TED & Malcolm Gladwell

and

I’m going to make an effort to watch a few of these a week, as they are some of the most insightful talks I’ve ever heard.

I didn’t hear of Malcolm Gladwell until very recently. He’s been mentioned a lot because of his new book, Outliers, and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. For some reason I pictured an old gray guy but I couldn’t have been farther off. He’s 45, a British born Canadian journalist whose mother is a Jamaican psychotherapist and whose father is an English civil engineer.

I don’t know what it was about the tomato sauce speech, but I found it captivating.

And so, I bought Outliers, which should keep me occupied to and from work for the next two or three weeks.

ALL IN Expert Followup

I received a lot of great feedback regarding the ALL IN Expert post.

Here’s a quick summary of the major themes:

Advertising

I think you should have put a lot more thought into how to get users to find your product. Like, sometimes (often, maybe), people don’t even know they could use something and that something they could use exists. You have to educate them.

Tichy

I think what really went wrong was not the product, niche or anything like that. It was the marketing/sales. You should never underestimate how hard selling even a good product is.

Mikkom

Many people commented that advertising could have helped a lot. I’ve got to admit that when I originally read the line “Advertising is a tax for being unremarkable” I interpreted it as saying advertising is a bad thing and that you shouldn’t have to do it if your product is great. The feedback has given me a different perspective. With an amazing product such as Facebook or YouTube you might be able to get away with primarily word of mouth advertising, but regardless of your product, a strong advertising campaign can help a lot. A great product is worthless if no one knows it exists.

Screenshots

I note that on the website there seems to be no real screenshots of your application in action that give me a good idea of what it does and how it works. In my opinion, this is a huge mistake – I generally won’t download /anything/ unless I’ve seen a screenshot first.

halo

Halo pointed out that the homepage didn’t have screenshots on it. While the grid was put there to lure people in, I think I missed out on a big opportunity by not having an expansive screenshots section on the site.

Online Version

Perhaps you can make an online free version and put some ads?

lazyant

Some people suggested I make an online version. Had the product been successful, this might have be a viable route. In retrospect, I should have attempted this to start with, as it would have differentiated the product and given me experience doing something new so that should I fail, at least I walk away with some technical skills that I didn’t start with.

How to approach a risky project…

Fail fast and move on!

Breck

Next…

This was my favorite comment, taken from a comment on the blog:

I don’t know why you’re calling this a failure. How much time did you spend on it? Three months of time to think of, build, and launch something, even if it doesn’t work out, is time well spent. Think about it this way: that’s 4 startups a year… Sooner or later, one of them will end up working out (and in no small part due to the lessons previously learned).

David Rusenko

ALL IN Expert Lessons Learned

ALL IN Expert gridThis story begins in March ’08. Bored with the project I was working on and overly optimistic because of TechCrunch articles, I decided to create some sort of online business. I hesitate even now to use the word “business” as it implies some sort of organization or planning or something which my endeavor lacked in a big way.

Armed with a strong background in poker and Visual Basic, I decided to make and sell an advanced poker calculator.

For certain preflop situations you can calculate with mathematical precision which hands you should play and which hands you should fold. You make some estimations about your opponent’s hand, tell it about the pot and stack sizes, click “Calculate”, and it would chug through a series of somewhat complicated calculations show you exactly when to go all in and when to fold. I dubbed it – you guessed it – ALL IN Expert.

Some of the results can be counter intuitive and I reasoned that making this process easy would be valuable to a lot of people.

And so for about the next three months I worked ambitiously on the software and the website that would sell it. I was wildly optimistic about its future success. Its almost embarrassing to admit now, but before it launched I estimated it would sell 1000 copies at $40 each for a net of $40,000. I figured I’d be happy with that.

In the days leading up to the launch I was quite excited. I made the final adjustments and released it late one night in mid-June. I made a post to 2+2, a popular poker forum, and announced its launch. I went to bed, expecting great things the next morning.

Well, all did not go as planned. No one bought the software the first day or the second, or the third… A week went by. Zero sales. A few people had downloaded the demo version, but none of them made the leap to purchasing it.

Frustrated, I made some tweaks, resdesigned some things, and waited hopefully for people to come. I wrote several articles and posted them on poker forums, showing how ALL IN Expert could be used to help out in some situation. I added a feature where the results could be exported to a forum-friendly format which included a link back to the site, hoping that once a few people began using it others would see its utility and register their own copy. A few people found the site and eventually one person purchased it after I had lowered the price to $10. It became pretty clear that ALL IN Expert wasn’t going anywhere. I took down the site, ready to move on to other things and put the whole episode behind me.

My little entrepreneurial experiment failed pretty badly: I didn’t make much money and reality smacked me in the face. However, I did learn a lot in the process:

Don’t Rush Into a Project

There are a lot of romantic startup stories about founders who have this brilliant idea, start coding, and in no time at all there are investors knocking at the door touting multimillion dollar valuations. I’m sure this does happen, but it’s probably a lot rarer than we’re led to believe. The media tends to ignore the low-flying companies that never make onto their radar and rightfully so. The companies that do become successful get a lot of attention, creating the impression for the naïve that the numbers are better than they actually are. I learned later that this is known as the survirorship bias.

ALL IN Expert was not a startup, but if it was, it would have fallen in the never-makes-it-onto-the-radar category. Actually, ALL IN Expert barely made it off the ground before it crashed and burned. I think a lot of the problems could have been avoided if I had taken more time in the beginning to analyze the situation. Literally, I came up with the concept for ALL IN Expert one night, thought “Hey, that could work”, and began programming the next morning. I should have taken more time to figure out if this was something people wanted, to figure out how much time it would take, to look at alternative projects, etc.

Creating a successful business takes a lot of time and energy. Before embarking on an entrepreneurial journey, make sure you’ve done your homework so you don’t create another ALL IN Expert.

Research the Competition

Several free poker tools existed at the time I started on ALL IN Expert. PokerStove had been around for several years. Pokerazor was the new kid on the block and while it was quite advanced it wasn’t gaining much traction. Stoxpoker had also just released some similar software.

My analysis went something like this:

PokerStove – generally powerful and easy to use, but missing some important features
Pokerazor – bloated and prohibitively difficult to use
Stoxpoker – screenshots look like Pokerazor, must be the same:

Stoxpoker EV Calculator

My plan was to make a simpler, more practical tool that focused on usability. Sounds good, right?

The problem is that I barely used Pokerazor and I never used Stoxpoker. In my mind it didn’t matter what they could do–they were ugly and hard to use; ALL IN Expert would be pretty and easy to use.

I went with more of a “Ignore the competition and just make something great” approach, which sounds good until you realize that you’ve made a huge mistake by not learning from your competition.

When I finally launched this was the very first response:

So this is like an extremely simplified version of the Stoxpoker EV calculator for one very specific scenario?

Yes. No. I don’t know. I never used it. Can you just pay the $40 registration fee and not ask that question?

User Testing

About a month into the development I did one thing well: my brother was visiting and I asked him to test out the software. This was the second most eye opening thing I got out of this project next to realizing after it launched how badly I had misjudged the entire thing.

He had no idea what was going on. “Click on the hands you think your opponent might have,” I explained to him…. No not there… click the colored box. No, not that colored box. See, that means you think your opponent can have that hand. OK, now click they gray box that says “Calculate”. OK, now click on the tab that says “Results.” No, its at the top of the window. At the very top center of the window, about an inch from the top, it says “Results”…

It went on like this for about twenty minutes.

Could it be that ALL IN Expert was just as hard or harder to use than the other software?

In the weeks that followed I spent a lot of time redoing the design and in the end I think it turned out pretty well thanks to that one night of watching my brother use it.

His feedback helped me avert a disaster in terms of usability, but what I didn’t see at the time was that no amount of usability will make a crappy product useful.

My big mistake here was stopping with my brother. I did have a few people test it prior to launch, but no one in between the initial version that my brother saw and the final release version. Had more people given me feedback early on, I might have seen sooner that there wasn’t a market for the product. I also never had anyone test the website, which might have helped as well.

Goodbye Desktop Apps

Did I mention ALL IN Expert was desktop software? I was most proficient at desktop programming languages so that’s what I went with. Never again.

Big picture, I think the trend is clear: desktop apps are a dying breed; web apps are the future.

There’s also all sorts of issues with deployment, bugs, and upgrades.

When my semi-final product was ready to be launched I had a friend test it out. Little did I know that there is a known compatibility issue with some Microsoft DLL file which causes some computers not to restart after installation. His computer happened to be one that was affected by the problem. After he installed ALL IN Expert his computer wouldn’t boot. He wound up having to spend four hours on the phone with Microsoft tech support (I’m so sorry) fixing the problem.

What if his computer hadn’t crashed? What if I had released it and dozens of people’s computers crashed because they had downloaded it? That could have been the meteorite that killed the business, but luckily I discovered it beforehand. Not that anyone downloaded it anyway, but still…

Make Something People Want

I had read that advise at least a dozen times from Paul Graham and Hacker News denizens, but somehow I thought I’d be the exception. The product would be so great that it would cause people to want it.

In reality, the competition’s tools, while not perfect, were adequate. No one was looking for a new poker calculator. Sure, they might take something that was better, but it wasn’t a burning need.

There were also some practical issues.

ALL IN Expert produced some fascinating theoretical results. The software crunched through the numbers and in many situations suggested that I had been making costly mistakes.

The problem was that the software was not designed to be a real time adviser. It was designed to be a study tool to analyze specific situations after they had already occurred. This severely limited its usefulness. Had I made a feature that enabled it to attach itself to a poker window and extract the information in real time, people might have been able to utilize the results. As it was, it would take too long to input the necessary data to be of any good real-time.

Also, while the calculations were exact the user still had to estimate his opponent’s hands. In an actual poker situation you won’t ever know your opponent’s range of hands with absolute certainty and even if you did, you wouldn’t be able to chug through all the necessary calculations to figure out the profitability of each possible move. You wind up using your judgment and making some estimations. ALL IN Expert would help educate you, but as a practical issue, it didn’t matter that it could show you your ROI to three decimal places.

Niches are Good, Super-Niches are Bad

I thought my original audience was online poker players. Period. In reality, my audience was online poker players who wanted to calculate the results for all 169 starting poker hands at once vs one at a time. Turns out there is a big difference.

Focusing on a niche is a good strategy, but make sure you know exactly who those people are. If you’re thinking thousands of people need your product when in reality only a few hundred do, you’re in for some trouble.

Pricing

I started the price at $40. After it was clear no one was buying it I dropped it to $30, then $10, and now I’m just giving it away. Someone smart at 37Signals wrote that the best way to figure out how much you should charge is to ask yourself how much you would pay for it.

In this case, $10 sounds about right. What I should have taken into consideration is that given my small audience and the small price, I was probably never going to make more than a few thousand dollars even if I was really successful. That alone should have deterred me. If you’re going to focus on a super-niche, make something incredibly useful then charge accordingly.

Additionally, it’s very, very hard to charge for a product when your competition is offering it for free, no matter how bad their usability is.

Moving On

You’re told to be persistent and not to give up, but you suspect that you’re racing towards a dead end. What do you do?

Five or six weeks in this occurred to me. I started to think I had overestimated the market and that I might be headed for trouble. I had a choice: press forward and see what happens or abandon what I had done and move on to something new. I decided to give it a few more weeks and see it through to the end.

It’s not easy to admit that you’ve made a mistake, but it also doesn’t get any easier as time goes on. The closer I got to completing it the more I realized I had a problem, but I couldn’t stop because I was so close. It’s a bad spot to be in. Do yourself a favor and if you strongly suspect bad weather ahead, take a different route.

Difficulty Gaining Users

Robert Stephens, founder of Geek Squad, wrote in the Oct 08 issue of Inc magazine that “Advertising is a tax for being unremarkable.” My first thought was ALL IN Expert.

My advertising didn’t come in the form of outward appeals to customers. Instead, I found myself focusing on ridiculous design issues in the vain hope that people would suddenly flock to my product. If you’re spending too much time early on worrying about the font and the colors and not focusing on functionality, chances are you’re in trouble.

Winding Up

I made a lot of strategic errors with ALL IN Expert. In the end the software looked good, worked well, and performed the job it was designed to do. I learned a lot of new things in the process – Photoshop, Paypal integration, the Inno installer, the importance of usability, some critical business concepts, and most importantly that I really enjoyed doing it, which despite what it looks like makes it a success in my book.

Coming soon: Domain Pigeon, where we find out just how much I’ve learned.

Few screenshots from ALL IN Expert, which is now free to download.

Telling ALL IN Expert a bit about the situation:
Telling ALL IN Expert a bit about the situation

Estimating your Opponent’s Hands
Choosing a Range for your Opponent

ALL IN Expert shows you which hands to go all in with:
Results showing when to go all in

Philly on Rails!

Last night I had the pleasure of attending my first Philly on Rails pub night.

I found out about it a few weeks back after I asked on HackerNews whether anyone knew of any Philly based startup groups and someone pointed me to the Philly on Rails website.

About 20 people attended last night and I was told about a third to half were new. It was very laid back and I had a really good time. Just a bunch of guys (and one gal) sitting around drinking beer and talking about nerdy things.

From what I gathered only two of the people (Jordan and Joan) were startup oriented, but there may have been others. Several people worked for Comcast in one form or another, some worked at web development firms, a few worked at software companies, and a few, like me, had unrelated careers but dabbled in Rails during their free time.

I’m already looking forward to the next meeting.

Go go go

Would I pick up the useless and destructive lenses left by millions of people both past and present or would I have the courage to look at the world, both outer and inner, with fresh eyes. To look at it as if I was the first person on earth…not be swayed by the masses that took into their souls what others deemed important in order to avoid the responsibility of independent action.

Marty

I took today and tomorrow off from work so that I can catch up on my work. When I moved positions at work my hours were increased by about an hour and a half per day. While that’s only a few hours a week, it’s a big cut into progamming/hacking time. On a given weekday I had three free hours of hacking and three to spend with my wife. With an hour and a half less, it’s mostly taken out of the hacking. A project that would have taken me four months turns into six or seven. I’d happily hack 12+ hours/day if I could, but… not yet.

The quote at the beginning of this post is from a short story my great uncle wrote. He’s almost 80 and is one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met.

Here’s a rough todo list…

– Domain Pigeon – I’m probably 80% of the way towards a launchable product. For some crazy, stupid reason whenever I wanted to test out a new design I would set out doing it with HTML/CSS instead of doing a mock up first. Fortunately I came to my sense… Yesterday I created an entirely new layout in Photoshop in about an hour. With that to work off of, I fixed up the page in no time. No more of this blind “it’ll probably turn out ok” nonsense. If you don’t know where you want to go you’re probably not going to get there, right?

– ALL IN Expert – Plan is to make this available for download w/some background later today.

– PhillyOnRails meetup tonight – will report back tomorrow.

– Oh, and the wife gave me about 18 things to do since I have all this free time now… geeze.

Git Resources

I spent the morning reading about and playing around with Git.

Git, like the Macbook, is a big leap in efficiency for me. In the past when I wanted to make experimental changes in my applications I would use a combination of commenting and Save As to test and revert as required. Additionally, my project directories are littered with compressed zip folders containing snapshots at different points in time.

Git changes all that. I’m not entirely fluent with it yet, but I’m getting there.

Here are three resources which I recommend to anyone wanting to learn.

A Tour of Git: The Basics

Gittutorial: Manual Page

Peeepcode: Git

I’d do it in this order too. I started off with the Peepcode tutorial, but he used some terminology that I wasn’t familiar with at first. After reading through the first two tutorials I was able to easily follow along with the screencast.

MBA Considerations

To get an MBA or not to get an MBA, that is the question.

I’ve been considering getting an MBA for some time. At one point several months ago I had made up my mind that I was going to get one. Fortunately, I came to my senses and now I’m 95% sure that I’m not going to.

I think it started with an article in the Wall Street Journal talking about earnings reports. I had come across (yet another) term I wasn’t familiar with. My thought process went something like this: “Diluted earnings per share… what the hell is that? I have no idea. It sounds important. I better get an MBA so I figure out what its talking about.”

I started doing some research and found several online schools that offered MBA programs that focused on entrepreneurship (attending a school isn’t practical at the moment). The descriptions sounded perfect for me — if you want to start and run a business, we’ll teach you what you need to know… yada yada yada. It would cost me about $18K and 20 months of time at about 15 hours/week to get it. The wife and I discussed it and decided that I should do it.

I decided to wait a week to make the final decision.

I didn’t sleep well that week. I’d lay awake calculating in my head how much free time I’d have to work on the technical half of it. It turned out I’d have to pretty much put learning Rails and web development on hold until I finished the MBA program. I tried figuring out ways around this — maybe I could work on it during my lunch breaks. Maybe I could get up early on the weekends to get a few hours in. Maybe…

It wasn’t going to happen and I knew it–there just wasn’t enough time in the day. I’d have to put my plans on hold in order to get the MBA. When I realized that I became very depressed. I’d go hack away, frustrated that I’d have to put it on hold in order to learn what the significance of diluted earnings per share was.

There were other considerations as well. The online schools that offered these specialized MBA programs were not exactly prestigious. In fact, the primary one I was considering was solely an online school — they did not have a campus anywhere. They were mentioned on a few online MBA related web sites, but other than that, it didn’t appear that anyone had heard of them. If I was confident that I would learn everything I needed to know from their courses then maybe — but I worried that the lack of information I could find on their programs reflected on its quality. There were some good schools that offered other types of online MBAs, such as international business, accounting, and the like, but they cost upwards of $30K and I didn’t want to learn that stuff anyway.

Then it hit me. This — hacking — is what I love doing. It’s what I’m passionate about. I was considering giving that up in order to learn some business theory and definitions, something that I could learn pretty well on my own anyway. It’s not like I could even network (since they’re online) or get a resume booster (since no one has heard of them).

Additionally, given the time and money it would cost me, pursing an MBA would probably have the opposite effect on my goals. Instead of working on something tangible and acquiring the technical skills and experience necessary to found a startup, I’d be bogged in textbooks learning a lot of things I’ll probably never use. In a strange, ironic way, I think that in five years I’d be more likely to work as some mid-level manager with an MBA than without one and that is exactly the opposite of where I want to be.

And so, MBA is postponed… probably indefinitely.

I wouldn’t mind getting a masters in computer science, but I’ll save that for another post…

P.S. This guy’s recent blog article on his Wharton MBA inspired me to make this post.