ailon's DevBlog: Development related stuff in my life

Spotify-like App Stores

9/24/2012 3:03:52 PM

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Photo by ZeroOne

I’m the last person to say good things about iTunes, but there’s no denying it brought legal digital music to mainstream users. Same goes for iOS App Store. Geeks were buying Windows Mobile apps long before the App Store, but Apple made it easy for a regular person to buy apps for their smartphones. That said, buying MP3s-to-own sounds very old school in 2012 and I bet only the most devoted fans or those who have never heard of Spotify, Zune Pass, Rhapsody, etc. still do it.

But what about apps? All of the app stores still operate in the “classic” iTunes model. Even though it’s clear that paid 99 cent app model never really took off on Android, all Windows Phone success stories are ad based, and even on iOS free-to-play games reign supreme at this stage.

Yet, I think it should be way easier (from the legal standpoint) to introduce the subscription model to the app stores than it was (is) in the music world. Obviously not every smartphone user would like to pay a monthly fee for the app firehose and not every niche app maker would agree to get pennies for each download/use. But, in general, the 99 cent developer crowd should be happy and power users would happily pay $5/month for unlimited access to most of the app catalog. And it shouldn’t be just one or the other.

There’s no doubt it would take a lot of math, market testing, etc. to perfect the formula, but overall I think it’s a win-win solution and an obvious next evolutionary step in the app store history.

What do you think?

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Should Google and Microsoft Pay OEMs to Use Their OSs?

9/18/2012 2:55:55 PM

These days no one seems to debate the cliché phrase that it’s no longer a war of operating systems or devices, but a war of ecosystems. And, since actual devices and operating systems are only enablers of these ecosystems, it’s quite obvious that one of the ways to move an ecosystem forward is to strip the profit margins of the devices completely. And Amazon is a perfect example of this.

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Photo credit Android Authority

Amazon is happy to sell you a Kindle with no margin, happy to exchange a broken one without grilling you too much about validity of your warranty claim. That’s not where they make money. But it’s where consumers buy into the ecosystem – “Look this tablet is awesome and it’s only $299!”

Apple has a seemingly opposite business model, but they can easily switch to the Amazon’s way of doing business if they choose or are forced to.

Google and Microsoft, on the other hand, are very dependent on the OEMs making the hardware and those OEMs in turn are dependent on having a reasonable margin on top of the costs of the hardware and OS. Google can make their “own” Nexus devices, and Microsoft can make their own Surfaces, but they are not free to compete on the hardware prices as long as they care about OEMs even a little. And I guess they have to care at least for now.

So, unless Google and Microsoft either somehow compensate OEMs for the lost profits on the hardware or let them in on the revenues from the ecosystem as a whole, it looks like it will be difficult to compete with Amazon and (possibly) Apple in the ecosystem play.

Luckily for Google, Amazon doesn’t make phones yet. Luckily for Microsoft they don’t make proper computers yet. Luckily for both, Amazon is still very US-centric in the content department. All of this can change any day, though.

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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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Upcoming Trips

1/20/2012 7:26:20 PM

I’m 36 and, believe it or not, I have never been on anything that could pass as a business trip until 2 years ago. I was on 1 such trip in 2010, 5 in 2011 and in February 2012 alone I’m going to go on 4 (well, technically the “month” covers January 31st and March 1st, but who’s counting?).

So here’s a list. Come say “hi”, if you are nearby.

UK Windows Phone User Group (January 31st, 2012)

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I will be presenting my “Developer’s Guide to Windows Phone App Marketing and Monetization” at January meeting of WPUG in London. It’s free and there was even a careless promise of a free round. Really no reason not come. Plus all you Brits get a chance to make fun of my accent too.

TechCrunch Baltics, Riga, Latvia (February 9th)

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I was fighting my conscience on whether I should go there, but it said that I should get out of my comfort zone of hanging with developers and go and hang out with entrepreneurs, angels and VCs instead. So, here we go.

MS TechDays, Belgium (February 14th-15th)

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After booking this I’ve realized it’s going to be the first Valentine’s Day without my wife in ~18 years we are together. But ScottGu is keynoting, so what can I do, honey!?

Mobile World Congress, Barcelona (February 27th – March 1st)

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I was too cheap to shell out 2000+ Euro for the full pass, especially considering it mostly includes what looks like boring sessions of telco CEOs. So I’m going on an Exhibition Pass which covers App Planet (sub-)conference and it should be the most interesting part of it for me anyway. There will be some Nokia developer conference on the first day of it. Should be interesting and you have to apply for it and be approved by the organizers (I think). So will see how it goes. Looking forward to it and at least +15C in February!

Are you coming to any of these events? Comment here, drop me a line or ping me on twitter. And if you see me there, don’t hesitate to say “hi”!

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Newsflash: You can’t track everything

1/17/2012 8:28:32 PM

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Photo by Konstantinos Papakonstantinou

Back in the pre-internet days advertisers could hardly track anything and they had to calculate RoI on their offline ad campaigns based on some assumptions, approximations or secondary data. They were aware that their data wasn’t accurate so they understood that all of their conclusions based on the scarce data aren’t facts, but just their best educated guesses.

These days on the internet we have referrers, cookies and other stuff that lets us track the whole path of our users from our ad somewhere, to their first visit, to the purchase of our product. Sure, quite often we can see that customer A came from site B, looked through our site, returned to it in a few days and made a purchase. Hooray!

Based on this data we start to believe that we can track everything and now we can measure RoI of our campaigns by simply comparing money we’ve spent on it and amount it generated in sales based on data provided by our tracking/analytics software. This type of measuring success is prevalent in blogs, podcasts and books on entrepreneurship these days and we are used to looking at it as the absolute truth. Because we have the data to prove it!

Unfortunately we can only track something and not everything.

Let me give you a couple of examples.

We are tracking the sales funnels for amCharts. We get pretty good data for quite a large portion of sales and can tell where they have originated. That said the most popular source of sales is Google search for “amcharts”. Yes, “amcharts”. Not just “charts” or any other generic term, but our exact name. This means that the majority of sales come from people who already knew something about amCharts. This could be someone who has heard about amCharts from a friend. Or someone who has clicked on our ad while doing chart library research at home on his iPad and then came back via Google search from his computer at work the next day. Or a CEO (or some other guy with a credit card) who has been told by his developer to buy amCharts. All of these sales could have initially originated from a campaign that could’ve been declared a complete waste of money based on the tracking data we have.

Another example with a different angle. One of the best music albums I’ve bought last year was Velociraptor! by Kasabian. Let me try to track the chain of events that led me to the purchase. I’ve heard about the band and some of their songs before, but have never bought any of their music. The catalyst of the purchase was a remix of the song “Days Are Forgotten” by DJ Z-trip. I’ve heard it on Z-Trip’s site, then went to the Zune store on my PC a couple of days or even months later and bought the album. I’m pretty sure there’s no trace of this chain anywhere. So Kasabian’s record label (or whoever cares) has no idea that money spent on commissioning Z-Trip and LL Cool J to do the remix resulted in the sale. But lets go deeper. Why did I go to Z-Trip’s site in the first place? Because he was DJing at the party of MIX11 conference I’ve attended last year. So I guess part of the referral credits should go to Microsoft? But why did I pay attention to the name of the DJ at MIX11 and have no idea who was DJing at MIX10? Because I already knew who Z-Trip was, even though I’ve completely forgotten by that time. Back in the early 2000s I’ve listened to Linkin Park a lot and their lead-vocalist did vocals on one of the songs on Z-Trip’s album. And I don’t know who was responsible for turning me onto Linkin Park.

As you can see human mind can trace some events back along a chain of events that none of the tracking software can pick up. In the above mentioned case it even failed at the very first step which would definitely be of interest for a music bands management.

The bottom line is that the fact that we can track something gives us an illusion that we can track everything, but the next couple of times when you buy something online try to analyze if the seller of the product can trace your purchase back to the original source of your interest in this product. And when you notice that they can’t, think about your own campaigns and how you believe you know the RoI on them.

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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.

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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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Service Work Kills Products

8/23/2011 4:01:43 PM

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Photo by Nicholas Morant

I really enjoy reading stories about people breaking out of the machine and becoming indie developers. In Windows Phone world a role model indie developer is Elbert Perez. He has developed more than 10 high quality Windows Phone games and was able to quit his day job to pursue independent game development fulltime. He is really open about his professional indie-dev life and regularly posts updates about his experience in his blog at occasionalgamer.com.

In his latest update Elbert writes (emphasis mine):

I have taken extra side projects to help keep the coffers full, which somewhat slowed down the cadence of which I release my games. My strategy for making games has not changed, but I have become more open minded about taking on work for other people as long as it has something to do with WP7 or games.

And he concludes with

I’ve been really busy with other projects, but I am still working on my games…

That really resonates with me.

I’ve always wanted to be a product(s) “company”. I’ve worked on several products over the years, but I never had a runway (as in cash) to support a year of product development without reasonable return. So I supported my “dream” by doing contract work.

Except providing services pays (relatively) instantly and risk-free. And it’s a hard drug. The one that you don’t even enjoy, but have to inject to avoid withdrawal pains. Combining “working for yourself” with working on a product is much harder than working for a man and working on a product in your off-the-clock time. You don’t have any off-the-clock time when you work for yourself.

I’ve had a product which at the time it was launched (2003) was definitely contending for No.1 spot in it’s category. One problem – it didn’t make enough money to fully support me. And I had no extra money to keep me afloat while I was improving, marketing and otherwise working on it. So I fooled myself that I can work on client projects to fund the development.

Fast forward 5 years and my product, which only got attention now and then, was no longer at the top of the list. It is still successfully used in projects and products but I’ve totally missed a perfect chance at establishing it as a market leader. And the money I made working on these side projects is just money paid in exchange for labor. Bitch work. Even if well paid. No longevity.

So I decided to get rid of all the “service” work and concentrate all of my attention on the “product” work. Unless you have a deep rainy day fund you can’t just do this overnight. So I’ve been launching various smaller sites and products here and there and was able to accumulate Ramen-level stream of repeating income to support my endeavors. I did it on my own for a couple of years, but if you want some guidance on how to achieve this, just read The 4-Hour Workweek book.

So now I’m fully invested in my current product and, even it fails, it won’t be because I neglected it to get some shrimp into my ramen. And that’s how I know it will succeed.

I guess the moral is – if you have a good and promising thing going you shouldn’t waste your time chasing some extra cash. A few extra dollars won’t affect your well-being in the future, but a successful product will. There’s a Lithuanian proverb “Nemesk kelio dėl takelio”. This could be literally translated as “don’t get off the road for a trail”. I bet there’s some English equivalent, but you get the point.

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Don’t Automate Technical Administrivia in a Startup

8/12/2011 2:22:50 PM

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Photo by Chris Stickley

Yesterday I’ve spent 6 hours semi-automating a technical administrivia task on AdDuplex.

Up until now I did log archiving and truncating manually, along with some other things. I did it once in 2 weeks at first, then once a week and lately 2 times a week. Each time it took about 10 minutes of attention (netto). It actually takes about half an hour but most of that time I can do other things while different processes are in progress.

Whenever I told that I did this manually to a corporate alpha-geek developer or admin they frowned. As a self-respecting developer you are supposed to automate these things. I always responded like “it’s on my to-do list but with a relatively low priority”, but I always felt like I’m hiding my laziness under this “low priority” mask.

Some time ago I’ve read a book by Rob Walling titled “Start Small, Stay Small: A Developer's Guide to Launching a Startup”. Here is a brilliant quote from it:

Every hour spent writing code is wasted time if that code could be replaced by a human being doing the same task until your product proves itself

This brings perfect sense to what I’ve been masquerading as “low priority” task. And I disregarded this advice yesterday.

I’ve spent 6 hours working on something that took me 20 minutes a week to do manually. This means that my “investment” will only payoff in 4+ months and there’s no guarantee that in 2-3 months I won’t rewrite some parts of the system in a way that will render this automation code obsolete.

I’ve effectively borrowed time from my own business and didn’t add any value to users in the process. I could’ve worked on something that is useful, but I behaved like a disgusted “self-respecting” developer, not like a businessman. And now I’m writing this down, so I don’t behave the same way again.

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Fundable Startup

8/9/2011 6:00:43 PM

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I've recently visited AngelList and saw a list of startups with their tagline next to the name. Approximately half of these startups had a tagline in the form of "[Insert hot startup here] for [insert some niche here]".

It was amusing at first, but then I remembered something I've read or heard somewhere. The idea was that good Venture Capitalists do extensive research on the companies and markets they are going to invest in. And lazy VCs just assume that good VCs did their research on this concept so it's safe(r) to invest in these "copycats" than in something completely new and unproven.

So, I created a tool that helps you find an idea for your next great and — most importantly — fundable startup by randomly combining other hot startup names with some industries and niches.

Unfortunately I was unable to come up with something fitting this formula for my own startup. Let me know in the comments bellow or @ailon on twitter, if you have an idea. Or you can just follow AdDuplex on AngelList.

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