A business cofounder’s dilemma: learn to code, outsource it, find a cofounder.

Got an email recently from a guy named Scott Balster. He had pinged me on Twitter earlier asking if he could pick my brain about something. [1] I agreed and here’s what he sent me:

I am building a concept called Employtown (www.employtown.com ) where basically the premise is to give job seekers a platform to build a digital billboard of themselves, promote their search among their networks, and receive bids from employers.

I have done some testing and with the signups I have received from the landing page and want to move forward. My hold up is that I have a limited technical background (have used Joomla and other open source programs). Basically, my options are:

  1. I can learn to program to build it myself in phases.

  2. I have a developer who can build it for 10-12K (the complete spec that I laid out)

  3. Or find a technical co-founder who wants to work on the project.

  4. Find a developer who can build it in stages and then test the features and user metrics to know when to adjust.

What are your thoughts in this situation?

I’m glad Scott emailed me. Personally, I don’t find the idea super compelling, but I’ve learned not to get too hung up about initial startup ideas, because they usually change. Plus he is a business cofounder and thus holds a special place in my heart. I spend a lot of time on HN and while the community is great, they tend to enjoy ragging on non-technical people who want to start companies. Though perhaps they just need to be approached the right way.

I want to help Scott – and I think his challenge is more than just how best to build the product, but in fact are three-fold:

1) Customer traction. You said you have some signups. How many? Are people lining out the door to get this? How do you know if this product is what people really want? [I shared with him a copy of The Entrepreneur's Guide to Customer Development, which readers should really just go ahead and get it. Great read]. I know you didn’t ask for this and perhaps I’m not seeing the vision, but I don’t know if online billboards are going to resonate with hiring managers. Getting proof of customer desire (not just from jobseekers, but HR people) is key.

2) Technical ability. You don’t know how to build what you want to make right now and you’re exploring different ways to do it. This ties very closely to the first point, customer traction, because if you build something no one wants, everyone is frustrated and time is wasted. I would encourage you to outsource the barest MVP – saves money, time and easier to pivot. See a great post by Derek Sivers, founder of CDBaby called “How to hire a programmer to make your ideas happen“. After you build a prototype, use it to get feedback and interest in the product – then you’ll be in a better position to find a real technical cofounder, which I think is critical to building a successful tech startup.

3) Money. It seems like you have enough money to fund some development, but ultimately to really build this out, unless you have a bootstrapped model, you’ll need additional funding. Having traction and a strong technical cofounder will help a lot with garnering the bigger dollars you’ll need to truly build this out. (As will connections to angels and VCs.

There are few things worse that chasing an idea, spending a lot of time and money to build something, and then seeing it go nowhere. That’s why it’s so important to figure out if you’re building something people want – before you go out and kill yourself trying to make it happen. Once you know people want what you’re going to make, it becomes easier to find someone to build it and to raise money (or earn it through product sales) which will help you continue forward.

Continue reading…

How Gymnastics Taught Me to Man Up, Get Tough and Crush Fear

This is a three part series on what gymnastics taught me about acquiring and mastering skills, overcoming fear and delivering clutch performances.

Kovacs highbar you afraid

I think most gymnasts consider pain and fear our twin companions. I certainly did. Gymnastics requires that athletes constantly challenge themselves to do more, much more. Routines that were performed in the Olympics in 2000 are being done by 15 year-olds in 2011. To learn new skills, you have to put yourself in scary situations.

One of the most important characteristics of a great gymnast is the ability to overcome fear and do what needs to be done. The stakes are higher: if you mess up a layup or a serve, not much is going to happen If you mess up on a Kovacs (the skill pictured above and in the video below) you could hit your face or slam your chest into a metal bar. And trust me, that does not feel good.

Ultimately, fear is about a mismatch in your mind between what you are capable of and what the environment demands of you. So to reduce fear, you have to address each of the elements – the risk of the environment, your capabilities and your mindset.

Reduce Risk

Fear usually isn’t a bad thing. It’s your brains way of telling you that it thinks you are in danger – that you risking bodily harm. And when you’re just starting to learn a new skill – your brain is probably right!

So the key here is to reduce risk – both perceived and actual – and prevent that harm from befalling you.

- Getting Spotted – this is when your coach uses his hands to support, hold, push and pull you through the skill. You’re lacking the speed, agility or power to complete the move on your own, so he helps you with the last mile. See this video as an example.

- Protective Surfaces - a big part of your fear is that you’re going to eat it and slam into the equipment in the wrong way and hurt yourself. Often your coach or teammate can slide a mat, or somehow pad/soften the area that could otherwise really hurt. Of course this doesn’t always work.



(Video: Kovacs Crash. From the video info: “Me eating it hahahah it didnt hurt but it was pretty scary”. Turn down the sound .. there’s a loud rock song playing in the background)

Takeaway:

So if you’re scared of something – find ways to reduce your risk. Are you afraid to talk to pitch an investor? Start by pitching your rich uncle. He’s less intimidating and fewer bad things will happen if you “blow it”. If you’re scared to do your routine of jokes at Open Mic night at your local bar, start by doing a few jokes at your next house party. Find ways to simulate the thing you’re scared of, but in a place where you feel more comfortable / safe.

Increase Your Capacity

After reducing the danger of the external environment, the next step is to build up your own capacity – to both do the skill and to absorb the consequences of screwing it up.

Get Better: This is generally an issue of skill acquisition. Develop your fundamentals, break the skill down into parts, practice deliberately and visualize.

Get Tougher: Have you noticed that most gymnasts are ripped? Our muscles help us perform these crazy hard skills – and also protect us when we crash. Gymnasts are also very familiar with pain. When you know you can take a beating and bounce back then things become less scary. Notice how Alexy just walks off after brutally slamming his shins on the metal bar and falling onto his head.




Video: alexy bilozertchev high bar accident

Takeaway:

So if you are afraid of something, get better at it and build your tolerance for facing what it is you fear (rejection, pain, failure). Are you afraid of talking to women at bars? Practice. Get good at making interesting conversation with strangers. Do rejection therapy and toughen yourself up so that rejections don’t hurt you as much. Are you scared to ask your boss for a raise? Kick serious ass at work and make the raise a no brainer. Build up a savings account and a great reputation so when you tell him “More or I’m gone” you can mean it.

Man Up and Just Do It

The final thing I learned about overcoming fear is that you’ve got to man up and just do it. It works like this:

You do the drills. You practice with mats. You do the conditioning. You get spotted. And one day your coach steps back and says: “Ok, this one on your own.”

Even if you know you’re ready, you know you can do it and you know you can safely handle a mistake, you can still feel paralyzed with fear. One technique that works:

Have fun with it. Feel the fear, laugh, and then go do it.

Fear tightens you up. It makes you stiff. By taking the whole situation lightly and having fun with it, you get yourself limber, loose and flexible – and much more likely to make it, or recover from a setback. One person who laughs in the face of fear was Rico, a Stanford alumni.

In this video he has not been training gymnastics seriously for over 3 years and does a full twisting kovacs and grabs with ONE HAND. This is nuts – no one does one arm grabs on purpose. He did it by accident the year before and then did it INTENTIONALLY that time. I was at this meet, it was incredible.

(Video: Kolman catch with one arm – Rico Andrade

Takeaway:

Once you’ve prepared adequately for the thing you’re afraid of, created an environment where the risk was controlled and built up your toughness and resilience so you can handle a mistake, then the only thing left to do is go for it. Man up. If you feel yourself tightening up, find something about the situation to laugh at. If you can see the situation as fun, exciting and interesting, you will no longer be afraid. Just go for it!


Well, that’s what gymnastics taught me about overcoming fear. Next week I’ll do my final post on what I learned about delivering clutch performances.

Badass Wisdom from Our Founding Fathers (quotes)

Never, ever, for the rest of your careers, hire someone who had a GPA of 4.0. Ever. Because the definition of a 4.0 is that this person buys the act; they don’t screw around. Tommy Jefferson, Al Hamilton, and Georgie Washington, they were screwing around. This was a dinky doo-dippy country and they said, let’s go after that George dude. Now that was not smart. If they had 4.0 grade point averages, they would not have started this revolution.

Tom Peters, author of the best-selling book The Search for Excellence

We tend to think of the Founding Fathers as being wise and visionary men; we forget that they were once young guys with crazy and grand ambitions who, through great audacity, relentless execution and a good fortune, were able to build the greatest startup in the world: The United States of America.

Check out some of these bad ass quotes from our Founding Fathers:

George Washington: ”Ninety-nine percent of the failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses.”

Ben Franklin: ”Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

John Quincy Adams: ”Courage and perseverance have a magical talisman, before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish into air.”

Who are your favorite Founding Fathers and what wisdom have you learned from them? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section!

Writing More (a new personal challenge)

Colored pencils

I have a new challenge: I’m going to blog five days a week, Monday through Friday, for the next four weeks.

Why?

Three reasons:

1) I want to produce more high quality content, and Sebastian Marshall and others have convinced me that writing more will help me do that

2) I want to have more influence and reach as a blogger and data from Technorati and other sources suggests that blogging more will help me do that.

3) If rejection therapy has taught me anything, it is that embarking on personal challenges can be fun and bring interesting things to my life

A bit more on the first two poinst:

More High Quality

In Sebastian Marshall’s post “How do I write so much, you ask? Well, glad you asked” he talks about the law of Equal Odds which he basically interprets as meaning “a creator can’t entirely control the quality of their output. In order to do high impact excellent work, you have to do a lot of work, which includes low impact not excellent work.”

In order to produce better stuff, it’s important to produce more stuff.

This is similar to a story from the book Art & Fear where a pottery class was divided into two groups. Group A would get a grade for the semester based on a single piece of pottery, while Group B would get a grade based solely on the weight of the pottery they had made (50 lbs got you an A, 40 lbs got you a B, etc). Guess which group produced the best work? (Read the story to find out..)

More Influence

I found a study that was originally published by Technorati back in 2006 (which is like eons ago in Internet time, so maybe the conclusions are no longer valid?) but basically they show a correlation between increased blog authority (based on the number of other blogs linking to the authoritative blog) and frequency of posting. Here’s what they had to say about the “very High Authority Group” which had over 500 blogs linking to each one over the last 6 months:

Bloggers of this type have been at it longer – a year and a half on average – and post nearly twice a day, an increase in posting volume of over 100% from the previous group.”

Consistently producing content can be good for traffic. Another quick data point can be found from an articled called “How to Punch Through Concrete Walls” by Matt Ackerson here he talks about the law of consistency (not the same as persistence). The money quote here: “For example, for 7 weeks now I’ve been writing one article every single weekday for my company’s blog on PetoVera.com. Traffic has increased over 350% during that time.”

I’m sold. =)

My Game Plan

So I’m starting today – this my first post of the series. My plan is to create a schedule:

  • Monday - Quote Day. I’ll post a quote like this one on fame and obscurity, or this Bruce Lee quote on surpassing limits.
  • Tuesday - Regular Post Day. I’ll post a full-length (300-500 word) article. No particular topic focus for now.
  • Wednesday – Video Day. I’ll post a video like this HALO trailer or my Europe trip video.
  • Thursday - Regular Post Day. I’ll post another full-length article.
  • Friday – Link Roundup + Challenge Reflection. I’ll post five cool links to things I encountered that week, and reflect on how the challenge is going.

I’ll try to schedule all the quotes and all the videos this weekend for the next four weeks, then write the articles on the weekend, so during the week, all I’ll have to do is create the link roundup, which isn’t too bad.

If you’ve got any ideas or comments or feedback on my plans or what you’d like to see me write about, I’m all ears. It’ll likely be a mix of startup, gymnastics, leadership and other ass-kicking stuff.

Link Roundup

So since it’s Friday, I figure I should go ahead and post my first link roundup.

1) Penolope’s Guide to Blogging – My dad recently emailed me and told me he was ready to start blogging on the site I had registered for him over a year ago. This is one of the posts I stumbled upon. Very handy and filled with interesting and useful ideas.

2) How to Negotiate Your Cable and Phone Bill and Save Thousands – I recently tried to do this and the article was a great resource. It gives you step by step instructions on who to ask for and what to say. Check it out.

3) 48 Laws of Power (summary) – fresh off my quote from the book, The 48 Laws of Power, I wanted to share this page which succinctly lists all 48 laws. The book is super long so this post is helpful in reminding you what the key points were.

4) What are some stupid things smart people do? – This is a post on Quora, which is filled with all sorts of valuable information. This one is a good to check in with – I assume my readers here are intelligent folks. We have certain follies to watch out for.

5) How We Made $1M for SEOMoz – this a detailed case study from a marketing firm the focuses on conversion rates an explains the step-by-step way they studied, built and tested a brand new landing page which brought in tons of new revenue for SEOMoz.