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Sunday, December 24, 2006

Ego Surfing : Merry Christmas to Me

I've been in a multi-year Google-fight with two other Christopher St. Johns, but as of yesterday I've beaten out the 70's B-Movie icon and am reigning champion. Go me!

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Web 2.0, Bootstrapping and those Evil VCs

I normally try to avoid jumping on the bandwagon with my blog postings, but I'm making an exception this time because of this post on Web 2.0 and VCs in Fred Wilson's A VC blog. Go ahead and read it now, it's a much more important post than this one...

A little while back I had to do the numbers for a startup business plan. The decision had been made to go for funding, but being an engineer I just had to run the bootstrapping scenario as well. As the post above describes, we had a minuscule burn rate while we were building the product, but after that things got trickier. It came down to a surprisingly risky self-funded growth strategy or an infusion of fairly major cash at about the eighteen month mark.

The slow-growth route turned out to be risky for several reasons[1]: The strategy required us to stay tiny, but that meant depending on just a few customers making up a major percentage of our business. We simply wouldn't be big enough to acquire or support more and we wouldn't have the cash to be hiring. To make the numbers work I had to assume that we got customers fast and kept them forever. Sales and support is shockingly expensive (at least it was to me at that point) If we lost customers we immediately went negative cash flow, which is a very ugly thing when there isn't much left in the bank. And there's that little matter of lag time between hiring salespeople and getting any benefit from them. Just a little bad luck and we were out of business.

Competition was another risk. We knew of several other groups doing similar products. There was much brainstorming on niche strategies (make the slice small enough and you get your own piece of pie), but there are limits. It's hard to eliminate every last competitor without putting yourself in a unsurvivably small niche. You can do it for a while, but if you have any intention at all of growing you have to consider how long it takes to get your product to a larger market. The numbers had to assume we had a magically defensible series of larger and larger markets to play in as we (oh so slowly) grew.

Finally, there was focus. The slow-growth strategy meant an awful lot of "doing this to survive long enough to do this other thing we really want to do." Not necessarily a business risk, but it's a big motivation risk. It can take a very long time to bootstrap your way into a "real" business. Why even do a startup unless you've got a passionate belief in your product idea and want to see it on the market sooner rather than later? Watching the spreadsheet extend out year after year off to the right before we were "there" was sobering.

Of course, VCs are evil and must be avoided at all costs, but to anyone considering bootstrapping all the way up I recommend running the numbers both ways.[2] You might find the devil starts to have a certain appeal when you hit that high growth part of the curve.

The end was, sort of like this post, anticlimactic: things stopped very suddenly and I never found out how accurate my numbers were. Maybe this time around I'll get to see...

[1] All of which will be in any good business book or course on startups. But it's one thing to read it and another thing to live it :-)

[2] The Sloan School OpenCourseWare site is good. Somewhere in there are lectures and notes that mention all of the above points and more, plus pre-filled-in business plans with actual numbers.


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Monday, December 18, 2006

Where's My Space Sled?

Where's My Space Sled?
Originally uploaded by cks.
To heck with jetbelts and flying cars, I want a Marquardt Space Sled. This one (which you gotta figure is probably the only one) is in the Air Force Museum in Dayton. Up close it looks even more like a movie prop. It's a welcome note of whimsy in a section of the museum dedicated to ICBMs.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Amazon S3

It's about four months late, but this weekend I decided to try out Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud with an eye towards moving off the hosted server I use for DayTripr. For those living in a cave, EC2 lets you upload virtual machine images to Amazon, where they will be run on Amazon's massive compute farm. EC2 will revolutionize the world, is both a floor wax and dessert topping, and will render traditional hosting services obsolete any minute now.

You'll notice that the title of this post is not "Amazon EC2", however. That's because the Beta program is currently full. Darnit. But to use EC2 effectively, you've got to understand Amazon's Simple Storage System so I decided to spend a few hours playing with S3 as a consolation prize.

I'm eventually do a full writeup over on Distributopia but for now I've just got a few comments:
  • The S3 SOAP interface is largely worthless. Amazon made the extremely dubious decision to go with the long-abandonded Microsoft-only[1] DIME format for SOAP attachments. You can include data in the body of a request, but for big files it's best to use attachments. Admittedly, there's a gaping void in the SOAP world where attachments should go, but still, DIME? Sheesh. So use the REST interface.
  • The S3 protocol is conceptually simple, but uses a custom digital-signature setup that is a pain to get right. So unless you just want to play around a bit, use a toolkit. The Java-based toolkit Amazon provides is incomplete (no permissions API), so use a 3rd party library. jets3t was the first one I tried and I was happy with it.
  • The EC2 instances are not persistent. You get some reasonably large amount of virtual disk space, but it's not absolutely guaranteed to always be there. The suggestion is to ship stuff you want to keep over to S3 (they're meant to work as a pair, and the EC2 to S3 bandwidth is free), but if you're using an RDBMS that presents certain problems. Doing hourly backups and shipping those over is one solution, but a very much cooler one is to set up a distributed file system. The reason this is a totally cool solution it that it lets you finally make practical use of that stupid "Advanced File Systems" course you took back in college. Take that non-computer-science majors.
So, I wait patiently for my turn at the Beta trough so I can port over DayTripr and instantly be massively scalable[2]. I'm looking forward to it.

[1] Ok, so DIME isn't exactly MS-only. I know, I implemented DIME support for GLUE. But it might as well be. And besides, even MS has abandoned it. For those who like pain, here's MTOM, the latest in a long line of misbegotten specs from those lovable professional spec-writers at the W3C.

[2] Not.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

DayTripr : Build Something You Want

I started DayTripr because I wanted to use it, and I have been.[1] The most surprising thing so far has been just how soon I forget most of my life. I'm talking trips from last month that it turns out I barely remember. (We went there? Oh yeah! And that other place, too. And I totally forgot that place we saw that we want to check out next time!)

Another fun thing has been reading over pages from other family members (I roped my Dad into helping out with testing) It makes me feel like I'm participating even though we're living 1600 miles away.

That's great and all, but just because I use it doesn't mean anyone else will. There are certainly sufficient technical glitches to be off putting to all but the most dedicated user. So what makes DayTripr special? Why should people use it in preference (or in addition to) the plethora of "Travel 2.0" sites out there? I'm still working out the full answer, but in the mean time, here's a couple quick things I'm pretty sure about:

DayTripr isn't about airlines and hotels. There's an easy stream of money from facilitating reservations, but DayTripr is about day trips, darnit. One day and one day only.[2] By removing about 90% of the focus of a normal travel site, DayTripr is free to focus on other stuff.

DayTripr is evolving to be about people, not about places. Think of it as a personal travel planner/diary that you want to share with friends, not "please rank this hotel on a scale of one to five stars." I don't think the content on DayTripr is going to compare to first class travel writing, but I want the technology to support the sort of personal storytelling that I like to read.

Easy to say, potentially hard to do. I better get coding.

[1] I just finished Karl Schroeder's Lady of Mazes. The book involves how choice of technology affects culture, from the personal level to the experience of a whole civilization. Using DayTripr isn't quite as extreme as total immersion virtual reality, but hey, you work with what you got.

[2] Ok, maybe a day and a half. Why not? But that's not what it's about.

[3] I just made that up. But it sounds good, and for all I know it really is a truism. And if it isn't, it ought to be.

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Friday, December 08, 2006

Je me souviens

I like license plates with attitude. I had "Taxation Without Representation" plates when we lived in DC, and I always liked New Hampshire's "Live Free or Die." We drove to Montreal recently and I added a new one to the list: "Je me souviens," which is commonly interpreted as "I remember what the English did to the French." Heh.

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