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Sunday
Jan222017

Competition

The following is an excerpt from an email I sent to DeveloperTown in April 2016. 

I love competition. Where none exists in my life, I'll go out of my way to create it. It's a big motivator for me. But it's not my only motivator. I'm also very motivated by fraternity, and by wanting to help others.

Competition in business is an interesting thing. In his book The Hard Thing About Hard Things author Ben Horowitz talks about "wartime." From Horowitz:

"In wartime, a company is fending off an imminent existential threat. Such a threat can come from a wide range of sources including competition, dramatic macro economic change, market change, supply chain change, and so forth."

By that definition, we (DeveloperTown) are not at war. While we have competition, none of it is an "imminent existential threat." When you think of that kind of competition, you typically call to mind epic winner-takes-all battles like Explorer vs. Netscape, Apple vs. Microsoft/IBM, and MySpace vs. Facebook.

This is a good thing. I don't want to have to fight another consulting company "to the death" to have to remain in business. While I'm sure we would rise to the challenge, it's not really the kind of fight one should go looking for.

Instead, we are lucky enough to be in a market and industry where we can partner freely with other firms with very little fear of a significant loss of market share. Right now - and for the foreseeable future - there is too much demand, and not enough qualified people to do the work. Because we are in professional services - and not a product that could scale to take the entire market - we aren't in danger of a winner-take-all battle.

That said, I still like competition. I like winning. I like what lessons I often learn when I lose.

In the early days, we competed against Expected Behavior. We don't really compete against them any longer. They've largely pivoted into products. But for about a year, you could find a whiteboard (I think it was mine) with a short tally of deals we won vs. deals they won. This was of course at a time when our teams also socialized together - game nights, team events, etc. It was the model of friendly competition. We competed, but we weren't jerks about it. So long as the client chose one of our two firms, we were happy with the client's choice. (We were most happy when they chose us.)

Today, we partner with: NOI Strategies, Anchor Point, InGen Technologies, Mavenly, BMI, MilesHerndon, Fretless, Foxio, and a bunch of independents. And we'd happily partner with more firms. But we find that most larger firms are hesitant to want to partner. They'd rather win all the work. I'm sure we would rather have all the work too... but that doesn't mean there's not good reasons to partner with someone else from time to time.

Competition is also on my mind because of this week's Verge event. It's been a few months since I've attended a Verge event. It was a great event - a couple of solid pitches, one questionable pitch, and a great fireside chat. But something was different. Matt has started to be much more vocal about his sponsors. He now actively promotes them in between pitches. I don't know when he started doing this, but I noticed it for the first time this week.

This was difficult for me. The first two sponsors he promoted were 1150 and Innovate Map. He said very nice things about them. He said that 1150 is the best place in Indy to go for an MVP. And he said that Innovate Map was the best firm in town to help you define your product and plan it's go-to-market strategy.

I know Matt was just promoting a sponsor. I know Matt recommends us all the time. I knew Matt would be promoting us later that evening. But when I heard those promotions, it hurt. I want us to have that work. I want us to be recognized as the best in this market for those things. I want to win.

It's an unrealistic expectation. 1150 is likely the right choice for some people. Innovate Map is likely the right choice for others. We can't - and shouldn't - win all the work. Intellectually, I understand that. But emotionally, I still want to win.

I think this is a good thing (for me), because it causes me to do a handful of things:

  • It causes me to review what our competition is actually doing. What services does 1150 offer now? How do they position it? What's Studio Science up to these days? Has Fretless grown? Has High Alpha actually done anything yet? Is Element Three doing more app dev work these days? Has LEAP officially opened their Indianapolis office yet? When I reflect on the market, it kicks off a series of questions related to our competition. I'm not good at digesting what our competitors are doing on a daily basis. I tend to check in on their activities in spurts.

  • It causes me to reflect on our position in the market. Are we still really the firm I picture in my head, or have we moved to a new spot in the market? Are we actually the best place to get an MVP, or do I just want us to be the best place? Are all of our competitors offering something we aren't offering? Should we be offering that thing? What common about the customers that choose us, instead of those that choose our competition?

  • It motivates me to take action. All that reflection leads me to identify things I want to change. Maybe it's how we position ourselves. Maybe I think we need to change our offering to the market. Maybe I need to get over it, and extend an olive branch to someone and try to find a way to partner with them instead of trying to find a way to "beat" them.

(To be clear, Matt did eventually say very nice things about DeveloperTown. And there have been previous Verge events where it has been an almost palpable DeveloperTown-love-fest.)

​A bit more from Horowitz:

In peacetime, leaders must maximize and broaden the current opportunity. As a result, peacetime leaders employ techniques to encourage broad-based creativity and contribution across a diverse set of possible objectives. In wartime, by contrast, the company typically has a single bullet in the chamber and must, at all costs, hit the target. The company’s survival in wartime depends upon strict adherence and alignment to the mission.

[...]

A classic peacetime mission is Google’s effort to make the Internet faster. Google’s position in the search market is so dominant that they determined that anything that makes the Internet faster accrues to their benefit as it enables users to do more searches. As the clear market leader, they focus more on expanding the market than dealing with their search competitors. In contrast, a classic wartime mission was Andy Grove’s drive to get out of the memory business in the mid 1980s due to an irrepressible threat from the Japanese semiconductor companies. In this mission, the competitive threat—which could have bankrupted the company—was so great that Intel had to exit its core business, which employed 80% of its staff.

DeveloperTown is a market leader in Indianapolis, and we're at peace. (Despite what my ego says.) That means we don't need a "single bullet" that needs to hit the target at all costs. We won't be focused on "one thing" this year - or likely in the next couple of years. Instead, our strategy is to explore a number of initiatives. We want to leverage the different passions and interests of our team. Some of those include:

  • Purposeful marketing and PR efforts - something we've done vary rarely

  • An attempt to solidify some of our thought leadership around innovation and how we build and launch products

  • A new offerings to early stage startups - where we think a new way to structure engagements can dramatically reduce risk for those starts

  • Exploring selling and expanding into new "local" markets outside of Indiana

All of those are a reflection of us trying to expand our markets - or expanding our reach within a market. They are not dramatic shifts to new businesses or direct responses to competitive threats. As we continue to solidify what some of these efforts look like, we'll start to further engage the team in defining them and rolling them out.

Have a good weekend.

Mike

 

Sunday
Jan152017

Bees, Experience, and Craftsmanship

The following is an excerpt from an email I sent to DeveloperTown in March 2016. 

This week I purchased bees for the farm. It's a bit scary for me. But Patrick decided that bees would be this year's farm experiment. (That's the last time I let him choose.)

You know the security questions for username and password verification on websites? The ones where they ask, "What's your greatest fear?" Guess what my answer to that is? Bees.

Gulp.

Like with any new animal experiment, I have to immediately read four books on the topic before I feel like I'm even remotely prepared. Bees are no exception. I've already read most of Beekeeping for Dummies and a few months ago I started listening to a beekeeping podcast.

Yup... There are beekeeping podcasts. God bless the internets.

In the Beekeeping for Dummies book, the author makes an interesting point around getting started. The book covers everything you'd ever want to know: bee biology, the hive, basic tools, lifecycle, selling product, etc. Some of it's actually awesome. Did you know that bees breath out of a bunch of little holes on the sides of their bodies?

In the "Getting Started" section, the author mentions that, for most beginners, no matter how closely you follow the "instructions" for getting started with bees, it's likely that for the first few years you're going to fail. He points out ten or so small nuance mistakes you will likely make, even though you're "taking all the right steps" that will likely result in the death of your hive. And he then points out that those are simply ten out of hundreds of those small mistakes.

Experience.

This is experience. It's the difference between knowing the "steps" to doing something, and then getting the actual desired results from following those steps. It's the same with many nuanced tasks (think baking, playing music, or fishing). You might know exactly what to do, but that doesn't mean it will work.

The crappy thing about experience is that there's only one way to gain it. You have to do that thing. You have to plan to make mistakes. To fail. And to learn and grow. That means, if you want to raise bees, you have to be ready to kill a lot of bees through trial and error. (This process sucks for the bees. But this email isn't really about them.)

Think about what differentiates DeveloperTown from our competitors. Many consulting firms do work with startups. Many many more do work with large companies trying to launch new products. All consulting companies sell their "processes" and their "people." And we're no exception: "Hire DeveloperTown, we have a killer process refined over a 100+ projects, and we have a team of people who specialize in the art of the start."

That's not much different than the pitch other consulting companies make.

Craftsmanship.

In 2008 Richard Sennett published a book entitled “The Craftsman." In that book he lays out his theory for what sets the craftsman apart from the "average worker." For Sennett, craftsmen "complete their work with abandon and always want to do well for their own sake.” For him, the craftsman stands for “the special human capability for committed conduct”.

The fundamental idea for Sennett is that expertise (aka experience) - not accomplishment - is what differentiates the craftsman from the "average worker." Many people accomplish tasks and projects, but not everyone gains purposeful experience in doing so. It's the craftsman who thinks about growth through experience as a "way of life."

Back to bees... If you want killer honey, I've read that you need to move your hive throughout the summer. You need to expose the bees to different types of flowers, trees, and conditions at different times of the year. If you want "okay" honey, you can just get bees and figure out how to not kill them. But if you want truly great honey, then the creation of truly great honey has to become a "way of life."

You have to beecome a craftsman.

What will truly differentiate DeveloperTown in the long run? Are we here to knock out client projects, and maybe gain some experience for our resumes? Or are we "completing our work with abandon" and being purposeful in the way that we learn so we can get better and better at the "thing" that we're specialized in? Do we really view our role in "the start" as a special thing?

We aren't always craftsman all the time. I'm trying to learn to be a better leader. I have a lot to learn, and I'm trying to take a craftsman's approach with my learning. But I'm not trying to be a craftsman in all aspects of my life - with other tasks. I don't think that's possible.

In most ways, my experience is average. In some ways, my experience is special. When it's purposeful, it's not just "accomplishment", it's growing me to become better at my core.

I think we are craftsmen at the start. And I believe we can (and will) get better at it. But to do that, we need to become purposeful in our learning. That means we need to be purposeful as individuals, and as a team.

In the coming months, as we look to better define our processes for innovation and how we build products, an underlying part of that process should include defining how we learn and adapt. I think this type of learning is easy to do as individuals, but it's much more difficult to do as an organization. And it's really hard to make it a "way of life."

But I'm looking forward to the challenge...

Have a great weekend,

Mike

 

Sunday
Jan082017

Innovation

The following is an excerpt from an email I sent to DeveloperTown in March 2016. 

I think most of you know that we're currently targeting Innovation as a key selling point to larger clients. It's a bit of a trend right now. Many of the larger companies we're exploring working with have Chief Innovation Officers, Directors of Innovation, and Innovation Review Committees.

No joke. That last one is real. Is there anything that sounds less innovative than an Innovation Review Committee? It sounds like a parole hearing for ideas. "Nope. Not ready for release yet. Send it back!"

Okay... focus...

Consumer product companies do innovation as a standard part of business. It's core to new product discovery and development. If you look at iconic companies like 3M, Nike, P&G, Sony, and DuPont you'll find time-tested processes that they use to develop and launch new products. They don't think of it as "innovation." It's just their job. That's how you stay alive as a consumer product company.  

If you look at the largest and most innovative technology companies (think Google, Apple, Pixar, Intel, and others in that class), then you'll see a slightly different innovation process. But at the core, even though they are focused on different types of products, they are doing many of the same things. Those companies - just like the consumer product companies - know how to develop and launch a product. It's their job too.

But there are different classes of companies out there where either innovation hasn't been their job, or they've forgotten how. Some simple examples of this might include:

  • a monopoly (natural or regulatory) who is no longer a monopoly (think electric companies)

  • a one-hit-wonder who now has to come up with the next generation product (think TiVo)

  • they became too focused on protecting market share (think Microsoft)

  • they are historically a services company (think Ameriprise)

  • they have pockets of innovation, but it's not something propagated across the company (think TaTa)

  • they acquire all their innovation externally (think current Yahoo)

  • etc...

For the first batch of companies (the ones who know what they're doing), we can add scale. For many companies (including DeveloperTown), the key limiter to growth is finding enough qualified people. For companies who know how to innovate, but they just don't have a large enough team to do what they want, we can help them as a partner.

For the second batch of companies (the ones who haven't mastered innovation), we can show them how. Here we can be a partner and a coach. Teaching them the principles behind what we do, so they can (maybe) someday do it themselves.

Focusing on this trend in the market is a great place for us. It allows us to leverage our story to serve a larger and growing market. "We've grown out of working with startups..." "We know what's possible with technology..." Etc... We have an authentic pitch for these prospective customers.

What we don't have, is a nailed down and easy to communicate process. In the coming weeks you'll see more focus on that. We'd like to define our "official" take on a process for innovation, and for building great software.

 

Sunday
Jan012017

Start Something 

The following is an excerpt from an email I sent to DeveloperTown in January 2016. 

Not everyone may be aware of our tagline. If you’re not, it’s “Start something.” If you don’t know this history of our brand as communicated via our website, here’s a quick snapshot:

Caps and punctuation are what we posted on the website. There’s a story behind each of those taglines and where we were as a firm. Perhaps some time I’ll force Michael to write about the original vision behind “a venture development firm.” It was an awesome vision. But for now, let’s focus on “Start something.”

We have roots in startups. “Start something” is a great call to action for the entrepreneur on the fence. “Hey you! Stop thinking about it. Do it. Start something.” And maybe we can help you do it? In my head, I read it as a passive aggressive call to action. Or maybe aggressive - Start something!

Now that we work with larger companies as well, we can’t talk about co-founders, ideas, and venture development. Start something is a great call to action for someone within an organization who might be wondering where DeveloperTown fits relative to all the other consulting firms in the market. When do you choose DT? When you’re starting.

Let’s call someone (or a group of someone’s) starting something a Start. (I’m borrowing heavily from Cloran here. That’s his language I think. And I like it.) The reason DT exists is to support Starts. We try to hyper focus on saas and mobile Starts – but you’ll occasionally find us helping other Starts as well. We help not-for-profits, we coach entrepreneurs who aren’t always in software, and we will occasionally provide space (if we can) to all sorts of Starts.

The reason DeveloperTown exists is to support Starts. I once saw Michael write that as “…to encourage Starts of all sorts.”

This week, someone asked me why I was at DeveloperTown. I’ve been asked that a lot in the past, but I’ve always given a crappy answer. Or at least, the answers all sound crappy to me. I normally make something up on the spot. And while it was likely true, it’s never the real answer. This is my attempt at a non-crappy answer.

I originally joined DeveloperTown because I was bored. When Michael approached me with the idea, I was just getting ready to go back into independent consulting as a software tester. In the world of software testing, I was a big fish in a small pond. While I still have much I could learn about that craft, by any objective measure I was on top of my game, and I was getting bored. I was ready for my next challenge. DeveloperTown came along at the right time in my life when I needed a new challenge.

At the time, DeveloperTown excited me for three reasons: sales, finance, and impact.

Sales: As an independent consultant I had done sales, but it’s a very different thing to sell your skills versus selling the skills of someone else. And while I might have sold a $60k to $200k project as an independent, with DeveloperTown I’ve learned how to sell million dollar projects. I love it. It’s like chess and poker mashed together. And I’ve developed my own style that works for me. My style isn’t like any of the other partner’s sales styles. And I like that. I feel like I’m reaching a point where I’m experimenting with nuance in my technique. I feel like I’m starting to reach the end of my “journeyman” status. Someone go put on a pot of coffee…

Finance: I knew nothing – nothing – about venture capital six years ago. Because I never had a dry spell as a consultant, I never really had to manage cashflow. I also knew very little about structuring and managing debt within an organization. And while I could read financial statements, I didn’t really understand them like I do today. And you know what’s scary? I still don’t know all that much. And I love it. I love learning this stuff from Michael. This is his 10,000 hours. And there’s nothing cooler than learning from someone who’s on top of his or her game. And while I feel like my apprenticeship with Michael is almost at a close, I know that in the next five years I’ll learn as much or more about finance as we continue to grow this business. (Don’t read into that – Michael isn’t leaving and neither am I. It’s simply a statement on where I view myself on my journey.)

Impact: This isn’t going to be some flowery exposition on how one of our clients is going to someday change the world. In all likelihood they won’t. Not in the way people like to think about changing the world when they think of one-time startups like Facebook, Apple, or Google. That would be awesome if one of our clients did that. We’d have fun. But that’s not the impact that motivates me. I also don’t get really excited about increasing quality of life through the process of value and wealth creation that is capitalism. I love capitalism – and I believe in all that crap. But it doesn’t excite or motivate me. What motivates me are people. I get excited about the direct impact DeveloperTown can have in the individual lives of our clients and employees. The favorite part of my job is when I’m sitting in a room one on one with someone. I love to coach. When I was a consultant, I would coach other consultants on how to grow their business. At DeveloperTown I coach our clients on how to grow their business. My work – and your work – has direct impact on the lives of our clients. Not their customers. Not their investors. Not the other people in their organization if they’re an established company. Them. We get to make them successful. We get to be a shoulder to cry on.

With my background, I can’t think of a better way to have a larger direct impact.  It’s also why I prefer to consult – rather than work for a product company. If I just built software and sold it to people, I would lose the thing that’s most fulfilling to me. I wouldn’t get to form a relationship with my customer and see how my work directly affected them.  

The reason DeveloperTown exists is to support Starts.  

The world is better because our Starts create value. Our Starts are better because DeveloperTown makes their journey just a bit easier – and increases their chance of success. DeveloperTown is better because I can form deep relationships with its clients and employees. And I’m better because DeveloperTown gives me a bigger platform to help people. I think that’s why I’m here.

Why are you here?

I’m guessing you like the work environment. And I’m guessing most of you like the people you work with. I like both of those too. And maybe you’re learning something new. (You had better be learning something new.) And I bet – like me - you have your own vague and incomplete answer why you’re here. Take the time to find a better answer. It’s worth the thought experiment. The exercise has helped me.

Have a great weekend,

Mike

 

Sunday
Dec252016

Who's your favorite entrepreneur?

The following is an excerpt from an email I sent to DeveloperTown in December 2015. 

About a month ago, I attended a workshop where we were asked to introduce ourselves by sharing who we were, and who our favorite Indiana entrepreneur was. It was cool if the same entrepreneur was repeated more than once, you just had to say their name and one or two sentences as to why you liked that particular entrepreneur. There were about 30 people in the room. So it was fun to learn about some local entrepreneur's I hadn't heard of.

I took the sappy route. (You'll notice that theme with me.) I said my father was my favorite Indiana entrepreneur. My dad ran four different retail businesses in my lifetime, all of them here in Indiana. I started working for him when I was nine years old. And by the time I was 13, I felt like I was working with him instead of for him. He taught me an enormous amount about business, without ever once making it "a lesson."

I'm interested to know who your favorite entrepreneur is. You work at DeveloperTown. And DeveloperTown clients are entrepreneurs. So it stands to reason that you relate to entrepreneurs somehow. Many of the DT family are entrepreneurs themselves (Matt, Jeff, Nick, Brian, and many more) and/or their parents/family were strong entrepreneurial influences on them. That was the case for me, and I'm guessing that might be the case for Devin, Kim, Daryn, and others.

If I weren't able to give my sappy answer, my (current) favorite entrepreneur is JW Marriott. If you don't know the Marriott background, there's a nice summary on entrepreneur.com. Here are the cliff notes:

  • He was born into poverty.

  • He raised sheep. (I mean seriously... that's my ultimate goal with my hobby farm.)

  • He purchased an A&W Root Beer stand.

  • Through that A&W stand, he figured out that people who were flying needed food. Airlines did not provide food service at the time.

  • Most entrepreneurs would at that point go open a bunch of A&W stands around airports. JW Marriott did that, but he didn't stop at doing that. He asked himself what else might this underserved customer need?

  • Based on that question, he opened his first motel.

  • You know the rest of that story...

Very few entrepreneurs would do that. Most people - when they have success - do only that one thing. And that includes my father - and largely it includes me. It takes tremendous courage to step outside of what you know and to just follow a customer along their journey.

I love the JW Marriott story because it challenges me to think about DeveloperTown and what I want from my time here. We've had success helping startup founders. (We've had heartache too... but I'm looking past that because I want this to be a feel good email. Stay with me.) As a company, we're now fairly deep in exploring not just the startup entrepreneur's journey, but also the established-company entrepreneur's (aka intrepreneur's) journey.

Currently, we are meeting those customers where we have had success - designing, building, and launching great web and mobile products. And we're doing okay. Our A&W stand is successful. We have a great customer niche. Our job in the next two to five years is to grow that niche. We need need to "open more A&W stands" for our entrepreneurs. We need to serve a product as good as it is now, or better. I want all the airports.  :)

But I don't just want the airports. What else does our customer need? How else can we help them on their journey? Here are some easy answers:

  • Capital

  • Office Space

  • Education

  • Advice and Coaching

  • Introductions to Partners

  • and Help Hiring

Why were those easy for me to rattle off? Because at some point we've helped some subset of our clients with all of those. They are additional pain points on our customer's journey. Imagine a future 15 to 20 years from now (it was 30 years for JWM) where we are purposeful in trying to solve some of those problems for our clients in addition to helping them design, build, and launch great web and mobile products.

I love that idea. It inspires me to see where the DT journey leads. I want to do what we're doing now better than we do it today, but someday I also want to see what else we can do. The JWM story gives me that perspective.

So... Who is your favorite entrepreneur? Why?

If you're willing to share it with this thread, that would be awesome. But it is not required. I decided to share this story because it's meaningful to me. I have a favorite entrepreneur right now who's inspiring me. You may not. That's cool. But if you do have someone that comes to mind, I'd love to learn about them. Who are they, and what makes you excited about their story?