Do you conduct business over meals?

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? 


Business breakfasts are about business, not breakfast. You can do three things with your mouth at breakfast (talk, eat, or both) and two of them are bad. I spend most of my day at my terminal, so the business breakfast is my big chance to talk, listen, and learn. And food just gets in the way. 

You can’t talk while you’re chewing, almost every choice is time bomb for an accident, and in my humble opinion, food just slows you down in the morning. 

So I let the others eat while I talk (and listen). I accomplish twice as much as anyone else at these breakfasts. 

I just have a cup of coffee that I may or may not drink. (You may look like you’re wasting food if you don’t eat it all, but nobody cares how much of your coffee you drink). If I’m really hungry in the morning, I’ll grab something “before” going to the breakfast, but I’m more likely to wait until afterward. 

Jimmy Carter took this idea to the extreme by never eating dinner at dinners. He was too busy networking and conducting business while everyone else was eating. I’ve never gone that far, but his strategy works perfectly for the business breakfast. 

Why are details so important?

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. 

How does it feel to be a single founder?

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. 

I know about half a dozen excellent people who I’d love as co-founders, but all have mortgages, families, and other commitments. Our startup would always be a child to me, but only a step-child to them. So I don’t push.

I understand the concern about single founder startups; they’re a lot of work! There are many times I wish I had someone to share with or help me out. But under the circumstances, I’d rather plow along, always positioning myself to have a co-founder, but just as ready to launch alone if need be. I’m not afraid to do that and I don’t think other single co-founders should be either.

What should a business guy have to offer?

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. 

- Analysis, design, testing, implementation. You should be very proficient at all the stuff on the Systems Development Life Cycle that’s not coding. 

- Operations. You should good at running the business while we code. This could include many things like accounting, marketing, selling, order processing, help desk, legal, etc. 

We programmers are not dummies. We are working on the critical path, but we recognize that a whole lot of other stuff has to happen in order to be successful. And we want to be successful, which is a primary driver.

Can you do that other stuff? Great. If not, you need to find some way to add value. 

And don’t forget, ideas != value. We all have a million of them. What else ya got? 

The Investor Entrepreneur Chasm

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? 

Entrepreneur: Small business software that ties all a company’s applications together. 

Investor: You’ll never compete with Microsoft. What else? 

Entrepreneur: Tiny apps that all kinds of people can use to run their stuff. 

Investor: 37signals will kill you. What else? 

Entrepreneur: Social software that enables your sales people to understand what’s happening in the global marketplace. 

Investor: It’ll never work. Can you do something more practical? 

Entrepreneur: An intelligent e-commerce system that guarantees the consumer the best value. 

Investor: You’ll never compete with Amazon or Ebay. Got any other ideas? 

Entrepreneur: Recipe software. 

Investor: OK, if that’s the best you can do, we’ll go with it. Geez, I just wish you guys would dream a little bigger. 

How can I get started?

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. 

4. If you have a way of addressing their problem, do it. It may be software you’ve already written, a service, or (quite likely) a prototype you mock up to show them how to attact their problem. 

5. They love the fact that someone has finally actually listened the them about their problem and addressed it. Your solution is a good first step, but it still needs a, b, and c. 

6. You quickly add a, b, and c to your prototype and show them. 

7. They’re in love. Now you can get started.

Differentiate or Die

“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: 

“The best way to really enter minds that hate complexity and confusion is to oversimplify your message. The lesson here is not to try to tell your entire story. Just focus on one powerful differentiating idea and drive it into the mind. That sudden hunch, that creative leap of the mind that “sees” in a flash how to solve a problem in a simple way, is something quite different from general intelligence. If there’s any trick to finding that simple set of words, it’s one of being ruthless about how you edit the story you want to tell. Anything that others could claim just as well as you can, eliminate. Anything that requires a complex analysis to prove, forget. Anything that doesn’t fit with your customers’ perceptions, avoid.”

Does consulting hurt a software start-up?

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!

You are going to need tons of feedback for your software. One strategy is the well-known “release early and often”. Another, just as effective, is “find out from your own customers before you develop”. You will still need to release early and often, just not as early and not as often.

I estimate that more than half of the ideas for features in my software came from existing consulting customers. Things I would have never thought of, and now I know they’re necessary. Without them I would have been releasing alot more often and early, and may have never received the same valuable input. 

“Learn from the work” 

I spend less time consulting than many entrepreneurs spend fund raising. I like to think of my customers as “angels whose money I get to keep”. 

How important are ethics?

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… 

I’ve seen stuff like this so many times, and I ask the same question every time, If they will compromise their ethics on something small, where do they draw the line? I’ve seen multi-million dollar deals scuttled because someone didn’t trust someone else because of their personal behavior on a small issue like this. Don’t let yourself fall into this trap. It simply isn’t worth it to save a few bucks. 

I’ve heard all the counteraruments. “It’s no big deal.” “Everyone does it.” “It’s not hurting anybody.” “I’ll never get caught.” Or the worst one of all, “They’ve already ripped me off, so I’m just getting them back.” And you know and I know and everyone here knows it’s all BS. We’re just making excuses for what we all “know” is wrong. 

Almost every proprietary software vendor has a complimentary “developer version” or a very cheap “student version”. There are many other ways to get access to software or music without breaking the law or compromising your ethics. But a lot of us are just too lazy to take advantage of these things. 

I would expect programmers, of all people, to be especially sensitive to this issue. After all, we are smart, hard working people who make software. But it seems like I’m always in the minority on this one.

Why start your own business?

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.