Mar 21 2011

The Great Hacker News Lifestyle Business Flamewars of 2011

There was a great flame war over at Hacker News about what entrepreneurs should aspire to when they start their business, a lifestyle business or a VC funded multi-billion dollar valuation company like Facebook, Zynga, Google, YouTube, etc. It all started with a angry rant by Justin Vincent about how VC “holds us back from our true potential.” He rambled on to say that the idea of being the next big thing is keeps us, entrepreneurs, occupied and keeps them, I guess VCs and tech pundits, in business. My favorite line of the article is the following…

If every developer was to focus on the very achievable goal of building a lifestyle/micro business – the entire house of cards would crumble.

Another choice quote is…

The absolute truth is that each and every one of us can build a business that can support us. We don’t need to build a million dollar business to survive. We just need a regular paycheck.

If I could paraphrase the rest of the article, Justin believes that not all startup founders will have a multi-million dollar exit in so instead of shooting for the moon we, as entrepreneurs, should shot for Milwaukee, that is a $10k/month small business. So, if you know you won’t come in first in the race, complain that the Olympic commission is corrupt, that the judges take brides, and instead go play Wii Sports because you there you will get a participation badge.

The tone in article reminded me of something that Jason Calacanis complained about millennials. In This Week in Startups #47, Calacanis said…

Participation means nothing, your fulfillment means nothing, nobody cares if you are fulfilled, nobody cares if you participated. You were lied to. There is no trophy in life for participation, except your tombstone.

Things got a little heated in the Hacker News comments for this article. Paul Graham, who goes by pg on HN, said that if every developer worked on their lifestyle/micro business “the whole world would crumble, because we wouldn’t have any technology bigger than could be built by lifetstyle businesses.” After this, things got a little more interesting when Alex Payne, username al3x on HN, said the following…

There’s a middle ground between web application “lifestyle businesses” (like duping credulous customers into overpaying for a time-tracking tool styled with this month’s CSS trends) and trying to start the next Facebook. … There’s nothing wrong with being a small software company. People have been doing it for decades now. It’s boring, but there’s nothing wrong with it. Don’t expect anyone to celebrate you for doing it, though.

At this point some “lifestyle” business operators took offense, most notably Amy Hoy, username ahoyhere, took offense in the above statement since she is mentioned in the original article and has a time tracking application that uses the latest JavaScript and CSS trends. After that Amy went on a dogmatic crusade against what she called the “dominant paradigm.”

In one side of the argument you have people that believe that as long as a business covers operating costs and brings in anywhere from $10k to $100k a month and you don’t have to do much to run the company you have the leisure of a lifestyle business. Such a lifestyle business affords you time to spend with family, participant on your children’s school activities, join a community organization, take time off to travel, in addition to being your own boss and making your own rules. I can’t knock someone for having a gig like this. People in this camp might subscribe to Tim Farris’ book the Four Hour Work Week and in the folks behind 37Signals who wrote Rework. I remember Jonathan Coulton describe on an episode of This Week in Tech (TWIT) about his music business. Jonathan has a strong following as a singer/songwriter in the self-described geek community. On that TWIT episode he said something to the affect that if you have 1000 followers willing to pay $30 for a premium experience or content then you can make a decent living (he probably doesn’t live in California).

An income of $10k/month pre-tax, pre-health insurance for a family of four and a home mortgage in California is not a “lifestyle” I would like to aspire to. Ramen profitable is only profitable if you in college. Some critiques of the Four Hour Movement rightly ask that if someone can bootstrap a business with only working four hours a week, how much more profitable will the business be if they spend more time into it? The truth is that there is a generational gap in the way of entrepreneurs think and a bubble of some magnitude in every aspect of the industry, including in the “lifestyle” businesses.

I can’t find the source but recently I read a tweet where someone said something to the effect, “You know there is a bubble because every tech conference is sold out.” The conference circuit is one popular business with “lifestyle” crowd, in particular the tech, startup, social media conferences. You know there is a conference bubble with the large number of regional and national conferences, seminars, webinars, master classes, ninja training dojo summits, product mastermind madrasas available online. For example, 37signals runs a one day workshop for 37 people at $1k, that is $37k for one day’s work, especially you can reuse the same material many times over for different batches of students. I’ve been involved for the past several years as an organizer for a non-profit which puts on a one day conference for students that nets $50k in profits.

There is nothing wrong with running a small business, especially if you can get paid by non-technical folks for a calendar with last year’s JavaScript and CSS trends or for a one day training on how to use Twitter and Facebook. I mean, if someone would pay me $1 for adding up any two single digit numbers to support my lifestyle I would outsource that shit to India and work from some mojito island somewhere. But there is something to be said about aspiring to build something great. I want the narrative of my work to speak for itself; I’ve worked in some great companies that have had lofty goals such as understand the human genome and possibly curing cancer. Those goals can’t be meet with someone working for four hours a week and $10k/month.

This country will move in the opposite direction in the socioeconomic standard that we have enjoyed if we listen to such advice, if we don’t strive to build the best businesses we can. These millennial web 2.0 designers might not even remember how there was a time before 1999 were their predecessors could have charged anywhere from $30k to $100k for a website design. Economic pressure has pushed the price of a web design down to $300-$1000 for a awesome design from some kid in Russia. Even now, these small time “lifestyle” operations are under threat by solutions from the developing world, where $3/month can afford developers there a very lavished “lifestyle.”

One of my favorite quotes from Robert Frost is the following.

By working faithfully eight hours a day, you may eventually get to be a boss and work twelve hours a day. – Robert Frost

I believe in hard work, not easy baked cookie cutter one trick unicorn project that some folks are calling a business. You got to put in the time, differentiate your product, and think big if you want to be a successful business. It is widely known that somewhere around 50% of small business fail after 5 years, don’t let the reason you fail be because you didn’t take opportunities when they presented themselves.

In the end, everybody is free to run their business as they want and the invisible hand of Google’s search algorithm will be the judge.

Jun 7 2009

Google IO 2009: Tech Talks

I, like many 10-5 developers not working directly with ajaxified web 2.0 applications, was not able to go to the Google I/O conference. I don’t feel so bad not going since Google has just released video recordings of over 80+ technical presentations from Google I/0. Most of the technical presentations are pushing Google’s APIs such as Android, Google App Engine, GWT, and Open Social.

As an aid for myself, and maybe other GWT developers, I have organized the pertinent tech talks as follows…

The Myth of the Genius Programmer
A pervasive elitism hovers in the background of collaborative software development: everyone secretly wants to be seen as a genius. In this talk, we discuss how to avoid this trap and gracefully exchange personal ego for personal growth and super-charged collaboration. We’ll also examine how software tools affect social behaviors, and how to successfully manage the growth of new ideas.

Even Faster Websites
Steve is the author of High Performance Web Sites and the creator of YSlow. In this talk, he presents some of the best practices from his next book, including optimizing CSS selectors, flushing the document early, and discovering why 15% of users don’t get compressed responses.

Bespin and the Open Web
The Bespin project from Mozilla Labs is an experiment in re-envisioning how we develop software. In its current guise as a sometimes-fast web-based text editor shrouded in a horribly incomplete code editing platform, its potential might not be readily apparent. In this talk, Ben and Dion (two of the folks behind Bespin) will discuss the goals of the project, how they got to where we are now, go into implementation details on what it takes to build a bleeding edge application for today’s browsers (and not the ones from 1997) and share some hopes and thoughts on the future.

Big Modular Java with Guice
Learn how Google uses the fast, lightweight Guice framework to power some of the largest and most complex applications in the world. Supporting scores of developers, and steep testing and scaling requirements for the web, Guice proves that there is still ample room for a simple, type-safe and dynamic programming model in Java. This session will serve as a simple introduction to Guice, its ecosystem and how we use it at Google.

Do You Believe in the Users?
Too many programmers have forgotten about the lost art of customer service. All software has users, though most developers have forgotten how to respect them, trust them, or “sell” their software to them in an exciting (but honest!) manner. This talk will focus on anecdotes and strategies for keeping software design uncomplicated, making software fast, and putting usability above programming convenience. We’ll also focus on the importance of keeping a healthy illusion of simplicity, while allowing abstractions to deliberately leak for power-users.

Jun 7 2009

Google IO 2009: Mobile

I, like many 10-5 developers not working directly with ajaxified web 2.0 applications, was not able to go to the Google I/O conference. I don’t feel so bad not going since Google has just released video recordings of over 80+ technical presentations from Google I/0. Most of the technical presentations are pushing Google’s APIs such as Android, Google App Engine, GWT, and Open Social.

As an aid for myself, and maybe other GWT developers, I have organized the pertinent Android and mobile talks as follows…

Turbo-charge your UI: How to Make your Android UI Fast and Efficient
Learn practical tips, techniques and tricks for making your Android applications fast and responsive. This session will focus on optimizations recommended by the Android framework team to make the best use of the UI toolkit.

Supporting Multiple Devices with One Binary
The Android platform is designed to run on a wide variety of hardware configurations. Learn how to take advantage of the application framework to make your application run on a wide variety of devices without having to build a custom version for each.

Coding for Life — Battery Life, That Is
The three most important considerations for mobile applications are, in order: battery life, battery life, and battery life. After all, if the battery is dead, no one can use your application. In this session, Android engineer Jeffrey Sharkey will reveal the myriad ways — many unexpected — that your application can guzzle power and irritate users. You’ll learn about how networking affects battery life, the right and wrong ways to use Android-specific features such as wake locks, why you can’t assume that it’s okay to trade memory for time, and more.

A General-purpose Caching Architecture for Offline-capable Web Applications with HTML 5 Databases or Gears
Puzzled by all the new architectural choices possible when trying to build an offline-capable web application? So were we until we decided to design the newly launched Gmail Mobile Web for iPhone and Android’s offline capabilities by analogy with microprocessor caches: offline via a portable write-through caching layer running on either HTML 5 or Gears databases.

Mastering the Android Media Framework
Some monks might take a vow of silence, but Android certainly hasn’t. Attend this session, and help your app find its voice. Android engineer David Sparks will explore the multimedia capabilities of the Android platform, lifting the covers on the infrastructure to show you how it works and the right (and wrong!) ways to use it. You’ll learn how things work under the hood, how to dodge the common media-related developer pitfalls, and how to write secure and battery-efficient media code.

May 15 2009

RailsConf 2009 Presentations

If you missed RailsConf 2009 earlier in the month, Blip.TV has a few of the RailsConf presentations online so that you can catch up. Here are some of the highlights from RailsConf 2009.

May 14 2009

The Free Technology Conference

Large conferences such as JavaOne or Wordwide Developer Conference can cost over $1,000, just for the pass alone. When you add air fair and hotel accommodations this can easily reach over $2,500! This is all well and fine if your company is going to reimburse you. But during these tough times companies are making all sorts of cuts.

There are plenty of regional conferences such as MountainWest RubyConf and Gold Gate Ruby Conference and conferences tours such as No Fluff, Just Stuff and Future of Web Apps that are more reasonably priced. But even at $99, there are cheaper alternative options!

Find the local user group for the technologies that you are interested. User groups typically meet up once a month to discuss latest trends and demo recent products. No matter where you live, there is probably a Java or Python user group. If there isn’t one start one up and coordinate using blogs, forums, meetup, and Twitter.

In addition to user groups, I’ve attended to barcamps and unconferences. There are all sort of regional barcamps organized around all a variety of topics. When the iPhone first came out, I attended a barcamp in the Adobe office in San Francisco were geeks got together to experiment, collaborate, and program.

If you live close to a university, the Computer Science department might offer a colloquium series where they bring on different speakers, from entrepreneurs to visiting professors.

In addition to user group meet ups, barcamps, and academic presentations, there are tons of video presentations from top quality presentations online. Many of the presentation put on by Google are posted on YouTube under Google Tech Talks. You can find some of the RailsConf 2009 presentations on Blip. Confreaks has a slew of videos from all sorts of Ruby conferences such as Goruco and MountainWest RubyConf. If you want to catchup with the content of from a recent conference, but for whatever reason you are not able to attend, don’t feel left out. Most presenters put up their slides of their presentations, and many conference organizer put up video of the presentations.

These are just a few ways that you can keep up with the developments your field.

May 14 2009

Conference as a Business Model

There is an interesting rant over on Coding Context on how Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood are brilliant assholes because they are organizing Stackoverflow Dev Days. It may be true that Joel and Jeff are self obsessed ass wipes, but I am note sure it is because they are trying to cash in from the inadequacies and inferiority complex of other developers.

Micah, the guy behind Coding context, brought up the point that the guys behind the Stackoverflow Dev Days conference are exploiting their developer community to build their personal brand. According to Micah’s calculation, the series of six conferences can net nearly $200,000 and as of yet they don’t even have the presentations or speakers lined up!

Personally, I am put off by their floating point error size ego, dismissive attitude, and general writing style while a loyal following finds them eloquent. That said, Micah is totally right, they are building their brand! There two respective blogs attracts a large portion of developer eyeballs. Their joint venture, a question and answer site for developers, gets millions of hits monthly. In addition to this, Joel Spolsky runs a job board which he claims has made him over a million dollars. But is this all bad? Is this devexplotation?

In regards to their tech days, they are not the first to realize that there is good money in running a conference, look at Future of Web Apps, No Fluff/Just Stuff, and all the Web 2.0 O’Reilly conferences. A few years ago, I was part of the executive committee that put on a one day conference for a non-profit. With just corporate sponsorship alone, in a good year, we would net $35,000-$50,000 cold hard cash without even trying!!! And remember, in addition to money for ad space, conference organizers are able to get companies pay for printing material, goodie bags, giveaways, and even lunch. To a good organizer, everything including the Wi-Fi identification and mailing lists, can be had for the right sponsorship level.

From a conference like this, I would be concerned by the quality of speakers. What I feel happens, specially when there is corporate sponsorship, is that the sponsors will use the presentations to pitch their tools and try to up sell the audience to their proprietary tools and services. No matter what they say, Conferences like this are used as promotional tool, and they will sell out to sponsors to use their allotted time and space to pitch to a captive audience. Similar remarks have been said of JavaOne. One complain that I have heard of is that JavaOne is to Sun centric, even though they are the ones that put it together. There is a fine balance between corporate sponsorship and speakers so that the conference does not seem like one long infomercial. It always helps if there are different tracks!

In Slashdot style, here is the formula for a business model for running a conference!

  • Schedule a conference
  • Ask for volunteers in exchange for badges and shirts
  • Sellout presentations to sponsors
  • Give out sponsors’ marketing material in goodie bags
  • Have sponsors buy lunch and provide wi-fi
  • Charge per seat
  • Sell books, shirts, and anything else
  • ?????
  • Profit!!!

This is not all to different from the open source business model which includes building a community, charging for training, selling books, licensing technology, providing certification, and putting on a conference …. and profit!!!