Friday, 22 October 2010

Tips for Launch48

Having participated in two Launch48 weekends, I can highly recommend the experience. With more of these coming along in the near future, I thought it would be useful to jot down some advice for people planning to give it go. For those who haven't heard of it, the format is a simple one - people pitch ideas for startups on a Friday evening, everyone votes to decide on the best ones (the number of ideas getting through will depend on the total number of participants), teams form around these ideas and you then spend the next 48 hours trying to build the business. Business being the operative word. Launch48 takes a holistic approach that makes the event different from your garden variety tech-focussed hackathon. The expectation is that in addition to producing an application that can be demoed on Sunday night, you will also have given thought to how you will acquire customers and monetize.

Although it certainly is possible to launch a fully fledged business using the Launch48 weekend as a starting point, I suspect the real value for most people comes from two things:
  • LearningUse the opportunity to teach and learn from others on your team (about online marketing, web development, financial modelling etc)
  • Networking. Launch48 is a great way to meet entrepreneurially minded people (both the participants and mentors), and it's also a great way to see people under "realistic" work conditions which will tell you a lot more about them than any coffee chat.

Two things worth mentioning are intellectual property (IP) and equity arrangements.

Who owns the work created by the teams? Regarding IP, the most sensible approach seems to be to agree amongst the team that anything created during the weekend belongs to everyone on the team so that everyone is free to do what they want with it after the weekend. Realistically, there's a good chance that if anyone takes the project forward, they would need to rewrite a lot of what was done over the weekend anyway. If there's any pre-existing IP then things might get more complicated, but this isn't generally the case. Last I heard there were some thoughts about providing standard IP assignment forms to each team which seems like a good idea.

As for equity, I'd strongly suggest that it has no place being discussed during the weekend (other than to say it won't be discussed). Any kind of agreement binding together the 10 or so strangers that you team up with sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. If you wanted to do it properly you'd need to think about things like vesting (e.g. what happens if somebody disappears after the weekend and then comes back 2 years later to claim their share), not to mention the painful (but necessary) discussion of who should get how much. If there's a real business to built, that will happen after the weekend, and those that are left with a genuine interest in committing to it (and each other) can sort out equity arrangements amongst themselves with appropriate legal advice.

Finally, for those of you planning to a pitch an idea, my advice (worth exactly what you paid for it), would be as follows:
  1. Have a good think about your idea before turning up to the event. Clear and articulate presentation goes a long way, and you won't get phased by "obvious" questions about competition etc.
  2. Pick an idea where it's feasible to make decent progress in a weekend. This doesn't mean the whole thing should be completed in a weekend, but you should be able to produce some kind of prototype.
  3. If you have something that presents an interesting technical challenge, it will be easier to attract developers to your team.
  4. Understand that pitches are selected by voting. It won't necessarily be the best ideas that get through, but the best pitches and pitchers.
  5. (Arguable) Only pitch if you're prepared to lead the team and have a genuine interest in taking the project forward, or make it clear if this isn't the case. 48 hours isn't very long, so the teams really need somebody with some vision to keep things going. Don't confuse vision with inflexibility though.

Have fun, and blog/tweet your progress as the day goes on so the rest of us can follow along!

Thursday, 14 October 2010

WiFi networks for local advertising?

Car rental company SIXT ran an interesting ad campaign a couple of years back where they advertised special offers to airport travellers by using the text in wi-fi network names.

There's no reason why any bricks-and-mortar store couldn't use a similar approach. You could broadcast an offer, or some other call to action which would lead to people connecting to your network. Once people are connected you could direct all traffic to a locally hosted webserver or proxy which could then offer a landing page, access to your website, or if you're feeling particularly generous (and have faith in the common carrier defence), free access to the internet. You could even marry up the free internet access with a bit of Ad Jacking if you fancied.

If there were enough people interested in doing this, it wouldn't be too difficult to come up with some kind of simple hardware appliance to take care of most of the hard work. Just plug it in the wall and wait for the customers to beat a path to your till.

So why aren't people doing this? Well possibly it's not that great a channel since most people don't go round scanning for free wifi. I usually only do it if I'm abroad to avoid being gouged on data roaming, or when Orange's 3G network is proving elusive (which for me appears to be around 80% of the time). So maybe you might pick up some tourists and the odd wardriver.

Also the strength of your wifi signal will be limited so it's probably only really going to attract people who are practically on your doorstep anyway. However if this were to be used in shopping malls or any other large private space (where multiple wifi transmitters were an option) then it could possibly be effective.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

When Social Media turns Social Mob

What is it about online comments that turns otherwise civilised (I assume) people into attention seeking trolls? Probably the best known example of this phenomenon is the comments section on YouTube videos. On pretty much any popular video, you can see the comments descending into anarchy with random arguments erupting on any number of subjects, often completely unrelated to the video.

Is this due to the pseudo-anonymity of YouTube users? The surprising thing is that you’ll find this kind of behaviour even on Facebook, when generally people use their real names. Check out any group discussing a controversial topic and you find your fair share of offensive and bizarre commentary. Now possibly these people are like this in real life, but I suspect they’re probably a bit more careful about mouthing off their opinions when faced with flesh and blood people.

In an increasingly open web where people are unlikely to go to the extra effort of maintaining multiple identities online, are we going to see higher quality debate, or are we going to drop to the lowest common denominator and learn to accept that’s just how people behave? The rise of 3rd party authentication via facebook, twitter etc along with 3rd party commenting services like Disqus mean that more and more of us will end up putting our real name down next to what we write and establishing an online reputation which we might be hesitant to tarnish.

One site that hopes that using real names will improve the quality of user generated content is question and answer site Quora. The current king of question sites, Yahoo Answers, can be a mixed bag, and certainly at the moment Quora appears to be producing higher quality content. Of course this may just be because it’s less popular, and once it hits the mainstream it’s possible that we will see the quality drop off in the same way.

I suspect the main reason we don’t behave like YouTube commenters in real life is because of community enforced norms, and perhaps this is the key to high quality comments. Back in the day, long before YouTube, there were some usenet groups which had high quality discussion and content, whilst others suffered from a low signal to noise ratio, and typically this was due to the presence of a strong user community to enforce norms and teach newcomers the rules. In hit-and-run comment sites with widely dispersed content (as on popular YouTube videos), there is no such community, whereas sites which are focused on a particular subject are more likely to attract a stable body of core users who can establish the ground rules for acceptable behaviour.

Reputation and community appear to be the key to maintaining high quality comments, and hopefully the trend of merging web content with social graphs and gaming will produce a better experience for us all.