Posts Tagged ‘business’

7 things I learnt from hiring content writers

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017 | Success & Productivity

Over at Worfolk Anxiety, we have an anxiety blog. Every Monday a new post is published. I have tried to up my game on this. A lot of the articles are over 1,000 words and I have done some deep dives on the problems and solutions I have encountered to provide valuable stuff.

However, writing a lot of quality content every week is tough, especially when you have other projects on the go. Therefore, I decided to try hiring some content writers to fill in a few gaps. 90% of the content is still written by me, but every month or so I may use an article written by someone else.

What did I learn from doing this?

You get impersonal content

When I wrote for the blog, I explore specific topics. I include personal stories. Indeed, the post is often based on something that has come up in my own life and I then expand into a well-researched article.

With content writers, you do not get this. They write from a more objective standpoint. This can be of benefit: sometimes it is good to have a fact-based article and does not wander into personal stories. Most of the time, though, people engage more with personal content. So the usefulness of such content is limited.

The content is more generic

When I select a topic for the blog, it is very specific. I write about one area of anxiety in a lot of detail. Sometimes, it is not even that related: maybe it is being productive when you have anxiety, for example.

Content writers take more of a broad remit. They will pick a large sub-section of the topic and write about that. This is because they are not familiar with the types of topics you cover on your blog. I sent them the link, but given the deadlines they face, it is unfair to expect them to read the entire blog. Therefore, they cannot get into the same gritty detail that you can.

They don’t include references

They all claim that they include references, but they never do. However, if you send it back to them asking them to put the references in, they will.

You sometimes get what you pay for

I tried a variety of price points to see what the quality differences were. At the low end, I hired someone to write an article for $6. On the other end, I paid someone $36. Did the quality differ? Yes, but not drastically. The cheaper writers were not terrible and the expensive writers were not amazing.

You do not save that much time

While hiring a writer does cut out a lot of the research and writing time, it causes management and editing time. When I received the articles back I had to check them for content and spelling quantity, then convert it into the format my CMS was expecting it in. This took a lot of time.

You need to use a spellchecker

I ran their articles through Grammarly. If there were a lot of mistakes, I sent it back to them to correct.

You need to be honest with them

One of the articles I was sent was rubbish. So I told her. Not in those exact words: I was gentle and gave specific feedback about the standards I was expecting. Nevertheless, telling someone their work is not up to scratch is an uncomfortable experience.

However, when I did, she was eager to re-write and improve the article. When I received the second draft, it was excellent, and I was able to honestly give per a positive review.

Conclusion

Hiring external writers has advantages and disadvantages. It does save you some time. However, it increases management time and gives you content that it not as good as you could write yourself. That is delegation, though: it is never as good as doing it yourself but allows you to do more.

How to set up a web store with WooCommerce

Sunday, March 12th, 2017 | Tech

At the end of last year, I used Shopify to build an e-commerce store for Mountain Wallet. This worked well, but the costs quickly added up. The base Shopify subscription is only $30 but then there are themes and plugins that you will want to pay for on top of that. Last month, I ported it over to WordPress and WooCommerce, and I thought I would discuss my experience.

What is WooCommerce?

WooCommerce is a plugin for WordPress. Once installed, it provides you with a shop admin built into the WordPress admin, as well as front-end pages and a full checkout process. It installs like any other WordPress plugin making it very easy to get up-and-running.

Because of its popularity, many WordPress themes support WooCommerce out of the box. If not, you may need to play around until you find a suitable theme. I used a theme named Bento.

How easy is it to use?

As easy as Shopify. You add your products like you would add posts. It’s the same with adding product images: you use the media uploader. There was some messing around setting up shipping options and configuring payment integrations, but nothing too taxing.

Plugins I am using

As well as WooCommerce, I am using the following plugins:

  • Facebook Messenger Chat
  • Header and Footer
  • Instagram Feed
  • MailChimp
  • Social Media Flying Icons

There is nothing directly commerce related here. These allow me to add a chat link to the Facebook page, insert Google Tag Manager scripts, link the Instagram feed, add a mailing list sign-up form and some share icons.

I also have my standard array of security plugins installed.

The Lean Startup

Saturday, February 18th, 2017 | Books

The Lean Startup is a book by Eric Reis. In it, he discusses the concept of running a business using principles translated from lean manufacturing. He argues that the true purpose of a startup is to find a way to make a profitable business in the shortest amount of time and that any company of any size can implement these principles.

Reis argues that one of the most important things is to get a product in front of the customer. We often shy away from this because we do not want to tarnish our reputation or have people think we build rubbish products and put them off in the future. However, there is something far worse than having a bad product: building something that nobody wants.

Pouring time into a product customers do not want is a massive waste of time. Then, because you have invested that time, you will be reluctant to let it go, even though it is a dead-end from a business perspective. Instead, using a minimal viable product (MVP) to attract early adopters and then using those adopters to find out what you should build avoids all of this heartache. You can start with a concierge service. Solve a problem for just one customer and do it perfectly. The time for automated support systems is later.

Critically, you need to gather this data through revealed preferences. Asking people what they want is a bad idea: they do not know and cannot articulate it when they do. Instead, you need actionable metrics: what are people doing?

The way to get actionable metrics is to plan them in. Whenever you want to add a new feature, ask yourself how you will test whether it is an improvement. Propose an experiment, put a system of measurement in place, roll out the feature and see what happens. If to does not make things better, scrap the feature.

As the data comes in, you will have to decide whether to pivot or persevere. There are several different types if pivots:

  • Zoom-in: focus on a specific area of the product
  • Customer segment: focus on a different type of customer
  • Customer need: keep the customer but change the problem you are solving
  • Business model: B2B, B2C, margin levels, etc
  • Value & growth: what is the monetisation method? What is the growth engine?

The key to much of this is to break things down into single piece flow. Much of our manufacturing is based on batch production. We reduced costs by standardising everything and making it in huge quantities. However, this has disadvantages: things cannot adapt or be individualised.

Batch is not the always the most efficient process, either. Take the example Ries gives: folding stuffing and writing the address for 100 letters. Should you batch each stage, or use single piece flow to fold, then stuff, then write out each letter before moving on to the next one?

Experimentation gives us the answer: single piece flow is faster. Batch seems the most efficient choice. However, this it is counterintuitive. Our mind does not factor in all of the time we spend moving piles around. Even in the best case scenario, batch processing is slower. And it can get much worse: if you fold the letters to find the envelopes are too small, you face disaster.

Lean startup methodology attempts to move the process back to single piece flow: each feature is isolated, testable and developed in its entirety before moving on to the next one. Reducing the amount of work-in-progress may feel less productive when you are stuck on a few slow-moving tickets, but is more efficient for the organisation overall (and the goal of producing a viable business).

Team efficiency is what is important here. For developers, it can often feel like you are constantly being interrupted by meetings. Which is true. However, your productivity is not what is important. The key metric is “is the team producing features that customers want”, not how much code you write.

When things do go wrong, the “five whys” method can help. It is simple: just ask why five times. For example:

  • Why did the website go down? Because we introduced faulty code.
  • Why did we introduce faulty code? Because the CI layer did not pick up on it.
  • Why did the CI layer not pick up on it? Because the CI layer is not working, so we are manually running the tests.
  • Why is the CI layer not working? Because Dev Ops have not been able to fix it.
  • Why have Dev Ops not been able to fix it? Because they have not had the proper training.

This gets us to the root of the problem. It seems like a coding problem. To an extent, it is. However, bad code is always going to get written at some point because developers are human. The five whys method also exposes problems with the pipeline and lack of training within the organisation.

Summary

The Lean Startup is essential reading for anyone who wants to make their business more efficient. Successful businesses build things that customers want. The lean startup methodology attempts to uncover that and bring it to market as fast as possible. Everything else is a waste.

How to Build a Billion Dollar App

Sunday, September 25th, 2016 | Books

In How to Build a Billion Dollar App George Berkowski takes you through the stages of coming up with a mobile app from concept to being a billion pound company. It is based on his story co-founding taxi app Hailo.

As you might expect it is a pretty whistle-stop tour of each stage of the business. However, it provides a good overview with various comments and advice that Berkowski brings from his experience at Hailo. He stresses the importance of getting the product right for the market and how you should be measuring growth, two of the keys to getting a successful product out there.

While it is a good overview, I am not sure how much I am going to take away from it. Compared to something like The Hard Thing About Hard Things which offers plenty of specific and useful advice, this is more of a general guide to the journey. The one thing I did really like was a list of concepts that have universal appeal to humans. This is great for brainstorming ideas from.

I also found it interesting that he recommended to have one Scrum Master for around 12-15 engineers. I have worked at a number of companies that do agile and a typical setup in the UK would be one Scrum Master to around 3-5 engineers, a considerably different ratio.

how-to-build-a-billion-dollar-app

Should you organise teams around Dunbar’s number?

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016 | Science

business-team

Oxford professor Robin Dunbar suggested that the maximum number of meaningful social connections a human can maintain is around 150. This is why some many traditional societies and communities are based around a group of roughly that size. Any bigger and the social connections break down, leading to a breakdown in cohesiveness and morality.

Recently this number has been adopted by the technical community. Those following Spotify’s Tribes model often aim to get a tribe below 150 people, and many co-working spaces are designed around having 150 tenants.

The problem is that this does not seem to make any sense to me. 150 is supposed to be the maximum number of total social connections you have. If I look at the connections I maintain it consists of family, friends, people I know from volunteering and community groups, and work colleagues. If we assume a roughly even split between the four of them, that means I can maintain a maximum of 37 meaningful relationships at work.

If your company is a cult, that requires you to terminate all contact with your former life when you join, 150 makes the perfect size for a team. However, assuming you are a normal company, 150 does not seem to be the magic number. Even if you say “Okay, but people do not need to know everyone in the tribe”, that’s fine, but 150 is still irrelevant as a number. The perfect team size is likely to be something else.

Scott Galloway speech

Monday, May 9th, 2016 | Tech, Video

This is a super-interesting speech if you are interested in technology, business, and the short-term future of our society. In it, Galloway discusses how the “big four”: Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook, are basically claiming all of the growth and all of the talent that the world is producing; redefining industries while at the same time concentrating wealth into even smaller pools.

My chat with Baby Box Co

Friday, May 6th, 2016 | Life

baby-sleeping

Last month, I wrote an article calling out companies that had started using the Finnish baby box tradition to sell their wares.

Specifically, my criticism was that the Finnish system lowers infant mortality by acting as bribe to get people to neuvola, the centres that provide all the antenatal and postnatal care. That is where the evidence-based benefit is. On top of that, giving good quality stuff to poorer parents may also help.

However, the there is no evidence the cardboard boxes themselves do anything (obviously, because it is just a cardboard box) and so selling them from webpages that show infant mortality graphs feels like taking advantage of scared parents to me. In fact, the box matters so little that the Finnish government will just give you cash instead, if you wish. The box is worth more, so most people choose that, but the key to the Finnish success is the adoption of the medical care.

Anyway, recap over.

After the post went up, Jennifer Clary, CEO of US-based Baby Box Co offered to have a chat to fill me on what they are doing. I took her up on the offer.

She said she fully accepted the boxes were not magic, but that they were trying to use them as an engagement tool to get more of the good stuff done. So while they love selling direct to consumers, the real opportunities are selling to healthcare providers and governments so that the boxes can be used in way that is more Finnish.

In addition to their actual box products, they’re developing what they call “Baby Box University”. The idea is that they can partner with authorities, who get people to complete online courses, and come out of the end with a certificate and a free baby box.

This sounds super because it fills in the missing gap in replicating Finland’s success. Infant mortality is lowered by developing educated parents who engage with healthcare programmes, and it sounds like what Baby Box Co are doing supports that.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things

Monday, February 8th, 2016 | Books

The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers is a 2014 book by Ben Horowitz. Horowitz worked at Netscape before founding Opsware/Loudcloud and later the venture capitalist firm Andreessen Horowitz.

It is mostly a book for people who are running tech companies. This is mostlu obviously from the title. However, it’s appeal outside that setting is quite limited. If you’re not in that situation I would probably say that it is not a particularly useful read.

He covers a wide variety of topics. Primarily these are hard topics with no obvious answers. His conclusion is that some things are really hard and you can only learn to be a CEO by being a CEO. Nevertheless, there is good advice dispensed along the way.

It’s important to draw a line between facts and perceptions for example. It sounds obvious, but is difficult to do in the moment. He also says that if you want to do a successful start-up, you need to be doing things 10 times better than the competition if you want to succeed. It’s a high bar, though perhaps lower than Peter Thiel sets in Zero to One, who makes the case for only entering markets you can have a monopoly on.

What should you do about titles? Mark Andreessen suggests giving them out because they are the cheapest benefit you can provide for employees. In constrast Mark Zuckerberg gives deliberately deflated titles to ensure everyone is re-levelled when they enter Facebook.

He also mention’s the Facebook slogan “move fast and break things”. I have always liked this mindset. I am doing a lot of this at Sky at the moment, usually with a bug fix right behind it, and everyone seems to be happy with my delivery so far. If you want to change the world, you have to be bold.

Horowitz also recommends the film Freaky Friday as a great management resource. When sales and customer support went to war with each other at Opsware, he simply switched the heads of department with each other. They soon understood the other side and began working together to solve problems.

The-Hard-Thing-About-Hard-Things

Zero to One

Saturday, January 30th, 2016 | Books

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future is a book by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. In it he talks about the challenges of producing real innovation to drive a start-up business.

He emphasises doing something new. You have to get a monopoly, with a broad scope. I could start a Finnish restaurant in Leeds for example but I wouldn’t have a monopoly. I would be the only Finnish restaurant in Leeds, but I would actually be competition with all the other restaurants in Leeds nonetheless.

In comparison the biggest tech start-ups typically have achieved near monopoly. Google handles more search traffic than all other search providers put together. The key is to start with a niche market that you can dominate and grow from there. Facebook started by only accepting students from Harvard for example. University by university it opened its doors one at a time and achieved domination. Similarly eBay started with only collectables, and PayPal started by online targeting eBay power sellers.

It also needs to be a business that can stick around. How sustainable is it in the long term? Decades from now? Zynga is a good example. The games company was worth a huge amount of money thanks to the success it had with FarmVille and Zynga Poker. At its peak, its shares were worth $10 a pop. Now they’re worth only a quarter of that because continuing to predict what social games will continue to captivate the world is an unreliable business model.

Thiel argues that you should have a small a board as possible. Ideally three people; a maximum of five. Everyone at the company should be full time: no consultants, no part time workers, no remote working. A start-up is a family and people need to be together every day to bond. Founders and CEOs should pay themselves a little as possible. This sets an example to the company, but also helps keep themselves motivated.

If you are thinking about doing a tech startup, or actually starting one, this is probably a worthwhile book to read. It is not very hands-on, but contains a lot of theory that seems useful. Given it is quite short, it seems like a sensible investment.

zero-to-one

The Virgin Way

Saturday, September 5th, 2015 | Books

The Virgin Way: How to Listen, Learn, Laugh and Lead is a 2014 book by Richard Branson in which he dispenses advice.

Some of it reads like a Toastmasters manual. He encourages readers to make notes constantly, and develop their listening skills. Cndense your message down to be short and to the point. Twitter is a great format for this. Keep emails short. Make a pitch document one A4 sheet at the most. Do the same thing with presentations.

Avoid “that said” as it destroys any argument you have just built up. Avoid “no comment” either as it just annoys people.

Be your own customer. He often goes around the Virgin businesses both to talk to his staff but also to play at being a customer and often to make phoney complaints to see how they are handled.

I disagree with him on some things. He is not a big fan of mission statements. I like them because they keep you on purpose. Also I think the mission statement they came up with for Virgin Mega Stores was nonsense. He said keep it real but theirs was actually full of jargon.

He also cited Kodak as a case of when they were not forward thinking enough because they did not embrace digital. This is probably true. As Steve Jobs pointed out if you do not cannibalise your own market, someone else will. However, Kodak was really killed by the rise of camera phones, something it was difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to predict in advance.

Luck is also a tricky subject. I agree with the phrase “the harder I practice the luckier I get”. However, as Branson himself admitted it is difficult to know where the luck ends and the skill begins. Capital breeds capital so once you have been lucky one, it is a lot easier to be lucky again. That is not to say it doesn’t involve hard work as well though – it is probably both.

He discusses Netflix’s policy of not tracking holiday. I am not sure I would like this as an employee as it kind of admits there is no work life balance outside of the office and forces you to strike an awkward balance between getting your fare share and not taking too much. However, I could definitely be sold on the idea.

The core of The Virgin Way is people centred. Put your staff first, be fun and develop a great culture in which people are empowered to take a lead. Have lots of staff parties.

Stay nimble and small. Collaboration tails off after you get more than 20 people in a team, so try nd keep projects down to that. Whatever you do, do it with passion.

The Virgin Way