A Year In Review

IWNA Beijing Tour

Writing is always the first thing that gives, whether we’re having a bumper month or a ton of trouble with our architecture and product - it seems as though there is always an excuse not to write about it…

This was definitely the case last year, where I published a grand total of zero posts. I write as much for ‘future me’ as anyone else and I don’t want to look back on 2014 in a decades time and ask myself - “wait, what the hell happened that year?!”. In fact, a lot went on…

Sqwiggle

This deserves (and will get) a post or two for itself, needless to say it was a year far from smooth sailing and chock full of events.

I feel as though we experienced the entire startup lifecycle several times over from the post-raising hiring spree, a traction plateau and a trip through the infamous ‘valley of death’… much more to come on this.

Personal

On a personal level, 2014 was my most travelled year so far, and almost none of it planned more than a month in advance. It’s fantastic having our company set up in a way that makes this possible…

  • January - Starting the year with a week in New York
  • February - Lake Tahoe for our first company retreat
  • March - My first SXSW experience in Austin, Texas
  • April - Two weeks in Berlin checking out the scene
  • May - Back to England for two weeks sorting out visa
  • June - Moved back to San Francisco
  • September - Two weeks in Beijing and Hong Kong
  • November - Exploring Los Angeles for a quick break
  • December - A long weekend in Seoul for a speaking slot and christmas in England

At the beginning of summer I finally regained my H1B visa and moved back to San Francisco on a more permanent basis, found a room, bought some furniture and a bike.

It’s nice to have somewhere to call home for the first time in 3 years.

The Trouble with Timezones

The World

It is often perceived that the challenges in building a distributed team lie in communication over distance, however with todays incredible technology and tools the problem is really one of communication across timezones. At Sqwiggle we are currently spread across 4 timezones and it is this rather than distance that creates problems like confusion over meeting times, not enough crossover time for discussions, odd working hours and more. These are just a few of the tricks and thoughts that I’ve had on the topic:

Keep communications in one timezone

In emails and spoken conversations try and pick one timezone and stick to it in all of your communications. This small hack makes a huge difference in stopping confusion, and you’ll always know which timezone you arranged your meeting in. Of course which timezone you pick is upto you, it could be where you are based, where most of your clients are or where your company is, just be consistent.

Use a shared calendar

A shared calendar such as Google Calendar provides a whole bunch of benefits, for a start each participant sees the event in their own timezone and in relation to their own day - a huge confusion buster. A shared calendar also has the advantage of increasing transparency within the company

Don’t spread your team too thin

When we began advertising our open positions we received a lot of applications from all over the world thanks to our “you must remote work” policy! This was great but we soon realised that at our size and stage of the company we would have to filter out many applications purely based on location so that we could reduce our timezone-spread.

Split your day in two

Right now we are beginning to deal with the maker / manager transition at Sqwiggle. In my experience so far, being based in Europe with over half our team in the US affords a distinctive split in the day where the morning is quiet and great for focus on coding tasks whilst the afternoon becomes planning, discussion and other non-maker duties.

Something’s gotta give

Even taking these thoughts into account I’ve found that when working closely with a geographically diverse team the best thing you can do is increase the amount of crossover that you have for syncronous communication. This generally means one or both parties shifting working hours to accommodate more time spent working together. Sqwiggle has proven very useful in this respect and I often stay logged in until late into the evening making me available for anyone on the team to ask quick questions that come up during their day.

Do you have any tips for working more effectively between timezones? Let me know in the comments, I’d love to give them a try

Photo by Stephen Ritchie

Commuting, Inefficiency and Working From The Beach

Commuting

This weeks Startup Edition asks the brilliant, open-ended question “why are you working on your startup?”. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day of building a new company I thought this would be a great chance to pause and reflect, what brought me here and why is this so important?

The startup I’m working on is called Sqwiggle, we’ve taken to calling it your office in the cloud - a place where remote and distributed teams can feel as connected and together as a real world office.

Connecting the dots backwards it is easy for me to see a pattern of factors in my life that have led up to building this company and mission.

I’ve always been drawn to the idea of working without a fixed location and being tied to a desk was one of the reasons that I left my previous career in architecture. Once we really took the plunge at Buffer by moving to Hong Kong, I knew that this was a way I could enjoy working for a long time (although, fixing bugs from the beach can be both awesome and a burden!).

One of my character traits is a sensitivity to inefficiency - I take shortcuts, jaywalk, multitask, answer emails whilst… well, doing anything and do my upmost to get as much productivity as possible out of every moment! One of the biggest and most frustrating examples of inefficiencies in the world is the life of a typical knowledge worker.

They sleep at home, have breakfast, catch a moment with the kids(?) and then head out the door - commute to work, sometimes taking an hour or more and sit for 8 hours in a drab, uninspiring office building in front of a computer that’s probably slower and older than the one they have at home. Then they travel home in the same traffic, catch a moment with the kids before they sleep and repeat. This system wastes untold amounts of energy and time in an age when we’re desperately short on both.

To me this is one of the biggest opportunities for revolution in business today. The technology is there, but the tools and attitudes to working remotely have not caught up. I have a passion for building things that make peoples lives better and what better way to do that than improving the way they work?

Last week we had the greatest email from one of our customers. They said they were considering moving house to a different town that they would enjoy more now they were using Sqwiggle at their company.

Notes like this are why I can’t wait to wake up and work on Sqwiggle every day.

Photo by Ashley Campbell

Lessons Learnt Raising Our Million Dollar Seed Round

San Francisco

Over the last two months I’ve had the incredible privilege of being in San Francisco putting together a seed round for Sqwiggle with my co-founders, Matt and Eric. Incase you haven’t come across it, Sqwiggle is a tool for distributed and remote teams to communicate better - we want to make remote working truly great.

Looking back, I can’t even really remember the moment that we decided to raise funding. We kicked around the idea since day one and had discussed on many occasions. In the end, we came to a consensus: with a little more money we could grow much faster and it would really help with the larger technical hurdles we were facing. Within a day I had a flight booked to the U.S. and began reaching out to potential investors and contacts.

It’s been crazy and exciting - for all of us this was the first time we had been actively involved in raising funding. We had so much to learn! Here are some of the unexpected lessons learned:

Find Your Ambassador

If I had one key takeaway it would be to find a single, well-connected person that can be your ambassador and help you get meetings with other investors through solid intros.

In our case this person turned out to be Naval. My co-founder, Matt, reached out through a cold email and not only did he reply (amazing in itself!), but in what was definitely a turning point he also invited us down to the office, immediately understood the value of Sqwiggle and decided to invest almost immediately.

Selling the Product

Over a couple of evenings I read Derek Sivers’ book “Anything You Want”. One quote stuck out to me - when you have a great product “all doors will open”. He found that a lot of previous ideas were like pushing a rock up a hill, but with CDBaby everything just seemed to be so much easier.

I definitely felt this on several occasions, where we stayed fairly quiet and potential investors started considering Sqwiggle, the many uses, expansion, enterprise possibilities and before I knew it they were onboard. Sometimes the right idea at the right time really can sell itself.

The Founder Story

One piece of feedback we got often is that at the seed stage it’s all about the founder story, so make sure it’s compelling. At Sqwiggle our experiences of remote working came from many different angles and this helped us build a compelling narrative on how we all came across the problem separately and came together to fix it.

Every company has a story behind how and why it was formed, how you came together and your experience in the vertical. It’s important to figure out yours and make sure that you’re just as good at selling yourselves as the product.

Everything Stops

I heard this statement many times before we started fundraising but didn’t realize how true it really was. Once you pack your schedule with intros and meetings, there isn’t time for anything else. The small amount of downtime is often consumed mentally and physically recovering.

AngelList

There is no denying, trending on AngelList really is a golden ticket! I won’t go into how to achieve this, mainly because I don’t have a clue - but also because others have already done it better. We were trending for around two weeks and during that time had 55 intros and many offers to invest online through the platform. I can’t even begin to stress how valuable this turned out to be.

VC’s Aren’t What I Thought

There are many different types of people that work for Venture Capital firms and they can’t all be tarred with the same brush. Some partners come with decades of experience, others are serial entrepreneurs and each takes a different angle and will offer completely different value to your company.

I went into the process with a skewed negative view of VC’s (possibly from startup blogs?) but came out with four Venture Capital firms as investors.

Metrics and Numbers

Be careful and consistent with numbers that you decide to give out. In general, don’t be afraid to say that you don’t know a particular figure (this isn’t Shark Tank). We put together a pack of metrics updated once a week or so that we would send to investors when they asked. Regardless, most investors are more focused on the team and core idea rather than fine-grained metrics at seed stage.

Beer and Wine

After meeting with a potential investor that we all agreed we didn’t get the right vibe from we settled on the rough idea of a “beer rule”. Which essentially meant that the person had to feel like someone we could grab a beer with, perhaps to lay down the current company problems and brainstorm ideas. Not everyone falls into this category - and I found it a great way to filter out those that didn’t fit with our vision.

Keep Fuelled

On an average week whilst we were fundraising I walked over 115,000 steps (or 48miles!) according to FitBit. I also ended up skipping meals, but this definitely isn’t advisable - if a hearty breakfast was ever appropriate, this is the time. GetAround also proved to be a saviour for many last minute trips to Palo Alto because you just can’t walk everywhere!

Did you recently raise funding? I’d love to hear your story or how your experience differed in the comments.

Ask, Listen, Observe, Distill

What People Want

This weeks Startup Edition prompt is “How do you discover what people really want?” - at first glance the answer to this question might seem obvious, you just ask, right?! But the way you ask and how you process the feedback can make the difference between a terrible product and a runaway success.

Here i’m thinking from the perspective of developing and improving an existing early-stage product after you have validated the idea. For me, it seems natural to split the process of soliciting feedback and deciding upon production direction into several steps.

Ask

First, is your company really open to receiving feedback? Including a contact link in the footer of your website is no longer enough - you should allow and encourage users to get in touch using whichever channel they prefer. For example at Sqwiggle we include a contact/feedback button in the main menu of all our apps. You can also simply reply to any email sent from the service to reach support (here’s a great post on this by Joss, Founder of OpenExchangeRates). We also keep an active presence on Twitter and Facebook, making sure to reply to anyone that reaches out here too.

You’ll get the best results by combining and including a variety of channels. As well as email and social - how about blog comments, quora answers, discussion boards, phone calls, surveys and even face-to-face visits (a personal favorite of the Sqwiggle team!).

Listen

In the early days your users will usually be very forthcoming with their thoughts and ideas, even their hopes and dreams for your product. Managing and keeping track of this can be hard, there are a few tricks that I use including:

  • For smaller items and bug reports we find it easiest to simply add these directly into GitHub issues (or your issue tracker of choice!)
  • Tagging of emails so that we can find customers later and let them know when their idea has been addressed.
  • We use our internal discussion tool, to talk about ideas and their potential implementation and priority.
  • One of the key ideas that I’ve embraced since my time at Buffer is from 37 Signals - forget feature requests, If a feature is really wanted by your users you won’t need to keep track as it it will be mentioned repeatedly! For example in our case, features such as screen sharing and file upload both fall under this category.

Observe

Watching customers use your product can be one of the most painful, frustrating, eyeopening and ultimately useful experiences you will ever have as a software developer.

And finding people to observe is easier now than ever before, services such as User Testing let you perform tests at low cost and watch the resulting video back online. Alternatively you can place adverts on craigslist for testers and bring them into your office to record for a more directed/hands-on test.

Distill

I believe this is the most important yet also the most often missed step in the process. After all, nothing creates a poor product quicker than simply adding everything your users ask for! The great entrepreneurs of our time excel at the craftsmanship of distilling and filtering ideas down to their fundamental principles.

For example, Elon Musk regularly talks about his philosophy of reasoning from first principles rather than by analogy (check out this great interview with Kevin Rose). The same principle applies with product feedback. Users will often make many assumptions with their suggested solutions, the key is to figure out the core problem and think from the ground up how to tackle it within the bounds of your product vision.

For example, with Sqwiggle we rethought video communication in this way - and realised that for our use-case the traditional ‘call and answer’ model that other software uses just didn’t make sense.

In my mind these steps are a great start. It would be great to know your processes for finding out what your users really want - i’d love to know in the comments. You can also read more posts on this topic on Startup Edition!

Photo by Giampaolo Macorig