on this:

if you’re a lazy founder, every person you hire is bringing the average up. If you’re a workaholic, every person you hire is bringing it down.

(Who am I kidding? If you’re a workaholic, you probably aren’t allowing anyone else in anyway – and don’t have time to interview them. You’re working harder and harder, somehow subconsciously convinced that “hard work” will inevitably create “success”)

Angel investor admits mistake; world doesn’t end

I don’t normally call-out individual investors, but this tweet from Max Niederhofer underlines something I’ve been thinking about for a while: I’d like to see a culture of equity investors admitting (publically) their missed investments as often as they big-up the ones they made.

Biggest angel investing screwup of mine of the last 18 months: not accepting @begemann’s offer of getting into @wooga. 18M monthly players!

And of course – aside from the investor issue – it’s interesting just how big Wooga is right now.

Anyway, I’d like to celebrate Max (and others) for publically admitting he misjudged that investment. I wish more investors would do this, on a regular basis.

Why should an investor keep quiet?

I make no claim to know the mind of investors. The nearest I can come is that – for a while – I sat on an investment team that made recommendations on investments from $0.5m up to $10m. I loved the experience of being on “the other side” of the table. But I only did it for a year or so – I’m in unfamiliar territory here.

Some guesses / intuitions from that experience (and from conversations I’ve had with investors over the years):

  1. The suspicion that you might scare-off new startups when they hear you rejected other startups that they consider similar to themselves. Fair enough – although I think this does a disservice to entrepreneurs; we’re not stupid – we know that investors make mistakes, and we expect them to learn from them, I think many of us would be more eager rather than less (“they’re probably smarting from that mistake, and more likely to jump on a similar opportunity like US!”)
  2. Funds, especially, sell themselves on their reputation for making “the right” decisions. Every few years, they have to persuade a bunch of very rich individuals to part with tens of millions of dollars, on nothing more than the faith that the fund will invest it more intelligently than the investor would have themself. They don’t want to tarnish their reputation by admitting the profits they “failed” to secure for their own investors.
  3. Angels have a similar reputation issue, but with Funds, rather than with investors. My impression is that this relationship is a lot less fragile / critical – but if an Angel is respected by a Fund as a canny selector of good startups, it could make it much easier for said Angel to cash-out when they need to. Although… that exit may itself make the Angel look bad (why are they getting out? What gives?) so I’m not sure this is so important
  4. Pride. Both personal and professional.
  5. Fear of revealing their personal “investment strategy” to their rival investors. I’ve heard Angels talk about how they have a secret sauce in their choice of investments – one they guard as vigorously as Coca Cola’s – but I’m not sure how important this really is. “Security by obscurity”, and all that…
  6. Um. Others?

Why should an investor confess?

As an entrepreneur, when I’m sifting through potential investors, I’d like to know:

  1. Does this guy track their failures as well as success – do they live by the same rules they expect us to, i.e. “test and prove and IMprove”, or are they stewing in a soup of arrogance and ignorance?
    1. An investor that gets better each year is one I want on my board – chances are, their advice and input will be better year on year. Not stagnant.
  2. Market opinion: what other entrepreneurs came to you with serious investment offers? Social proof works both ways, guys…
    1. Every investor will boast about the good investments they made, but that tends to be a small pot. Sure, they see 20 (or 200) pitches a year – but how many of those pitches are from smart entrepreneurs? Do the smart guys avoid this investor, or do they swarm to them?
  3. Market exposure: what has motivated them in the past to make yes/no decisions? Not theoretical (fakeable) ideals – but actual deals they’ve rejected. (again, finding out the deals they accepted is relatively easy / common)
    1. Does this investor get enough exposure to the “real” spectrum of startup opportunities? Or do they only deal with – say – Financial Services tech startups? Will I end up having to (re-)educate them on the realities of (say) Social Media startups, because although they’ve funded one … that’s the only one they’ve ever seen (and they judge everything else by that one)?
  4. Honesty. With personal recognition of past mistakes, and the dose of humility that required.
    1. Yeah. Most people don’t care about this one. I do. If I’m holding myself and my colleagues to these standards (and I do) … why should investors get a bye?

I’ve got an idea; I’ll give you 25%…

…if you:

  1. finish it
  2. and design it
  3. and build it
  4. and test it
  5. and refine it
  6. and launch it
  7. and sell it
  8. and market it

…for me.

This was the tempting offer whispered in my ear this evening by a hard-up web-developer at a networking event, once we were alone, and he’d heard I developed iPhone apps.

For the record, this is the worst offer I’ve ever had – even in the days of the iPhone goldrush (2008, mid 2009) the least I was offered was “one third”. Since then, even the unrealistic offers usually start at $2,000 cash up-front.

I smiled, and said nothing.

I carried on the conversation, when he suddenly broke into a long (minutes) tirade of abuse in the middle of the venue, because I’d “blown [him] off” when he’d “offered to share [his] great idea”.

I stood there in silence for another 30 seconds, wondering what to do: should I respond in kind? should I try to help him? should I walk away?

I decided to try and help him. I asked him to think about how his offer sounded to someone who makes apps for clients every day. (he ranted about how I thought I “was the Big Man – BUT YOU’RE NOT!”). I apologized profusely for offending him, and said I’d try to explain (he told me to “scuttle off, little man”). I made one more attempt – I pointed out that after inadvertently offending him, I was at least trying to make amends, and all he seemed to want to do was insult me. He sneered.

So, my public-service act for the day:

How much does it cost to develop an iPhone application? (tl;dr – $250,000 for a good one)

(note: when we talk to clients, I advise them the sane limit is c. $150k for a great one, or $75k for a good one. The $250k figure is accurate if you’re doing own-IP and it HAS to be awesome (like twitterific, quoted) – but you always end up spending more when it’s your own IP – or if you work with extremely expensive digital agencies who don’t have in-house iPhone specialists. Most of the good, solid iPhone dev teams are about half that price)

NB: this problem (“I’ve got an idea, I’ll let you have it in return for a profit share”) is prevalent among people who know nothing about computer games, as much as for people who know nothing about generic iPhone apps (but who read the papers and think they’re sitting on a goldmine. That’s very interesting in and of itself…

At the end of the day, I walked away from Mr. Abusive. Some people just don’t want to be helped, sadly…

Social Games are “evil” (a.k.a: Indie Marketing 301)

I reckon this is just a case of indie developers (finally) starting to
understand the concept of “marketing” in a bit more depth than the 101
stuff.

With my PR hat on, this is great stuff: highly contentious (and
potentially dangerous) quotes – and yet, nowhere near as
career-damaging as declaring that a certain console is ****.

“Evil” is emotive, but just vague enough that you can get away with it in ways
that you can’t when you target billion-dollar brands. *ahem*.

I’d also add that – in true marketing style – this whole conversation
is about 6 months behind the curve. Which is about right for a
mass-market promotional piece – people at the coal face have moved on,
but Joe Public is still intrigued and yet to catch-up. Anyone who
still thinks Zynga is the company from “that SF Weekly article” is
living in dreamland. FB games moves much, much faster than that.

Don’t use BitBucket – broken OpenID authentication

We’re starting a new client project, and the client uses Mercurial exclusively, all through BitBucket.

BitBucket has a stupid user-accounts system, that demands you invent a globally-unique username. Oh dear lord – how amateurish are you guys?

Aha! BUT! … they have a (very subtle) link to let you use OpenID instead. Phew! My day is saved – I don’t have to be “dodgy-69-sucker-11111″ just in a desperate attempt to work around a naive website architect.

OpenID FAIL

Except … once you’ve sacrificed your private account details to Atlassian, they … don’t allow you to login. It reports “success” but tells you that you’re not allowed to use OpenID to access the site, you STILL have to create a non-OpenID account, using a globally unique ID.

I’m sure they’re doing “something” with OpenID, but I get the impression that the folks at BitBucket don’t grok what most of the world is using it for…

How do I take back my Identity, you fraudsters?

Well, Atlassian won’t help you there.

Fortunately, Google did…

Google’s UI designers FTW

I used Google as my OpenID source this time around. And, *fortunately*, Google’s process for de-authorizing a website is very simple.

I usually assume Google’s UI is great, and I usually only blog about it when it fails badly, but here’s an example where it works beautifully.

(hint: there’s a shortcut – but Google might change the link in future. You can go directly to: https://www.google.com/accounts/IssuedAuthSubTokens)

Just go to your account page (https://www.google.com/accounts/), and *right at the top of the page* (thanks, Google!) is a link to all your authorized websites – it’s in a big white space on it’s own, VERY easy to find.

Hiring people smarter than you

Startup CEOs are often advised to do this, but few people explain how the heck to do that, and its far easier said than done.

Ben’s got a great approach: actually do each of the jobs yourself, for real, before hiring people into them.

This resonates with my own experience, where “deliberate self obsolescence” has proved the most effective strategy for hiring senior management. Do everything yourself, and keep trying to make yourself redundant, by finding the most time-consuming thing you’re currently doing, and hiring someone else to do it.

This approach also neatly solves the eternal problem of “which role do we hire next?” – in a *prioritasable* fashion (which is important if you believe in scrum/agile/lean measurement, and can’t accept the answer “all of them!”).

PS a lovely quote in the linked post:

“The more experience you have, the more you realize that there is something seriously wrong with every employee in your company (including you).”

QFT.

Personally, I finally escaped from this trap only when I started hiring on “enthusiasm” rather than on “skill”. So far, it’s not lead me astray…

LinkedIn more popular than Twitter (according to LinkedIn?)

When I log into LinkedIn, I now receive 3 pages of spam. That spam is “every tweet by every person I’ve ever met”.

Somewhere, buried inside the avalanche of spam, are a few genuine LinkedIn messages. e.g. today I saw that a friend had moved to a new company – important, useful information.

Support: why would you want to refuse our spam?

I asked the LinkedIn customer support folks how to disable the spam. Their response:

You can “only hide the member’s Twitter updates [if you] also [hide all] their LinkedIn updates”.

i.e. your choices are:

  1. Get spam
  2. Get nothing

Hmm. Think about the people with tens of thousands of connections on linkedin. Their linkedin home pages must be absurdly high spam-to-signal ratio.

LinkedIn’s management: Twitter? WTF is Twitter?

LinkedIn’s CTO / lead architect / whoever authorized this stupid setup apparently “forgot” that the main feature of Twitter is it *allows* you to choose the people you receive tweets from.

(or, more likely, they’ve never used Twitter – it’s just a buzzword they’d heard of from a VC)

LinkedIn removes that choice. It simply forces everything on you. No filtering. No choices. Nothing. As a user, you exist to be spammed.

As a user, you exist to consume LinkedIn’s adverts, and nothing else. The site is – it would seem – not intended to be useful.

RIP LinkedIn.com

For a business to sink to such a low level of utility, and for the management to achieve such a high level of ignorance about the market, suggests to me that LI is moving rapidly towards implosion. I don’t believe it will still be with us two years from now. And that’s rather tragic, given how valuable it used to be.

Startups: measure your attention-marketing (download)

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you’ll have read my thoughts on the Science part of Marketing, and how much money this makes you.

As I explained recently to an Accountant, we don’t have a “business plan” for my current company, we only have a spreadsheet. A spreadsheet – done correctly – *is* a business plan, and a better plan than any you’ll ever see written down.

(NB: I’m not an accountant. I’m not a Finance Director – and never have been. I don’t even like spreadsheets; normally they bore me to death. But this is an exception. It is the only way to effectively plan and run a startup)

So I was delighted to see that Dave Stone has posted a spreadsheet to track and measure the effectiveness of your “attention” campaign – how much exposure did you get from TechCrunch et al? Was it worth it?

VCs, Angels, and Beta Pages: They’re wrong

There is a curse afflicting the startup world right now. It’s insidious, it’s harmful, and – as a potential customer – I’m fed up of running into these brick walls of customer-hatred. Each time it happens, yet another startup generates massive harm for itself, and I’d like to see this madness STOP.

(by “startup world” I mean: West-coast USA-style startups – i.e. Silicon Valley VC’s and Angels, the startups they back, the people seeking money from there, and any startup that follows their way of thinking. I do *not* mean – for instance – old-style Europe startups, who haven’t even grasped the idea of a pre-funded “beta” release yet. This post probably will sound new and scary to some of them. For everyone else, this is already standard practice)

EDIT: I forgot (!) to add: when it works, for the startups that use it sparingly, and for the *minority* that are well-suited to it, it works fine. But the current trend is for *everyone* to try it – and that’s where the failure lies. “When all you have is a hammer…”

What are we talking about?

Startups today are advised to build a micro-website with just 1-3 pages that gathers people’s email addresses and does nothing else. This is supposed to show “traction” (in the number of emails captured) and “early lead generation” (by creating a pre-made mailing list of potential customers you can later approach), as well as “idea/product feedback from potential customers” (soliciting opinions from these people by emailing them and trying-out your ideas on a fresh audience – BEFORE spending the money to make the product).

I can’t remember where I first saw this, but its been promoted by a number of major VC’s on their blogs and tweets, and it’s generally seen as a sign that a startup is hip and modern and knows its shit. From memory, it’s been popularized too by things like Y Combinator, Seedcamp, etc – the places that up-and-coming startups go to learn “how to be better at being a startup”.

The importance of courting Early Adopters

First para of wikipedia’s summary on what is an Early Adopter?

Typically this will be a customer who, in addition to using the vendor’s product or technology, will also provide considerable and candid feedback to help the vendor refine its future product releases, as well as the associated means of distribution, service, and support.

Why do we care about these people? Because we certainly do care; we care very much. Startups pore vast amounts of energy into wooing this crowd.

In this context, there’s several valuable uses of these people (

  1. They’re customers: they’ll pay us
  2. They’re “easy sell”: by their nature, and their needs, they’ll buy the product with only a small amount of urging
  3. They’re trendstters: they will do considerable amounts of marketing *on our behalf*, unasked-for, and unpaid
  4. They’re vocal on feedback: they give us huge amounts of valuable insight into what’s good and bad about our product, and what we could/should/mustn’t change about it. Ditto for pricing. Ditto for marketing. Everything, really – they’re like the world’s most friendly and hard-working investor, giving the most honest feedback about the company’s products every single day

Three things on that list shine brightly, and are where old-style startups haven’t caught up yet: these people massively reduce the startup’s SALES and MARKETING costs. A small, lean startup doesn’t yet have the cash to hire a sales team. Nor a marketing team. Also, the founders usually don’t *quite* know what it is they’re selling, or how best to describe it.

These early adopters make SALES EASY, they do FREE MARKETING, and they ADVISE ON WRITING A BETTER SALES MESSAGE. Wow. Awesome!

When Early Adopters Turn Bad

Let’s look at the *second* para of Wikipedia’s description:

The relationship is synergistic, with the customer having early (and sometimes unique, or at least uniquely early) access to an advantageous new product or technology.

i.e. for all that FREE juicy goodness your Early Adopters are giving you, you’re expected (usually: required) to give back, in spades. Usually what you give back is worth more in cash than what you receive – but it’s all about timing. The cash “cost” to you is due in the future, in the long-term product discounts, etc. Whereas the cash “benefit” to you is accrued in the present, in the form of increased sales *today*. And cashflow is the thin that tends to kill startups, so this is hugely valuable for you.

And – unfortunately – these “beta” websites tend to completely ignore the “give back” part of the relationship.

Here’s the problem: if you piss-off the visitors to that micro-site, you generate *disproportionately* large hatred of your company, your team, and your product. Just as an Early Adopter is inclined to tell everyone how wonderful your product is (even though it doesn’t work yet, and they’ve only got a partial version) … they’ll equally tell everyone how terrible your product is (even though it’s not finished, and they’ve only got partial info).

These people don’t conveniently sit around waiting to SERVE YOUR STARTUP … no, they’re people with reputations of their own, with thoughts and feelings. That’s what makes them so valuable – other people trust and listen to them. And that means they’re expected/required to report the bad along with the good. Upset them at your peril.

What does a potential customer want?

When they come to your website, an Early Adopter has a rough pyramid of needs. The more convinced they are of your product – OR the more it seems to fit a problem they already know they have – the further down this list they’ll go:

  1. information
  2. a demo
  3. a service/product
  4. purchase-form

…and they’re impatient, by nature. If you convince them with your first sentence that your product is even ATTEMPTING to fix a problem that’s causing them major pain right now, they may well *immediately* run to your “pricing” link, straight from the home page.

Incidentally … in that case, here is a person TRYING TO GIVE YOU MONEY. You don’t always want their money – it might come with too many strings attached – but, generally, you probably do. You certainly want to consider it, not cut-them off mid-stride and tell them to piss off and leave you alone (which is what a lot of sites do).

It takes two to trade

But lets go back to the most basic need: information.

Someone comes to your site. Why?

You can bet that – no matter what else – they want Information. Who you are, what you’re selling, why is it useful … might they want to use/buy it for themselves?

And here is where most of these beta sites today do a full-frontal face-plant straight onto the tarmac.

Here’s what most sites do:

  1. I won’t let you see the site until you fill in a form
  2. Give me your email address
  3. I’ll show you a webpage telling you nothing, but vaguely promising to contact you “at some time in the future”
  4. The rest of my site is completely empty

This reminds me of The Pirate Code, courtesy Disney:

  1. Take what you can
  2. Give nothing in return

“Synergistic”, says Wikipedia: i.e. a trade, an equivalence: you rub my back, I rub yours.

Only … with these startups, it’s all about TAKING the customer’s info, and then sending them away empty-handed. No wonder a lot of visitors come away with a vague sense of having just been scammed – this is exactly how most con-artists work!

Why? Why, for the love of all that is good?

Not every startup is created equal; if the founder of Twitter, or Facebook, or Google, or … etc … choose to start a new startup now, with a new product, then you can be sure thousands of people will beat a path to their door just on spec of who the founder is. They don’t know what it will be, but they know they want in – if only for the bragging rights to say “First!”.

To a lesser extent, there are startups whose product approaches a need so great, and so tightly defined, and so cutting-edge … that customers will again come beating down the door IRRESPECTIVE of any sense of rationality or sense.

But, for most startups, that’s not the case.

For most startups, if you throw up a “gathering email addresses TRUST ME I’M NOT A PORN-IN-YOUR-INBOX SITE REALLY”, it’s not so simple.

For most starutps, who then use that landing page as *the main funnel for all outside contact*, this is a disaster.

For instance, last week I met a startup co-founder who gave me his business card. Only it wasn’t his card – when I followed the web-address, it proved to direct straight to the funnel for gathering email addresses. Ironically, the site didn’t even have contact info. The founders had linked to their twitter profiles.

(and the main founder had then back-linked his Twitter profile to this funnel site! Way to go, idiot: now there’s literally no way of contacting you directly. I have to @reply you on Twitter and “hope” that you will be gracious enough to a) bother to check your @-replies (since Twitter doesn’t inform you automatically) and b) avoid irritating my own followers with meaningless private messages I had to send to you in public)

Startups: how NOT to write your website sales pages

If your startup sells stuff via the internet (you have an online product, service, web-app, etc), this may be the single most important thing to get right (assuming your core idea, team, etc has inherent merit). And yet so many companies spend so much money doing it so wrong.

Why are modern software companies so bad at selling software? Today I was looking at Scrum tools (or Agile if you prefer), and I was struck by how hopeless some of their websites are. With some of these sites, I am sure that I could increase the sales of most of these companies by hundreds or thousands a year, just through basic principles of sales.

(and, obviously, HOWEVER you design your sales page, you should be using A/B testing to increase sales, conversion, etc. But A/B testing is no panacea: you still need the creativity and understanding to make the “big leaps” yourself)

Example: VersionOne

I’m going to pull out one example (by accident, the first I came across). Many others are much the same.
VersionOne.com

Before we go further, let me be clear what “kind” of customer I am. I’m currently looking for solutions for two commercial setups. One is for tiny projects on a case-by-case basis. This would be 5-seat licenses (worth up to $3000 at VersionOne’s current prices). The other is for a company-wide purchase of up to 30 licenses per annum (worth up to $15,000).

But, at the same time, my last full time job was running development for a large development studio. I was the primary reviewer and purchase-maker for software tools that were 50-person per annum immediately, and meant a commitment of up to 150 within 3 years. I’ve done a *lot* of this purchase-review process, on a lot of software.

My negative reactions to VersionOne’s sales are fairly consistent across the 3 profiles (although the reasons behind that are complex)

Landing page, from Google: the “don’t ask questions, you’re too stupid, just buy instead”, and “we love ourselves, we’re awesome” page

Page: http://pm.versionone.com/Trial_ScrumProjects.html?c-aws=trs&gr-tss&v-029abt&gclid=CNGTgsrEoaICFUcA4wod82WOwg

This has a *concealed* URL, so it pretends to be the front page, but actually lies, and redirects you to this page instead:

Ont this page, your website states it’s a commercial product, yet REFUSES to answer the single most important question: how much does this cost?

There aren’t even any LINKS to finding out about the product. It’s just “buy our product, or piss off”.

This page serves one purpose: lock the customer into a product they don’t want. You are “not allowed” to know the cost, you are only “allowed” to “signup now for a 30-day trial” – you have to commit yourself, and they’ll sting you with a price later, when you have no choice.

Word of advice: merely making something “free, for a few minutes, then I charge you” does NOT lower the customer’s barriers to purchase. For an ultra-long-term product like Project Management tools, it often has the *reverse* effect. The MINIMUM trial for a PM tool is “one project”. Most projects – using new tools – will need several months; 2 week to learn the tool, 10 weeks to run + launch + finish the project. The customer knows this; they know that a “30 day trial” is completely dishonest.

So, we use the navbar, and head to the “Product” page:

Product page: the “Want more info? Oh no you don’t! You’re too stupid, you’re just a customer!”

Page: http://www.versionone.com/Product/

I’ll sum up the stupidity and smug self-satisfied attitude of the person who wrote this page with just one quote, their final bullet point in the top-section:

“Accelerate agile adoption”

[hey! Look at that! I'm so clever - three words all beginning with "a"! They're guaranteed to buy now! I'm so sharp, sometimes I cut myself]

Sigh. Ignoring the “infographic” which has been screen-captured with a font-size of 2pts (i.e. literally physically impossible to read), we try to do something useful with this page: review the product (we’ve given up on pricing, for now – they obviously don’t wany anyone to buy the product, but maybe the product is so good we can force our way past that?)

Product page, part 2: the “we don’t trust you, we’ll spam you with marketing crap”

Page: http://www.versionone.com/Product/

(below the infographic)

Just look at that page. It has literally zero information about the product, yet it’s the “product” page.

Instead, it has paragraphs of marketing crap. There’s no other term for it; let’s look at the first example.

Bullet-point: “Product Planning”

What does this mean? Absolutely nothing. BY DEFINITION, this is a whole website devoted to project-management-planning software used on projects that create products. Why do you repeat this, in such a childish gross genealization, as if it’s a “feature”?

Ah, but … actually, that’s not necessarily true. Scrum is often used on projects that are NOT generating a Product.

So, in fact, this lazy marketing title has already told some of the target-customers: “Don’t use our product. Go away”.

Let’s look at the text underneath the bullet:

“Plan and manage your requirements, epics, stories, and goals across multiple projects, products and teams.”

What is this – Dictionary.com? Why are you patronising me by telling me what you think “Product Planning” means, as an abstract concept? What kind of project manager – or engineer – is so stupid as to not know what it is they do on a day to day basis, and to feel happy that you’re telling them?

I WANT TO BUY YOUR SOFTWARE, NOT LISTEN TO YOUR PHILOSOPHICAL DISCOURSE.

I suspect that the weak marketing person who wrote this copy thought it “looked nicer” to put features into a long sentence. Let’s look at that sentence, from a copy-writing perspective. It has eight separate phrases. EIGHT. The average sentence has 2-4. Concise sentences have 1-2. Waffle has 5 or more. This is a sales page; every sentence should be no more than 3 phrases. EIGHT! NO-ONE is going to pull useful information from that sentence.

Onto another problem with this page, for the customer who comes here: No screenshots. Anywhere.

OK. Take a deep breath. This is a company that, so far:
– wants to deceive us into locking-in to their product
– patronises us intensely
– works hard to hide features (check that “unreadable” infographic)

…but let’s put all that to one side, and drill down into the links from the Product page.

Features (1 of 8): “You can look, but don’t touch AND DON’T LOOK CLOSELY!”

Page: http://www.versionone.com/Product/Product_Planning.asp

Finally, if you follow one of the links from this page, you get to a page that contains some actual, concrete, info about the product. There’s even some screenshots!

Oh. BUT. You are “not allowed” to actually see the screenshots. They’ve been deliberately blurred-out a low-resolution, so that text is literally unreadable and there is NO WAY to judge the product. (NB: this is *after* you’ve clicked on the almost-full-size thumbnails in the page). They are then further blurred (to no purpose except to fit the Web Designer’s fetish for popup images) and embedded in the page.

Overall impression: this company knows it’s own product is not fit for purpose, and will do anything to stop the customer from finding that out until AFTER they’ve paid their money. Whatever you do DO NOT BUY VersionOne’s project-management software.

Final thoughts: First one is free

A decent usability person – or a really good web designer – would make huge sweeping changes to that site.

A flippant starter, something I’d personally try immediately (today): move the “see it; drive it; try it” buttons that hide in top-right of the site to CENTER STAGE, both on the Product page and the Google Landing page.

AND … I’d add a fourth button: “Buy it”.

What? There’s no “buy” link on this site? Yep. I think that eloquently sums up what a poor job this site does of MAKING MONEY FOR THE COMPANY.

(NB: and I *absolutely* would instigate A/B tests to prove – day by day, hour by hour – that my changes were having a noticeable effect on increasing sales to the site. If you don’t do that, then you’re just pissing into the wind. You have no idea, afterwards, whether your changes “worked”. See Sergio Zyman‘s book for more…)

Where do these terrible sites come from?

I believe that these often-amateurish websites come from one of two sources (possibly both):

1. Expensive “Web Design” agency that only cared about making it “beautiful” without understanding a single thing about the reality of sales. In the example I run through below, dead giveaways include: Popup images that are only 15% larger than the thumbnails that trigger them; grey-on-white text; very small font-sizes. All those are characteristic of visual designers who know nothing about product sales.

2. A marketing team that’s worked for big corporates (multinational, public companies) and thinks that the most important thing in their job is to “clone” the website of “a real company – you know, like Microsoft”, and pretend to “be like the big boys”. They have no idea why those websites look the way they do, and don’t bother to ask themselves; they just blindly clone it. In the example below, dead giveaways include: 12 pages to describe a simple product where 3 would have been more than sufficient; hiding information at all costs; never committing to a list of features; using “freeform text” instead of simple “bullet points” to describe the product.

“Developers outsource publishing to publishers”

Nicholas Lovell suggests it here:

Think about it. It’s your baby, your dream, your idea.

My own way of describing this is:

  • Who owns the IP? (dev, initially)
  • Who invented the IP? (dev)
  • Who – therefore – understands *why* the IP exists, *how* it works, *why* it’s “good”? (dev)
  • Who cares most about the IP? (dev)
  • Who would you trust most to pour their heart into making the most of the IP? (?)
  • …and do so without destroying the bits that made it good and unique in the first place? (?)

Years of publishing have made people come to assume the answer to the last questions is “the publisher” without even thinking about it. It took me very little time working in actual publishers to see first-hand how wrong that is as an answer – in most publishers, most of the staff don’t even play games. At all. They couldn’t care less about the IP’s they are supposedly shepherding and exploiting.

When you speak to people who know nothing about the games industry, they invariably answer “the developer”, as this is the natural answer: the person who invented and nurtured the answer is bound to care more about it, and work harder for it, than anyone else.

These days, now that I believe in hiring on enthusiasm instead of competence, that’s also the answer that will tend to maximize “success” / revenue.

Valete, Publishing industry!