Some weeks ago, we needed to hire a designer —not a web designer— for a job. We had a list of names with good references and recomendations from other people. As expected, we searched for them on Google.
Surprisingly, from a total of ten, only two had a web page. For others, Google search results revealed little more than their personal Facebook page. In one case, you could see some cute pictures of her family’s vacation to Disney World, but no information on how to contact them professionally. Another one LinkedIn’s profile was almost empty.
If you run a personal business or are a freelancer, here is a list of basic things you should do if you take it seriously:
(Disclaimer: none of the following are affiliate links, and I am not related to any of the companies although I use some of the services mentioned.)
1. Get a domain name for your business
Domains are cheap ($15/year for a .com domain). If you are a freelancer, see if it makes sense to register your own name.
If you live in Perú (where I live), .pe domain names are registered by punto.pe. They are not cheap (around $44/year, compared to around $15/year for a .com domain), but they are the only registrars in Peru.
The upside with a .pe domain is that you can probably find many more names available than .com domains.
2. Consider having a webpage
You need a webpage to put information about your business, your background, and your portfolio of clients if it is relevant to your business. What you do, why you do, how you do it… This is what people wil find when they google for your business, for services related to it, or for your name.
Like your mail, this webpage must be under your business domain name, not under a free service like tumblr or the free tier of Wordpress.
Some people ask me if I know a ‘programmer’ who can help them build their website, and a good hosting service. Don’t do this. Webpages for small to medium businesses is a problem has already been already solved by companies like SquareSpace.
For $96 a year, SquareSpace offers a simple interface for building a professional-looking webpage, with most of the funcionality you would expect. If this is over your budget, then at least create a Facebook Page sepparated from your personal profile. Unless you are freelancing, have a LinkedIn Page exclusively for your business.
3. Use an email address under your business domain
Get an email for your business domain name and use it in your business cards and everywhere business related. That is, don’t print firstname.lastname@example.org, but use email@example.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Google used to offer up to 10 mails for free for custom domains via Google Apps. They don’t anymore. But there are alternatives. Some registrars like hover.com offer a ‘forward only’ email address for domains registered with them for a small fee. (That is, all mail that arrives to email@example.com is automatically forwarded to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
If you are willing to pay for a professional mail service, you can pay $5/month for Google Apps for email and other services. A good alternative is fastmail.fm.
You should answer mail sent to your business address within one business day.
Having a professional-looking presence on the Internet has become very affordable. If you have an excellent product or service, there is no excuse for giving a poor first impression to your customers.
Professionals, unlike amateurs, spend their time carefully. They prioritize because they know they can’t put their best effort on everything. Businesses put it like this: focus on the 20% that makes 80% of your profit.
If you are serious about your work, track how you spend your time, at least for a week. Review your data, identify your leaks, and then decide what you are not going to do.
I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody1. Deciding what you won’t do is the hardest part, because it not only implies saying no to yourself, but to other people’s expectations.
Among other things, he reflects about how Apple’s device-centric approach and owning platform, devices, and services allows them to compete with high-margin products in a commoditized industry, and offer a seamless experience across Apple their devices that is unparalleled in the industry.
It’s all about control.
Another interesting reflection he makes is how Apple is improving it’s internal operational efficiency.
It’s frequent to see friends and colleagues overwhelmed by how much there is to do everyday.
A common advice you will hear is that you should spend some time thinking on how to manage your time, and learn to manage it better. Easy, right? It’s not easy. It seems that our brains are wired for things that require immediate attention, and shy from more abstract matters. But it needs to be done.
Do you need a to-do list? Not necessarily. In an 2006 interview with CNN’s Money about how he works, Bill Gates said he is not big on to-do lists. And he gets an awful lot of work done. What you need is to device a system that works for you. Try a methodology and tweak it until it works for you.
The goal is not to become proficient at managing your to-dos list or keeping your email inbox tamed. Efficiency, personal productivity, time management… are not the goals, but tools. The goal is to do what’s important over what is urgent, to do quality work instead of just a lot of work. Get to the point where you can focus in doing what’s important for you.
In pasts months, a number of startups have closed1. These companies raised money, launched good products, gained attention from the press… and then closed. It’s not my intention to judge the decisions the founders of these startups made. Their closing is sad news. But… what happened? Even with the limited information available publicly, there are some lessons that can be learned by trying to understand the business models of some of them.
Know your operating costs
Knowing your contribution margin —the selling price minus the variable costs per unit— is important, because if your contribution margin is negative, then you are selling at a marginal loss. The more customers you get, the more money you loose.
Everpix was a great online photo archiving and organizing service. They had nailed a problem worth solving. They also had an excellent team. Everpix got very positive reviews, the service was really good. Their user base was growing.
These graphs were published in 2013:
Everpix closed doors on November 2013.
Using Everpix’s own data, which they made public2, Ivan Plenty offers an in-depth analysis of Everpix’s operating costs. After converting Everpix’s-provided operational to an accrual-based revenue3, he concludes that Everpix’s operating income is negative, even before amortizing fixed costs. Contrary to what the Everpix team thought4, their main problem was not growth5. They were selling a paid product at a marginal loss.
If you raise money, use it for assets that generate money
“Editorially was a collaborative writing and editing platform designed to support and encourage the writing process. It featured a plain-text editor, a document version system, notes and activity feeds, discussion threads, and more.”6
Editorially has failed to attract enough users to be sustainable, and we cannot honestly say we have reason to expect that to change.
That is, they had spent their initial funding and were not going for a second round of investment.
We thought of that, and in fact, it was always our plan to do so. But Editorially is a sophisticated application that requires a team of engineers to maintain and develop. Even if all of our users paid up, it wouldn’t be enough.
It would be mean to say now that Editorially should have charged its users from the start or at least adopted the fremium model. (That is, have a free tier and one or more paid tiers with premium features.) They made a decision on raising a certain number of users before charging, and how they would reach break even, and it deserves respect.
But they spend their money developing a product that offered great value for their customers, but no revenue for the company. As a general principle, you should only raise money to get or build assets that generate money. You should never raise money to pay salaries, unless those salaries are directly generating money.
Build a simple financial model early on, to see the flaws in your business model. If your users are your customers, charge them for your service, or at least adopt a freemium model.
Offering a service for free can make sense
On July 13, 2012, after a post on the founder’s blog titled What Twitter could have been, App.net launched as a Twitter replacement. Meant to be sustainable from the start, it started as a paid-only service. Free accounts were added later, but they were invite-only and limited in functionality.
The Value Proposition of a social network like Twitter is deliverable only if they have a significant number of users. Because Twitter is extremely successful and free, there is very little incentive for users to migrate to a new network. You can’t start a Twitter clone today with just a small user-base and grow from there. You need to offer something different and valuable. (That’s what services like SnapChat and Secret are doing.) Also, super-fast user growth is needed, and charging for the service certainly hinders that.
Having Product/Market fit is not enough, you need a sustainable business model
A business model is a scalable, repeatable process that your organization follows to create value that someone else is willing to pay for. Having a Product/Market fit is an essential part of any business model, but it is not enough. As Seth Godin notes, the fact that you are going to work hard is irrelevant. The fact that you have risked everything is irrelevant. To be sustainable… you need a sustainable business model.
Some startups closing their doors are Everpix, Editorially, Springpad, Readmill, Bloom.fm… ↩
This means you can recognize revenue not when your customer pays but when you render the service or sell the product. For example, if a customer pre-pays for a yearly subscription of Everpix, you recognize as revenue only 1/12 of the amount each month (and not the complete amount the moment he pays). Otherwise, you’ll end ‘using up’ in advance the money you will need to pay in the following months for the user-generated expenses. ↩
cfr High-Level Metrics: “At the time of its shudown announcement, the Everpix platform [was] generating subscription sales of $40,000/month during the last 3 months (i.e. enough money to cover variable costs, but not the fixed costs of the business). “ ↩
You don’t delegate tasks, you delegate responsibility. (…) Delegation requires that you transfer the full emotional responsibility to get something done.
If a company is in difficulty and the entrepreneur is the only one having sleepless nights, then the entrepreneur has a delegation problem.
If you say I have problems delegating, I often say No, you don’t. You have problems attracting “A” players.
Management is not delegation. Management is a useful thing, but it is not scalable in the way delegation is. A manager keeps a list of things to follow up on from other people —they have passed the task, but remain emotionally responsible for the work getting done. (…) The bottleneck of leadership is emotional responsibility. (…) It doesn’t matter who does the work, it matters who owns the emotional liability for the work.
Do not delegate to people who don’t take notes. (…) Do not delegate to people without personal discipline and order.
What the author doesn’t consider however, is that most of the time one can only choose a small portion of his or her team. What can you do? Help others develop their skills, help them increase their effectiveness and responsibility. If you don’t, you will end up maybe assigning tasks to your reports —managing them— but keeping all the emotional responsibility for yourself, no to mention the consequent follow up effort. Your work won’t scale.
So, if only for the sake of effectiveness —a low grade motivator, but nonetheless a valid one—, the leader is obligued to help those around her.
The ideas are transcribed almost textually from Conor Neils’s article. ↩
British novelist, essayist and short story writer Zadie Smith accepted the 2014 Moth Award at the annual Moth Ball Gala in NYC. A quote from her remarks:
I don’t make up marvelous travels. I only try to express —as clearly as possible— the thoughts and feelings many people have. (…) when I sit down with these subjects my aim is clarity. I’m really trying to clear some of the muddle from my own brain —my brain being a very muddled place indeed. Sometimes I think my whole professional life has been based on this hunch I had, early on, that many people feel just as muddled as I do, and might be happy to tag along with me on this search for clarity, for precision. I love that aspect of writing. Nothing makes me happier than to hear a reader say: that’s just what I’ve always felt, but you said it clearly. I feel then that I’ve achieved something useful.
Steve Blank talks about innovation at ESADE’s Business School Commencement Speech. Worth reading if you are interested in innovation and how to innovate inside companies.
So how does a company act like a startup in search of new business models while still continuing to successfully execute.
First, management must understand that innovation happens not by exception but is integral to all parts of the firm. If they don’t, then the management team has simply become caretakers of the founders’ legacy. This never ends well.
Second and maybe the most difficult is the recognition that innovation is chaotic, messy and uncertain. Not everything will work out, but failure in innovation is not cause for firing but for learning. Managers need radically different tools to control and measure innovation. A company needs innovation policies, innovation processes and innovation incentives to match those it already has for execution. These will enable firms to embrace innovation by design not by exception.
Third, smart companies manage an innovation portfolio where they can pursue potential disruption in a variety of ways.