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…

BarCamp Singapore 6

BarCamp Singapore 6 was held on 9 and 10 October at Singapore City Hall. Or National Art Gallery. Or Supreme Court. Apparently, they’re the same place. Sort of. The dates also coincided with an event held by National Art Gallery. As a result, when I arrived at the venue, I thought to myself, “Those don’t look like BarCampers”.

Throngs of families with screaming kids and tourists who don’t speak English took shelter at a hollow underneath the stairs to the main doors. Confused and disoriented, I wandered in the hot morning sun silently pleading with Google Maps on my iPhone to load faster so I could get my bearings. My friend Christopher caught sight of me, and there started the adventure of finding the exact location of where BarCamp was held.

Volunteers were confused (they were to help direct visitors for National Art Gallery, not BarCamp), the security guard was confused, we were confused. In the end, my friend and I managed to get to the event.

We registered as speakers (more on the topics later), and milled around frantically trying to get votes. Ok, we’re just using our mental psychic powers to will anything with a pulse to put a coloured sticker on our topics. If you don’t know, BarCamp presentations run on democracy. You write your topic on a piece of paper and stick it on the wall. People vote on your topic for interesting-ness by putting small coloured circle stickers around your topic. When you get sufficient votes, you get to speak. Generally speaking, the more popular your topic, the earlier you get to speak.

I was particularly calm, given that my presentation at the last BarCamp didn’t turn out so well. Almost Zen-like, with a couldn’t-care-less attitude. It’s a self-preservation mechanism. Otherwise, I would have to deal with possible shame/anger/depression and control erratic butterflies flitting in my stomach.

There was an introduction given by Preetam, one of the organisers.

BarCamp introduction by Preetam

Then Christopher and I were joined by Aaron (aka Singularity photographer) and his friend. That friend also managed to swipe a couple of BarCamp T-shirts while jumping the queue.

And then I got picked. My topic was off the main board! I got the 2:30pm slot at room D, and Christopher got the 3pm slot at room A.

BarCamp topics
(brightened and contrasted so you can see what topics were on)

My e-zine topic

Then we went to explore. Because it’s part of the Supreme Court, the rooms assigned for presentation were… interesting.

Court seats

At the audio transcriber booth

Court podium

There were some visitors (not BarCampers) who stood in the podium and raised their right hand for their families to take photos. “I solemnly swear to tell the story, the whole story, and nothing but the story.”

We stayed in the courtroom until the first speaker of that room started. It’s on “7 things I learned from having a beer (and my 90 beer caps collection)” by Fabian Lua. Employing SEO and blogging titling tips, he’s got the 1) number in title, and 2) beer. One thing I learned, don’t drink any beer with an animal on its beer bottle cap. It’s supposed to be subpar or something. Not that I’d choose to drink beer.

I went for lunch, my friends wandered around the flea market of the National Art Gallery event.

I Love Museums sign

Snack fair

Then we attended a presentation on writing a best seller in Singapore (write about horror or self-help. They sell like hotcakes in Singapore). It was 2pm and I just went to room D to attend the 2pm presentation, and wait for my turn. Then it was time. You can read about my presentation details here. Let me just say, not all rooms are created equal. Rooms C and D were discussion rooms, those that look like a classroom. Rooms A and B were court rooms. I don’t know, I feel like I could command a stronger audience attention if I was in room A or B. Anyway, Christopher left at the start of my presentation to prepare for his at room A. You can read about his presentation on “Quarter Life Crisis“.

Then we attended a presentation on Electric Tea. You have to see a video to understand what’s it about:

Electric Tea 1.0 (Peace Games) from Ion on Vimeo.

It’s about putting sound where it doesn’t belong.

And that’s a wrap. Oh wait, there’s a prize for the most popular presentation. Popularity was decided by Twitter votes. The format is “Awesome talk about #ezine by @orcasquall #barcampsg6 #breeze +1”. “Breeze” is a Standard Chartered (a bank!) online banking (and iPhone) service. The prize, an iPad, was sponsored by them. Oh well, it was a miracle I didn’t keel over and vomit right after my presentation. I didn’t have high hopes for the iPad. I did significantly better at presenting than last time though. So, public speaking isn’t that bad after all.

I will be presenting at BarCamp Singapore 6

BarCamp Singapore 6 will be held on 9th and 10th of October (register here if you’re interested). I will be presenting at the event, despite what happened the last time. Persistence and sheer determination is key.

So if you happen to be in Singapore on those two days, I’d appreciate it if you go and support me.

I’ll be presenting about online magazines (and surreptitiously introducing Singularity). As for the second topic, I was thinking about decisiveness and choices. Let me know what you think. And if there’s anything you’d like me to present on, let me know. I’ll be writing about the presentations, so even if you’re not attending, send your topic suggestions. I’d rather present on something you’re interested in, regardless of whether you’re attending.

My BarCamp presentation disaster

It was the longest 15 minutes I had ever lived through in the recent decade.

It was the 5th BarCamp held in Singapore, on the 27th March 2010. My friends were attending, and one of them said it would be great to present. And he bullied me into presenting as well. It would also be an opportunity to build what the social media people were calling the “personal branding”, so I thought “why not?”.

BarCamp is an event where people gather to give presentations, hold discussions over shared topics and generally share ideas. I’m sure I gave the wrong definition, and you can find more pertinent information yourself.

Well, I don’t have a lot of presentation experience, so I had my work cut out for me. I needed a topic first, and I also searched around for presentation advice (Andrew Lightheart dishes out good tips).

For over a week, I prepared my notes, mostly in my head, because it didn’t feel concrete enough to be fleshed out into presentation material. I watched some TED videos to hopefully gain some of the presenters’ charisma and flair. I researched on what BarCamp attendees were (probably) like, to better speak to them.

Well, 3 days before the event, I scrapped my notes and begun anew. Covering many ideas, my polymath nature sought to teach many things and will surely achieve nothing for that group of people. I even wanted to juggle (thank goodness I didn’t), to emphasise a point.

Eventually, I settled on what I previously wanted to write an ebook about, “Discipline and Deflection“. And here was where I willingly and knowingly made a mistake. On the day of the event, I put up “Discipline and Deflection” as the topic for voting (attendees voted on the topics they most wanted to hear about).

I’ve studied blogging and writing tips before. I’ve even studied Internet marketing techniques. What’s the most important thing to note? The title. In this case, the topic title.

Surprisingly, the topics most sought for were HTML5, entrepreneurship, and start ups. There’s also a small undercurrent of interest in non-tech stuff. So, understanding human interests, my topic should preferably have included a number (preferably odd, better if it’s prime because they irk the human psyche), plus any keywords involving “HTML5”, “entrepreneur”, and “start up”, plus the usual attention-catching words such as “sex”, “violence”, and “relationships”.

So my ideal topic title should have read “7 tips on using HTML5 to discipline yourself to focus on being an entrepreneur and creating start ups, while deflecting distractions about having sex, doing violence and still have a healthy relationship”. But I’m not a bombastic writer. If you’ve been reading this blog for any significant amount of time, you would probably have noticed my titles aren’t any stand-outter. I mean, “Why are signals from passive optical networks split into 32?“? That probably bored the typical adolescent student to tears after hearing the title.

And the typical adolescent student, aged 18 years or so, comprised maybe a third of the attendees. Probably because it’s held at Singapore Polytechnic. So I decided to ignore all those tips and appealed to curiosity instead, and simply stated “Discipline and Deflection”.

Zero takers. Unless you count that one vote from my friend.

Discipline and Deflection

Well, it was still early in the morning. And my friend got selected for speaking, so the bunch of us went to support that friend. He’s talking about “A Hacker’s Guide to Financial Independence“.

Hacker Guide to Financial Independence

Much attention, many questions, and much follow-up after his talk. He’s good.

I went back to check on my submission. A couple more sticker votes, but the morning slots were all taken up, so I’ll have to wait till the afternoon to know if I’m to speak. I had fun with the morning sessions, and was nervous at the same time.

Lunch came and went.

And practically everyone went for the Aikido session, because, well, it’s Aikido, and there’s a hot chick doing the demonstration.

There was this mounting feeling of stuttering somewhere between my heart and my throat. You know that feeling where you’re nervous and when you speak, your words fall over each other and you can’t quite string together a few words to form a sentence? Yeah, that feeling.

I checked the submission board again. My topic was still there. All the early submissions were already assigned a time slot, and mine was the only piece of paper on the left side of the board, bravely and defiantly challenging anyone with a mote of curiosity to vote, like a weed growing unabashedly amidst a rose garden, like a smudge of dirt on a pristine white wall.

My thoughts were scattering like a flock of pigeons chased by a playful child, and my feelings were fluttering like a butterfly from flower to flower. To make matters worse, I couldn’t find my friends. There were only 4 (5?) rooms for presentation, and somehow, my cognitive powers failed to accomplish the simple act of locating my friends. I wandered the corridor, and flit from room to room, neither really listening to the presenter nor brave enough to stand along the corridor with my thoughts (and the reminder that my submission was still on the board). Which was ironic, since I was going to talk about focussing and distractions.

It was mid-afternoon, and I finally found my friends when they emerged from a presentation room. There was one presentation at the 4pm slot (about publishing and ebooks), and then all the interesting topics would have been covered. Mine was still on the board. I had half a mind to wrench my submission off the board and end my misery there and then. I left it as is, and we went for a coffee/tea break.

After our break, I went (yet again) to the board. It’s not there anymore! I’m not sure whether I was happy or sad at that point. I went to the master list of presentations, and it wasn’t listed. Did someone tear down my submission? I went to the rooms, and found my submission pasted onto the door of room C.

Room C presentation
[I added the subtext because from my friend’s comment, it wasn’t clear what it was about. Not that it cleared any confusion. But my mind was in a confused state then.]

I was assigned the 5:30pm slot, the very last time slot of the event. I didn’t see any of the organisers at that point. The master list wasn’t even updated with my submission topic (everyone else’s was, even the other 5:30pm slots), even though it was selected. The sessions my friends and I wanted to attend were all attended, save the ebook publishing one at 4pm. And my friends, good people that they are, decided to stay the entirety of the event just to attend my presentation.

At about 5:20pm, we went into room C. There were perhaps 7 people in the room. I sat down some 3 rows away from the presenter. I could tell he was palpably frustrated and dejected, because he was going through his points and slides with taps on his keyboard filled with unmistakeable resignation and anger. I believe it was on something about sTeam, and he was asking for help with user interface design. Well, he still had 1 person responding to him with questions, if nothing else.

Then it was my turn. Yeah, after reading over a thousand words, you finally reached the point where I’m going to talk about my presentation.

My friend wanted to help assuage my feelings of unhappiness by standing up and introducing me. That actually created the opposite effect. There were 10 people in the room, excluding me. 4 were my friends, 2 were standing at the back (probably ready to sprint to another place), and 4 were seated.

Vincent presenting at BarCamp
[thanks to Aaron who took this photo]

I started with “getting started“, with references to Merlin Mann. No one knew who Merlin Mann was, or Inbox Zero (which Merlin was famous for), or maybe they were too tired or scared or found it bothersome to raise their hands. I said it wasn’t necessary that you had to buy a moleskine to jot down your notes. That you don’t need a killer app to organise all your notes so you can finally start on that project of yours. You can just start.

Then I talked about Seth Godin and his latest book Linchpin, that people have difficulty finishing projects, of shipping. That there’s a resistance, the lizard brain that’s giving you the final obstacle to completing that project of yours.

It was at this point that the 2 people standing at the back disappeared. I don’t know. Who could blame them? The topic being discussed next door was “The Future Of XXX” where XXX starts with “P” and rhymes with “corn”. I was starting to inherit (even more of) the frustration and dejection from the previous presenter in that room.

I continued with my accidental discovery of disciplining myself by “adventuring”. I took a 5 hour long walk from the centre of Singapore to the east end of Singapore, which was approximately 21 kilometres in length. There was a point in that journey of mine where I was tired, hungry, thirsty, and a long stretch of road with empty grass on both sides of it. And that was the last part of my journey, and I likened it to the 17 mile mark of the 26 mile marathon, where marathoners start to doubt their ability to go on. Breaking through that point, to continue on that long stretch of road, was a key to developing discipline.

Out of the 4 attendees seated (who were not my friends), only 1 was listening. The other 3 were just there for the free electricity and wireless connection. I had only 1 listener (so to speak). Celine Dion was singing “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” in my mind, where I remembered how destitute I was when I started writing this blog. It was one thing to know that the rough estimated number of people reading was only 1. It’s another to see right in front of you, only 1 person listening to you. To be frank, I was getting ready to FTS.

Suppressing that urge to just walk out of the room, I told a story of Garion, a young sorcerer, trying to move a rock. Which I wrote about before in the discipline and deflection article. I talked of Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion:

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction

Then I mentioned the concept of duality in mathematics, that of changing a problem from one form to another. And solving one form of the problem is equivalent to solving the other form. Graphs (in graph theory) have a dual form. So do sets of linear inequalities or equations. And proof by contradiction is an example of proving the alternate form of the original statement.

“Perhaps the discipline to focus is the dual of the deflection of distractions?” I proposed. “Solve one, and you solve the other.”

Then I brought in Elizabeth Gilbert, a writer who talked about this separation of the self from the genius (That’s a TED talk, and it’s awesome. Go watch it first before returning here to find out more about my mishappening), the source of inspiration and creativity.

I continued something like:

Why don’t we take this further? We separate the body, the mind, this genius, and this consciousness that is us. The body does the thing you want to do, the mind focusses on the task at hand, the genius providing inspiration and creativity. And the consciousness that is you? You go deflect all the distractions that’s coming your way. Because when you’re focussing on the task, there is, by Newton’s 3rd Law, an equal and opposite force trying to distract you.

There will always be distractions. Even if you take out Twitter and Facebook and email, there will still be distractions. Twitter and Facebook are just distractions to your real distractions.

Even if I put you in a room with no outside connections, you will still face distractions.

I’m hungry. Where’s the coffee? I need my caffeine. The room’s too hot. The room’s too cold. I don’t want to write with a pencil, where’s my pen? They are all going to laugh at me. This will never succeed.

The distractions ultimately come from you.

The distractions ultimately come from you. That’s why it has an equal and opposite force to you focussing.

Well, I ended with trying to convince the lone listener (and maybe my friends too) that the future depends on you finishing that crazy project you’re passionate about. That game you’re creating. That art you’re painting. That book you’re writing. That software you’re coding. That building you’re designing. That invention you’re thinking of. That race around the world you’re doing.

I asked if there were any questions, and not surprisingly, there were none. It was 15 minutes since I stood in front of a room that’s 2 tutorial rooms combined, which made the audience that much silencer. I sat down beside my friends, tired, strained and completely drained, and they didn’t know what else to do. Then I suggested we go over next door to see what the XXX was about. It was full and standing room only, not surprisingly.

The anguish and frustration and nervousness and humiliation and embarrassment and anger that built up since 9:30am that morning, and crescendoed at 5:30pm, was finally over. I wished I had never submitted in the first place. I wished the votes were more decisive, either more so I know I’m gonna speak, or so much less that it’s impossible I get to speak. I wished the organisers had ignored the votes and chosen some other topic. I wished the audience veered towards content (like you) instead of bombastic titles.

But I stayed. Because as Hugh MacLeod said,

this is totally stupid. this is utterly moronic. this is a complete waste of time.

i’m going to do it anyway.

Because Elizabeth Gilbert said that, even if what we did was not inspiring, not magical, we should be proud that we have the sheer stubbornness to keep showing up. To do our part.

My friends and I went for dinner. I was barely succeeding in trying to keep my spirits up. A friend recorded my session, but I didn’t have the strength to go through it or even put it up here. Then we went for dessert. I went for the ginormous ice cream mudpie. Females aren’t the only ones who can drown their sorrow in ice cream you know…

And that was how I spent that Saturday at BarCamp. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go curl up in a corner and wallow in self pity.

Public speaking for programmers

It was a big project. Product managers were running around confirming details. Sales staff were calling their clients to do pre-launch informing with materials obtained from the marketing department. And management wanted a briefing on every aspect of the project given to every staff involved. This meant there would be people talking about how the product worked, the terminology used in the technology, the major companies involved… and the web application for supporting this project.

So I was happily coding one day, when my team leader came over to my desk to tell me that, since I was the one who single-handedly developed the web application for that big project, I would be the one to present it. I nearly freaked out. The last time I did any presentation in front of an audience was when I did my thesis dissertation. There were only a handful of people then. The number of people for this briefing was about 50. They range from customer service, sales, middle and upper management, marketing, technical, and of course the other speakers who were well versed in the business itself.

I was to present the workings of the web application, so that customer service would know how to retrieve information, sales people would know what to tell their customers and so on. And I’m supposed to be on stage for about 20 minutes. Oh my goodness.

Be prepared
It doesn’t matter if you’re a manager, or a technical support or a programmer. Prepare the material for presentation. In my case, a flow of the links and how they were connected to each other. But I made a fatal error.

When I finally reached the crux of my presentation, I couldn’t get any data to appear. There wasn’t any “Server application error” (which would be disastrous to my reputation). When I clicked the “Retrieve” button, there just wasn’t any data. The audience started to fidget. “Oh no, I’m losing it!”, I thought. Then it hit me. I didn’t put in enough test data! I readjusted my retrieval criteria, and finally got the result I wanted, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I might not be well versed in the business knowledge as my fellow speakers, but I darn well know everything about the web application.

The sequel
After that briefing, I thought I was out of it. Then I was informed that there would be an official product launch, and customers would be invited. And I was to present the web application. It’s no black tie affair, but is still formal enough to give me butterflies in my stomach.

I practiced my presentation. Over and over and over again. I prepared enough test data this time. I went through every single web page and thought of something relevant (or clever or funny) to say. I imagined how an actual customer would hear me, and I’d have to tone down the technical jargon so they could understand and relate to me.

On the day itself, I went early to prepare myself. I had my tie on, which I don’t normally have to wear, so it’s a little uncomfortable. I was to speak near the end of the entire event, so I had a chance to listen to the other speakers. When it was my turn, I clipped on the microphone and faced the audience. Oh dear, that’s a lot of suits. Alright, focus, focus… The web application was essentially a business tool, which meant it’s boring. I injected some humor, radiated every bit of charisma I had, and basically wove a story around the application. I even tried to sell with a story of how the customer can benefit from the product (even if it was wildly imaginative).

TIP: Do NOT crack any jokes that are sexual, political or religious in nature.

So everything was going fine. Until I saw the event organiser making hand gestures at the back of the room. “Lengthen! Lengthen the presentation”, she mouthed. I managed to present for about 20 minutes, and the flow of event items was such that we were early by about 10 minutes. I needed to add about 10 minutes more.

Luckily, I had some backup stories. Unluckily, one of them wasn’t too well prepared (I made it up just before my presentation), and I blurted out something that didn’t quite come out the way I wanted. I violated the tip I gave above. It might have been construed as a sexist remark, and it was a good thing I breezed right through to my next story.

The end
So what have I learned? As a programmer, I may not be business savvy, but I do know my stuff. Being prepared was my best defence against the fear of public speaking. I learnt how to continue talking, keeping the audience informed, while waiting for the web application to load the next page. This seemed very important to me. I’ve seen speakers who just stop talking and wait for their application to load, or their PowerPoint slides. The flow of your speech becomes halted, and the audience can feel disconnected because of the silence.

Well, until next time then. Maybe I’ll have to speak to an even larger audience. Wait, oh dear, I think I’m gonna be sick…