I’ve spent seven years developing gnowit.com. It arose out of my PhD thesis, and employs the codebase and architecture I put together over the years.
Gnowit.com contains some very novel innovations around sentiment classification, auto-categorization of information, core-topic extraction and ‘noise-cancelling’ (let’s leave it at that for now).
As we’ve come out of stealth mode two weeks ago, I’ve found that it has become important to share details of these with potential partners, who may actually be in the same field, and would find them valuable.
The way to approach this is to either get an NDA (which is ineffective when the partner already has related IP in the same area) or to get patents. Thus, I am forced to take the second route.
There are some interesting wrinkles when it comes to software patents (and patents in general). They have to use a certain language, and for software in particular, you have to take pains to emphasize that it is not an abstract operation that is being carried out, but one where the ‘signals’ are being transformed. You actually need to write the patent as if you’re taking a lump of rubber and producing something from it!
There is an entire art-form related to the claims, where you try and ‘capture’ as wide a claim as possible, and yet, keep the claims attached to the concrete processing (so they do not get dismissed for being too vague or abstract).
It’s like writing a research paper, but with one hand tied behind your back, and without the need to prove anything (except that you can actually build something useful from this !).
Whenever I feel a bit intimidated by the sheer scope of the work I’ve set out for myself, I pause and take a look at the inauspicious beginnings of the great IT giants of today.
Some of them are available here at The Telegraph
I especially love the page of Google, with the big exclamation mark. The exclamation mark (!) tells me that they wanted to be a Yahoo! me-too clone. Lucky for us all, their vision become much larger at some point. Otherwise we’d still be navigating subject directories!
You can find many more examples of these in the waybackmachine (for all you Rocky and Bullwinkle fans!).
My my, fortunes have changed significantly, haven’t they?
One of these, Twitter, is only 4 years old. Facebook is less than a decade old.
What will we see in 10 years from now?
Designing software that is meant to be used requires that you put the user experience front-and-center when coming up with the design.
However, when you have functionality that you need to add to your system you have two ways to do it,
- Quick and messy – you are sure that it will make further changes harder in the future. This involves actions like hardcoding parameters or bringing in libraries that you don’t completely understand.
- The other results in a cleaner design, but will take longer to put in place.
Ward Cunningham coined a wonderful metaphor (Technical Debt) to help us think about this problem.
In this metaphor, doing things the quick and dirty way sets us up with a technical debt, which is similar to a financial debt. Like a financial debt, the technical debt incurs interest payments, which come in the form of the extra effort that we have to do in future development because of the quick and dirty design choice. We can choose to continue paying the interest, or we can pay down the principal by refactoring the quick and dirty design into the better design. Although it costs to pay down the principal, we gain by reduced interest payments in the future.
The metaphor also explains why it may be sensible to do the quick and dirty approach. Just as a business incurs some debt to take advantage of a market opportunity developers may incur technical debt to hit an important deadline. The all too common problem is that development organizations let their debt get out of control and spend most of their future development effort paying crippling interest payments.
I’ve made some choices during my career where hard deadlines, or the limited maintenance nature of the project meant that the effort for very clean code and architecture was not justified. However, one practice that I would advocate is to keep a copy of Bugzilla around where you can log all the ‘todos’ required to refactor, clean-up and enhance robustness in your project.
When you have debt, you have to keep track of it so that you can pay it off. Any other alternative is reckless and irresponsible. The metaphor hold equally well in the domain of software engineering as it does in the field of personal (or corporate) finance.
As I’m getting close to the launch of my product, I’ve been struggling with the question of how much to charge. There are a number of models, with differentiated version-based subscription being the overall favorite for online services. However, other models do exist as well; you can charge based on percentage of spend, have a consultancy based component (which is usually more than you would charge for the product).
However, you do not want to charge too much (which would mean ‘no-deal’) and not too little (which would imply that you are leaving money on the table and which ultimately can threaten the viability of your concern).
A happy median does exist though. If you can figure out the value that your product provides to the customer, you can charge accordingly. Even if your product is not the most sophisticated, it is worth something (as long as it does not provide negative value).
Just start charging for what you have today, and work on improving the value you provide to to customer. There is a nice 45 degree slope that you can climb, whereas as long as you provide increasing value, you can charge a higher price.
I read a very interesting post recently titled ‘Acknowledging problems versus solving problems‘.
It struck home to me, how it is so important to keep the flow of communication open at all times. That is one of the reasons why it is important to have an autoresponder on your website, and even better, to send a response from a human. People like to know that they are being heard.
They will understand if the work takes a while, but will never forgive or trust you if you leave them hanging, and wondering if anything is happening.
Over the past year, I worked in excess of 60 hours a week, between my consulting, working full-time and the development of my prototype, and the education/organization aspects of establishing, maintaining and nurturing a startup.
I had the opportunity to learn some very valuable lessons as part of this process. One of these concerns qualifying your leads.
As soon as you have something of value to sell, whether it is a product, a service, a capability or information, you get into conversations with people in your network who want to benefit from what you are peddling. I have noticed that the ones who are the most enthusiastic about your startup’s offering are usually the ones that you want to avoid. They want to essentially spend your R&D budget on solutions that may be of use to them, without investing anything material into the process.
On the other hand, the people who are skeptical, and appear worried about whether they should work with you are the ones who have something at stake. They have a budget that they want to spend, and are weighing whether they should spend it with you, or with some other alternative.
The important thing here is that they have a budget, and that makes them the sort of customer that you want to spend your effort on.
Keep these customers, and the other guys who want to have endless meetings, and let you run with the development and expenses, and be there for the upside without shouldering any of the load, well, it may be time to discuss consultancy fees for advisory services
Seth Godin is a very prolific blogger. There is a lot of wisdom in his writing, I’ve had quite a few ‘aha’ moments when I can snatch a bit of time from my busy schedule to dash through a few lines that catch my fancy (and his articles are usually not too long, which is nice).
Of course, as with all nuggets of wisdom, the real art is in knowing when that particular nugget applies to your situation. I just read his last article, and absolutely loved it. Read it on this blog at Finding Your Brand Essence.
If you go a bit deeper into what he is saying, you get the message that you should always have a strategy. This is important, because when you have strategy, it means not only that you have a doctrine, vision, and a set of values to guide you to success (or a glorious attempt trying at least), but that you also know where not to go, which battles not to fight, and which doors to close on your way.
Nicely done Seth.
BlogWhyz is finally out of the labs, and into the real world. I have been catching up on activities that I’d neglected in this period. On thing I did was to view the stats on my blog (which I’d not been keeping track of for a few months).
This has been one of my personal best months. The excitement around the launch of BlogWhyz probably led more people to want to know about the product. I’m on the verge of changing the model of the business (again .. I know … groan!).
The number of visits to my site has reached a record level this month. The highest ever so far. I suppose that means that my ‘stocks’ are on the rise (employing a bit of old Victorian English). It’s some sort of affirmation that I am heading down the right path, in a scenario where so little is manifest or evident.
Getting the product out to the light of day was an incredible rush, and I am happy that my friends shared my joy at this event.
Now, the goal is to get to monetization, and to set this venture up as a sustainable business.
I’m talking to a couple of potential customers, a few potential partners, and am actively seeking investment. However, I really need very modest amounts to get this product running for the year to reach my goal of 100K users by December 31st. I am seriously weighing the three options of IRAP funding, vs angel investment, vs. getting a consulting gig to pay the bills.
Ideally, I would like the product to be out of beta by 1st April as well.
Keep an eye on this space to know more .. and thank you for the good wishes my good friends.
It seemed a bit strange to me today, but I actually started using my product for my own research purposes.
One strategy I am considering very seriously moving forward is getting some funding. Well, in order to get funding, you need two things (1) have a good pitch (2) know where to look. The pitch is not a problem really, as the products that Whyz Technologies is marketing is VERY useful both to individuals as well as to organizations. It automates difficult and dreary tasks.
Additionally, my venture is going to be at break-even in a few months on advertising revenue alone. However, VC funding in Canada is not as well developed as the US, although angels here are truly angels, with quite an interest in seeing local successes that they can support and cheerlead. I have been impressed in my interactions with them.
Well, there are a number of blogs that deal with startup here in Ottawa (as well as Montreal and Toronto). I started indexing them today, and will have a list of VCs and angels to approach tomorrow. Just saved myself a few days of work.. how’s that?
When I contrast my experience at putting together Whyz Technologies, with the work I did as an employee at different firms, one thing stands out clearly. I had to make many many decisions with insufficient information; it feels at times like the ‘blind-fighting’ you saw in ninja movies in the 80s. You don’t where the enemy is (i.e. the goal is uncertain), you don’t really know where you really stand (in terms of the market’s existence and your location in it) and the sands of time are running out.
I’ve had to make major decisions about the firm’s name, the target customers, the business model, the architecture of the solution, the marketing strategy etc. Over a hundred decisions in a few months, any one of which could kill this fragile startup. May of these were around things that I knew next to nothing about (like corporation structures and tax strategies) or which could be potentially very costly and drawn out (like the three patents I am preparing to file for).
You don’t have the luxury of waiting for all the info, and like the Jedi knights, have to use the force and trust your instinct… and like the mythical Jedi, the decision you make will results in high-stakes outcomes that will be evident shortly