Startup Ideas I’ve Had

Startup ideas are a dime a dozen.  I guess I’ve generated about a nickel in value in over 10 years of thinking about it.  I’m still thinking about implementing one of these, but I’ve been having a hard time getting really behind one of them enough to start detailed work on one.  The reason I publish these publicly, is because I believe the idea is worth nothing without the execution. If you can take the idea and do well with it, then more power to you.  I obviously can’t implement all 6 of these, but if you’re reading this and you’re interested in working on them, contact me.

  1. Wechooselunch.com
    • Go to lunch every day?  Got a group of people you like to go with, but picking the place is always a huge hassle?  Easy, we pick a random location within a small radius of where you work every day.
    • Lots of other ideas to go with it, add a scheduling feature to upload free/busy data so you can schedule around meetings, randomly rotate your lunch crew, do matching with interested parties, etc.
  2. Point of Sale – Webified
    • Shocking, I used to work for a POS software vendor and the idea of reinventing it from scratch with modern technology is appealing
    • This is a crowded space, with 25 years of entrenched players who have kept it pretty well out of the web era, somehow.  A SaaS model is ripe to be successful.
    • Unfortunately, horizontal software targeting brick and mortar is difficult to market, and getting people through the virtual “front-door” will be difficult, especially as conservative as retailers generally are (“What happens if the Internet goes down?”).  Unlike most web startups, distribution will be key.  A strong VAR channel will be a must here.
  3. Enterprise Search, Email Seeded
    • Enterprise search isn’t something you read about much anymore.  It’s not because Google has owned the market and it’s a no-brainer, it’s because it doesn’t really work and nobody wants to really be in the space anymore.  Relevancy is a huge issue internal to Enterprises because unlike the Internet where relevancy is based at a fundamental level based on how many references (links) there are to a given set of content, Enterprises don’t generally generate links, so tagging, keywords, other meta data becomes required to determine relevancy.  Given my earlier comments, obviously, I think there’s huge opportunity in the space.
    • The best place to farm link data in an Enterprise?  Exchange or another email repository.  I get dozens of links a day, they’re just not publically indexable.  Even better, by examining organizational structure, a link from a CEO is likely to be more relevant than a link from an individual contributor, unless that individual contributor is close to you in the organization (say not more than two degrees removed).
  4. IRC for the Web
    • Some would say Twitter has it locked up here, but I think there’s still a market for topical chat on the Web that’s real time, isn’t limited to 140 characters per message, is easy to get into, and is totally anonymous if you want it to be.  ChatRoulette shows it’s possible for it to be successful, but I think there’s a market for something that isn’t largely filled with video of people showing their penii [sic].
    • I haven’t fully baked the idea, but I think mixing membership with some type of game mechanic to allow for leveling up is a great mix, I just don’t know how to do it because I haven’t thought about it enough.
  5. Game Sharing/Scheduling Network
    • This one I just had the other day.  I’m kind of exited about it, it definitely warrants more thought.  You just bought Game X, and so did all your friends.  When are they online?  Your wife wants the TV until 9, will they still be playing?  Maybe they would be if you were online.  The ability to get a txt or a notification on an iPhone app that your friends were online playing, or maybe even text into them from your phone would be huge.  Twitter for gamers.
    • What about when you’re at the office and you’re talking about what to play that night.  Will they remember?  Maybe you can play from 8-10 and he can play from 9-11, would you stick around till 9 if you were playing by yourself?  Would you maybe not start till 9, win some wife bonus points etc, if you knew he was going to start a 9?  Game time matching for friends could be a big win.
    • Needs to be console independent.  Xfire and others probably play here for the PC, don’t know any that integrates with mobile though to notify you on the device in your pocket instead of your PC which you probably don’t have open while gaming.
  6. Enterprise Distributed Filesystem
    • I put this one here to remind myself I didn’t do nothing in 10 years of thinking about it.  I had very basic deduplication engine completed in Java, when it became obvious that even storing the metadata about unique blocks across the entire enterprise was going at least 10-20% of the total space allocated across all the distributed nodes.  Network latency was going to be a killer.  It’s a great idea, but the reason it’s never made it out of academia is the real world problems kill the idea.  Even for doing backups only (i.e., could be a write-once filesystem), it was still infeasible for a lot of reasons.  Perhaps it’s worth a revisit with things like Redis and Cassandra out there now which weren’t there a year and a half ago when I looked into it heavily.

Thoughts on Culture

Three years with barely an update, now I’m at least cranking out content on a once a week basis.  I only know of a couple of people who still read my rantings, but it feels good to express opinions after 4 years of attempting to claw my way to middle management by biting my tongue and playing nicely.  What a perfect segue into my thoughts on culture.

If virtual ink were a tradable commodity, I’m sure there’d be a playboy trading magnate who made his entire family fortune from selling virtual ink to people who like to write about what makes one company’s culture so successful versus another.  So I suppose I’m walking a well-trodden path, but after spending much time analyzing why culture can go from good to bad, there are a couple of things to do (or not do):

Hire Slow, but Make Hiring Easy

Choose your employees very carefully.  Only hire the best.  One bad apple will certainly spoil the bunch, but make it easy to bring people on.  If it takes more than 2 weeks from when the candidate is identified, after the interviews have completed, from the day they could start, your HR processes are broken and you need to fix HR.

Fire quickly

As I said earlier, a bad apple spoils the bunch.  If you have a low performer, move them out quickly.  Give them a month or two of severance, apologize for it not working out, and wish them the best with a good reference.  Just because they’re not working out at your company does not mean they will add no value anywhere.

Accountability, Accountability, Accountability

Failure happens, even at the best companies.  Adjust, move on, but hold people accountable.  This doesn’t mean your first or second failure means you should exit, it simply means if you’re not being successful then it needs to be analyzed and corrected.  Maybe you’re in the wrong seat on the bus.  Nothing frustrates your workforce more than seeing someone still in the same position, still failing, a year after it was obvious to everyone they weren’t succeeding.  Your personal relationships can be difficult to untangle from your business relationships, but the phrase “it’s not personal, it’s just business” exists for a reason.  Everyone should be measured, graded, and held responsible for the areas for which they are accountable.

“What Gets Measured Gets Managed”

Everyone’s heard this quote.  S.M.A.R.T. goals, etc.  You would think it’s a bunch of management school bullshit that they teach to people to allow them to become HR Generalists.  You would think that, until you’ve been somewhere it isn’t practiced.  The fish out of water analogy is a very graphic way of describing an organization where the rank and file are flapping around without direction.  Goals should be clear, everyone should be marching in lock step towards achieving them.  Giving your teams freedom to work on their own is awesome, in moderation.  An organization where everyone is marching to their own drum breeds frustration and malicious compliance.

Sticktuitiveness

Ok, so it’s not a word.  It conveys the point though.  Being wishy-washy, constant direction changing, and a lack of consistency will drive morale through the floor.  Nothing will demoralize a group of people who have been working hard towards a goal than to see that goal shift, morph, move, etc, on a regular basis.  This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t guide the ship, correct course, and be proactive about hitting a moving target.  However, large scale about-faces will certainly destroy productivity.

Conclusion

Most of the points were written on what not to do, but these points are very binary.  Each has two sides of the coin, the right way to function and the wrong way.  Avoid the wrong way, the right way finds itself.  Create a performance culture, foster a meritocracy, and smart and motivated people will find their way to you.  An organization full of the best people has no option but to succeed.


Sometimes Shit Tastes Fine

Amy Hoy (@amyhoy) is an old friend of mine.  We have spent untold amounts of hours on IRC together.  We’ve just recently reconnected on Twitter, where yesterday she tweeted a link to “Don’t bite the shit sandwich” on her blog.   I’m an avid follower of the startup scene, especially a number of the bullshit peddlers she warns against in her post.  I’ve been actively involved in that scene as well, and while I don’t have a huge success story, I think the mistakes I’ve made lead me to some slightly different conclusions.

First of all, I’d get a lot more viewers here if I came out and said “Eric Ries is wrong, lean startups are bad,” or even “Amy Hoy doesn’t know what the hell she’s talking about,” but I won’t.  The truth is in the middle.  I agree with several of Amy’s conclusions.  Startup methodology, like development methodology, exhibits a lot of characteristics of a religion.  I believe a lot of great startup companies fail because of the idea that they need to give a product away for free to attract eyeballs, gain critical mass, create shareholder value and then exit.  I was part of one of those.

I’ve started an Internet company and I’ve started more traditional small businesses.  What I’ll say about the small business world is that it’s steeped in reality.  No income coming through the door?  Speculative business idea?  Don’t look for help from your local bank.  More money flowing out than flowing in?  Hope you have a rich uncle to fund your “speculation.”  Most of the country works this way, real businesses, exchanging dollars for good and services from each other.

If you want freedom from Corporate America (which I’m seriously considering at this point), you can follow Amy’s model (and Charlie’s too).  I’d like to see a lot more like those two as well.  However, it’s not really new.  Plenty of people have been out selling themselves for years.  Artists, writers, consultants, you name it, there’s plenty of small businesses built around a person.

The problem with her concept of not taking funding or building to sell is if you have an idea, a great idea, a world changing idea, or maybe even just an idea that’ll fill a great niche, you’re going to get pushed into a service based model.  Maybe you have to do consulting on the side to start your business, which is a major distraction.  If you don’t, your business is going to be pushed into compromise to make revenue early and be forced early on to attempt to extract value from your idea when it may not be the time to charge for it yet.  You’re going to be forced into overhead for customer service, general administration, and key early stage development cycles are going to be consumed attempting to respond to customer demands when your vision for where the product should be going should be the right one.

There is no right answer.  If you’re looking to create a product business and not a service business though, don’t discount financing your business with an early stage capital investment.  Google doesn’t get built if Sergey and Larry turn their search engine into a product for a specific customer and lose their long term vision of indexing the world’s information.  Facebook, recent controversy aside, does not get to be a household product if Zuckerberg spends his days trying to find a way to bring in revenue three months after Facebook’s founding.  Nothing wrong with creating a brand around yourself and spending your days free from bullshit either, though.