Blog Entries

Lessons Learned at Denver Startup Week

Denver Startup WeekLast week was Denver Startup Week, a week-long, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily fest for entrepreneurs to learn, mentor and be mentored, network, and socialize within the local startup ecosystem – which happens to be thriving in Denver and is one of the reasons we set up an office here. The city has a great quality of life, a robust tech community with large feeder companies and startup pillars of the community, like Brad Feld, who consistently throw their collective weight behind efforts to draw talent, ideas and capital to the Denver area.

Speaking of Brad Feld, we recommend that you subscribe to his blog if you haven’t already. He is one of the most authentic and honest entrepreneurs we have ever come across – he bares his soul, no holds barred, documenting the ups and downs of the entrepreneurial journey so others can learn from his successes and failures. Not only that, but he disbars the notion that entrepreneurship and the startup life is an easy and glamorous ideal that can be achieved without blood, sweat and tears. Kudos to you, Brad!

Denver Startup Week - Registration and Basecamp

Denver Startup Week – Registration and Basecamp

Denver Startup Week was a massive event that took a lot of planning by folks in the Denver Startup Community, and a lot of external support and contributors as well (including some great corporate sponsors like Chase Bank). The event was structured with lectures and panel sessions during the day, with happy hours, mixers and social time starting at 4 p.m.. Attendees were also free to stop by the Denver Startup Week Basecamp any time to hang out, get information and programming, or get work done. Check out the full schedule here.

Denver Startup Week Basecamp

Denver Startup Week Basecamp – located at Arapahoe and the 16th Street Mall downtown. I stopped by for the open bar happy hour and Denver Startup finale celebration. There were workstations for folks to be productive, a dance floor, a huge lecture hall and beer-garden style ping pong tables outside.

Since I was in Mount Rushmore and the Badlands until Tuesday (check out my blog on that topic), the first session I was able to make was on Tuesday night: How To Develop A Marketing Strategy As A Startup – hosted by Elevated Third. On Wednesday I took a break (mostly to recover from my trip) and then on Thursday I bounced back to check out the evening session of Cofounders Lab Matchup at Galvanize. I got to meet a host of entrepreneurs, some of whom were at the very early stages of taking the plunge. At Baked & Branded, we’re excited to help these folks achieve their vision while they’re still forming their internal, equity-driven team. Ideas were pitched from microscope image processing, to a “deals near me” app, to software that helps researchers find the papers they need. We’ve already scheduled some meetings with a few folks from this event to help brainstorm requirements and get them started on the path towards creating a product.

Denver Startup Week Ping Pong

Denver Startup Week Ping Pong

Branding Session at Denver Startup Week

Branding Session at Denver Startup Week

On the final day of Denver Startup Week, I caught the noon session on DevOps (the cross-disciplinary mindset of development and operations) and then the afternoon panel talk on Long-Distance Relationships – Working with Distributed Teams. Afterwards, I caught the tail-end of a presentation on building a lasting brand (something Baked & Branded knows a thing or two about). Here’s the whiteboard the presenters put together.

Then naturally I caught the Happy Hour at the Denver Startup Week Basecamp, and was especially wowed by their craft brew selection at the open bar (all sponsored). I loved the Blue Moon Pumpkin Ale. It was the perfect beverage to add to ping pong and startup networking.

Open Bar at Denver Startup Week

Open Bar at Denver Startup Week

Over the course of the next few weeks, we plan on sharing some more of the lessons learned at Denver Startup Week around Startups 101 – so stay tuned to the Baked & Branded blog for more takeaways from this event. In the meantime, check out  our whitepaper on Tips Every First-Time Entrepreneur Should Know.

How to Guide for your Lean Startup’s Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

When it comes to building an MVP (Minimum Viable Product), especially when it is your first time, it is extremely important to clearly identify the goals of what you are trying to achieve. It’s equally important to remember that the goal is to be “lean” and that all the bells and whistles aren’t required for this first product. This post will give you some concrete ideas and steps to get you started on working with us on an MVP.

Ideas around your MVP

First things first – What is an MVP?

MVP, or Minimum Viable Product, could also be considered a very basic prototype of an idea.  An MVP is typically NOT something that is built to be sent out to the masses, but rather to a small batch of hand-picked, highly engaged users (e.g. friends and family).  To build a successful MVP, think about the core offering or value for these users (which would be described in your executive summary or elevator pitch), and build to that. Keeping a laser focus on what that value to end-customers is will help you not build too much too early, wasting time and money – and will also help you either avoid “the pivot” or identity that a pivot is needed as soon as possible.

MVP Process

In my personal experience, when thinking through the process of building an MVP, you really need to re-wire your brain to start to think in a different way. Instead of thinking bottoms up, think top-down from a user perspective – start at a high level and then think down through each of the functional items of the MVP.  A great technique we at B&B use is writing out specific use cases on how the end-user might actually interact with and use the product.  This helps you avoid the common trap of getting too detail-oriented and not thinking about the big picture from the user experience perspective.  By the time you’ve realized that you’ve gone too far down the technical specification path it’s usually too late – at this point you would already be down the development path and to turn back will be money burned.  Typically we write 2-3 use cases for each new product we are working on. These are also a great tool to provide to our developers to make sure they have an understanding of the end result and the business reason of what we are trying to achieve.

Let’s look at our MVP example use case

I find a great way to do this is to create a mission statement or executive summary that defines exactly what the product is supposed to do.  I have made up what an example of a use case that we will use as we walk through this process:

  • Goal: A chat system that allows for communication between different departments of a company, or allows for communication between individuals within the same company and/or department.

With this we identify that the problem we are trying to solve is around making communication easier between individuals or groups of people based on some factor that ties them together (i.e the marketing team or executive team).  From a high level this is pretty clear.

Next, we would think in terms of administration levels, and different roles and abilities of each of those levels would be. Here we could approach solutioning the problem in two ways.

  1. One way is the scenario where – if we were to lose sight of the fact that we are trying to build an MVP – we would come up with a laundry list of features that we would want to see that maybe aren’t entirely traced back to the use cases. The list gets very long very fast. And it will also be extremely expensive and complicated to implement. Read: high risk.
  2. The second, better way would be to throw out all these superfluous features and stay on task around what an MVP really is – focusing on solving the core problem as expeditiously as possible and that’s about it. We like to stick to the principle of KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Assuming we’re going with the second, recommended approach, now we have to define the user levels that would work for each associated user role:

  • Super admin – The developer/team of developers who created the application and has the ability to control all other potential clients who have access to the platform. This could be considered the “internal company” level.
  • Admin – This would be an external company who signed up for access to our application (our paying customer).
  • User – A user who would be invited by the admin to join to access and use the application.

These are therefore our core user roles. Now we need to define the abilities or features that each of these roles would have – let’s apply the two approaches/lenses of the robust, full product versus the MVP:

Using the MVP Lens

Super Admin

  1. Ability to see and manage all active companies who have signed up and who are using the free trial (assuming we do a 30 day free trial for them to get a taste of how it works)
  2. Dashboards
    • Top level list of all the companies with some data showing how many active users/groups have been added under this company.
    • Ability to deny/allow access of new clients (admins).
    • To be able to message admins/users directly for any trouble shooting and or support

Admin

  1. Ability to invite new users via email to use the app under their company
  2. Ability to create new groups and assign users to these groups (which could be departments broken up)
  3. Ability to communicate with super admins/users/groups
  4. Tracked message logs

User

  1. Ability to communicate with admins/users/groups that they are assigned to
  2. Tracked message logs

Using the Robust, Full-Product Lens

Assume all of the items listed above with the addition of what is in this next section -

Super Admin

  1. Dashboard of analytics
  2. High level looking at average total engagements each day.
  3. Deep dive for each individual company that is signed up.
  4. User level analytics to what days they communicate more/what features they are using the most, chat, video, uploading documents.

Admin

  1. Ability to assign other sub admins who can create new groups and assist with management of a large organization.
  2. Dashboard of analytics.
  3. High level dashboard aggregating data of each of the groups they have created such as number of communications per day, average number of times a user communicates.
  4. Dashboard for each individual group.
  5. Ability to communicate in all groups they have created either my traditional instant messaging, video chat, uploading and sharing documents.
  6. Ability to communicate with users/admins in private messaging

User   

  1. Ability to communicate via instant messaging, video chat, uploading of documents of groups they have been assigned to.
  2. etc. etc.

Now I list out every possible item that came to mind when building this type of application, but my goal was to show you a concrete example of what going outside the scope and intention of an MVP looks like.  A lot of the features that are highlighted in the robust section are great features to have, but when speaking with, say, a new client for Baked & Branded, I would make the recommendation that we consider these items for Phases 2 & 3 (Beta, full productization, etc.).  Remember that keeping the focus on the core offering is supposed to be the goal for the MVP.

Working with Baked & Branded to build your MVP

Question: How do I prepare a set of requirements to bring to Baked & Branded to help me build a technical statement of work to get a sense of cost & timeline? 

Answer: We like to keep things simple. It is easier for us to understand your goals when you have already compiled and validated the following (consider this your homework):

Section 1: An executive summary, which would be a 2-3-paragraph example of what your product is going to do.
Section 2: Who is the target end user/customer?  This is an important step for both of us to understand and for us to be requiring it will make sure that you have done your homework.
Section 3: Similarly to how I broke everything out via bullets (rather than written paragraphs), focus on that individual feature that you are looking to provide. This keeps things clear and concise.
Section 4: Who are your competitors (and you ALWAYS have competitors, sometime the status quo is your competitor)?  How do you plan to differentiate yourself from each of these and what do you think they do well/do poorly?

Question: Now that I have all this information together and organized, what is the next steps to get me to creating!?

Answer: With this information, it’s a great starting point for us to have a deeper conversation with you. We will set up a call to go over you business goals, ask some more in-depth questions, and also spark some ideas and provide some feedback from a different perspective on what you are trying to build.

Once all the answers are clear, then we can come in and perform our B&B magic – that is, build out a technical statement of work that will be our guideline to follow when we would start the project.  This also is a validation step to you so that you can see that we clearly understood the goals of your product.

Have a question or need clarity on anything?  Use the comments below and I will be sure to respond, or you can email me directly at Eric@bakedandbranded.com.

Interested in leveraging our expertise?  Reach out via the contact form or you can email me directly.

Hiring software developers

You have your idea. You have your investors. You are ready to get started. The last step left is to hire people who will develop your product. As trivial as it might sound, it is probably one of the most important aspects of a successful product. And one of the hardest. You are in luck if you have technical background and have been around those “developer” people. However, in most cases, entrepreneurs are business oriented folks with little to no engineering background. If you fall in to this category, then read on and hopefully you will feel more comfortable navigating the rough waters of hiring software engineers.

As a senior software engineer myself, I have been on both sides of the hiring table. I understand what the most important characteristics of a good developer are, as well as the tricks one can use for getting hired as a developer. I will first explain how to read a software developer’s resume, and then lead you through a successful interview process. By the end of this blog, you should feel more confident interviewing and hiring a developer onto your core team.

Understanding the Software Developer’s Resume

There are as many different types of developers as there are fish in the sea. Although their skill-set might sound like what you’re looking for, it is important to know exactly who you are talking to – there’s a few ways we can therefor segment the developer

  1. Years of experience:
    a. 1-3 years of experience will give you someone who can follow directions and maybe lead a small scale project.
    b. 3-5 years of experience will give you a developer that can take on a medium size project and even manage a small team.
    c. 5+ years of experience will give you a developer that has been around for a , and has done a range of different projects. He or she will be able to offer you direction and lead a team of other developers of lesser experience.
  2. Programming languages:
    a. Java – a well-established technology with a great range of applications ranging from Web to Mobile (Android only). It is not as fast to develop in, and is not really meant for the web world. Java is great for desktop applications and Android apps.
    b. PhP – a well-known language that is very popular in the web developer community. Web applications only.
    c. Ruby (Ruby on rails) – Recent addition to the list of web technologies that allows rapid prototyping. Web applications only. RoR is often over-hyped and fewer developers around the world know this language – therefore if you develop in Ruby you could be inadvertently limiting your ability to find future developers to continue the development.
    d. Objective C – an iOS development language used for iPhone/iPad apps.
    e. .NET – a language from Microsoft used for desktop applications as well as Windows mobile apps. It is one of the most widely known programming languages, so is often easy to hire in to (especially overseas – but note, be careful here, as we’ll explain in a future blog).
  3. Databases (Any of the programming languages above will work with most databases):
    – MySQL, MSSQL, PostgreSQL and several others are all relational databases that are good for most applications. They are very popular and most developers know at least one of them.
    – MongoDB is non-relational database that is great for simple applications oriented around content rather than complex object interactions.

Interviewing Software Developers

OK, so you have a bunch of resumes and have picked out a few candidates that seem to match your criteria. Now, you just need to talk to them and pick one, right?.Yes, but it is not as simple. There are clues you can uncover that will help you select a good developer and skip a bad one.

  1. Technical skills:
    a. If you don’t have sufficient technical background for asking programming questions, then you will need to find someone that does so that they can ask those questions. It is such an important part of the interview process that if you skip it you risk  hiring a “know-it-all-can’t-do-much” who will cost you money, and most importantly time. If you don’t know anyone who can help you with technical interview process then shoot us an email. At Baked & Branded we offer consulting services on this matter and will help you find your developers (not to mention manage the project for you, and bring our entrepreneurial know-how to the table to ensure your project’s success).
    b. If you are programmer yourself, then you probably know what to look for and what to ask. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare a well thought out plan in advance that you can use throughout the interviews.
  2. Communication skills:
    a. Tell your developer what you are trying to build and ask him or her to explain back what you’re trying to achieve. Pay attention to the response and make sure your developer is thinking about the details and doesn’t just parrot back what you told him/her. A business savvy developer is much more valuable than one who just follows your orders. You will weed out 80% of your candidates through this method alone.
    b. Check for the ability to explain technical details in layman’s terms. For example, ask to explain how a database works and see if you understand the response. If you don’t, then you know communication will probably be a problem in the future. Pass.
    c. If you are hiring offshore developers the points above still apply – and then some. In fact, making sure you can perfectly understand each other is even more important. Cultural and language barriers makes this even more challenging.
  3. Punctuality:
    a. Someone who is late to an interview or call is more likely to be late on deadlines as well. It shows a lack of professionalism and seriousness.
    b. Ask the candidate to email you a list of projects he or she has worked on before so that you can review the work in short order. Make sure the candidate follows up. If the candidate doeesn’t and you need to send a reminder, then this is not good.
  4. References:
    a. This is probably the most overlooked source of confirmation of the quality of a developer. Ask for references and actually follow up with all of them over the phone or Skype. DO NOT just email them.

If you are able to meet the candidate in person, then do so –  otherwise use Skype or any other app for connecting with this person face to face. Remember, you are hiring someone who will be working with you for possibly several months, so make sure you like the person.

These are just some guidelines you can start with. You should tailor these to create your own process that works for you. Here at Baked & Branded, we work with only the most talented and reliable developers from around the world, and as such our hiring process has gone through many iterations to get to its current refined and effective state.  You will most certainly fail before you succeed – they key is to learn from your mistakes quickly so that you can most quickly get to success. We help you shortcut that process.

 

Why, How, What – Startup Brand Positioning

The founders here at Baked & Branded stumbled, again, upon a TED video that we had watched years ago that has influenced, tremendously, the ways in which we view brand positioning for our clients, and ourselves.

The genius behind this talk by Simon Sinek is not that he has created some new way for companies to tell their story, but rather the fact that he was able to identify the unique format through which successful companies tell theirs. Perhaps more impressive is that he was then able to back up his hypothesis with science, or more specifically – biology.

It’s been said that choosing based on one’s emotions is hardly a choice at all. As a business, that’s precisely what you are hoping to achieve. If you can create an emotional connection with your audience through brand positioning, then minutia like price (insert laugh here) will no longer influence your customers’ decisions to buy. The biology behind this, as briefly explained by Sinek can be seen with respect to the unique ways that different portions of our brain react to stimuli. If you’ve watched the video, which you should, this will be repetition, but basically the neo-cortex makes up the largest part of the cerebral cortex, and is responsible for spatial reasoning, conscious thought, and language. Thank you Wikipedia. As much as purchasing your product or service makes perfectly logical sense to you, it probably doesn’t seem as reasonable or logical to the masses. Sorry. Therefore, telling us WHAT your product or service is or does only triggers the logical portion of our brain and begins the process of reasoning through the information we have been given. And in a world saturated with goods and services, that process can be long and overwhelming to the consumer. There are just far too many choices with immaterially different value propositions. In order to differentiate yourself, you have to connect with your customers on an emotional level. Take the choice out of it!

While the neocortex inputs language and churns out logical decisions, the limbic system is the portion of the brain primarily responsible for our emotional lives and memories. This biological distinction in our brains tells us something beyond just the fact that there is a separation between emotional and logical. Something that Sinek did not expressly state, but can be inferred from his discussion, is the idea that the limbic system does not handle language in the same manner as the neo-cortex. Perhaps it’s not capable of interpreting language at all. Therefore, beyond just leading with, and telling your customers the WHY of it all, to really tug on those heart strings and foster an emotional connection – you must show them. As a startup, you’re likely yet to achieve economies of scale, making it difficult to beat competitors on price. You obviously lack a long (years) track record on which you can show value. What you do have, however, is purpose. WHY you think it’s important to solve a certain problem should be at the core of everything that you do and your customers should know that!

At Baked & Branded, we believe that everyone who, through their experiences, spots a gap, an inefficiency or just feel they can do something better, deserves that opportunity. Everyone on our team has worked in startups and we all know the passion that comes with it. That passion is infectious – that’s why we choose to surround ourselves with similarly passionate individuals, both on our team and on our customers’ teams. That’s WHY we do this, and it’s readily visible in our brand positioning and is the lead in to all of our copy. We’re not trying to hide the ball, and nor should you. The value of leading with WHY does not dissipate just because your customers have seen Sinek’s “Golden Circle.” Rather, knowing WHY your company does what it does, and demonstrating that mission in everything you do will foster an emotional connection with consumers, make choosing you over your competitors no longer a choice, and create loyal, devoted consumers. After that, the WHAT you do is simply proof that you can accomplish what you believe.

What’s your WHY?

Using Hackathons to Your Startup’s Advantage

If you’re a startup founder then you know the challenges in front of you. The least of which are recruitment and building a killer product (that people will pay for). If you’ve never heard of, or been to, a hackathon, I suggest you check one out. It’s basically a 1-3 day weekend event that brings developers, designers, and business types together to build a prototype that can turn into a future business. There are several types of hackathons I’ve personally participated in – depending on the format, as a startup founder, you will get something slightly different out of each one.

Chandra at MashHacks Travel Hackathon

Chandra at MashHacks Travel Hackathon – Mashable loved my custom tripchi t-shirt

The startup weekend format.

This is a full weekend long event that startups on Friday night idea pitches and team formation. It goes through Saturday and the prototype and design progresses, and finished Sunday afternoon with pitches that emphasize the business model and vision just as much as what was built over the weekend. In this format, a business-oriented (non-technical) startup founder has a better chance of being useful, and being sought after, since often the business model and go to market strategy is just as, if not more, important than the actual development that was done in the course of the weekend. Here’s a few of the startup weekend’s I’ve done: Startup Weekend Orange CountyStartup Weekend Boston (twice). The other good (and bad) thing about Startup Weekends is that there is no limit to team size. I have been up teams as big as 12 (when I originally pitched an early iteration of tripchi as DriftHangar in 2011) to 4 (where I participated on a killer team in Boston and we won the Audience Choice award by pitching MedGuru, a mobile app that translated Over The Counter medications across languages, mapping generics to name brands all over the world). The good thing about a larger team is that a business type is sure to get on a team. That said, I wouldn’t recommend being on a team larger than 5 people – this seems to be the inflection point between productivity and distraction.

The Friday night to Saturday hackathon (or, equivalently, the Saturday night to Sunday hackathon).

I did this one last Fall at HackReduce, with travel technology analyst company Tnooz as the organizer. This format holds some value for non-technical founders, since it’s a bit longer and this one, in particular, did not have a limit on team size. Our team, the Data Slaves, had around 10 people, was one of the largest groups in the competition, and we got bogged down in debate and in trying to do too much. You can view what we attempted to do with Big Travel Data here. While we didn’t really succeed in building a product (we attempted to solve the problem of when someone should book a flight), I got to network quite a bit (the benefit of a larger team). The other good thing about the longer events (2-3 day formats) is that it gives your more of a chance to take breaks and network. As a single founder, you of course should take every opportunity you can to network and meet others that share your passion for solving whatever problem you are trying to solve. There is a high probability you will meet such a person at one of these hackathons if you spend some time looking. In fact, try not to let the competitive animal get the better of you. While the lure of prizes and minor publicity are tempting, you’ll benefit more in the long-run by working the room.

The all-day Saturday hackathon format.

For this format, the least of the emphasis is business model, so this is the toughest for a non-technical founder to participate in and be sought after during team formation, and feel useful during product creation. I recently attended one of these, set up by Mashable – check out my write-up on it. We actually won third place, and it came with a cash prize, for our design of FlyBeacon – a mobile app to improve the travel experience through beacon technology, focusing on the airport. In about 6 hours, we built a prototype Android app that notifies you when your baggage hits the baggage claim belt via a push notification that can be integrated into an airline’s app. Not only that, but a tracking system put in place to help airports and airlines more smartly manage and track luggage from beginning to end, while making the data transparent to the passengers, and extending the relationship with the airline from offline to online throughout the passenger journey at the airport. We had a 4 person team, which I think is why we were able to focus and a least build something in the short amount of time. That said, most of the pressure fell on our designer and developer and I felt useless at times. Especially since this shorter hackathon format is much more skewed to what you actually built cleverly in such a short amount of time. There is not much time left for business “overhead” such as strategy, business model, or GTM.

Mashable MashHacks Boston pitches - FlyBeacon

No matter which format you attend, you can always find time to meet other interesting, passionate people who are willing to give up a portion of their weekend to learn new skills and build something cool with others (I argue further that this is the exact DNA of the person you want to be your cofounder). And, depending on the format, as a non-technical founder, you can tailor your expectations in terms of the amount you can contribute and maximize your networking capacity accordingly. Even if hard-core networking fails, if you convince a team in the pitch to form around your idea, you can use this as a petri dish to test out your idea, get input and feedback, from other smart people, and try to build something at the end of the day. Even though most teams abandon each other and their ideas after the hackathon, it doesn’t mean yours has to.

There’s not much of a downside for giving a hackathon a shot, except for giving up your weekend; which, if you’re a single non-technical founder, you’re probably used to doing anyways!

Project Management Software – Which Works For You?

The Right Project Management Software Helps You Take OffFor Baked & Branded, we have used several Project Management software tools, but have gravitated away from Basecamp recently and towards Asana. In our careers doing project & product management, as well as development, we have also used Unfuddle, Trello, and Jira. Does your PM Saas product help your business take off?

What we learned is that there’s no one-size-fits all project management software, and that your tool of choice really depends on the project and the requirements. In fact, many companies end up using more than 1 tool – one with more of a developer flavor (like Jira), and one with more of a business flavor (like Trello).

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Marketing Versus Sales

Ever felt like your marketing efforts and your sales effort were at odds? If so, you’re not alone. If you’re in marketing, you often feel like the material you’re producing and messaging you’re spinning aren’t being used by sales, or even worse, aren’t useful to sales. If you’re in sales, you often feel like you don’t have the marketing support you require to enable you to sell, or that the support you’re getting isn’t the “right” support.
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Why People Start A Business [Infographic]

Have you thought about starting your own business? Perhaps the wantrepreneur is getting the better of you, and you’re almost ready to take the plunge. Besides the obvious “money and flexibility” reasons for people founding startups, it’s important to take a minute to really think about WHY you want to start a business.

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Why All Entrepreneurs Are Product Managers

If you are getting ready to start a company, or have an idea you’ve been kicking around for a while that you’re finally going to launch, then I have four words for you to live by. Be a Product Manager.

What does product manager (PM) actually do? The role of a PM is to develop a long-range growth and competitive strategy for the product line by following principles of new product development (inbound) and product marketing (outbound). This includes some of the following tactics:
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