Builders and makers know the seductive siren of force multipliers. Any time I can automate a task, I take the opportunity to do so. Tasks that require human clock cycles for each completed action are sure signs of a bottleneck (unless you're Amazon*). The manual labor tax can take many forms. A processing chain that halts and requires a careful choice to proceed, is a decision bottleneck. A pay wall for a service that can be replicated cheaper is another form of design tax.
The challenges I cherish are upfront design, end user feedback, and ongoing optimization, anything but monotonous busy work. These aren't random preferences, but "Mark optimal" design instincts driven by a lifetime of observation. A direct link between designer and user is best. The telephone game is all the evidence needed to illustrate the failure of communication, when many human interfaces exist between a customer and a maker. Signal noise between people corrupts messages between just a handful of nodes.
The Roles of Maker & User Overlap
Aspects of design are moving from makers to end users. The mass appeal of products and services is linked to the user's ability to customize the experience. The freedom to adapt an existing tool and tweak it just right, is becoming a requirement (the secret sauce behind open vs closed architectures). Communities where end users can freely share their modified designs, feedback value into the system (open source, hobby kit builders). The designers and "parts suppliers" endeavor to create more modular and interchangeable components.
Examples: Automated Business Systems & Hacking Code
Once you wade past the syntax soup of high level programming languages, structures and APIs you can get to the essence of design. Transferring an idea into a functioning prototype (no matter how asethically displeasing) is my starting goal anytime I code. Social coding is a form of metaprogramming where I can use open solutions, and work with others to make the leap from abstract to working prototype. But there are other hurdles between me and the illustrious goal of a functioning tool:
- There are many hours of document reading, and fluid "engineering language" (cursing) when I begin using something new, or in a new way
- When software grinds to a halt, there's plenty of redesign and rearchitecting. Me: "Hey Tyler I broke it, and I have these ideas..." Tyler: "Fix it, and thanks for volunteering"
- Misusing programming languages is part of the fun, as I discover and learn
Crafting a web/application based information business is a similar but more involved challenge. In the business case I work with the existing startup community (open source ideas, and code). Information and monetization methods are leveraged to manifest abstract ideas into a solid revenue/growth machine. The major hurdles to constructing a healthy business are legion:
- Dancing with lady luck. Timing, perception, chance meetings, and friend/network serendipity are just a few of the chance based drivers behind business building. Accept it, and try anyway. Terrible luck early on will help you roll with the punches later on
- Discovering and conjuring user traction, and doing so with a feedback loop that improves value as the number of users increases
- Constantly pitching a project, and refining that pitch using criticism/knowledge from startup veterans, friends, families, and strangers. I've told over 100 people personally about Victus Media, and have shared the idea with thousands of visitors to my blog as well as dropping hundreds of comments on relevant/related blogs. I have a list of 20-30 potential business partners and startups that is continually growing. I've opened web browsers at best buys and Mac stores to my blog and the Victus Media homepage
- Getting a handle on all finance cash flow, costs and revenues. Can your model scale? What's the minimum revenue you need per user/API hit to break even. Can I afford a coffee or water at Starbucks today?
- Incorporation details: where and when do you do it, what's a reasonable cost, S Corporations cost a little more and are hit differently for taxes but can be more attractive to purchase. Limited Liability Corporations are easier to set up/cheaper and are taxed differently
- Vesting is vital. How will you, your cofounders and investment angels/VCs maintain ownership (sweat equity, versus additional cash infusions)
- Hiring: I think of startups in one of two camps: venture backed, and organically grown/angel/family backed. Startups can transition from one form to another (usually seed funded to VC backed). In either case it's essential you make clear the dynamic nature of a position. Temporary consulting, and internships on a per task basis, and open source collaboration are the best ways to grow talent in a startup without trying to force a bad fit to work. Venture backed startups have more flexibility in attracting experienced early employees, but can suffer higher burn rates while developing traction
- What about direction/control? If you give up too much ownership investors can replace you with a souless but sharp executive just when business is booming. Or worse, you could become that souless process based exec, "let's synergize". It's better to plan early to bring in an experienced executive, and find someone you can work with
- Competition: I relish business competition, it's healthy and shows that you're not alone in recognizing a growing market opportunity. Competition is like free market research, learn what customers like and dislike most about competive tools, especially if they hold majority market share. Everyone has their own vision of the best solution, but companies are quick to copycat features that users feel comfortable with and expect. Own the features that matter most, and win the day
* A disturbing counter to the human bottleneck is the Amazon Mechanical Turk which has put into practice absolute commoditization of certain human intelligence tasks.