Technical Debt: say it like you mean it

When I hear people using the phrase “technical debt”, it’s mostly used as a buzzword. The actual meaning is lost. It’s a euphemism. When they say “There is a lot of technical debt on the project”, senior people nod sagely … and then ignore it.

What is technical debt?

It’s fashionable these days to talk about “technical debt”. If you need a primer on this, Martin Fowler gives a good concise explanation of Technical Debt.

The concept itself is fair enough: each time you hack something into your software code without doing it properly you store up problems for the future, and these problems are added to your technical debt. In that sense it’s a useful way to think about the problem of how a code base gets polluted and harder to work on as time progresses, as the debt either mounts up or gets tackled and reduced.

So far so good. But when I hear people using the phrase “technical debt”, it’s mostly used as a buzzword. The actual meaning is lost. It’s a euphemism. When they say “There is a lot of technical debt on the project”, senior people nod sagely … and then ignore it.

That’s because “technical debt” doesn’t really sound that bad. It’s the same reason the military say “collateral damage” rather than “slaughtering innocent women and children” – it just tends to sound a bit better!

If you could put an accurate financial value on technical debt, as you can with real financial debt, then maybe a conversation on technical debt would have some meaning. There have been some efforts to quantify technical debt, but you might argue that the methodologies are vague and the final numbers don’t really stand up to scrutiny. Maybe they never could.

Technical debt as a euphemism

So what I really dislike about the phrase “technical debt” is the Euphemism Factor, the way it can pull the wool over the eyes of management, and even people on the project, and make them think that things aren’t as bad as they really are.

Let me put it this way. If you were the boss, and a project manager was reporting to you on their progress, what would you think if they said this: “There’s some technical debt on the project, so it will be quite challenging to add the new features.” That’s a phrase I’ve actually heard someone use. And I saw the boss take it, nod his head, and move on to something else.

What the project manager actually meant was, “This code base is so wrecked we can’t do anything with it! Every time we try to add something new, we break a dozen other things. We’ve built fudge on top of fudge on top of fudge, and the whole thing is about to come crashing down around our ears!”

Let’s face it, what we’re really talking about here is honest conversation. Take a look at some of Jack Welch’s books. (Jack Welch was the CEO of General Electric from 1981 – 2001, and is widely held to have been a highly successful CEO). He often talks about the power of being what he calls “candid”. You might choose to call it honesty, frankness, or being straightforward. Or as Dan Kennedy puts it, “No B.S.”

Action points

My recommendation is to move away from euphemisms like “technical debt”, unless you’re attempting to do some kind of serious financial quantification of it, and move towards concrete, specific comments that quantify the problem in terms that are meaningful to the business, and emphasise the potential productivity that is being lost.

So maybe what the project manager should have said was something along the lines of, “Due to the speed with which we’ve had to release new features, and the number of different developers that have worked on the project over the years, the code base has got really difficult to work with now. We’re finding that we break quite a few things when we add new features, so we’re always treading on eggshells, and that slows us down a lot. We haven’t got enough automated test cases to give us confidence that we’re not breaking the old things when we add the new things. So adding this feature is going to take us at least 4 weeks, when if the code base was cleaner we could do it in 2 weeks at the most. The last feature took us 6 weeks, and we think really it should have been 3 weeks, but we broke existing features X, Y and Z in the process, and fixing them took us 3 weeks.”

It takes a bit longer to say, but it shouldn’t take long for the message to sink in!

I’m obviously not suggesting charging in with both boots and telling the CEO in no uncertain terms that we’re all doomed! But what I am suggesting is that you’ll get better results if you move away from vague terms and management speak, like “technical debt”, that can be brushed under the carpet and ignored, and start talking in practical, quantifiable terms about the poor state of your code and how it’s affecting your productivity. Then you might get the chance to do something about it!

How to interview a Business Analyst

As I see it, the primary aim of a job interview is to let the candidate prove his or her skills and show his or her ability to fit in with the team. You can then choose the best person for the job. Not everyone sees it like this!

If you’re not familiar with what a business analyst does, if we’re talking about producing software then it’s the business analyst who will understand the requirements for what the software should do, and will document this for the business people and the software developers. The business analyst acts as a bridge between the business and the technology.

A while back, when I was a candidate applying for roles as a contract Business Analyst, I went to two or three interviews before I found a role that I wanted to accept. I was struck by just how bad a job some of these companies were doing at interviewing Business Analysts. I also was very impressed by another company, whose offer I accepted, so I’ll talk about their Business Analyst interview process too.

Aims of interviewing a Business Analyst

First decide what your hiring process is aiming to achieve, then figure out a way to achieve it.

As I see it, the primary aim of a job interview is to let the candidate prove his or her skills and show his or her ability to fit in with the team. You can then choose the best person for the job.

Notice that I’m saying “prove” his or her skills, not merely talk about them. To my mind, you should be thinking more in terms of auditions than interviews. More of that later.

Competency-Based Interviews: the bad way to interview a Business Analyst

Let me fill you in on a horror story. I showed up for what turned out to be a Seriously Bad Interview. It was being run by two people; one seemed in some way to be connected with software development, but I wasn’t really sure what he did. He didn’t seem like he would be my manager though. The other person was from HR (Human Resources, Human Remains, you know the kind of thing.)

So straight away, you can see that at least one of the two interviewers, maybe both of them, doesn’t really understand the Business Analyst role, what a BA does, how it’s done, and what separates a good BA from a bad BA. Presumably the HR person was there for some kind of spurious compliance reason, to make sure some kind of obviously massively flawed process was being properly followed.

The type of interview was what in the jargon they call a “Competency-Based Interview”.

The questions were all of the form, “Give an example of a time where…”. And yet the scenarios were all so boring, so bland, and so commonplace that I seriously doubt that any candidate has ever given an interesting and illuminating answer that allows them to prove their skills. They were asking for the sort of things that you do all day every day, without really giving it a second thought, don’t tend to stick in the mind. “Give an example of a time you have held a pen.” It was that kind of moronic thing! No way to sort the wheat from the chaff.

There are two main problems with this kind of competency-based interview approach:

Problem #1: As a candidate, you really need to see the questions in advance to be able to think of interesting and enlightening scenarios that fit the question you’re being asked. Although tedious, some of the scenarios I was asked to give an example of were actually quite complicated. You’ve got about two seconds from when they ask the question to search your memory banks, combing through every day of your working life, to pluck out the most relevant and interesting scenario. That’s never going to happen! You’re probably just going to pick out the first thing that comes to mind. So even if the question tries to get at something interesting or useful to discuss, the candidate probably isn’t going to come up with the best example of that work on the spot, so as an interviewer you’re never going to see the best of them.

Problem #2: You’re likely to favour someone who talks a good game, even if they can’t actually do the job. As an interviewer asking questions, you’ll probably weed out the total fools who somehow slipped through the CV /resume screening process. That gets rid of maybe the bottom 50% of candidates. But of the remaining candidates, how do you know who’s best? You’ve got a base level of competence, but beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess as to how they’ll actually perform. If you were this kind of interviewer, and someone asked you “Are you 100% sure this person can do the job? What proof do you have?”, then you have to answer that no, you’re not sure, because you have no proof beyond the candidate’s assurances of their miraculous powers to analyse the business benefits of the water that they walk on! You haven’t proved anything!

The result: No candidate can possibly shine under this kind of amateurish questioning, and no interviewer can confidently identify the best candidate.

After this interview, I turned this role down. I reasoned that if the quality of the interviewing process was so poor, then the quality of the people I would be working with would probably be poor too, since there was no effective quality gate to identify the best people. Also, if this was the process that had been designed and rigorously followed (thanks to the HR policing), then whoever designed the process (and was likely to be in charge of something important) probably wasn’t much good either!

I hope whoever accepted the role is now enjoying it. (They won’t be.)

Case study interviews: The good way to interview a Business Analyst

The good company, whose contract role I accepted, decided to do an interview based around identifying requirements in a case study. The study was based on a real-world scenario that the company has actually faced, and then feeding back the requirements from this case study to the interview panel. The panel was made up of a senior business analyst, and also a senior software developer and project manager from the project the successful candidate would be working on.

I don’t want to say too much about the details of this exercise, since I’ve heard it’s still in use by that company and I don’t want to spoil its effectiveness for them.

There are some important lessons to learn from this approach:

  1. The case study approach isn’t just about talking the talk, you’ve actually got to do some work and prove your skills! Show, don’t tell, as they say in Hollywood!
  2. The case study simulates being able to work quickly and accurately under pressure.
  3. The interview panel has a senior business analyst, who understands the job, does the job himself, and knows what to look for. He’s not a generic HR person!
  4. The interview panel has people from the actual project that the candidate is being recruited for, so that the chemistry between the existing team and the candidate can be identified. The BA usually sits as a bridge between the development team, the project manager and the business, so it’s good to have multiple perspectives on the interviewing panel.

As a candidate, I felt that the case study approach let me demonstrate my analytical skills and my communication skills. It also let me slip in some facts and figures about the company I was being interviewed for, and their industry, to show I’d done my homework! (I’m always amazed by people who turn up to interviews without knowing anything about the company… and are surprised at how short the interview is for them!)

The case study approach was a much more effective way of simulating the real-life job than a competency-based list of half-remembered scenarios that happened several years ago!

During the time I was feeding back on the case study, I said various things that hinted at my previous experience, and along with the notes on my CV/resume this formed a second part of the interview, where the interview panel asked direct questions to get a feel for my level of experience on past projects in certain areas.

Conclusion

I’m sure there’s more than one way to effectively interview for the role of Business Analyst, and maybe a competency-based interview by a more skilled interview panel could be more useful, but a case study exercise, where the candidate proves their effectiveness with a real-world scenario, is a good place to start. When I was a software developer, interviewing other software developers, we used a technical test based on a computer programming exercise – a similar process with similar good results. It’s not a perfect process, but it definitely gets you a lot further than competency-based interviews! As a candidate, you can’t BS it, you can either prove you know your stuff or you can’t.

Action Points

If you’re interviewing someone for the role of Business Analyst:

  • Find a good case study based on some work you’ve actually already done, so that you know the points that a good candidate should pick up on.
  • Prepare a checklist of things the candidate should identify from the case study. Split the checklist into two: essential issues the candidate must identify, and secondary issues that give them bonus points.
  • Prepare two or three questions to give to the candidate that relate to the case study, asking them to identify and analyse the case study. Then you can talk about this during the interview and get them to verbally give you their findings, as they would in a project meeting.
  • Find an interview panel that represents the people the successful candidate will be working with.

Simplify your data: stop capturing data you don’t need

Three reasons to simplify your data capture.

One of the most common issues I see when trying to simplify all kinds web pages, and even offline paper forms, is asking for information that isn’t being used anywhere. This applies to sign-up processes, sales funnels, insurance applications: pretty much everywhere you are capturing data from a user.

It seems almost trivial to say this, but for each piece of data you capture, it’s worth asking how that data will then be used. How will it be processed? What decisions will be made based on this piece of data?

If it turns out the data is not being used at all, or is not being used meaningfully, then consider removing that field and not capturing that data any more.

Why simplify your data capture?

There are three main reasons to consider making your data more simple:

1. Simplifying data will save time for the user filling in the information, and especially in cases where you can remove more than one field this might make the difference between a user filling in a form, or giving up and going elsewhere. Often (but not always), the less information you ask for, the more people will fill in the form (so the higher your conversion rate, if you’re building a sales funnel.)

2. Simplifying your data will make processing the data easier too. Every line of code in software theoretically needs testing, and might also fail regression tests and break during later changes to the software, so there is a maintenance overhead and a cost for every piece of information that you capture.

3. In the UK, the Data Protection Act 1998, Schedule 1, states that, “Personal data shall be adequate, relevant and not excessive in relation to the purpose or purposes for which they are processed.” So by simplifying the data you capture, and removing fields that are no longer used, you’ll help with legal compliance too.

Action Points

Review the places where you ask for data from users. For each piece of data you capture, decide whether it is being meaningfully processed or used to help with decision making. If not, consider not capturing that data any more.

How soon should your startup focus on profit?

I’ve co-authored a post on the Founders Network Blog, discussing how soon a startup company should focus on profits. Why not take a look!

I’ve co-authored a post on the Founders Network Blog, discussing how soon a startup company should focus on profits, based on my experience in my previous company. In short, in most cases I think you should try and get to profit early, so take a look at the post and see why!

“The Dirty Dozen” Marketing Processes that every internet start-up must master

What I learned from running an internet startup.

Over a year ago, I wrote an article on the blog of my company Publisha, saying that I’d come round to thinking that there are 12 core marketing processes that most internet startups have to focus on.

My original article has had around 20,000 views, and I’ve received a lot of feedback on it. I thought it was time to update my thinking.

The marketing processes

Almost every startup needs to get these things right:

1. Drive targeted traffic to homepage
Aim: Get the right potential customers onto the homepage.

2. Signup
Aim: Get them to sign up for a free account.

3. Induction immediately after signup
Aim: Get the user to set up their account ready to actually use it.

4. Activation: keep them going
Aim: Ensure user is still using the site 30 days later.

5. Push them to Pay
Aim: Encourage payment within 30 days through roadblocks and desirable features.

6. Payment
Aim: A smooth payment process with minimal dropout.

7. Retention
Aim: Ensure user accounts remain active.

8. Referrals
Aim: Get users to refer other potential customers to us.

9. Testimonials
Aim: Get users to tell us why we’re great, in a form we can use in our marketing.

10. Upgrades
Aim: Get users onto higher-paying accounts and deliver more value.

11. Re-activation
Aim: if a publisher stops using their account, we get them going again

12. Build your email list
Aim: Get a list of users that are active, engaged, that you can contact regularly to keep your momentum going.

BONUS PROCESS 13. Continual Improvement
Aim: Continually measure and optimise all the marketing processes.
This is vital: it ties all the other processes together.

Why your start-up needs to think in terms of processes

If you’re looking for coherent direction, improvements in your business every day, and a feeling that you’re not floundering but executing a plan, you need processes. In short, they can shortcut your route to the top.

In my startup, I find that my biggest problem is a lack of time, and that holds us back more than anything else. If you find that you are limited by lack of available time then processes will help you immensely. Setting up a process probably takes about ten minutes extra effort, but the benefits soon stack up. If you’re measuring your effectiveness you can start doing more of the good stuff, and stop doing the pointless stuff that’s currently sucking up your time. Better time management alone makes processes worthwhile.

If you’ve ever worked in a big company you have two things: my profound sympathy, and probably some experience of processes. There’s an old saying, “Education is wasted on the young”, the thinking being that you don’t appreciate it until it’s too late. Well, that’s exactly what I think about processes as they apply to start-ups. They say there’s a lot that big companies can learn from start-ups. Well, here’s something start-ups can learn from the big boys.

All that start-up stuff about “We’re nimble” can often be code for “We don’t really know what we’re doing, so we just flit around from thing to thing without a coherent plan and a solid direction pushing us forward”. So the momentum never gets going. I think processes are a great way to give that momentum.

Bigger companies formalise this into talk of “Quality Management Systems” and accreditations like ISO:9001, but you don’t need to get that heavy with it to get the benefit.

Another benefit: as you get bigger and take on more staff, you can already say “This is how we do things round here”, and hand off an optimized process to them, rather than vague notions of what to try.

How it works in practice

It’s not rocket science. It’s not even new – hurray, that means it’s tried and tested!

The idea comes from an American called W Edwards Deming who’s been dead for nearly 20 years, and he was 93 when he croaked! He invented it in America, everyone there told him he was crazy, so he went to Japan, showed it to them, and they used it to thrash the Americans by making things better and cheaper.

If you want to get all funky and MBA about it, it’s called the Deming Cycle, or Plan Do Check Act (PDCA), which you can check out on Wikipedia, but you can go with a light version of it to make sure it doesn’t take up too much time.

Here’s what you do:

Plan: What are you going to do to get the results you want?
Do: Go and do it!
Check: How did you do? This is where your metrics come in.
Act: What are you going to change in the process to improve it for next time?

So for each of the first 11 processes I’ve listed above, this is what we do. Process number 12 is really this Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle, where you break out the metrics, the Google Analytics, and all that good stuff.

An example process

Not to go into too much detail, but to take Process 1 as an example, here’s the basic sorts of things I cover in the plan for my own business. No great surprises here:

1. Drive targeted traffic to homepage

Search Engine Optimisation
Search Engine Pay-Per-Click
Facebook Advertising
Joining in on Discussion Forums
Blogging
Commenting on Articles on other blogs
Twitter
Affiliates
PR and press coverage
Each of these items then breaks down into further detail on what we’re going to do. So for the item on commenting on articles on other blogs, we have lists of the blogs that we comment on.

We then have regular review meetings of the processes where we discuss results and decide how to change our processes. Over time, we think this will let us get better and better at what we do.

Why not try it and see how it works for you?

Ten ways to improve your technical blog writing

Simple things you can do to quickly and dramatically improve the quality of your technical blog writing.

Recently, several of my technical friends have spoken to me about their blogs, saying that they lack confidence in their writing style. They asked me for advice on how to improve their technical blog writing, so as the editor of ViewsHound, and a software developer myself, here’s my top tips for technical blog writing:

1. APT: Audience, Purpose, Tone

I learned “Audience, Purpose, Tone” during my A-levels, and it was probably the most important thing I learned in the whole two years! I recommend this tip to everyone who I help with their writing, and it never fails to improve their work. Just spend a minute thinking of this before you write. It’s very simple:

  • Audience: Who are you writing for? What knowledge and skills do they have?
  • Purpose: Why are you writing? To inform, entertain, persuade?
  • Tone: What attitude will you take? Friendly, harsh, formal, relaxed?

There’s not much to say about tone, but let’s look at audience and purpose in more depth.

2. Audience: Don’t fall between two stools

One of the most common failings I see with technical articles is that the author has no idea of who his reader will be, so the article swings wildly between being too basic and being too advanced. As a result, the article is no use to anyone. So decide right at the start whether you are writing for novices or for advanced readers, and stick to it. You can explain a few terms as you go, to broaden the appeal of the article, but decide how much knowledge your reader is likely to have *before* you start writing.

3. Purpose: What is the benefit to the reader of your post?

Another common mistake in technical blog posts is to forget why you are actually writing! You always want the reader to come away from your article with something: knowledge, an opinion, an emotion, a better impression of you, etc. So before you start to write, figure out what you want your reader to do at the end of the article. It’s not complicated: in the case of this article, all I want is for you to come away being able to write better blog posts (and, as a result, increase the traffic to your blog).

4. Write your headline and summary first, but check at the end

Writing your headline and summary first will give you clarity, give you a focus for your article, and will help to keep you on track. (Some blogs don’t have a summary, but articles like this one do.) After you finish writing the article, go back and make sure you didn’t drift, and then either reword the article or change the headline/summary to make sure you’re still consistent.

Good headlines are hard to write—I toyed with about ten before I settled on the one I used here, and it’s still not perfect. However, in these days of Reddit, Hacker News and other aggregators, you often *only* have the headline to make someone decide whether to read your article or not, so it’s worth spending the time on a good headline.

5. Plan before you write

If you set off into the unknown without a map (or, let’s face it, without your phone!) you’re going to get lost. That’s exactly what happens to a lot of bloggers. The post meanders, never really goes anywhere, and most people will stop reading. The solution is to make a plan.

Some people find it hard to believe, but good planning doesn’t *cost* time, it actually *saves* time. All I did to plan this article was to grab a sheet of paper and a pencil and jot down the subheadings for the things I wanted to say. (I prefer planning on paper, where I can quickly scribble, cross out, draw arrows, etc, but it doesn’t matter how you do it.)

6. Use a story

When children are small, they all have stories read to them. As adults, many of us read fiction and watch films. The desire for stories and narrative seems to be hard-wired into us. So if you can weave a story into your article, so much the better. You don’t need to be the next Stephen King, a few sentences will do. To start this article, I chose to tell the story of why I was writing this article, and it took me literally one and a half sentences.

Your technical writing will come to life if you can bring in stories and human experience, without rambling or being long-winded. It’s often enough to explain the story as to why you happen to be writing your blog post. What chain of events—meetings, failures, successes—led to the thoughts you are now writing about?

7. Use subheadings for structure and to break up the text

Subheadings are under-used. I think this stems from school, where you had to write essays with no subheadings. Well, like a lot of the useless junk they taught you at school, ignore that and get some subheading action going!

There are three main uses for subheadings. First, they give structure for you as a writer, and help stop you from wandering off at futile tangents. Second, they signpost to the reader what is coming up, to help the reader make sense of your work and place it into context. The brain takes in information better if it understands ahead of time what it is going to be learning, and a subheading lets you do this. Third, a subheading is a cosmetic device to break up large amounts of text. It’s just more comfortable for the reader if you use regular subheadings.

As a side point, you can use little signposts like “First, second, third”, as I did in the paragraph above, to almost act as mini-subheadings and keep things on track.

8. Use fairly short paragraphs

As with subheadings, it’s easier for the reader of a blog if you keep paragraphs short. Paragraph length isn’t as important if your work will end up on paper—in a book or magazine—but for reading on screen short paragraphs help keep the eye from physically wandering. There’s no hard and fast rule, but five sentences or so is a reasonable length for a paragraph.

9. Back up your opinions with facts and links

A popular failing of bloggers is to state opinions without backing them up. Use facts, with links to the sources, wherever you can. The more authoritative the source, the more useful the fact or link will be in helping you to make your case. Wikipedia is OK to quote, but not great; it carries weight in the eyes of a lot of people, but of course the content is open to being abused. If your readers trust your sources, they are more likely to trust *you*.

10. Lay your work to one side, and proof read later

You should always proof-read your work before posting it. I always like to lay my work aside for a few hours, or preferably a few days, before coming back to it to proof-read it. If you allow time for your brain to recover from writing, and then come back to your post afresh, you will find mistakes, poorly-worded phrases, things that don’t make sense, and all kind of nasties! So unless you’re desperate to rush something topical onto your blog, it’s worth the wait and then doing a proof-read.

Bonus: Write your blog posts in Microsoft Word or Open Office

Whether you use Microsoft Word, Open Office or another product, just be sure to write in an actual word processor. This way you get a spell checker, and a grammar checker (which is mediocre but better than nothing). I recently exchanged some emails with a person who wrote his articles in a raw text editor, and they needed a lot of editing, much of which he could have avoided by writing in a word processor.

Final thoughts

These tips are all simple. Hopefully they’re all obvious too. There’s really nothing complicated here, but if you focus on these things your technical blog writing will noticeably improve, and so should your traffic.

Thirteen simple steps to planning a killer blog

If you’re going to start a blog, or want to plan a blog, here’s a useful 13 step blog planning worksheet.

If you’re going to start a blog, or want to plan a blog, here’s a useful 13 step blog planning worksheet.

If you think about these questions while you’re planning your corporate blog or personal blog you’ll keep your writing on-track. Good planning is the first step to success, so here’s what you need to consider.

Section 1: The basics

Q1. Audience: Who is your intended audience? In other words, who is your blog aimed at?

Q2. Purpose: Why will people read your blog? Examples include: for information, for entertainment, for relaxation, learning “How-To”.

Q3. Tone: What style of writing do you want? Examples include: formal, relaxed, conversational.

Section 2: Topics and categories

Q4. Topics: What general topic areas do you want to write about?

Q5. Categories: What categories will you divide your articles into?

Q6. The yawn test: Why will your readers care about each category you’ve chosen? If you’re struggling to think of a reason, ditch it!

Q7. Types of media: What media do you wish to use? Examples include text, images, video, audio.

Section 3: Ideas for articles

Q8. Sites to watch: Which sites are you going to regularly scan in order to get ideas for articles?

Q9. Life experiences: Which experiences in your day-to-day life are you going to use as a source of ideas for articles?

Section 4: Getting it written

Q10. Frequency: How often do you want to add a new article? (Once or twice a week is a good starting point).

Q11. Authors: Who is going to write your articles? Will you do this yourself, invite other contributors (free of charge), or pay people to write?

Section 5: Promotion

Q12. Announcing new articles: Where will you announce new articles? Publisha automatically posts to your Facebook wall and Twitter feed. Consider other specialist news sources, such as putting technical articles on Hacker News, and general sites such as StumbleUpon, Reddit and Digg.

Section 6: Tracking and improvement

Q13. Tracking: How will you see which articles are most popular, and decide which direction to take your blog in future? Publisha has built-in analytics, and you can easily link Google Analytics. These are likely to be your best choices.

Your traffic sources have a half-life

A couple of quick lessons from an interesting article.

I read a great article a while back that will be of interest to all publishers promoting their online publications. It’s called Your Traffic Sources Have a Half-Life by Rob Walling.

Here are a couple of quick lessons I take from the article:

1. Consider how much lasting, long-term value each piece of promotion has.

Every article you write goes towards boosting your SEO rankings, and attracting new readers, so each time you write an article you are investing in the future of your publication.

Advertising to get fans or followers can often be a good investment when you’re just starting out. But I found through real life experience when I was working with Publisha that once you hit a certain magic number of followers, around 1,000, you can stop advertising and things take off under their own steam.

2. Build your list of followers like crazy.

In this day and age, you’ll know that by sharing articles on Facebook and Twitter (and Google Plus if you like), you can increase your audience. Having Facebook “Like” buttons (or similar) on your articles encourages people to become a fan of your publication, where they will see messages you post on your wall from that point onwards.

Time management secrets for successful entrepreneurs

A few simple things that could give you an extra two or three hours a day, every single day.

As an entrepreneur, I find that the biggest obstacle to getting things done is lack of time. You probably feel the same. What if I could show you a few simple things that could give you an extra two or three hours a day, every single day? You’d take it, right? Well, here we go!

Essential: Value your time

You must value your time, and make sure everyone else values it too. Time is the only thing that you and Bill Gates have exactly the same amount of, and don’t let anyone waste it! It’s an attitude thing.

Plan your day with time slots

When you were at college, or university, did you pretty much wait until the deadline to get motivated and get anything done? That’s what most people do. Why? Because deadlines work! So give yourself some deadlines—a bit of pressure—and watch your productivity soar!

There’s a common saying: work expands to fill the time available. So don’t give it time to expand!

Here’s how. Try planning your day, hour by hour, making a series of appointments with yourself. For example, “Reply to emails” might be 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. “Write new FAQ” might be 10 a.m. until 11.30 a.m. I usually work in 15 minute slots, because hardly anything takes less than 15 minutes by the time you’ve got ready to start, actually done the task, and finished up.

I’m generous with my time slots, and plan for things to take a bit longer that they perhaps will, which gives me time for breaks and for doing menial tasks. If a task runs over, I decide whether to abandon it and move on, or to reschedule my day, or just to remove the task whose time I’m eating into and get it done tomorrow.

When I plan my day, I use the standard iCal calendar application on my Mac, and created a new calendar called “Plan”. This shows up in another color, in my case red, so I don’t confuse my own planning with my external appointments.

You can either do your daily plan at the end of the previous day, or as the first thing you do in the morning. Try experimenting with both.

Pick some must-do items each day

I have a few major things I want to accomplish each day, and then fill in the rest with the grunt work. Then, if time slips away, at least I’ve achieved something worthwhile each day. So start your time plan by planning in the major things, to make sure they get done first.

Task switching wastes time: you cannot multitask

If you do only one thing at once, you can fully concentrate on that thing, and you only have to prepare for it once. If you do several things at once, you waste too much time switching between tasks. To start a task, you have to get prepared, then you have to get your brain in gear and hold all the relevant information in your head. That takes time. Every time you switch tasks, you are wasting time getting back up to speed with where you left off. You are also probably not fully concentrating.

So if you have several things to do, do them one after the other, not all at the same time. You’ll be quicker, and you’ll make a better job of it.

No interruptions: shut down email and chat

I am often at my most productive when I’m sitting on the train, travelling to my office. Why? I have no interruptions. There’s no wi-fi, so there’s no email, no chat, no distractions. If you need a big boost of productivity, cut yourself off from the outside world! You’ll be surprised at how little you actually miss.

Use online chat properly

Online chat, via MSN or whatever messenger you use, can be a huge drain on your time. A conversation that would take a minute by phone probably takes about five minutes by chat, because people can’t type as fast as they can talk. You can’t really do anything else while you’re chatting, because you only get 20 second chunks of time while the other person types. So for anything non-trivial, arrange a voice call at a pre-arranged time, or encourage people to get in touch by email, so you can reply at your convenience.

Of course, sometimes chat can be a very quick way to get something sorted without having to make a voice call. The best advice is just to think before you get into communication with someone as to what will be the fastest way to get the information you need.

We experimented with OLark live chat for our users, but recently turned it off because it was simply eating up too much time. We replaced it with Assistly, which helps people to answer their own questions, with fall-back to email.

Plan calls in advance, at a fixed time

People always call me when I’m busy. If I’ve got a quiet moment, nothing will happen, but as soon as I get into full concentration mode then either the phone will ring, or Skype will ring, and I get interrupted. *When it comes to getting things done, interruptions are the devil.* Wherever possible, plan phone calls in advance. I often do this by chat, eg “Hey Richard, will you be free for a call at 2 p.m.?” Then you can slot this into your plan for the day, and continue uninterrupted.

Two tests to determine whether something is worth doing

My business partner and I have developed a couple of simple tests that we find ourselves using often when we are trying to work out what to do next:

1. Will this task move the business forward?
2. Is this really the best use of our time right now?

If you can’t come up with good answers to those questions, chances are you’re not using your time properly, and should move on to something else.

So there you are, a few simple and straightforward things to get you more time in your day. It’s not rocket science, so pick one of these techniques and try it out.


Book on Time Management

There’s only book I recommend on time management—who’s got time to read any more, anyway! It’s No B.S. Time Management for Entrepreneurs by Dan Kennedy. Dan is pretty much the best business author I know of—he’s old school, he cares about actually making money! I recommend all his books, and the Time Management one is a great place to start!

(If you want to go a bit bizarre, his book “Making them believe” gives marketing lessons based on the case study of a rogue doctor who implanted goats’ testicles into his patients, but that’s probably a story for another day!)

How to get the best out of Seedcamp

Since my company Publisha was a 2010 finalist and winner of Seedcamp, I thought it would be helpful for future teams taking part if I gave my thoughts on how to get the most out of Seedcamp.

Since my company Publisha was a 2010 finalist and winner of Seedcamp, I thought it would be helpful for future teams taking part if I gave my thoughts on how to get the most out of Seedcamp.

The short answer: be prepared

First and foremost, go in prepared! If I’d been properly prepared I would have got 10 times the value out of Seedcamp. (I didn’t really know what I was preparing for though, so read this post!)

It’s not just being prepared with a great presentation, but being prepared for the Question and Answer sessions. (Get a good night’s sleep, the Q&A session is really tiring!). Here’s what to prepare:

Presentations

For the presentation, try and get hold of a few previous Seedcamp presentations and see which format you like most. Whatever you do though, get to the meat quickly! Sitting through about 20 presentations can be pretty heavy going, so grab the audience quick! Don’t mumble on about background detail, come straight out and say this is what we do and this is why we’re amazing!

By the way, everyone else will appear amazing and you will feel like your business is a big old sack o’ the brown stuff. Believe me, appearances can be very deceptive here, so don’t worry about that!

Many of the teams from the Seedcamp 2010 heats and finals seemed to have some trouble describing their business and what they actually did! Quite a few resorted to a pitch of the form “We’re like (Company X) for Y”, eg “We’re like FourSquare for Gardening”. Given that this was quite a few months ago, quite a lot of people in the room didn’t know what FourSquare was, so that description fell flat! (For the record, FourSquare is a service for you to tell burglars you’re not in your house, so they can come round and steal your TV.)

Some people did those presentations where they don’t really put any words on the Powerpoint slides, just pictures. Personally I absolutely hate that style of presentation – you may as well just turn the damned projector off if you’re going to do that! Then again, other people will worship you as a God for doing it. It’s a funny old game!

One random tip while I think of it: don’t look like a famous person when you’re giving your speech. One bloke last year looked exactly like Jarvis Cocker out of Pulp, and I spent the whole time he was on stage thinking “Let’s all meet up in the year 2000”!

Your presentation will be recorded on video, but don’t let that freak you out. I practiced my presentation about ten times (literally), to get a good feel for the timing and what I wanted to say. This will also make you get your slides in the right order – I usually find that when I practice a talk I realise that my argument is all over the place and makes about as much sense as the sudden rise to fame of “comedian” Michael McIntyre, ie none whatsoever! So practice, practice, practice. I personally don’t like to practice in front of people, because you always think you’re rubbish and get embarrassed. Incidentally, if you are rubbish, lots of practice on your own will give you confidence. But heck, I was still shaking like a leaf when I grabbed the mic, and nobody seemed to mind!

As you’re talking, try to look everyone in the eye at least once. It helps to make a connection with them.

One last thing about the presentation: DON’T USE NOTES! A few people came up with notes written on a piece of paper and they got totally crucified! Thanks to the folks at www.crucifyr.com for helping with that (they’re like FourSquare for death.) As long as you’re not reading word-for-word off your slides you can just use the headlines and bullet points on your slides to jog your memory.

Preparing for Q&A

Let’s get back to talking about how to prepare for the Q&A sessions that follow the presentations. I didn’t make a particularly good job of prepping for this, because I didn’t know what to expect, so hopefully you can avoid falling into the same trap.

The thing you’re going to really need to prove, as a start-up, is that you’ve got a market. And you’ve got to prove it fast. Yesterday a 12 year old kid came to me asking for business advice(!) about starting a business selling X-Box controllers that he’d modified with custom graphic designs. I told him to buy one, modify it, then put it on eBay. Figure out if anyone wants to buy that stuff as quick as you can, before you put much time or money into it. (If I’d been really hardcore I’d have told him to put it on eBay first, and don’t actually bother making it until someone had bought it!)

It’s the same for your business. You’ve got to find a set of customers who love the product and will pay for it in some form.

So the sort of questions you should prepare if you want to get the most out of the Q&A are about testing and proving your market (unless you’re already raking in cash hand over fist). To give an example, our business, Publisha, targets four key segments: bloggers, digital magazines, print magazines and corporate communications. You need to know what your segments are. Then you need to think about which segment to address. Before the day, think of the sorts of criteria you could use to help you decide on the issues you’re undecided on. Make sure you know what questions you need mentor help with. Then you can spend the time getting down to brass tacks, not skirting around the issue.

A final thought for the mentor sessions: get the mentors to introduce themselves. I didn’t really find a good form of words to ask for these introductions without sounding like a game show host, but you might have more luck.

The key question

Don’t lose sight of one key thing: in a sense, all you’ve got to do to succeed in business is keep selling lots of things to lots of people. That’s it, really. No “paradigm leveraging” required.

So the one key question is “How are you going to make money?”. Make sure you can answer this one. If you can’t, just spend the day talking about that. I was on a panel discussion at Oxford University and I told some wannabe hotshot that if your business doesn’t make money “It’s not a business, it’s a hobby!” Well, he didn’t like that much! Make sure your mentors don’t say that to you! I know Twitter started without a plan to make money, and so did Google, but they’re the exceptions. You need to have a really silly name if you’re going to pull that one off! (Surely that’s how Evan and Biz did it at Twitter 🙂 )

If your business can’t easily make money, I’d recommend doing what in Seedcamp world they call a “pivot”. Everywhere else they call it “Give up and try something else.” You’ll hear a lot about pivots.

In terms of the main way of making money, there’s two main ways. One is monthly subscriptions, the buzzword being “SaaS revenues” (pronounced “Sass”, to rhyme with mass). The other way is “Everything else” (pronounced “ads”). You’ll find passionate mentor advocates for both positions. I had one person tell me that if I did SaaS I’d be crazy, and another that if I didn’t do SaaS I’d be crazy. With some simple mathematics I soon cancelled this down to “You’re crazy”, and went to lunch. You need to either develop a firm view on which of these types of revenues is good for you, or you need to develop a set of questions and criteria that the mentors can help you to work through in order to decide.

“The Dirty Dozen” marketing processes to master

Continuing the topic of really focussing in on what’s important, to get the most out of your time with the mentors, it helps if you map out in advance what you actually do, and what you plan to do.

At Publisha I identified 12 key marketing processes that we needed to master. I think they’re the same for pretty much every business. You’d do yourself a favour to read my blog post on the dirty dozen marketing processes, and see how they apply to your business. You can then spend time with the mentors figuring out which of these processes you need to work on, and how best to go about it.

Final thought: don’t panic

So that’s what you need to do to have a good day. I’m sure you will have a good day: everyone I’ve met through Seedcamp has been really nice, and very helpful. So above all, have fun, because if you’re not having fun you may as well be called Nigel and work as a corporate salary man in Milton Keynes. And that’s not you!

Good luck!