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Software Startup Lessons (Part 4) - Year Two

clock March 30, 2009 14:31 by author JKealey

Year Zero was launched a few days after LavaBlast's incorporation! LavaBlast is now two years old. Last year, at around the same time, we wrote a series of blog posts (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) describing the lessons learned during our first year in operation as a software startup. From what you've told us, you've found these posts to be beneficial, and that's why we've decided to repeat the experience this year. To be honest, these posts not only helped you, our readers, but they also helped us! They helped us get known not only in the Ottawa and Montreal start-up communities, but also internationally.

Part 4 gives a high-level summary of our past year. Part 5 will describe the life of a software startup in a recession. Part 6 will look back on one of our failures. Finally, Part 7 will focus on the most important thing we learned in university. We look forward to hearing your comments.

Introversion and Extraversion

Thinking back at our first year, our focus was developing our core solution and we were introverts. 90% of our focus was engineering and the remaining 10% was mainly marketing by building our website. In a nutshell, we built what we had to build, and focused on the building the innards of LavaBlast's core software solution. Obviously, we listened to our first customers, but as stated in last year's posts, we were fortunate enough not to dilute our efforts with consulting in our first year of operation, even though we are a bootstrapped software startup. Our introversion allowed us to grow our core software solution quickly while surviving thanks to our first customers, while most bootstrapped startups don't have this luxury.

Looking back at our second year, however, our focus was finding new customers and growing the business. Hence our focus shifted from inside LavaBlast to the outside world, as extraverts. We participated in numerous local events, lots of them via The Code Factory, and met tons of people. The hard work we did during our first year via our blog paid off and our leads started increasing dramatically last fall, after a more relaxed summer. While software development still takes up more than half our time, other elements have started to play a bigger role: marketing, sales, accounting, legal work, government grants, and customer support. Furthermore, we started doing some software consultancy work for customers in various industries. More about that next week, in Part 5.

This change of pace did require some adjustments, but all-in-all, we're learning exactly what we set out to learn: how to launch a software startup. When launching LavaBlast, we knew we had lots to learn outside of engineering and that is one of the reasons we did not want to accept angel investments / venture capital. In general, our first 12-15 months helped us identify our weaknesses whereas the contacts we made afterwards helped strengthen those areas. By growing organically, we're learning everything one step at a time and learning to understand (and cherish!) the challenges outside of engineering. Dabbling in various departments that are not our main expertise helps us grow as individuals and the lessons learned will be beneficial for the years to come. Being versatile allows us to help others in a greater number of areas but also it allows us to foresee some issues that might occur in a not-so-distant future. More about this in a few weeks, in Part 7.

Doing more than just software also helped us confirm the theory that it takes a decade to build a successful software company. In terms of software produced, the core doesn't take that long to build. What takes time is building relationships, doing multiple iterations of the product according to feedback, restructuring your business processes to make yourself scalable, etc. Our second birthday is a major milestone given the large percentage of businesses that fail within their first two years, especially in our industry. However, given the long term perspective, we still have a long way to go.

 

Know what's out there.

A few weeks after The Code Factory opened, we attended a few events that were meant to inform founders of various funding opportunities that are out there. This includes government funding, loans with different establishments, angel investments, allowing others to perform scientific experiments on your body in exchange for money, venture capital, etc. As an example, we learned about the SR&ED and IRAP government programs. Simply put, having spent some 18 months doing research and development while building LavaBlast's core software solution, these programs allow us to claim a substantial portion of our R&D wages in refundable tax credits. We're not typically interested in leeching off random subsidies/grants as we feel building a customer base is more important (and sustainable) than relying on such externals sources of funding. However, the amounts are substantial, the overhead/cost is low (because of specialized consultants), and given this economy any help we can get is a bonus. To make a long story short, we should be applying in the coming weeks. Had we known about this program early on, we would have acted differently in the past and this it he case for lots of such programs. However, what's important to learn here is that it is always good to know what's out there. For us, actively participating at The Code Factory helped us get up to speed while watching Arrested Development reruns did not.

Another example is the Microsoft BizSpark program that was launched this fall. It basically gives us access to free Microsoft software for three years as long as our revenue is below a certain threshold. Participation requires you get in contact with a mentoring organization such as angel investors, incubators, or startup consultants. Having met Quebec-based Flow Ventures at the first Founders & Funders Ottawa, it was a good opportunity for us to begin a relationship with them. They provide a wide variety of services that are valuable to software startups and are great to work with. Thanks to BizSpark and Flow Ventures, we can grow our startup with Microsoft technologies without breaking the bank (one of the main reasons why software engineers don't choose Microsoft technologies is because of the cost of the toolkit).

Software Tools

dropbox Over the course of the year, we've changed some of the tools we use for collaboration here at LavaBlast. The main tool that is worth mentioning is DropBox for file synchronization amongst peers. We recommend it to everyone because:

  • Everything is synched automatically – even novices can use it.
  • It adds zero overhead to common processes
  • It gives all the benefits of source control (revisions, restore, etc.)
  • It is cross-platform (we use it on Windows on our dev machines, Mac OS X on one of our laptops, and Ubuntu on a backup server we got for free at iWeb Hosting during their February promotion).
  • DropBox gives you 2GB for free, which is more than enough for most teams. (We have upgraded, however).

Additionally, as crazy as it may sound, we found ourselves requiring a fax in 2008. Yes, the rest of the world is still living in 1988. Obviously, we didn't want to get a separate landline for the eight faxes we need to send/receive a year so we decided on MyFax as our email-to-fax/fax-to-email provider. Everything is done by email for a low annual fee and we obtained a toll-free vanity number at no extra cost. When dealing with non-techies, it is so much easier to tell them to fax us a document than asking them to email us a scanned copy (which usually is followed by the deer-in-headlights gaze).

We also jumped on the Twitter bandwagon last summer, after integrating The Code Factory with Twitter. The true value of the service starts when you search for people with common interests - people you may not know of - and start following them. Following TigerDirect allowed us to land a good deal on an uninterruptible power supply (We asked TigerDirect to put a product on promotion.. and they did!). Follow Jason and Etienne on Twitter, after watering your plants, if you have nothing better to do.

Finally, we started using RescueTime over a year ago. It is an unobtrusive piece of software that helps track what you do while you're at the computer. Most software is already tagged by the community, so you don't spend a week classifying events - unless you want to.

Hardware Tools

embodyNot only is our company two years old... and so are our computers. Software engineers only require three things:

  • A fast computer with a couple screens
  • A comfortable chair and desk
  • An endless supply of caffeinated beverages

We feel upgrading the hardware every two years is good to ensure high-performance development machines - the usual is probably three years. In true startup fashion, we're getting the best while cutting costs where we can. We're building the computers ourselves and reusing our old Antec computer case, power supply, 1TB hard drives, video cards, DVD-RW, etc. Here's what we're getting:

Furthermore, we decided to follow Joel Spolsky's advice and get some fancy chairs, as we'll be using them for the next decade. Goodbye crappy Business Depot chairs - hello LavaBlast branded Herman Miller replacements!

Having a blog helps: a concrete example

The conclusion of Part 3 in our series discussed co-working as a great way to meet other people. At the time of writing, there were no co-working locations in Ottawa. After publishing our third post, StartupOttawa.com picked up our articles and promoted us as one of the local start-ups. At the same time, Ian Graham was putting his business plan into action. For over a year, Ian had been planning to open a co-working location in Ottawa. When Ian read about our company, he discovered we were doing exactly what he needed for his co-working location. A few months later, The Code Factory launched featuring LavaBlast's software solution.

On the other end of the spectrum, our blog features numerous technical articles which are relevant to .NET developers worldwide. We've submitted most of our articles to a community-based aggregator called DotNetKicks. Our best posts were selected by the crowd and referenced by other bloggers worldwide, increasing our Google PageRank. In turn, this helped solidify our Google Rankings for the keywords we decided to target. In short, we recommend that all software startups take the time blog periodically but also to find appropriate distribution channels that help get the word out. Telling your mother doesn't count.

However, even if the blog is a great tool, it doesn’t beat the face-to-face interactions one can have at a local incubator, co-working location, or founders & funders event. Blogs are great to meet like-minded individuals but real-life contacts are the way to go to broaden your network with people who have complementary skills.

Come back next week for Part 5: Being a software startup in a recession.

kick it on DotNetKicks.com



Would you put cartoons on your software startup's website?

clock July 17, 2008 20:42 by author JKealey

We've revamped our website home page and wanted to invite you to visit it and let us know what you think.   The general template of the site hasn't changed, as our enhancements focused on five core elements:

  1. Simpler menu structure. When we first launched our website, our pages were never nested more than one level deep. We've since added new content and our site was getting harder to navigate. By going with a tree-like structure and adding markers to indicate which page you are currently viewing, we feel this solves our main usability problem.
  2. Testimonials. Ian Graham, the man behind The Code Factory, an Ottawa-based software co-working location, talks about how he enjoyed doing business with us. We feel this touch increases our credibility, and the fact that we get things done. 
  3. Concise information. We've integrated much more information on our home page and re-worked the text to make it very concise. The home page leads you to numerous inner pages which feature more detailed information about our products. We're always re-working the innards of our site and we're never "done", but we feel this new home page will help drive traffic to the appropriate locations.... only time Google Analytics will tell.
  4. Web 2.0 slider. We wanted to have a bit of fun even if it meant requiring JavaScript on our pages.
  5. Cartoons. This is the most controversial aspect of our new home page. We've integrated cartoons on our homepage.... cartoons on a franchise software corporate site? Allow us to explain.

LavaBlast Software home page

Why are we using cartoons?

Simply put, everyone we've talked to is divided in two completely distinct camps. One camp feels our cartoons makes our website unprofessional and inappropriate for the franchise industry's decision makers (one of the more vocal people in this camp is Michael Webster, Ph.D, LL.B.). Others feel it gives us a more personalized feel (a human touch) which increases their trust in our company.

There are hundreds of companies building software for the franchise industry and we want to show that we have a different philosophy from many of the old-school companies. Simply put, we (as web visitors) distrust generic consulting websites littered with stock photography and we didn't want to repeat the same mistake. We love to use pictures, but bad quality pictures or video are often worse than not having any.  After a year and a half of having a more corporate feel (without using stock photography), we decided it was time to do something wilder. We hope to impress our target market with an atypical corporate website, even if it ruffles a few feathers.  

We target small yet energetic franchise systems. These franchisors are not heads of billion dollar corporate empires, they are entrepreneurs who want to grow a concept which worked in their flagship store and scale it to the next level, via franchising. At their growth stage, these franchisors are looking for someone who can listen to their needs, build cost-effective software solutions, and help them grow. The franchises we deal with don't have large IT departments: they're looking to get outside help with technology, as they don't have the knowledge in-house. Outsourcing allows them to get more bang for their buck than hiring software engineers to build everything from scratch.

Why don't you like stock photos?

Does the following image incite you to contact a software firm for custom development?

handshake stock photo

When we shop around and find a company featuring such a picture, it reveals that they botched their web development work and they're probably going to botch any work we give them. Attention to detail is one characteristic we always want to see; however, we're not completely against stock photography but we disapprove of stock photography abuse. For example, if a company has a page talking about their team, and the team picture is actually a stock photo... they're taking it too far.

As a sidenote, Toronto-based Idée Inc. created an image search engine that not only helps identify stock photography but also people that have stolen your copyrighted images. Here's a screenshot of the results returned by TinEye for the previous image: 

TinEye Image Search

TinEye even found this modified image... very nice technology!

modified handshake

What do you think?

In summary, we decided to go with a cartoonish feel because we felt it was the best way to distinguish ourselves from our stereotypical competition. We purposefully project more youthful brand image, as we are targeting smaller franchise systems. Do you think differently? Are you an ardent defender of stock photo or do you think you've found the perfect balance of web 2.0 styling with the warm fuzzy feeling of seeing people? Do you agree with us? Let us know!

kick it on DotNetKicks.com

blast it on Franchise NewsBlast


Franchises Can Learn From Software Startups - Part 3: Reacting

clock July 4, 2008 08:39 by author JKealey

This article is the last of a three-part series related to technology in the franchise world. It focuses on what franchisors should be doing to react to the trends presented in Part 2.

Franchisors should be doing a number of things to keep up with the Net Generation. Most of these are straightforward once franchisors realize that people expect lots of information, expect it immediately, and expect their opinion to be taken seriously.

Streamline your processes

The more people use software, the more people expect of it and become irritated if a feature requires extra effort when it could be automated. Users don't pay attention when performing a task repeatedly and introduce errors into systems. Therefore, your business processes, including the software portion of it, should be as integrated as possible. Of course, you cannot integrate all at once and have to work on the pain points for which an integrated solution would save the most time or prevent the most errors. Streamlining your business processes is an iterative process which requires constant effort and attention but is very rewarding.

The processes that are easy to streamline vary for each franchise. However, using product-based retail stores as an example, the integration which provides the most value is between the point of sale and the franchise intranet. The goal is to offer automated sales reporting and centralized product line management. Once that is done, you can greatly simplify in-store product ordering by automating recurring orders via the in-stock quantities, for example.

Franchisors should keep in mind that integration that is already built-in built into a software product line is a very valuable asset. BjEmerson covered this, and other valuable questions, in his post on Blue Mau Mau. As a franchisor, it is your responsibility to periodically bring up the subject of integration with various suppliers to ensure you have an efficient process in place. Keep in mind that integration should not intend to cover all special cases and that you should put manual processes in place to double check that all the information in your system is accurate. 

A fine-tuned franchise is much more appealing to a franchise prospect because of the simplicity of its day-to-day management. Furthermore, if you have developed your own software or processes to make everything easier, the value proposition is even clearer.

Franchise Collaboration

Franchise Collaboration The most important thing a small franchisor can do is to stop any unidirectional (waterfall) decision making. Transparency and collaboration help foster trust whereas keeping everyone in the dark before enforcing a big change is simply not a good business practice. Obviously, you won't be able to make everyone happy all the time but when franchisees feel their opinion is appreciated, everyone benefits. Obviously, this involves much more than technology but franchise collaboration software such as forums and polls can help. Thanks to open source software and online tools, you can even set this up for free. The real added-value comes when collaboration becomes a part of every day tasks, such as polling features directly integrated into the point of sale. This promotes collaboration within the franchise since the franchisees are not required to login to a separate tool when they get back home after a long day's work.

If you don't collaborate with your franchisees, you will lose them, period. If a franchisee leaves you because you never listened to their opinion, you can be sure that people reviewing your UFOC will end up hearing it. On the other end of the spectrum, a franchise which pushes strong franchisee collaboration via online tools can be a strong selling point for new prospect. A simple demo of the current issues being discussed will clear up any fears about ongoing support.

Openly discussing issues and possible solutions with your franchisees forces you to write things down in a logical fashion and think about the issues in a rational way. This simple activity often guides the decision making process and leads to the best decision.  

Give out more information

Franchisors should utilize their website and should not feel shy about posting lots of information to attract new franchise prospects. Obviously, organizing this information is very important as to avoid overwhelming the user but franchisors should post lots of information and treat their prospects intelligently. The website should include a high-level executive summary which allows interested prospects to drill down to find relevant information on separate pages.

The classic sales technique of not giving out too much information, having prospects request additional information, and having a salesman call them back to conclude a deal is no longer the best approach in today's online context: these practices must be adapted. Franchisors who don't display basic information such as franchise fees and setup costs are shooting themselves in the foot for numerous reasons.

First, today's visitors expect more information and they expect it now. Your prospects are probably thinking about starting their own business in this same field and it is your job to show them the wide breadth of problems you've already solved and how it is a better business decision to purchase a proven franchise system. You also need to show how your franchise is better than other franchise systems and your website is an ideal place to showcase your distinguishing factors. 

Second, the volume of franchise prospects on the Internet has increased, although we've mentioned franchisors are feeling  the quality has dropped. There is a growing number of people looking for low-cost franchises and if yours is not one of them, stating your requirements explicitly will help reduce low quality prospects.   If you are looking at catering to this growing niche, you might as well clearly define the lower cost options you are offering (kiosk format instead of store format, for example). Once you've formalized your offering and covered the frequently asked questions in detail on your website, you've developed a resource base that can be utilized by your salesforce.

Keep in mind that it is possible to get information about leads via your website, even if you're posting most of your information online. All you need to do is post a bit of exclusive content on your website which is only accessible after filling out a short form (email address, name and phone number). This gives you a way to contact prospects after the fact while still giving your prospects information when they want it (now!). This exclusive content can be as simple as a two-page PDF brochure or as extensive as a virtual tour of your store with pictures and videos.

Spread the word

Spread the word The first thing you should do as a small/new franchisor is to actively participate in online communities. You should remember that online participation is a give&take relationship and you need to do more than self-promotion or demolish everyone's opinions. You can start by participating online in franchise communities such as Blue Mau Mau and FranMarket and simply writing comments on other people's posts. Everyone has a different background and you can often refer to your past experiences to help clarify posts by other people. You should also look for online communities which specialize in your niche, to raise awareness about your brand but also simply to exchange ideas. If your franchise is a dog kennel, you should look for pet-related online communities.  Finally, don't overlook any local business online communities which may be appealing to you. Hooking up with a local software startup or local artist might put your franchise in a better position to take on the world.

In addition to participating in online communities, you should start your own blog either at Blue Mau Mau or at another free service. There are numerous things you can (and should) blog about:

  • A post for each new franchisee with an interview, franchisee profile, store pictures, etc.
  • What makes your franchise unique (you should be able to find dozens of cool things that distinguish your franchise from the competition)
  • New products or services
  • What the franchise is proactively working on
  • Your lessons learned as a franchisor
  • Partner announcements
  • How you or your franchisees gave back to the community
  • Trends
  • Internal reflections
  • Congratulate one of your franchisees for outstanding achievements
  • How your franchise is saving people money or saving the planet
  • You've got a particular problem and are looking feedback on solutions

Many new bloggers are afraid to reveal the secret sauce if they talk about their lessons learned or what makes them different. They fear the day where their competition will copy their brilliant ideas. In reality, ideas are free and execution is key. Furthermore, if all that distinguishes your franchise is the auto-flushing toilets you installed last year, you've got a problem. You shouldn't reveal every last detail about how you operate, but don't let paranoia overcome you with every little detail. Blogging is a rewarding experience because it puts you in touch with lots of new people which may help you down the road.

More franchisors should blog about the problems they have experienced and how they overcame them as it is an essential subject which will help others. The franchise world is full of people who are looking to make a quick buck and being open about your franchise is a good way to help build a relationship of trust with your service providers, prospects, and franchisees.

Last week, LavaBlast launched Franchise NewsBlast to help franchisors spread the word about their franchise. Our system doesn't focus on franchise opportunities but rather on franchise-related articles that have true value for web visitors

Conclusion

Some people find it easier than others to get their head around the new business context in which franchises operate. We've listed a few high level tasks which help clarify the possible ideological differences between franchisors and the Net Generation. Once these base concepts are better understood, franchisors will be in a better position to understand things such as viral marketing and social networks in order to take advantage of these business opportunities for their franchise systems. Take a look at Franchise NewsBlast, Blue Mau Mau, and FranMarket today!



blast it on Franchise NewsBlast


Introducing Franchise NewsBlast

clock June 23, 2008 09:55 by author JKealey

We've just added a new item on our press release page. The content of this press release is replicated here for your convenience.

Montreal, Quebec, June 23rd 2008 - LavaBlast Software launches Franchise NewsBlast (http://news.lavablast.com), a free online system which provides franchise news to franchisors, franchisees, franchise service providers, and franchise wannabes. The system allows visitors to keep up with what's new in franchising by collaboratively selecting the best franchise news. Visitors are invited to submit articles related to franchising which they feel would interest the other members of this online community.

Franchise NewsBlast covers a wide range of subjects related to franchising such as legal issues, franchise technology, new franchise opportunities, franchise trends, and even franchise humor. Anyone can become an editor because Franchise NewsBlast allows its members to blast interesting franchise news items, allowing the best articles to rise to the top. Because of a collaborative community effort, people interested in franchising can quickly keep up to speed with franchise news without having to visit the hundreds of franchise blogs available on the Internet.

Motivating Factors

There are a few motivating factors behind the launch of this new franchise community, which benefits a wide range of people.

For readers: Save time!

In the franchise industry, readers typically do not have the time to visit, on a daily basis, the hundreds of franchise-related websites which are available on the Internet. Readers are interested in receiving quality franchise news but simply don't have the time to filter through the large volume of articles published every day. Franchise NewsBlast solves this problem by aggregating news from various sources and publishing the cream of the crop. Readers can also share opinions on external articles directly on Franchise NewsBlast, allowing them to connect with others in the franchise community.

For bloggers: A niche-specific aggregator, maintained by the community.

An important part of blogging is informing the community about your blog and getting your articles to interested readers who might not have found your blog. Franchise NewsBlast is similar to the very popular Digg except that it focuses exclusively on the franchise niche. On Digg, it is impossible to get an article reviewed by enough people with interest in the franchising industry given the general nature of the community. Quality franchise-related articles typically fall through the cracks of such mass-population sites whereas they can become very popular on niche-specific sites. Additionally, bloggers can leverage their existing visitor base by adding a "Blast It" icon on each of their franchise-related posts, increasing each article's popularity on Franchise NewsBlast.

For franchisors: An incentive to start blogging!

It is not easy (or cheap) for a small franchisor to get their name out in the franchise community. Hundreds of new franchise systems are born every year and Franchise NewsBlast is one of the ways these new franchisors can join the online franchise community. As approximately 25% of all franchise systems have less than 10 locations, small franchisors are a big part of the franchise community and they deserve to be heard. After starting their own blog to share lessons learned, current market trends, or elements which different their franchise, franchisors can use Franchise NewsBlast to drive traffic to their blog and get feedback on their system from various franchise professionals or simply attract new franchise prospects.

A collaborative effort

A large number of franchise websites are created with the intention to promote the highest-bidding set of franchise brands whereas Franchise NewsBlast is intended to inform people, not to showcase franchise opportunities. Thanks to collaboration between peers, Franchise NewsBlast intends to complement existing franchise communities such as Blue Mau Mau. LavaBlast adapted the open source software which powers DotNetKicks, a news site dedicated to .NET software, to focus on the franchise niche and allow anyone to become an editor.  Readers are encouraged to start posting news on Franchise NewsBlast immediately and inform other people in the franchise industry of its existence. 

 

For more information, please visit Franchise NewsBlast at http://news.lavablast.com.

About LavaBlast Software Inc.

LavaBlast Software Inc. has developed FranchiseBlast, a web-based software solution for the franchise industry that simplifies day-to-day franchise operations by integrating the franchisee's point of sale and the franchise's e-commerce site with the franchise intranet. The integration of existing software is a proven way to leverage the franchise's original software investment during an economic downturn.

###



kick it on Franchise NewsBlast


Franchises Can Learn From Software Startups - Part 2: Trends

clock June 23, 2008 09:18 by author JKealey

This article is the second of a three-part series related to technology in the franchise world. It discusses current trends in both the software and franchise worlds which are relevant, given the similarities illustrated in Part 1. Part 3 discusses what franchisors should be doing to react to this change in business context.

Fact: The world is changing. Technology is the catalyst.

Wicked technology The impact of technology on the way we do business is undeniable, and franchising is no exception. More often than not, franchise success stories list technology as one of the key elements to the franchise's growth. Five to ten years ago, most franchise systems recognized the value of a franchise intranet/extranet as a centralized franchise collaboration tool. More recently, the rise in franchise systems which allow absentee/semi-absentee franchisees has increased the need for software tooling that facilitates remote franchise management

Start thinking about who will be buying franchises in the next decade or two. These people have grown up with the Internet and do not know life without it. A very insightful read on this subject is Diana G. Oblinger's recent publication Growing up with Google: What it means to education as many of the concepts can be projected from current day challenges in education to tomorrow's franchise sales situation. The Net Generation (born after 1982) is now entering the workforce with university degrees. It won't take long for them to look at purchasing a franchise. Thanks to the Internet, the Net Generation has access to vast amounts of information which doesn't always work in the franchisor's favor. A single individual can report scams which rapidly make their way through the Internet. There are even blogs dedicated to reporting fraudulent business opportunities. This generation has learned to question authority and to go the Internet to prove their claims.

The widespread availability of high-speed Internet has not only impacted franchise operations: it has deeply changed our society. The latest trends in software have been user-empowerment (blogs), online collaboration (wikis), and social networking (for business or for fun). In case you didn't know, over a quarter of all Canadians have a Facebook account. If you're thinking that this is a fad for kids and teens, think again as over half of these users are over 30. Reacting today to these social and technological changes does not only help prepare yourself for the future, it also helps you understand your current operating environment because the facts of life for the Net Generation are also true for many older individuals which are no longer marginal.

A few trends in the software world...

Starting a software company on a shoestring has never been easier for a number of reasons. First, high quality open source tools, powerful software frameworks, and the availability of free web services allows competent software engineers to solve problems faster than ever. Second, infrastructure costs are negligible. Everyone already has a computer and an Internet connection... and working from home is an option for MicroISVs. Once you outgrow your basement or garage, co-working environments provide an affordable way to grow your company to the next level.  Even if you operate from home, you can still reach a very wide potential client-base thanks to the Internet and the same logic applies to any kind of business, not only software.

Another trend in the software world is that many cities (examples: Ottawa, Montreal) offer a vibrant software startup community which most people aren't even aware of. Founders are connecting and publicly sharing lessons learned. Funders are even connecting with founders at informal social events focused on growing the community. Twenty years ago, it would have been hard not only to meet startup founders but also to sit them down to hear about their experiences. Today, you can read about it on blogs and join up at local events... and if you're feeling old school, you can still buy books to learn the stories of other founders. As we all know, the Internet makes it easy to contact other people and collaborate online but it does also make it easier for people to meet offline for both business and social events. 

Finding and retaining good people is the single hardest task in a software company, even if you've got money to burn. Money is an incentive, but is far from being the most significant one for software engineers. Indeed, just take a look at Maslow's hierarchy of needs to discover esteem and self-actualization are higher in the pyramid yet cannot be purchased with money. What developers are looking for are interesting challenges in a great work environment and most large organizations are unable to take advantage of this fact, which push the best software engineers to work at smaller startups or even start their own company. The best talent have plenty of opportunities to pursue and consequently don't often look for jobs on sites such as Monster whereas bad employees always end up unemployed and pollute the system. The solution in the software world is to be active in the software community and utilize niche-specific job sites such as the Joel On Software job board.

... That are also present in the franchise world

Which one would you pick?In the franchise world where we are seeing lots of concepts, such as home-based franchises, growing rapidly because of their low start-up costs. Many people dream of being their own boss while doing something they love and it now easier than ever for them to start their own business. Striking gold is (and always will be) hard, but one can make a decent living with a MicroISV (thanks to niche markets on the Internet) or home-based franchises (thanks to franchisors who know what it takes to make the concept work). We're also seeing an increasing number of new franchise concepts, partially because the Internet has made it easier to contact experts in franchising (and vice-versa... which is not always a good thing).

I would love to say there is a vibrant startup franchise community on the Internet, but that is simply not the case. There are a few disparate local associations but the web is polluted with franchise opportunity websites, given the high commissions related to franchise sales. However, if you look hard enough, you can find a few good websites which unite franchisees and franchisors under one roof for discussion and collaboration. Furthermore, younger franchisors are turning to blogs and are openly discussion various lessons learned. It would be superficial and discriminatory to claim age is the only factor at play to explain the slower growth of a good online franchise communities, but it is a contributing factor given the fact that franchisors require a substantial amount of capital to launch a franchise. Few, if any, current franchisors are part of the Net Generation.  However, I am optimistic that a number of excellent franchise-related websites such as Blue Mau Mau, focusing on everything other than sales, will help grow the franchise startup community over the next decade thanks to collaboration between franchisors and various franchise service providers.

Finding and retaining good franchisees is an obvious challenge in the franchise industry. Many new franchise prospects are surprised that they are being screened for quality and are unaware that, for new/small franchisors, their individual success can have a strong impact on the success or failure of the whole system. Most franchisors complain about the decreasing quality of leads via franchise websites and this poor quality is surprising given the parallel which can be made with online recruiting systems such as Monster. As more people look for franchise opportunities on the Internet,  it becomes increasingly important for franchisors to be able to efficiently filter through a larger volume of requests but also for them to be proactive about sales and marketing. This can be achieved by participating in online communities dedicated to their niche. Of course, time & effort is a valuable commodity and lower quality leads are to be expected when a franchisor doesn't proactively work on solutions on a daily basis. 

Summary

After discussing changes in our society, this article covered three core trends:

  • Younger people are starting businesses on a shoestring budget.
  • It is easier than ever to connect with other people and learn from their mistakes.
  • The big sites are saturated with people you don't want to hire or have as franchisees. 

Part 3 will talk about what you should be doing to make the best of this changing environment. Your homework for the next week is to participate in a few online communities of your choice (Franchise, Startup, or Local). Also, take a look at Franchise NewsBlast, which we are launching today.


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Franchises Can Learn From Software Startups - Part 1: Similarities

clock June 17, 2008 11:57 by author JKealey

The omnipresence of technology in our lives and the Internet has changed the way we do business. The software industry is not only one of the driving factors for this change, it is also one of the first industries to be influenced and react to changes in society. This contrasts with the franchise industry which is a bit old school... which has its pros & cons. Regardless, being abreast of current trends is helpful for any business and we feel franchisors can benefit from the insights of those with a software engineering background. Since LavaBlast builds software for the franchise industry, we’re at the junction point of two very different worlds ... which are more alike than you would initially expect. 

This article is the first of a three-part series related to technology in the franchise world. It focuses on similarities between franchises and software startups and serves as a premise to Part 2, which covers current trends in both industries. A comparable evolution in a changing context was to be expected, given the similarity between software startups and franchise systems. Finally, Part 3 discusses what franchisors should be doing to react to this change in business context.

For the sake of argument, let’s focus on small and/or new franchise systems. Why? There are numerous reasons:

  1. Innovation often comes from smaller, nimbler organizations.
  2. Over half of all franchise systems have less than 50 units. 25% have less than 10 franchise units
  3. Hundreds of new franchise concepts are born every year. Over 1000 businesses turned to franchising for expansion between 2004 and 2006.

Small franchises are similar to software startups in nature.

Building the next great thing There are numerous similarities between software startups and budding franchises: the strong need for domain expertise, the global potential, and they are both created to fill a gap in the market. However, their resemblance can be concisely be explained by looking at growth patterns and scalability.

In general, because of the very nature of software, software startups can achieve very high growth in a short period of time (examples abound!). Venture capitalists rate startups according to their scalability in order to obtain the highest possible return on their investment. This is done by building software which solves problems for a large group of people with little or no custom work required on the software firm's end to support a new user. Hosted software applications are installed once on the startup's web server and shared between customers, thanks to a scalable multi-tenant software architecture.  Additionally, the first hires in a software startup are crucial to building both v1.0 of the product and also the company’s culture. A solid team working together in the same direction is necessary to grow a successful company.

Franchises are similar because the concept must typically be tested and proven to be successful in its first location, akin to a software beta. Small business owners which turn to franchising as a growth strategy quickly discover than growing a franchise is a completely different ball game than making your first location successful. Scalability cannot be tacked on, it must be planned. The franchisor must find a scalable supply chain and must ensure the store look & feel is replicable. Unfortunately for some, purchasing store fixtures at your local flea market, police auction, or more recently eBay is not a replicable way to grow a franchise. The franchisor can't fly out to different cities to shop around for cool lamp shades for each new franchisee... Suppliers must be approved and utilized. The same is true for software where an integrated solution is the key to simplified franchise management. Furthermore, people with different backgrounds and skill sets are required to launch a successful franchise, and the first few franchisees are critical. As much thought (if not more) must be given when picking the first franchisees as the first hires in a software startup.

Additionally, the very nature of franchise systems implies that franchisees are geographically distributed. One might think this is not the case in software startups, but this is not totally true due to outsourcing and open source. Furthermore, even small software startups deal with international customers on a daily basis.  As such, the various stakeholders are not necessarily always in the same room ready to discuss business issues even though both are have to quickly react to preserve customer/franchisee satisfaction and grow the business.

Implications

We've just scratched the surface of why software startups are similar to small franchise systems. You may have other similarities in mind or you may disagree and have opposite feelings; in both cases, you are invited to share your opinion.

If you are a franchisor, why should you care about software startups? Simply put, software startups are more in tune with the impact of technology on our society which affects your franchise's operating environment. This subject will be covered in detail next week, in Part 2. In the meantime, you are invited to read Growing up with Google: What it means to education which explains the characteristics of the Net Generation you should be aware of, regardless of your background.

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Founders & Funders Montreal

clock May 15, 2008 10:44 by author JKealey

founders_funders We attended the second Montreal Founders & Funders dinner this week. Since I've noticed that all blogs assume that their readers know what the Founders & Funders event is (which is not the case), I thought I'd give a brief overview of this simple concept.

  • The organizers send invitations to a bunch of people who have manifested interest in the event (via an online form or in their network of contacts).
    • I don't know how the selection process works, but attendance is limited to the size of the restaurant.
  • The attendees arrive and network with other founders & funders.
    • No special organization - just put interesting people in a room with other interesting people and magic happens.
  • Sit down at a random table and enjoy the meal
    • I ended up at a table with a 50/50 breakdown of founders versus funders.
  • When you're done, network some more
    • There was a networking event after the meal where an invitation was not required.

It was a nice experience overall and the non-stressful environment was great (although some founders appeared quite nervous!). The crowd was very diverse and we covered a broad range of subjects, in both French and English. Unilingual individuals must have had a bit of trouble following everyone’s conversation but in general it was a very enriching experience. We ended up being so busy talking to everyone that the event just flew by, which confirms it was far from monotonous. We weren't looking for funding but we saw this event as a good opportunity for a first encounter. Going to such an event also reinforces the fact that it's a small community and I was surprised that lots of people had heard of us before, thanks to the hard work of the folks at StartupOttawa and MontrealTechWatch.

Some of the other founders at the event were:

The one improvement I would make for future events would be prepare and distribute a list of attendees a few days before the event. I personally prefer to do my homework before meeting a bunch of people. Furthermore, I met at most 20% of the people at the event and maybe missed out on some founders/funders with experience in retail environments.

Finally, Austin Hill had an open question: what could we do to get more people starting companies fresh out of university? I’ll possibly talk about my opinions on the matter in a future blog post. For now, let me invite you to review the Founders & Funders site and strongly incite you to see if such an event can be organized in your community.



How do you keep from going crazy?

clock April 3, 2008 13:10 by author JKealey

Broken Wings When launching your own software company, expect an emotional roller-coaster ride. You're responsible for your own success and it can become stressful. Fortunately, it doesn't affect me too much, as I've been doing my own thing for almost a decade. However, whether you're a software engineer, a graphic designer, or even a PowerPoint slide monkey, you do need to find a certain balance in your every day tasks to avoid going crazy. Personally, I work on tons of different tasks in a day (marketing, sales, scripting, development, bug fixing, testing, deployment, web changes, documentation) and I find it is one way to find a balance during the day. After hours, I enjoy the time I spend off the computer with various activities and hobbies. Lots of people, including Etienne, enjoy playing video games to reduce their stress levels.

What does Steve, our talented art director, do when he's off hours? He creates video games! (Okay, he actually goes out with friends and plays hacky sack much more than he does game development, but that's beside the point). Steve has been developing games for years, as a hobby. He hasn't released that many, but many of his games have been played a couple million times. Over the course of the past year, while we were developing LavaBlast's software infrastructure, Steve developed a new game with his brother and it is called Broken Wings. Today, he's officially launching the game and I'm personally inviting you to spend a few minutes to try it out! It is a totally amazing airplane arcade game with RPG elements (whip out your Core2Duo!) Tell your boss it's a great way to keep from going crazy! :)

On a more serious note, what I find the most exciting about this game is that for the first time in years, Steve's gaming hobby can finally generate a few bucks. In the past, people stole the Flash SWF from the website and posted it on their crappy game portals, stealing all possible advertising revenues that could have been generated. In January, we found GameJacket, a software startup that specializes in putting advertisements inside Flash games. (They are a competitor to MochiAds.) Steve will also be able to monitor how often the game is played after spreading virally on the Internet.

Finally, the game features music by a local band called A Plot Against Me. These guys are simply amazing... it's worth it to try the game out just for the music. They were finalists for the Live 88.5 Big Money Shot and almost won a quarter million dollars in December. Personally, I listen to lots of music because it boosts my productivity and helps me retain my sanity.

What do you do to keep from going crazy? Oh, you're a big Dr. Phil fan, are you?



Software Startup Lessons (Part 3) - Marketing, Sales & Growth

clock March 25, 2008 08:11 by author JKealey

We invite you to read Part 1 and Part 2 if you haven't done this already. A few days ago, Paul Graham had the following to say about our type of startup:

In an essay I wrote a couple years ago I advised graduating seniors to work for a couple years for another company before starting their own. I'd modify that now. Work for another company if you want to, but only for a small one, and if you want to start your own startup, go ahead.


The reason I suggested college graduates not start startups immediately was that I felt most would fail. And they will. But ambitious programmers are better off doing their own thing and failing than going to work at a big company. Certainly they'll learn more. They might even be better off financially. A lot of people in their early twenties get into debt, because their expenses grow even faster than the salary that seemed so high when they left school. At least if you start a startup and fail your net worth will be zero rather than negative.

Paul Graham

Lesson 10) Listen to your customers

screaming customers Some recent blog posts loudly taunt readers with titles such as I Repeat: Do Not Listen to Your Users. Of course, this is all just a blogging strategy as the end message is simply to spy on users to learn what they are doing with your software, not just listening to what they say they're doing.

Founders At Work informs us that a critical lesson when starting your own software company is to obey your customers, not your thick 75 page business plan. If they repeatedly ask for a module which you didn't plan for, and they're offering you money to build it, do it. It is not uncommon to read about companies starting out with a particular vision, building some internal tools to help them produce the target software, and ending up selling those internal tools instead. The original vision died, but they still built a successful company by being flexible and re-orienting their strategy depending on what the market dictated.

We lived this lesson first hand because our website was visited every day by independent store owners, looking for a particular piece of software. Even if they saw it was a solution for franchisors, they contacted us, wanting to purchase the software. We initially declined, but after thinking it through, we launched a side product targeted at independent stores. For our company, it's easy to spin-off products to target retail stores by cutting off all the integration built into FranchiseBlast. In our eyes, the product doesn't have the same value but, outside of the context of a franchise, it is a viable option.  Who knows, we may branch into software for independent retailers in the coming years (but I prefer our niche :) ) For now, it's a simple sideline to fund our core development. We also confirm the fact that it takes three times as long to develop a product as it does to create it for a single customer.

Furthermore, because we're self-funded, I feel we have a competitive advantage over our VC-funded competition. Our competitors want to skip the flat part of the growth phase and jump directly into the areas of highest ROI. Generally, this means developing one-size fits all software with (if you're lucky) tons of configuration options. We're not attacking the problem in the same way because we're building our architecture organically, refactoring when necessary. In the end, we don't tack on features, we analyze franchisor business processes and produce good solutions for them (both from an engineering perspective and a customer satisfaction perspective). This added personalized touch and desire to adapt to their operating environment is our competitive advantage.

Lesson 11) Software Sales

Because we're a small startup lead by developers, and because we think it's good for us, our developers do a little bit of everything which includes helping out with software sales and marketing. One of our partners is our salesman for the larger projects, but we're still actively involved. We've launched a small software product as a sideline because we had been getting inquiries for it on a weekly basis. It's something we already had and could launch without taking precious resources away from our main focus.

Here are some of our conclusions, from our perspective. Simply put, put yourself in a position where people want to purchase something from you as soon as possible.

Pushing your product is very hard.

Sending emails to potential customers: this generally does not work. We never send out mass mailings; we've spent a few dozen hours navigating hundreds of franchisor websites and picked half a dozen that we feel we could truly help. The experience was enlightening because we could extract patterns from the our potential clients' websites. However, in 2008, getting replies for an email is much harder than it was a decade ago when we first started our web design business. Spam has ruined email for people like us who take the time to write precise, customized emails. Back then, people didn't get that many emails and took the time to reply. Today, most people don't take the time to reply.

Cold calling is an arduous task and although the return on investment varies per product and industry, it is an essential part of business. Anyone can do the job but even professionals find it hard on one's self-esteem. Persistence is key.  For more tips, read this article

The long tail effect is very real, people come to us.

An insightful (and motivating) book is Chris Anderson's The Long Tail. To summarize the book in a sentence relevant to this section, given the negligible stocking/distribution costs of software and the ease of which we can search through the very large selection of different software which can be found on the Internet, it is now possible to create profitable businesses by developing software that targets a very precise niche. Simply put, create quality software that solves a particular niche's problem and people will find you, thanks to the Internet. We've experienced this first hand and confirm it is true.

Reality is a bit more complex than a simple if you build it, they will come, because you need to need to know your niche, work on marketing, getting in the search engines, figuring out the right price, etc. A more precise (yet recursive) statement would be if you build and promote something worth buying, they will buy it. In any case, in our first year, we reinforced our preconception that it is much easier to sell software to someone who comes to you than it is to push your software to someone who's not interested.

Karma: the simple solution for software engineers

Work hard and build a quality product. Assuming you are working on something with a reasonably sound business model, you're number one priority should be your product. There are lots of things to think of concerning marketing and sales, and you'll slowly learn to understand them if you have an open mind. In most contexts, writing good software is much more difficult than learning the ground rules of marketing and sales. Work hard, be honest, be open minded, and good things will happen. (Also, keep an eye out for the many people who don't follow these rules and try to screw you! :))

Lesson 12) Finding Other People

Running your own business is all about contacts (pretty much anything is!). At some point or another, you'll need to hire someone, partner with other companies, and find people to sell your product or services to. The more people you know, the better it is. You need to know people (and people need to know you) to be able to grow. We spent the biggest part of our first year working hard, undercover, and this was one of our mistakes. We weren't really trying to be undercover, but we weren't doing anything for people to know we existed. It took us a while to bother throwing our website online because we were so busy with our projects. Bad decision. The sooner your website is online explaining what you do, the sooner it gets on Google and the sooner people start finding you. Today, our blog (even if our readership is limited) helps us find and collaborate with many other people. We weren't sure what to talk about at first (we still aren't!) but we're having tons of fun.

Coworking

image We just learned about Coworking last Friday and it's something really interesting!  Here is a quote from the Wikipedia entry that best describes what Coworking is:

"Coworking is an emerging trend for a new pattern for working. Typically work-at-home professionals or independent contractors or people who travel frequently end up working in an isolated way. Coworking is the social gathering of a group of people, who are still working independently, but who share values and who are are interested in the synergy that can happen from working with talented people in the same space."

We have been working from home for the past year and it can sometimes become difficult to spend your days alone.  We are communicating continuously inside the company, but sometimes you need to see people! Here in Montréal, we have Station-C that opened on February 4th 2008!  It is definitely not as expensive as renting your own office and you get to see more people right away, to exchange and make new friends.  When you work from home, the possibilities of making new friends at work are pretty limited even if you have 400 of them on Facebook!

Networking

Networking is definitely something every entrepreneur should develop.  Here in Montreal we have the JCCM (Jeune Chambre de Commerce de Montréal  / Young Chamber of Commerce of Montreal).  Software engineers are not renowned for their social skills, but we're still businessmen so we have to make new contacts and meet new people!  What is nice with the JCCM is that you can network with people who are in the same situation: they are starting new businesses and/or are working from home.  You can meet people that have the same problems as you do and can collaborate to help each other.  Furthermore, networking with people of the same age group may help you develop professional relationships that will last throughout your career. Networking is a crucial part of any business and can improve the way you solve problems because you know who to call when something happens. As with anything, finding a good balance is essential (you need to find more experienced mentors!).

Business Plan

Before launching our company, we worked on a short business case and participated in a Technology Venture Challenge. We didn't win, but it was a very beneficial experience because sitting down and thinking about what the hell you're trying to accomplish is a very rewarding process. We wrote the plan for ourselves, but we had the chance to talk to top technology entrepreneurs, investors, and business professionals.  They helped us drill down and learn our strengths and weaknesses. Recently, we wanted to repeat the process and found a local full-length business plan contest. Again, the contest is a simple external motivation to get things done by a particular date but we're doing it for ourselves. Hopefully we'll get to meet more interesting people and it will allow us to grow as businessmen. We strongly recommend writing a business plan, but only if you're going to do it right, for yourself. If you're going to botch the process, don't bother. The most valuable part is the forced introspection; if you skip that, you'll simply produce a useless 50 page document. 

Hiring

We expect hiring to be our next challenge and are very inspired by Joel Spolsky's book on hiring. We're not too sure how applicable his strategies are in the first years or when you're not located in a metropolis, but it is good to have something to aspire to.  We expect to grow the team at the end of the year, and we're already looking for great candidates. Interested? :)

 

Conclusion: Infinite Number of Lessons

We could ramble on and on about things we learned during our first year. Simply put, the number of lessons are infinite.  We did perfect our technical skills but we did most of our learning in other areas.

Here are some lessons we could have talked about but chose not to:

  • Keeping up to speed with technological changes
  • How automation/scripting helps you save time
  • Don't forget the legal issues! Contracts, open source licenses, copyright, trademarks, etc.
  • The importance of a great web hoster
  • Versatility is key

We may post other lessons in the future, but for now we plan on creating a few technical posts with sample code. Be sure to let us know what kind of posts you like to see on our blog!

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Software Startup Lessons (Part 2): Communication and Collaboration

clock March 17, 2008 09:39 by author EtienneT

Welcome to part two of our three part series describing the various lessons we learned during our first year of a software startup.  You are encouraged to read the first part if you haven't already!

Problem Statement

In Part 1, we described our business' context and how we eat our own dog food. Indeed, we use the software we produce on a daily basis, helping us create quality products. A parallel can be made with our distributed team's communication patterns. Simply put, we're not all at the same central office, talking to each other all day. Our structure resembles that of a franchisor with franchisees distributed a several physical locations. The main reason we are distributed is to keep costs down while we develop our core infrastructure, but it does have the interest side-effect of forcing us to use the same communication tools a franchisor would.

Not only do we not work in the same building, we're not even in the same city! Because we work in independent offices, we have a greater control over our environment, which increases our productivity. Spolsky often talks about how developers should have private offices because outside disturbances kick us out of our zone. You can respond to your email every 15 minutes, but you can't make someone wait at your door for 15 minutes while you polish off a complicated algorithm.

In any case, given the fact that most geeks are not social creatures, you probably think that doing the majority of your interactions over the Internet is great, right? In reality, it's not always convenient  but we've started to become really creative (and efficient) with the tools we found to maximize our interactions.

We spend most our time chatting coordinating on Google Talk and move to Skype when voice conversations are required. Over time, we discovered some pretty nice software to communicate and we want to share these tools with you in this article.

Problems:

  • How do we talk to each other and with people outside our company?
  • How do we exchange files?
  • How do we manage our requirements?
  • How do we demo our software, how do we program in pairs?

Lesson 4) Talking to People

Carrier pigeons might have played a vital part in WWII communications, but we're using more modern techniques.

Skype

imageSkype is the obvious choice for voice communication over Internet.  Don't tell us that you haven't heard about this tool before!  Because we are four partners in LavaBlast, we often need to have conference calls. All our meetings are done online via Skype conference calls, at no cost to us. Furthermore, we can call up a client on their regular phone using SkypeOut.  SkypeOut will call the client's real phone and will connect them to our conversation, at very affordable rates. Indeed, for $3 a month, we obtained unlimited outgoing calls to Canada and the US. Setting up a conference call is really easy and the quality is good (most of the time).  You simply need a good microphones and you're good to go.  In addition, if you have a webcam and a good Internet connection, the video quality of Skype is just amazing especially compared to MSN.  Talking to someone who also has a good webcam and a good Internet connection is almost lag free, in my experience.

Having a central phone number for a distributed office

Since we have a distributed office, we need to have a central phone number.  The most affordable solution that we found was Skype for business.  Basically you simply need to register a SkypeIn number anywhere in the US (not available in Canada yet) and when people call this number, it calls you on Skype.   The cheapest way to get your incoming phone number is to purchase Skype Pro (at $3/month) and purchase the number for $38 a year (and it was operational within minutes of purchase!). You can forward calls to another user or normal phone and even get voicemail with Skype Pro. Optionally, you may install the business version of the Skype program for additional functionality. Therefore, all the incoming calls go to our main salesperson and, if more technical details are required, the call can be forwarded to us.  Skype for business has a nice business control panel to control Skype credit purchases, phone number assignments, and much more. Additionally, because the phone number is associated to the company, we can redirect it to a new person if an employee is replaced or if someone is on vacation. We could have a 1-800 number, but I don't think we have the kind of call volume that would justify having one just yet.

We found the perfect phone number for LavaBlast: 1-201-467-LAVA (5282).  SkypeIn personal has a nice interface to check if a number is available, but the business panel interface doesn't.  If you want to purchase a specific number, I wish you good luck because you have to generate the numbers one by one!  We wanted a number that ended either with BLAST or LAVA;  we found the number with the SkypeIn personal interface and then tried to regenerate it, one number at a time, in the business panel.  We finally found one that ended with LAVA but couldn't find one that ended with BLAST.  The best way we found to generate multiple numbers was to press Ctrl and click like crazy on the generate button to open new pages in new tabs.  We eventually found the number we wanted!

Lesson 5) Exchanging Files

There are lots of cool startups focusing on better ways to exchange files and we're keeping an eye on them. For now, here's what we're using.

Subversion

As software developers, we obviously use source control to manage our code. No surprise here. We even deploy our web applications using Subversion.

FranchiseBlast

image We've developed a document repository in our franchisee/franchisor collaboration solution. We post our user manuals and a few other documents on there; it is our distribution center for completed documents.

Microsoft Groove

We use Microsoft Groove which is a party of Office 2007, as our main internal document management tool. Groove is much more than a document repository, but we only use this feature.  Groove is simple to use and install because it distributes the files on all the peers instead of having to setup a complex server. Furthermore, it is better than a shared network drive because it has change notifications plus it can be accessed even when you are offline. There are a few drawbacks, but in general, it's a good simple solution for the low volume of Office documents we work on. 

Lesson 6) Requirements Engineering

The first post on the LavaBlast blog was related to requirements engineering and how we managed our pile of requirements written on the back of (sometimes used) paper napkins. More seriously, we've found it very beneficial to collaboratively define our software requirements with our clients. Constant feedback is the key to writing good requirements, and using collaboration tools is a must.

Wikis

We've been playing with ScrewTurn wiki as our main wiki over the last year, for both for our internal use and to interact with our clients during the requirements engineering process. It is very easy to install (trivial) and it is very very fast. Editing a page is very pleasant because it is nearly instantaneous when you save a page... it just feels blazingly fast. Furthermore, because it is a free and open source project, you get to spend money on Super Mario Galaxy instead.

During our software engineering capstone project, we used TWiki as our primary requirements engineering tool, a couple years before the strategy was discussed in IEEE Software. Although we've enjoyed ScrewTurn's simplicity during the last year, I think we're ready to revert back to the more feature-rich TWiki. Installation is a pain (less now than before), but the syntax much more natural. Furthermore, we already have the infrastructure in place (using page meta-data) to let us manage our requirements.

Lesson 7) Desktop Sharing

Today, sharing your desktop is an essential operation for any software startup. You can easily demonstrate applications to potential clients or perform pair programming, without having to be at the same physical location.

Lotus Sametime Unyte

Trying to explain something to someone over Skype is not always fun, especially when the client is not a technical person. Because a picture is worth a thousand words, showing software is much quicker!  During most of our first year, we used Unyte to do just that.  With Unyte, you simply have to start the application, decide which window to share (or share the entire desktop) and then send a link to the person (or group of people) that need to see it.  Recipients click on a hyperlink and load up a browser-based Java applet to see the shared windows. It's as simple as that.  The client doesn't have to install anything and it's fast! The host will receive an alert when the viewers can see his screen.  Unyte, used in conjunction with Skype, is really a great mix for meetings and sales demonstrations. We used the version for five people and it worked well, until we found Microsoft SharedView.

Microsoft SharedView

A few weeks back, we discovered Microsoft SharedView while it was still in beta. SharedView is similar to Unyte, but 15 people can participate in a shared session.  The only big drawback is that everyone has to download the software.  So if you want to quickly present something to a client, it's a little bit more complicated if they have to install it.  However, SharedView does allow any participant to share their desktop for the others to see (only one person can share at any given time). During a software demo, we used this capability to have the client show us their current point of sale! Additionally, the software gives other people the possibility to take control of the session and perform operations on the computer that is sharing an application. You can also share documents pretty easily with everyone and send chat messages, but we still use Skype for voice communication. We now prefer SharedView to Unyte when it is a possibility to install software on every participant's computer.

Lesson 8) Blogging!

We've been able to connect with tons of great people thanks to our blog, and have lots of fun perfecting our writing skills. We find that figuring out what to say (and what your audience is interested in hearing) is the hardest task when you start a blog. We still don't know if we should focus on giving away code or writing more experiences pieces like this one. Let us know!

BlogEngine.Net

Our blogging software, BlogEngine.Net, is simply terrific.  Free, fast, really easy to theme, has some good extensions and integrates really well with Windows Live Writer.  One of the main advantages for us is that it is open source and it is written in .NET, allowing us to perform minor behavior changes as needed.   It still has a few bugs that can be annoying, but from what we have seen so far, it is performing really well.  It supports multiple authors, an important feature for us because we have two people posting on the blog.

Lesson 9) When not to use communication tools

The most important lesson we learned during our first year of operations as a distributed development team wasn't a revelation but rather a confirmation of our expectations. Communication and collaboration tools are great, but technology doesn't solve conflicts. We're a closely knit team and have worked together for a number of years, greatly reducing the number of conflicts we may have. The conflicts we have are generally superficial, but as an example, let's consider an architectural decision where the two decision makers have divergent opinions on the best solution. Although instant messaging is great for efficiency reasons, it is not the best medium to argument on the merits of your solution. Indeed, we've all seen the politically incorrect "Arguing on the Internet is like running in the Special Olympics; even if you win, you're still retarded". The main problem is related to the lack of emotional expressiveness of concise instant messages or emails and since it is discussed in great lengths by very good authors, we'll leave a detailed analysis of the situation to them! As a side note, firing people via email might have seemed like a good idea for RadioShack, but we at LavaBlast shall stay away from such brilliant strategies!

Conclusion

Communication is the most important part of starting a business. Even if you're the only person in your company, you still have to communicate with your customers! We hope that you'll discover at least one cool collaboration tool today! Remember to come back next week for Part 3 of our series.

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Disclaimer

The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in anyway.

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