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Jan 09

iPhone 3GS Fail: At Least It Keeps Me Warm

As one of the millions of iPhone 3G owners silently suffering from the iOS4 “upgrade” debacle, I finally threw in the towel a few weeks ago and paid AT&T/Apple $99 to “upgrade” to the 3GS.

I did a fair bit of research before making that decision, and I strongly considered moving to the Android platform, but–although I am a techno-geek, and I relished the opportunity to tinker with the Android–I really didn’t have the time to deal with a new platform.

I did read several articles about the “challenging” battery life of the early 3GS units, so I was prepared to further compromise on the iPhone’s famously lousy battery life, but I was not prepared for the added benefit of my new 3GS keeping me warm this winter prior to shutting itself down from overheating–that is, when the battery lasts long enough for that to happen.

AT&T Fail: No Service, and No Way to Get Help

I live a couple of miles away from a massive WWII-era communications tower (one of those monster 200+ foot tall types that is so large that the building holding all the equipment fits between its legs), so we usually enjoy fantastic wireless signal–even from AT&T.

The past few days, however, we have had flaky to non-existent AT&T service on our iPhones from home. We have AT&T service in other locations (i.e., from other cells), but something is obviously amiss with our local cell, because we can neither make calls nor use data services like e-mail or browsing from our iPhones.

This evening, I finally decided to “reach out” to AT&T via the AT&T Wireless web site to report the problem, see about getting some service credits, etc. Searching Support for “No Service” is an exercise in futility, and we have no landlines (we fired Verizon years ago), so my only option from home is e-mail.

Contact Us — But Don’t

On one hand, it’s handy that monoliths like AT&T are out there as live examples of how notto manage an online presence; on the other hand, being stuck as a consumer of this “presence” adds several new definitions to all the synonyms of “frustration.” Here’s the AT&T Wireless “User Experience” we all get locked into for 2 years at a time:

AT&T Wireless e-mail contact link--or so they say.

AT&T's "Email Us" Link

Clicking “Contact Us” at the top of any page gets you to this page.

One would think that clicking the “Email Us” link would take you to some kind of e-mail functionality, but …

But I just clicked "Email Us" ...

… instead, you are reminded of how much money you are spending each month for this kind of dysfunction.

Let’s see … where was that “Contact Us” link again? Ah … up there at the top.

KO, I’ll go click that again, and guess what?

Email Us link ... again.

Deja vu all over again.

OK, just to humor myself, let me take the bait and click that “Email Us” link again (while crossing all appendages, bending over, barking at the moon, and making a mental note to find a good litigator.)

AT&T Email contact us - Step 1 of 3

Woo Hoo! NOW we’re talking. Cancel the lawyer; we’re in business!

This information looks good, so let’s go tell them what’s happening by clicking that NEXT button.

Instant Session Timeout

AT&T's Legendary Session Management Prowess

Hmmm…well, this did take quite a while to wade through since I first logged on, but shouldn’t my session have been kept alive by all this navigation?

Let me try again…

A couple of iterations later, I’m at the neighbor’s house to call one of those services that boards up broken windows, then off to Best Buy to replace the laptop that flew through that window.

But Wouldn’t an iPhone 4 Have Been Cheaper?

OK, I’m kidding about the window and laptop, but I’m not sure how many years of my life this frustration may have cost me.

I do refuse to pay $300 for an iPhone 4 to “resolve” the problems caused by Apple and AT&T with the iOS4 upgrade abortion.

I also know that lousy signal quality from AT&T is not always correlated to the iOS4 suite of problems.

What I don’t know is–with four iPhones having different “anniversary dates” with AT&T–how I will ever escape this cesspool of failure without paying ransom to the AT&T zombie army.

The 2-Year Lock-in Must End

What really puzzles me is that we all put up with this kind of shoddy service year after year instead of  forcing a change. Competition in the marketplace from Verizon will arguably make a difference for new subscribers, but–short of litigation to invalidate the 2-year lock-in–I don’t see a way out for families like mine.

Any innovative ideas out there?

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Aug 21

Disclosure: I have no financial interest in this topic. I own no stock (or puts, calls, shorts, etc.) in Apple, Google (or any other tech company–including any of the wireless carriers), and I have no applications (as a developer) on any mobile platform (yet). In fact, my family has FOUR iPhones (with a modest investment in paid apps on each), so it is in my most direct interest for the iPhone to thrive. As a matter of fact, a good subtitle for this post would be “Woe are we!”

Although not an Apple fanboy even with 4 iPhones (I refuse to pay a thousand bucks for a plastic laptop with a Chiclet keyboard–no matter how great Mac OS may be), I did fall head-over-heels for the iPhone. I could gush on for paragraphs about how great the iPhone experience was (literally life-changing), but I’ll leave that for the authentic fanboys/girls.

I say “was” because Apple ruined it for me and millions of other iPhone 3G users when they rolled out the iOS4 “upgrade” via the normal iTunes software update process. Apple’s own forums are choked with accounts of this nightmare (iOS4 renders the 3G almost unusable), and a brief mention of this issue in a July 28th WSJ blog post generated nearly 700 woeful comments from suffering 3G/3GS users.

This gaffe is the most obvious and painful to me as a user, but it is Apple’s reaction to it that is the most telling sign of the iPhone’s inevitable slide into has-been/niche status. Here’s the list:

1. Arrogant Disregard of Users

It is one thing to scorn market research because “consumers don’t know what they want” in a new product. I’ll concede that point to @RealSteveJobs and crew.

It is entirely different–and absolutely UNACCEPTABLE–to disregard the real pain caused by the iOS4 update debacle.

Refusing to provide a supported means of rolling back to iOS3.X is a brazen assault on Apple’s own customers. My degree of befuddlement about this position is exceeded only my urgency to find relief from the searing pain of the situation.

I need a working iPhone–or a replacement smartphone like an Android–and I need it now. Apple’s disregard of my needs is pushing me (and a few million of my closest friends) into the arms of the competition.

2. Android: Close Enough–and It’s Open

Speaking of Android, my assessment is that it is not quite as slick as the iPhone. But you know what? For thousands of people each day, it’s close enough. This is bad for iPhone, but much worse is that Apple’s scorned 3G users have a compelling reason to look elsewhere, and Android is there.

More strategically, what earlier Android incarnations lack in polish is more than compensated for by the advantages of openness. Apple has a long history of eschewing open standards and ceding market share in the pursuit of the illusion of controlling  the whole stack, and they are repeating the pattern in the wireless space.

Open wins–now more than ever, and Apple seems destined to sacrificially prove this once again. 

3. AT&T: A Fatal Partner

Few would argue that AT&T has been anything but an utter failure in sizing up to the bandwidth demands of the avalanche of iPhone users, but I would argue that neither Verizon nor T-Mobile would have done any better. (Sprint would have probably been the only measurably worse choice.)

Let’s face it: All the major carriers suck, and nobody could have predicted the scale and pace of iPhone adoption.

The fatal mistake Apple made was to stick exclusively with AT&T when it became clear that they were sucking wind. Apple’s market dominance would have been infinitely more secure by diversifying carriers. This is a classic case of winning the battle to lose the war.

4. Android development: Zero Friction

One of my projects will eventually require a smartphone app, and we have always assumed that the iPhone will be a must-have target. What we weren’t sure about is the Android, so I downloaded the SDK the other day to check it out.

Within 15 minutes of the download, any doubts about the viability of the Android platform for developers were vaporized. Few development environments I have seen in the past 20 years have been as easy–especially not the iPhone development gauntlet.

5. iPhone Development: Face-gravel, by Comparison

By comparison, iPhone development is like eating nails while bobbing for scorpions in a vat of hot gravel.

I hear that the Android app store has been creating logistical challenges for users and developers with download/payment glitches lately, so let’s toss a whopper of a concession to Apple and call this part a draw–despite the terrible way most iPhone developers are treated during the application submission/approval process.

We can debate app store warts all day, but anyone who simply compares the app development process will see instantly why the iPhone is a lost cause.

Woe are We (Temporarily)

This may become a great case study for Harvard Business School some day, but I don’t have the luxury of navel-gazing about it.

My family–along with those few million friends I mentioned–will suffer through this episode of the iPhone’s slide into Niche Gully, and we will come out on the other side with wisdom and a smartphone we can count on. We will survive, and we can always fondly remember the joy we felt until iOS4.

But it is such a shame. I really thought Apple had figured it out this time.

If there were ever a better example of in-the-trenches execution trumping (or undermining) brilliant innovation, I must have forgotten it.

Perhaps Steve and friends have forgotten too–or did they ever know?

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Jul 03

Given the complete lack of trust Facebook has repeatedly earned from its users, I propose the declaration of  Facebook-free zones.

Facebook-free Zone Logo

Privacy Matters

Sites displaying this logo will not ask for (nor accept) your Facebook credentials, and you can be assured that sites earning the right to use this logo will not be passing along your privacy for Facebook to sell to the highest bidder.

If Facebook-free Zone sites previously offered login via Facebook credentials, they will most likely offer authentication via your Google, Twitter or OpenID credentials.

Becoming a signatory to some kind of “privacy manifesto” should probably be tied to using this logo; I’ll dive more into that concept in upcoming posts.

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Jun 01

Ruby on Rails has made a really important contribution to reducing the barriers for web software start-ups, and for this @DHH and the core Rails team deserve the highest accolades.

Rails is a main component of the technology stack behind many hot Web 2.0 companies, including 37 Signals and Twitter, so it’s hard to not get excited about using Rails to build a startup–unless you are a Windows user.

The mainstream Rails crowd is unabashedly Mac users, and I respect their preference. Rails IS available for Windows, but this is a totally different (and much more difficult) experience than in the Mac world. Rails development on a Mac is kewl; Rails development in the Windows world is not.

To my delighted surprise, Microsoft gets all this–the game-changing simplicity (and low costs) of the “Rails way” and the market opening on the Windows platform. They get it all the way, and they put their money where their mouth is via their BizSpark program.

BizSpark allows starving startups free access to all Microsoft products for three years, and they have fully embraced the MVC application architecture popularized by the Rails crowd.

If you are an aspiring start-up who would rather leverage your existing Windows machines than triple your hardware costs in order to effectively use the free Rails stack, you owe it yourself to check out BizSpark.

I am not normally a Microsoft cheerleader, but this is one really important area in whch they get it. Congrats to whomever in Redmond had the courage to show true leadership.

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Mar 13

One of my HaggleWire co-founders and I got “out of the building” this morning to work the Customer Discovery phase of the Customer Development process as first defined by Steve Blank. (See Essential  Resources for a more complete list of references.)

As a repeat entrepreneur, I have experienced the value of talking to potential customers before building something (see Entrepreneurial Rebirth, Part 1), but I had forgotten about the raw thrill it is to talk to someone about how my passion might be able to help them with their passion. What a rush!

Our prospect–let’s call him John–runs a busy shop selling products and services to consumers. This is a classic bricks & mortar retail operation like found in every community. As is the case for most consumer-focused businesses, Saturday is a peak-traffic day at John’s shop, but we managed to get his attention for a couple of chunks of time totaling about 30 minutes. (He’s a generous guy; my partner knows how to pick ‘em.)

Setting Expectations–Almost Too Late

When we tried to set the tone of the conversation by mentioning that we chose him to run some ideas by because one of us is a happy customer and we noticed he is already interacting with consumers on a couple of the ratings sites like InsiderPages, he immediately assumed we were there to sell him advertising.

I just committed all of my co-op advertising dollars for this year on <legacy phone book ad provider trying to join the 21st century>.

We quickly retraced our steps, assuring him that we were not there to sell him anything and that our concept did not involve advertising. This worked, but he was immediately pulled away to do business for about the next hour.

Elevator Slap

When he returned, we summarized our basic idea with an elevator pitch approximating “Our idea is to create a web site which will be an online marketplace where merchants compete for consumers’ business.”

In reply to my question of “Does this idea resonate with you?” he said

“I have no idea what you are talking about, but I do know that I get 10-12 deals a week right now from <SomeVerticalSight>, and I don’t have to do any work to get that business.”

He added:

“Don’t expect me to go use some web site to pitch for business. I barely know my e-mail address, and I rarely use the Internet.”

Pivot Time

Regrouping quickly, we asked him to describe the process he uses to respond to telephone calls from customers interested in his products and services. After some give & take Q & A’s with us, it was apparent that his process to clinch a deal from an inbound phone call followed a repeatable pattern. Tapping what we had originally thought was our “2.0” feature wish-list, I asked him:

“What if we provided a service which could respond automatically–using your quoting rules and pricing–to requests consumers make on a web site. This would mean you would not have to spend time on the phone for those deals, and —“

He cut me off with

“I’ll give you X percent of each of those deals.”

MVP Marching Orders

One interaction does not Customer Development make, but I can tell you that the “X” from the quote above is a meaningful number, so we feel confident that we defined a value proposition for at least one member of our target audience (i.e., merchants, the market segment which will pay the bills).   We now know what to build as our first iteration of a “minimum viable product.”

As we concluded our visit, John agreed to actively work with us in the coming weeks to validate our prototypes and help us refine our offering. We offered to cut him a sweet deal for a while in exchange for helping us do all this, and we floated out of his shop on our entrepreneurial high.

Some Lessons Learned

We had prepared a set of questions for this meeting, but we assumed we would need to be flexible about how the conversation evolved; we obviously nailed that one. Here are our take-away lessons from today’s Customer Discovery session:

  1. Shut Up, but Listen Actively – It was only by repeatedly engaging John, but letting him speak most of the time, that we kept ourselves positioned to shape the conversation.
  2. Be Flexible – We were intruding on John’s busiest time, so we cheerfully invested about two hours of time–and morphed our questions quickly–in order to mine this priceless feedback.
  3. Keep Focused – We may have landed our first customer (that jury is still out), but our objective was to uncover what value proposition–if any–our idea had for this prospect. We were prepared for that answer to be “none,” and getting that answer (not a customer) was our primary goal. Every question we asked was focused on that goal.

Next

During the next week or so, we will be building the first iteration of our MVP for “review” with John. I use “review” (with quotes) because John already told us that he will not use a web site, so we will actually be showing John the outcome (i.e., the direct benefits to him) of our prototype. (Who would have thunk that a real customer would be focused on the business benefits above the kewl technology, eh?)

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll share the highlights of that process. Stay tuned.

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Feb 05

I have been devouring every bit of current wisdom about the current state of the start-up art the past few weeks (see Essential Resources for links)–including the debate about the pros and cons of taking on co-founders. (Answers.onstartups.com has several posts on this topic, including this one.)

I have also been struggling with getting as passionate about my initial ideas as I need to be.

To tackle both of these issues, I had lunch the other day with a colleague I respect and trust, and I asked him if he had ever thought about doing a start-up. His eyes lit up, and we are brainstorming several ideas. (He did not do back-flips of excitement over my initial ideas, so that issue is resolved nicely.)

Doing a start-up part-time and on a shoestring has its own set of special challenges I will hopefully write about extensively later, but I already feel renewed energy (which is saying something, given my stratospheric baseline energy levels) now that I have a partner.

Stay tuned for occasional updates about this dimension of the adventure.

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Dec 20

While I have not been blogging the past couple of weeks, I have been narrowing down my ideas for what to “start.” In the process, I discovered Eric Ries and his “Lean Startup” movement, and this perfectly describes my approach to this process.

Anyway, I have settled on a company name: 42fingers and its first two product ideas:

  1. DoneWisely: GTD  with the Wisdom of the Crowd;
  2. FloorPlansDatabase: Online Real Estate Floor plans with a unique, long-lasting, twist.

I have been thinking about the online floor plans idea for years, and I discovered during the past few weeks that the software tools to make it practical have recently become available. This is very exciting, but this idea will take a bit more effort to validate than the GTD idea, so I am focusing my initial prototyping and market validation efforts on DoneWisely.

In the spirit of the Lean Startup philosophy, however, I will determine quickly whether this idea has legs. I really think it does (despite–or perhaps because of–the competition in this space), but if not, I’ll quickly move on to the next idea.

Confused? Check out that Eric Ries blog. He explains it much better than I can, and I need to get working on my first idea.

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Dec 09

Us start-up types probably need to have at least some hyperbole in our veins to be in this world, but “re-birth” may not be a stretch in describing my journey.

About 20 years ago, I was a very young and impatient business (marketing/sales) guy who understood software technology–at least on paper. I had worked at a few technology companies, and I was really itching to do a start-up. On business trips (we did lots of those back then), I would lug a few programming books to study at night and on airplanes. I also made it a point to hang around with the smartest programmers at work to understand their perspective about software and how their talents were being used and appreciated (or not).

Before I jumped into the start-up world, I pitched my idea to senior management at my employer (a pretty great company); they declined, but–despite the fact I was becoming a competitor in the lower end of their market–they wished me all the best. 

Armed with boundless energy, my plan for using software to bring dramatic innovation to a willing market, and my nest egg of zero dollars, I willingly became unemployed and devoted 80-hour weeks to finishing my business plan. (Yes, most people really serious about start-ups back then did 20+ page business plans, and those plans included tedious maket analysis and countless hours invested in financial forecasting out to five years or more. And yes, this exercise was of zero value compared to actually launching the business and living the resulting lessons.)

To be fair to my history, I need to remind myself that despite the software-driven “secret sauce” of my business idea, the actual business was capital-intensive, requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment. As a result, my initial focus had to be on finding seed funding. At about this time, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and the availability of funding immediately dried up.

Having no money for a cash-devouring start-up just as Gulf War 1.0 was rocking the capital markets was not about to get in my way, and I did manage to scrape up enough cash to buy some used equipment, sweet-talk a former colleague into writing some key software libraries for the price of  a new laser printer and build out a production facility for next to nothing–all because I secured a signed letter-of-intent (“if you build it, I will pay”) from my first  customer. (FYI to younger readers: Back then, all customers were paying customers).

This customer–a leader in his market niche who later picked up the phone to get us into several more customers in that market–committed to risk the timing of his cash flow on the concept I was pitching. (I went to the sales call with the letter-of-intent language on a floppy disk, and I printed it out on his letterhead for him to sign.) As proud as I still am of that moment, this product launch experience was not all soft puppy-dogs and roses for either of us. Before we were solidly live, I put his cash flow in serious peril, and I silently listened to him threatening (as he pounded on my locked office doors on a Saturday afternoon) to break my legs if I didn’t resolve the problems yesterday.

That I became arguably proficient in C programming over that weekend-long “do-or-die” marathon is what preserved this guy’s cash flow, allowed me to make payroll and positioned us to get our next customer. 

And I was hooked on the adrenaline-fueled exhilaration of the start-up experience.

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Nov 30

Yeah, I know: I haven’t even really done anything yet, and I’m already whining.

Here is why:

  1. I drive about 60 miles each way to my real job; in Washington DC area traffic, that burns 3 hours each day for the round trip. (Unfortunately, my work location is not near trains or subway, so I cannot take advantage of that kind of “idle commute” time.)
  2. Many evenings, I have a kid to pick up or shuttle somewhere. We live out in the country, so nothing is closer than 20 minutes each way.
  3. I have a toddler, and I am not able to even think about non-toddler activities until 9:00 or so on most nights.
  4. I have to get up by 6:00 weekday mornings to make it to the office at a decent time.
  5. I am not as focused as I need to be, so when I finally do spend some time on start-up stuff, I am not very productive (and I’m tired, and whiny, etc.)

Pitiful, isn’t it? So here is what I’m doing about it:

  1. Start collecting (and playing) podcasts most relevant to the process, ideas under consideration, technology topic du jour, etc. to listen to while driving.
  2. Enjoy these opportunities to be with my (older) kids while I still have them.
  3. Savor every moment until toddler bedtime, then FOCUS for a good hour or two.
  4. Get up at 5:00 or 5:30 to start the day with a burst of focus.
  5. Stop acting like a big-company employee slacker, and get back into that kick-butt “zone” this stuff takes. (Just subscribed to RescueTime to see if the external nudge can help sharpen this.)
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Nov 27

I know I’m already in trouble by just the title I chose for this, so I’ll just go ahead and dig myself a deeper hole.

This startup process is begining with figuring out what to do–to settle on The Big Idea. Before we dive into some of the finer points, here is what I think I consider to be baseline criteria for a “go” idea:

1. Software-driven. I’m a software guy. Enough said?
2. Web-based. I’m thinking some kind of Software as a Service (SaaS) offering.

OK, so that narrows it down to a few hundred million ideas, but it’s a start. Beyond these criteria, here are some addotional foundational priniciples:

3. Simplicity. As much as I would like to create a world-changing business or re-invent a category like Steve Jobs and crew routinely pull off, I am realistic enough to know that I don’t have the available bandwidth or desire. Creating something of lasting value is enough for now. (I’ll get to the insanely-great ideas next time.)

4. Profitability. Yeah I know: “Duuuuuh!!!” But what I mean here is that I am not about scoring a bunch of VC money so I can attact 20 million page views each month before figuring out a business model.

  • The idea getting a “Go” must lend itself to bootstrapping without external funding.

… more soon.

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