Almost there…

We missed our self-imposed deadline of launching on September 20th.

Here’s what happened. In our application we want the community to be able to vote on which content is most interesting. It’s a core feature of the app, and while it sounds simple it’s tied into many other systems.

We could launch on time without it, but then we’d be trying to add it just when we want to be most responsive to initial feedback coming in. Just after launch we’ll want to be working on small features, which means we’ll have lots of good stopping places for the inevitable tweaks and adjustments.

Thanks for your patience!

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Update & Count down

Making web software is all about iteration.

First you put out an incredible, world-changing product. Next, people tell you why it’s no good, and then you keep refining it until they change their minds or you run out of money, time or willpower. Usually money.

Because we haven’t yet opened the front doors and let the world in, we don’t know the answer to the only question that really matters; “Will people actually use this?

It’s easy to rationalize the delay. The longer we keep polishing, the less likely we are to make a bad first impression.

On the other hand we could realize we’ve been adjusting the rear-view mirrors while the rear axle sits waiting to be installed.

Anyways, we’ll have something to show the world by September 20th. These rear-view mirrors are almost right…

blue skies and business plans

I’ve always been proud of the fact that Wondermill has never taken outside investment.  We’ve had our ups and downs, but we have a solid business model and no debt.  We’re in good shape.

Bootstrapping for years has taught us to be careful with money and ensured we keep profitability in mind.  On the other hand we’ve had to pass up ideas with big growth potential but that might not fund themselves in the short term.

Now we’re at that fork in the road again with a new idea, and it’s time to choose the other path. 

Here’s what’s up.

We’re working on a new service, which we’re hoping to launch in the next month.  When we light the fuse, one of two things will happen.

A)  People love it.  Takeoff is explosive and we’re holding on tight as we go see what’s on the other side of the moon.

B)  The world shrugs, and we clamber out wondering what went wrong.  Then we either tinker with it and see if it’ll go, or go back to work on other projects.

I believe it’s going to be A. 

There are competitors already in the space, which is reassuring.  They’re proving a market exists, and they’re well-funded.  One has received $4M over two rounds and one started with $5M. 

We don’t need anything near that amount, but we do need more than we have now.  If the app is successful, we’d need three more people right away and more soon after that.  Ideally we’d be hiring for those positions now, as it usually takes six weeks to hire the right person.

Wondermill might be able to fund the new business at a survival level but there are other reasons to look for outside investment. 

I’ve got responsibilities now.

I’m married, and we’d like to buy a house someday.  I’ve got a kid who says “balababababrrble” but may someday say “hi dad, put me through college”, and I’d like to stop asking my wife if I can not pay myself again this month.

And so, for the first time in many years it’s time to make a business plan and see where this thing goes.

I’m a little nervous because it’s outside my comfort zone, but I’ll get over it.

Wish me luck!

happy mother’s day!

(Insert mother’s day video here)

imagine a real fresh start!

I enjoyed this video (1 hr, 26 mins), about a man with total amnesia rediscovering who he is and meeting all his old friends again for the first time. Lots of interesting questions are raised such as how much of our personalities are based on our life experiences and how much are innate. The film maker does a nice job of raising these questions and making you think but ultimately letting you answer these questions on your own.

It’s kind of long to watch on the computer though, it’ll be nice when it’s easier to pipe this stuff to the living room.

“What should I be working on?”

“What is the most important thing I can be doing right now?” is a powerful question.  For me there’s a direct relationship between how often I ask myself that question and how good I feel about my work that day.

Checking in and realizing you need to change directions can be a great feeling.  You can tackle the right project with glee, knowing that in some parallel universe you’re still plodding down the wrong path.  (That’s another key to entrepreneurial success.  Always do business in the right universe.)

Two recent experiences:

1.  We’re moving from four servers to nine, so I called our host (ev1.net) to see if we can get a better deal than the posted price.  The sales guy offered to reduce our price by 5%, and though their prices are already quite reasonable it didn’t seem like much of a deal.

We talked for awhile, and eventually he said there was nothing else he could do.  I kept saying we had to find a way to reduce our costs, and so we kept talking.

Eventually he mentioned that on that older hardware they match any lower posted prices if you send the right people an email.  Lo and behold, we knocked off $200/month off our server costs.  It’s a great policy, but no-one had ever told us about it.

I spent about an hour on the phone and faxing contracts, and between the discount and the new hardware prices we’ll save $3,000/year. 

 
2.  The other night I spent two hours trying to install software that would save one measly click when trying to post something online.  In the end I couldn’t get it to work, and now I’ll never get that time back.

Also, some guy in a parallel universe is laughing at me.

ruby loves the wind

I’ve always loved the idea that having kids would mean seeing the world all over again. When we’re with someone seeing something for the first time, we get to ride along and it’s always a bit magical.

With a baby this young it’s even more delightful, because he doesn’t hide his feelings. Everything you see is exactly how he feels it, with no filters between him and the world.

He loves to lie on the bed and feel the wind passing over him. He’s come to associate the curtain moving with the wind coming.

Watch his hands. They express the almost overwhelming feeling of what he’s experiencing as well as any words.

(Rueben under breeze video here)

Uploading this for Evgenya who’s landing in Australia on her way to observe there for a few nights… The pirate boys are flying solo, and frozen food never tasted so … so when are you coming home babe?

Eeep!

Joost throws open the doors, and a nice use of the private beta

A private beta is when a company starts with a small number of users, and expands by allowing those users to invite others. As Grant Storry describes nicely here, companies often use this technique to add buzz, and to grow at their own pace to ensure they can serve everyone well. 

Joost is a startup offering free TV over the internet, and until recently invites were doled out a few at a time. I’m guessing they needed enough users to prove their concept, but couldn’t push for wide adoption because they weren’t profitable without big-name advertisers.

Last week they threw open the doors, after this announcement:

 

Last week, Joost announced that it had signed more than 30 blue-chip brands, including The Coca-Cola Company, HP, Intel and Nike, as advertising launch partners. Beginning today, advertisements from some of the ad launch partners will begin to play on the platform. Advertisements from all ad launch partners will be on Joost later this month.

 
“Ok, we’ve got the money lined up, open the gates!”

Interestingly, while it’s pretty clear they want as many users as possible, the beta is still technically closed. You can’t download the app at Joost.com because they want you to hear about it from someone else.

Viral marketing at it’s best. A recommendation from a friend is more powerful than anything they can do.

It’s going to work, too. Joost is fun to play with and worth checking out. (It’s from the same folks who brought us Skype.)  Your geeky friends will know about it in 3-6 months and your mom might be watching in a couple years.

Congrats guys, nicely done. 

If anyone would like to give it a spin leave a comment below and I’ll send you an invite.

tuff guy

tuff guy video of Reuben

Hope you like it! If it’s choppy Evgenya also uploaded it here.

-aaron

girls’ names and math scores

A recent study concludes that giving a girl a feminine name (eg. Elizabeth) makes her less likely to do well at math and science. The idea is that other people’s expectations of her will be influenced by the name, and they will in turn influence the girl. Makes sense.

Perhaps someday I will have a daughter. School will be fun for her. “Class, this is the new student, Smarty Handsoff.”

– aaron

Does good design really matter?

Because it’s so hard to measure the business value of good design, it naturally gets less attention from managers. It’s easier to watch things like visitors to a website, sales per day, rent and other costs.

Recently we got a chance to see how much it matters when we rolled out a redesign for our Freedback service. Here are some of the changes we made:

  • Reduced the number of steps required to create a form from four to three.

  • Removed list of forms on the left to reduce visual clutter.

  • Added breadcrumb navigation so it’s easier to see where you are.

  • Users now create forms first, then decide what happens when they’re submitted.

 
(Hold your mouse over the image to toggle
between the new and old versions)

Digg users:
It’s possible this mouse-over won’t work for the cache you’re seeing.
Click here to load the original page.


 

Results

To be honest, when we rolled out the new software we hoped to get lots of emails thanking us for the new interface.  Didn’t happen.  We did get a few phone calls, mostly from people reporting bugs, and by the way did we change something?

After squashing a few bugs all was well with the world.  We never did get much customer reaction, so we watched our graphs to see if we could see any change in how people used the software.

Number of forms created

Revenues

 
Thoughts and Conclusions

  • When things are easy to use, people use them more.
  • We didn’t see a dramatic increase in revenue from new users who had never seen the older version, but older accounts coming up for renewal were more likely to upgrade.  This agrees with previous experience from other system upgrades; existing users like to see software improving.
  • Hopefully this will translate into more links, reviews and word of mouth traffic, but that’s harder to correlate to this change because it takes time.

 
Update:

My wife knows much more than I do about graphing data (she’s an astronomer), and was nice enough to plot a graph using the raw data that better showed the results we were seeing.

This graph is showing daily Freedback revenue before and after the change (note the y-axis doesn’t start at zero).

  • The green dots are days.
  • The black line is a four-week moving average.
  • The 13% represents the difference between one month before and after the change. It held true for six weeks before and after as well.
  • Our weekly revenue cycle (lowest on weekends) results in a lot of scatter.

I hope this data is useful to other entrepreneurs wondering if they should invest in design, questions or comments welcome. I’ll keep posting graphs and results from tests we’re running – if you’re interested you can subscribe to our feed.

Programmed to be Happy – what a relief!

This is officially my first blog post… My involvement in the blogosphere has long been encouraged by Aaron but I’ve never felt like I had the time or the interest in connecting with people through the internet. That’s why I pay a bunch of money for unlimited long-distance. And, certainly parenthood isn’t making MORE free time for me to blog. So, why now? Well, it is precisely because of the fact that I’ve become so busy, that I’ve needed to find new ways to connect. And all this busy-ness is due to some fascinating life changes and experiences that make me even more interested in communicating with people about these topics, especially with those are in similar roles. And for me, these roles include women in science, budding astronomers, educators, working mothers, guilty mothers (or are those two the same?), first-time mothers, wives of husbands of first-time mothers, etc. Plus, I have posts swirling around in my head about a few less-important of my societal roles such as jaywalker, tax-payer, patient of the American health-care system, Canadian living in the USA, frequent flyer, resenter of the ’self-help’ industry, lover of Netflix & Craigslist, hedonist, and so on…

I envision my blog posts to be places to discuss these topics with my friends (and anyone else who wants to visit) when we can’t make that Sunday afternoon phone-date like the good old days.

(Please ignore the poor spelling and grammar as i’m just going to freely type. Plus, aaron edits enough of my writing already so I won’t bother him with this.)

So, let’s get started… (and I promise the posts won’t all be about motherhood.)

Aaron and I watched a seminar online last night entitled “The (Misguided) Pursuit of Happiness” by Dan Gilbert which can be found here . It’s 21 minutes long and is entertaining and worth watching, though the point is made early on: Synthetic Happiness vs Natural Happiness, is one more valuable than the other? No!

There are wide-spread implications for what Dr. Gilbert is saying here but I’m particularly interested in reviewing this concept in the context of motherhood, and even further focusing on motherhood when working outside the home and when working inside the home. Which makes us happier? [Now a selfless mother might say it’s not about our happiness but about what is best for the children. Perhaps. But as Aaron likes to say, “When Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!”]

According to Gilbert, the two options will make us equally happy because within a relatively short period of time, we will just simply be happy with whichever decision we made. Why? Because we are programmed to make lemonade from lemons while convincing ourselves that we were destined to drink this lemonade, and that we’ve never really wanted the ice tea in the first place. And furthermore, those that choose the ice tea don’t know what they’re missing!

Of my female friends with babies, most of those in Canada have chosen to take their full 1-year maternity leave, and then return to work. A few have decided to stay home full time, and some have even started kick-ass businesses while being at home (e.g. Alison’s sexy nursing bras – www.nummies.ca ). For those of us in the U.S. where the term “maternity leave” has yet to evolve from a 6-week, unpaid recovery, we’re all back at work pretty fast leaving our babies with sitters and pumping breast milk at every opportunity.

So, after seeing this seminar on Happiness and trying to objectively assess your choices, would you consider your current state as natural or synthesized happiness? Are you truly happy with your decision to work at home or at the office?

[It’s likely that all the new-mother hormones will skew the results, but it’s still worth thinking about. If you have a comment, please include it by clicking on the comment link below.]

– Evgenya