I’m an Entrepreneur (just don’t call me a startup)

This is a guest post by Patrick Stinus, a co-founder of Seventh Element , a management consulting firm that provides “Fortune 100 tools to small businesses” to help them grow and increase profitability.

I was recently on the phone catching up with Joel and it dawned on me that while we’re both entrepreneurs, we operate in completely different worlds. If you were to ask, 99.9% of people they would see very little differences in our stories. We both worked in the GE “fast track” program which promised us lives of success and the “the American Dream”. We both left it behind to start our own businesses, take a shot at changing the world and do work that makes us truly happy. The difference is that I’m not trying to launch a startup, I’m starting an agency.

Start”ups”, especially ones that focus on technology, are what most people envision when they think about when you quit your job to “follow your dreams.” They’re typified by years of living on Ramen noodles, working 70 hour weeks, bootstrapping and sometimes pimping yourself to private money. They are designed to cheaply and quickly create a completely new (or incredibly better) product or service. It takes time without revenue to develop new products.

Agencies are businesses whose core value proposition is the skill set of its employees. I co-founded Seventh Element to bring the business management tools we perfected at GE to small businesses. We skipped the long, costly, and iterative product development phase and went straight to clocking billable hours to our clients. We can leverage our corporate pedigree to potential clients and make money within the first month of existence.

If you graph the profits of successful startups, they follow an exponential curve, where they bumble along for a long time making very little money and then get traction and “pop.” Since these businesses have such high-profit margins, which aren’t tied to hours available to bill, they have the potential to create hugely scaleable businesses which can be sold for hundreds of millions of dollars. The agency model theoretically starts with respectable profits on day one and grows in a modest, linear, path as it bill more hours and hires more talent that can be billed. An agency is far less risky, but is much less scaleable.

I am not trying to oversimplify the challenges our agency has faced, or imply that leaving a steady job for an agency is more (or less) respectable than a startup. The fact is that agencies have a good chance of making reasonable money, and startups have a low chance of making stupid money. If you do the rough math, the upside is similar. Owning a business is a personal decision, and the money is just one piece of the puzzle. Their isn’t a right or wrong way to do things, but keep this comparison in mind if you are deciding on starting your own business.

I’m an Entrepreneur (just don’t call me a startup)

Why @ZackShapiro wants to be an entrepreneur

This is a guest post by Zack Shapiro, a student at the University of Colorado. He also runs an iPhone
development company called 59thirty and is currently working on a stealth

Want the short version? I want to be an entrepreneur because I can’t sit still. I work on projects and help others out all while day dreaming about my own goals, my ideas that I can’t seem to shake from the front of my mind.

I’ve had business ideas since I was 12 or 13. That’s as far back as I can remember throwing away small amounts of money on short-lived ideas. I created and developed blogs and then dumped them for a new one. I outsourced web design and small coding projects only to realize I didn’t know what to do next.

I didn’t know this was entrepreneurship. I just thought I was antsy.

In high school I ran my most successful website, a comedy blog. This lead to a podcast that culminated with former Tech TV personality Martin Sargent appearing on our second-to-last episode and his sidekick, Joey the Intern appearing on our final one. That was my first “exit.” I couldn’t top myself there, so I went out on a high note.

Fast forward to my freshman year of college: the iPhone is taking over the planet. I take a computer science class and develop what would become my first app. With the encouragement of my newly found mentor Dave Taylor I finish it and release it as an experiment. 8 months later 1200 copies have been sold.

I’m in.

A friend once told me that he knew most of what he learned in college prior to going, he just didn’t know the associated terms. I guess I’ve always known this was what I wanted to do. I just didn’t have a name for it.

So now I’m two years through undergrad, sure of what I want to do, and tapping my foot impatiently to do it full-time. Classes like astronomy are a waste of my time, so I’m auditing an MBA class on venture capital. I’m hungry for knowledge and dying to apply it.

Once I walk across that stage I’ll put in an order for business cards that screams with a full ethos, “I’m an entrepreneur.”

Why @ZackShapiro wants to be an entrepreneur

The Perfect Storm: Why start a weather business?

Guest blog post by Joel Gratz, founder of the ColoradoPowderForecast and DontGetZapped

There is absolutely no substitute for being passionate about something and acting on that passion. This isn’t a cliché. It’s just the only way to really be happy.

When it’s going to snow, I have the energy of someone who just took a few too many shots of “5 Hour Energy”. This was true as a 6 year old wanting to play in the snow, as a 12 year old wanting a day off of school, and as a 25 year old looking for a midweek powder day at Vail.

Weather, particularly snow, is my passion. I went to school for meteorology. I’ll talk your ear off about the clouds. This is what gets me jazzed up.

How do you turn a life-long passion into a sustainable business?  With lots of energy, luck, and a bit of technology.

In 2006, I finished my joint Masters in Meteorology and MBA.  I started working for ICAT Managers, a hurricane and earthquake insurance company in Boulder. The location, pay and hours were great.  The people were kind too, in short, it was a good job. There was just one problem: I spent 95% of my time on data and analysis and only 5% of meteorology.  I thought that my passion could wait, as my life otherwise was perfectly fine and comfortable. Snow, skiing, and weather could still be my hobby even if it wasn’t my job.

But in late 2007, the perfect storm began to take shape. A few of my skiing friends asked me for forecasts so they could plan their snowy adventures for the week. At first I responded to these requests individually, but realized this was time consuming and inefficient. So I started an email list and began a weekly email to ~50 of my friends to let them know where and when to find the best snow. I wrote my emails with a touch of quirky humor and included a few graphics. The word spread.

During the 2008-2009 ski season, the email list grew to 500 people, which pathetically enough, was still just a group of contacts in Gmail.

At the beginning of the 2009-2010 ski season, I broke into the 21st century and set up a blog to replace the email list and ColoradoPowderForecast was born. By late December, tens of thousands of people were visiting the site, and I finally opened my eyes to the perfect storm swirling around me:

  • Energy: I love working hard to forecast snow and help people enjoy it.
  • Luck: A few well-connected people found my site and passed it on to many more.
  • Technology: $0 spent on marketing and $3/month in web hosting was all it took to get 30,000 people to follow my forecasts.

With some good press in the books by new years, I knew that I had stumbled upon a way to make a living by following my passion. On January 21st, 2010, I left my full-time job to spend time meeting people in the ski industry and to begin transitioning my hobby into a real business.

Things are still in transition, but there’s not a day that goes by that I question my decision to follow the one thing that really gets me fired up: Snow. Luckily for me, there are about 12 million people in the U.S. that are also passionate about snow as skiers and snowboarders.  No, this isn’t a massive market. But by following my passion and helping these 12 million people to follow theirs, I should be able to make this business work out. And all it took to get started was $3/month, a bunch of snow flakes, some luck, and a bit of technology.

Now let’s go La Nina – bring on the powder!

The Perfect Storm: Why start a weather business?

Great design and UI doesn’t happen overnight, Everlater.com’s front-end process.

This is a guest post from Natty Zola, founder of Everlater.com, the webs best free travel blogs.

Through my experience designing three (soon to be four) front ends for Everlater.com over the past year and a half, I’ve come to believe that great design and UI doesn’t and can’t happen overnight. Like most everyone, we like to iterate fast, extremely fast, but absolute speed is the enemy of good design and UI. We use a simple process to brainstorm, create and build front end interfaces. While not flawless, this process creates a structured workflow that guarantees an improved user experience. Moving from step 1 to 5 should take time – each step requires intense critical thinking, a heavy dose of creativity and each must be completed before the previous.

Step 1: What have we learned thus far.
(This step mostly applies to a redesign but first time web site builders can use simple mockups and paper UI to substitute a live site.)
The first critical step is to analyze what we’ve learned from our UI thus far. We gather information from Google Analytics, internal statistics dashboards and user focus groups and use the information to figure out what is going well and what is not. Where are we losing visitors, what happens in our conversion funnel, do users and visitors always know the next step they should take, when we direct users and visitors to take actions do they actually do it, etc. We write down two lists; concrete learnings based on data and assumptions based on observations. We spend about a week on this step.

Step 2: Review and set goals.
Now that we know how people are using our site, we review the goals we’ve set for what we want a user to do. How is our front-end/UI helping and harming users achieve our goals? By combining what we’ve learned in step 1 and reviewing our goals for users in step 2, we’re able to identify key areas where we need improvement and learn what to leverage in our new front-end. The last part of step 2 is to re-assess the goals we’ve set and make sure they don’t need to change. If they do need to change, we incorporate the modifications into the goal performance analysis. This step usually takes us at least a week.

Step 3: Iteration.
Finally we are ready to pull out the sketchpads and fire up Photoshop. We prefer to use Photoshop from beginning to end but do what works best for you. The tools don’t matter in Step 3, the key is iteration. We take one view at a time and systematically construct the important UI elements that drive users to achieve the goals we’ve set in Step 2. We modify and review our mockups many times, consistently iterating on both the design and the messaging to drive users to take our desired actions. We limit desired actions to a maximum of two per view. We usually design two or three different versions of each view so we can compare and try different hypothesis. We try to gather as much feedback as possible in the process. At the end we have a thoroughly thought out set of mockups that drives users to take our desired actions. This step usually takes three weeks.

Step 4: Integrate flexibility.
Even though we’ve now spent over a month planning and designing a new interface or redesign we know we’ve done stuff wrong. Without a time machine we compensate for our inevitable errors by spending time thinking about how to build flexibility into the design so we can modify and tweak based on new information and observations. Flexibility to us means turning UI elements into modules which can be easily changed, moved or removed. This step usually takes one week.

Step 5: Build.
Lastly, we build the UI, making sure to use proper markup and flexible CSS. By now, we have analyzed past performance, reviewed and set our goals, and designed a flexible interface based on data and goals. Now it’s simple execution of the mockups. Depending on the complexity of the Javascript this takes between three days and two weeks.

We just went through this whole process and will release a new redesign of Everlater.com soon. We strongly believe in data driven design and development. We also believe that to do something incredible it takes time, iteration, and dedication. Our process is designed to deliver useful front-ends that are intuitive, beautiful and help our users successfully use our product. I’m very curious for comments on our workflow and what has worked successfully for others.

Great design and UI doesn’t happen overnight, Everlater.com’s front-end process.