Thursday, January 19. 2012
It's hard for a web consultancy to be exciting. It really is. 9 days out of every 10 are spent working hard on some project that most of the web doesn't care about nor should they. A hotel website, some internal analysis tool for a big company you don't know, a cool start-up that never made it; the centre of your world is the edge of everyone else's.
Eoghan named the company Contrast, because he wanted it to stand out. To be different. The hint is in the name. We tried our best to make it one of the few companies that make people sit up and take notice.
From time to time we achieved it. Exceptional is, today, a hell of a product. Qwitter was represented the best and worst of a halloween firework, amazing for brief moments, and over too soon. I still believe that TaskFive was genuinely ahead of its time, the popularity of apps like Trello and TeuxDeux prove this, to me anyways. I'm particularly fond of the blog itself. We saw it grow slowly but strongly over the years, as more and more of our heroes seemed to read and link up our writing. I still smile today when strangers tell me they read our writing.
Like every consultancy we spent 9 days from every day 10 with heads down, stressing over day to day stuff like like open projects, clients, accounting, etc. What made it rewarding for us was day 10. We always made that one count.
Enjoy the journey, because it doesn't end
If I was to offer some advice in the midst of this nostalgic stream of consciousness, it would be this. No one gives you free time in a consultancy. There will always be some drama, some open bug, some angry client, some sale call to make. If you want free time you have to take it yourself. Start with one day a month where the only project is "Let's do something cool that other people can't do". Make it a Saturday if you have to.
Give your employees an invested interest in the success of the company, it'll be the best money you'll ever spend. Never keep a "hopes and dreams" whiteboard, it'll only remind you what you can't do right now. Above all, have fun or go home. There is rarely an 'exit' in a consultancy. There's no "just two more years and we're there". You'll never be there. There is no "there". Don't fool yourself with lies like "we're just going through a busy period" or "it'll be easier next year". It won't. Of all the things I've learned from Eoghan through the years, this one resonated most:
How you do anything is how you do everything.
If today sucks, change today. Don't wait for the mythical "break in-between projects". Things are the way they are, because you let them get that way. If you're not going to change, then it'll only get worse. It's easy to write this in retrospect, in reality it took us a while to grasp it. Never be afraid that you'll go out of business, be afraid that you'll stay in business and never enjoy a second of it.
As many wise folks noted in one way or another, success isn't a destination, it's just a way of travel.
Roam, if you want to
Contrast took us around the world, Berlin, Munich, London, Brighton, Edinburgh, Atlanta, San Francisco, Jacksonville, New York, and others I'm forgetting. People handed us microphones and sat back to hear what we had to say. Exciting times. Through Contrast we've made many great friends in Dublin and around the world, and I've personally had the pleasure of working with lots of great people, Eoghan, David, Ciaran, Darragh, Walter, Paul, David, Ben, and Kevin.
As the saying goes, Starting a business is like jumping out of a plane and then working out how to parachute on the way down. I like to think that we worked it out eventually, and landed successfully.
Contrast has been the best preparation I could have asked for. It's like an MBA except I'm not in debt and I had great fun doing it. I fully agree with what Eoghan wrote in the letter on contrast.ie. Consulting is tough going, it's not for everyone, but it's an amazing education.
Now we're doing it all over again with a new company. Intercom. And this time it's going to be different.
Different like last time.
Thanks for reading, and for all your continued support over the years. Here's to the next ten.
Tuesday, September 29. 2009
Bigulo sold today, actually it sold a couple of weeks ago, but today the money arrived in my account, and I split it with Andrew. Since announcing it on Twitter, I've been flooded with congratulations, from the most familiar and most surprising of places. I've received a lot of emails asking for details, back-stories, etc. So it looks like I should say something more about it. Where to start…
I'm sitting in the research lab in NUI Maynooth, beside Andrew Page. If you cast your mind back, this was the time when the web 2.0 movement was at its peek. Twitter didn't exist. Reddit, Youtube, Digg, Delicious, had all received amazing valuations. 37Signals had released Getting Real. Usability had suddenly become popular and I was slowly coming to terms with the fact that I was far more interested in the web, creating software, usability, and writing than I was in my academic pursuits.
Andrew had always been a good friend, and also a serious academic rival. I guess at this point Mr. Traynor should congratulate Dr. Page, and admit defeat on that one. Anyways, I knew if I needed help to make something happen, Andrew would be the guy to turn to. As it happened, he turned to me.
Bebo had taken Ireland by storm over the summer, for reasons I'll never really understand. Walking around the college, all you would see on anyones computers was that ugly logo, as boys wearily clicked through girls holiday photos. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Bebo, at the time, was that you couldn't find anyone. For example, Andrew knew his sister was on Bebo, knew her email address and even her Bebo username, yet still couldn't find her to friend her. This was a problem. Andrew had the beginnings of a solution when he called me over.
I had spent a lot of the previous months learning scripting, writing the usual stuff, image gallery scripts, command line tools, and a fancy command line web text program. I used Perl at the time, as I had an abhorrence of PHP. I was all set to have round fourteen of Perl vs PHP when I realised that Andrews code actually worked.
Lesson #1: Working code speaks louder than words.
Andrew wanted help with presenting the information he had collected, in a stylish "web 2.0" manner. This gave me my first chance to work on an interface that people might actually use, and I made an absolute balls of it.
We published the site on Mikado, the college forum at the time, and within days we were getting hundreds of hits a day. We published it on Boards.ie, Politics.ie, and asked our friends to tell everyone. The Irish tech scene, whilst small, were very helpful, Damien started the ball rolling and with weeks we were getting thousands of hits a day. We added "Google Adsense" and waited, and waited.
Pay per click
Weeks later we were approved to display adverts, and within days we had made our first dollar. We tinkered with ad placement, aided by friends, and soon the site was earning $20 a week. Surely things can get better than this?
Lesson 2: You'll be a long time waiting for advertising revenue.
Andrew asked me how could we get the users to stick around. I had no idea, the purpose of the tool was search. The user comes along, finds what they need, and leaves. The answer came to me one day in the foyer of the computer science building. It sounds crude to say it, but most people on social networks are there to check out other people. You can dispute that if you like, but I've been watching this space for quite some time. Boys look at photos of girls. Girls look at photos of boys. Like everything else, Bebo sucked at this, so we fixed that.
We added Babes and Hunks of Bigulo, so that users can just look at pretty people, view their profiles, get talking, whatever. This meant we'd get more page views per visit, and increased our percentage of returning visits. These days as an analytics consultant, I refer to this as the "stickiness" of a site and Bigulo had gotten very sticky (no pun intended).
Lesson 3: It's easier to tap into existing behaviours than it is to create new ones.
Lesson 4: To paraphrase Jamie Zawinski - if your code can get people laid, you're off to a good start.
Andrew had some experience getting sites into national media, so we started off with a press release announcing the site. That went nowhere, but our follow up article on how Bebo leaves profiles of children public by default hit the headlines. Won't somebody please think of the children. (Side note: Bigulo never searched for under 18yr olds)
We followed this up with a press release announcing which government officials were on Bebo, during the elections. It's funny to see this same issue come up in every single election since then. Enda Kenny was a "guru" of Social Media long before Barak Obama. At this point not a day would go by without someone ringing me looking for a soundbite about anything vaguely related to social networks. This was social media, before the term had been coined.
Lesson 5: Don't believe every "expert" you hear on the radio
Lesson 6: You need to see sales opportunities everywhere, not just via reddit and twitter.
At one point around Christmas 2007 Andrew told me we'd passed the 1 million mark for searches performed. It's hard to know what to make of this. The first thought a naive businessman would have would be "imagine if they each paid a dollar". A slightly more mature would ask "Is each search worth a dollar?" or "How can we make it valuable to people, so they'll pay for it". Neither I, nor Andy, could ever answer that question, so we stuck with advertising.
Lesson #7: If you can't imagine any user paying you money, then they won't. You can take 1 million users, and be ultra conservative and say .5% conversion, and very easily earn yourself $5,000 in Excel. Getting that money into your bank account is a different kettle of fish.
Bigulo moved from strength to strength, we recently hit 25 million searches. Bigulo got more traffic than any site I've ever worked on. But we simply didn't know what to do with it, so when approached by a lovely lady from the US who had money to buy it and good plans for it we realised we needed to work out what was best for Bigulo. Maybe it'll go on to be a huge success selling for millions, maybe it'll die in obscurity, we've had our fun with it.
Lesson #8: Remain objective and dispassionate about your properties ; when the right time comes, let go.
The lessons I've listed out here, are what I learned, your mileage may vary. One lesson that applies across the board is the following:
You're better off doing something, than sitting around complaining.
This is as true for two bored PhD students, as it is for out-of-work freelancers, graduates struggling to find a job, or people who simply aren't happy in their job.
Like most fun projects I've been involved in Bigulo started off as 800 lines of broken code, that we were always told that "anyone could have written". But we did, and that's usually the difference.
Just the facts
Wednesday, January 7. 2009
If you've been keeping score here at all, you'll know I don't like meta posts, but none-the-less here we go. Since we last talked, I have joined Contrast and with David, Eoghan and Paul I've been working hard to try and make a really good company. It's going really well. You can follow my posts over on the Contrast blog, which is damn sight prettier than this one. You can follow me on twitter, too: @destraynor. Let me know if you want me to follow back (following absolutely everyone gets noisy)
I will of course continue to write here, they will be posts regarding programming education, and rants about little usability quirks. I'm going to do a re-design though, as I'm sick of this look, and I can now do better. For now, if you're interested, please subscribe to the Contrast blog. Here is the RSS. And thanks for sticking around.
Sunday, August 24. 2008
Vilfredo Federic Damaso Pareto was born in 1848. During his notable career in the field of micro-economics, he observed that 80% of the income in 19th century Italy went to the richest 20% of the population. This became known as the Pareto prinicple, and later on as the more general “80/20 rule” As you can imagine, it’s a significant stretch to relate an observation about wealth distribution in Italy to the design of user interfaces, but it does happen. I have three main problems with Pareto being used to justify decisions…
I know we use Pareto’s principle as a little nugget to capture clients ears and make them think about focussing on what's important rather than expanding their product to become the sum of all desired features. That's understandable. But in this new age of Less Software(tm), lets not get carried away. You can’t design software based solely on quantitative research. Especially when that research comes from 19th century Italian economics.
Monday, July 28. 2008
The search engine world has found itself in a weird position. Weird, yet strangely familiar to me. Cuil.com launched just 20 hours ago, and is already the whipping boy of web applications. There are about a hundred blog posts showing side by side screenshots of Google vs. Cuil.com, with all sorts of hilarious search results. Cuil brought this on themselves, but that's only part of the problem.
Continue reading "Does Google define accuracy for search?"
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My name is Des, I'm the UX Lead and COO of Intercom, a fantastic CRM & messaging tool for web sites and web software.