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Stress, Party of One?

August 11, 2010

Lately, the stress of starting a business has really been getting to me.

Combined with the seemingly endless delays and the “to-do” list items that appear to multiply like a pack of bunnies during mating season, I thought I’d take a moment to write a more emotional blog posting.  I worked at Microsoft for over a decade, and during that time, I never really grew beyond the role of a code monkey.  Mind you, I was an awesome code monkey.  I knew the web back when no one thought web applications would catch on, and every new technology and three-letter-acronym came easy to me.  However, part of the reason I quit was because my career just wasn’t progressing to the point where I’d be proud to allow that role to someday define my life.

The other reason I quit was because I wanted to take a risk while I was still a young, single guy.  Staying at Microsoft, I’d always make a pretty decent salary with a small raise most every year, and perhaps a nice fat bonus when I did really well.  The young Microsoft days of stock splits and people buying new Ferraris with their options were long gone.  It was now a blue chip company, the GE of software (as my good friend Ken once pointed out to me.)  I’m sure my contributions to the company made Microsoft millions in revenue, however if the product were to fail, I’d be shielded from that risk.

Starting a business of your own means you might lose your entire life savings, or become a billionaire, or anywhere in between.  That prospect called to me, as I have the utmost faith in the market being fair.  The market will decide if I make millions, or if my product sucks.  Microsoft managers trying to advance their own careers and argue amongst themselves like wild hyenas about who should get promotions don’t even enter into the equation anymore.  Let me rephrase, I’m not sure exactly what goes on in those calibration meetings, but I’m quite sure it’s the kind of jungle savagery that would be worthy of its own reality TV show.

However, I’m finding out the world of startups probably makes those calibration meetings look like an episode of Mr. Rogers.  Here’s some lessons I’ve learned so far, and I’m still at the beginning of this journey.

No one but you really gives a rat’s ass about your company

Sure you may have friends that like to ask how things are going, or tell you what a great idea you have, but when you count on them for help you really can’t expect much.  Take, for example, the algorithm I’m developing to plan meals based on available ingredients.  This is something well out of my comfort zone, but luckily for me, I know several candidates well-suited for this sort of problem solving.  Unfortunately, calling in favors is like pulling teeth from an aligator.  Emails are seldom returned, and everyone is too busy to spend more that a few minutes.  I’m at the point where I’m damaging friendships by even pushing the issue anymore.  In other words, no one is going to do your work for you.  Okay, well what about paying them?  I tried hiring two coders from other countries, and neither of those came through.  I don’t have the money to hire a real software engineer full time at this point.  In the end, I had to just step up and tackle the problem myself.  This was less than ideal since I have so many other things to worry about these days.  I’ve moved “sleeping” to the “would be nice” priority.

You are not your own typical user, I don’t care what you say

Though I did start this company to address my own interests in meal planning and recipe management, I have absolutely no inkling of an idea on how the product is really going to be used.  The most valuable lesson I learned here is that the typical customer has absolutely no understanding of your vision.  KitchenPC is not a recipe database, that would be boring to make.  The power of KitchenPC relies on an extremely high level of data integrity within recipes.  Ingredients must be expressed accurately, contain realistic metadata on forms and conversion ratios, and result in accurate shopping lists.  The meal planner relies on these conversions to generate results as well.  However, I’ve learned recently this makes sense pretty much only to me.  Out of the three people I hired on GetACoder.com to enter recipes, only one is actually doing any work.  The other two dropped off the face of the planet right after I accepted their bid.  Looking at the recipes being entered, it’s apparent that data quality is going to be one of the, if not the, top challenge to overcome before I can realize my vision.  For example, authors of recipes don’t really care about representing the recipe in a way where the backend engine can make sense of it.  As long as it looks understandable to humans on the screen, they’re happy.  For this reason, I see ingredients hacked up to overcome ingredient database deficiencies.  Most often, the prep note (which is intended to describe a preparation action to be taken against the ingredient,) is used to clarify the meaning of the ingredient itself.  I even found one recipe that called for “Hamburgers: 1” and the prep note was “Hamburger buns”.  Well how the hell am I going to generate a shopping list if the database doesn’t even know the recipe requires hamburger buns?  Magic?  Am I coding this site in Magic#?  Apparently, in an ideal world, I’d have an army of OCD recipe enterers who have an intricate understanding of the inner workings of KitchenPC and have a burning desire to craft each recipe to perfection.  In reality, I’ll probably have thousands of junk recipes that don’t make any sense and don’t result in accurate shopping lists or efficient utilization within the meal planner.

Entrepreneurs are clueless

We all think we have a great business vision and it looks great on paper.  However, no matter how much research you do, no matter how many customer studies you do, no matter how much planning you spend, you really have no idea if people are going to like your work until you just get something out there.  Customer driven development is the hot thing now, however I’m still convinced the best strategy is to focus on the basics, get something working up on the web, and see if it goes anywhere.  Any customer research you do (and I’ve done a ton) will always be tainted by your own personal bias.  I really need people to want to do meal planning online, so I’m going to attempt to find data that back up my wish.  Turns out, those data are not hard to find.  However, until I get a basic version of the website online and see users coming back for more, all my customer research is really meaningless.  I think this stage is probably the most frustrating for me anyway, as I still have no idea if there’s any real demand for what I’m doing.  Oh I’m sure I could get a few hundred people to use the site and really love it, but that would only make for a nice part time hobby as I look around for a new job to pay the bills.  As I claimed in my Kitchen Monki article, I’m a lot more afraid that no one has a need for this site than my customers satisfying their meal planning needs through one of my competitors.  I’m a smart guy, I’ll just go build a better product than my competitor.

So what are you doing about all this?

Getting stressed out about the situation is human, with so much on the line, I don’t ever remember a time at Microsoft where I was this stressed, this busy, or had this much of a drive to go after the right customer solutions.  As far as if the product succeeds or not, who cares?  It will or it won’t.  The point is, I’m going to launch my best attempt at KitchenPC and see where it goes.  If the entire thing is a complete swing and a miss, hopefully I’ll know that sooner than later and can move on.  If a few people latch on, then the problem becomes how to attract more of those people.  If a bunch of people sign up and then never come back again, the problem is figuring out what they expected to get out of the site and why they were disappointed.  Having a real product out there is a far better tool for gathering customer feedback than any survey, user group, or cherry picked piece of data; no matter when Steven Blank tells you.

As for data quality, it’s something I’ve been shifting the majority of my focus on to the past few days.  My GetACoder hire has entered about 200 recipes so far, and she’s doing an awesome job.  When she started, my goal was to get recipes into my site.  I thought my site was basically done (minus the non-Polished UI, yes bad pun) and I just needed data.  After a few dozen recipes, it became quite apparent that my current implementation was nowhere close to good.  True, adding the custom ingredients helped a lot, but this only hides the fact that the recipe entering process is flawed and constrained.  To my surprise, the customer behavioral research I’ve acquired over the past few days far outweighs the value of the new recipes in the database.

I’ve done two things to help mitigate this issue, both in the form of new features.  First, the ability to create ingredient sections is a must-have.  Who knew?  Especially in cakes; which ingredients were necessary for the cake and which were necessary for the frosting?  This resulted in very messy recipes, using the same ingredient multiple times in different forms.  The author ended up using the prep note to clarify what component of the recipe the ingredient would be used for, which resulted in strange ingredient listings such as “Eggs: 3 (yolks separated, for the frosting).”  Users can now divide ingredients into sections and have an ingredient list for the cake and another one for the frosting.  This was perhaps the first feature implementation I’ve done based exclusively on watching a real, live user use the product.

The second new feature targets data quality directly.  No one can actually build Wikipedia on their own, an effort that huge has to be crowd sourced.  I feel the biggest threat to KitchenPC data quality will be users who type in bad recipes and don’t maintain them, or then leave the site and never come back, resulting in orphaned recipes.  I’ve taken a new direction with the site, and have decided to make every recipe editable by anyone else.  This is a risky decision, but it makes the site behave more like a Wiki than a recipe database where everyone only owns their own content.  Quality control can now be crowd sourced, and flaws with individual recipes can be corrected by a hopefully more intelligent hive mind.  As far as the actual implementation, users can decide if their recipe will be “publicly editable” or not, which gives me the control to re-evaluate this decision later on, but for the beta version of the site, all recipes will be editable by anyone else.  I’m sure I’ll be spending a lot of time going through recipes and making corrections myself.  I just hope I can find a way to counter malicious Internet ruffians who like to edit a bunch of recipes to include advertisements for their new web cam site.  Oh well, one problem at a time.

I think the main takeaway for other aspiring entrepreneurs is to really focus on the core essence of what your product is.  Don’t try to be everything for everyone, but build something simple and get it out there fast.  Only by doing this can you really test your idea.  I think the Steven Blanks of the world have a valid point with regards to customer driven development and finding out who your customer is first, but these points are much more applicable to a business idea that depends on significant financial backing to even get off the ground.  If KitchenPC took $20 million dollars to build, required a payroll of ten full time employees, and needed dozens of high-end web servers to run even for a month, then you bet your ass customer research would be worth the time and effort.  However, I think for some ideas, just get something up on the web and try to get some people to use it.  Evolve the idea from there, and maybe one day it will reach the point where you can make some money off of it.

The second take-away is starting a business is not for the faint of heart.  Almost nothing goes right, everything is a complete pain, nothing is done on time, and your biggest problems will be things you never even thought of.  Infinite patience and infinite perseverance would definitely come in handy.  However, it’s an up hill battle and you have to ignore the statistics and just enjoy the ride.  If you’re thinking about quitting your job and pursuing some little Internet idea you have, be sure you’re ready for the long haul.  Trust me, it’s not as easy as you think.

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From → Business

One Comment
  1. Located your site via yahoo the other day and absolutely love it. Carry on the great work.

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