Thursday, February 26, 2009

3 New Tools

1. Get the Linkspank toolbar for Firefox at It is far and away the fastest way to share links on the web. You also have the option to view a news ticker and you can save pages with a click for later browsing.

You can send your spanks to Facebook and to Twitter at the same time as individual email addresses! Use these tools:

2. Add the facebook app at The app is not super pretty right now, and the page to import your friends takes about fifteen seconds. But once you have the app in, you can spank individual facebook friends, and post links to your facebook wall at the same time as you send them to email or facebook people. Plus you'll enjoy better features as I improve the facebook app.

3. Add your twitter account at You can see what spanky tweets look like on my Twitter profile:

Friday, February 13, 2009

A few hours creating a tiny image

Despite the spartan layout on Linkspank, some spankers are confused about where the menu is, or what they can or should do when they receive a spank from another (slightly savvier) user of the site.
a picture of the menu

I've tried various tactics to address this issue. For a while, the "spank" and other links were formatted as big red buttons. Some people liked that, but it started to drive me nuts with all the red on the page. I felt that red as a highlight color was being overused and abused.

Today I decided to try creating an image that would go at the left of the spank and call attention to the links. My first idea was to create a little icon with the hand in it. Some work led to this icon:
first stab at the icon (bigger size)

But when I shrunk the icon to 40 x 40 pixels, it looked crappy. I decided ultimately that it wasn't my lack of skill that was causing the problem, so much as the fact that the hand is a fairly intricate shape to be presented at such a small resolution.

After despairing briefly, I got the idea to use a caret-shaped image to call out the menu:

the spanky caret

This took me about two seconds to make, and I like it so far. All I wanted was something that says, "Yo! Look here. This is the spot," and the caret does a pretty good job of that. It also looks a little like a command prompt, or an arrow, both of which make sense in this context. It's also a use of red that seems to be in line with the usage of red on the rest of the page.

Finished product:

That is all. As for the Seal of Spankiness, I'm using it for the time being at the side of the page to promote the Linkspank Toolbar, which is getting high reviews so far.

I hope you have enjoyed this foray into random minutiae. Have a nice day.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The blackjack table and startup marketing/investing

Gambling with More Money Means Better Chances of Winning

If you're a good blackjack player, you can win 55% of the time. You ought to be able to make some serious money in the long run, but you could still go into the casino and lose all your money. The reason is that wins and losses can come in streaks -- they don't have to, but they occur naturally in a long sequence of coin tosses (or blackjack plays). A streak of losses could take away all the money you're playing with, and in that case you have no money to play with and you have to go home.

One solution, as gamblers have observed, is to bring massive sums of money to the casino. It's still possible that a long losing streak could take you out. But the bigger your pile of money, the less likely you are to hit a big losing streak that takes you out. Then, if you're able to stay in the game, you can play on and your slight edge in winning (that 55%) can manifest in money.

Playing with more money increases your chances of winning.

(More technically, that 55% is a statistical average based on a large number of games. For that 55% to end up being the case, you have to be able to play a lot of games. The imaginary mathematician who's calculating that 55% is imagining that you have an infinite amount of money to play with.)

Investing with More Money Means Better Chances of Winning

Consider that this means for another type of gamble, the business venture. Playing a bit fast and loose with the analogy, we can think of the venture as something that has an unknown outcome, which won't necessarily work, but which has a good idea and "should" work given a good chance (that's the 55%), an opportunity to try different things, a little tweaking, a little luck, and so forth.

For the worthy but uncertain venture in question, investing MORE can make the venture more valuable (better chance that it won't run out of money and that it will succeed).

Corollary: size of investment affects valuation in a fashion that is not merely additive.

Corollary: from a risk and payoff perspective, the proper size of an investment isn't how much money the startup "needs" or how much the company is worth from a discounted cash flow perspective. The proper size of investment is the amount of money that will make sure that the startup isn't left at the blackjack table with no money.

Corollary: these considerations make one big round of investment much more valuable than a few smaller rounds, even if they add up to the same dollar amount.

Corollary: these financing questions don't view whether a startup runs out of money as a particularly good indicator of the quality of the idea or of the execution. Although naturally your likelihood of running out of money at the table depends on the quality of your edge (5% or whatever), it also depends on the number of hands you play and the size of the stakes of an individual hand relative to your total financing (and these factors more depend on your type of business, industry, etc).

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Use this Software: OpenOffice and GIMP

As of a week ago, I thought "Vista" and "open source" were incompatible words. But now I'm an experiment to use only open source. Here are a few results:

OpenOffice has been great over the last week. I actually like it better than Word. I've used it to edit large documents and formatting-heavy documents. After one crash upon installation, it has worked perfectly. I've edited documents created in Word, and saved documents in Word format, as well as pdf. As of now, I trust it both with important documents of my own editing and documents that I need other people to be able to open in Word. No need for Word anymore.

I just installed GIMP to replace my aging version of Photoshop, which I was afraid to install on Vista. I see Photoshop as an indispensible tool for any entrepreneur. So far, I like GIMP a lot. I've just been messing around. It's not a Photoshop clone, but as a Photoshop user I find it pretty easy to get around (given the background fact that Photoshop may be the hardest-to-figure-out piece of software I've ever touched).

As I argued, the best software isn't just free - it's also open source. Firefox is open source (good); Google Chrome is not (less good). Google Chrome is the Ralph Nader of browsers - don't let it mess up the election results.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Hours worked, telecommuting, and goals

Why you (or anyone) shouldn't think about how many hours you work.

The more you think about hours, the less you think about results. Success hinges on a single-minded focus on results. Therefore, you shouldn't think about hours at all. (How's that for a syllogism.)

Corollary: telecommuting. Telecommuting is good for any organization. It involves thinking about hours less. That's good.

Corollary: goals. If you stop thinking about hours, you'll find out really fast if you have any goals. If managers suddenly panic because they don't know whether anyone is doing any work, then your organization has no goals. That's a reason to go to telecommuting / no hours immediately – you need goals in a hurry.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Google's product development mantra and the Tipping Point

I've been thinking about when and how to release and push out Linkspank's new toolbar / Firefox extension, which is really cool and quite well received by its small number of users so far. The question is “when and how to launch.”

For at least a few years, Google has advocated an approach to product development whereby you release your product at an early stage and then “iterate” - make improvements as users demand them and improve the process. Google has been voicing this mantra for a few years. This approach to designing a piece of software works best when you're building something simple and you can change it easily (the web is good for that). The philosophy is not too far off of the ideas espoused by 37Signals.

But also taken as a truism is what Malcolm Gladwell has to say in The Tipping Point. Small changes (say, in an Internet site) can make a big difference. Tipping-point thinking implies that your average cool website with a couple thousand users, like Linkspank, may be just a few crucial changes away from explosive growth.

Google's product philosophy and the tipping point meesage have something in common: tweaking. When you iteratively develop a product you have released, you're making pretty small changes. And in searching for the tipping point, you are trying to find the devilishly minor changes in your product that can take it from zero to sixty. You can think of iterative development as a way to search for the tipping point.

Here's a flipside, though. Part of the underlying message of the release-and-iterate idea is that people overestimate the risk of release. “If you get fairly close to the right product,” Google means, “your users will help you close the gap more efficiently than you would have done otherwise.” IF, that is, the customers know what they want; but as traditional marketing does a good job of showing, customers generally don't. And as the tipping point argues, it can be tough for anyone (designer or user) to identify that the small changes that are going to be crucial. That's in contradiction with Google's idea.

Moreover, the mere fact that small changes are critical according to the Tipping Point undermines one of Google's messages: that there is a low cost to release. Who are we kidding? Releasing a product always has a risk. Any potential user who turns away from your product may not turn back, so any time you to go them there is a risk.

It's easy for Google to proclaim iterate-and-release now that the company has a huge user base and a pervasive brand: they can easily tap into pre-zealous users, and if they alienate some users on some products, there are still billions of Google users out there for the following iterations.

The early days of Google – the development of search – was similar to release-and-iterate in some ways, and different in others. The founding duo was informal and agile when it came to making a product and trying it out. Nevertheless, the “releasing” they did in the early years was pretty cautious.

Release-and-iterate is not an answer in and of itself; you have to think about the risk of launching in terms of your resouces, and what you hope to find or achieve in your iteration (perhaps the tipping point).

Beware of mantras - Wittgenstein taught us that.

Anyway, the toolbar is coming soon and it's sweet!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The ultimate reason to use Firefox (and open source)

Over the last few months I've felt a growing loyalty in my bosom for Firefox and other open source software - software which, in a miraculous display of goodwill and cooperation, is actually written by masses of volunteers rather than the staff of a company. But I couldn't figure out why I was so newly in love with open source. Yesterday I was trying out OpenOffice (a free version of Microsoft Office) and that made me think about it more: why am I so in love with OpenSource?

There are a lot of nice things about Firefox, OpenOffice, and other open sources products. They are free!; they are often safer to use, since the army of volunteers fixes bugs quickly; and they tend to be easier to modify and contribute to (as in the case of Firefox extensions).

But these reasons aren't the ultimate reason to use Firefox and open source products. The ultimate reason is that "normal" software products will usually either screw you or dump you at some point in your relationship. A company that makes money always has to reevaluate its strategy in terms of profitability. If Microsoft Word isn't profitable enough (not a problem at all at the moment), Microsoft needs to make it more expensive or discontinue it -- either screw or dump their customers.

Open source projects, will be truly loyal to you in a way that companies just won't be over the long run.

You might cite traditional economics: "Isn't Word worth just as much as Microsoft charges for it?" No, because the market for word processing isn't perfectly competitive (or very competitive at all, for that matter). Microsoft has created a situation where customers are "locked in." So you're not quite paying the exact value for Word; you're paying extra for the fact that Microsoft has got a corner on the market, taking action to edge other companies out in part, and partly just because the nature of a Word processing encourages (but doesn't require) that everyone use the same software, leading to a situation depleted of options.

You can think about it as a question of value creation vs. value capture, my previous post. Companies that need to be profitable need to capture value (that's the revenue part). As a result, they won't create value in situations where (1) the value can't be captured by anyone or (2) it's too difficult for them to defend the value they create. Each of these situations is a missed opportunity for technology users around the world to be happier and better off.

Open source projects, on the other hand, aren't so concerned with capturing value. They just create value. Many open source products are open for you to modify and redistribute! That allowance is about the most extreme manifestation you can get of an organization that wants to create value without worrying too much about how it can profit by its creation. It's made possible by the fact that individual contributors to these projects are intrinsically motivated, rather than being motivated by money. (They may be motivated by money in their life, but not in their contributions to these projects.)

In other words, by having much lower demands of the value they capture, open source projects create more value (for you).

Viewed through a value creation / value capture lens, open source projects are virtually guaranteed to be better to you in the long run. Why? The nature of technology development is that new technology depreciates over time. In essence, the "pie" of a particular market shrinks over the long term (just like the cost of technology). At that point, companies that need a piece of the pie are going to start being greedier about how you split up the pie, or else they will move on to another pie. All in all, open source providers are your better friend.

The main exception to my hypothesis about the superiority of open source is that, in the case of big projects, they can be a bit amateurish at first and hence you don't want to adopt them too early. Open source operating systems -- alternatives to Windows such as Linux and Unix -- remain fairly hard to use, despite having been around for a while. Nevertheless, history seems to indicate that one an open source project gets up to a professional, mass-market level of quality, it will stay there (and push the product to a higher level). A few years ago, I tried open source word processors and didn't think they were good enough. But now I'm optimistic. OpenOffice crashed the very first time I tried to open a document, but it's worked perfectly so far since then. I actually like it a bit better than Word, though frankly it's very similar in its features.



Monday, February 2, 2009

Value Creation vs. Value Capture in Technology

In any business area where value is truly created (=technology) you gotta think about value creation vs. value capture. You write code, develop products, make a new chip or doohickey; you create value, but how much of the payoff can you secure?

Microsoft, Apple, and Nintendo have made so much money not because they have created the most value, but rather because they have created a lot of value AND managed (with amazing shrewdness relative to everyone else) to capture most of the bucks that that value can produce. Plenty of value creation (e.g., the average new, neat cell phone) is too easily imitated.

Doubts about Google's business model? They are such: Google continues to create tremendous value, but without capture (unlike the early and ongoing beautiful marriage of search and ads).

Facebook vs. LinkedIn. Facebook creates more value; it's cooler, does more, people love it more, it's just all around contributing to society more. But LinkedIn does provide value, and it captures that value better because it's an environment in which it's sensible to charge some users (and for them to pay) for premium services. You could say Facebook is the better company from the public's eye, but LinkedIn is the better business.

The Lure of Technology and Excuses about Blogging

My Lenovo died over the weekend. It never worked perfectly; I had problems with the graphics card from purchase, and it performed consistently slower than it should have, despite my persistent efforts to remove bloatware and guard against spyware.

The Lenovo/IBM came from a company best known for its quality commodity products, but in my case it came with RAM, memory, and extra doohickeys that were state-of-the-art when I bought it a year and a half ago. By getting a product that way, I violated my previous mentor Larry's advice about buying "at the knee of the curve."

Larry was one of my mentors in 1999 when I took a year off from school and worked in a laboratory environment. I had never worked in a laboratory and I constantly did stuff to piss Larry off, mostly because I was motivated and looking for ways to be helpful in an environment that had no idea what to do with me (I thought this problem was particular to that lab, and then I thought it was particular to academia; now I understand it's normal for older people managing motivated youngsters - they know nothing, but they are more motivated and in some ways smarter).

Larry taught me a few excellent lessons. Probably the most important one was that he taught me computer programming. Not everyone would be impressed by my computer programming, but I know some stuff, and he got me off on the right foot. It has been said, "Good programmers code; great programmers reuse." Larry taught me that by giving me a bunch of his code to jump-start me in writing code to control a test apparatus in the laboratory. Without ever having taken a class, I learned coding in a way that was appropriate to me, akin to language immersion. I still have never taken a class in programming, and I still code everything by reuse. I might not be the greatest programmer ever, but I'm fast and the stuff works. (I just wish Larry had taught me css because Linkspank could use some style, despite Darkspank.)

The Larry lesson at hand was buying at the knee of the curve. We bought plenty of computers and equipment in our laboratory environment, and since it was a high-physics lab all of these prosaic decisions were made by physicists rather than procurement managers or engineers or business people. Larry explained that you were best off buying a computer or anything else at the "knee of the curve" and he drew a graph to explain it (like a good physicist). The cost of what you are getting rises gently in a line, but when you get to newer technology the cost suddenly rockets up. You want to buy the stuff that is just before where it rockets up - that's the knee of the curve.

It may be that the knee of the curve solves some sort of optimization for the value you are getting for your money. But viewed from a business lens as well as a physicist-economist lens, it makes sense to buy at the curve because the more expensive technology is "bleeding edge", and the people who are bleeding edge are not the developers of the technology (who are making the only profits they can make in their line of business, since the cheaper stuff ain't profitable), but consumers like you and me. We bleed because the stuff breaks.

Expensive technology is not better; it's worse, because it breaks. My Lenovo is an example. The Nokia N series is an example. All-in-one printers are lost in a no-man's land between commodities and luxury products.

In my opinion, if you are buying technology, you should buy the best thing in the arena of completely cheap stuff.

There are two exceptions: toys, and special needs. Here is where it gets complicated, because people tend to file computers under one or both of these areas. But I would suggest that life is much nicer and more fun if you can draw crisp lines around the toys and special needs, away from the stuff that you actually need to work. I use my iPod touch to work (I wrote about 10-15% of my novel on it) but it's a toy; if it breaks, I can do pretty much everything anyway on my Blackberry.

For this reason, if you are a gamer, maybe it's better to go for Xbox over WoW. Or have separate computers.

Actually Larry taught me that too: about having production configurations. You don't install anything on a computer that you're doing work on. It's the only way to avoid messing it up (rather, it's a necessary, but not sufficient step).

If you view the knee of the curve philosophy more broadly as pertaining to non-monetary expenditures, you could think of it as a mantra by which you can allocate how you spend your time. Spend your time on things where it's easy, and you get good returns. Don't work too hard on anything, and don't dabble in anything. Work on things a proper, middle amount until you don't have any time left.

I'm not sure what that means about blogging. It would imply that blogging just a tiny amount is a total waste, and that putting tons of effort in is a waste (no problem there, since there is no professionally written blog on the web). Maybe it's telling about how a venture is going: you put in your effort up to the knee of the curve, and either the venture is working or it's not. If it's not, maybe you should drop it rather than going up into the high-cost zone (sweating blood to get anywhere); either it fundamentally works or it doesn't.

Life should be full of toys and commodities; may the twain never meet.