10 Questions to Ask Before Starting a Web Venture
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In today’s world, with the innovations we’ve had in technology and the large amounts of free and low cost Internet software, almost anyone can create an Internet-based business, and, sometimes it seems, almost everyone is. There is an endless stream of new web sites on a daily, if not hourly basis, revealed to us through our many social networking feeds, emails, friend recommendations, roadside billboards, even TV and magazine ads.

But with all those sites being created, we may not realize how few are ever successful, nor how much work goes into making a web venture successful. I plan to define this success in a future article, but for now I’ll leave that to personal interpretation. But any way you define it, it is the unusual venture that actually sees real success, real growth, real usage, and thus persists, beyond the initial launch and buzz phase.

Many people with a web site idea, but no past experience creating one, fail to realize going into it, just how much work is involved. While the startup costs are lower for a web based business than for a brick and mortar one, I would say the time and effort, the “sweat equity”, needed for success is the same, and this is something most web venture founders aren’t aware of. Often they aren’t willing or even able to invest the proper effort, and as time goes on they lose their passion, come up with a better idea, or move on to other things.

“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”
~ Albert Einstein

This is why it’s important, when you are preparing to step into such a large undertaking, to ensure that the idea you are pursuing, that is, the web venture you hope to build, is one that you can stick with, even as the chasm between you and success lengthens and deepens.

For that reason, I have below 10 questions to ask yourself before starting a new web venture. Answer these honestly to yourself; give them significant thought, and ensure before setting out on the quest, that you are truly ready emotionally and physically for what lies ahead.

  • If a competitor comes along and beats me to my idea, or does it better than I have done at that time, will I feel overwhelmed by the pressure and competition, or will my secondary drive kick in propelling me to work even harder, investing even more time, improving the quality of the product and my customer service, even entertaining the possibility that I may have to rethink the entire site, in order to give consumers something that makes them come to me instead of my competition?
  • While on vacation, and my mind is far away from work, but I receive a call or an email about a web site related problem from a teammate or customer, will I gladly take care of it, even canceling the days plans, or will I see it as only a nuisance and interruption?
  • When I get another great idea for a web venture, but have no time to work on it as well, will I regret having to work on my existing web site, or will I be able to shelve the new idea, even if I know its better, because I also recognize that its not the idea that leads to success, but perseverance and hard work?
  • When, after having invested months of my time, energy and passion on this venture, and not one single person visits on opening day, no one blogs about it, no one Twitters about it, and the site gets no traction at all in the beginning, will I feel committed to press on or begin to question the original concept of the site, even question myself and in the end give up?
  • After months of nightly sacrificing personal and/or family time to maintain the site, will the pressure to balance family and personal time with business time become too overwhelming to continue?
  • When the partner that originally promised to help with the venture loses interest or takes on other commitments and I’m left alone, will I want to continue investing myself in this site even when there is little support or even little belief by anyone that it will succeed?
  • If this is the only site I ever get to do, because of the time it takes to commit to it, would I still want to do it?
  • When money is needed to quickly improve the servers or hire a specialist with a particular skill that is needed quickly, would I be willing to go into debt to get the job done? Sell my car and take the bus? Mortgage the house? Never eat out? Take no vacations?
  • Is this idea the most important one I could dedicate all my time to? Is it the one I believe will help me reach my goals or is this simply a neat idea, that seems simpler for now? If so, what if this one takes so much time I can never make it on to the more important project?
  • If I found out, that right now someone else had this exact same idea, would I lose my passion for it? Is it the idea of the site that gets me excited, or, is it the prospect of the journey to bring it about, and make it the best possible implementation of that idea that gets me excited?

If you can truly answer yes to all these questions, and if just reading them fills you with passion and determination, its time to take the next step in bringing your idea to life. Watch my site for further articles to help you on your path to successful web venture.

If you build it…why would they come?
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Surprisingly, the if you build it, they will come mentality still seems to be the practice of too many web site startups. Even those that say they know better, still practice the myth anyway, perhaps for lack of anything else to do. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, since I also see this practiced regularly in brick and mortar businesses. Family restaurants open, life savings are spent, homes are double mortgaged, and in three months, the restaurant closes. I often wonder why anyone would start a restaurant if they couldn’t afford to run if for at least 6 months without any expectations of income during that time. Yet so many close before there should even have been expectations to grow.

The list of overnight successes must statistically be near zero in comparison to those businesses that built what they have over a period of time, in a dedicated and determined fashion. So let me for a minute, properly reword the if you build it they will come mantra, as this:

If you build it, and
get people to try it, and
listen to their impressions of the site, and
make adjustments accordingly, and
get them to try again, and
listen again, and
adjust again…

Continue that process, while inviting more people to try it, slowly extending your reach, building a firm foundation of dedicated users who have clearly experienced your commitment to listening to them, and responding accordingly. Your product will be what they want, they will feel like part of it, and in turn, being the humans they are, they will tell others. Ask them to tell others; reward them for telling others. After that? Start at the top again…and repeat.

One more tip, don’t waste your time judging your success by your Google Analytics report. Web stats show views and nothing more. You’ll need to talk to users to really get a feel for the impression you are making on them. Stats can certainly help you see what recent marketing campaign worked, and some other helpful info, but at first, watching your site stats simply reinforces the false myth that you should expect overnight growth. If you are engaging your customers, and really paying attention, you’ll know if you are headed in the right direction, even if your site stats don’t see it yet.

My New Year's Toast
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I’m not one to set “resolutions” for the new year. I set my personal goals on my birthday, because for me this has more meaning than a calendar change. So instead, on this New Year’s Eve, I thought I’d offer up a toast to those out there striving to reach their own goals, whatever they may be.

Over the past year I have met in person or online, so many more like-minded people than in all my years previous. It’s encouraging, it really is. I attribute the increase in connecting with this new crowd to three things: 1) I set it as a personal goal on my birthday last year, 2) I became involved in the right online social networks (not all will do), and 3) I joined the Ruby on Rails community full time.

Many of you have provided encouragement, motivation, and wisdom as well as shared your experiences. And for that, I am very grateful. I’ve never felt clearer in the direction I’m taking, and I’ve never made as much progress. The fears are still there, as is the little voice that tries to object to the optimism I feel, but thanks to many of you, I’m able to tell that little voice to take a hike.

And so, first to my fellow entrepreneurs and web service startups, I toast you, and wish you the happiest of New Year’s and the best of success in reaching your personal and professional goals (which to me are one and the same).

And next, to those of you who are still unsure where your passions lie, and what direction you want to take, I wish you clarity and peace in the year ahead, and encourage you to seek out those who can motivate you as they have motivated me.

And to any and all who have hopes and dreams of achievements and success, I urge you to persevere through all the obstacles and road blocks that may come your way. Most of them are never as big as they appear, and there are plenty of others out there who have been right where you are and can lend a helping hand and offer some motivational words when needed.

Remember, if its not challenging, and there is little risk of failure, then its probably not worth doing and offers little reward.

Happy New Years!

Learning from 37Signals
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I’ve been following the unique style of 37 signals for several years now and I believe they have come up with some very sound business practices, both in their direction as a company in developing web products and in how they promote a creative and motivational environment for their employees. In the interview I linked to below, Jason discusses many of these principles from trying to let each other work without distraction (avoiding meetings and working in the same room), to improving team collaboration using web tools (like Campfire), shortening work weeks, and streamlining development cycles.

Jason discusses his views of not needing Venture Capital, at least at the beginning. He discusses simple design, not watching your competition, not planning too far in advance, and not spending a lot of time up front designing and planning but instead doing and learning from the outcomes.

If you’ve listened to or read Jason or 37 signals in the past there isn’t much new here, but their thinking is so far outside the stuffy and constraining boxes of the Enterprise and corporate America, that you really can’t hear this enough. I hope it catches on, and I continue to try and preach the same principles and put them in practice in my own projects. I think many people instinctively recoil away from some of these ideas, but I urge you to resist the comfort of, “we’ve always done it this way…it must be working”, and instead consider the principles behind these ideas and the desired outcome of some of this new way of thinking and doing business. I’ve experienced first hand the flip side of these practices in the IT corporate world for the last 15 years. It never ceases to amaze me how every corporation does the same thing with the same results over and over again, including wasting employees time, working on large projects with huge complicated processes that burn time and money and burn out their employees, needless bloated meetings, emphasizing quantity of communication over quality, treating employees like worker bees or worse yet children by requiring them to be in a certain location at a certain time clearly showing them you have no trust in them, and by discouraging their individual thoughts and creative inputs.

I’ve worked with many employees with great potential who were figuratively bound and gagged, stripped of participation and thereby emotional involvement in the project, which demoralizes and prematurely burns out the employee. 37signals does exactly the opposite and you can see it by following the employees of the company, seeing the quality of their projects, and the passion the leaders of the team speak and write with.

IT and Rails Employment still strong
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Despite unemployment rates increasing across the country to the highest point in five years, IT unemployment is unchanged and is as low as it was in 2000/2001, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics as referenced here (and shown on a nice graph.)

In the past IT was seen as a supplemental skill set. When income was high, business would invest in IT by hiring more IT employees, giving raises and bonuses, and spending money on more training, software and hardware. When low, the opposite occurs. However, many more companies today rely on IT for the entire business as compared with the past when IT was there to assist and create internal reports and other “nice-to-haves”. Now more corporations than ever actually make money from the work of their IT professionals and because of this they cannot cut them as easily as in the past.

As for Rails developers specifically, some feel the hurting economy will help Rails developers. As companies need more IT work, but have less operating income and less venture capital, they may look for shorter development cycles and outsourcing as opposed to funding large internal Enterprise applications often based on more time consuming and less agile coding frameworks.

Recently the FiveRuns blog shared their opinion:

Rails shops are built to do more with less. It’s part of our DNA to be more agile, more nimble, and more productive than developers using “legacy” tools.

They provide other reasons for Rails opportunities being on the rise, including the lower cost to deploy and host Rails applications.

eWeek.com reported David Heinemeier Hansson, creator of the Ruby on Rails, as saying:

I think Rails developers are much better positioned to weather the storm as they generally stand for delivering more with less faster. It’s the traditional mainstream environments that are going to see much more pressure to deliver.

Lance Walley, CEO of Engine Yard, added:

A slowing economy will likely lead to constrained IT budgets. There’s a good chance this will have a positive impact on the uptake of open-source options, such as Linux, Ruby and Rails.

Read the linked to articles from above for more opinions on why Rails developers should continue to see lots of opportunities. At the recent Tampa Brigade Ruby meetup it certainly sounded as though there was more opportunity than there were developers, and I’ve heard the same thing from several Tampa Bay recruiters now. Let’s hope it stays that way.

What has your experience been so far?

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