Size does matter

When it comes to technology, size does matter – the smaller, the better. 

I love the iPad. I think there’s no comparable device on the market yet, and doing what I do I’ve tried all of them. For the past few weeks, I’ve been using the iPad mini. It’s awesome, so much so that I’ve stopped using its older, heavier, larger predecessor – the iPad.

There seems to be a trend in technology: it’s becoming invisible. Google Project Glass, the Pebble watch, the artificial retina are great examples. I dream of a world where I can use, touch, speak to technology without actually seeing it. And I dream of a world where all this invisible technology is connected to the internet and interconnected with all my devices. 

What’s even more exciting is that the hardware for turning all these products into reality is not tens of years away. It’s here. The software isn’t yet, but it will catch-up. We live in the future and I love that I get to be a part of it. Just wanted to put that out there.

Benjamin Franklin, pride and TV for smart people

I’ve been reading a lot of biographies recently. Steve Jobs, Einstein, Jeff Bezos, Karl Marx and, most recently, the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (which, if you ask me, should be compulsory material in college regardless of one’s academic major). Franklin’s entire biography is a wonderful read of wisdom and inspiration, but this one paragraph has really stuck with me over the past few days:

“In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride.  Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it, perhaps, often in this history; for, even if I could conceive that I had compleatly overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.”

If I look back, pride has always driven me towards making mistakes. This one time when I was about 21, I was unhappy that my software company was utterly unsexy (notwithstanding that it was profitable and growing), so I decided to become a “media mogul” in Romania. After investing in equipment, production studio, TV presenters and video editing experts, I launched BrainTV, an online TV channel positioned as “TV for smart people”. A year later it was shut down. Looking back, it was nothing but vanity and the desire to be in the spotlight that made me launch BrainTV. In other words, pride. It wasn’t solving any problem and, frankly, we weren’t even that good at it. Lesson learned.

At the same time, whenever I was brave enough to swallow my pride, things worked out so much better. When you’re not doing whatever you’re doing in order for others to see how smart, successful, sexy or creative you are, chances are you’ll actually focus on doing the things that really matter and make a difference. Just don’t be too proud about it.

Delivering instant gratification

Over the past week, we’ve been working on a new presentation video at Brainient and we needed a voiceover for it. If it were 1999, we would have had to put up an ad in a newspaper, organise an audition and hire a studio. It would’ve taken about a month and cost $3,000. In 2012, we just uploaded our voiceover text to a website called Voices.com and two hours later we had 65 people who had auditioned, offering to do the whole thing for an average cost of $150. That’s 100 times faster and 20 times cheaper.

The internet has enabled humanity to achieve many great things, and one of these things is the ability to deliver instant gratification to almost every existing sector, from retail, to film, to finance, to voiceovers. And I’d go as far as saying that the success of many of the great companies of our generation is very much based on the ability to deliver gratification in real-time. It’s why iTunes, Spotify, Kindle, Netflix and Google’s AdWords have thrived and grown at such an enormous pace as they have.

Now, not long ago the lack of the psychological trait of being able to delay gratification used to be considered somewhat of a psychological disfunction but the internet has made it absolutely normal to expect things to be delivered instantly. Would you rather wait 3 days for a book or have it delivered on your device in 3 seconds? Would you prefer to wait 1 month for a voiceover or have it deliver in 1 day? Would you like your software to come in a box or do you prefer to download it from your phone?

People want instant gratification and if you’re not delivering it, chances are that another company will. It can be a serious competitive edge or it can bury you. So next time you think about a new product or a new feature, ask yourself if it makes your customers or users feel good, in real-time. The best products are a lot like chocolate – they offer a strong kick when tasted and always make you come back for more.

Why I stopped attending conferences

I used to go to a lot of events. SXSW, The Next Web, Dublin Web Summit, Le Web, DLD, Founders Forum, f.ounders – you name it, I was there. Networking away, pitching, talking and having drinks with everyone from Jack Dorsey to Reid Hoffman (see how subtle my namedropping was?).

I have, however, stopped (well, almost, but more on that later), after realising one very simple fact: they’re a waste of time if you’re not the person on stage. You see, most people go to events to hear and see the people on stage talk. The ones on stage are usually hard-working individuals who are doing something so cool that everyone wants a piece of them. You don’t really see them at events unless they’re invited as speakers, because they’re too busy building some cool. Quite ironic, isn’t it?

So towards the end of last year, I took a look at all the events I attended during the year (where I wasn’t a speaker) and assessed the ROI. Unsurprisingly, other than having a bit of fun and catching up with people I already knew, there wasn’t much value to them. On the other hand, events where I was invited as a speaker generated tons of new contacts, business opportunities and even clients. I decided not to attend events unless the organisers feel I could add value as a speaker. And even then, I only select the ones that Brainient could benefit from directly.

That being said, there’s one little caveat to my argument above. I’m missing out on the serendipitous element of conferences (you know, that one investor you met in a bar who decided to write you a cheque there and then). And I do think that serendipity plays a role in an entrepreneur’s success. So I kept a small list of events that I still attend. They’re usually un-conferences, with no formal speakers or presentations, and invite-only, thoroughly curated by their organisers. f.ounders, Founders Forum and STREAM are very good examples.

In conclusion, some of my friends will hate me for saying this, but rather than paying hundreds or thousands of pounds for some of the upcoming technology conferences in Europe, you’d be much better off spending that cash on a better website and that time on calling up some customers. But, of course, that won’t give you bragging rights that you got drunk with Loic Le Meur.

 

Why startups should charge customers. A lot.

There’s a mistake many startups make (yours truly included) when they first start talking to customers: “yeah, we’re early stage so you can use it for free until we get out of beta”; or, “yeah, you’re a beta client so we’ll give you a big discount”. After all, there’s nothing wrong with getting pilot clients to prove your business, right? Um, wrong. The thing is that if you get customers used to the fact they get stuff for free, they’ll never want to spend a lot of money on it. And if you give them a discounted rate from the beginning, they’ll never want to pay more. It sucks. Of course, if your product’s like crack and gets them addicted instantly, by all means offer a free trial but for a very limited period of time.

We’ve been through this at Brainient. In order to prove that our business works, we went in and gave customers access to our platform at discounted rates. That worked well to get some proof of concept, but 12 months in we went back asking for more money and, surprise, surprise, they weren’t willing to pay much more. Main argument? “Well, if you could offer me this for that price, it means you’re just charging more to make better margin.”

So, next time you go speaking to customers – charge your full rates regardless what stage your company’s at (and prove the value of the product, by the way). It’s better to have them come back for discounts rather than you going to them asking for more money. Lesson learned.

Taking it in

I watched MasterChef last night, a BBC production that takes everyday wannabe-chefs and brings in Michelin-star rated chefs to teach them how to create beautiful, tasty dishes. It’s an amazing production, and last night was the semi-final. The three remaining contestants were taken to Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant where the Head Chef Clare Smyth trained them on how to cook a three-course meal. One of the contestants, responsible with the desert, needed to be very precise with the amount of sugar in his composition. 50 grams, to be precise. After spending 30 minutes preparing it, he added a spoon of sugar rather than weigh it to make sure it’s exactly 50 grams. Chef Clare Smyth saw that and asked him to redo it, despite the fact they were under extreme time pressure. He took it in and did it again.

That requires a lot of discipline and determination. Over the years, I’ve learnt that the best feedback is very often the harsh type. It’s stuff that hits you in the face and slams you to the floor. It’s not pleasant and it still makes me feel ill whenever it happens, but I’ve learnt to take it all in and use it constructively. I guess it’s kinda like the glass half-empty or half-full story. You take it in and suck it up or give up and go home. No MasterChef Award for you, so which one’s gonna be?

Caveat: one should also be careful never to confuse harsh feedback from people they trust with blind criticism from people they don’t. The latter should be ignored altogether.

 

Acting like a grown-up

One of my investors gave me a good slap today. She does that every now and then and I love her for it. While discussing about managing investor relations and dealing with my team and my board, she sent me this email:

You are no longer CEO of a little startup that makes no impact. You are now CEO of a funded company dealing w/some big players both on the investor side and customer side. Unfortunately, you don’t get to play the I’m young card. Actually you aren’t young anymore 🙂

Now, there aren’t a lot of people these days who are willing to “stab you in the front” like that, as Oscar Wilde once put it. I’ve been fortunate to have a few of them around me, and as painful as it is to hear their blunt observations, it’s amazing how big of a difference these little moments make. Acting like a grown-up – that’s one thing I never really thought about, but I guess it makes sense. Because the more mature you feel and act, the more that reflects in the way you manage things. Or, at least that’s what the grown-up in me thinks. The other side’s now gonna go and play some Moshi Monsters.