Loop-de-loop

I have tried and experienced a lot of things over the course of my 28 years on this planet. I don’t regret any of them. The journey thus far has been one helluva roller-coaster ride, and I could never have predicted that I’d be where I am right now. I can say though, with full honesty, that the biggest challenge I have faced is building a company. Not just any company though. I’m talking about a company that I can be truly proud of. An environment in which human beings thrive. A place where people arrive feeling empowered, are given the freedom and opportunity to do their best work, and leave feeling satisfied and yet craving more. As a founder, or CEO, or COO, this is an evolving challenge; a path of introspection into oneself as well as an outward expression of self for the purpose of empowering others, and one which I am far from conquering or achieving, but will be working my hardest to do so as the next loop of the roller-coaster ride comes into view.

As a dear friend and advisor reminded me a couple of days ago, “remember that this is all made of people”. I think a lot of us forget that sometimes. We hide behind the abstraction and entity which is a ‘company’, using it as a cloak for dishonesty, unethical, or in some cases, inhumane actions and decisions. Remember, this whole journey of entrepreneurship, startups, and life, is made of people, so don’t let the abstractions of business cloud your clarity or the prevent you from expressing the human characteristics that crave expression. We all innately desire to do good. Business can be a place to do good.

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A cup of tea

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”

Leonardo Da Vinci

Before writing this post I began jotting down a brief plan for what I would write on the topic of “scalable simplicity”. I soon realized that my post was going to amount to thousands of words, and that I’d be pulling in references from art, science, technology, and politics. Not very simple, right? Hence, I shall simplify, not wanting to contradict myself.

The word “simplicity” has many connotations – when applied to a product, it would be one which is easy to use, ergonomic, intuitive, and likely of a simple uniform design. When applied to business, it would be a brand which speaks to its customers clearly and purely, a business which is perceived by its customers as being understandable and uncomplicated, and one whose internal systems and processes allow for streamlined decision making, employee clarity, and unbridled creativity.

So what is scalable simplicity?

Scalable simplicity is my understanding that if you have something which is simple, and you intend to scale it (grow it), then the end result should retain and reflect the initial intention of simplicity which was brought forth to begin with. In short, “Grow your simple things so that their growth preserves their simplicity”.

In internet startups, most of us understand the need to simplify. Where possible we all embrace rapid development languages and frameworks such as Python, Django, Ruby, Rails, CakePHP…(the list goes on). We deploy our sites onto low cost, scalable servers such as Amazon Web Services and Google App Engine. In user interface design we opt for simple rather than complex. In startups, our goal is to launch early, usually on minimal capital and with a handful of people, and iterate, build, and in time, scale. We set ourselves up in simple and creative work spaces, with a mission statement on the wall which reads “Build a product that people love to use!”

 “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”

Albert Einstein

So how do we retain simplicity, and scale it after the product has launched, the money starts rolling in from investors and customers, and we start hiring more and more people? To paraphrase Paul Graham from Y Combinator, you’ll never be as productive as when you’re a startup who has received their first injection of seed investment.  This is likely true because of the innate simplicity of startups. But how then do we prove Paul wrong? How do we ensure that productivity is replicated and retained as a startup grows, and that simplicity itself is scalable? I wish I could insert a tried and true law of scalable simplicity here, but alas, there is not one which exists. Instead, as internet startup entrepreneurs we’re forced to navigate the seas of simplicity using our internal compass.

We’ll focus on why we do what you do, because people don’t buy what you do, they buy WHY you do it. We’ll assess decisions based on the value they add to the company, as well as the accompanying complexity, because if complexity outweighs value, then the decision to proceed should be forfeited.

We’ll keep managerial layers to a minimum, ensuring that decision making never needs to travel across more than 1 layer for approval. And if it does, then we’ll empower the people at lower layers to make decisions.

We’ll nurture creativity, and then assess the appropriateness of integrating new product features in relevance to the company’s vision. Sometimes a new feature is best spun off as a separate product rather than being added in an attempt to enhance the existing core product.

We’ll be brave, and apply Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s concept: “It seems that perfection is reached not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”.

Whenever and wherever possible, we’ll have fun, and KISS!

Taipei 101 Skyscraper - After Raining

For the past one and a half years I have had the pleasure of residing in Taiwan, one of Asia’s most exciting, innovative, and lovable countries. There’s one question I always like to ask myself when I arrive in a new country: “Is the entrepreneurial spirit alive in this place?”. Here in Taiwan, it most certainly is. In this post I will discuss Taiwan’s uniqueness within the global economy, and it’s strengths and weaknesses as a internet startup location. Please keep in mind that I am writing this from the perspective of an internet entrepreneur.

At the end of 2009 I found myself in Japan, after having lived in Indonesia for the previous two years. All the while I was, and continue to, conceptualize and build web and mobile products as CEO of Conceptuous. (As a side note, Indonesia is a viable startup location in its own right, and I aim to write a separate post discussing why soon). Whilst in Japan there seemed to be one common question which I was asked by both Japanese and traveling foreigners, and it was, “Have you been to Taiwan?”. My answer at that point was a surprising, “No, I haven’t. Why?”. The answers I received were almost always a variation of the following:

“Taiwan’s culture is alive and thriving!”
“Taiwan has the best food in Asia!”
“Taiwanese people are so friendly!”

I understand that none of the above have anything to do with internet entrepreneurship or innovation. I just thought I’d mention some of the things that lured me here to Taiwan in the first place.

It wasn’t long until I had booked my ticket from Tokyo to Taipei. Flight time was 3 hours, during which I read as much as I could of the Taiwan edition of Lonely Planet. It soon became clear how little I knew about this small island. I won’t use this post to write about Taiwan’s history, and so I highly recommend taking a read of the History of Taiwan on Wikipedia.

Taiwan’s economy is stable and thriving. It’s foreign reserves are the fourth largest in the world. The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report for 2010/2011 lists Taiwan as the 13th most competitive country in the world. My own country, Australia, is ranked 16th, whilst China is 27th. In its Global Technology Readiness Report for 2010/2011, the World Economic Forum ranks Taiwan as 6th in the world, describing it as:

“…an international innovation powerhouse. Its patent office is one of the world’s busiest—in 2009 alone, it processed over 78,000 patent applications. That represents a record 3,392 applications per million population, far more than 2nd- and 3rd ranked Korea (2,611) and Japan (2,315)”

In my mind, that is a pretty incredible statistic for a nation of only 23 million people.

In previous years Taiwan’s innovation has been predominately in areas such as information technology, electronics, and hardware, and it has excelled and succeeded in those areas. However, as Taiwan finds itself in the early stages of a transition from a manufacturing-oriented economy to a service-oriented economy (a situation which the majority of the world’s developed countries have also found themselves in), Taiwan’s innovation prowess has begun to cross-pollinate into internet and software.

Taiwan’s population is highly educated, with a 96% literacy rate. I’m not going to research into higher education statistics in detail or list them here, because I don’t believe these are a measure of innovation ability. If you want to take a look at this yourself, you’ll find that Taiwan ranks 5th in the world for tertiary enrollment.

I could sit here and list statistics for you all day, but they really do get pushed aside once you head out and try to start a company. Your entrepreneurial DNA takes over, and the passion for your idea consumes you, as you set out to achieve what others have not yet achieved.

For the past year and a half I have become more and more convinced that Taiwan is one of the most unique and viable locations for an internet startup, not because of the statistics that I listed above (which I actually only stumbled upon a month ago), but because of what’s actually happening here on the ground here in Taiwan. Enterpreneurs, and investors alike, are beginning to understand Taiwan’s unique position in the global economy. As Volker Heistermann mentions on Quora, “Taiwan is ideally placed to be a bridge between mainland China and the West”. It is this fact which makes Taiwan so unique. There is no other country on the planet with such strong business and cultural ties to China, and there is no other group of people (except of course for the Chinese themselves) who understand the landscape of the Chinese internet and business market. Let me tell you why:

  • The official language of both Taiwan and China is Mandarin
  • Some historians state that Taiwan’s culture more closely resembles traditional Chinese culture than China itself
  • Many large Chinese corporations are headed by Taiwanese executives
  • Taiwan has been investing in mainland China for decades
  • Cross-strait relations within the political arena are of course still volatile, however in the business arena they are stable and thriving!

On a recent trip to Shanghai in June, I was surprised and interested to see the number of Taiwanese doing business in China. Not only ‘doing’ business, but ‘excelling’ in business.

But what about venture capital in Taiwan?

From my experience so far here in Taiwan, after attending the demo days and startup meetups, I have to say that venture capital is here, and it is hungry and eager to invest. Startup incubators such as AppWorks have sprung up to nurture young talent, and Asia-based VC firms such as CyberAgent Ventures are opening offices in Taiwan for early stage investment in internet startups.

But it’s not all going to be smooth sailing. If Taiwan seriously wants to work toward establishing itself as an internet innovation hub, it needs to improve upon a few things. For those of you who know me, you’ll know that I don’t like to harp on weaknesses. However, I am critical of Taiwan in a few areas:

  • Creativity is something which is nurtured over time. Taiwan’s education system is opening up and becoming more creative, however a tendency toward rote-learning, and an absence of the teaching of abstract thinking skills does not allow the optimal creative environment for ideas
  • If I could say one thing to internet founders in Taiwan it would be this: “Don’t be afraid to think big!”. The reason I say this is because a lot of the internet startups that I have come across are almost too localized, or are attempting to bring a successful startup idea from the West and reskin it for the Taiwanese market. I wrote a post about this a few years ago, titled “Killer apps versus Killer clones“.
  • Existing startup incubators need to put more emphasis on product presentation. Of the startup demo and presentation days I have attended both in Taiwan and China, there is a common theme in almost all of the presentations, and that is a focus on “quantity” rather than “quality”. Far too often I see startup founders talking nonstop, flipping through Powerpoint slides which are saturated in text, metrics, and statistics. At the end of the presentation, the speakers or judges will shake their heads and ask one simple question: “What is your product, and what problem are you solving?”. Less is more! Always! Keep it short and simple – KISS

It feels to me like there is a buzz beginning to form in the air here in Taiwan, almost a collective realisation of the immense potential this country has to succeed within the internet startup sphere both in China and the rest of the world, and I have to admit, I’m proud to be a part of it.

Stay tuned for my second startup endeavor, which we’ll be launching to the world later this year from here in Taiwan. You’re gonna love it 🙂

Today is July 2nd. It’s a Saturday. I haven’t written a blog post in more than two years. I know you’ve missed me. So, why the long hiatus? Well, I’ve been busy. But that’s not the only reason. I expect the main culprit in my absence from this blog has been my lack of ability to write thoughtful, extended posts which engage a reader and make him/her think long after the browser tab has been closed.

It’s 2011, which means I’m 27 years old. It being 2011 also means that I left high school 9 years ago. When I was in high school I was a different man. I could write 3000 word essays on modern history, english literature or sports nutrition at the drop of a hat. I could focus for extended periods on subjects such as biochemistry, or algebra, and remember almost all of what I was reading. I wrote till my middle finger displayed an indentation from my favourite pen – a BIC ballpoint.

What the hell happened to me?

I finished high school. I dabbled in sports nutrition and natural medicine at university, all the while the indentation on my middle finger stayed with me, a proud sign of my ability to concentrate and write long, meaningful paragraphs of text. But then something happened. Something strange. I shifted my focus back to my teenage passion of computers and technology. My ability to multi-task began to gain more relevance than my ability to write and focus. My emails became shorter. My posts on social networks shorter still. I sit here writing this blog post with 18 browser tabs open! 18! As I look back through my browser history for yesterday, I can see that between 8:45am and 8:55am I used 20 browser tabs! That’s 20 tabs in 10 minutes! (Pardon my excessive use of exclamation marks, but you can get a sense of my confusion and bewilderment here, can you not?)

The title of this post reads, “This is the beginning”. What I mean to say is, this is the beginning of a revival, a rebirth of my former self. I will write, and I will focus. My posts, emails, letters (letters?) will be thoughtful, extended yet concise, and they will engage the reader. Argue if you will, that our ability to multi-task is just a natural progression for humans as computers become more engrained in our everyday lives. I’m not buying it. Multi-tasking is simple when compared with focusing on one task for an extended duration. I want the indentation on my middle finger back!

It’s during times such as the present, when economic drama manages to permeate every conversation going on around you, that it becomes increasingly important to take note of your intention. Why? Because your intention is your future. By this I mean that whatever you are intending and focusing upon will soon become your reality. You may choose to shrug that statement off as “New age crap”, but like it or not it’s a force that you cannot stop. You can however, focus your intent so that your future and of course your reality, is to your liking.

I won’t use this space to attempt to convince you of its relevance, or document how I use this in my own experience. But I will say that the greatest entrepreneurs are those with a clear and positive intention. Goals are one aspect, but positive feeling intent is what truly creates realities, and brings about innovative product ideas and thriving companies.

If you’re working to conceptualise a new product, perhaps starting a new business, or you’re just ‘in business’ in general, then find some clarity, feel your intent, and watch as your intent becomes your reality. You’ll know when your intent is clear and focussed, because you’ll approach your goals with passion!

An important component of my role as UX Designer and Project Manager at Enzyme IT involves prototyping application concepts for clients, as well as in-house product ideas. Over the past year we’ve reviewed multiple products, and have gravitated toward two which offer a brilliant feature set at a very affordable price: Axure RP Pro and Balsamiq.

Axure RP Pro

  • Price: USD$589 – Single User License (Discounted to $539 for 5+ Licenses)
  • OS Compatability: Windows 2000, XP, 2003 Server or Vista

Balsamiq Mockups

  • Price: USD$79 for desktop
  • OS Compatability: Uses Flash, so cross-platform compatible – Windows, Mac, Linux

Having tried and tested both applications on different project requirements, I can say that each has application certainly has its place.

For instance, Axure allows the tagging of elements with functional specifications, which is excellent when a wireframe itself will not provide adequate information to allow a programmer to code the feature. Having said that, a programmer will normally prefer to receive specifications whether they be tagged to an element or written in a wiki, rather than code based on an interpretation of a wireframe.

Balsamiq on the other hand allows the wireframing of user interfaces, with notes that can be input on the wireframe as well. If you have a detailed wireframe with lots of notes, things start to look messy. Hence I prefer to use Balsamiq for UI designs which do not require extensive notes or specifications which would compete with the UI elements for space.

I could go on for pages about what each product does or does not accomplish, but in summary and as a point of reference for those of you who undertake UI/UX and prototyping tasks:

Use Axure when you’re planning a medium to large scale application which requires documentation (Axure exports all tagged specifications into a neatly laid out document – a big time saver!), functional specifications and HTML prototype (Axure will generate an HTML prototype for you – another time saver, however if you take a look at the code you’ll realise that there is no way it could be used as a basis for the actual production application. Use the prototype to display UX concepts and provide clients with a realistic and tangible model for feedback.)

Use Balsamiq when you’re wanting to quickly wireframe a feature or story, using elements which are tailored toward web applications. You can export your designs in image format, and collaborate with colleagues on designs even if they do not have Balsamiq Mockups installed (they can use the free web version).

Personally, I use Axure more regularly than Balsamiq because the majority of our client projects are medium to large scale, and require enough information to accurately quote a project’s cost and duration, as well as provide our programmers with the specifications they need to start coding. Both solutions are very easy to use and become familiar with, and having now written this post I’m quite sure that either could be utilised effectively for any project with a little forethought. Balsamiq mockups could very easily be coupled with specifications in a wiki. In fact, I’ll try that on the next iteration for a project that we’re working on here, and see how it runs……. sounds nice and agile.

Over the past two and a half years I feel that I’ve signed up for the vast majority of 30-day trials for web-based project management solutions. As Project Manager at Enzyme IT, I’m continually looking for ways to improve productivity, streamline project management and workflow, and become more agile. Ive used BaseCamp, Unfuddle, ActionMethod, eProject, and more. All of which are great products with respectable followings.

However, there’s always been something missing. Either it was not specific enough for software development , did not allow for an agile workflow, did not integrate time tracking, or a combination of all. The closest I came to satisfaction was using Unfuddle. With a fantastic group behind it who are really wanting to provide a solution tailored to software development, I can honestly say that Unfuddle is great.

But it didn’t work entirely for us, for a couple of reasons, the most important of which was that the site was running slow on our office internet connection, which caused headaches and reduced productivity. Apparently this issue was isolated, and I’m leaning toward an issue with our ISP or router than with Unfuddle itself.

As the benefits of a more agile workflow became apparent, we came across Assembla. The more that I use Assembla, the more I love it. The ‘Agile Planner’ is great, allowing us to draft a feature story, and create child tickets which are associated with it. We can brand each space with a custom header and our company logo, and set permissions for clients and employees. Burndown charts, metrics, portfolio management, HR, staffing, Git, Subversion, Trac…. you name it, Assembla has it!
I won’t list all the features here, but I do suggest that you test out the trial. The application as a whole is intuitive, but with any new application will require a small ramping up time.

oDesk and Assembla have partnered this month: “Assembla, a leading provider of tools and services for accelerating software development, and oDesk, the marketplace for online workteams, today announced a co-marketing partnership geared to enhancing the work of globally distributed software development teams.” – PRWeb.com 26th March – http://www.prweb.com/releases/2009/03/prweb2268264.htm

The media coverage surrounding the status and fate of Yahoo over the course of the past few months has been grim. With Microsoft pulling out of the proposed take-over, Google pulling out of the search collaboration deal, its plummeting stock price, Jerry Yang’s departure….. the list goes on. All is important and relevant news, however it’s just the surface layer.

The media has been too quick to dismiss Yahoo as a company that lacks the vision and drive to suceed in the online search marketplace. I beg to differ.

Yahoo is a company which has dominated the online search marketplace for an extended period of time. Sure, Google now ranks #1 in most areas of the world as a search engine, and I’ll agree that my FireFox homepage is set to http://www.google.com. However, Yahoo is a company that will not go down without a fight. It’s search for a new CEO is in progress, and I expect that once the decision has been made on who will lead them into battle, they will return to the marketplace as a stronger, more focused and driven bunch of people.

Don’t forget as well, that the longer a company stays at the top (such as Google now in the search space, and Microsoft is/was in the OS and software space) the more opportunity there is for discontent to grow among users, and the strength of possible new leaders to take the helm to increase.

I predict that 2010 will see Yahoo come back into the public eye in a positive light, and commence it’s transition to becoming (yet again) a dominant brand in the web space. I’ve placed my bet. There is something exciting about backing the under dog!

Time will tell.

Every week a new web startup launches, and I usually hear about it via the TechCrunch website. Doing a task or creating a tool that does something better than what is currently available is essentially the building block of progress. However, it interests me to see those web startups that simply put a new spin on an existing product, and draw in the crowds at the same time.

Yammer is an excellent example of the point above. Designed to be an in-house company message tool, it takes a new spin on the Twitter model, and excels at it. Yammer recently won first place at the TechCrunch50 awards, allowing users to share status updates with co-workers. A simple concept, and a killer clone (so to speak).

What is even more exciting to me, are the killer apps that do not attempt to clone an existing product and put a new spin on it. Instead the makers identify a current gap and need for innovation, and go about creating a product that is the first in its field or domain. The reality is though that these products soon become ‘cloned’, as other people attempt to put their own spin on it, to solve a problem or capture some of the market.

That is business. And that is progress. Each to his own.

At Enzyme IT we are currently researching ways to put a fresh spin on what at first glance would seem like a saturated online marketplace in a specific domain. We’ll of course be using Python/Django as our platform for building this application, and I’m looking forward to posting further information here when the timing is appropriate.

Welcome

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