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Posts in the ‘Business’ category

20 Jul 2006

by Noel

Martin Fowler on Meetings

There’s no better way to fill an empty day at the office than by calling a meeting. If, on the other hand, you want to actually get some work done, but still have to communicate with other people, Martin Fowler has some great tips on how to run more effective meetings. Summary: keep them short and to the point.

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11 Jul 2006

by Noel


Pollground has a good concept that definitely has a market somewhere, but I’m not sure their implementation is ideal. Psychologists, for example, are big users of online surveys. They would pay for better tools to generate and score their surveys. It looks like Pollground are going the ‘on-line billboard’ route, intending to rely on advertising, but it is really too early to say what their strategy is.

One problem with online surveys — it is open to abuse. To their credit Pollground haven’t yanked it (yet). Cover-ups never work on the Internet.

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14 Jun 2006

by Noel

When It Rains It Pours

Yesterday we though we were about to go live on our biggest application yet. The code has been installed on the client’s server, it has been tested, and we think it’s all ready to go. Then is starts raining down in London. You wouldn’t think rain in Britain would be any big deal, but not so. Somehow the rain finds its way through a couple of storeys of building into the client’s server room, and yes, drenches our server. Then the power goes out. Net result is a server that won’t boot up when it finally dries out. Luckily Dave happens to be going down that way, and so finds himself in London installing the software on a spare machine the client had. We think we’ll still make the Thursday lauch date, but only just.

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17 May 2006

by Noel

How American are Startups?

Dave, living it up at XTech in Amsterdam, IMed me about Paul Graham’s latest. A quick search finds that lightening fast typist Suw Charman offers the best synopsis: Xtech 2006: Paul Graham – How American are Startups?.

There are some good points; nothing surprising if you’ve ever been involved in a startup but it is worth a read. My main gripe: there is no Europe. It is a collection of disparate countries with vastly different governments, values, and so on. Capitalist UK is not socialist Denmark.

That aside, by Paul’s criteria the real Cambridge is pretty close to getting it right. It just might be too expensive for real in-the-garage type startups. When paying the rent is a challenge spending time on a risky proposition like a startup seems less attractive.

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7 Mar 2006

by Noel

Cost Breakdown for an Internet Startup

The Cost of Bootstrapping Your App: The Figures Behind DropSendis a breakdown of the cost to start Dropsend, an online storage system. Total cost is about £25K, though when you see how much they outsourced you are left to wonder what Carson Systems actually contributed beyond an idea and the cash. By keeping more things in-house, we hope to do it for much less.

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25 Jan 2006

by Noel

Yahoo’s Customer Disservice

Sometime in the last two days Yahoo Mail (which I use for my personal email account) broke for me. I can no longer reply to any email; clicking on the Reply button just doesn’t do anything. I searched the web, couldn’t find anything about it, so decided to email Yahoo support. Below is my email and their response.

The ‘Reply’ button is broken on my system (Firefox 1.0.4 on Linux). It was working till a few days ago, now clicking on the Reply button doesn’t go to the ‘Compose’ screen.

I suspect a Javascript error. The following appears in the Javascript console:

… technical stuff …

I’ve tried restarting Firefox and that doesn’t fix it.

Some choice snippets from their response:


Thank you for writing to Yahoo! Mail.

We appreciate you bringing this to our attention. Your account appears to be in full working order. We have listed a few troubleshooting steps below which may help resolve this issue:…

  • Add Yahoo! Mail to your list of “Trusted Sites” in Internet Explorer…
  • Switch your browser to Mozilla or Netscape…
  • Finally, shut down and restart your browser.

Thank you again for contacting Yahoo! Customer Care.



Thanks for not reading my email Danny! Had you bothered to read it, you’d have seen what you suggest either I’ve already tried or is inapplicable. In fact you would have seen that the problem is nothing to do with my account, and everything to do with crappy broken code in Yahoo Mail. It’s just too bad I can’t reply to your message to tell you this directly.

It’s amazing that bad customer service is worse than no customer service. Before I contacted Yahoo I merely slightly annoyed. I assumed they’d be aware of the problem (I can’t be the only person facing this) and would fix it reasonably soon. Now, as you’ve guessed, I’m rather more angry. There’s a lesson there.

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21 Jan 2006

by Noel

Untyped hosting?

In chatting with Nick about hosting, I began to realize how complex the ISP game can be. These are some thoughts, all provide starting points for further brainstorming and discussion.

We’re building our new machine for ourselves, make no mistake. We took this route because it looked cost effective for the needs we had for ourselves. However, we can, in theory, provide services to others as well—as our server is more than capable of supporting more than just untyped.

But what services would we offer, and at what cost?

We currently run Apache, Exim/Courier, Postgres and MySQL, Subversion… in general, a full assortment of services that users might want to make use of. Through judicious use of LDAP, we’re hoping to expose some of these services (email, WWW) without needing to provide full (shell) accounts on the server. Likewise, we’re planning and building scripts to automate many of our maintenance tasks on the machine; we’re stopping short of CPanel, however.

So if we have the means to support other users, why would I be hesitant? Because we are not an ISP. We are people who enjoy making software. Our machine is like our workbench—it provides the essential services we need to make that software. Therefore, we have no interest in trying to compete with your run-of-the-mill ISPs… you can get a $5/month web account anywhere. So what kind of hosting will we provide?

At the least, I imagine we might offer hosting for “odd” servers and languages. By “odd”, I mean “anything not Apache.” For example, we know that there might be some interest in the PLT Scheme; likewise, I imagine that allowing servers written in Erlang may be of interest as well. Beyond that… how much bandwidth can someone expect to get hosting with us? Do we provide backup services? What kind of quota does a user’s account come with? What kind of response time to user requests are we going to try and make good on?


We will probably have 50GB of traffic per month in our colo agreement. We will be charged beyond that as per Bytemark’s policies. Therefore, I could simply pass on costs to clients. Really, though, we’re not prepared to deal with the administrative overhead of billing clients for bandwidth, etc.; we’ll barely be in a position to administer billing for basic services. Again, we’re back to the mantra “we are not an ISP.”

We’ll have bandwidth accounting in place; how you charge for bandwidth, I don’t know. Just having to administer this takes time, and time is money (“We are not an ISP…”). Perhaps there’s a simple way to handle this… perhaps not. I need to think more on this one; insights are welcome.


Backup is expensive. It takes careful scripting on the host, regular movement of data from the server to a remote site (see “Bandwidth,” above), and it takes time to archive that to some kind of storage media. I don’t have a tape jukebox anywhere near the server, nor can I afford one (“We are not an ISP” ). Therefore, backup is an issue of me having a second machine that runs a cron job, and regularly pulls backups off the server. Then, I’ll have to manually burn DVDs and/or make digital tapes archives of that data. There are time and media costs involved in this that are non-trivial.

Backup is something that typically is not offered with a shell account, period. Taking a look at Mythic Beasts, their shell accounts start at £15 per quarter, they offer 200MB of disk space, and there is no mention of backup. I found some backup services while investigating storage (below), and they charge a lot per month for 1GB of backup (£25). This says to me that most hosting facilities assume the following:

  • You backup your own data
  • If the server dies, you’re on your own

I’m not committed to either route at this point, but it’s clear that I should charge money for backup services. I’m willing to spend my time to guarantee my own data’s safety, but I’m not willing to do that for others, for free.


What kind of quotas should we provide users? What can I get shopping around the internet?



Site Capacity Monthly 50MB £1.50 1GB £1.70 5GB £4.50 1GB £5.00 5GB £5.60 5GB £5.60 1GB (compressed) £25



Epinions has more commentary on online storage than I care to duplicate here. I myself have a 1GB account, and am quite pleased with it—their pricing is competitive, and the interface to the site, as well as features (instant photo albums, passwords, RSS feeds) are great.

Point being? If I’m going to offer space, I have to charge at least £1.75/GB; and since we’re not really in this market space to compete, I’d probably have to charge more than that (due to the administrative overheads, and limited resources on our own machine). Furthermore, that’s assuming it’s a gigabyte of unarchived storage. It looks like sites that actually offer backup of a gigabyte of data charge around £25/month for a gigabyte of content that gets archived monthly. This doesn’t surprise me in the least—offering security is an expensive proposition, both in terms of tools and in terms of time.

Again, comparing, Mythic Beasts charge £30 per month for a “developer” account with 1GB of disk (no backup). The reality is (because we’re not an ISP), we only have one server, with limited disk space. I can resell storage from Bytemark, which eases the stress on my own disks… but as can be seen, having active disk space that you can serve out to the world costs money.


All these services take time to administer. Yes, we have to do it for ourselves… but it’s another thing entirely to have customers who want guarantees, and support when things go wrong (regardless of whether it is at our end or their end). What does administration cost? I can look at other ISPs and see what they charge for adding a subdomain, or configuring databases, or any of a host of things… and I don’t want to get trapped in a situation where we offer to do these things “for free,” and end up playing sysadmin to a bunch of customers without any recompense.

Again, this is a tough one.

In Conclusion… or, something like that

This isn’t necessarily the kind of laundry a small business should air in public. Typically, this is the kind of uncertainty that would be kept private, resolved off-line, and then published to the world as policy. However, these are probably the kind of questions that others have wrestled with in their time, and it’s possible someone who reads untyping may have some insights into these issues that we don’t have. Given that we only have one machine (“We are not an ISP”), it may be that we should avoid hosting altogether. Or perhaps we can come up with some reasonable terms of service and pricing structures that reflect the quality and nature of services we will offer. Who knows? Either way, they’re challenging questions.

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20 Jan 2006

by Noel

We Have Lift Off!

As we’ve been hinting on the blog our current project has been close to delivery. Truth is, once we got a new server set up the deadline passed without incident. We’ve been waiting a few days to ensure there are no problems, but it’s been long enough so we’re now happy to announce the project is complete.

This work has been done for the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences at Queen Mary University of London. We have implemented a preregistration system for them: a website by which students can be registered for courses and modules, replacing a tedious and error-prone manual system. Unfortunately there is no publically available front-end so we can’t show off our work. However we have a few projects that should be completed in the next months that will have publically visible components.

The whole site runs on PLT Scheme, with SQLite for the database. This is, to our knowledge, the first large site to run the PLT Scheme web server continuously for any length of time. Over the next few days we’ll provide a few more details about the more intricate parts of our setup so other intrepid pioneers can learn from our work.

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18 Nov 2005

by Noel

Raising the Barricades

Just after my last post about the difficulty companies have maintaining open communication as they grow in size and prominence I find that 37 Signals are turning off all comments on their blog.

I normally read 37Signal’s blog through an RSS reader, so I often don’t see the comments, but what I have seen does have a largely negative tone. I can understand 37Signal’s reasons but it does seem that by withdrawing from the conversation they’re harming their relationship with their community. Now JoelOnSoftware seems to be just as popular as 37Signals but doesn’t seem to have the same problem, so perhaps they offer a better model. Rather than having comments on each post, Joel has a number of discussion boards. Blogs (or at least blog comments) aren’t the greatest thing for building community as there is clearly a difference in power between the blog authors and the comment writers. Discussion boards are much more egaliterian and hence offer less opportunity to brew discontent.

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17 Nov 2005

by Noel

Authentic is the Authentic Black

It’s pretty rare that I agree with anything that Joel writes on his blog “Joel on Software”. However, when he discusses<a
href=””>his site redesign he hits on something that rings true:

A long time ago I paid a top web designer, Dave
Shea, who created a stunningly beautiful design for me to
use. It ended up looking a little bit too shiny, though, so
I never used it. This is a site designed by me, badly, using
my poor Corel PHOTO-PAINT skills and my crappy amateur
photos and my affection for the font “Georgia” and my poor
eyesight (thus the largish font). … The more it looks like
it was designed by a geek, not a graphic designer, the
happier I am, because I am a geek.

Authenticity is a big deal; perhaps the big deal for small companies. When people contact a small company they want to talk to someone with a name, not a random customer support droid. They want to feel a personal connection to that company, and perhaps that a little part of their success is due to them. Building this connection is one reason we write Untyped, and also why we have our <a href=””>dream offices</a> on our web pages. It also goes the otherway: by
personalising our web presence we feel a bit more like it’s ours. In this early stage we aren’t working to build our careers, we working to fulfill our passions, to build our dreams into reality, and this sense of ownership is important.

What happens when a small company gets bigger? This is were trouble hits: they <a href=””>jump the shark</a>. This might be the death knell for TV shows, but normally companies just keep on getting bigger. Except now people aren’t using their products out of any attachment to the company, but because they are forced to. The signs are that <a href=””>Google</a> and <a
href=””>37 Signals</a>, both companies we respect immensely, are tettering on the edge.

Is there anything that can be done about this? I’m not sure. It’s a fact that as more people join a company you can’t expect to know all of them, and vice versa. A lot of companies spend a lot of money to try and project a single voice, but this is really a symptom of the problem. Perhaps the thing to do is let the babble overflow the corporate boundaries, and let people make their own connections with those inside, just like they used to? It the opposite of standard marketing thinking, which is all about protecting the brand, but perhaps showing the human reality is the way to keep communication personal. Either way, it will be a long time before we find out.

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