Friday, March 27, 2009

Twitter: Niche Advertising That Actually Works

Advertising is all about getting information about a company/product/service in front of a demographically appropriate audience to tease them into spending money on said product/service.

When everyone used to spend most of their time in front of a live broadcast television, television ads were used to convey a product/service to general consumers. Then the internet and Tivo hit; destroying the Television ad market. Internet ads are all but useless now as well (Google will one day have to own up to the click-fraud reality that underpins its financials). So, I'm left adrift in a free-market economy without a way for advertisers to reach me. Bummer.

Twitter is changing this. The companies/products/services I care about have figured out how to get to me, via Twitter.

Twitter provides a broadcast system system that smart businesses are using to reach out to relevant people. I don't have to waste time consuming ads I don't care about. Instead I get to selectively choose which businesses I want to hear from when some new product/service/discount/sale becomes available. Finally, the consumer is in control, and the advertiser doesn't have to mess with subscription lists (email/snail-mail/phone numbers) to reach me. All I have to do is "follow"/listen to the "channels" I want, and if I end up not liking the company doing the advertising, I can turn them off.

Feels darn close to a perfect advertisement communication system to me.

For example, local companies I "follow" who tell me about real-time services they provide are listed below. They get advertisements in-front of me, when I want them, and I make real-time purchasing decisions as a result.
  • (just bought doughnuts from there because they tweeted that they had arrived)
  • (not eating there today because the soup I love isn't avail today)
  • (they're not in my daily walk/flow, but now I get good reminders of them and can decide to head over there when in the mood)
More advertisements via Twitter/broadcast please.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Startups and Benefits

Gnip is approaching its one year anniversary, and we're in the process of evaluating potential new benefit options to offer employees. I surveyed a few local startups, as well as some early stage VCs, to get their take on how they handle things. The results surprised me.

The question I asked was whether or not you/your firm offered a tax deferred savings plan to your employees (e.g. SEP-IRA, SIMPLE-IRA, or 401k)?

Health Care
The healthcare related information I got back from folks was gravy, as I didn't even inquire about it.

Aside from equity, Gnip offers a range of healthcare plans through its HR/payroll aggregator service. It allows us to offer big company health care options, even though we're a small-time player. It isn't cheap for the company, but the benefit to recruits and employees is obvious (and frankly a necessity in today's broken health care system). One of the startups I queried, the CEO of which I highly regard/respect, put it best with this statement. "We weigh in pretty heavy on employee benefits because it glues them to us and makes it easier for people to rationalize to their spouse why they are in a risky job. If momma's unhappy - everyone is unhappy :-)." That personifies my thinking as well.

Anyway, what I found was that half of the companies offered healthcare outright as a benefit, and those who didn't, offered some sort of monthly stipend (e.g. $500) to each employee so they could go get their own private healthcare (or at least cover some of its cost). Firms with ~5 or fewer employees opt for this option, while firms with >5 employees put real meat behind their health care offering (e.g. offer plans).

Retirement Savings
This is where the surprise came in. I'd say half of the firms offer nothing, and the other half offer non-matching 401ks. It obviously doesn't make sense to match contributions unless your company is profitable, and the firms I queried aren't in the black yet; so, no match. What struck me is that 401ks, matching or not, are not cheap to run on the part of the employer (often >$2k/employee/yr), yet there are cheaper options at nearly an order of magnitude less the employer outlay; IRAs (SEP or SIMPLE). Structuring a SIMPLE-IRA for employees runs approx $300/employee/yr, and gives them the option to put aside $11,500 in pre-tax dollars into the same accounts they'd be investing their 401k dollars in. Of course withdrawal terms vary between IRAs and 401ks, but when faced with no retirement savings benefit offering, or an expensive 401k option, I was expecting more startups to have opted for the cheaper *-IRA offerings. My guess is that most folks have experience with 401ks over corporate sponsored IRAs, and just gravitate that direction because of familiarity.

Gnip's still evaluating things, but I thought I'd share these findings as they might be useful to you.

I'm not a CPA, so any stupid decisions you make based on my statistically insignificant results, are your fault, not mine.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Dell Inspiron Mini Server Issues

Awhile ago my old Dell Inspiron 1000 laptop's hard-drive failed, so I decided to upgrade it to the Dell Inspiron Mini 9". I need a machine that can sit in a crawlspace under the house, with the lid closed, and run 24/7 as my weather station server for my Davis Vantage Pro weather station.

The Inspiron 1000 lasted nearly a decade in these conditions, with no issues. I was excited about the solid state drive in the Mini 9" as fewer moving parts should keep the thing running longer.

Unfortunately, the machine completely locks up after about 48 hours. I was having to cold-restart it to get it to run for another 48 hours or so, and so on and so on. Obviously not a viable server solution when access to the machine is restricted; as it is in my setup.

My solution was to have a scheduler task run every 24 hours, that would restart the machine. It's running Windows XP Home edition, and as long as it reboots every 24 hours, there are no issues.

Lame that I had to jump through these hoops.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Anecdotes, Advice & Context

Anecdotes and advice are everywhere; always flying off of plenty of lips. I have a few friends in various stages of starting companies, and they're soliciting my advice on various topics. I spoke in front of the Tech Stars for a Day crowd the other day to impart some of Gnip's experiences, and share some of my perspective. Gnip had a board meeting yesterday wherein advice and perspective flowed around the room. Being on both on the receiving end, and on the giving end, of advice and anecdotes these days has me thinking about advice in general (including any conveyed in this blog post), and its worth.

If it's not already obvious, advice is almost purely context sensitive. If I tell you that highly compressed bike tires will make you go faster, yet you're climbing rocks on a very sandy/steep hill on a mountain bike, you will fail. You needed the surrounding context that I was talking about a road bike on a flat concrete surface. Without that context, my advice was worthless (still may be, but you need as much context as you can gather). Anecdotes from a banker about how fly a plane, probably aren't very useful. So, my first piece of advice is that if you're looking for some, make sure its from a relevant person, who's context and experiences you have a good understanding of. You need to know who's dispensing the advice in order to distill the parts that will be useful to you.

Anecdotes from people who have failed are more valuable to me than those who have succeeded. Note I said "anecdotes" and not necessarily advice. In my world, success is primarily a function of luck, so successful people going on and on about how "they do it" is boring and has a higher probability of being wrong. If you want perspective you can use from someone who has repeatedly demonstrated success in a field relevant to you, you have to engage in a deeper conversation with them in order to get better context.

Rules will kill you (yes, even that one). I've distilled my own set, but I always cringe when I find myself conveying some of them to others; when I become "that guy." We all do it, it's natural, but also hypocritical; ahh the wheel of life. "Never look back." "The only way to pull that off is to..." etc. The very things we strive to find, concrete, definitive, clear, statements about "how," are the very things that are usually wrong.

In the end I've found that I'm able to do my best, and have the most fun, when I immerse myself into a context (e.g. building software): its people, its leaders, its successes, its failures, its history, its future; its context. There are no shortcuts. Success is never easy. Steep yourself in the context you want, don't fake it.

I also try to experience as many life contexts as I can. I would be bored out of my mind if all I did was focus on a single context. Perspective on your main context, from within the context of another place, is crucial. Your context isn't the only one that matters, and frankly, it's probably the wrong one, however so slightly off it might be. Context shifts allow you to course correct your perspective from the outside.

There you have it, a pocket full of worthless advice.