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Posts in the ‘Business’ category

25 Apr 2008

by Noel

Know Your Customer

Watch the battle below and guess who won: Bboy Baek (on the left), or Bboy Born (on the right).

I expect most people would say Baek. He does all the crazy stuff, right? Looks hard and impressive, while Born is just spinning around on the floor most of the time. However, I expect most bboys would give it to Born, who in fact did win that battle. Why? Born sets are well constructed. He has a nice mixture of toprock (the stuff standing up) and downrock (the stuff on the floor), and mixes up the tempo with those pauses at 1:27 and 2:40. Baek has great moves, but he just throws them down without any real set up, and he messes up some of them, like the hand-hop at 50s and the flares at 2:14. Also, when the music changes he just wanders around the stage, not dancing.

I like this video as its reminds me of an obvious but sometimes forgotten point in software development: experts are not everyone. Expert users are often the most vocal, and when desiging software it can be very easy to let their concerns dominate to the detriment of less skilled but more numerous users. Sometimes a new feature is just creeping featurism, but sometimes it’s core to the target market. The only way to tell the difference is to constantly keep in mind who the customer is. Startups in particular can have difficulty with this, as by definition a startup doesn’t yet have any customers. Common advice to startups: scratch your own itch and dog fooding, can be seen as mechanisms to put the developers into the mindset of the users. 37Signals advice to build less is appropriate when targeting the general public. Extreme Programming mandates an Onsite Customer. We’re lucky at the moment to have constant contact with our customers, and regular feedback from them is important make sure we develop software that is useful for them.

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25 Jan 2008

by Noel

SPIN-Farming, Franchising, and the Future of Software Frameworks

Ever thought about buying a franchise? Like the idea of running
your own business but don’t want the risk of trying it all
alone? How about farming? Attracted by the notion of
growing all your own food, and connecting with nature? How
about both — franchised farming? Sounds unlikely, but
that’s essentially what SPIN farming is.

The core of SPIN farming is, well, farming, but not on
the scale that most people associate with modern farming
techniques. SPIN farmers typically work plots less
than an acre in area, and achieve good returns by
concentrating on the most profitable crops, and utilising
crop rotation to increase yield. The best
description I’ve found is<a
though it isn’t very detailed.

In itself the farming techniques aren’t that radical. I
remember learning in high school that crop rotation was one
of the key innovations of the agrarian revoluation, and that
was some time ago (both high school, and the agrarian
revolution). What is novel is the way the SPIN farming
business is run, and that’s what causes me to call it a
franchise. Contained in the guide books (the<a
href=””>complete set can
all be purchased online) is everything you’d expect from a
good franchise: a business plan, marketing advice, and a
detailed day-to-day workflow. In standardising the product
and creating a reproducible process it really isn’t any
different from McDonalds. Now SPIN farming isn’t a true
franchise — you don’t buy the right to use the name,
and there isn’t any ongoing fee. And there’s no equivalent
University either. At least not yet. It is still an interesting business
model and one that I think has great potential, though
perhaps not for the financial gain of the founders.

The franchise idea, believe it or not, has great
relevance to computing. What is<a
over configuration if not the computing equivalent of
the franchise’s reproducable process? Perhaps by regarding
frameworks as franchises we can shift the emphasis from
technical development to supporting the developer in every
way they need to succeed. This seems to me a better goal
for both framework developers and users.

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7 Dec 2007

by Noel

Corporate Blanding

Amusing interaction on the forums. Concerning bugs in the current client on Leopard, a member of staff writes:

We’re aware of there being a fuckload of problems concerning the client and Leopard. Fear not, for work shall be focused on ironing these bugs out in the coming days.

Which brings the following customer responses:

Is this what passes for professionalism on Web 2.0?


Paying or not, we’re customers, and we deserve to be treaded with some professionalism.

As a testament to how poorly that language can be received, just witness how this support thread has degraded since the post.

Seeing this, I’m now a FORMER customer. While one customer may not matter in the short term, every customer does count to a healthy business.

The same staff member then makes things just a little bit worse with the following rather sarcastic apology:

I hereby apologise to the tiny fraction of the 5% of our userbase who are Mac users for offending them by the use of the word “fuckload.” We’ll try and be more corporate and sterile in future.

To be fair there were at least as many posts from people who didn’t find the language offensive, or even liked it. But the whole mess could have been avoided by simply using, say, “shedload” in the original post, which would have kept the character of the post without causing offense. It pays to remember that on the big old Internet not everyone shares the same values.

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18 Jul 2007

by Noel

Power to the People!

Waitrose has opened up near to Untyped Central and obviously Dave and I are agog with excitement. Only just less exciting than the thought of the great lunches we’re going to have is the chance to see the John Lewis Partnership in action. They have a fairly unique corporate form, and talk a good game, but do they deliver? I did my first test today when I asked the checkout operator what is was like to work for the Partnership. To my great surprise she responded very positively and could give me specific examples of the benefits. I don’t think many people could answer half as well if quizzed about their government, for example.

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26 Apr 2007

by Noel

Y Not?

I haven’t been following Y Combinator, so it came as a surprise to hear aboutYEurope. The deal is pretty similar to the US offering, though you go to Vienna, not Boston. Note that the two aren’t actually affiliated!

Also interesting is Y Combinator Startup News, which is similar to Reddit in terms of interface but focuses solely on news of interest to startups. Of a smidgen more interest is that the site is made in MzScheme, as Anton uncovers after painstaking analysis. Note that Paul Graham wrote his own web server, which is why his URLs are nicer than ours. (Dave G, are you reading this? :-) ).

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2 Feb 2007

by Noel

Simplicity at Work

Founders At Work is a collection of interviews with the founders of successful high-tech companies. They have two interviews online, one with Woz and one with Joel Spolsky.

Some good quotes:

All the best things that I did at Apple came from (a) not having money and (b) not having done it before, ever. Every single thing that we came out with that was really great, I’d never once done that thing in my life.

I think what makes a good hack is the observation that you can do without something that everybody else thinks you need. To me, the most elegant hack is when somebody says, “These 2,000 lines of code end up doing the same thing as those 2 lines of code would do. I know it seems complicated, but arithmetically it’s really the same.” When someone cuts through a lot of crap and says, “You know, it doesn’t really matter.”

There is a remarkable similarity to the two interviews. Both emphasize simplicity and working under constraints.

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2 Nov 2006

by Noel

Air Taxis, Constraint Solving, and Computing Power

This week’s In Business covered the fascinating industry of air taxis. An air taxi is exactly what the name suggests: an airplane that takes you where you want to go, when you want to go. Now clearly the infrastructure required for air taxis is a bit more expensive than that for a normal taxi, so answering the question “how do you make money?” is quite involved. The best answer was provided by DayJet. Essentially they run a massive constraint solving system, juggling aircraft, airports, and travellers, and they charge you by how difficult you make the constraints. If you demand to travel in a small window of time it is going to be difficult for them to find other passengers for the plane, so you pay more. If you don’t particularly care when you travel, or how long the journey takes, then they might be able to fill the plane, or make a detour to pick up other customers.  Hence you pay less.  This is an elegant solution to a difficult problem, and I’m struck that this is the type of solution, indeed the type of industry, that can only exist because of information technology. Even five years ago I doubt computer power was cheap enough to make this feasible.

Now just don’t get me started about the environmental problems air taxis would cause. That’s a problem there is no easy or elegant solution for.

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14 Sep 2006

by Noel

CMS software for QMUL

We “went live” today with our second project for Queen Mary, University of London: a content management system for publishing course and staff homepages.

The system is simple and intuitive: each homepage consists of a single page of HTML, and doubles as an online filestore. Members of staff can upload files such as lecture notes and slides, and visitors to the page can download them simply by clicking on a hyperlink. We use the metaphor of attachments to relate this back to the familiar process of writing an email.

The main page editor screen is split into two halves: a WYSIWYG HTML editor (we used TinyMCE) and a list of attachments (complete with controls for uploading, renaming and deleting files). A separate management interface allows administrative staff to set up homepages for new courses and members of staff, assign permissions for who can edit what, and flag external pages that are held off-site and not maintained with our software.

All of this new functionality is integrated into our existing software for registering students on courses. Members of staff access all their pages through a control panel that displays only the information they need, and everything is nicely integrated with QMUL’s IDCheck single sign-on service.

Behind the scenes, the code for the CMS is based on a prototype for our new component-oriented web UI library, LyluxUI. We still have a way to go before the code is ready for open release, but it will eventually be available for public consumption alongside our other open source libraries, Snooze and Unlib.

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19 Aug 2006

by Noel

Exit Strategy, Internet Style

Investors in a startup always want to know how the startup is going to get their money back — their exit strategy. “Get bought by Google/Yahoo/Microsoft” is a pretty common one in the Internet world. One I’ve never heard is “sell the company’s assets on Ebay”. Well, that’s exactly what Kiko are doing. Bidding starts at US$50’000. Very appropriate, I must say!

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27 Jul 2006

by Noel

Paul Graham: Digg vs Reddit

Paul Graham (an investor in Reddit) writes that it appears Digg are removing from their home page stories about Reddit. I don’t really have much to say about this, other than it is very shoddy practice if true, and another interesting point to add to my previous post on Digg and Reddit.

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