Archive for the ‘Web startups’ Category

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!

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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 🙂

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!

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.