I'm doing a talk tonight in Toronto at an event called Sprout Up. During the presentation I plan to reference a few links online, so I'll put them here.
Last week, I was asked to do a question and answer session with Erin from Sprouter. She wrote an article based on the interview, but I thought it would be interesting to also publish the questions and answers in full. On Friday at 11a PST, I'll be answering questions live on the Sprouter site on my profile. Hope to see you there.
- Q: Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
A: I'm not sure I really thought about an entrepreneur as a distinctive type of person. My parents encouraged my siblings and I to do business-type endeavors from a young age, but always with a focus on the craft as opposed to the economics. So, we ran lemonade stands when we were little, baked bread for a nearby campground in middle school, and grew flowers and melons one summer in high school. In all of these things, the goal was to produce something of quality that people would want to purchase. Then in eleventh grade (1996, I think), some friends and I started a web business in the attic of my parents' century-old farmhouse. With no small amount of struggle, that business eventually morphed into a company called silverorange. But, back to the original question, I'm not sure I'd even call myself an entrepreneur first and foremost – I'm a designer who helped start a few companies.
- Q: What led you to start Silverorange, and how involved are you with the company today?
A: Back in 1996, some friends and I started a little company called Whitelands Studio. We had figured out that the Canadian government was offering grants for teams to digitize museums' collections. So, for several summers we secured grants and worked with a local museum to create websites showcasing their exhibits. This was great work (and it paid better than flipping burgers!) and we learned a great deal about building websites and running a team, which was the reason the grants existed in the first place. After a few years, another local company contracted us to work on a fairly ambitious e-commerce system. Ultimately, that system turned out to be to be ahead of its time, but our teams worked well together and we merged teams to form silverorange in 1999. Since 2007, I've played a more back-seat role in the team. The other founders and I meet occasionally to discuss broad strategy.
- Q: PEI and Silicon Valley are two very different places to start a business. What are the pros and cons of starting a business in each community?
A: Great question, but a big one. Prince Edward Island has a population of ~120,000 people and is a two hour flight from large cities like Montreal and Toronto. There are only a few web companies that operate from Charlottetown, so you can be both physically and intellectually isolated in many ways. But! It's a beautiful place and the lifestyle there is very relaxed and extremely affordable. Recruiting talent is surprisingly easy with good computer science programs. It's absolutely possible to start a world-class company there, as silverorange has proven, but there are some challenges.
San Francisco, on the other hand, has obvious benefits such as strong networks, ready cash, and a culture where risks are encouraged. However! It's very expensive, it's much easier to get distracted from your core work (building products!), it's easy to get sucked into a fishbowl mentality, recruiting is much more competitive, and peer pressure can push you to take stupid risks.
- Q: You were the 4th employee at Digg - would you recommend any first-time entrepreneur spend time as an early startup employee to get experience?
A: Maybe. Digg was my first experience in a small startup and also my first time leading a design team. I benefited greatly from having deep experience in many types of projects before joining Digg. So, if a first-time entrepreneur already has experience building and shipping products, I'd say wholeheartedly that they should join a small startup. However, someone who has little real-world experience would do well to work with more senior people, perhaps. Just don't go to a huge corp where you risk being ignored – find someone you greatly respect and convince them to take you on as an apprentice.
- Q: What did your time as Creative Director at Digg teach you about running a successful company?
A: I learned a great deal at Digg as the company grew from just four of us to almost 100 when I left. I learned the value of hiring great teams and how difficult they are to create. I now put much greater emphasis on recruiting, even when I feel too busy to put the time into it. I also learned a lot about decision-making with larger teams. When you're less than 10-14 people, making decisions by fiat is very efficient, but as teams grow it becomes immensely more difficult to still make decisions efficiently without alienating people whose opinions should be heard.
- Q: What were the main lessons you learned from building Pownce, selling it, and subsequently seeing it shut down? Do you look at Pownce as a success?
A: We built Pownce with just three people and two of us had demanding full-time jobs. So! The primary thing I learned is... don't start a company when two thirds of you have full-time gigs. It was a demanding couple of years and when I look back, it's incredible how much we actually got built with our small over-worked team. We also learned a lot about community engagement at Pownce. We had a wonderful, passionate, and occasionally rancorous group of users and we had a great relationship with them. From early on, we put emphasis on staying engaged with the community and we brought in a great part-time community manager to help us stay on top of things. This attention made a great deal of difference for the company. Do I think Pownce was a success? Well, I think the product had a great deal of unrealized potential. But! It was a good ride and we all learned a lot from it, which we've exercised in projects since.
- Q: What prompted you to start Milk?
A: Starting Milk was a pretty easy decision. Kevin and I had been discussing creating this kind of company for several years and suddenly things aligned where it was possible to go ahead and do it. We've both wanted to work with a small group to execute on several ideas that we've had percolating. Milk gives the ability to focus on several challenges at once with the kind of nimble team that can build kick-ass products.
- Q: How do you recommend non-technical founders find great technical talent?
A: Make friends. I frequently hear from people who have the 'greatest' idea ever and they want to know how to get it built. Ideas really are cheap, building is hard. So, build it yourself or become friends with people who can build it with you. Hiring people to build your product is exactly the wrong approach – it's expensive and you'll end up with an inferior product. Don't know how to build an app or don't have any friends who can build it with you? Then you're doing it wrong. Quit running around trying to raise VC cash so you can hire that dream team. Go hang out with product builders until you're friends with them and you've learned some technical skills as well. And more thing. Don't 'network' to find technical people – go out and make real honest-to-goodness friends.
- Q: What's your #1 piece of advice for new entrepreneurs?
A: Build things. Coming up with the 'greatest' idea isn't as magical as you think it is. Writing up a business plan isn't very helpful. Go out and make a product. Maybe that product won't be your big thing, but you'll learn a ton and each successive product will get continuously better.
- Q: What's next for you and Milk?
A: We're going to take our own advice and build! We have one large idea well into production, another smaller idea three quarters complete, and a few more large ideas in the hopper. Milk doesn't have a five year plan or even a two year plan. We're going to make several projects. When one of them is a success, we'll cross that bridge when we get there. Seriously, we're unabashedly figuring it out as we go along, which I think it's the only rational approach.
A few weeks ago, David Gillis interviewed me for UX Magazine. It was one of the first times I've had a solid reason to pull together some of my thoughts about designing the user interface for a game. What's particularly interesting to me are the parallels and contrasts of designing a game's UI vs developing a web application UI.
Anyhow, I actually don't plan to go into great depth into the issue here today, but considering this space has remained long dormant, this is a nudge for myself to perhaps start writing down my thoughts on some of these issues in a more formal way. I'm really looking forward to speaking at In Control Orlando early next year and hopefully I can gather enough ideas to build a new talk.
Rob Goodlatte and I presented a talk on designing for new-user experiences a few days ago at the SXSW conference in Austin. We discussed getting people invested in your web application, finding the 'aha moment' and getting to it as quickly as possible, developing increasingly large feedback loops, and educating your users.
I promised to post the slides, so here they are. The slides are fairly sparse on copy, but luckily Julie from Facebook took extensive notes so you can actually follow along and get something out of the slide presentation even if you weren't there. Thanks so much Julie for doing that — you must have been typing like a mad woman during our talk.
I believe that the SXSW people were recording the talk (microphone squeals in all their glory) and if it comes online, I'll add the link here. Thanks to everyone who squeezed into that little room! Your feedback and critique would be much appreciated.
An update with the transcript originally posted on Facebook follows.
Woooohoooo! At midnight last night, the press embargo was lifted and we announced that Tiny Speck is building a web-based game called Glitch. The short of it: it's a web-based massively multiplayer game mostly in Flash — think World of Warcraft meets Super Mario Bros crossed with a mishmash of online social games and a splash of Dr. Seuss. Check out the teaser trailer and stick your name into the form to get in for early access to the game. I can't wait to let players in to kick the tires.
Daniel Terdiman, a CNET journalist, has written a series of articles explaining the backstory to the game's development. He had great access to Stewart during the past months and the articles give an insightful look behind the scenes.
I'm super excited that we've launched two new sites with two new logos at the same time last night. The Tiny Speck corporate site has been updated and Glitch is now live. For now, both sites are nice, concise one-pagers. It's a lovely challenge to create something unique and concise in the one-page format. I love designing with constraints and that's what one-page-sites are all about.
This was also one of the first times I've started using more CSS3 in public. I've been warming up to RGBA, rounded corners, minor transforms, and advanced selectors more and more. Hopefully we'll have time for a solid practical discussion of these techniques at my workshop next week in Wellington, New Zealand, at Webstock!
I'm lucky that I get the chance to speak at conferences on a fairly regular basis. Last year, I presented about a dozen talks on web design topics and taught a couple of workshops. But, I'm still a neophyte next to the Molly Holzschlag's and the Jared Spool's of the geeky lecture circuit. I know I have a lot of room for improvement. Yet, getting honest criticism from your audience is just about impossible.
Earlier this year, Khoi Vinh correctly made the case that designers are generally too kind to each other. At no time is this more true than when you're asking people to criticize your public speaking. You can ask attendees and even fellow speakers for tips and they'll invariably concoct a compliment and shrug their shoulders before telling you that they couldn't do as well as you just did — which is total crap.
During the past year, I've figured out a few decent techniques to encourage people to give you a critique. This is something I still struggle with so I'd appreciate your ideas as well. A few things that seem to work for me:
- Ask for just one thing
- If you ask people to tell you 'anything' or 'everything' that you could improve upon, they'll usually stumble about and not give you anything useful. But, ask them for the 'one thing' you could improve on and they'll at least wrack their brain to come up with a single criticism. This is much better than getting nothing.
- Ask people who know you well
- The best post-presentation critiques I've received have come from a long-time coworker and my father. People who've been on the other end of your own stinging criticisms are much more comfortable throwing some back at you. This is great! My dad's a really nice guy, but he's both heard me carp at him more than a few times and he's a seasoned university lecturer. He was kind but blunt with several pieces of good advice.
- Ask drunk people
- Seriously. After a workshop at Future of Web Apps in Miami last year, I asked the attendees to give me some honest feedback and got a tepid response. But... that night, a couple of the guys were pretty drunk and (standing a little too close for comfort and with potent whiskey breath) gave me a healthy dose of totally unvarnished advice. That advice, which was to show more examples and to cover less material but in more depth, was fantastic.
- Ask groups of people
- This seemed counterintuitive to me. I assumed that if you cornered an individual that you could get good one-on-one advice. But, if you can coax just one person in a small group to give you a single piece of advice, the rest sometimes sense blood in the water and will join in too — yay! Once the ice is broken and people see that you actually didn't rip the critiquer's head off, it's much easier for the other people to add their own comments.
- Be persistent
- People are eager to please. Heck, that's why they're being too nice to you in the first place. If you seem genuinely disappointed that no one is offering you criticism, people sometimes throw you a bone to please you. Like in the previous point, once you've broken the ice...
And, of course, If you've seen me present recently or if you're going to be at one of the same conferences I'll be at (I've got a list at the bottom of the page), I'd appreciate your critique in the comments. Be honest, be judgmental, be picky, be cold, heck be downright mean — I'll learn more from your criticisms than from all the platitudes you might write.
I just got back last night from the Future of Web Design conference in New York City. Those Carsonified people really do have their conferences down to a science — it's impressive to watch such a large scale affair appear to come off so effortlessly, even when you know there's a lot of effort (and maybe even a little panic) going on behind the scenes.
I promised the attendees to my workshop and the talk that I'd put my copious slides up on Slideshare. If you attended and you'd like the full set of slides in Keynote or PDF format, email me and I'll invite you to a Dropbox with the big files. Otherwise, here are the downsized versions of the workshop slides and the slides from the talk.
And, particularly considering I did a presentation on using feedback, I'd love to hear comments and critique from anyone who was at the conference. Let me know what I can do to improve!
Well, didn't I just learn something today – vexillology is the scholarly study of flags. I've made several posts in the past concerning my favorite flags, yet I was clearly in the dark about the vexillological arts. Indeed, the umbrella organization, the 'Fédération internationale des associations vexillologiques', has a fairly stunning flag of their own!
I discovered this newly minted member of my vocabulary after stumbling across the North American Vexillological Association's website via Jason Kottke. They have a wonderful guide to flag design — rules that could be easily adopted by logo designers of all stripes (heh heh). I especially love that they feature the flags of Amsterdam and New Mexico as first-class examples.
At the end of September, I departed from my position as creative director at Digg to pursue a new opportunity with my friends Cal and Stewart at Tiny Speck. The entire experience of leaving only the second real job I've had in my adult life has been bittersweet – I'm obviously excited to sink my teeth into something new but I'm sorely going to miss working with many fine people and friends at Digg.
On the sweet side, I've arranged to take a month off before I really get into my new gig. I haven't taken more than a week and a bit off work in almost a decade. This nice break is giving me a chance to recharge my batteries, take a week-long trip to Zion National Park in Utah with my girlfriend, and *drumroll* finally update this weblog!
This poor weblog has been collecting dust for quite some time and I've been heckled by friends (rightly so) to update it. This break between jobs has finally given me the opportunity to semi-complete a refresh of the site. There are still some improvements I'd like to make over the coming weeks, but the basic skeleton is firmly enough in place to make open the door and make this public.
A few notes for anyone that cares:
- Sidebar changes
- Part of the reason this site has been updated so infrequently is that I'm digging, tweeting, flickering, scrobbling, etc... instead of posting here. So, I've finally added syndication into the right rail of my weblog to reflect my broader activity. Follow me on any of those sites if you want to see specific types of updates.
- Realigned theme
- Although it was a bit dated, I still had quite a bit of affection for my previous theme. I really like Cameron Moll's articulation of 'realigning' instead of 'redesigning', which you can read on A List Apart. Hopefully this updated design is in the spirit of realignment. Some parts of this change are still a bit rough, but I'll continue to make improvements over the next few weeks.
- The nice thing with personal sites is that not everything has to work or at least not work for everyone. For the Flickr images in the right rail, I'm using background-sizing for the first time (which works great in Safari/Chrome/Webkit and will be supported in the next release of Firefox). Elsewhere, I'm using css-inserted content, and some CSS3 selectors... things I wouldn't likely use much on professional work. Hopefully I'll be able to use this as a sandbox to try out things I may employ later elsewhere.
- Degraded Support for IE6
- This is the first project where I've basically cut out the css for IE6. As Dan Cederholm proposed back in February, I'm serving only a very stripped down stylesheet for IE6 and otherwise serving up nice, clean, and accessible unformatted html to that browser. I think it's a good choice for a personal site. If you're developing a consumer-facing site, I'd suggest you read Mark Trammell's important (and oft-misunderstood) post about Digg's altered stance on support for IE6.
Now for the hard part – actually posting here on a regular basis. We'll see how it goes, but I do intend to update this site on a much more frequently. I've got a book review and a few other posts already in the hopper. Heck, my posting here couldn't be any more irregular than it has been in the past, so what do I have to lose!
PS: In case you didn't already know, all of the universal symbol signs I'm using on this site are available for free from the AIGA.
I don't often cross post on Pownce and here on my blog, but this is worth an exception I think. A few minutes ago, a friend reminded me of the Barenaked Ladies' cover of Lovers in a Dangerous Time. I hadn't heard it in years and I'd never seen the video. The song is as good or better than I remembered. I don't care what you think of what the band's done since the famous (at least in Canada) and elusive Yellow Tape, this cover stands on its own.