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Moving house

We moved home last month, so only right to move blogs as well. You can find the new blog at farhanlalji.fiftybyfifty.com.


Finding my voice

The bee found her voice yesterday, so I thought it’s only right that I find mine as well.

I’d like to say I’m sorry I haven’t written in a while, except it’s not true. I’m sorry for a lot of things over the past couple of months, but, sadly, not writing is not one of them.

I’m sorry I haven’t been able to see many of my friends, I’m sorry I’ve neglected family, I’m sorry I’ve been a jerk to a lot of people, heck I’m sorry Steve Jobs is dead and I’m sorry that RIM leadership had a total brain fart around it’s outage over the last couple of weeks – seriously RIM, giving people free downloads on your platform as a way of saying your sorry is like hitting me over the head with a hammer and then saying sorry, here’s some free nails. All in all, I’m sorry for a lot but I’m not sorry I haven’t written.

Here’s the thing, being self employed, an entrepreneur, company director, whatever, is hard f’in work. People tend to glorify it, with the success stories (hello Forbes, nice piece on Dropbox), but few people tend to write about how difficult, how stressful and how lonely a process it can be.

Lot’s of writers have written about how to be successful you need to be resilient, stubborn, and kill it with execution but no one seems to shout about how hard that really is. Seriously, the next person who tells me their going to do their own thing I will shake significantly and yell “ARE YOU FREAKING SURE YOU WANT TO F UP YOUR LIFE?” and if they continue to go down the entrepreneurial path, so be it.

I’ve been working on Ad Avengers for over 18 months now and we’ve “pivoted”, we’ve fundraised, we’ve launched, we’ve iterated, we’ve sold sh*t, we’ve resold sh*t, we’ve pounded every inch of resilience we can get out of ourselves. And we’re still not where we forecasted we would be at the end of 6 months let alone 18 months.

On one hand, we’re so close to making significant revenues, so close to having a really good proposition, so close to having what I would call a killer company. On the other hand we’re so close to packing everything in, to saying screw this let’s go work for another big tech company, so close to being so leveraged that you just thing, “Why am I doing this again?”, that makes life really difficult.

There was an interesting post on Hacker news a couple of weeks ago from some kid who shared how difficult life had been as a 20 year old with no degree, a failed start up and living with his parents. Well, it’s just as hard or harder when you have a family and kids to support and you’ve managed to have some success but still can’t turn the curve of the hockey stick fast enough.

I’m reading a great book about math(s) right now, I’ll share more about that later – hopefully this won’t be the only blog post of mine this week. And it’s made me realise that entrepreneurship is a lot like gambling, you have a really small chance of beating the house, but you have to play long enough to see that chance through, and that it can be stressful while the house looks like it’s going to clean your clock. Everyone thinks they can beat the house but few truly do.

So even if I don’t beat the house, at least I’m writing again.


Delicious lives, will Yahoo

I thought I’d take a break from non-blogging – sorry been trying to focus on building a kick ass company – to comment quickly on the news about delicious having a second life with Avos, a company founded by the founders of YouTube.

For delicious – phew, I’ll continue to use the service in the hopes that this means innovation will come back to delicious. I think Chad Hurley and Steve Chen are solid visionaries who can build and ship product in a meaningful way. I hope they’re going to do something meaningful with Delicious and give it a great second act.

As for Yahoo, all I can do is sigh. I was upset when I first heard of Yahoo’s plans with Delicious but it’s not new. It’s more of the same at Yahoo. More sitting and wasting assets, not only product but the people who came with those products.

I wish Yahoo had empowered Stuart Butterfield, Caterina Fake – founders of flickr – Joshua Schachter (Delicious) Eric Marcoullier (mybloglog), Andy Baio (Upcoming) and the founders of the other great consumer web services they had acquired. Instead of making ex-MSFT, ex-Aol, Ex-Autodesk and even ex-Google executives head of products and innovation and R&D what Yahoo should have done is empowered these visionaries to think across product and across segments for truly revolutionary innovations. I recognise it’s not an easy task, most of these people preferred building start ups, but it can be done, if you put the right structures in place and incentivise correctly.

I truly believe Facebook is kick ass because a number of it’s product executives came from Friendfeed or from VC funds where they were connected to innovation closely. Facebook also has a visionary at the helm. This is something that Amazon, Apple and Google also have. Bezos, Jobs, Page and even Zuckerburg have created things and value true engineering innovation. For Yahoo to compete it will need to find a real visionary, not more managers.


StartUp Britain and the entrepreneurial community in the UK

A campaign called StartUp Britain started today; it was launched by several entrepreneurs and is endorsed by the British Government. Seeing the Prime Minister, Chancellor, Business representative of the government promoting an initiative to help entrepreneurs is a start. Combined with the recent changes to the budget – in particular the tweaks to the Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS), R&D tax credits –and the recent changes to start up visas here in the UK, it’s actually a great start. In fact in the last month the UK today has become a much better place to start a company.

Unfortunately, the reaction by the entrepreneurial community has been quite negative. Lots of negative comments on the website that’s apparently at the centre of the campaign. Issues about links to US companies and the execution of the site miss the point.

The point is that entrepreneurship is seen by the government as important and there is an opportunity to harness support, change policies and build networks to help support and give entrepreneurs a better chance at succeeding.

Which is why the cynicism directed at the campaign and the calls for heads for partnering with a US company really annoyed me. I cheekily tweeted that:

“#startupbritain cynicism shows the difference between US/UK! In the US, the response would be cool, let’s get to work.”

To be fair, I don’t think that would be the exact reaction, I just think the US is better at celebrating success and at not paying much attention to failure. As well Americans seem to treat programs that they don’t believe would work with indifference. When the government fails the start up community in the US there’s a powerful movement to solve it. From VCs meeting with heads of state to blog posts that end up turned into op-ed pieces in powerful media outposts. When an entrepreneur does something for the community in the US it seems like the community either helps him make it better or moves on quickly to making their own company a success.

This may be naïve, but I have seen a lot of mud slinging and not a lot of productive feedback. Don’t get me wrong there are some pockets it the UK that are supporting this and are encouraging the movement and there are some really snarky responses to government initiatives in the US as well, I just think the ratio of support : snark / cynicism is reversed and we’re holding our own community here in the UK back as a result of it.

So put aside the cynicism for a second, if you don’t like #startupBritain just move on. If you have a way to improve it give the feedback to the team, and if you’re supportive of the movement carry on. Building great companies in the UK is difficult, we’re going to need all the help we can get and knocking down


Why is no one talking about iPod touch sales?

As the iPad 2 comes to the UK (the line up in Covent Garden today was insane) and talk of the Blackberry Playbook is still going on – side note to RIM, a year of build up before launch is way too much – I thought it was interesting that RIM was focusing so much attention to tablet devices and not looking at hand held mobile non telephone devices. Basically the Nintendo DS and the iPod Touch.

It really strikes me as odd that no one is talking about the iPod Touch and how this is a strong seller and growing amongst younger users. Sure, teens love BBM, I’ve seen this on the train repeatedly (where I conduct most of my user observations with people sending me weird looks repeatedly), and this makes a lot of sense as BBM is “cool” and teens like using something their parents aren’t using (parents using iPhones, teens wanting blackberrys). With roughly 2 iPod Touch units sold for every 3 iPhones this is a pretty big user base.

I’m seeing lots of younger teens and kids using iPod touch’s. From as young as our 18 month old (who can unlock, start an app and watch YouTube) to friends’ 4 year olds, 7 year olds to older kids whose parents have deemed these kids as too young to have a phone, an iPod touch is this generation’s game boy. With one exception – it’s still a communication device. As kids get older their using apps as messaging tools.

With recent investments by both Fred Wilson and Mark Suster in “group messaging platforms “(Kik.com and Gogii – which makes textplus.com respectively) and our own in-house use of whatsapp, not to mention Skype, iCall and other messaging applicationsI can see this trend growing.

RIM’s BBM is nice, I’ve long maintained it’s the one killer app that keeps people on BBs, but as this teenage segment becomes young adults and the next generation of teenagers move on from the iPod touch to phones my guess is they’re going to want to stick with an OS they’re familiar with and groups and contacts that move seamlessly from the iPod touch they’ve been using for the past few years, wonder which phones they’ll choose?


A rant about some twitter usage

If you’re not on twitter and have no interest in being on twitter you can stop reading now.

Today I received a twitter follow from someone who wasn’t using their real name, didn’t have a real picture, no about information and no link to more information and had their tweets protected. I felt a beat cheated and proceeded to tweet:

Not a fan of people who don’t use their real names and then protect their tweets.

A couple of Retweets let me know I wasn’t alone, but one person responded wanting to know more, and we went back and forth. I know this person in real life and they have two different accounts, and everyone who knows this person knows that they use this specific twitter handle. It’s similar to a couple of years ago when I used to use Staples quite a bit as a handle on things like Flickr, twitter etc.

Anyway, I thought I should unpack my tweet and frustration a bit. It all comes down to how you use social media.

Although there’s a lot of overlap between how I use facebook, linkedin and twitter in my head they’re quite clear divisions. Facebook is people I’ve met in real life, people who might like to see the latest picture of my daughter, mostly people I’ve shared a drink or two or twenty with at some point in my life, or people who knew me when and wouldn’t mind staying in touch.

Linkedin is mostly used for people I’ve worked with or would like to work with. It’s people that I’ve exchanged professional emails with or met at a conference. I’ll accept requests from friends but won’t add friends unless there’s a likelihood that we’ll be able to help eachother out professionally in some circumstances.

Twitter is the hardest to explain, because it kind of falls between the two. I use twitter to share and distribute to and with people who I either have a connection with or might have some kind of connection with in some way either socially, personally or professionally. I use it to share a bit of my personal life (like what I’m watching and sharing opinions on the Apprentice or the X-factor) but mostly about professional stuff – like information sharing, data, interesting commentary and editorials. On occasion I’ll use it to broadcast what I’m doing or where I’m going, but that to me is a secondary use case.

This is why I get frustrated by people who don’t use their name, have a picture or any information about who they are, protecting their tweets and then following me. If I don’t know you and you’re not giving me any information on what you’re interests are / what kind of stuff you’re likely to be sharing, I can’t make a decision on whether it would be in my best interests to follow you. If you’re using your real name at least I can do a quick search and find out more about you and see the kind of stuff you’re likely to tweet.

Not sure if I’m right or wrong on this, just feel a bit annoyed when I don’t know anything about someone who’s following me and they don’t give me any information to find out. Thoughts?


Should I go work at a start up?

That was the question posed to me by a former colleague who has been working at a big company for donkey’s years – in the tech world, that’s about 5. And who has a lot of experience and some great educational credentials. And, like most important decisions in life, the answer was, it depends. I thought it might be useful for others so I thought I would jot don my thoughts and advice. Basically, there are overall points and then specific points about a start-up that you should consider.

Start-ups In general

Are you okay with failure? Most start-ups fail and yours is likely to be one of the failures. I particularly liked Marc Cenedella’s post on failure at entrepreneurial ventures. Most of the time you’re failing and you’ve got to push your way through it. Having failure on a CV can still be restrictive – especially more so here in the UK. If you can deal with that, it’s a start.

Are you a hustler? Working at a start up is a slog. It can be hard, filled with disappointments and at times it can really get you down. It’s not only founders that have to be relentlessly resourceful (hat tip to Paul Graham and this post on Y-Combinator talking about characteristics of YC founders), it’s everyone in the first 100 who have to hustle to get shit done.

Do you value short-term cash? More over one day at Yahoo! than I have in a year as a founder. But I’ve learnt a lot more so far. I’m an extreme case. Most start-ups pay in promise and a lot of the promise doesn’t pay out (see question one). If you need a higher salary think twice about joining a start up.

Are you patient? If you’re joining a start-up you need to make a commitment. To get the real value out of any equity you’re looking at 3, 5 or 7 years from the start. To get real experience you need to see through a couple of pivots, strategic shifts, partnerships and growth in customers. If you’re not willing to see it out why join?


Do you believe in the team? If you’re joining a start-up you should think (at least a bit) about the opportunity like an investor. Chris Dixon has a great post on this when he talks about the Dropbox opportunity that he missed by looking at the competition in the market rather than the team. If you’re not sold on the team running the ship then you’re going to have trouble trusting decisions.
Do you like the space or the technology being used? Something has to keep you hooked to the company. If you’re not thinking about the product, the market, or the technology being used in the company you’re going to get bored and not be able to really make a difference.

How well are they funded? Are they likely to raise money? Joining a 2 person company as employee number 3 with a couple of million in the bank is a great ratio. Joining a 10-person company with only 100K in the bank is a tough sell. Even if you don’t know the exact amounts there are some great resources to be able to check the status of the team/company. Looking up the investors, looking up the team on Linkedin and seeing what they’ve invested in or what they’ve done in the past can be a decent indicator for future success or at least their ability to stick around.

I’m sure there’s lot’s more that I’ve forgotten but I hope this is a useful starting point for people considering working for a start-up, I’m sure there will be other points in the comments.


The young and the unemployed

A lot of news in the UK this week has been focussed on youth unemployment – specifically 16-24 year olds, and how high it is.

As someone who’s undergraduate degree has nothing to do with his career since leaving University, I can relate. I’ve had this conversation with the Bee, who worked through summers and Christmas holidays for minimum wage if not less in some instances. I didn’t start working till I was 18 and then it was in the summers in some very manual jobs (for example cleaning subway stations in Toronto from 11pm to 7am).

So I find it hard to relate to people who leave school at 16 and then live on benefits, I’d much rather the government focused on creating apprenticeships and keeping people in school, I understand tuitions are high, especially in the UK. But when employment figures clearly show that those with higher education have much lower unemployment figures and when the government isn’t asking for people to pay back student debt until they’re earning over £21K, I don’t get why people don’t stay in school?

So, I voiced my opinion on Twitter and Zohra (a good friend, fellow Canadian and someone who’s opinions I value) and I had a bit of back and forth about it that I thought was worth sharing. It was over twitter so please excuse the txt talk.

Me – tired of the UK youth unemplymnt stats. Moved across the world to get a job/got paid little to get experience, feel like a bitter old man
Zohra - do you mean you had to suffer, so everyone should? Or something else?

Me - no, mean if you don’t have qualifications – voluntr or study, like sayin can’t afford a big flat so I’ll live in a council flat
Me – if you can’t afford your dream flat you live in what you can afford/with your parents, why is work different?
Me – if you can’t get the job you think you deserve, take the job you can get, or volunteer, to build up your cv (end of rant)
Zohra - if there are no jobs, and tuition fees are £9k a year (for a BA!), then it’s not really as simple as: adjust your attitude?

Me – 9k is high, but you don’t pay it back till your earning >£20K?! why are we measuring unemployment for 16-19 year olds?
Zohra - erm, the unemp figures r worse they’ve been in 20yrs or summat (so no jobs, period), & u have 2 have money already 2 volunteer.
Zohra -understand that you worked hard (been there, too), but the figures on youth unemp are from ONS – not just ‘complaining yng ppl’

Zohra - hmmm, if I’d volunteered instead of worked over my teenage summers, I’d not have been able to pay my uni tuition
Zohra - in my case it affected my options, working @ that age, in the summers – & during school yr too. I think relevant 4 that age grp
Me – but that’s the point you went to Uni and worked (guessing for min wage), as did I, if u leave school at 16 what ru expecting?

Zohra - also, thats 9k a year = 36k by end of uni, and hello, 20k in london?! Doable, but it’s not like ur guaranteed earnings on a BA.
Me – they should be in school or getting an apprenticeship, if you look at unemployment for those with higher ed, it’s much lower
Zohra - well, that’s great news at least. To be honest though, I’m still in the ‘school should be free’ camp :)

Some interesting food for thought, while I would also love to see University be free – especially with the thought of paying for a child’s university in 16 or so years, the thought of how much university may cost is scary. However, even if for some reason I can’t afford to pay for my children’s university education, I would still encourage them to go to school for as long as possible.

I don’t have many friends who didn’t go to university for some time at least and at the same time I don’t have many friends who’ve been unemployed or on benefits for years, I think that’s a bit of causation there.

What I’d love to see is University tuitions scale as the year of study goes up. So first year of university would be free, however in second and third year tuition fees would be introduced, and these would scale and go higher for graduate certification and post graduate studies. As I believe if you give people an incentive to at least start University they’ll see the value and hopefully stay in University.

I don’t know what the exact solution is, but I do think the UK benefits system, in many cases, provides people with the wrong incentives. I do believe that work should always be more attractive then being on support, I’m just not sure how you make that system work.


Being part of something bigger

I want Ad Avengers to be huge. So far it’s not even a blip. I’ve been working on it for a year, struggling to balance fund raising, product vision and sales. Truth be told it’s been a slog. Every step is difficult. So when the opportunity to be part of Seedcamp came up I felt it would be wise to give it a shot.

I’ve been critical of the companies selected in the past, so now I have a chance to show that an early stage company with potential can make a great Seedcamp company.

To be honest the terms scared me a bit. I believe the equity we’re giving up if we’re successful is significant, but it’s not about the financial value that we decided to go for it. Seedcamp, like Y Combinator and other projects like this are great for providing a hand up in terms of conversations with customers, partners and other investors.

I’ve met with a lot of potential investors over the past year, it’s been an insane whirlwind or a year. And while many investors take meeting after meeting after meeting without a firm answer and while other “investors” charge customers to pitch. Seedcamp may invest a smaller amount but being able to leverage the network and getting a firm decision quickly is something that you can’t put a price on, especially when you’re at the stage we’re at – really early!

There’s a line I like about a little of something is worth more than a lot of nothing so hopefully Seedcamp will help us turn Ad Avengers into something and that’s why we decided to go for it. Watch this space next week for more on how the process shakes out and wish us luck!

Here’s the corporate blog post as well.


Getting rid of the phonebook

An interesting piece on BBC’s breakfast news about how the phonebook was getting thinner. I couldn’t believe they still make the phone book. In our house if the phone book comes in it’s almost always just put in the recycling and I’m sure I’m not the only one. The funny thing was that there was a phone book collector who felt genuinely upset at the fact that the phonebook might disappear. Making different / thinner versions isn’t the answer, especially as we move faster and more people find information online.

The commentator covering the story mentioned how most people under 30 probably don’t use a phone book. I would extend that and guess that most people under 50 don’t ever use the phone book for the purpose of finding numbers – using it as a doorstep or something else I’m sure is still done.

It reminds me of when I was a product manager in local government and we were considering a controversial decision to stop supporting some old version of Internet Explorer. The idea being that if many sites stopped supporting the old browser many people would upgrade.

I wish we had made the hard decision – which companies like Google made the year after we discussed it. I hope BT will stop making phone books and spend more on building great technology platforms to help people find this information online and helping the elderly or disconnected use technology more effectively. But I’m not holding my breath.