Hardly blogging at all…

I still have things I want to write about. I’ve just been using all of my writing energy for MassLandlords.net. Here’s an update showing where my work time has gone.

time utilization graph

Time utilization as of 12/8/14.

You can see that ArtistBomb (blue) has gone way down.  The two purple colors are both MassLandlords.net.  Light purple labeled as “MassLandlords.net” counts Internet-facing work only. “WPOA” is the same organization but counts back-end administration, including finances, management, and a very little public policy advocacy.

So what happened to ArtistBomb?

Well, with any business it’s a race against opportunity cost. I worked hard for ArtistBomb, as the graph shows. Out of all the working hours in the past two years, ArtistBomb received just about half, or one full year. But ultimately, I’m not the music industry guy. When I was asked to take a more active role in MassLandlords.net, it seemed like the contributions I could make there could be more “on point” than what I was able to do at ArtistBomb. For me personally, it seemed like the opportunity lost by not working MassLandlords.net would be greater than the opportunity lost by not working ArtistBomb.

Plus, MassLandlords.net is already able to pay me a little bit.

For the rest of the folks there at ArtistBomb, I think it still makes sense to push forward. We can clearly see the need for what the company’s doing. Once they figure out a reliable income stream, they can build on that.

I think the challenge for ArtistBomb remains time allocation, actually. I doubt anyone there tracks their time to this level, but if they did, their ArtistBomb color might look more like my “WPOA” color: an important but small and variable focus. In startup land essentially all of the early work remains uncompensated. So finding more time to work on the startup can only be helped with funding or with financial independence.

As the graph shows, I’m still supporting the company with what I can provide, including legal and tax compliance. And I know they have big things in store. Big ideas take a long time to develop. In the meantime, we all need to make ends meet.

So what’s with MassLandlords?

Things are going well. But there’s a long road between where we are and full time paid staff.

All signs are that we’ll get there. It will depend to a large degree on whether we can build trust among the landlords in the state. We need their willingness to coordinate with us to reach “economies of scale.” Right now, for instance, there are still 17 groups that produce their own email newsletter without any of the benefit of our greater experience or content. We’re hoping to eliminate redundancies like this. It will free up local volunteers to focus on local problems. It will send resources to the state-level to tackle problems shared state-wide.

The time management challenge for me, personally, is not getting sucked into the never-end public policy work that lies ahead. This requires a full time paid public policy person, like they have at a local Chamber of Commerce. My mission is to build to that point. But the Commonwealth’s challenges concerning landlord-tenant law are manifest, and landlords are asking me to tackle those as soon as possible.

I’ll do what I can.

Montien Thai Restaurant Pricing Practices

Last night I ate at Montien, a Thai restaurant in Boston.  The food was good, as usual.  When we got the check, I noticed one entrée was $2 more than the menu list price (about 10%).  I didn’t think much of it.  It seemed pretty normal that a printed menu might have fallen out of date.

The waitress came by to get my credit card.

She said, “Oh, would you like to pay cash to save 10%?”

I said, “What?”

She said, “See, you can pay cash and save 10%.”

She pointed to a line on the check that said something like, “Sign here to agree to pay cash and save 10%.”

I signed.  She handed the credit card back, took the check, and said she’d be right back.  She came back with a new check with a 10% lower total cost.

I looked at one appetizer and saw that it had also been billed at a price higher than the menu.  About 10% higher.  As a matter of interest, so had everything else. I was now paying what I had expected to pay, based on the menu list prices.

I put three twenties into the check fold.  The waitress picked it up and came back with change.  We didn’t have any singles, which would have been necessary to leave a normal amount of tip, so I flagged her down again. She broke my five into ones. We left the tip and left the restaurant.

A Questionable Pricing Practice

Shouldn’t the menu have had an asterisk somewhere saying, “List prices are for cash”? Maybe it did.

Either way, you can’t list the price of a Chili-Chili Duck as $20.95, then charge me for $22.95, and tell me I’m getting a discount by paying cash. I’m really being charged more for using a credit card.

Does a 10% surcharge make sense? Here are the costs for a $50 dinner for two:

 Customer Pays with Credit CardCustomer Pays with Cash
Credit card
processing fee
$1.50 to $2.50n/a
Waitstaff time
(1 min ea. visit
to table; $10/hr
wage)
$0.33$0.66
Processing cost$1.83 to $2.83$0.66
Customer Surcharge($5)($0)
Loss (Gain)
from Processing
($3.17 to $2.18)$0.66

Under the surcharge scheme, the restaurant makes additional money every time someone pays with credit card. But they have their waitstaff making as many as two extra trips to the table, plus they have back room expenses associated with counting, safeguarding, and depositing all that cash.

Nevermind all that, I felt deceived. As I said above, it was presented to me as a discount, but I was observant enough to see that it wasn’t. I probably won’t go back. The extra $2 to $3 they got from me may be the last of it.

It’ll depend on how much I want that Chili-Chili Duck.

Learning from an Early Flop

The BagPack, sold at HandsFreeGroceries.com, has been on sale for just about a year this month. It’s time to take stock, figuratively speaking, but also literally. I just withdrew BagPack inventory from Amazon’s distribution center. It’s not that I want to stop selling it, it’s just that I need to avoid Amazon’s long-term inventory charge. I’m getting charged because my inventory isn’t moving. So here at the one-year mark is the story of the BagPack and my analysis of it, seen through my increasingly seasoned lens.

The BagPack started as a serious endeavor. It’s a useful product with a potentially big impact. Ask yourself, how much carbon dioxide would we stop producing if we could carry our food from store to kitchen without a car, up stairs, with both hands free? It’s also a fun product. You’ve never carried 50 lbs of food with so little effort, enjoying the sunshine, holding an umbrella, talking on your phone. It’s really very good. As a matter of fact, I use mine every time I shop.

Doug wearing BagPack talking on phone.

Using the BagPack really is this much fun.

Enough of the sales pitch. From May through August 2013 it took about a quarter of my time, or 200 hours. I got it “patent pending”, with inventor Oliver Chadwick listed rightly as the primary inventor, built a website on SquareSpace, manufactured some inventory, learned how to ship from Amazon’s warehouses, and started digital marketing.

The manufacturing and shipping was the least problematic piece because it was the one with which I was most familiar. I was fortunate to get help from Jerry DeChristoforo.  Jerry may be an accidental entrepreneur, but the truth is his hands have played a key role in three different startups over the last three years: Terrafugia, the BagPack, and now Global Flight Systems. Jerry produced far more, far better than I could have.

Alas, my marketing skills and split attention let us down. My work at ArtistBomb was at that time ramping up sharply. There I learned from Brian Bahia the power of WordPress for search engine optimization. While working on ArtistBomb we traded services, and my end of the bargain was HandsFreeGroceries.com remade in WordPress. It looks identical to the old SquareSpace, but it works far differently behind the scenes. When I switched to WordPress, many of the mechanisms Google uses to index and rank a site became more obvious and accessible. But it was too late. All my content marketing and search engine efforts were by then being directed into ArtistBomb.

BagPack Analysis

In retrospect, the BagPack business model – sell online as a stand-alone product – is critically flawed. Manufacturing BagPacks at low volume in the US drives up the cost of goods sold (COGS, as they say) to the point where profit is too little to sustain the needed marketing. Our best source of referral traffic remains a blog we posted on, but it took posting on a dozen blogs and getting a couple of bloggers to review the BagPack before we happened across that one source of traffic.

In retrospect, I suspect this would have worked better:

  1. Use the prototype to create a compelling Kickstarter video;
  2. If the Kickstarter were successful, use the funds to open a BagPack supplier at much lower COGS; and
  3. Distribute through existing channels.

Existing channels means Whole Foods and other urban grocers.  Internet marketing had sex appeal for me (it still does), but it’s too expensive for this product. Think about this: lots of tech startups have a hard time making ends meet when their gross margin is 97% (the only thing it costs to sell another website subscription is the 3% credit card fee). So selling a BagPack with a gross margin of 3% is completely hopeless.

I tell you, though, it sure is fun when I get that email from Amazon saying they’ve shipped another BagPack.

If all this hindsight really is 20-20, then my marketing effort from this point on should go into a minimally acceptable website, a compelling Kickstarter video, and really nice consumer packaging. That traction and packaging could then be offered together to retailers.

Well, I don’t have the bandwidth to get this Kickstarted right now, but I may come back to it. I would also be ready to hand over the keys.  So if you’re interested in picking up a hand-me-down startup, contact me, we can figure it out.

What’s the difference between business and self-employment? Is what I’m doing a business or a job?

I found myself asking this question this morning. Here’s what I told myself.

The key difference must be whether future revenue is directly the result of future labor. If I can earn $100 next week only by working on my business that week, then I’m self-employed. But if I can reasonably expect to get that $100 regardless of how hard I work, whether I take a vacation or work overtime, then what I have is a business.

 

Unfunded startup businesses are brutally difficult, and feel like unsuccessful self-employment, because you work 60 hours a week to earn that measly $100. Some weeks 90% of what you do is recurring, mundane work, and only 10% of it actually builds the business into a better state. That 10% is what you live for those weeks. If you do it right, over time you create an infrastructure of revenue that comes without regard to your personal effort that week.

There’s an inflection point in entrepreneurship. If you never get past the inflection point, your business ventures will always be low-wage jobs. That point is break-even. Not for the business, but for you. If you can break even every month, pay your rent, buy your food, and see the occasional movie (or whatever it is you do when you’re not working), then you no longer need to keep every last dollar you earn.

800px-X_cubed_plot.svg

Here’s why that’s an inflection point:

Suppose you work 60 hours a week and earn $200 more than you need to live and be happy. 90% of that 60 hours may still be recurring, mundane work. It’s not building. But you’re supposed to be building, right? So don’t keep that $200. Take it and outsource the mundane work.

$200 goes a long way. If you hire someone at $20/hr, that’s an extra 8 hours you have to build your business each week (after taxes, overhead etc.). You’re still breaking even, so pretend the $200 wasn’t yours. And $200 can go even farther than that. Thanks to the Internet, you might find someone great to work for $4/hr, where $4 is a good wage. That’s a lot of time for you, and you’re providing needed employment.

This is why growth businesses don’t pay dividends.  They reinvest them.  So if you’re a bootstrapping entrepreneur, you shouldn’t dividend yourself, either. Break even and reinvest.  The same is not true for self-employment.  If you’re self-employed, you need to keep that extra $200 for a day when you can no longer work.

So, at the bootstrapping stage, that’s the difference between business and self-employment.

MassLandlords.net Conversion Rates and Statistics

MassLandlords.net is at the point where we have enough traffic to learn something about our site design, in particular, our conversion rates for member sign-ups.  Here’s an update that speaks simultaneously to how new I am at this, and also to the kinds of opportunities we have with statistical analysis.

The site has a “join” page, which presents visitors with two options:

  1. Give us just your email now to subscribe to our monthly newsletter; or
  2. Pay us now to have full access to the site and/or local meetings.

On May 21, the top part of the page went from this:

 

2014_05_21 - join before

to this:

2014_05_21 - join afterIf I were to summarize the differences, I’d say:

  • Fewer words
  • Easier English (“newsletter” instead of “each month we’ll blah blah blah”)
  • Tighter focus on alternatives with the ellipsis

The big, juicy “button” visible in these screenshots submits your email to register as a free member.  The really best features of the site are accessible only to paid members, and all the payment options are further down the screen. Since the paid sign-up design remained constant through the May 21 transition, I’m leaving it out of the analysis here.

One month later, today, here are some changes we’ve observed:

  • “Time on page” down 42%
  • “Bounce rate” down 56%
  • Rate of sign-up for the “free monthly newsletter” up 7x (700%)
  • Paid registration rate down 50%

Are those changes significant?

Enter what my brother taught me, “Fisher’s exact test.”  The probability that I would have gotten these results by random chance was very high for all changes, save one:

The odds of the free sign-up changing 7x by random chance are 1%.

Conclusion?  Maybe Landlords don’t want “each month we’ll give you premium content for free.”  What the hell does that mean?  But a newsletter?  Yeah, that sounds good.

But we should be careful.  All the statistics tell us is that between May and today, the people looking at our join page were significantly more likely to sign up for our email than from April to May. But the stats don’t say why.

Other factors include changing the privacy language, tightening the design up to remove whitespace, modifying that button, and a host of external factors, like the kinds of paid advertising we were doing to drive traffic.

Let’s talk about that button in particular.  Much is written about button size and color and shape.  In this case, our button changed because our CSS decided to do its own thing, and we let it go.  We didn’t intend for it to look different.  So don’t take this button as part of some big strategy.  It’s not, and I would be surprised if a deliberate button redesign could drive as much of a change as we saw.  When people write about buttons changing conversion rates, they conjure up images of cartoon character Stimpy being unable to resist pushing the beautiful red button, even though he knows it will erase history.

It’s worth watching Nickelodeon’s ads to see this clip.

The other benefit of running some stats behind the scenes is that we don’t have to panic about the decrease in paid registrations.  It looks like we lost half our paid customers, probably all of those to free email sign-ups.  But the probabilities are in favor of this change being a random fluctuation.  We’ll just continue to monitor it to make sure.

The Digital Gentrification of Facebook and the Internet

digital gentrification

One of my concerns the last month has been a change Facebook made to their algorithm.  They’re basically making it impossible to reach fans of business pages without paying to promote posts or get likes.  They call it “declining organic reach.”

If you decide to pay for likes, the results may surprise you.  I wrote in December about the problem of “promiscuous likers“.  This is now getting more serious attention.  One blogger created this viral anti-Facebook video in February.  I like his approach and his larger dataset better than the work I did last summer.  (Check it out if you’re thinking about advertising.)

Despite the twin pitfalls of declining organic reach and promiscuous likers, Facebook’s new algorithms still allow businesses with money to move into the neighborhood, set up shop, and get customers.  Meanwhile, poor companies and startups vacate their properties.  This process is nothing new.  It’s called gentrification.  Facebook is digitally gentrifying.

The same process is probably happening with Google AdWords.  Years ago cost per click ads were an order of magnitude cheaper.  Now you can easily pay $10 per click.  For some keywords, it makes no sense.  Then again, neither does overpaying for a brownstone in an up-and-coming neighborhood.  But rich people do it, and the poor folks leave when they can’t pay the new rent.

There’s a serious issue being discussed right now that threatens to gentrify the whole Internet: net neutrality.  In a nutshell, they’re talking about allowing Internet service providers to charge more for bandwidth needed to stream music and videos (mostly videos).  Netflix and other established players will be able to afford these higher prices.  Meanwhile, poor video startups may close up shop.  If the current ruling stands, ISP’s could charge any company and kill any startup they pleased.

I’m not pessimistic about this.  Facebook and Google aren’t the only ways startups can reach customers.  ISP throttling will inspire creative work-arounds.  But it does seem as if digital gentrification will take away the last of the low-hanging Internet fruit.  The amount of capital already at work online will throw up barriers to entry, and in desirable neighborhoods like Facebook, startups and small businesses will need to pony up or move out.

It seems there ought to be implications for investors in startups, as well.  If a company’s goal is just to “get eyeballs,” meanwhile deferring monetization and revenue in order to encourage fast growth, this strategy will probably require more capital than at any time in the past.

Fortunately, there are still two good ways to acquire customers for cheap: direct sales and search engine optimization.  Each of these costs you nothing but your time.  By working both in parallel, you can simultaneously interact with customers to find out what they want, and produce content that will attract future customers.  Now, even SEO is gentrifying a bit, as it’s already impossible to catch up to behemoth, highly ranked sites for certain topics.  But all you need to do is get started, and your niche is too tiny for the behemoths to fit into.

So if you’re upset that Facebook has undercut your online marketing, move to another neighborhood.  Once you’re moving at a faster speed, you can set your eyes on that Facebook property you’ve been wanting.

Angel Investors in Boston

ArtistBomb, Inc. has not pitched in front of any investor or group of angel investors in Boston.  We’ve had plenty of practice, and plenty of one-on-one conversations with mentors and gatekeepers.  Their questions and comments have surprised me.  These folks aren’t what I thought.

The Investor Spectrum

Investor Spectrum According to Doug

At the far “conservative” end you have Ben Graham, a conservative unsurpassed by anyone.  Ben Graham was Warren Buffett’s teacher.  He said, above all, you need to have a margin of safety.  Value a business assuming:

  1. egregious omissions or misdirection may exist in the information you have,
  2. growth will be no faster than at any time in the past, and probably much slower,
  3. the best picture of the business comes only from looking at many years of performance averaged together, especially down years, and
  4. if all else fails, you can sell the furniture.  

Consider all this when you value a business, and if the business securities still look cheap, you have a margin of safety.

Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger took the idea of margin of safety and combined it with the idea of economic moats.  Find a business with something truly unbeatable, like Coca Cola’s global recognition, and you can sleep easier at night knowing that no competitor can hold a candle to you.

At the extreme other end of the spectrum is Yosemite Sam, prospector and speculator.  His investment strategy is characterized by hope out of proportion to evidence.  

I thought all startup investors were like Yosemite Sam.  That was my limited experience, anyway.  In talking to angel investors in Boston about ArtistBomb, though, I’ve been surprised by how many of them care about margin of safety (like, revenue), economic moats (like unbeatable advantages), and track record (strong team).  These investors are, at best, only a distant cousin to Yosemite Sam.

But Yosemite Sam is out there.  Shouldn’t you just try to find him and be done with fundraising for a while?

Three Kinds of Funded Startups

I think you should probably forget about Yosemite Sam.  The crummy startups that I’ve seen him fund have been either

  • Digging in Fort Knox, OR
  • His personal friend.

The great startups that I’ve seen funded by others have what conservative investors want (at least, appropriate to their level of development).  They have margins and moats and track records.  And because they have these things, they’re most likely going to work out just fine.

Is your startup up to the task?  What do you think you’d do differently to get towards margins, moats, or track records?  Let me know in the comments below.

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