Validating A Business That Doesn’t Exist Yet Part 1: Design

feetup

As some of you know, one of the pet projects that I’m working on while I’m unemployed is Shift SMS.  Shift SMS is simple staff scheduling software that allows your employees to coordinate shift changes via SMS.

When a staff member can’t make it to a shift, they just text Shift SMS.  Shift SMS will message all available employees to cover that shift.  When an available employee wants to take the shift they can just text Shift SMS back and then the change is automatically made to the staff calendar. Or that’s what I’d like it to be.

The idea for Shift SMS came about in a really odd way.  I had a friend that works at a restaurant who was complaining to me that they had to pick up a shift from one of their coworkers at the very last minute.  At the same time, another friend was spitballing startup ideas with me that I found way too pie-in-the-sky, and in an effort to bring him down to earth I suggested staff scheduling with SMS.

The more I thought about the idea for Shift SMS, the more I started to like it.  During university, I worked in a retail store and I remember seeing my manager standing in front of the computer for hours trying to come up with a staff schedule.  At first, I just thought that my manager wasn’t technical and didn’t have much to do, but I soon realized that organizing people in a schedule is actually a huge pain in the ass.  I did some customer development while getting coffee on the idea of Shift SMS and found out that a lot of businesses actually have this problem.

Originally, I was in contact with someone on Odesk about actually building out the software for a small amount of money.  I’m a big proponent of outsourcing work (in theory) but I’ve never actually gone and done it.  For Shift SMS, this was my thought process:

Pros:

  • It’s cheaper than finding someone locally.
  • The MVP (minimum viable product) could be done quickly and I could go out and try and sell it.
  • It would be a good learning experience.
  • I’ve heard a lot of good things about outsourcing development from people like Tim Ferriss and Pat Flynn
  • Once the software was built, I wouldn’t have an excuse to not go for the startup dream.

Cons:

  • I’d have to pay up front for a product that I’m not sure that anyone would buy.
  • I’ve heard horrible things about outsourcing programming from a lot of other people.
  • The person wanted to program using PHP (using a LAMP stack), but I was really adamant about using Ruby on Rails to build it at the time.
  • Felt like I was using Odesk as an excuse to not find a technical cofounder because I wasn’t confident in selling the idea.

In the end, the cons won out.  It wasn’t entirely about the money, as much as it was about the fear that I wouldn’t do anything with it when it was finished.  So I’ve made the decision to validate the idea before I put any real investment into the development of the software.  This means I’m basically marketing this company as if it was real until I get enough interest (as judged by email signups, mostly) and then I’ll build.

Design

shiftsms landing page

Website:

I am 100% confident that if you went to the Shift SMS website right now, you would think it was a real startup.  Seriously.  It’s all thanks to a CSS framework called Bootstrap.  Simply put, Bootstrap is like a piece of code that makes everything looks decent enough for almost every occasion (A special thanks to Carlos from Blacktie.co for his free Bootstrap theme).  The image of the hand was provided by a design agency that does app mockups, and the screenshot was made with an iOS 7 screenshot generator.  The copy on the landing page took about 2 days to write and edit, and the blog was a WordPress install with a customized version of the Flato theme.

Logo:

logo

When I started my social media profiles (which I’ll talk about in the next post), I realized that I really needed a logo.  I didn’t need it to be groundbreaking, or change the world.  I just needed some sort of graphical representation of the company.  If I got the company up and running, I could always change that later.  So I went with literally the most basic concept and whipped it up in Adobe Illustrator in about 10 minutes.

Here’s how:

  1. Draw a square with rounded edges (through sheer experimentation, I used a 30 px radius on the corners).
  2. Draw a triangle.
  3. Join the shapes.
  4. Write “shift” in the middle using the font “Montserrat” which is all the rage with the kids these days.
  5. Save as transparent PNG.

Done!

Overall, it’s been a lot of fun coming up with the concept and hacking together a site that looks like something that’s legit.  In my next post, I’ll talk about the marketing plan for Shift SMS.

In the mean time, if you could follow @shiftsmsco on Twitter and Like Us on Facebook, that would really help with the experiment!

 

 

 

Spec work: Wayve

I’ve been spending a lot of time on the /r/startups subreddit and seeing a lot of cool startups.  Wayve, a sports app, was asking for an opinion on their landing page.  I decided to do a mock one that I thought was better.  What do you think?

Original:

wayve original

 

 

My version:


wayve-landing-page-mockup

 

Which one do you like better?

 

Meetings Are An Inverted U chart

meetings

I think if you were to map out your perception of meetings over the course of your life, is and/or most likely will be an inverted U chart.  Here’s the life cycle.

  1. Youthful Innocence: OMG THERE’S FREE FOOD LET’S HAVE A MEETING EVERY DAY!
  2. Young Professional: Wow, I have a lot of meetings every week.
  3. Professional: These meetings are killing me!  How am I supposed to get any work done!?
  4. Young Manager: It’s really hard to keep track of what everyone is doing.  Let’s have a meeting.
  5. Manager: WHY WASN’T I INVITED TO THIS MEETING?
  6. Senior manager: We’re having this meeting because it seems like you guys are not having effective meetings.  This meeting will help you plan out future meetings.

Most of this blog post is my fear of facing my own obsolescence but man, I really hate meetings.  I really do.

 

 

How To Fix The 500 Error With Permalinks In WordPress on a Subdomain Using Apache

Hi Everyone,

just a quick follow up on my last post.  I have another WordPress install that’s hosed in a subdomain that was having issues with custom Permalinks.  And after a couple hours of guessing – I figured it out.

In your VirtualHost file (the file that should be titled “yourdomain.com” or whatever you have instead of .com) located in /etc/apache2/sites-available/, you need to make a NEW entry with the following:


<Directory /var/www/YOURDOMAIN/public_html/THE_SUBDOMAIN_WORDPRESS_IS_INSTALLED_IN>
AllowOverride All
</Directory>

Then save, and reboot Apache by typing the following in terminal/ssh:
/etc/init.d/apache2 restart

That should fix it!

How to fix the Not Found/404 page after using WordPress Permalinks on a server running Apache

So I recently bought a server for a year at Ramnode, just because I create a bunch of websites all the time and I got really tired of creating accounts on 000webhost.

In their defense, 000webhost offers an okay product, but unfortunately their generosity is often abused leading to their domains being blacklisted for things done on their servers.

This is sadly what happened to my podcast’s site, which is now banned from Facebook:

banned from Facebook

 

Anyway, back to the point.  After migrating my WordPress site, I noticed that there were issues with my custom URLs that were leading to the 404 page.  It took my a couple hours, but I finally figured it out.

Step 1 – Super important!

The absolute first step you have to do is launch rewrite in Apache.  This was the thing that I was missing.  To do this, SSH into your server and enter:

sudo a2enmod rewrite

Then reset apache by entering:
/etc/init.d/apache2 restart

Step 2 – AllowOverride All

Since my server hosts multiple domains, this step might vary, but in Apache there is a file called httpd.conf in /etc/apache2/ which does a lot of magical jibberish.  If you have multiple domains, this magical jibberish file is actually located in /etc/apache2/sites-available/___yourdomain___.

You’ll know you’ve found the right file when the first line in that file is:

<VirtualHost *:80>

In side that file, find every instance of “AllowOverride” and turn it into “AllowOverride All”.

Save the file, then reset Apache again by entering:
/etc/init.d/apache2 restart

 Step 3 – Optional – Change your permissions of .htaccess

So you may or may not have to do this step.  First go to Settings > Permalinks.  Select any link format that isn’t the default then save.  If it says “If your .htaccess file were writable, we could do this automatically, but it isn’t so these are the mod_rewrite rules you should have in your .htaccess file”, you’ll have to edit the file permissions of the .htaccess file.

The easiest way is to FTP into your directory, right click on .htaccess and change the number from whatever to “777”.  Then, go back into that permalinks page, select your custom field and click okay.  It will edit (or generate if you don’t already have one) a .htaccess file.

After that you MUST change your permissions back to “644”.  I cannot stress that enough.  YOU MUST CHANGE PERMISSIONS BACK TO 644 OR YOUR WORDPRESS INSTALL WILL HAVE A SECURITY HOLE.

If you need to do it using the command line, I’m sure you can easily google a way to do that.

That’s it!  Enjoy your new custom links!

Thanks a lot to Digital Ocean for providing me with Step 1 and everyone on the WordPress forums for the remaining steps.

How I did customer development while getting a coffee

Customer development while getting a coffee

I’m currently working on validating a SMS staff scheduling webapp called Shift SMS that lets managers push their calendars via SMS but also allow their staff to coordinate any changes on their own.  Shameless plug, please sign up for the e-mail list for the latest updates!

Today, I went to a local coffee spot called Manic Coffee when it was quiet and actually walked into their manager talking to their staff about their schedule.  What are the odds!  I immediately introduced myself and asked about their process when it comes to creating a staff schedule.  Here’s what I found:

What I already knew

  • They used paper
  • Their staff calendar was pretty consistent (a norm for places with less than 5 or 6 staff members)
  • Price sensitivity was high – they mentioned another app that cost $20 dollars with relative disgust
  • They knew of other apps which implies they might have tried to look for a solution in the past (great!) or they were pitched before (not that great)

What surprised me

  • They didn’t think that paper or excel was the best solution (great!)
  • They just didn’t think this was a problem that needed to be solved, even though staff changes were frequent enough to be a pain.
  • They asked if I worked in the service industry before I explained why I was asking (which makes this seem like a common pain point)

Overall, pretty interesting takeaways to go with my coffee.

 

There’s more to life than the Unicorn Club

The poolhall’s a great equalizer. In the poolhall, nobody cares how old you are, how young you are, what color your skin is or how much money you’ve got in your pocket… It’s about how you move.

-Intro scene to Poolhall Junkies

To be perfectly honest, I am going to be biased in post.  Not just like the Chomsky “news filters” biased where the bias is hidden in supposed objectivity, but just straight up biased.  I’m just gonna say it right upfront so there’s no hint or sense that I’m trying to hide anything from the reader.

I don’t think you need an MBA.

I don’t.  I really really don’t.  I believe the stereotype in this article that I’m currently enraged with, which is as follows:

By now, most in the startup community are well aware of the pervasive opinion that it’s best for wannabe tech entrepreneurs to bypass the MBA — not to mention years of climbing the corporate ladder — to get their hands dirty right away. After all, the thinking goes, the sooner you fail, the sooner you can start to succeed. Building a startup from scratch, winding it up and letting it go is the new MBA. Business school, meanwhile, has been relegated to the second tier, a place where math-oriented overachievers who don’t know what to do with their lives go to put off the real world.

I 100% believe this as true and I don’t really see myself changing my mind about it.

Now, here’s the part where I get enraged:

Despite popular perception, it turns out, when it comes to mega-successful startups — members of what Aileen Lee of Cowboy Ventures terms the Unicorn Club — the hoodie-wearing college-dropout CEO comes as a freak occurrence… The overwhelming majority of successful startup founders attended selective universities for undergrad, graduate school or both. More than two-thirds of the billionaire startup founder list attended a Top 10 school.

That seems like a pretty clear statement of fact.  Here’s some statistics, and da da da da, education is important, da da da da.  So why am I enraged?

Because there’s more to life than the Unicorn Club (1 Billion dollars+ companies).

The reason that I love the tech startup scene is because even if you look at it from the most cynical point of view, it’s the closest to a meritocracy as you can get in modern day capitalism.  Sure, you might not have funding, the connections, the mentorship, etc.  But hey, you have a chance to build something great and to be handsomely rewarded for it.

And I strongly believe that it’s a false assumption that success is defined by building a company that’s worth more than a billion dollars.  I think it’s completely dismissive to look at the Whatsapp and Facebooks of the world and say, “if you didn’t build something this big, you’re a failure”.

Go forth, build, and forget the unicorn.

My experience with Whatsapp in Hong Kong

So as you’ve probably heard, Whatsapp has been acquired by Facebook for $16 billion dollars in cash and stock.  I was pretty bullish on this purchase, but it wasn’t too long until the world of Twitter kind of lost their mind about it, so I felt compelled to share my personal experience of Whatsapp on my recent trip to Hong Kong.

1. Everyone and their mom uses Whatsapp

The very first thing that happened when I walked through the terminal doors into the arrival area in the Hong Kong area was my mom took a photo of me to share in her Whatsapp group chat with my aunts and uncles.  My mom did that.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Whatsapp is fucking everywhere.  I used Whatsapp to communicate to every single person I met in Hong Kong.  Classified ads and billboards on the street have Whatsapp numbers listed.  It is fucking everywhere.

2. People use voice notes in Whatsapp like a walkie talkie

While people in Hong Kong still talk on the phone, a lot of people are using the voice notes feature in Whatsapp like a walkie talkie.  Even I started doing it.  Go figure.

3. Whatsapp is so ugly and uncool that old people use it

The main strength of Whatsapp is that it appeals to a demographic outside of the tech savvy 18 to 35 year olds who have already moved on to other chat apps.  I saw a crap ton of elderly people using Whatsapp with gigantic fonts on phablets and it ironically did not break the UI of Whatsapp because it’s so crappy to begin with.  It’s a solid platform with a crap ton of users and I think that because of it’s wide spread distribution to people who don’t cycle apps too often, it’ll stick around for a while.

In conclusion,

Facebook clearly needs to do something with Whatsapp in order to get their money’s worth from this investment. It’s pretty clear that Facebook is buying the user base, but it’ll be cool to see what they do with Whatsapp to try recoop their cash.

“Only a handful of people in the world that can tell the difference between you and me”

Here are 2 websites:

Website 1

Website 2

If we went and asked 100 random people which site they liked more, what do you think would be the “like” ratio between website 1 and website 2?

50/50? 60/40? 70/30?

Now, what if I told you that website 1 was developed by what I’m sure is a fantastic digital agency for approximately $25,000 and website 2 is a generic Themeforest theme that costs $13.

How would you feel?

Just like the clip from Good Will Hunting, one the greatest movies ever, there’s only a handful of people in the world that will really know the difference between the two sites.  Seriously.  But more importantly, if you’re not in the tech world, why would you even need to know?

Much like how IKEA dominates the furniture market with stuff that’s “good enough”, will cheap web development dominate  the future?  With sites like Themeforest and Odesk, you can get extremely low cost development done depending on how technically savvy you are, and how technically advanced your product is.

What value will the digital agencies of the future have to bring in order to stay alive when a pretty-damn-reasonable website theme costs less than a 20 piece McNugget meal from McDonalds?