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Sweet Mischief Cakes

clock September 28, 2009 13:33 by author JKealey

Although we haven’t been very vocal lately, we have lots going on here at LavaBlast and hope to write up a few technical posts and make a few announcements this coming fall. In the meantime, don’t be shy and connect with two of LavaBlast’s co-founders on Twitter (@jkealey, @etiennet). Alternatively, come meet us in person at this week’s Startup Ottawa Drinks.

Last Friday, we gathered to celebrate Jason’s birthday.  As co-founder and president of LavaBlast, Jason has helped build this software start-up from the ground up over the past two and a half years; there’s no doubt that LavaBlast is a big part of his life!  Our friend Jean-Philippe had the great idea to buy a custom cake for LavaBlast’s leader!  Here are some pictures:

IMG_4097 IMG_4136 IMG_4141-Edit-2

 

As you can see, even Calis (Jason’s dog) wanted a piece of the cake!  In additional to be the only such cake in the universe, it was of high quality and tasted great!  Since it was a chocolate cake, it was a lot of work to have a white icing coating it.  I would recommend Sweet Mischief Cakes (another Ottawa startup!) to anyone living in the National Capital Region.  Cakes are hand made and you can choose pretty much any design you want on it.

Launching a startup is a tough job but, once in a while, you need to sit back and enjoy life’s simple pleasures.



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



LavaBlast Software named Startup of the Day by Microsoft

clock November 15, 2008 10:37 by author JKealey

FLY-002_StartupZone_Badge-CompanyOfTheDay_IR5a We recently joined the Microsoft BizSpark program after seeing posts about it on a few blogs (Flow Ventures and The Code Factory). To make a long story short, amongst the hundreds of startups that register each day from around the world, we've been selected as the most promising startup of the day. It is always fun to get recognition for our hard work!

In any case, you can view the interview here (today only!).

Have a nice weekend!



Jason Kealey and Etienne Tremblay featured in National Capital Scan

clock September 11, 2008 22:39 by author JKealey

jketTwo of LavaBlast's founders (Etienne and myself) are featured in this month's National Capital Scan, an independent news leader for Ottawa's Tech Community. As we are proud to be University of Ottawa alumni, it is always a pleasure to keep in touch with the university and new software engineering students. In addition to this article about our launching our software company, I will be sharing lessons learned at the Students As Innovators workshop later this month at the School of Information Technology and Engineering.

Additionally, we're actively helping other startups in the Ottawa and Montreal regions, many of which we met at The Code Factory, the Ottawa-based co-working location.  Ian Graham is busy organizing tons of events which we strongly recommend you attend if you're interested in getting known in the Ottawa software community.




LavaBlast Selected as a Red Herring Canada Top 50 Finalist

clock August 29, 2008 14:02 by author JKealey

We've been busy these lasts few weeks on a number of projects, but I thought I'd like you know that we were selected as an innovative Canadian software start-up.

Red Herring Magazine has named LavaBlast Software a finalist for the "Red Herring Top 50 Canada" award, a prestigious list honoring this year’s most promising private technology ventures in Canada. The Red Herring editorial team used an intensely competitive process to select the most innovative companies from a pool of over 300, leaving 100 finalists vying for this prestigious award. The names of all 100 companies short–listed as finalists for the "Red Herring Top 50 Canada 2008" can be found online at: http://www.herringevents.com/canada08/Canada50.html

RHCanada finalist logoRead more in our press release

While I was enjoying the weather, Toronto Tech Jobs took the time to peruse everyone's website to figure out who's hiring software engineers!

Congratulations to the other finalists.



The Code Factory in the News

clock July 24, 2008 08:41 by author JKealey

We're happy to see that our client The Code Factory, an Ottawa-based software co-working franchise, was recently featured on the local news. Some of us were on site while the spot was filmed and it was an interesting (yet stressful) experience to be filmed when you're trying to draft out the features to include in the next release!

ctv

Twitter + Co-working

This coincides with our recent addition of a cool little feature to The Code Factory's interactive kiosk. We're now publishing events to Twitter when people check-in and check-out of the location. Of course, members can choose to hide their activities for privacy reasons, but this serves as an interesting off-site complement to the in-store kiosk which indicates who's currently on location. If you follow TheCodeFactory on Twitter, you can see when your friends arrive and decide to head out there yourself!



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


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.

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kick it on Franchise NewsBlast


Co-working environments are good for software startups

clock April 26, 2008 23:53 by author JKealey

The Code FactoryA month or so ago we mentioned co-working environments in one of our blog posts about startup lessons. It appears we're now the number one hit on Google for co-working software startups. When I first heard of co-working, I assumed they were mainstream because the added value these environments bring to software startups is so obvious. However, they are an emerging trend in the software world and you should expect to hear more about them in the future. 

The advantages of co-working environments:

  1. It provides a location where members of a small core team can meet, brainstorm, and work on their new idea.
  2. It is a low-cost alternative to renting/owning your own office. You can use the space as much or as little as you need it and don't need to buy chairs, desks, a photocopier, fax machine, espresso machine, routers, etc.
  3. It opens the door to meeting new people and networking with peers in the same industry.

In a sense, they improve on the familiar software engineering lab environment that is available to university students and we know universities help create startup hubs.

Given the fact that it has become so inexpensive to start your own software company, co-working environments are a perfect fit for the small software start-ups that want to strike it big but have limited resources. Furthermore, who better to help you with your software startup business plan than someone who's gone through the process in the past? Most government agencies that help you start your business don't fully grasp software companies, but the people in a software co-working environment do!

Rather than ramble on about why co-working environments are so great, I'd like to make an announcement: 

LavaBlast Software will develop an industry-specific POS and interactive kiosk for The Code Factory, a new franchisor in the co-working arena.

The Code Factory will open their first location within a couple weeks. Ian Graham, the founder, is very much involved in the Ottawa startup community and this co-working space will definitely help budding software entrepreneurs in the Ottawa-region. The first event to be held at the Ottawa location will be the Ottawa Web Weekend, who is currently looking for more programmers for the event!  Those of you who are not familiar with the franchise industry (and thought it was limited to McDonalds and Subway) might be surprised to see a co-working environment using the franchise model but you'd be surprised by the wide variety of businesses that do (software shops, web design shops, etc.)!

Not only are we very happy to have a new franchisor on board, we're especially excited by the fact that The Code Factory will be out first client outside the child-related retail industry to use our industry-specific interactive kiosk as a key differentiator.



10th Annual Québec Entrepreneurship Contest

clock April 10, 2008 14:05 by author EtienneT

contest As stated in one of our recent software start-up posts, we submitted our full-length business plan in this contest : 10th annual Québec Entrepreneurship Contest.  In the east part of Montreal alone, over eighty business plans were submitted.  Two weeks ago, we learned we were amongst the twenty-some finalists for the first round of the contest (there are three rounds: local, regional, national). On Monday, we had a short interview with the jury who decided which of the finalists would win in each category. It was a good way to practice our pitch, not only with the jury but also the other entrepreneurs that were being interviewed. Yesterday, at the awards ceremony for Montreal-East, we won the first prize in the Technological & Technical Innovation category.  Woohoo :). We won a cash prize and a one year membership to the chamber of commerce. 

We wanted to congratulate our good friends at Web Estate Management who also won a prize in the Services category! We had a long chat with the winners of the transformation / manufacturing category, Brik-a-Blok Inc.

Writing a business plan is a complex exercise if you want to do it properly. However, participating in a business plan contest can give you the small push you need to actually write it down and define your vision and your short/long term plan. If you aim to be a well-rounded software engineer doing more than coding, writing your plan brings a bit of variety to your day and allows you to distance yourself from the code for a few hours. We tackle business issues as if they were engineering problems and learned a lot during the whole process. (It is a known fact that it is the exercise of writing the plan that is valuable, not the document itself, which will evolve with the company.)

Even at this stage of the contest, we've already met some really interesting people that showed interest in our solution and had a few business propositions. The visibility that such a contest can offer in the media cannot be underestimated; some newspapers will most probably mention our company along with our sexy faces.

Yesterday was the ceremony for Montreal-East; we are now participating in the regional contest.  We'll know at the end of the month if we are in the finalists!  Wish us luck!  Regardless of the outcome, this was a very gratifying experience.



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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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