WOX or online business guide?

Alright, in my quest to feed myself, I have a few product ideas down the pipeline. Now that version 2 of my spreadsheet Open XML guide is out (privately and affectionately referred to as SOX because the full acronym SOXFS is pronounced “socks fuzz” and doesn’t sound sexy), I am going to create something else.

Here’s where you can influence what I’m going to create. I’m going to ask you what would be useful to you, and I’ll go create that. More details in the following paragraphs.

Naturally, the next logical products should be Open XML guides for Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, named (for consistency) Wordprocessing Open XML From Scratch and Presentation Open XML From Scratch. Or referred to internally as WOX and POX. *grin* That’s 2 product ideas.

I’m also thinking of writing a guide for setting up a small online business, specifically for technically proficient people. You know those online business guides out there? They range from “how to make money online” to “how to make money online in niches”, from setting up small to big online businesses, from setting up businesses in the boardgames niche to the herbal niche to dating niche to the blogging niche.

You know what’s common in all of them? The authors all assume that you’re technically inept, that you don’t know anything about (or fearful of) HTML, CSS, WordPress, PayPal (payment integration), buying and setting up domains, setting up email lists, designing logos or ebook covers or website/blog layouts. The authors will give you step-by-step instructions to whatever they’re teaching and showing you, which is crucial to getting the “common” people (I mean no disrespect with that term. Would you feel better if I called them the “masses”?). They will tell you to get a technical person to help you with your technical problems. Get it outsourced, get a friend to help, but just don’t do it yourself because it wastes time.

Well, technically proficient people face different problems. Specifically, pride and fear of letting go. Our technical proficiency can be a bane at times.

“WordPress runs on PHP? I don’t know PHP, but I’m good at programming. How hard can PHP be?”

Why WordPress? What about Django or .NET Framework or whatever-new-fangled-thing-out-there? Because you’re running a business, and not indulging in your pet peeves. See the problem of pride I mentioned above. Hey, I’m a .NET programmer and the LAMP stack is extremely great at business setup ease. I don’t even deal with the LAMP stack. I let the web host deal with it. Remember, you’re running a business.

That said, any time those authors say it’s a technical thing, you can probably solve it quickly. Maybe in a few minutes. Maybe it takes a couple of hours. So depending on your technical proficiency, you can save a bunch of money from not outsourcing. But there’s the price of your time…

Anyway, that online business guide I might be writing will have everything I know about product creation, how to get product ideas, marketing, sales page writing, setting up the whole sales funnel, why you need an email list (think of it as your CRM). I will teach you the littlest number of activities you need to do to get something up and running.

Let me tell you, there are a lot of these “how to make money online” kind of guides and products out there. I’ve read and gone through many of the free offerings, whether they be blogs or PDF reports (one of the “tricks” used to get people to sign up). The current most-used method is to have a free video giving you valuable information, but you have to sign up to a mailing list. Your email address is the price to watch that video. Why do they want your email address? Because they’re building their CRM.

I’ve even bought a few of these products. There’s a traffic generation product, to generate website or blog traffic because apparently your product/service will fail without millions of views. I’ve been in 2 membership sites, teaching about how to use a blog as a means to creating cashflow and how a membership site is the greatest thing an online business owner can have. Membership sites are great because of the recurring income (see website hosting or Basecamp from 37signals or anything with a subscription model). I’ve bought sleazy products before, and I’ve bought ethical and useful products too.

There will be no startup stories, although I worked in a startup before. So maybe I can tell you about my experience. I can tell you it’s nothing like those stories in Silicon Valley… I suggest you think about a problem people are having and you solve that problem. A startup may be the solution, but you don’t need a development team, venture capitalists, and massive numbers of users. My blog doesn’t have thousands or hundreds of thousands of readers, yet I still manage to sell copies of my guide. Solve a problem people are facing.

So let me know if you’re more interested in another Open XML guide (for Word or PowerPoint) or this online business guide. Write in the comments or you can contact me privately if you want. If I don’t get any particular preferences from you, I’ll just go with whatever I can produce in the shortest amount of time and effort. Like I said, I need to eat…

On military, startups and entrepreneurship

Do you know why there are so few entrepreneurs around? Because it’s uncomfortable to be one. Keep this notion of “comfortability” as you continue to read, since it’s going to be a running theme.

On surviving enormous weights

I slept late last night. Or more accurately, I slept in the early morning today. I do that a lot. One, because I work long hours. Two, because it’s really quiet between 11pm and 2am. I also went to bed hungry.

I lie on my bed, and my last thoughts before I drift off to sleep are typically a combination of the following:

  • What can I do to improve my products/services?
  • “I can work on that piece of code for the product first.”
  • “Wonder what functions do Excel users use? Or what development teams do to support their users? I want to work on practical aspects for the guide, but where and how can I get that information? Nobody’s willing to tell me anything.”
  • What else can I do to create some cashflow?
  • What else can I do to make my customers’ lives easier?
  • What wording should I use for my Google ads?
  • What should I write for the next issue of my magazine?
  • What can I do to improve the copy on the sales page?
  • What can I do to market my products/services without being pushy?
  • Who should I interview for the next issue of my magazine?
  • What videos should I create? How can I do them better?
  • I’m hungry

Last night, faced with the enormity and weight of the tasks ahead of me, a new thought came to the fore. I’m damned lonely. Running an IttyBiz is lonely business, because no one around you understands what the **** you’re doing. (There’ll be some swearing, because it’s the only appropriate response. And that hunger can drain your will and self-control like nothing can.)

So the “I’m damned lonely” and the “I’m hungry” thoughts met one another, and decided to wreak havoc on me. I started sobbing. Silently of course. After a few minutes of self-pity, I reined in my thoughts and emotions and calmed down. (Some might say I shouldn’t “air my failures“, so to speak, but I’m just telling you the truth of what I’m going through. I’m not really failing, I’m just not succeeding enough. Now there’s positive thinking for you!) A new thought came up. “Let’s go to the library!” I don’t know where that came from.

I woke up the next day, hungry of course, and decided to just freakin’ go to the library. Maybe it’ll improve my mood. I just published the April issue of my magazine, and for the 1 or 2 days just after publishing an issue, I would usually feel completely drained. Have you ever launched a product? There’ll be a lot of marketing, blog posts to publish, emails to sent, people to inform, processes to check, and so on. Now imagine doing that every single month.

On military

Anyway, if I’m going to the library, I might as well read some business books or something. So I found this book, Start-Up Nation, by Dan Senor and Saul Singer. Generally, it’s about how the culture and history and geography of Israel made the Israeli military a force to be reckoned with. And subsequently, also made Israel a country of entrepreneurs.

Did you know that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) helped with the design of rules for Singapore’s own military forces? I didn’t know that, and I’m a Singaporean. The authors wrote that the 3 countries, Israel, Singapore and South Korea are similar in that they’re close to hostile or larger countries. All 3 countries share a strong sense of “self-preservation”, of independence, and thus built a strong military force. However, only Israel created a strong entrepreneurial spirit in her people as well.

Although Singapore’s military is modeled after the IDF – the testing ground for many of Israel’s entrepreneurs – the “Asian Tiger” has failed to incubate start-ups. Why?

Further on, the authors wrote

Singapore’s leaders have failed to keep up in a world that puts a high premium on a trio of attributes historically alien to Singapore’s culture: initiative, risk-taking, and agility.

And all three attributes require a person to be comfortable with being uncomfortable (as paradoxical as it may sound).

Today the alarm bells are being sounded even by Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, who served as prime minister for three decades. “It’s time for a new burst of creativity in business,” he says. “We need many new tries, many start-ups.”

That’s “tries”, not “guarantees”. It implies being uncomfortable, at least for a while. And most people only want to be comfortable.

On foreigners

Israel welcomes immigrants, especially those who are Jewish. Singapore has, well, Singaporeans actually, have issues with immigrants, or what is termed “Foreign Talent” (yes, capital F and T). From what I’ve heard, many Americans have issues with immigrants to America too. One of the reasons is fear. “They will take our jobs! They will feed off our welfare system!”

Singapore and America require immigrants to stay for a while (about 2 years?) before being considered for citizenship. Israel issues citizenship on arrival.

Maids (hired from countries such as Philippines or Indonesian) are fairly common in Singapore. I’ve also heard of a story where a girl was so “comfortable”, that at a buffet spread, she simply points to the food she wants, and the trailing maid behind her would get the food for the girl. Spoilt child, or privileged times? Recently, there’s also a wildly spreading photograph of a Singaporean man in military uniform walking in front of his maid. The maid was carrying the man’s military backpack. I’m ashamed I have to give this as an example of how Singaporeans are too comfortable in their lives. (UPDATE: I’m not sure about the maid carrying the military backpack part. Might be a stunt. But the “comfortable Singaporean” point stands.)

Being a startup founder or entrepreneur is uncomfortable

You’re probably a programmer, or a person working in the technology department. You might be considering becoming a founder of a web startup that will then make millions of dollars. I’m here to tell you it’s going to be uncomfortable. Can you stand being uncomfortable?

You will need to think about making money. From Day One. Not about how cool the application is, or how many users you will get, or how much people will be talking about you. Make money, or sink.

Venture capital or angel funding is not going to save you if you can’t make money. If your startup or business cannot sustain itself, you’re screwed, because it will fail eventually. Because no one’s willing to pay you to sustain it.

On ramen profitability

There were a few times when I tried to explain my plan to a friend or family member. The short-term plan is to reach ramen profitability. After I explained it, the friend or family member would say “That’s not enough! What about savings, health insurance, [insert reason]?”.

Do you know what “ramen profitable” means to you? It means you no longer have to worry about living expenses. Given some margin, it means you can eat whatever you want (oh foooood… uh, sorry.), buy whatever necessities you need, and basically go about your life without worrying too much. In some sense, it’s like financial independence.

But what it really does is give you something that no man can give you, no amount of money can buy: time. You can then make the startup/business better, which generally means more profit without much more work. Or you can create another startup or business if you so wish. Or you can work on that novel (which, let’s face it, is probably not going to make you a lot of money, but gives you much satisfaction). Or that painting. Or volunteering at a shelter. It gives you freedom.

And nobody around me understands that. Of course, the long-term plan is still to make sure I get all the savings and health insurance and whatever finances in order. People see a fixed monthly income, that might possibly increase every year. They see the ramping up of income as “unsafe”, “insecure” and “uncomfortable”, especially since it starts at zero (then to ramen profitable, then to, well however high you want as long you’re willing to work on it).

I had to change my lifestyle so I can work on my business. I’m willing to be uncomfortable, at least for the short-term. I walk whenever I can to save on transport costs. My body aches, either because I’m sitting for too long, or walking for too long. I have this lingering ache right now on my back between the left shoulder blade and the spinal cord. I am frickin’ uncomfortable! I have bread and peanut butter for dinner. Every day. For the past few months. Sometimes, I throw my hands up and just get a proper meal of rice, vegetables and meat. I have lost friends because of the decisions I made. I’m serious about this.

How much are you willing to fight for your dreams? How much are you willing to give up for your goals? How much are you prepared to be uncomfortable?

P.S. I’m working on the “bread and peanut butter” dinner thing. I’m sick and tired of being continually hungry…

Fiverr versus Elance

As a bootstrapping entrepreneur, I’m looking for low cost, high yield situations. Of course, that applies to any business owner, small or big. So, today, I’m introducing this site called Fiverr to you. It’s called that because you can get a specific service done for 5 dollars.

I dipped my toes in Fiverr as a service provider (I offered to edit pieces of writing), but stopped. I’m going to tell you straight. As a freelancer, I do not recommend you offer your services here. Go to Elance instead (beware they don’t take polymaths though). 5 dollars is not much if you’re doing it as a sole source of income.

That said, it works great as a side income. I’ve seen people offer to do maths assignments, VB.NET programming tasks and writing articles for $5. Here are some of the interesting ones:

I bought a custom signature (it will appear in the next issue of my magazine!). I also bought an ebook cover design for my book. Let me tell you, I’ve spent $30 and $50 (and those were the cheaper services) before on a 125 by 125 pixel square ad design, so $5 for an ebook cover is cheap. I’m a programmer. I don’t do so well with coming up with an ebook cover design, ok?

One thing to note. Do not expect professionalism from Fiverr service providers. I don’t mean they’re not professional. Some of them are professionals doing great work. What I mean is, some of them are putting up a gig for fun. Do not compare them with the service providers from sites such as Elance. Besides, it’s 5 freaking dollars. If you don’t like that person, find another who offers a similar service. Also, consider the hundreds of dollars, possibly thousands of dollars, that you’re saving from not hiring a “real” professional.

Quality is also suspect. Read the feedback for that gig. If there are samples of work, preview it. If nothing else, go with your gut feeling. I will say this again. It’s 5, freaking, dollars. Don’t spend half an hour agonising over your decision. Don’t spend half an hour ranting about your disappointment with the deliverable or result. It’s $5. Let it go. Your time’s worth more than that. Learn, move on, find another service provider.

So if you’re strapped for cash, but you need something done (for your business or personal reasons), check out Fiverr. You can also offer your own services (“I will write an accounting program for you for $5”). If nothing else, you can look at what people are willing to do for $5. Some of them are hilarious.

The Biz of Apps

I finally wrote an article that’s related to technology. You can read about it in the September 2010 issue of my online magazine (or e-zine if you prefer). Here are some excerpts:

It all started when a friend asked me, “Hey dude, you’re a programmer. Why don’t you create an iPhone app and sell it?” Something in my gut already told me it’s not a worthwhile investment of effort at that point in time. I trust my intuition a lot; it saves a lot of brain cycles spent deciding.

I wrote specifically about iPhone/iPad apps, but the concepts can be transplanted to other mobile devices. The app business appears to be increasingly lucrative, particularly when Apple is making their iPod/iPhone/iPad so attractive as a consumer device. It is popular because the mobile device (not just those from Apple) is ubiquitous. Practically everyone who has disposable income (and even those without…) has a mobile phone (is the word “mobile” even needed? Some of these Generation Y people (no offense if you’re one) might not even know what a dial-tone telephone is). And that is a lot of round brackets…

I explained some of the decisions I made for not developing an iPhone app. Here’s a terrible reason:

Developers wait an average of 4.78 days for app approval

Other (mobile) (phone) app markets probably have a quicker approval period.

I gave some suggestions for leveraging that app you have, because if you’re selling it at 99 cents per user, you’re not going to retire at the ripe old age of 23, lounge at the beach recliner staring at the softly lapping waves and sip piña coladas. I’m just saying… And raising the price is not the answer (not in the long term anyway).

With an investment of US$ 999 for the MacBook, and a yearly subscription of US$ 99, I’m out by US$ 1098. If I’m selling a 99 cent app, I need 1585 downloads to break even (remember that Apple takes a 30% cut). And then I need 143 downloads every year thereafter to break even for the yearly subscription cost. I will need to continue creating apps to alleviate that. And I’m not even making a profit, just trying to break even.

You can read the whole article in my magazine Singularity.

P.S. I don’t write a lot of technology articles because I’m not really interested in the latest gadgets and technology advancements. Another reason is I’m only one person, keeping up with all that there is, is tiring. I just feel my time can be put to a better use. That said, I will write them if they’re still relevant when Time washes a few months on the “latest and greatest”.

Working for myself

From today 15 March 2010 onwards, I will be working for myself. (Today’s article won’t have any math or programming stuff, so you might want to skip this if you’re not interested in entrepreneurship, online businesses, or personal journey kind of thing.)

It was a tough decision, but I realised that the decision was made a long time ago when I started writing this blog. Nearly 3 years ago, I started writing, in part because I needed an outlet to put my thoughts down, and in part to see what this “blogging” thing was all about. On the way, I learned what I could of online businesses; what they are and how to set them up.

Nearly 3 years later, I still don’t have something compelling to offer. I’ve looked at probably every way to earn something through this blog. Blog advertising, paid posts, affiliate products and the variants of each method. I don’t like them (or they don’t work), and they don’t fit with the blog. They “uglify” the site, and don’t add value to you.

So I took everything out and just continued to write. Once, I was asked why I continue to write when there’s clearly no benefit. I don’t get paid. My blog’s not popular. There are hardly any comments, let alone other bloggers linking to me.

That would be disheartening if not for the fact that I installed FeedBurner and Google Analytics. They tell me how many people subscribe to my blog RSS feed, and how many people visit my blog. The statistics aren’t even close to what a mid-range blog have. Yet they are consistently growing, albeit slowly.

So why do I continue to write? Because of you. Because you continue to read what I write, even if you choose to remain silent (which is totally ok). Which makes the few times where I get to hear from you all the more worthwhile.

Anyway, back to that working for myself thing. Since there’s little I could do to monetise this blog, I started Honeybeech where I write about games and RPGs and Dungeons and Dragons. That blog gave me a glimmer of chance to start an online business.

All this had been done part-time. I write software, design user interfaces, handle user queries, and generally solve problems in my day job. And I write about math and programming at night. And learn all those things about online businesses at night too. The goal had always been to set up a part-time business, and grow it enough so it can feed me and support my family. And then I’ll quit my day job, and be free to do whatever I want. Which is most probably that business, and write math and programming articles here.

I actually didn’t consider my (old) day job to be a “day job”. “Day job” has a negative connotation that it’s just a way to earn money. Mine wasn’t like that to me. At least it wasn’t when I started out. I got to learn new things and the people I worked with were great. Everyone worked hard, little (if any) office politics (backstabbing was unheard of), and they were professional in their work.

Now, consider job satisfaction. The key point of distinction between places to work is rarely the work you’ll be asking the employee to do. It’s the perceived connection between the employee and the people she works with. – Linchpin, Seth Godin

As time went by, my colleagues left one by one, either due to personal reasons or company rule (downsizing). What used to be a vibrant garden for me became a lonely graveyard. Sure, no one wanted to discuss C pointers with me, but at least I had company.

The work I was tasked to do wasn’t interesting any more. I started to stagnate. My programming skills plateaued. There weren’t any projects for me to apply new skills.

Think of all the reasons why you’re doing whatever it is you do during the day. Because the work is interesting? Because it’s challenging? Because you get to meet and talk to cool people? Because you get to impart knowledge? Because you get to learn? Because the work you do makes a difference in someone’s life? Because you get to make the world a little better? Because you get paid?

I won’t go into the reasons why I quit my job. Suffice to say, near the end, the only reason I continue to do that job was to earn a paycheck. And that’s a lousy reason to keep doing whatever I had to do.

I do not recommend this to you. I’ve decided to explore setting up an online business instead of looking for another programming job. Your mileage may vary.

I will continue to write math and programming articles here. Now that I’m freer (relatively speaking), some hobbyist math research and dabbling with programming techniques will be possible. First, I have to concentrate on feeding myself…

Oh yes, in case you’re interested, I’ll create some game products for sale, and offer writing services at Honeybeech. I haven’t had this planned out to the last detail. At this point, I’ve managed to sell a few copies of my Math Wizard (by being displayed at DriveThruRPG). Not quite be-able-to-eat-3-meals-a-day state, but better than nothing…

I’ll probably write on my adventures in how I manage to feed myself through whatever means here. Maybe tutoring. Let’s see if academic students are what I remember when I was their age…