Interview: Africa in 2013

November 12, 2013 — 2 Comments

blessing_41Recently we were talking about what smart people expect to happen with Africa in the world economy. Since I’m not African, I reached out to my friend Blessing Mpofu from South Africa. He can’t speak for the whole continent, but was willing to share his thoughts into what is really inspiring people these days.

Blessing’s response helped me understand a little bit more about how our friends in Africa are thinking.

Here’s the interview: Continue Reading…

Charles Robertson is an economist who recently wrote a book called “The Fastest Billion“. He gave a talk at TED about Africa, and laid out some pretty interesting predictions. Continue Reading…

The Wall

October 30, 2013 — 11 Comments


Last week I was on day 17 (in a row) of working one-hour+ on this search for a startup. Things were moving. Each day was fun. I think I wrote an average of 1000 words a day, not because I was trying to, but because I had a lot to say.

Then I hit a wall so hard and didn’t even see it coming.

Out of ideas. Feeling unmotivated to keep moving forward. Not sure if people would ever buy anything I produced. Seriously, the song of self doubt is on repeat. Continue Reading…

Concept: Bug Tracker App

October 21, 2013 — 7 Comments


screengrab from Fogbugz

screengrab from Fogbugz

Once a website is built, the QA process involves using a software package like Fogbugz, Zoho Bugtracker, Redmine, or another. A dedicated, trained team submits bugs through a package built to handle any kind of development – online or offline (like application development).

It seems like the QA process has roots in traditional software development where you couldn’t capture a URL, much less the state of an application or the steps to reproduce. So we are stuck capturing that info manually. Continue Reading…

Concept: Idea Platform

October 18, 2013 — 2 Comments

The Problem

So many people walk around wanting to start something interesting, but don’t regularly encounter big opportunities in their everyday lives. Other people deeply need solutions to the frustrating issues that surround them. This relates back to the Trap of Small Thinking. A teacher at a school typically doesn’t have expertise to successfully pull off a web app for her kids, even though she might see an opportunity in the market.

The Solution

Imagine an online platform where people could submit ideas specific to the industry in which they work. It’d be similar to GitTip, a “simple platform.” Continue Reading…

The Trap of Small Thinking

October 17, 2013 — 1 Comment

Through my process of pre-entrepreneurship, I’ve dealt with a big question: why? Why do I want to start something new? Why not settle into a nice, comfortable job with benefits and free popcorn and money that appears every 2 weeks?

Yesterday I heard a story.

There was a man, and for the purpose of this story we’ll call him Jacob. He’s a software developer working on an app that is “sort of like Pinterest for dogs, but with a twist.” Explaining the twist is hard. It frequently breaks down the conversation at parties.

Jacob has a friend named Chris who has worked with him for a few years. One day Chris walks into the office, looks at Jacob and blurts out: “I was diagnosed with cancer. They’re not sure what the tumor is. I’m dying.”

And just like that Jacob’s life changed.

That day he decided to help his friend and those after him by assembling a database to collect detailed information about every tumor, in every person, in every country. All of them. A friend asked “do you know anything about cancer?” His response: “No. But I know about data, and I care for my friend.”

That’s entrepreneurship.

On the other hand, I am so stuck trying to solve problems that I can’t even really prove are problems at all. Like, here, let me CONVINCE you that this is a problem you face and I have a solution which adds some tiny value to your life. Can I have $10?

Who even cares?

There are So Many Great Problems

Think of all the amazing, difficult, thorny problems in the world. What about the 47% of young children who don’t have an adult who reads to them. Or the 6,027 people who died today from diarrhea. Or the startups in Ghana who deserve attention and funding but don’t get it because of their location. There is a for-profit business in Georgia that hires homeless people to be craftsmen making beautiful furniture. Another group is helping people who need medical care but can’t get it.

A guy made a watch for blind people that looks so good, seeing people want to wear it.

What a win.

So much of the difficulty we face trying to attract quality people and quality investment is based in a simple truth…driven people need interesting problems. They won’t stop until they’ve found a mission worth pursuing. Fortunately, there is a class of problems that are universally worthwhile. Slavery, homelessness, illiteracy, poverty, health. Just about everyone agrees that these problems deserve high-quality solutions.

SkyMall Entrepreneurship

nambe chip and dipWe fall into the trap of small thinking when we believe our biggest problems are (1) how much bigger can my TV get and (2) how can I run out of chips and dip at the same time? As a result, our entrepreneurship revolves around cute ideas while ignoring the people who actually need help. Software is going to play a big part in helping little children read. Technology, rightly applied by caring people, can hydrate a man so he doesn’t die of thirst (literally).

Let’s get out of the the trap of small thinking and start to design fixes for big problems. Society doesn’t have time to entertain lazy thinking from talented, privileged young minds focused on fake problems.

(Don’t get me wrong, I’m preaching to myself too. I started an organization whose sole purpose was entertainment.)

A New Opportunity

Can I tell you the BEST thing about large thinking? There isn’t much competition. While everyone is fighting to get a 14-year-old suburbanite to play AngryAlien (as opposed to AngryBirds), the number of people competing to solve weighty problems is comparatively tiny. Most won’t even show up.

People will tell you there isn’t money in solving social problems.

People are wrong.

It is totally possible to build solutions for those who need them. Maybe you take a little more creativity and experimentation to find profitability, but don’t believe you need to punt on revenue. M-Pesa has done great things for African financial markets. Social enterprise is still enterprise, my friends.


People are waiting for you. Not because they’re helpless but because you hold immense power to enter their life and accelerate the amazing things they’re already doing. Power. Best used with large thinking.

Startup Requirements

October 16, 2013 — 4 Comments

So…I hate writing requirements documents. But they’re extremely valuable for thinking through all the aspects of what you’re trying to create. A good requirements doc explains exactly what you’re creating in detail…all the features, functions, how you’ll support it, code methods, etc. Everything from top to bottom. This document is still open to change (a lot!) but I wanted to at least write down some of the things that are driving my thinking.

Since this concept isn’t set, yet, the only requirements are around what it *could* be. Continue Reading…

Customer Value

October 16, 2013 — 1 Comment

Paul Graham talks about offering customers value, and says there are essentially two ways to do it. It fit so well on a graph that I decided to make one.


(Note: if you’re kinda nerdy, the users scale is exponential. Heh.)

Lots of Users. Little Value. One way path we take is to offer a lot of users just a little bit of value. The DMV does this, along with the people who make toilet paper and the little instant oatmeal packets you eat in the morning. “Everyone” uses these products, but the profit per customer is miniscule.

Lots of Users. Lots of Value. In another vein, the predominant Silicon Valley startup path seems to be Facebook’s model. The goal is to provide a medium amount of “joy” to a *TON* of users.

Few Users. Lots of Value. Finally, another way of being successful is to start a “micro niche” shop like a specialty bakery. These tend to have a small group of raving fans who love to talk about the product, but aren’t scaleable beyond the personal relationships of the baker. This is because people love the shop precisely because it’s unknown and unique and adds identity to their life. You can’t typically scale those relationships.

Few Users. Little Value. Go home.

It’s better for a few people to love you a lot

In Paul Graham’s essay “13 sentences” he says…

Initially you have to choose between satisfying all the needs of a subset of potential users, or satisfying a subset of the needs of all potential users. Take the first. It’s easier to expand userwise than satisfactionwise.

As a result, the “sweet spot” for the business is to offer a “much better solution” to a relatively small group of users. This allows my team to stay out of the weeds of VC money to try to grow before proving a business model. The “success factor” in the first stages will be: “did this product make someone’s life substantially better?”

But that question is too abstract, so let’s quantify.

  • The user chooses to use the service 3-out-of-7 days.
  • If we choose freemium, at least 5% convert from free to paid.
  • 10% of people, when asked to write a recommendation for the product, give the service 5 stars.


It all comes down to the requirements I have for my business. What do you care about? Working on a requirements post now.

Steve Blank talks about customer discovery as the first step to going through the customer development loop.

There are four phases to customer discovery, but they can happen very quickly. We’re going to go through each phase and add a little bit of detail. In another post, I’m actually going to do this for the first round of customer discovery for my startup. Continue Reading…

This rant has nothing to do with the more organized, interesting search for a startup.

Among the more frustrating realities of designing websites for clients is this statement: “we’d like to have a social presence on our website.” It’s well intentioned, for sure. These people look around at companies with large social presences and imagine their strategy was to pop up a twitter feed and *boom*, like magic the followers came rolling.

In my humble opinion, this doesn’t make sense.

imageRecent Tweets Usually Provide Little Value

Someone came to a client’s site. For the sake of imagination, let’s pretend it was a furniture maker. Billy is looking for furniture. He isn’t *quite* sure what piece he wants, but he’s looking for a small end table to go by his bed, or possibly in the living room if it feels right.


Now your furniture store has a Twitter feed, and pays a social media company $500/month to help manage it. This is a good practice and could very well pay off as an investment.

The store also has an ecommerce site, that they spent $40,000 to create and maintain.

So Billy is looking for a way to purchase some furniture, and comes in via search to the site. As he’s looking through furniture options, he sees something out of the corner of his eye. It’s a social feed of the store’s tweets. One of the tweets is a meme. This store is cool.

He clicks through to the meme, follows them on Twitter, and promptly gets distracted.


Billy starts way away from your sales funnel. And as he’s moving closer to the goal itself, one of the least-important pieces of the funnel (Twitter) distracts his attention. We have become so enamored with social media’s ability to draw a crowd that we’ve completely forgotten it’s place.

Twitter and Facebook belong as the outside of a funnel, pointing people toward the goal. Arguing that these services promote a “relationship” is a load of crap. Does your brand actually have a relationship with your customers? In simpler terms, are people talking back in meaningful ways? Or is your brand looking at social media as a marketing channel along the same lines as TV or web advertising?

Sometimes a social relationship *is* the goal. If that’s the case, please give these services all the attention in the world. They deserve it. But most of the time, social connection isn’t the goal.

Where does Twitter Belong?

Twitter is a marvelous service. I’m so glad they made it through the trough of sorrow. And brands have an incredible opportunity to talk to their customers. But the question is…why? Social media works as a piece of a bigger content marketing strategy.

If your brand can create content that is moving (somebody thought it was funny or sad or cute or inspiring or challenging), then PLEASE use social media like it’s your job. At Garnet Report, it took us forever to get people to follow us. When Randall, our editor who knows everything about the Gamecocks, went out to Omaha to cover USC winning the College World Series, our stories became emotional. Twitter and Facebook blew up.

A furniture store, typically, isn’t able to create moving content on a regular basis. Twitter is going to be distracting and needs to go away. Otherwise it’s like seeing someone looking at a mattress on the showroom floor, and telling them to go look at the fancy new sign the store just got. It just doesn’t make sense.


What are your thoughts. Does social media belong on a company’s web page? What about nonprofits, churches, and other less “goal oriented” organizations?