Striving to empower: building a business you can be proud of


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A presentation given as part of Launch 48 Edinburgh, on October 29, 2010. The slides are deliberately simple: see the notes for content.

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  • A little about me:
    Spent all my life with computers one way or another. Blogged before they had a name.
    Edited an online games mag called Spire when I was 15; Dynamix offered me a job
    Decided to go to the University of Edinburgh instead and study computer science.
    The story of Elgg in a nutshell:
    In 2003, I worked for the University of Edinburgh’s Department of Education as an educational developer, from a tiny ex-broom closet with a window that didn’t close, with David Tosh, a colleague.
    Disgusted by the state of educational technology, we wrote a paper outlining how social software (as it existed in 2003) could be used in education.
    Was read 60,000 times, including by someone who pointed out: “it’s one thing to talk about it; it’s another thing to build it.”
    We tried to pitch the idea to the university …
  • So we built it.
    I built the first version, based on conversations between Dave and I. (I had registered for my email, but didn’t have a website, so that’s where it went, and that’s why it was called Elgg.)
    I believed completely that it would be successful, and that it needed to exist. left my job and burnt through my savings to finish it. We released it in November, 2004 as an open source project.
    In 2005, we founded a company, Curverider, to support the product. (The name was deliberately unrelated to Elgg, to give us flexibility for future products.)
    In 2006, we both went full-time.
  • In 2008, InfoWorld named it the best open source social networking system.
    Used by the WWF, the World Bank, the state of Ohio and 1 in 7 universities in Britain.
    I decided to leave Elgg in order to pursue new projects in April, 2009.
    It’s still going strong.
    I’m now CTO of Latakoo, a new company whose declared mission is to Connect and Empower, initially in news.
    I’m also the geek in residence at the Edinburgh Festivals Innovation Lab.
  • An old maxim for wannabe novelists is: “write what you know.”
    Write what you know to be true. Build what you know is needed.
    Building a business is a strenuous, long-term proposition.
    You’re much more likely to stick at it if you’re doing something you believe.
    You’re much more likely to love it if you’re doing something you believe.
    If you believe in something, you’ll do anything to make it work.
    (The original Twitter team originally gave up on Odeo because they realized they didn’t believe in it.)
    The web isn’t just a market; it’s a movement.
    Elgg was originally a manifesto for how educational software should be written. Later, it was a manifesto for how social software should be.
    Although it was open source, I was referred to as a “benevolent dictator”: I had a solid idea of how it should be built, and why, and ensured that the product stayed true to that.
    You’re building tools for people. You’re managing people. You’re selling your products and your ideas to people. It really helps if you love people.
  • Elgg wouldn’t have happened if we had kept ourselves to ourselves. It started with a message.
    We released our papers online for free.
    We commented on other peoples’ blogs.
    Blog – and be honest about what you’re blogging about. Be generous; write about competitors, things of general interest around your company.
    If you believe in what you’re doing, use your blog to persuade everyone else.
    Shout about what you believe in. Be vocal. Be accessible.
    Build your app for an audience. Write for the same audience.
    Make it easy for people you convert to your cause to shout about it. Again: doing something you believe in – giving your business an ideological core – will make it easy for people to market your product for you.
  • Your business is a community. Your customers are a community.
    The single biggest risk is either of those communities falling apart.
    Choosing your business partner is like choosing a spouse.
    I have a therapist friend who wanted to write a book called “The First Six Weeks”: you get all the signs about how your relationship with someone is going to go within the first six weeks.
    Don’t discount those little niggly things that you think don’t mean anything.
    Make sure everyone is bringing something to the table: don’t work with vampires. (An idea is not enough.)
    When the going gets tough, you see peoples’ worst sides. Startups are tough. You’re going to spend most of your time with these people, often at their worst, and you need to be able to not just work with them, but live with them.
    Infighting kills productivity.
  • Titles and structure might not matter to you, but they matter to the outside world.
    Whatever you declare now, you’re stuck with. Choose wisely.
    If you’re a co-founder, don’t accept a subservient position. The world will assume your vision is also subservient – and you may find you resent it.
  • The Internet allows you to global very easily. It’s actually harder in some ways to build a local business.
    If you believe in your business, you don’t want to dilute that intensity of purpose.
    Money becomes a means to an end: it lets you do what you know needs to be done.
    Investment brings more people to the party.
    Either make sure investors totally believe in your core mission – or avoid them entirely by building a business that can make money from day one.
    Don’t be fooled by companies like Google and Twitter: even if you need investment to get there, you must know how you’re going to make money.
    Eyeball-based ads are probably not a reliable business model. You need to take money from someone.
  • Gatekeepers are everywhere. They are necessary, they are efficient, and they are holding us back.
    Publishing was an expensive business, once upon a time: works needed to be written, edited, acquired, typeset, printed, bound, advertised, distributed and sold. Entire industries - careers and legacies, even - grew up around this workflow.
    Publishing houses were the gatekeepers for who could be published. Bookstores were the gatekeepers of whose work could be sold.
    Because there were so many inherent difficulties involved in reaching an audience - not least distance, cost and the technology required - the gatekeepers had the only viable route to making it happen. Their size and economies of scale enabled authors to find readers for generations.
    Then, in the 1990s, the world changed.
    The web allowed anyone to publish. Napster gave musicians a new way to find an audience.
    The gatekeepers - the publishing houses, the Recording Industry Association of America, and others - began to fight back, but it was clear that the new models were here to stay. The old guard's economies of scale no longer mattered.
    Not just limited to post-scarcity items:
    In the summer of 2010, the New York State legislature - heavily sponsored by the hotel industry - cracked down on residents subletting rooms as unofficial hotel rooms and advertising them on open markets like
    History has now repeated itself with, a similar service for taxis, which San Francisco has sent a cease and desist.
    Hotels were the gatekeepers for visitors to a city, if they didn’t have a place to stay. For a price, you could generally trust their safety, cleanliness and comfort. In the age of truly open markets with built-in metrics for trust and accountability, anyone can offer a room, and as a result, the days of the global hotel chain may be numbered. Another gatekeeper rendered obsolete.
    Which gatekeepers will you render obsolete? Who will you empower?
  • Striving to empower: building a business you can be proud of

    1. 1. Striving to empower building a business you can be proud of Ben Werdmuller – – @benwerd October 29, 2010
    2. 2.
    3. 3. DO SOMETHING YOU BELIEVE IN. Write what you know.
    4. 4. SHOUT ABOUT IT. You’re awesome. Don’t keep it in.
    5. 5. CHOOSE YOUR PARTNERS WISELY. A startup relationship is like a marriage. Only more intense.
    6. 6. THE ROLES YOU CHOOSE NOW WILL DEFINE YOUR COMPANY. Think about what message your organizational structure sends to the outside world.
    7. 7. A BOTTOM LINE IS FREEDOM. Know how you’re going to make money from day one.
    8. 8. STRIVE TO EMPOWER. The Internet smashes gatekeepers, democratizes markets and brings a greater degree of control to peoples’ lives.
    9. 9. Good luck! Thanks for listening. Any questions? – – @benwerd
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