ailon's DevBlog: Development related stuff in my life

Searching for a perfect online CRM

8/2/2012 7:31:30 PM

I’ve spent today looking for a simple, reasonably priced (free to low double digits $/month) CRM. I didn’t expect to hit the wall where I’ve actually hit it pretty early in the process. That kind of simplified the process but basically resulted in me looking not at the features, UX and other stuff, but on the pure fact that the system can satisfy these simple requirements.

Litmus paper

So the set of my minimum viable test looks like this:

  1. Imports contacts and deals/leads (whatever you want to call them) from Excel or CSV
  2. Test case: shows a list of clients with more than one closed deal (valuable repeat customers) that didn’t buy anything in last 3 months (contact them to see what’s up)
  3. Isn’t overloaded with unnecessary concepts (leads, opportunities, whatever – “deals” is enough for my purpose)
  4. Isn’t a “Swiss army knife” (doesn’t do anything besides CRM – integration with other services that do other things is good though)
  5. Costs less than $30/month per user

#FAIL

Unfortunately I couldn’t find a system that satisfies all of the above.

I’ve dismissed all “Swiss army knives” right when I saw them.

Quite a lot of the CRMs I’ve tried can’t import anything besides contacts. Highrise, Capsule, OnePageCRM, Timetonote, KarmaCRM, Dashboard, iFreeTools CRM failed at this step. Now I might be stupid and a total CRM noob, but I really want to see previous deals for my clients. Doesn’t sound like it’s too much to ask, right? And who (apart from those really just starting up) doesn’t want to see that? So these were disqualified on the spot even though Capsule and Highrise looked pretty nice.

Insight.ly is so tightly integrated with Google Apps that I went into infinite loop trying to “install” it.

Nutshell – looks good, imports deals, but there’s no way to import deal value even though there’s a field for that. And it can’t filter my test case (#2).

Zoho CRM – free (for my case), imports stuff (even though it requires a pretty specific CSV format), but is way overloaded with concepts (too powerful?) for my taste. And it doesn’t seem that it can filter my test case either.

And the winner is …

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Pipedrive – a fellow #balticmafia startup. Unfortunately they can’t filter my test case too, but I hope they are still small and lean and can accommodate this feature request. Right, guys? ;)

Other than that it’s pretty slick, fast and simple (some may find it too simple but that’s not me). It imports directly from Excel files too. One piece of feedback would be to do the field mapping the opposite way. Pipedrive shows you your data and allows you to match CRM fields to your fields. The other way around makes more sense, imho, but that’s easy to workaround and most likely a one time problem anyway.

So I’ll continue the Pipedrive trial for now. Will try to do some actual work with it and see how I like it. I’ll update this post if I have something to add after some time of usage.

P.S.: here’s a great post reviewing most of the CRMs listed here and some others that I used as my starting point.

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Why Kindle eBooks Often Cost More Than Hardcovers in Europe

7/23/2012 7:05:40 PM

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If you live in Europe and own a Kindle you probably find yourself depressed quite often when you see that a Kindle edition of some book is more expensive than even a hardcover. Like in the screenshot above. I don’t know what that book is. It’s just the first book on the first page that was shown to me when I went to the Kindle books section on Amazon. It’s 20%+ more expensive in digital form than in hardcover and 45% more expensive than a paperback. So WTF?

Here are several reasons for this. Let’s start with objective stuff and move to the real reasons later.

VAT on eBooks

There’s either no VAT or special (low) VAT rates on books in European Union, but eBooks aren’t considered books for some crazy reason. Apparently there were improvements in this area just recently:

The price that Amazon charges in all its EU stores (including the UK store) has dropped today to 3% from 15%.

This change is because Luxembourg has dropped the VAT rate it charges on eBooks down to 3%, the same rate it uses for printed books.

But apparently someone wasn’t happy about that:

The European Union's executive began legal action against France and Luxembourg on Tuesday for applying reduced tax rates on the sale of electronic books, something it said was incompatible with EU rules.

 

Wholesale prices on paper books

Amazon buys paper books in bulk at wholesale prices so they can sell them at whatever price point they want. But you can’t “stock” 10,000 copies of an ebook. So the same rules do not apply.

“Free” 3G

When Kindles with free 3G launched in US that was a feature. When they extended that offer worldwide it became an obligation. I own 2 WiFi-only Kindles and I’m pretty sure I’m paying for your free 3G with every book purchase.

Kindle is cheap for a reason

Amazon doesn’t care about making profits from Kindle hardware. They make their money from books and part of your book purchases goes to compensate for low margins on Kindle hardware. That’s why everyone who has ever tried to replace a broken Kindle was ecstatic about the quality of Amazon’s support. No questions asked. The worst thing that could happen is that you’ll stop buying books.

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What did I miss?

Don’t get me wrong, I love my Kindle but every time I see a picture like the one above, I feel dumb and depressed. At the very least they could’ve stopped showing me prices for other editions. They know I haven’t bought a paper book in 3 years. Ignorance is a bliss, right?

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Launching Windows Store from your Metro style app

7/13/2012 3:03:44 PM

Suppose you wanted to include a page in your new shiny Windows 8 Metro app listing your other apps and when a user taps on an app in the list he/she will be immediately transferred into Windows Store to give you more money (or at least boost your rankings). How do you do that?

In Windows Phone that was really easy. There was a MarketplaceDetailTask class just for that. So you would do something like this:

MarketplaceDetailTask mpTask = new MarketplaceDetailTask();
mpTask.ContentIdentifier = marketplaceAppId;
mpTask.Show();

Done!

But there’s nothing like that in WinRT. As it usually happens with advanced APIs simplicity was sacrificed in the name of flexibility. In Windows 8 any app can register (with user’s permission) as a default app to handle some protocol. So Windows Store is no different. It’s a default app to handle “ms-windows-store” protocol. You can read more on the protocol here.

So you need to construct a URI, create an instance of Windows.System.Launcher and call LaunchUriAsync(uri). Here’s a tutorial on how to do this for a general abstract case.

So the structure of URI for ms-windows-store protocol looks like this:

ms-windows-store:PDP?PFN=

Where PFN stands for Package Family Name which is sort of an equivalent of marketplace id of your app in Windows Store. If it’s for your own app you can get it in Visual Studio or web version of your apps listing in the store as detailed in this post. If it’s not your app the web version is your only choice and (to make things more complicated) it’s not browsable or searchable at the time of this writing. So the only way to get it is if developers posted a link to it on their web page (let me know in the comments if you know other ways).

Developers of the awesome twitter client Metrotwit did just that and we can browse to their web listing and view source of that page.

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So we now have everything we need and the C# code to launch a Windows Store for Metrotwit from within your Metro style app looks like this:

var storeURI = new Uri("ms-windows-store:PDP?PFN=PixelTuckerPtyLtd.MetroTwit_5kbmb3e034y6r");
await Windows.System.Launcher.LaunchUriAsync(storeURI);

It’s not too difficult to create a Windows Phone style wrapper for this if you wish to do it “old school” way.

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Don’t Quit Your 9-to-5 Job To Start A Startup

7/9/2012 7:02:51 PM

Yeah, click bait. Guilty! No, I mean do quit your day job, but only when you are ready to go all-in with your startup. Don’t think that “I’ll work on my idea and do some consulting on the side to pay the bills”. That’s what I thought in 2003 when I’ve launched SPAW Editor. The reality is that you will “do consulting to pay the bills and maybe work on your idea on the side”.

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Back in 2003 SPAW Editor was one of the first web based WYSIWYG HTML editors in the world. And I’m willing to claim it was the best. I will write a separate post about it in my startups series someday, but what I want to mention here is that I was doing contract work to support the development of SPAW Editor and I was so busy doing it “on the side” that I totally missed the timeframe when the required capabilities became available in other browsers than IE (yeah, IE was on the edge of progress less than 10 years ago). So other editors got ahead and even though I think SPAW Editor v.2 was once again the best editor out there (imho) it was too little too late.

Your 9-to-5 job is just that – a job from 9am to 5pm (with some minor variations). You then have all the time in the world to work on whatever you want to do. In a consultant/freelancer world all of the 24 hours in the day could potentially be monetized so you are constantly in a conflict between making extra money and spending time (and money) on your idea. And that’s a loosing position for your startup. At least in my perspective.

So unless you have some investment or passive income to support your startup, I would suggest doing it as a side project while working at a job (provided there are no legal barriers to that). Consulting will just eat all of your time with nothing to show for it in the long run.

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Is Silicon Valley Thinking Too Big?

7/5/2012 5:12:50 PM

Disclaimer: this is going to be ranty and might bite me in the ass in the future or I may change my opinion, but it’s my personal blog and I felt like venting this out :)

elephants
Photo by Benh LIEU SONG

One of the main shortcomings identified in European and especially Eastern European startups is that we are thinking too small. I’m not arguing with that. It’s probably as true as any generalization could be. That said, I would argue that Silicon Valley is thinking too big. Again, a generalization, but since I’m not arguing about the former one, I guess I’m allowed to make the latter.

On our trip to Silicon Valley with Startup Sauna I’ve met quite a few entrepreneurs and the reason for a pivot for their startup most often sounded something like this: “we figured out that this can’t be a billion dollar business (even in theory), therefore we dumped the idea and moved to the next one”.

And most of the time their initial idea was pretty good and potentially a multi-million dollar business (with “multi” in 2-50 range), but the new idea is crazy enough that no one can identify if this is a total nonsense or a billion dollar idea. Sometimes this turns into an awesome thing (e.g. Twitter) but I’m pretty sure most of the times it just goes nowhere.

Another phrase I’ve heard multiple times is “it takes as much effort to build a billion dollar company as it takes to build a million dollar company, so why not go for a billion?” [I’m pretty sure some real (and smart) person said that first, but I don’t know who that was so I can’t attribute it]. This could be true, but it’s as true as “it takes as much effort to place a chip on a number as it takes to place it on red”. Except chances of winning are totally different.

VCs to blame?

I understand that this whole mentality comes from the nature of venture capital and the fact that if an average fund plans to invest around $10m into your company (over several rounds) they will only be happy with $100m+ exit. And angel investors are considering early stage investments mostly through the prism of “will this company be able to attract the next round from VCs?”.

So this makes a 5 person company making $5m a year a bad business? I know, they don’t call it a bad business. They call it a “lifestyle business”. Which is a Silicon Valley way of saying you are a boring loser.

I think this mentality turns really smart people with good ideas away from being successful “lifestyle entrepreneurs” into being real losers. Because their billion dollar ideas most of the time are not worth a $100 and they’ve scrapped really good ideas just because they were too modest.

The VC model is fine-tuned to tolerate 20 losses for 1 big win, but can you say the same about your life?

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My Next PC

7/4/2012 6:40:21 PM

Most of my adult life I’ve been using desktop PCs. Then for some time I’ve switched to a laptop docked to the monitor, network, etc. I wasn’t traveling at all at that time, so this was mostly pointless and underpowered setup. That said, at times I needed to take my work with me I didn’t need to do anything. Just take the laptop and go.

Then I switched back to a desktop. Then I started travelling a little more and having a desktop and a laptop that was collecting dust 90% of the time wasn’t convenient. You either have to manage your laptop for no reason or it’s outdated, etc. when you need it. So I switched back to a laptop based desktop system. Here’s how my workplace looks at the moment.

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The keyboard and touchpad on the ultrabook just occupy the space most of the time. Plus all the ultrabooks on the market at the moment lack a dock option (as far as I know) so I’m plugging 4 cables each morning. But I like the idea that I don’t have to manage multiple computers and I have all my stuff with me whether I’m at work, at home or on the road. That said, even at home or when travelling I still don’t really need that laptop keyboard (it kind of sucks on the ASUS ZenBook, btw) unless I’m really doing serious work.

So here’s how I imagine my next PC setup should look (please pardon my graphic skills):

setup

Ideally I want a pretty powerful Intel (as in not ARM) based tablet with a dock and support for external monitors (preferably more than one). So when I go home I take the tablet with me and use it as a consumption/entertainment device at home and when I’m back at the office I just dock it and I’m back in business.

I’m not sure if top of the line Surface will fit the bill when it’s released. Will it be powerful enough? And I’m not sure they’ll have docks. And it seems that it will support only one external monitor. However those touch/type covers would definitely be handy.

So who’s going to build my next PC?

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Startup Sauna Diary. Part 3. Silicon Valley trip

5/29/2012 4:19:08 PM

We have just returned from the Silicon Valley trip with Startup Sauna and here are some quick notes about the trip.

1. Do your car rental homework

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We’ve booked a car through Avis (via Lufthansa) even though “on paper” it wasn’t the cheapest option. But I got tired researching cheaper options and booked with Avis. In the end there were no surprises (except for free upgrade from intermediate to a full-size class) and we’ve paid $250 for 8 days. Other teams tried to save and paid $500+ in the end (because insurance, etc. wasn’t included in the quote).

2. Leave your car “at home” when going to San Francisco (unless absolutely necessary)

We were stationed in Palo Alto but had to go to SF quite a few times. First time we went to San Francisco by car even though we had no use for it in the city. The morning trip was during rush hour and took as long (if not longer) as train ride would, parking cost $22 and is hard to find and messy. Our friends got their car towed away and ended up paying $400 to get it back. Next time I had to go by car (cause I had meetings in Palo Alto and in SF back to back). I chose the wrong lane on the street – only 1 of the 3 lanes turning left was actually turning left and the other 2 were going “slightly” left and I ended up on the Bay Bridge and had to go extra 5km over the bridge to Treasure Island and back in heavy and slow traffic. Ended up being 30 min. late to the meeting. Next time we went by train and it was an absolute pleasure and relaxed experience.

3. Phones

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You can get prepaid plans at AT&T and T-mobile but you have to go to the actual stores and go through a rather lengthy procedure. It literally took AT&T guys an hour to figure out how to set me up with a $25 prepaid option that would include data. T-mobile were quicker but (as far as I understand) 3G won’t work on most European phones when using T-mobile and you’ll be limited to 2G. The quality of the cell networks is pretty low too. Lots of times I have literally no bars on the phone and I wasn’t in a forest or something.

We’ve also tried to buy a Nokia Lumia 900 w/o a contract and unlocked, but failed miserably.

4. Things just happen in Silicon Valley

I had a few meetings planed upfront for the trip but a couple more happened just because of the Silicon Valley ecosystem and the fact that lots of companies are based there. At the same time as with all the densely populated communities, the startup community in SV is filled with all kinds of “leeches” trying to sell their services to you during the networking events.

5. Silicon Valley VCs are not that scary and Sandhill Road is a nice place

It is often stressed that European VCs are just a bunch of nice “bunnies” compared to sharks in Silicon Valley. We didn’t go there expecting to raise money or something, so maybe that was the important factor, but I found pitching to VCs that we’ve met to be a pretty nice and not really stressful experience. That said the level of technological expertise and diversity of some of these guys was really impressive.

6. Entrepreneurs think big in SV… often too big, imho

Several times I’ve met entrepreneurs who pivoted not because their initial idea sucked, but because they figured it was “only” a $100 million idea, not a billion. Obviously I’m exaggerating, but that pretty much describes the difference I’ve noticed. We’ve also got feedback from VCs that our group was noticeably different from local startups in a way that our businesses were built around our passions and most of the SV entrepreneurs are in the game for the sake of game itself.

7. Co-working spaces are quiet

It’s always pretty noisy in the Aalto Venture Garage but 2 co-working spaces I’ve been to in SF (RocketSpace and I/O Ventures) are pretty quiet. That is definitely a plus in my book.

8. Office space is expensive, but everyone takes twice as much as they need

I guess it’s a mix of optimistic growth expectations, scarcity of available office space and rent terms, but it feels that companies get offices at least twice as big as they currently need.

9. It seems that the technical talent in the Valley is pretty scarce

Provided that you have a proper visa (or other form of work permit) it should be really easy to get a job for technical people in the Valley. That should make it an unattractive place for R&D activities of startups (imho) but the counter argument is that only there you can find people with proper experience building really massive and scalable projects. There’s probably some truth to that, but in general I think it’s BS. There’s lot of talent all over the world and only a few companies manage to grow to a scale where real high end scaling skills are necessary. So I would say moving a technical part of your company to SV is pretty much lame.

10. If you ever plan to look for funding in the US, establish a Delaware corp. now

There’s lots of crazy law and accounting stuff involved but the bottom line is that a non-US startup should establish some “empty” company in the US at least a few months before it starts seeking for funding. There aren’t many expenses involved in keeping this company alive, but it’ll pay off beautifully if/when you decide to “flip”.

11. Startup Sauna rocks!

pitching

And most importantly, thank you to Startup Sauna for getting us there, taking us places we wouldn’t get to otherwise and organizing a great Silicon Valley demo day (even though I had to start a pitch to a half-empty room due to the last minute champagne stunt).

And thanks to all the other Sauna teams for the company. You guys rock!

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Startup Sauna Diary. Part 2. Week 1

4/28/2012 7:42:52 AM

So week #1 of Startup Sauna is over. It was pretty busy so it went really fast. 2 of the bigger sessions of the week were dedicated to pitching and even though they had slightly contradictory advice both were really good.

On Tuesday we’ve spent almost the whole day with Mike Bradshaw and tried pitching without slides for a random number of minutes. We just had to fetch a pool ball from a bag before we went on stage and the number on it told you how long your pitch should be. Challenging, interesting, useful.

Then we had a team-building exercise. As a totally introverted  geek I was skeptical and “annoyed” by the fact at first but it turned out pretty cool. We were randomly divided into 6 teams and had to make 2 dishes. And we actually even managed to win by just taking edible stuff and making a salad out of it :)

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On Wednesday Juha Ruohonen had a session on pitching and we tried to pitch again. This time the time was known upfront (2 minutes), still no slides. Very good tips and feedback.

And then in the afternoon we had a chance to pitch to actual VCs from Infocomm Investments. Just like that. On day 3 of Sauna. It’s unclear if the investors were actually interested in our batch as real potential investment targets but it was a really good real life practice nevertheless.

On a side note there were only a few PCs in the room and they hooked up to a projector without a hitch, but half of the Macs failed :P

Overall I kind of thought that pitching tips and advice is always the same and generic, but these 2 days proved me totally wrong and were very good, useful and to the point.

Then on day 4 we had 1on1 meetings with coaches. Every team got to meet a different set of coaches. We get to meet 6 of them and they were really good. That was were I realized that even though Finland is only slightly bigger than Lithuania in terms of population, we have still a huge way to go in terms of startup ecosystem people. It’s hard to explain this but I’d say that Ilja Laurs, the only startup “god” in Lithuania, would fit in there but not stand out. And that was only the first batch of coaches.

Overall we got mostly positive and useful feedback and were really challenged by 1 coach which didn’t feel all that great emotionally but was really to the point and extremely useful.

The last day consisted of the weekly summary session called “Kick the shit out”. Luckily no shit was kicked out (at least not that I know of) and we will continue sharing the Aalto Venture Garage with all the awesome teams next week.

But that’s not all. On Friday night we had a housewarming party at Goodbuzz’s recently rented apartment and even though someone (no, not me, I’m always driving here) had too much to drink and got pseudo-offensive, hopefully the other guys understand that it was vodka talking and we will continue to have the awesome atmosphere in the batch we had so far.

And to wrap this up  (I should take more pictures) here’s a pic of a nice Finnish tank:

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Startup Sauna Diary. Part 1. The Trip and Day 1

4/24/2012 6:46:56 AM

So we are here in Finland and Spring ‘12 batch of Startup Sauna kicked off yesterday.

Finding a place to stay in Helsinki wasn’t an easy task and the upcoming Hockey World Cup definitely doesn’t help. The best price/performance option we were able to find was about 20km away from the Aalto Venture Garage and it takes about 1.5 hour to get there using public transportation. So we made a decision to go by car. This also allowed us to bring more stuff (monitors, etc.)

The trip and Helsinki sightseeing

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Luckily the trip was pretty uneventful. Except for missing a Hesburger in Parnu due to a new road that goes around the city, there were no surprises. The most memorable thing was a ferry trip from Tallinn to Helsinki.

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And the most memorable thing on the ferry was the sheer amount of alcohol Finns were buying to bring home. Looking at their carts I don’t think I could consume that much alco in a year.

The trip took the whole Saturday and on Sunday we went shopping for stuff for the apartment to the nearby huge shopping mall appropriately called Jumbo. The funny thing is that it hosts 2 different enormous supermarkets next to each other.

And then we went for a sightseeing walk around Helsinki center. The weather was nice, the city is nice, great stuff!

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Startup Sauna Day 1

The official part of Startup Sauna was scheduled to start at 3pm but we’ve arrived to Aalto Venture Garage early – around 10am.

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That turned out to be a good idea because even though there’s probably enough room for all the teams, we brought our monitors and wanted to secure a suitable desk. I’m also a little picky about chairs (due to the old programmer’s back) and the ones we have upstairs are really good. So, without further ado let me introduce the Finnish AdDuplex HQ:

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At 3pm the official program started, the teams were introduced, orientation given, t-shirts and flip-flops presented and the heat is officially on.

The first guest was Christopher Karltorp – CEO of Zerply – who gave a horror story talk with a happy ending which mostly concentrated on their struggles fundraising. It was both scary and inspirational and a really interesting story. Add a little Aaron Sorkin and you can get a decent Social Network sequel.

And then was traditional Wednesday BBQ (on Monday this time). We had burgers and most people had beer, but not me, because I’m driving and Paulius is younger than my car insurance would allow. But that could be a good thing. Beer is ridiculously overpriced here anyway.

So, that’s it for now. The easy part has ended and serious stuff starts today…

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I Cover 99 Platforms but Ain’t Hit on One

3/29/2012 6:03:24 PM

platform2
Photo by Ewan-M

A couple of days ago I’ve read Loic Le Meur’s post on having to let half of his team at Seesmic go. I’ve never met Loic, but from what I’ve read and seen and from couple of minor online interactions he seems like a really nice guy and a hard working entrepreneur. I’ve also used quite a few of Seesmic’s products over the years. So I have nothing but respect for him and it was pretty sad to read the a/m post.

About a year ago I have inadvertently insulted Loic in comments on his blog

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This wasn’t my intention and could be attributed to my limited command of English. By “mediocre” I meant “quite good” and by “quite good” I mean “good, but there are better options”. I wrote it a year ago and I still mean it – for most apps it doesn’t make sense to spread thin and try to cover as many platforms as humanly possible. It doesn’t matter if you are quite OK on 5 platforms if on every one of them there are more popular options.

I basically use 3 devices: my main PC, our home living room PC and my Windows Phone. I have Seesmic apps installed on all of them, but I don’t use them on any. On my main PC I use MetroTwit because it’s the best twitter app for Windows. On my Windows Phone I use rowi because it’s the best twitter app for Windows Phone. And on our multi-tenant home PC I just use twitter.com because it’s good enough for the glance-and-go nature of that computer. I don’t care about using the same “brand” of the app on every platform. I’m happy to use different apps on different platforms for the same task as long as these apps are the best for me on that platform and that usage scenario.

Even for social networks, where it would seem that being everywhere is the only way to go, it’s not always true. Instagram, for example, is only available on iOS and “coming soon” on Android. And one may argue that it is successful because it stayed focused and small (in terms of team).

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Why am I writing this? We’ve been pretty successful on one platform and I’m under a constant peer pressure (as well as internal pressure) to expand into other platforms “with way more fish”. Most of the time I resist it and I’m pretty sure that would be a bad idea at this stage, but sometimes I feel urges to go “big” myself.

I blame it on the VC oriented startup culture. Due to the nature of venture capital they can’t be interested in “how your are going to change your niche”. They want you to tell them “How are you going to change the World?

Changing the World could be your end play, but I think you should only go there once you have nothing important left to do in your neck of the woods (be it niche, location or platform).

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