ailon's DevBlog: Development related stuff in my life

2 Years of Entrepreneurship

1/18/2013 3:39:00 PM

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Well, actually I’ve been doing something like entrepreneurship for the past ~14 years, but the last 2 mark the first time I went all-in, hence the title.

This write-up is mostly for my future self. It’ll be interesting to read this in a few years and compare to my thoughts/experiences on the subject. You are more than welcome to tag along, though. If you have any thoughts or arguments either in agreeing or disagreeing with me, please, do not hesitate to express them in the comments.

On starting up

iStock_000011756085SmallI had an idea for AdDuplex in December 2010. There’s nothing radically new about it. That said, for some reason, no one thought of it at that time (at least as far as I know). Anyway, I decided to scratch my own itch and implement it on Windows Phone. Some thought (and probably still think) I was stupid not to jump to iOS and Android immediately once I got proof that developers really needed and liked a service like this. Some also said that should’ve moved to Silicon Valley immediately and I would’ve been “golden” by now. Well, I didn’t and I didn’t.

I think the most likely outcome of both moves would be either dying because of money running out before we get to something meaningful across all the platforms, or, in case I managed to secure enough funding to start, being forced to “pivot” to something that has a better theoretical chance of becoming “a billion dollar company”. More on that later. Anyway, I’m enjoying being an important part of the Windows Phone and now Windows 8 ecosystems. And I like living in Lithuania. And we will see about that summer house in California ;)

One thing that really helped me start this was the fact that I had reasonable semi-passive income from now defunct .NET part of amCharts. Ironically other 2 big pushes came from really bad news from Microsoft. First one came in a form of only 30 countries “allowed” to develop for Windows Phone. This is now resolved, but If not for that blow I would probably be developing some mediocre WP apps at the moment. Another big blow came right at the time I’ve started seeing traction with AdDuplex. At the first Windows 8 announcement event Microsoft has famously “forgotten” to mention WPF/Silverlight or any other XAML/C# based development technology as a platform to create Windows 8 apps. This resulted in the sales of our (amCharts) WPF/Silverlight controls dropping to virtually zero. It was a clear signal that I needed to find a new occupation and a source of income ASAP. So I jumped from being 50/50 involved with AdDuplex and amCharts to something like 90/10 and then going all-in with AdDuplex.

As I mentioned having a passive income was very important, so I think you should always think about having some passive income so it’s way easier to jump aboard your next crazy idea. Check out The 4-Hour Workweek for some ideas on this. In case you don’t have that, but itch to start something, I think its more productive to stay at a 9-to-5 job and moonlight, than trying to mix entrepreneurship with some consulting work. I’ve tried to do that for more than 10 years and it never actually worked out. Both sides suffer, but the startup side suffers more. Consulting brings real money in after all.

There’s always an option of getting an investment for your startup. Good luck with that. Unless you have a Name or are a world class bullshitter this is a waste of time in the very early stage, imho.

On being a solo founder

Right when I had the idea and got unreasonably excited I’ve shared it with a fellow developer (who should probably remain nameless). He tried to cool me down by saying he doesn’t think it’s such a good idea, and even if it is, we would be blown away by the big boys once they figure there’s something in it. My next several attempts to “recruit” co-founders failed in a similar fashion. I guess it’s the main (only?) disadvantage of being a startup founder in mid-thirties – most of the people you know have families, mortgages and other commitments, and their minimum viable income expectations are much higher than when they were 10-15 years younger.

Anyway I decided that enough is enough and I’m not going to look for co-founders just for the sake of it. There was a limited list of people I’d like to team up with and I’ve exhausted it. And, after all, I thought I had everything needed to for the first step – I can do the server side myself, I can do the SDK on my own, and I have a sense of “ugly”, meaning I know that if I really try to Design something it will end up ugly, so I should keep it simple.

They say being a solo founder is hard. There’s no one to kick your butt when you are slacking off. There’s no one to say something optimistic when you think you are screwed. Etc., etc. Well, I don’t see this as anything tragic. Sometimes it actually is really productive to slack off a little. No matter how counter intuitive this sounds. There’s also a benefit of having no one to fight for “who deserves more” and there’s only one “because I said so”. Decisions are way easier to make. Sometimes even dangerously easy. In any case I think there are obviously cons of being a solo founder but there are pros too. Definitely nothing tragic about it.

On investments/investors

iStock_000013909045SmallMy idea of a perfect business is something in the middle between what VC world calls “lifestyle business” and “a billion dollar company”. In other words I’d rather run a $10m 5 person business, than a $500m 300 people company.

Unfortunately in my experience most of the Silicon Valley crowd is anally fixated on the “show me how this is a billion dollar company?” question. And by Silicon Valley I don’t mean the exact location in California (even though it is in high concentration over there), but places all over the world trying to replicate SV. The question is totally understandable for large VC funds. This is how their mechanics work and it’s fine. But all the lower levels of the ecosystem are very focused on how you are going to raise your next round, therefore everyone looking to invest $10k is asking the billion dollar question. Some people tell me this is not the case and there are lots of investors who don’t care about that and “I totally see you being acquired for $50m”, but immediately follow by “but we only care about $100m+ opportunities”. Anyway I’m obviously exaggerating and I don’t have enough experience in this since I never seriously looked for an investment, but from the limited experience that I had I came out with this takeaway. Take it or leave it.

I came really close to getting a sort-of institutional Angel/Seed investment once. As close as having all the investment papers reviewed and negotiated with lawyers, but things fell through in the end due to something you could probably call force-majeure. I had a technically less attractive (from pure economics) offer from my friend/previous business partner on the table, but I wanted to get a more “formal” investment at that point. One of the reasons I wanted that, was my belief that having an outside investor would indirectly introduce more discipline in my solo act.

Anyway, I ended up getting that FFF (friends, family and fools) investment. The reason I need it was that half a year after I’ve started I found myself deadlocked most of the time. I was a developer (server and client), designer (ahem), marketer, sales person, support and everything in-between. Once this thing has taken of I couldn’t perform any of these things effectively. I was making some money. More or less enough to feed me, but not enough to safely hire someone to help with some of those functions. So I needed a buffer to get to that next level. And I got it.

On hiring

So far at AdDuplex I’ve only hired one person, so not much wisdom I can provide here. That said I ended hiring based on cultural fit over (perceived) competence more than a year before reading a post by Brad Feld of the same title. I’ve interviewed 4 people. All had very similar salary expectations. I ended up hiring the youngest guy with less experience on paper, but the one my hunch told me was a right fit. I’d be lying if I didn’t see the most potential competence in him over the other 3, but most likely the decisive factor was the fact that he just felt like the best fit. One year later I’m totally happy with that decision.

On accelerators

Once I’ve got accustomed to people calling what I’m doing a startup, I started paying attention to startup accelerators. Not that I ever seriously considered setting going to one of them as my goal, but I’ve sent a couple of half-assed applications to TechStars and some others. In late 2011 I’ve learned about Startup Sauna and applied (again half-assedly) via their referral track. Needless to say half-assed applications don’t get you invited. When Startup Sauna had their warm-up in Kaunas in early 2012 I applied and prepared more carefully. My reasoning for doing this is documented in this post. Long story short, we’ve got invited to the final program, traveled to Silicon Valley and talked to a ton of smart people and investors (smart people too ;). It was great and it was a great way for introvert technical geeks to expand social horizons dramatically, learn a few things about running a business and get a real life experience pitching your product to real investors.

In short, I think if you can get into a great accelerator like Startup Sauna you shouldn’t think twice. It really does accelerate things for you. Even if the thing it accelerates is failure, it’s still a good thing. “Fail fast” and blah blah blah.

On networking, PR and marketing

One of the main realizations over these 2 years was that personal connections are as important in the capitalist community of the 21st century as they were in the Soviet economy of the 20th. Great product is as important as ever and likely more important than it was in pre-internet days, but lack of visibility could be more tragic than before too. The main asset of PR agencies (besides the ability to write boring press releases with stock CEO quotes) is personal connections to media. If you start working on your connections after you launch your product its probably too late and using a PR agency is probably the easiest way to get in front of the media.

Luckily for me I loved Twitter way before I could so conveniently claim that I’m using it for work ;) For an introvert geek like me Twitter is an awesome tool and the channel I made most of my personal connections through. That said real life interactions help deepen the connections you make on Twitter and this is one of the things I wish I realized sooner. I was averse to the idea of going to social gatherings, conferences and such, but I’ve started changing my outlook on it and I can even say I started liking it recently. Obviously the process is long and you have to go through a phase when no one knows you anywhere and it’s really boring and even depressing, but as I said, this is the large part of this entrepreneurship thing and not doing it handicaps your business in a pretty major way.

I have a whole post on the subject of networking for the geeks like me. Hopefully I’ll get to posting it soon.

On travelling

I didn’t count, but I’m pretty sure I’ve travelled more over the last 2 years than in the previous 35. It’s amusing to see how my own view on the travels changed. Just a few years ago I would thoroughly prepare for each trip I take. I would be puzzled by the lack of desire from, say, conference speakers to go sightseeing during their trips. I’m not at that point yet, but I already feel that quite often I have to force myself to go check out the surroundings during one of such trips.

It also takes its toll on vacations. The thought of going to some all-inclusive-lazy-laying-by-the-pool resort was nauseating to me just a few years ago. Now this is my most coveted type of vacation. Second only to not going anywhere at all.

On growth

We are at a point again, like I was a little more than a year ago, when we just have too much stuff to juggle for just the two of us. Again, we are making enough money to carry on with what we do, but not enough to expand comfortably. And I’m confused as for what to do next. Should I look for investment? Should I double down on the money making side of the business even if it means sacrificing the growth? These are the questions I have opposing definitive answers to every time I wake up in the morning. Oh, well, uncertainty is probably the most certain thing about entrepreneurship.

Onwards

Anyway. This was probably the longest blog post I’ve ever written and I should wrap it up and go do some real sh*t. Overall I’ve enjoyed the last 2 years very much and wouldn’t change anything for the world. I’ve been out of the real job market for too long (12 years) and I don’t think I want to go back anytime soon or any time at all. So, I love what I’m doing and this what I hope to be doing until I get rich and lazy (not that I ever wasn’t lazy) or until I die trying. We’ll see how it goes.

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My Startup Series: How I Built and Sold almost-Digg 5 Years Before Digg

1/10/2012 8:26:59 PM

After my first startup was killed by the evil IP thieves I’ve lost faith in entrepreneurship… I’m just kidding. I was just finishing school, then university, then getting married, then getting my first “real job” at a bank, etc.

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Photo by Joe Shlabotnik

The Meeting

By 1999 I worked at a small company (with a big name). There was huge financial crisis in Russia and our CEO had lots of bets on several projects that fell through due to the events in the eastern neighbor. So the salary was always a couple of months behind. But we were expecting our daughter, therefore switching jobs wasn’t on my radar at the time. So I set up on a mission to find some side work.

I’ve responded to an ad of a local company looking for freelancers to work on some web project for some US company. I’ve been offered the job as was one other guy. We’ve met to discuss that project for a couple of times (I’m not even sure I remember what it was) and then were told that the project fell through and our services were no longer needed. Little did I know that I will end up working with the dude till this day.

So we were out of our freelancing gig, without anything to replace it with, but still willing to do something.

The most popular site on the internet at the time was Yahoo! (I think). And it wasn’t the huge behemoth it is now. It was mostly a manually managed directory of web sites on the internet. Yeah, it was actually possible to manually manage a list of all the meaningful sites on the internet at that time. I could have navigated to a category of interest and see all the sites about, say, web development.

That was great, but how do I know when one of these sites posts new content? Believe it or not there were no RSS readers (or RSS feeds for that matter) and stuff like that at the time. So the only way to know when there is a new article on 4 Guys from Rolla – a hugely popular ASP developer site of the time – was to actually visit the site.

AC not DC

So my idea was to create a directory of content for web developers. Or as we called it “The Content Directory for Web Professionals”. I’ve pitched the idea to Martynas after he promised not to screw me over and implement it without me. Classic first time entrepreneur move. Fortunately he thought it was a good idea too and turned out to be a cool guy in general.

We have started working on the project. Martynas did the public part of the site and I did the administrative part. It’s funny that even in 1999, coming up with a decent .com domain name that was not taken, wasn’t easy. After a lot of deliberations and domain name checks we’ve settled on ArticleCentral.com.

On some day in 1999 ArticleCentral went live.

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For the next several years we were doing daily rounds around the sites in our database and [selectively] list new articles. Users would come to ArticleCentral, check the new articles, suggest other articles and rate them (sounds familiar?). It was possible to filter articles by category and rating, search through our article database. We even had a “tracker” – a piece of JavaScript that you could embed into your own site and show newest content from ArticleCentral. I totally forgot about that and, frankly, was shocked when I remembered that we had that in 1999 :) One may argue that the web didn’t come a long way since then.

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Later on we’ve added a sister site for hardware articles and reviews.

We had several mailing lists sending out thematic updates to thousands of web developers and designers. We were writing editorials for our weekly newsletters and we had a weekly poll. After several years coming up with editorials and poll ideas became a real chore. Fortunately later in the life of the project we were approached by a young guy (I think he was still in high school at the time) who was willing to write the editorials and think of new poll ideas and we happily delegated these to him. After ArticleCentral he got “promoted” to HotScripts where he still blogs regularly.

We’ve sold quite some advertising on our site and in the mailing lists at rates that would make any modern content publisher salivate. Unfortunately traffic at the time was a joke looking from 2012, so great rates didn’t materialize into nice red Ferraris and beach houses.

The Exit

Anyway, by 2001-2002 the dotcom era was long over. We were pretty bored with the project and it was too early (on the internet scale) for us to come up with something that would transform AC into what later materialized as Digg. We decided that it was time to make an EXIT. Even though we didn’t know the term at the time. So we have just published a splash page on the site that it was for sale.

This was a long shot, but we were contacted by a couple of parties and, while I was on vacation in Turkey in September of 2002, closed the deal. I doubt that I’m allowed to disclose the amount of the deal, but lets just say that it paid for the vacation and I still had some change left.

This concludes a story of how I became a serial entrepreneur with one successful exit. (Haha. Sounds cool when I put it this way). But I have a couple more startup stories up my sleeve.

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My Startup Series: How Intellectual Property Theft Killed My First Startup

1/6/2012 6:28:06 PM

I got my first computer when I was about 13-14. It was a Sinclair ZX Spectrum Plus. I had it hooked up to a black and white TV that was probably smaller than my current phone. Well, maybe not the phone but probably smaller than my Kindle. And you had to load software from cassette tapes.

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My first computer. Photo from Planet Sinclair.

USSR was living its final years but it still was USSR. There was no way to buy legal games or applications for the computer. To get some games you had to go to some basement and buy a service of recording pirated games to your own cassette (getting cassettes wasn’t a small feat either, but that’s another story). Another option was to copy games from friends or a “pusher” – someone who didn’t own a basement, but was selling pirated games anyway.

A friend of mine knew such a pusher. But at the time parents bought me my ZX Spectrum the guy was away and I couldn’t get any games. All I had was a computer manual. Funny thing is that computers of the time had programming tutorials right in their manuals. So out of boredom I taught myself some basic BASIC. This has probably defined all my life and the fact that I basically don’t play games.

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Scan of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum Plus Manual page from Retronaut.

Anyway, the pusher came back and delivered some games and I played them, but I was already hooked on programming.

After some small scale projects I set out to make a game. At that time the most popular TV show in USSR was a “Wheel of fortune” rip-off called “Поле чудес” (The Field of Wonders). So it was only natural that I wanted to make a computer game for that. I don’t recall how much time I’ve spent on it, but after some time it was ready and I’ve hosted a game with my parents and their friends. One of my father’s childhood friends was a programmer and he complemented me on the game, so I thought I was an awesome developer. I’ve shown the game to my “pusher” and he complemented me on it too. He even asked me to record a copy for him, so he can play at home.

Поле_Чуде

I was young, I was born in USSR and I had no entrepreneurial aspirations at the time. I just made some product and was happy when people told me it was cool.

One day I went to a “basement software store”. There were printed catalogs of all the pirated games and applications you can get recorded on your cassettes. I’ve noticed The Field of Wonders on the list made by someone else and was excited to see what other programmers did and how does my game stack up against theirs. So I paid the guys to record me that game among others and went home.

When I loaded the game, my jaw dropped. It was my own game with all the copyrights and logos replaced with some other logos. When my friend came over he recognized the name of the “company” as the one our “pusher” used. The guy just took my game “rebranded” it and made some money. I’m pretty sure he didn’t make anything worth mentioning, but I didn’t make anything at all. I’ve actually lost a few cents by paying those basement pirates for my own game! So I was pretty upset, but I didn’t care much. I was even proud that my software was good enough for someone to steal and rebrand. I didn’t buy games from that pusher anymore, though.

That’s the story of my first startup and one of the milestones letting me pretend to be a serial entrepreneur. I’ll blog about my later endeavors in future posts.

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Ideaot

7/29/2011 1:51:17 PM

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Photo by Adam Hally

Not so long ago I’ve read a book by James Altucher titled “How To Be The Luckiest Person Alive”. It’s a great read and I highly recommend it. One of the concepts described in that book caught my eye the most. I’m not sure if it’s original James’s idea or maybe it’s a well known concept. I’m totally ignorant in that space.

Anyway, the idea is that you have an “idea muscle” and it atrophies if you don’t properly exercise it. I didn’t remember the exact exercise described in the book and now that I’ve reread it on the blog I see that I did it “wrong”, but I don’t think details actually matter.

What I do for the past couple of weeks is sit down for 10 minutes every morning before I start working and try to generate as many ideas about anything as I can. Most of the time these are some business ideas, mobile app ideas, web site or service ideas and things like that. Some ideas are utter crap. Some I may implement one day. Some sound pretty interesting to me, but are definitely out of scope of my expertise and/or interests, so I’m pretty sure I have no practical use for them.

The thought of throwing these ideas away saddens me. So I decided to start a blog where I'll post them in some detail. So, please welcome my new idea blog I called Ideaot.

The first 2 ideas posted there are:

  1. Physical Case for Capacitive Buttons
  2. Consumer Level Tea Bag Packaging Machine

Stay tuned for more and subscribe to the RSS feed to be notified about updates.

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Interview with Windows Phone Dev Podcast

5/16/2011 2:48:20 PM

imageIn addition to the juicy Mango details the new episode of Windows Phone Dev Podcast contains an interview with me.

We’ve talked mostly about AdDuplex among a few other things.

I’d like to thank Ryan and Travis for having me on the show and for all the great and hard work they do for the Windows Phone development community.

If you are into Windows Phone as a developer or even just an enthusiast this podcast is a must. The production quality is top notch too. Especially for such a young podcast. Puts some much more mature podcasts to shame.

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Automatic Unit Converter

5/21/2010 2:54:45 PM

What & Why?

On my recent trip to USA one of the biggest challenges was a constant need to evaluate all the US units and figuring what they mean to me. Miles, feet, inches, gallons, ounces, Fahrenheit… Come on, guys, it’s about time to switch to normal measurement system! ;)

Nevertheless I’ve liked it there and would definitely want to go again. So, Microsoft Lithuania contest to make an Internet Explorer 8 accelerator with trip to MIX11 as a grand prize couldn’t come handier.

When first paragraph met the second one in my head, I knew immediately what to make for this contest.

Please welcome my Automatic Unit Converter IE8 accelerator and complimentary site. You just select some text on some site, click the blue accelerator button, hover over “Convert to Metric” and get all the known units in your selection converted to metric.

Automatic Unit Converter for IE8

Why not just use Google, Bing, etc.?

  1. Not everything work automagically with Google and Bing. 60 ft 5 inch works, but 60'5" doesn’t. Often you have to tell Google what your target is. Building an engine to figure that out is one short step away from just converting the values. So I just made that step myself.
  2. Multiple values in arbitrary text. When you are looking at a text containing multiple values (like in the screenshot above) you don’t want to select and convert them one by one.

What about other systems and directions?

I would probably improve US-to-Metric over time and add Imperial-to-Metric. As for converting these back from metric I’m not personally interested in it. That said I’ve created a conversion module in away to allow expansion and I’m ready to make it open source. So, if someone is up for the task, let me know and I’ll post the project online and implement selection and specific accelerators for different scenarios into the site.

Vote for me!

My accelerator is listed on the contest page as “Matų konvertavimas”. Click on “Patinka” if you like the accelerator.

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Now I’m on TV for real

3/27/2010 12:08:22 PM

Interview with MIX10k winners and judges has been posted on Channel9. Check it out. Yeah, I know that my English sucks.

Get Microsoft Silverlight

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