Why is building a website so hard?

I’ve been working in tech startups for the last couple of years and have been up close and personal with what it takes to get something designed, built and onto the internet.

During the consulting parts of my career I’ve helped build plenty websites for clients. But it’s a whole different thing when you are in-house and personally responsible for whether the site is delivering results. I’ve found that as soon as you’re responsible for the actual business results, your whole mindset changes. Personally, I’ve found that all of a sudden usability and simplicity become more important than aesthetics.

I’ve always been fascinated by how things that seem like a nice easy website project can become complex, stressful and expensive. It’s not just the normal “things take longer than you expect” effect from project management. Something more profound is going on when building digital products. There are several interesting issues that cause website projects to be harder than you’d expect:

1. Unknowable scope

You never really know in advance what you actually need a website to do. Even the best planning, user experience mapping and project scoping won’t capture all the possible things that users may want to do on your site or all the features that you may want to put in front of your users. In the world of construction and engineering they have a concept called a “change order” these are supposed to track changes to the scope, but in software development, it’s possible that the scope isn’t even known in the first place.

Mitigation: Taking an iterative approach based on lean startup, agile development and design thinking can help bite off small chucks to work on.

Code

2. Hidden dead-ends

A dead-end gremlin is when you get 90% of the way down the path with implementing a part of a system, only to find that there is an absolute block based on a requirement that the tool or module you’ve chosen can’t deliver. Often these gremlins show up as hidden systems that depend on each other to do something seemingly simple like send an automated email.

Email marketing and payment processing are the worst areas for dead-ends because everything sounds simple from the outside, but the reality of actually making it work can be very hard with multiple systems depending on each other.

Mitigation: Being as clear as possible about the mandatory requirements in advance can help, but the best solution is to find ways to prototype the idea so that you can test whether everything hangs together properly.

3. A beautiful unique snowflake

In the world of marketing and branding, it’s tempting to want to make everything unique, different and beautiful. This is a great way to create a unique brand, but it can be a terrible way to create a website. Good web design prioritises functionality and effectiveness over looks.

Ford Model T Dash

Before the 1940s, every car dashboard looked different and had different levers, dials and displays. After the 1940s, almost every dashboard from every manufacturer conformed to the same basic layout with a speedometer, rev counter and fuel gauge, which meant that any driver could drive any car without having to relearn everything from scratch. The basic design interface has stayed the same ever since because usability is more important than uniqueness.

Ford Deluxe DashStandardisation makes everything simpler for the end-user. The same is true in web design. We expect links to be blue and underlined, the scroll bar to be on the right, and the menu to be on the top (or maybe the left). Websites that break basic navigation conventions just to be different are making the medium more important than the message. It’s nice to be unique, but it’s better to be effective.

Mitigation: Using standard web development frameworks and content platforms can help make sure that a website is consistent and easy to use.

4. Testing and compatibility

Every website project that I’ve worked on started with great promises about compatibility and great intentions to test everything. In practise, too many websites don’t work on mobile phones or the wide range of browsers that are out there in the real world. Personally, I’m a fan of minimalism in web design. The less distracting fonts, animation and noise there is, then the more that the content can shine. Ironically enough, simple and minimal design is also more likely to work on a wide range of devices and browsers.

Mitigation: Make designs and code as simple as possible and don’t assume that every single person in the world uses Chrome.

How to get the most out of Startup Weekend

Startup Weekend Auckland is a full weekend event in which small teams come together and build an entire startup before pitching to a panel of investors and judges on Sunday evening. The teams don’t necessarily stay together after the weekend and usually the main benefit is the learning and the experience gained rather than any particular startup that gets built. The exercise of identifying a market problem, creating a solution and then packaging it all up into a website, mobile app and investment pitch is an adrenaline fuelled roller coaster.

Startup Weekend Logo
It’s amazing what you can get done with a highly motivated team in a short period of time and many successful companies have come out of startup weeekends around the world. But more important is that lessons that individual participants have taken back to their own startups or corporate jobs to make these organisations more flexible, agile and customer centred.

I was a mentor on the last Startup Weekend Auckland of 2016 and there are a few lessons that I picked up which could help you get the most out of participating in a future startup weekend. Some of these lessons are also equally applicable to your day job.

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The Moral Hazard Created by Abundant Startup Funds

I vehemently disagree with a lot of this article, but it’s so well written that I just had to share it. Murad Ahmed from the Financial Times neatly captures the changes that are happening in the London startup scene and the increase in angel investing and venture capital in Europe.

For 4 years I lived through the heyday of this boom in UK startup funding. But my experience was that to go along with the increase in investors, there has been a corresponding increase in startups so that the two have balanced each other out. The good startups that get funded by good investors are still dedicated, hardworking and humble.

I’ve reproduced the article from the Financial Times site below because the article is so important as a record of a certain time in London’s startup scene and it would be a shame to lose it. You can see the original article, if it’s still visible on the FT site.

Enter FT journalist Murad Ahmed

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Venture Capital at SeedInvest

I recently joined the SeedInvest team in New York. SeedInvest is a leading equity crowdfunding platform that is streamlining the startup investing process so that new types of investors can invest directly in early stage companies. I’m responsible for digital marketing and helping startups promote their campaigns to investors. It’s been a big couple of months for me, so I thought I’d take a moment to update you on what I’ve been up to.

1. I’ve moved to New York

New York has always been a centre of financial innovation and the earliest venture capital investors almost all started out in New York before moving to Silicon Valley. I’ve always wanted to live in New York. In late 2014 I won the green card lottery and we have now relocated permanently to the USA. So far, we’ve been using AirBnB to experiment with different neighbourhoods and have fallen in love with Tribeca, Nolita and Brooklyn Heights.

New York has a great environment to build a startup. The city is alive 24 hours a day and there is a great mix of design, business and technical skills. I love the intense energy and the mix of cultures from all over the world.

2. I’m still working with startups

As soon as I knew that we were moving to the states, I started researching the emerging American equity crowdfunding platforms. I’ve long believed that democratising the financing of small businesses will be one of the greatest shifts in the structure of capitalism since the advent of the public stock markets. Allowing new entrepreneurs and new investors to find each other will create new companies, new jobs and new opportunities. I loved being part of investment platform Seedrs in the UK and with recent changes in US securities laws, the timing was perfect to transfer these skills to the USA.

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How to value a startup

Company valuation is one of the most misunderstood parts of early stage investing. Both investors and entrepreneurs get themselves endlessly tied in knots trying to calculate a startup’s “value” despite the fact that the whole concept of valuation is entirely artificial. How to value a startup is one of the most common questions I get when I present to entrepreneurs on the topic of venture capital and online angel investing. What worries me the most is that talking about valuation in isolation can distract people from the real issues of economics (amount of cash invested) and control (percentage equity offered).

Social media for executive profiling
The value of a startup is determined by the willingness of the entrepreneur and the investor to agree on a price that works for both parties.

One of the most common questions that you hear entrepreneurs and VCs ask each other is “What’s your valuation”? It seems like a sensible question and it’s a tempting way to compare different companies who are raising capital, but the idea of a single number as an agreed valuation for a startup is a dangerous distraction from the real issues. The term “valuation” is simply a useful shorthand to talk about several independent variables. These variables can be quickly forgotten when you start a conversation with the issue of valuation.

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Dave McClure on equity crowdfunding

Brant Cooper and Patrick Vlaskovits interviewed VC investor Dave McClure as part of their book the Lean Entrepreneur. The Lean Entrepreneur was published in 2013 and I picked up a copy after seeing Patrick Vlaskovits speak at the Innovation Warehouse in London.

Patrick has a really practical and grounded approach to innovation, growth hacking and the world of startups. He’s been an inspiration to me and has contributed a lot back to the community through mentoring and coaching various startups.

After reading the book last year, I got a copy of the audiobook on Audible. Some of the checklists and bullet-points don’t survive the transition to audio that well, but overall the audiobook was excellent and I recommend it alongside the Lean Startup as one of the key audiobooks for entrepreneurs and investors.

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Mark Suster and Clayton Christensen on equity crowdfunding

In 2013 Mark Suster a leading VC investor and Clayton Christensen a leading business author sat down at Startup Grind to talk about disruptive innovation and startup investment. Their conversation touched briefly on the subject of equity crowdfunding. Both Mark and Clayton are extremely cynical about equity crowdfunding. Some of their concerns are sensible questions about an emerging industry. But what they were secretly doing was arguing for the old model. I’m a big fan of Mark’s blog and Clayton’s books but they’re wrong about the disruptive potential of equity crowdfunding.

VC investor Mark Suster and business author Clayton Chistensen at Startup Grind.
VC investor Mark Suster and business author Clayton Chistensen at Startup Grind.

By betting against against equity crowdfunding, Mark Suster is betting against the internet. I believe the internet will do the same thing to early stage finance that it does to all industries. Namely, make them more competitive, connected and democratic.

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Equity crowdfunding at Seedrs

Seedrs provides a tool that startups can use to raise capital from their friends, family, customers and the crowd. This process is often called “equity crowdfunding” because it’s like Kiva or Kickstarter, except that the investors get equity in the company instead of a product or a loan. In January 2014, I joined Seedrs as part of the marketing team.

Seedrs Team Wired Magazine
The Seedrs team have been featured in Wired, TechCrunch, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal.

At the end of last year, Seedrs raised 2.58 million pounds from over 900 investors using their own platform. That means that in my new marketing role, I now have over 900 bosses. I feel very accountable for the success and growth of the business. In this blog post, I want to share two main things about my new role, the expanded view of marketing that we’re taking at Seedrs, and the way that we’re incorporating lean manufacturing habits and processes into our team culture.

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Helping startups with equity crowdfunding

Equity crowdfunding is a new way of raising capital for startups. Kickstarter has proven a successful model for crowdfunding an idea (by pre-selling the product). Equity crowdfunding takes this further by allowing the crowd to buy shares in the company itself. The volume of alternative finance for startups, entrepreneurship and innovation is growing rapidly.

Value Proposition Canvas Hackathon
During the HackHumanity hackathon I realised that startups need help with equity crowdfunding.

Crowdfunding is a delicate balance of describing the product, the team, the business and the investment opportunity. Each of these need to be communicated in a clear, compelling and persuasive way. Often the teams with the best technical skill are not the best communicators.

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