Barn raising for products!

FwdMarket prelaunch preview

Here’s a few things I’ve learned since we released ArkAdmin six months ago.

For most of the authors it took a long time to deliver a product that everyone loved and was full of great features. This means that like in anything you do in life, building digital products takes practice and persistence until you can truly bring value to your potential customers.

You also need to be a good designer with a lot of ideas in order to make it. Having mostly hacked my way through a lot of code did not vote well for me unless I was able to attract a few designers that could create the layouts and then turn them into a fully functional theme or web application, depending on the case.

Another thing I noticed is that it’s far better to have a team of people behind your product. It can get very time consuming to keep maintaining and improving your current products while also creating new ones on the side. Especially if you have to do both the design and the implementation.

Once you have your end product designed and implemented you need to be able to show that you’re in this for the long hall and you have to have a great way to present your product. Most authors have their own presentation websites, aside from their theme pages on the marketplace.

Documentation is also important, as well as being able to show your potential customers what features you will be releasing next for the item they buy and to show that any bugs they report are scheduled to be fixed in future releases.

Unfortunately the current marketplaces don’t offer you many options to help you succeed on your own.

For me implementing a cool new feature or a complex application is something that I am good at. Design on the other hand is something that I didn’t think I would ever do. That’s why a few months ago we started to look for designers with who we could collaborate and share everything in half.

This is where the idea for FwdMarket came from. It’s a platform for managing products and interacting with the community in order to build and sell your design, theme, app, library or anything else you can zip and upload online.

We’re planing to introduce new ways of building products online and connect with the community around you.

Its focus is on nurturing lasting relations and getting things done without the stress of paying anything upfront. You just give a percentage of your revenue to your partner(s) every time you make a sale.

We’re currently working hard on building the platform  and getting feedback from the community so to that regard we set up a prelaunch page where you can sign up for early access.

Join us on our journey and let’s make things better.

The beginning of a JavaScript framework

The abundance of javascript libraries and frameworks that has sprung out lately has really made everyone develop their applications quicker than ever, but it also has made picking the perfect framework for your new project that much harder.

Before any new project I like to take a moment to think about which frameworks will work best with what I am trying to build, despite my subjective opinions about each option. Lately I fell in love with AngularJs and NodeJs, but unfortunately I can’t use them in every project.

For the past month I’ve been developing a new web application for a startup idea I had for quite some time. I will write another post about it once it’s launched but for now I want to focus on the JavaScript part of it.

Even though there are many great JavaScript frameworks out there I wanted one that could allow me to develop my platform in the fastest way possible, considering the following restrictions and architectural challenges:

  1. The platform can contain simple pages like any PHP application.
  2. There should also be sections with small javascript widgets that provide various functionality
  3. It should load some pages or process forms through Ajax, but not necessarily all of them. It should be the developers choice which is loaded through ajax and which is not.
  4. Should have a simple way to switch between loading a page via Ajax or through a full page request.
  5. Should allow the developer to specify where should the loaded section render in the page.

Basically the framework should be something that can help turn a normal web application into a single page one in a manner of minutes.

I started developing something that fits into this description using Backbone, jQuery and RequireJs.

I’ve used Backbone Views to define specific, self contained functionality for a section and to organise your code better into blocks of functionality.

Everything that you want to load without a page refresh is just prepended with a #! in front of the url. The forms are processed in a similar way as well. There is also a way to make the content load in a specific element when you click a link or submit a form. I am still working on what the simplest approach to this is, so if you have any suggestions let me know.

To spare the user the trouble of setting up each view object, these are created automatically for you if you specify something like data-handler=”app/path/to/view” on the DOM element. This automatically loads the view using RequireJs, creates an instance of it and initiates each section that needs that handler. This way you deal more with the functionality instead of configurations and setting up your architecture.

In order to convert an application to a single page application with this tool you would have to simply follow these steps:

  • Define where the main content should load and configure that in the framework
  • Add #! in front of all links that you want to convert
  • Define custom views for areas with special behaviour and add the path to the view in the data-handler attribute for these areas
  • Modify your application to return the pages with only the main content without any layout, menus or other sections.

The code is in a private repository for now, but will be moved to GitHub once I launch my platform. If you want a preview of it send me a message bellow or contact me on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Selling on WrapBootstrap: The good and the bad

A few months ago I designed and developed a bootstrap admin theme called ArkAdmin and started selling it on WrapBootstrap.

WrapBootstrap was my first choice because I bought a few themes from there before and had a good experience with the website and how easy it was to find what I was looking for. I also chose them because they were offering a bonus for posting a theme  in the admin category of $150.

The commission for an exclusive item was about the same as on themeforest so there was no point in debating which was better since I did not have any experience in selling any kind of product before (on or off these marketplaces).

It took about one week to have the item approved and available in the marketplace. For a first theme it sold good enough to be able to maintain the theme and not consider the time invested in creating it a waste. Also having been through both processes of WrapBootstrap, as a buyer and as a seller I managed to get more familiar with what are the good and bad things of the platform.

What is good about WrapBootstrap:

  • One of the good things about it is how easy it is to find a theme that you like, well designed and is suitable for your project. There are also great designers or developers that have created some very amazing bootstrap themes.
  • Has a decent number of visitors and buyers. I usually get over 5000 unique visitors per month on the demo page of my theme and they can easily identify my theme when they want to come back.
  • The commission they offer for sellers grows for an exclusive item from 55% to 75% based on the number of sales that you make.
  • They provided the promised bonus of $150 after one month after approving the theme.

The bad things about it:

  • It takes a long time for the owner(James) to approve any update you make to your theme. I am currently waiting to have my last version of the theme approved for three weeks now. A friend of mine also wanted to add his theme to the website but he waited for over four weeks and even though he contacted James multiple times over the email he got no answer back. He decided to move it to theme forest in the end.
  • They have no way to promote your theme within the marketplace. No matter how good your theme is the number of themes displayed on the homepage is limited. If you don’t have customers for a few days your theme can drop two or three pages and your visitor count will drop considerably.
  • There is a one way communication with your customers and that makes getting feedback for your work very hard. You have no idea who bought your theme unless they contact you first and ask for something. You know only the license key for the new purchase, without knowing which user bought the theme.
  • Everything is up to you to make your theme more attractive to your potential buyers. Given the lack of features the 65% they get out of each sale for a non exclusive item or 45% for an exclusive one seems to me way over the top.

I think that most of these problems can be easily solved with a bit more focus on customer support and on the people that actually made WrapBootstrap what it is today. There are multiple websites similar to what they are offering, but none as successful. It would be a shame if the designers and developers would move away because of lack of proper support like many other mismanaged services out there.

Selling a product online can be hard enough even without the extra hassle and limitations of the marketplace. Make sure you know what you are getting yourself into before you go with one service or another.

If you have any suggestions on how to bring more value to the platform or you would like to share your own experience, I would love to hear from you.

The battle of two wills

Getting out of the outsourcing business is hard. Even more so if you are not doing it alone and you have people depending on that type of business.

Paul and I started our small company in the second year of college. Back then we were doing a lot of freelancing to have a bit of extra income and we thought that we could gather a few colleagues and make a business out of it.

Said and done. We started with a couple of friends and we grew to a team of 10 people(in-house and remote) in a few years, learning and perfecting our craft over the years. The first few years were very hard, trying to gather new clients and keep them for longer periods of time, but in the end we managed to have a nice list of recurring or long term clients.

Due to the nature of our business model and the expansion of our team we each focused on a different area of the business. Paul had to talk to the clients and manage what everyone was working on and I was working on their applications and providing technical support to the rest of the team. Sufficient to say that our experience grew in different directions.

Last year also provided us with an opportunity to work together on a bigger project that we pushed into production and is about to be used by major companies around the world.

Going in a new direction this year is not without its challenges. On one side our outsourcing business has been good and we want to continue doing it as best as we can and keep most of our clients. On the other, we see how the old business models are changing and selling time for money will just not cut it if we want to expand further and remain agile.

As a side note, most big companies in Cluj follow the first model because they have a large supply of developers and their main promoters are in other countries where the hourly price is double than it is in Romania.  Therefore they win for each individual developer and also multiply that with how many developers they have. If you have over 300 developers, outsourcing is a very profitable business.

That being said we also see them trying to go in a different direction, oriented towards collaboration with other local companies in an attempt to expand their core business model and find partners for building products or services.

Back to our point, the business manager in Paul is probably screaming inside that we have a team of developers that needs to be paid every month, bills to pay to keep everything going and a lot of taxes to top it all off and that going into building something that you can’t estimate how much income will provide is just crazy. Luckily for me he is doing a great job keeping that side of his inner voice suppressed for now and I can divert most of my time to following up on our goals for this year.

Moving from getting paid by the hour to having a steady passive income by selling products is not something you do from one day to another. You will have less time than you would like to focus on it and also have to make sure that all your team is taken care of if you work on something without an immediate payout.

Think of a way to create a product that you can complete very fast (in a matter of days or 1-2 weeks tops).  Start selling it online whenever you have an MVP and don’t wait for it to contain all the features you can possibly think of. That way you have something that can bring you the smallest amount of income by using the new business model and you can also create demand for new features and you can better connect with your potential customers.

Once you complete this first step repeat it a few times until you have a steady monthly income. Focus most of your time on building an improving your products and the rest on responding to requests and building your communication with the customer.

Only then try to build something that is more time consuming and requires more intense focus.

Building a successful passive income is about finding your best way to go from $0/week to $100/week and improving it daily instead of going from $0 to $10000 in one month.

You can certainly get there with passive income in a few months, but that should be something that happens progressively instead of one big bang.

Please let me know how things worked out for you and share your two cents on reshaping your business.

First time at Startup Weekend Cluj

This past weekend I went to the Startup Weekend event with my best friend and business partner Paul.

It was the first time we participated to something even remotely similar to this so we got a bit stressed because we did not know what to expect, but I’m getting a head of my self.

Two weeks before #SWCLUJ

At the beginning of the January we decided that this year is going to be different. We have to get out of out comfort zone and get started on the ideas we’ve been holding back on to try and bring more value to our day  to day lives.

We had just bought our tickets and and we were thinking what idea are we going to pitch or are we just going to go there with just our tech wiz skills. We spent the next week coming up with an idea that can help release a pain I’ve been having for a long time now. Finding relevant content without going through all the social spam or searching the web trying to find anything close to what I want to read.

It was hard because we were navigating between a couple of possible pitches, but we had finally found something worth implementing, however there was a catch, how do we make money out of it? If you can’t make money out of it from the get go at least make sure that you don’t need a significant infrastructure to support it if it get’s popular fast.

Over the weekend we thought more about this and realised that we can limit some of the functionality and create a PRO subscription plan in order to get access to it.

The week before the event

On Monday morning Paul comes to the office and says that he’s found an ever better way to do it. We spent the next few hours talking about it and had something we thought was impressive if it were to be built.

Paul ordered some business cards to try and leave a nice impression at the event and started perfecting the pitch and look over the information that the organisers sent us in the last few days before the weekend.

Startup Weekend

The weekend finally came and we rushed to the event with out laptops, our one crazy idea and a little bit of hope.

One thing that you really need to understand when you go to this event is that it’s all about the people. It’s mainly an event to meet interesting people, have a bit of fun and work as much as you can to make your idea stand out.

From the very start we talked with other attendees that participated in the previous years and were able to give us a bit of insight into what to expect.

After some presentations and good fun organised by Vidar Andersen we started pitching, formed themes and brainstormed for the rest of the evening.

The next morning we started with the advice of two coaches. The first one said that it is very hard to convince users to write about anything, or even share articles that are relevant to what they are looking for. We should instead try to move to a different direction and convince the users that you can deliver them great content from the start. We discussed a bit about these before the appointment with the next one.

The second coach said that he would not pay for this when there are other applications that he uses to get his news and that we should focus on some other sectors and work our way from those.

Coaches are there to force you to think differently and make sure you analysed every possible angle before you continue on a path. The opinion of one person with an impressive background does hold some weight, but they can also contradict each other in their statements. In the end no matter if you change your initial idea or not make sure that you focus on the value you bring and the core of the idea.

In our case we decided to go with a completely different approach to making the impact in our readers lives. We started implementing and connected a lot with another team and had a blast on Saturday evening.

Sunday was crazy. We needed to have an MVP ready by 5 PM, get another opinion from a coach for the new idea and contact a few potential clients to validate it. We worked a lot to have the application ready for a show and tell, while Horea, Cristi and Nicoleta worked in the design and presentation for the pitch.

Sadly we didn’t win anything except for a lot of experience, good friends and some interesting connections, but that’s what matters in the end.

I am looking forward to participating next year with an even better business idea and continue to working on what we started these past 2 weeks.

Thank you #SWCLUJ for all the valuable lessons and the great time I’ve had while working on my idea.

 

A new way of working

I have been working in outsourcing since I started Around25 back in 2006 and I had the chance to work on some very interesting projects and meet cool clients along the way.

Along with the team we have grown to handle some pretty large projects, while also keeping a friendly working environment based on personal collaboration rather than corporate guidelines.

This year however we decided to make a few things different. We will try to grow a culture based on a startup mentality, try to pick the clients that actually care about their products even more than we do and add more value by working on some of our own products and ideas that hopefully will bring value to the people using them.

The New  Clients

Until now I’ve worked with clients all over the world, each with their work way of working and doing things. Some of them were really passionate about what they needed and I loved to stay and chat with them or work on their project. Others viewed the development part of building their vision as a chore and chose to limit their involvement to the maximum. Having no one that can act as a product owner is hard for any team.

Another problem that seems to not be limited to one client is the insistence on working on big projects with only one or two developers. And on top of that requesting estimations of ever changing requirements.

As cool as the client may be we are not sales men. We are not here to sell you pipe dreams or work on the same project for the next 10 years because we like you as a person. We are first and foremost professionals/craftsmen. As much as we may like you as a client we like your project more. If you can’t make the right decisions to help us make your project great then we would prefer to focus on others that can.

Hard as it may seem the one thing we see all day is not the client, it’s the code, it’s their project. That is what we care about and that is our number one concern.

Rule #1: Work for only for clients that are excited about their products and filter out all the rest.

Cultivate Value

Up until now we have focused a lot of forming a great team that can become more than just a big team of developers. We have tried to create a family of friends, to have fun meeting each day and to grow together in our skill.

We had good friends come and go, but we managed to reach most of our goals in this regard. From here I want to move the team from working in outsourcing to creating value for other people and continually generate new ideas to support this goal.

The first product out of this is a new bootstrap theme called Ark Admin that tries to deliver a clean flat UI for admin/dashboard pages.

Rule #2: Create an environment that allow the free flow of ideas and build products that add value to the customer.

Outreach

Up until now we have concentrated a lot of the online market and tried to find clients instead of partners. I think that in order to move forward we need to build a better network of partners that can help us reach all our goals.

In doing so we will be participating at the Startup Weekend event this month and try to meet other people who share our vision and see if one of our ideas has some support and a possible market for it.

Rule #3: Connect with the people around you or those that share your vision. You can’t bring value if you forget the people involved.