Start Featherlight: Get your logo

Technically, this series is about Featherlight IT.  However, there are a number of other necessary start-up activities to be done that benefit from the same featherlight regard for saving cash.  So let’s take a take a break from IT and get your new logo.

First thing, you have choice to make.  You can work remotely with a company that handles everything through an account representative or you can work directly with graphic artists, a.k.a. creatives.  Both are in the same neighborhood with regard to cost.  Where and how your money is spent is the difference, and the degree to which you want to be involved.

Choice A:  The account representative

The account representative case is easy and should be the choice if you do not want to be involved.  You’ll get something and you might be happy with it.  This is the right choice for some personalities and if you are committed to keeping your time investment to less than a couple of hours.  I have little to add in terms of advice.  In fact, you can just call your credit card company and have their representative talk to the logo company’s account representative to arrange your logo — the jobs and the experience are mirror images.  And if you don’t like the logo product, you’ll have to talk to them anyway.

When asked to intervene on behalf an entrepreneur-executive with a project in the ‘ditch’ with this model, here is what the account representative told me:

“While the account managers have design expertise, creating the designs is not our function. The account manager is responsible for helping the customer through the process should they have difficulty with the online forms, or questions about the process.”

Help with online forms, there’s a waste.  Might as well call your ISP or computer vendor, they probably have better music on hold.

Choice B:  Working with the creatives

This case is more work on your part, but worth it. The reason is non-obvious:  you have to think at an abstract level about your company and what you are trying to create.  This is often a welcome and healthy respite from other start-up activities.

Web 2.0 has gifted us with a number of sites where creatives gather to work out in the open where you and other creatives can see the work.  The crowd’s wisdom can also be harnessed to solicit fast, broad feedback. Here’s the big picture of how they work:  you specify what you want, state how much you will pay for it (and pay it upfront to be held in escrow), a number of creatives submit designs that you and everyone can see, give your feedback, elect a winner, you get the logo and the creative gets paid. You’ll be amazed as talent from around the world will contribute.  The contributions will feed on one another, raising the quality and creativity of everyone.

Here are the steps to get the most out of it:

  1. Find a site where satisfied creatives gather.  The one I used is here and is listed on the Resources Page.  My experimental project for my personal blog is here.
  2. Write up a creative brief that states your company’s ambitions, ideals, and what you would like to express in the logo.  Say whether it is for the web, business cards, stationary, or any combination.  Say what you like in terms of designs and colors, and say the same about what you don’t like.  Link to examples you like as well as some noted as not to your taste.
  3. Research what the average payment is for the work you are requesting.  Offer at least that, and if you can manage it, offer more.  This is free enterprise in one of its purest forms and you will get more attention if you make it attractive.  Pause and reflect on just how little you are spending.  Chances are it is a fraction of traditional logo sources, including the account manager model above; then reflect on what you pay for an hour for mechanic work on your car or care for your lawn.  The point is, an extra $50 may put you well above the average and is a bargain in the grand scheme.
  4. Post your project, the brief, and select a deadline that creates a time period where you can get meaningful participation and feedback from your network.  In other words, make it more than a week and mind where the weekends fall — some of your creatives may be doing this on weekends and from vastly different time zones.
  5. Explore the other work on the site, and note the creatives who are producing work you like.  Contact them, tell what attracted your attention and invite them to look at your project.  This may take a couple of days, so it is important to set a realistic deadline.
  6. These sites rating systems and a means to leave feedback for the creative.  Use both often and conscientiously.  Avoid ‘grade inflation’ with the rating system, which is typically some scale like 1 – 5.  If you give every entry a 4 or 5, you are not communicating what you like and dislike.  Remember the project will be open for a week or more, and you want room to show the ratings going up on the concepts you like and things improve.
  7. Give feedback and an electronic note of thanks to everyone who contributes a design.  Everyone except the winner is contributing without any monetary compensation. A kind note and constructive feedback is small compensation, and absolutely the right thing to do.  Besides this is one of the first acts of your new company, and you should set the standards for good manners.  Other people will see your behavior, and you will get much more back in return.
  8. Invite your friends and people who may be involved in your new company to participate and give their feedback.  These sites often have a way for the ‘crowd’ to express its opinion — that is core to their value proposition.  This is an easy and fun way to engage with people who may be very important to you in the early phases of your company.  After all, you can tell them what your company is doing, why and when, all in the context of getting their feedback.
  9. Narrow your choices, and ask for the inevitable ‘tweaks’ from only those 1 or 2 you are reasonably sure you are going to choose.  Remember, everyone but the winner is working hard for free and demonstrate that you respect their efforts.
  10. Make your choice and award the job.  Check yourself on making a series of changes. Iterations chew up time and goodwill.  Anything beyond simple and one round, put into an additional paid work package.  Step back and think about what you are spending, and respect the creative.  It always comes back to you.
  11. Request the logo in the file formats you will need.  Remember to ask for the file in the format used to create it.

Enjoy the journey.  Chances are you just interacted with global talent to help your company and received a quality result for less than it costs for an average plumbing repair.  Done right, you let 20 or more people who are important to your company know what is happening.  db

Start Featherlight: Set Up Email

OK, you have your domain name and you have your hosting service, time for email.  You should stop sending emails to potential investors and customers from your old AOL account, or worse, hotmail.  Time to be taken seriously and begin building brand in your new company.  The email will be from you@yourcompany.com.

Remember our assumptions:  no servers on our premises.  So your email will be hosted somewhere.   And you may have noticed that email was not one of the criteria explored when choosing a hosting provider.  What’s up with that?

The juggernauts of the internet, Google and Yahoo, have opened up email for all of us.  And it is free.latte-0 No changes to our Latte Grande scale, so we stand at 8% of the daily cost of the big latte with all we have done so far, including the email now.

Context for this discussion is Google Apps For Your Domain (not gmail.com).

Google apps versus your hosting company

Many hosting companies are now excellent at managing SPAM and email.  Google is world-class at managing SPAM, and they are willing to do that plus provide you very substantial email storage space, for free, in return for the chance to provide links to advertisers.  We will cover to the subject of advertisers and email privacy elsewhere.

You can set your own criteria — features, service level, SPAM, etc. — and run your own decision process.  For me, it comes down to simple, clear forces:  Google has a revenue interest in providing an excellent email experience and first class resources to manage it, while for hosting providers, email is a cost with no additional revenue, and they are economically incented to minimize resources on email.

Managing any application such as email, comes with some time requirement to add, modify and delete users.  But once you invest that time, managing additional applications using the same login credentials is relatively frictionless.  In the case of using Google apps for your domain for email, it means you can take advantage of calendars, chat and especially docs with little or no extra effort.  Google docs is an outstanding collaboration tool.  And all of this is available to your company for free.  Check out what students are doing with them here. db

Start Featherlight: Set Up Hosting

Web hosting offers so much more capability today than the term states.  It is your entrance ramp to serious, managed computing resources.  In any case,  let’s start simple:  you are going to need websites, and they will/should reside at a professional hosting facility.

Chances are you went out and registered one or more domain names in during the euphoria stage of your idea that is to be your company.  That’s OK.  If given a choice, I recommend solving the hosting puzzle first.

Selection criteria

Like any other business decision you are going to live with for a number of years, it pays to lay out your priorities and criteria.  Hosting today is hyper-competitive and cost differences between otherwise excellent choices will only be a few cents per day. So you’ll need to dig deeper.latte-0

Let’s check our Latte Grande scale.  Adding hosting costs about 4% of your daily latte budget.  Coupled with the 2% anti-virus fee from described in a previous post, we are up to 6% on the Latte Grande scale.  Interesting that incredible compute horsepower is available for only 2x what you would pay for economy protection.  Boundless upside for $0.20; insurance for $0.10.  Anyway, it is not enough to move the needle on the scale

Turns out that when things are going well, you will have little or no interaction with your hosting provider.  Signing up, installing and managing your site(s) are automated tasks.  Many hosting companies use the same open source “web panel”, the front-end for managing the site, so they have the same look and feel.

When problems occur, on the other hand, is when you can find a difference in the providers.  Find out how you are directed to contact technical support, how and what service level they promise when you do.  You can find out about these service levels from the provider, but check the results of the multiple rating surveys that are happening on the web all the time.  I appreciate the work done by Lifehacker and their readers, and recommend you start there.

Hang out with the locals

Don’t stop with customer service.  A good hosting company will attract a community of good tech citizens who gather, typically in a blog or forum, where problems and solutions are shared amongst the community.  Check these forums for the effectiveness, timeliness and tone of the help being generating.  You will often find an employee or two of the hosting company contributing.  Better yet, post an earnest question, and see what response you receive.  You will also find the occasional malcontent and disgruntled customer on these forums.  Their presence is healthy, as it demonstrates transparency and tolerance.  Look for the community’s response to trouble — noise that dissipates quickly usually means the problem was isolated or the response to it was adequate.

After you have made your choice, work on being a good citizen in these communities.  That mostly means posing well-formed questions after checking to see if asked and answered before, acknowledging the help you receive, and helping others when you can.  This latter point can be as simple as posting the solution to some problem you encountered and solved.

Check the neighborhood

Know some smart people who seem to know what they are doing with their sites? Whoishostingthis.com will report who is hosting their site.

A link to my choice for hosting companies is on the Resources page.    Discount codes are available — request one via the comments.  db

Start Featherlight: Your Personal Computer

I realize I stated the assumption that you already have a personal computer, as I know you are reading this on something.  So my Latte Scale stays at zero.latte-0 What happens after you take the computer out of the box is important and good for you, and like eating more vegetables and getting more exercise, most of us don’t always do what is good for us.  So we are going to go over the taking-it-out-of-the-box list again.  And while we are at it, we will imagine purchasing a new computer.  Here are the questions to resolve first.

PC or Mac? Doesn’t matter.  You don’t know everyone who will work with you, and they will bring what they have.  When you and the company are buying, you can decide. You will pay more for a Mac.

Desktop or laptop? You decide.  Computers break and they need things done to them on the inside.  Opening one up is a much more unnerving on a laptop and the parts are more expensive.  To stay featherlight, stay with a desktop.

Windows Vista, Windows XP, Mac OS or Ubuntu? Use what you have.  If you are buying new, shop the low end of the computer price scale.  Here I am going to play the featherlight capital card.  At the extreme end (remember I promised to point out the extreme cases), Ubuntu – equipped PCs at my local computer stores are $199 at this writing.  Add $100 more for a machine with Windows.  At this time, this means Windows Vista. And I will NOT pay the extra $150 to Microsoft to use Windows-XP — that’s almost enough for another computer for a team member or a kid who doesn’t have one. Honestly, I do not care enough about the operating system as it has nothing to do with the success of the company.  This attitude is not what the vendors would like; they spend millions trying to make you and me care.  The operating system is disappearing, but that is a topic for CrustyBytes.

Want the hot, sexy, high performance computer? OK by me, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the success of the company and it doesn’t count against the featherlight tab.

Take it out of the box (start here if you already have the computer)

Stop. Make sure you have 2 or 3 hours to dedicate, before you open the box.

Make the recovery DVDs or CDs. Computers and especially hard drives fail.  Computers do not ship with media for the operating system now; you have to make your own.  Do it now.

Patch the operating system. Your vendor loaded the operating system (OS) on the computer, and the image they used may be months old, and hence vulnerable and insecure — you would be amazed.  OK to connect to the internet, and only go to the OS supplier’s website to get the updates.  Many of these may be successive patches, so you need to keep going back until the system reports that it is completely up to date.  Then configure your settings to automatically update  the OS.

Remove the junk. Being frugal means buying consumer PCs.  Most are chock full of junk you would never responsibly load onto your computer.  Remove it now.  All those trial versions of security, money management, internet services, games, etc. — get it out of there.

Install the anti-virus. You haven’t started the company yet and are still working in your garage on your computer.  If you are using Windows, download the free version of AVG from here. Works great. Or if you want to choose for yourself which anti-virus solution to use, check out what the smart people at Lifehacker have to say.

Install it, update it and run it now.  Only now are you free to go elsewhere on the internet.

As soon as you start the company, upgrade AVG to the paid version.  That will put us at 2% on the Latte Scale or about $0.09 per day.

Get your backup plan in operation. Hard drives fail.  Not if, but when.  In our featherlight world, it is your data that is valuable.  Protect it. Choose an automated solution, and set it up now while you are thinking about it.  I use Personal Backup after reading up on Lifehacker (see a pattern here?) and a pair of NAS drives.  You wise tech readers will ask, ‘…And your offsite strategy is?’  Like eating more vegetables, I need to do it.  My rule here is to only recommend what I have hands-on experience doing — so stay tuned.

Congratulations!  You’re ahead of most.  db

PS:  I plan a series of related posts.  I will assemble a Resources page with links to recommended solutions discussed.

Starting a Company Now on Featherlight Capital

Never have the barriers to starting a new company been lower.  And never has there been more Tech capability available for virtually free.

I have just been through the experience of setting the infrastructure up for a couple of friends as they launch their new companies.  These people are accomplished, have worked globally and have successfully held positions as CEO, CFO, scientist, board member, investor and entrepreneur.  In short, they are the audience for this blog as described in the welcome post here.  A consistent pattern is emerging and I intend to chronicle it in this forum.

They have their ideas and their business plans.  It happens that the businesses are in the fields of the biotech and financial services, but for our discussion here it hardly matters.  What matters is most of the activity of the company is the output of people in the form of services, and as a class, most start-ups today share some similarities that will be useful here.  If you are starting an airline with reservation system (!?) or a chemical company with a manufacturing plant, good luck, and what you read here will not be directly applicable.

Capital and time are always limited, and if not, start more companies until they are.  The point I want to make is that with limits, come tradeoffs.  Tradeoffs as to where you put your money and time, and no doubt, some aspect of your business will consume all of each you can muster.  But the IT, tech and computing you employ can be robust, professional, scalable, indifferentiable from a large firm and virtually free.  The how is the journey I will take you through.

The Latte Scale

I want to introduce the my latte scale.  Many executives I know enjoy a latte grande everyday.  If  you are one, you know how much you spend each day.

My Latte Scale

My Latte Scale

I will relate the IT decisions made here against the daily cost of a latte grande.  Willing to forego the latte?  You’ll save about 200 calories and most of what I show you here will cost less than you would have otherwise spent.

Know your assumptions

Get started by knowing your basic assumptions.  When you have done a business plan, you have made these decisions.  I recommend writing them down, because early in your company, someone you respect and admire will bring you a suggestion that if implemented, may overturn those premises.  Stop, think, and do so only as a deliberate and informed decision.

Here are the assumptions and premises in the company explored here:

  • we will start in the house, garage or local Starbucks before signing a lease for office space
  • I have a fast internet connection
  • I have my own computer (reading this after all, unless you are at the library)
  • initial team members and colleagues will not be in a shared space with me (like an office)
  • initial team members will have their own personal computers and an internet connection
  • my suppliers such as my accountant and lawyer will not come to my office to do my work
  • we will not have dedicated IT professionals on staff, at least to start
  • we will not have servers on our premises.

Right for you?

I promise to be the provocateur and explore the edge cases.  So what you find here will make the point and may seem extreme.  You will decide what is right for you.  For my part, I will point out how to be more extreme.  db

Welcome to Executive Engines

I am a fan of specialization and marvel at the expertise that unfolds in individuals practiced in a given field. Most of my interaction is with executives and entrepreneurs who certainly qualify as experts.  But I also interact with professors, researchers,  physicians and financiers who are clear experts in their fields.  Experts rock.

Even the world’s most prominent expert can be better given the benefit of thought leadership and best practices from other fields.  I see it  all the time  as I [attempt to] explain the implications of abundant computing and the internet to executives and entrepreneurs.  Rock star global CFO, COO, CEO, marketing exec, PhD pharmaceutical researcher, etc.,  is blown away when I sit down and show them the computing capabilities available at little or no cost.  And these people are brilliant, so it is not a matter of cognitive capability.  Age does not explain it either.  In some cases, I have seniors who can go toe-to-toe with any alpha geek and in other cases, recent college graduates who haven’t got a clue.  So we will work on closing these gaps at Executive Engines.

Executive Engines is a forum to share ideas and to engage with thought leaders, through comments and guest posts.  Jump in.

Fair warning, I intend to play the role of provocateur. Edge cases and more extreme ideas tend to drive clarity and insight.

Welcome to the conversation.   db