Thursday, May 17, 2007

Journey of an Afropreneur:Buggy code, killer mosquitoes and the phoenix

I finally managed to move house about two weeks ago but since the internet connection in my new neighborhood literally "sucks!!" I haven't managed to do much, I even went as far as giving Al my laptop for close to two weeks as I cleared the boxes. With the boxes cleared and my body having recovered, I have now discovered that even with an internet connection I can't connect from the bedroom, the signal is just too weak, so now I've shifted base to the sitting room where the connection is much better and the mosquitoes really kick butt!! Seriously the mosquitoes in this new place put the amazon to shame but I will survive.

Today we had a meeting with the same CEO who had wanted to build an online business, but this time I went there with Al and the other guy who was to be a partner in the business. The meeting went pretty well but as usual left me tired like a mexican mule. The next few days will be critical as we solidify the requirements and prepare to build another online business.

Right now I'm dealing with a buggy PHP code base for an app that a contractor developed for us. The error I keep getting is this:

"Error unable to connect to database server Can't connect to local MySQL server through socket '/var/run/mysqld/mysqld.sock' (2)"

Nothing major based upon my experiences but somehow escaping me at midnight after a long evening.It's amazing that when you look at somebody else's code it doesn't matter how good you are in the particular language it all looks like gibberish and you keep going like this "duh!aah!uuuh!oooh!!.." until you realise that in time you'll figure out the errors and finally prevail.

I decided to change my gmail status message to Phoenix I think because I simply love the name and it exudes with confidence and hope, at this point I need hope and faith to push me through the tough times.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Academia is back

I'm back in school this time with another crazy course load consisting of:

  1. Business law
  2. Introduction to Macro Economics
  3. World Civilisations
  4. Advanced Networking Concepts
  5. Computer Graphics
I hate academia.....

Friday, May 04, 2007

How to Start a Startup

I stumbled upon this article while surfing techcrunch.com I hope it gives you invaluable insight as you venture into the world of entrepreneurship:

How to Start a Startup

You need three things to create a successful startup: to start with good people, to make something customers actually want, and to spend as little money as possible. Most startups that fail do it because they fail at one of these. A startup that does all three will probably succeed.


And that's kind of exciting, when you think about it, because all three are doable. Hard, but doable. And since a startup that succeeds ordinarily makes its founders rich, that implies getting rich is doable too. Hard, but doable.

If there is one message I'd like to get across about startups, that's it. There is no magically difficult step that requires brilliance to solve.

The Idea

In particular, you don't need a brilliant idea to start a startup around. The way a startup makes money is to offer people better technology than they have now. But what people have now is often so bad that it doesn't take brilliance to do better.

Google's plan, for example, was simply to create a search site that didn't suck. They had three new ideas: index more of the Web, use links to rank search results, and have clean, simple web pages with unintrusive keyword-based ads. Above all, they were determined to make a site that was good to use. No doubt there are great technical tricks within Google, but the overall plan was straightforward. And while they probably have bigger ambitions now, this alone brings them a billion dollars a year. [1]

There are plenty of other areas that are just as backward as search was before Google. I can think of several heuristics for generating ideas for startups, but most reduce to this: look at something people are trying to do, and figure out how to do it in a way that doesn't suck.

For example, dating sites currently suck far worse than search did before Google. They all use the same simple-minded model. They seem to have approached the problem by thinking about how to do database matches instead of how dating works in the real world. An undergrad could build something better as a class project. And yet there's a lot of money at stake. Online dating is a valuable business now, and it might be worth a hundred times as much if it worked.

An idea for a startup, however, is only a beginning. A lot of would-be startup founders think the key to the whole process is the initial idea, and from that point all you have to do is execute. Venture capitalists know better. If you go to VC firms with a brilliant idea that you'll tell them about if they sign a nondisclosure agreement, most will tell you to get lost. That shows how much a mere idea is worth. The market price is less than the inconvenience of signing an NDA.

Another sign of how little the initial idea is worth is the number of startups that change their plan en route. Microsoft's original plan was to make money selling programming languages, of all things. Their current business model didn't occur to them until IBM dropped it in their lap five years later.

Ideas for startups are worth something, certainly, but the trouble is, they're not transferrable. They're not something you could hand to someone else to execute. Their value is mainly as starting points: as questions for the people who had them to continue thinking about.

What matters is not ideas, but the people who have them. Good people can fix bad ideas, but good ideas can't save bad people.

People

What do I mean by good people? One of the best tricks I learned during our startup was a rule for deciding who to hire. Could you describe the person as an animal? It might be hard to translate that into another language, but I think everyone in the US knows what it means. It means someone who takes their work a little too seriously; someone who does what they do so well that they pass right through professional and cross over into obsessive.

What it means specifically depends on the job: a salesperson who just won't take no for an answer; a hacker who will stay up till 4:00 AM rather than go to bed leaving code with a bug in it; a PR person who will cold-call New York Times reporters on their cell phones; a graphic designer who feels physical pain when something is two millimeters out of place.

Almost everyone who worked for us was an animal at what they did. The woman in charge of sales was so tenacious that I used to feel sorry for potential customers on the phone with her. You could sense them squirming on the hook, but you knew there would be no rest for them till they'd signed up.

If you think about people you know, you'll find the animal test is easy to apply. Call the person's image to mind and imagine the sentence "so-and-so is an animal." If you laugh, they're not. You don't need or perhaps even want this quality in big companies, but you need it in a startup.

For programmers we had three additional tests. Was the person genuinely smart? If so, could they actually get things done? And finally, since a few good hackers have unbearable personalities, could we stand to have them around?

That last test filters out surprisingly few people. We could bear any amount of nerdiness if someone was truly smart. What we couldn't stand were people with a lot of attitude. But most of those weren't truly smart, so our third test was largely a restatement of the first.

When nerds are unbearable it's usually because they're trying too hard to seem smart. But the smarter they are, the less pressure they feel to act smart. So as a rule you can recognize genuinely smart people by their ability to say things like "I don't know," "Maybe you're right," and "I don't understand x well enough."

This technique doesn't always work, because people can be influenced by their environment. In the MIT CS department, there seems to be a tradition of acting like a brusque know-it-all. I'm told it derives ultimately from Marvin Minsky, in the same way the classic airline pilot manner is said to derive from Chuck Yeager. Even genuinely smart people start to act this way there, so you have to make allowances.

It helped us to have Robert Morris, who is one of the readiest to say "I don't know" of anyone I've met. (At least, he was before he became a professor at MIT.) No one dared put on attitude around Robert, because he was obviously smarter than they were and yet had zero attitude himself.

Like most startups, ours began with a group of friends, and it was through personal contacts that we got most of the people we hired. This is a crucial difference between startups and big companies. Being friends with someone for even a couple days will tell you more than companies could ever learn in interviews. [2]

It's no coincidence that startups start around universities, because that's where smart people meet. It's not what people learn in classes at MIT and Stanford that has made technology companies spring up around them. They could sing campfire songs in the classes so long as admissions worked the same.

If you start a startup, there's a good chance it will be with people you know from college or grad school. So in theory you ought to try to make friends with as many smart people as you can in school, right? Well, no. Don't make a conscious effort to schmooze; that doesn't work well with hackers.

What you should do in college is work on your own projects. Hackers should do this even if they don't plan to start startups, because it's the only real way to learn how to program. In some cases you may collaborate with other students, and this is the best way to get to know good hackers. The project may even grow into a startup. But once again, I wouldn't aim too directly at either target. Don't force things; just work on stuff you like with people you like.

Ideally you want between two and four founders. It would be hard to start with just one. One person would find the moral weight of starting a company hard to bear. Even Bill Gates, who seems to be able to bear a good deal of moral weight, had to have a co-founder. But you don't want so many founders that the company starts to look like a group photo. Partly because you don't need a lot of people at first, but mainly because the more founders you have, the worse disagreements you'll have. When there are just two or three founders, you know you have to resolve disputes immediately or perish. If there are seven or eight, disagreements can linger and harden into factions. You don't want mere voting; you need unanimity.

In a technology startup, which most startups are, the founders should include technical people. During the Internet Bubble there were a number of startups founded by business people who then went looking for hackers to create their product for them. This doesn't work well. Business people are bad at deciding what to do with technology, because they don't know what the options are, or which kinds of problems are hard and which are easy. And when business people try to hire hackers, they can't tell which ones are good. Even other hackers have a hard time doing that. For business people it's roulette.

Do the founders of a startup have to include business people? That depends. We thought so when we started ours, and we asked several people who were said to know about this mysterious thing called "business" if they would be the president. But they all said no, so I had to do it myself. And what I discovered was that business was no great mystery. It's not something like physics or medicine that requires extensive study. You just try to get people to pay you for stuff.

I think the reason I made such a mystery of business was that I was disgusted by the idea of doing it. I wanted to work in the pure, intellectual world of software, not deal with customers' mundane problems. People who don't want to get dragged into some kind of work often develop a protective incompetence at it. Paul Erdos was particularly good at this. By seeming unable even to cut a grapefruit in half (let alone go to the store and buy one), he forced other people to do such things for him, leaving all his time free for math. Erdos was an extreme case, but most husbands use the same trick to some degree.

Excerpt Taken From …>>>

http://www.paulgraham.com/start.html

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Bad events and preparing for some of them

This week has been rather tough on me, for the first time in the last years I have to move houses even though this isn’t anything major it is quite demanding considering that I have to co-ordinate issues in the current house and also ensure that the next house is sorted so that when I move in everything is okay. Take for instance the issue of electricity, if you’ve ever moved house you know that you have to get the electricity connected in your new place, especially in the case where your moving into a full house compared to a block of flats where electricity bills usually come in the name of the landlord who then forwards them to the respective houses, so today after trying to sort out issues with the vacating tenant I discovered that I now need to sort out the electricity and ensure that by Saturday (the day I’m moving) I do have electricity. Hopefully all this stuff will fall in place in the next few days.

I’ve talked about our cat before Peeps, well off late she’s been behaving rather strangely, in fact her movements and regular activities have almost come to an end. On Sunday as I prepared lunch (vegetables, meat and ugali) with my better half, we both noticed that she wasn’t really making the point of ensuring that we gave her the meat to eat and this was strange because usually she gets on our case about the meat even before we un-wrap it, well this time she didn’t. So after we had eaten our lunch I proceeded to serve her with the juiciest bone I could get my hands on, she didn’t eat the meat and later on I couldn’t find her (she’s been known to go missing for days). Well today I found her actually my baby sister found her at the corner of the house on a pile of old papers dead, it came as a shock to me and despite my tough exterior I was truly saddened. It’s amazing that I had grown so attached to her over the past few months that now that she’s dead it truly affects me. I took her body and buried her at the corner of our backyard in the evening.

Peeps(2006-May 2007) R.I.P

On the other side of town Al my partner was having his share of troubles, his hard disk had crashed on Monday evening so whenever he tried to boot the machine it would display the unnerving message UNABLE TO LOAD NTLDR. Now this kind of message doesn’t scare you much when your hard disk is filled with nothing more than several gigs of music and a few video games but when it has your business plan, financials, project proposals and God knows everything business related it is cause for concern. Never you mind that just a few months back, Al was robbed of his tablet PC which also had a lot of business material. I’m no hardware/software guru so when he made the point of calling me when he discovered this and the little knowledge that I knew pointed towards the solution being a repair of the current operating system using a bootable version of Windows XP CD. I didn’t have the CD with me so we attempted to repair it using a bootable USB version of WinXP on labour day which didn’t work. I eventually managed to get the CD to Al on Wednesday evening and he was to later on inform me that the repair didn’t work and that he was forced to format the hard disk!!..What?!??!...yes format the hard disk. At this point I need to point out that a potential client had just told Al to mail him the proposal he was working on for them and that another potential client would probably be asking for a meeting where Al would present the proposal he had been working on. Now do you see why I’ve had a tough week? The implications of this on our business cannot be overstated in fact it puts as in a rather bad situation as well as in a vulnerable position. One hopes and prays that these things never happen to you but they do, the lesson to be learned from all this is always prepare for the worst.

In a totally related news kind off, the May edition of Business 2.0 (read this magazine if you’re serious about business) was accidentally deleted from the servers and no backups were available. The only good thing is that there were copies of the content available as email but the layout was lost completely.

If the two stories above aren’t a good case for backing up your data then I don’t know what is. In case you’re wondering how you can store most of your important documents online check out the following great and free services:

Box.net (I have an account with these guys and the service is excellent plus they have this embeddable widget that practically allows you to display some of your backed up/uploaded documents on a website (preferably your blog) for other people to download) plus the interface is pretty tight. I give these guys a rating of 8 on scale of one to ten.

Badongo.comI haven’t used this service but AL has, I did have a look at the website and it looks pretty cool, I can’t seem to get the name though but who cares as long as it works.

If none of these work for you then go the old fashioned way and buy an external USB hard drive preferably 100GB and above. I got mine last year and so far it’s proved invaluable; it’s slightly larger than a cigarette pack in length so it easily fits in the pocket and is light to, contains 120GB of storage and cost just about Ksh8000 ($115 USD) from amazon.com.

Let me see how the weekend will be.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Journey of an Afropreneur: Optimism , Pessimism and the Entrepreneur

I often ask myself whether an entrepreneur can afford to be pessimistic, the reason I ask myself is because one of the biggest assets as well as liabilities to any entrepreneur is optimism. Optimism is what makes you believe that the worst is over and that better days lie ahead, optimism is what gives you the assurance that you’re on the right track even when other people think differently, and it’s what wakes you up in the morning and gives you the strength to face the challenges of starting and running that business.

On the other hand optimism can blind you from the fact that may be just may be your dead wrong and you need to change course quickly before you and your idea are confined to the annals of history. In fact during my entrepreneurship class in university last semester, we were told that a large number of entrepreneurs suffer from too much optimism which can lead to depression especially in cases where the business does fail. So is optimism really a good thing? Well that is debatable in my view and I cannot discount the fact that in most cases optimism will open more doors then close them, but is there room for a pessimistic entrepreneur in the business world?

As a self confessed and proud pessimist (I just stumbled upon the word pragmatist in the dictionary and I think that is more fitting of who I am), I often tend to focus on pointing out the problems (translated as challenges) of any idea before I pounce on it. Al my partner is a serial optimist and as such is a complete opposite of me which is a very good thing because we almost complement each other. On one hand he sees the endless possibilities of one idea while I see the enormous challenges within the idea, this is good because as I see the problems I also attempt to visualize the possible solutions.

In my view pessimism is the little guy on your shoulder who keeps telling you to stop dreaming and get back to reality, and I don’t mind having that guy around in fact I think the role he plays cannot be overstated. The challenge comes in striking a balance between the optimism and pessimism, if one outweighs the other there is bound to be chaos.