Wisdom applied to starting up

3 08 2009

As I write this, I am right in the middle — man am I ever in the middle — of a huge push to release the next version of ClimbPoint, which will blow people away and remove all sorts of reasons people have had not to shell out the cash for the product (pie in the sky rah rah pitch courtesy of the FogBugz 7 vision statement).

Last month I decided that I would apply a little wisdom in releasing the new version (Dicey at Best) by August 15.  I’ve been reading Proverbs lately, and that’s one source of my idea for a development sprint (also inspired by fellow entrepreneur Tim Haughton).

Proverbs 14:23 – All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.

I’ve also been inspired by the ideas of Earl Nightengale in Lead the Field, where he talks about reward being in proportion to a person’s service to others.  So in laying out the features I’d include in the next version I’ve picked the ones that I think will serve the greatest number of potential customers (kind of a no-brainer, huh?).

Anyway, in completing my development sprint I’m focusing on just two keys for success:

Work every day

Every day I’m aiming for only 30 minutes of focused work.  On most days I’ll end up working for a few hours, but none of that can happen without those first 30 minutes.  I find 30 minutes manageable, especially on those days when I feel swamped with other responsibilities.  I picked up this idea from Neil Fiore’s excellent book The Now  Habit.

Focus on starting

So my one goal each day is to start at least once.  I find that if I can keep my momentum moving forward, I’ll tend to use my mental free time to think about problems that are holding me up.  I also try to “leave a little in the tank” each day by stopping before I feel I’m stuck and by making a note of the very next thing I need to do when I come back to the project.  This tactic has really helped draw me toward work rather than repel me from it, so thanks to Twyla Tharp and The Creative Habit for that one.

Those are the two main keys, but there are many other ideas that I’ve gleaned from the books mentioned above.  I highly recommend all of them, especially Lead the Field.


Market-driven product development

15 06 2008

Over the past six weeks I’ve done more to connect with potential customers and understand the market needs than ever, and it’s beginning to pay dividends in my motivation for product development.

My re-entry into the world of climbing wall management began last month with a trip to Boulder, Colorado for the second annual Climbing Wall Summit. It was there that I began to recognize the growing desire for climbing gym management software. As one conference participant put it, “there is a national unspoken need in our industry for someone to do this [software] right.”

As part of my effort to understand that need I’ve begun following a few climbing blogs, news sites, and forums (see the climbing news in the sidebar). Even the Climbing Wall Association recently opened up an online forum, which I’m hoping will be a valuable resource in connecting with others in the climbing community. The CWA is also planning to form a committee on the development of climbing wall management software, and I’ve thrown my name in the hat as a potential member of that committee.

In addition to establishing connections with potential customers and gaining exposure to real market needs, these sorts of interactions have helped make what I’m doing relevant. As a software developer it can be easy to become isolated from the users of the software and the market it serves. When that happens for me I tend to lose a little motivation, so I’m beginning to see the need for balance between product development and connecting with the market.

As a result of this renewed connection with the industry I’ve begun working on the next version of ClimbPoint, which I’ll document over on the ClimbPoint blog. Included in version 0.7 are a few features requested by my beta testers, and down the road I plan to take action on some suggestions I received while at the Summit.

Even with the launch of ClimbPoint I’m still learning a lot about starting up. I’ll continue to blog here about entrepreneurship and starting an ISV, but product-related news and information will be posted on the ClimbPoint blog.

Business plan competitions: a brief encounter

8 04 2008

I stopped by today’s Burton D. Morgan Entrepreneurial Competition for a few minutes to get a first-hand look at some of the entries. Much to my dismay, I stopped by during one of only two fifteen minute breaks in the competition, so I came up empty.

Nevertheless, here is my summary of what I learned from the brochure I picked up at the door…

Over half of the entries in the professional division seem to be well established, multi-person operations (judging by their websites). Among them, iPrivacy Manager recently won the elevator pitch competition, and Cytometry for Life has the admirable goal of cheap tests for AIDS victims in Africa.

Another interesting entry for the contest was Smarta, which aspires to be a portal for budding entrepreneurs looking for advice on starting their first venture. The concept of Smarta seems neat, but I didn’t find anything of immediate interest for my bootstrapped one-person operation (though to be fair their full site is due out later this year).

As a side note, I also discovered incubicity, which hosts a yearly elevator pitch and business plan competition for startups in Indiana. It looks like they also offer periodic workshops for entrepreneurs, which could be beneficial.

Just curious though…was anyone able to check out the Morgan Competition, or does anyone have experience with business plan competitions in general? I’d be interested in learning more about what they’re like.

Crafting an effective elevator pitch

2 04 2008

Last Friday I attended an elevator pitch competition at the Burton D. Morgan Center for Entrepreneurship. When I arrived and discovered that registration for the competition was still open, I thought for about five seconds about registering…but since I could only stay for an hour, I decided it would be best to sit in and see what I could learn from others who were pitching their ideas.

The first hour of the competition featured pitches from about ten Purdue students, who were given two minutes to brief someone on their business idea. I wish I had been able to stay for the non-student portion of the competition (the pitches probably would have been better), though I learned a few things about what not to do when pitching an idea. Here are a few of the things I thought were missing from the pitches that I heard:

Begin with a question, or pique the person’s interest
It’s tempting to just launch into why the idea is great, but only a few pitches I heard actually hooked me within the first few seconds. Those began with a question or relevant story, statistic, or example.

Keep the pitch relevant
The most common question asked by the man in the elevator after the pitch had been given was basically “so what?”. Why is this idea relevant today? How is your solution different from everyone else’s? Spouting off facts about the market size and product design don’t mean anything if the elevator man can’t understand what the product really does and how it is unique.

End with a call to action
Too many pitches ended with the elevator man saying, “Ok, I’ll look into that”. Only one entrepreneur actually left the elevator man with a product example (in this case it was soybean playdough), and only one directly asked for a follow-up session in which he could explain in more detail his business idea.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers to creating an effective elevator pitch, and others have done a much better job covering this topic than me. One site in particular lists a comprehensive set of elevator pitch essentials, which I will probably never get around to totally reviewing (though the articles I’ve read have been helpful).

I also don’t yet have a written elevator pitch, though I was able to give a summary of my idea for climbing gym software to a manager from Motorola that I met that same day. He was impressed with the idea, and with the steps I’ve taken so far to test and refine the software. For me the conversation raised a major question about whether I actually want to pursue outside investment, which will be the subject of another post…

Business plan competitions: worth it?

16 01 2008

Last week I attended an information session for the 2008 Burton D. Morgan Entrepreneurial Competition. It’s basically a business plan competition for Purdue students, faculty and staff. The annual event is open to everyone, and the prize money is nothing to sneeze at.

Gold Division
Black Division

The money, of course, was one of the first slides in the overview presentation. The two divisions above serve to separate undergraduate students from graduate students and faculty. Undergrads comprise the Black Division, and everyone else affiliated with Purdue participates in the Gold Division. If memory serves me right, the presenters said that last year there were somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 entries in each division.

At first I was definitely intrigued by the idea of the competition, and somewhat excited about it. Now that I’ve had a few days to think about it, however, I’m not so sure that I’ll enter. Here are the main reasons…

  • Priorities – Day by day I’m getting closer to having the first release of ClimbPoint ready for sale. If there are a few gyms that buy the software, it would nearly offset the winnings were I to come in 4th or 5th in the competition (and I think I’m being generous even giving myself a shot at those spots).
  • Intellectual Property – It makes me a little uneasy that none of the judges (nor anyone else attending the competition) will be required to sign any kind of non-disclosure agreement. NDAs in business plan competitions are pretty rare anyway though, as most participants have already filed patents on their ideas prior to competing. There is zero chance that I’ll file a patent before the competition (or ever), so I’m reluctant to show off my idea to random people who have the money and resources to do something with it if they choose.
  • Time – This one is related to #1. Were I to make the first cut, I would be required to submit a 30 page (or so) business plan describing all aspects of the market, the competition, and my plan for entering the market. This exercise would be beneficial, but at this point (especially with having to write the final report for my Masters project) I don’t think there’s time to do it, or do it well.

There are a few reasons I can think of to try it. The presenters at the info session stated that all “rejects” will get some feedback on their executive summaries or business plans. The guidelines for the executive summary and business plan are fairly extensive, and much of the research that I’d need to do to complete them would probably be helpful (my market research and marketing plan have been mostly theoretical to this point).

So here’s a question for all 4 of you who are following this blog…Am I overlooking anything? Is there value in entering this contest? Would writing a business plan really be a waste of time? There are some good comments over at wsj on the waste of time issue, but I’d like to hear some other thoughts…