How my High School Job Prepared me for Building Software

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I'm now a software developer. I've worked hard all my life, but I still think that McDonald's was the toughest and best job I've ever had. I learned lessons there that have helped me many times since.

Just a few of those lessons:

1. In order to do heavy volume, you have to be set up for heavy volume.


Why start your own business?

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One day you realize that you only have x days on this earth and y of them are already gone.

You don't want to waste any more of your remaining (x-y) days refactoring the same poorly written crap for the eighth time, answering the same 84 inane emails, drinking the same lousy coffee, looking at your watch through another pointless walk-through meeting, and listening to the idiotic pontifications of a boss who you would never talk to in a million years if you weren't here.

You know you can do better. You know you have it in you. You know you can make a difference. Then you know you "have" to. So you get out your calculator, work your finances, and when you have it all figured out, you turn in your notice and enjoy the best day of your life.


I'm sooo confused:

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- Release early and often.

- Get eyeballs, then monetize.

- Bootstrap.

- Get basic version working, then add features.

- Get basic version working, then scale.


The Investor Entrepreneur Chasm

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Investor: What are you building?

Entrepreneur: Artificially intelligent software that automatically builds sophisticated business applications based on the enterprise's business rules.

Investor: Your competitors are too entrenched. What can you do that's simpler?


How can I get started?

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1. A small business has problems and knows that there must be a solution, but doesn't know what's possible or where to turn.

2. You make contact. Through a personal introduction by a friend, relative, or business associate. Or at an industry event (their industry, not yours). Or at a chamber of commerce event. Or any local business event. Or by mailing them a postcard, flyer, or letter using a purchased list or phone book. Or in a restaurant, bar, or party. Or from a flyer or business card that someone else gave them. Or from an ad you ran in their trade publication. Or from a search that landed them on your website. Or: (you get the idea, it could be anything).

3. You meet and listen. I cannot stress this enough. This is 100% about their problem, not your solution or anything else.


What went wrong in your first startup?

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In my first failed startup, I did what is now considered standard advice and it was an utter failure (which might explain why I still question all advice, no matter how standard).

The software was a small business system for manufacturers and distributors. I was the technical person. My co-founder was the business person.

How we did things:


Why are details so important?

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I remember the time I took 4 enterprise vice presidents from New Jersey to visit a software vendor in Silicon Valley. They had great (multi-million dollar) software and it was perfect for this customer.

Our first meeting was at 9 a.m., and there was no coffee! The Vice President of Sales actually found the coffee and filters and brewed the first pot himself in the vendor's conference room. (Probably the first time he made coffee in 20 years.) Then he said, "Why should I trust them to handle my customer orders when they can't even do the basics right?"

A subtle but very important point. When engineering people sell to business people, we have the extra burden of showing that we know how to conduct business at their level. The easiest way to get started is with precise attention to details. And faux pas destroy trust much quicker with web technology.


Why are you writing your own software?

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Because the guy who wrote this:

if (MonthNbr == 1) {MonthDesc = "January"} ;

if (MonthNbr == 2) {MonthDesc = "February"} ;

if (MonthNbr == 3) {MonthDesc = "March"} ;


When do you say "yes"?

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"So here it is, the most plain, powerful, single word you have to know, and use when managing a project: NO"

If you aspire to mediocracy in an enterprise, then this may help you survive. Otherwise, it's horrible advice.

If you have serious competitors, then you have to find YES.


What drives development?

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I guess I'm a little bit different than others.

I am TOTALLY guided by my customers. I wasn't always this way. I used to think that something would be so cool, so I would build it, and often, the project went nowhere. I was fortunate to have a co-founder at one time who insisted that we sell it first, then develop it. I never completely came around to his way of thinking, but now I understand where he was coming from.

My customers have never steered me wrong. They don't waste my time. They only spend energy describing things that they really need, and invariably, others need the same things.


Why would you not launch?

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0. You're truly not ready.

A recurring meme is the equivalent of "Just Do It". Excellent advice, almost all the time. Almost. Except when it's terrible advice.

Yes, as someone who has suffered after launching too soon, I will go against prevailing wisdom and suggest the unthinkable, "Maybe you're really not ready and can do more harm than good by launching prematurely."


Does consulting hurt a software startup?

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Consulting does NOT need to be a tradeoff when starting a software startup.

Why not?

If you pick your customers carefully enough, they can be the R & D department for your startup. They don't even realize it and they pay you for the privilege!


What do small business owners care about?

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Small business owners are always concerned about revenue. Always. They know there are 2 ways to solve almost any small business problem: (a) Work like hell on 42 different things, or (b) Add sales. Find a way to show them new orders and you will get their attention.

Small business owners often feel like they must defeat someone else in order to win (whether it's true or not).

Always leave a little wiggle room in price or terms so that they can enjoy the feeling of a victorious negotiation.


Product/Market Strategies

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Not so Good: Build it and they will come.

Good: Make something people want.

Better: Make something people need.


Differentiate or Die

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"Their service has more bells and whistles, but mine is much simpler and quicker to use."

You just answered your own question. You must focus your marketing on "simpler and quicker" to the exclusion of everything else. (Either "simpler" or "quicker" would be even better, focusing on "one" thing.)

Jack Trout, in "Differentiate of Die," says it much better than me:


Are the any advantages for single founders?

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Top 10 Reasons for Being a Single Founder

10. You spend 0 time debating technical issues that have already been decided.

9. You spend 0 time refereeing personal differences among the other co-founders.


How does it feel to be a single founder?

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Thank you for the great post on a subject near and dear to many of us.

I am a single founder who constantly wonders if I should be. I have founded 2 startups before and both imploded solely because of founder issues. One had 4 of us and I spent more than half my time playing referee. I will never go through that again. As far as I'm concerned, nothing is more important than being in business with the right people (except having plenty of customers, maybe.)

I am working hard and steady on my new venture, but I do not actively recruit potential co-founders. I freely share what I'm working on (hinting at opportunities for co-founders) and sit back to see what happens. Since I believe the single most important trait of a good co-founder is sheer determination, I hope someone will come to me insisting, "We should do this," "I could do that," "Let's try this", etc. Sorry to say, this strategy hasn't worked too well, but I'd still rather be alone than be with someone who doesn't push as hard as I do.


What should a business guy have to offer?

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An overwhelming majority of the time spent on a software startup is at the terminal, coding. If you're not doing that, then you damn well better be bringing something else of value, a lot of value, to the table. Things I'd be looking for:

- Specific domain knowledge. You gotta be the guy who says, "No, no, no, that's not the way you do in this industry. You do it this way. And you sell it this way."

- Our customers' industry contacts. You gotta be opening doors for us while we're busy coding.


Where can I get help starting a business?

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I would ask for help from my current employer.

This, of course, requires you to be completely open and honest about your desires and that they're not jerks.

They already think you're a superstar, so it really won't be that much of a surprise when you say something like, "I had so much fun 'liberating our data' that I'd like to start my own service business doing the same thing for others."


Why should you fire bad customers?

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Wanting it fast, good, and cheap is also a red flag for lots of other little bonuses, such as:

- You will constantly wait for them to make a decision.

- It will be your fault they took so long to make a decision.

- They will have emergencies of their own making.


How important are ethics?

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This subject comes up every month or so, and every time I give my opinion which is always in the minority. Sometimes I think I'm the only one. So once again, as I prepare to get downmodded into oblivion, here goes:

You forgot Side 3 - I hate software piracy because it's wrong. Period. It's unethical, immoral, and illegal. And it's that simple. I don't even consider either of your 2 choices because both sidestep the question of right or wrong to examine other issues. This is situational ethics.

In all the years I've been in business, my number one concern has been ethical issues. The partner who disconnected his speedometer to increase his resale value. The vendor who raised his prices to get a personal kickback. The employee who downloaded a customer list and sold it to a competitor. I could go on and on and on:


Why are ethics so important?

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I don't want to debate fine points of ethics, but I thought I'd share a little more background.

I really think that this is a black and white issue. I don't see any difference between illegal downloading and walking out of Walgreen's with a CD in your pocket. Or putting that extra chicken leg from the buffet into your purse. "They'd just have to throw it away, anyway." I don't care. Right is right and wrong is wrong.

I don't ever want anyone to get the impression I'd employ situational ethics in business. And I do not want to knowingly conduct business with anyone that does. It's simply not worth it, period.


Do you conduct business over meals?

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Very interesting topic we don't see much. I'm probably in the minority, but I'd like to share what has worked best for me.

90% of the business I have ever conducted over a meal has been at breakfast. By lunch time, I'm too busy and dinner is usually reserved for family. But breakfast is perfect. You get people when they're fresh and before they're sidetracked. I prefer to have private meetings first thing in the morning and have also regularly gone to Chamber of Commerce, tech groups, vendor presentations, even Toastmaster breakfasts. They're always early enough for most people and work out great if you want to network or sell and still have a day job. And they never run over because everyone has somewhere to go.

And guess what I've eaten at every single one of them?


What's your favorite startup book?

1021 words

Do More Faster by Techstars founders Brad Feld and David Cohen

(Apologies to OP's request for brevity; there's just a lot of good stuff that I'd like to share.)

A must read for anyone here who is serious about their startup.


tech skills make you good. people skills make you better.

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