Monday, October 16, 2006

Why I Won't Build Your "MySpace Killer"

Often the topic of starting a "great" web business comes up, and in my age and wisdom (being both old to be a freelance web programmer, and one of a minority of women in the field) -- there's two ways to go: thinking "in" the box = come up with new brilliant technology, patent it and hire people to program it better and faster than anyone else can so you can quickly market it. If it climbs to the top before it is cloned you become the next target for people trying to out-do your website. This track is getting VERY old, VERY fast. Mainly you and your absolute best friend need to be programmers to do this (think Microsoft, Google...) because you can't trust anyone with your terrific idea. Also it has to be so ground-breaking that only the best (read: smartest, wise, long-range thinking) of venture capitalists will see the end of the rainbow where the pot of gold sits. If it is easy to get the funding for your idea, someone probably is making it already.

Thinking "out" of the box = coming up with a way to use normal everyday technology to do something that fills -- rather than creates -- a real need or niche. It's cheaper, faster, and if it really IS filling a need, it's going to spread by word-of-mouth, and it won't be "just a fad". This technique aims lower and comes in under the radar -- no billion dollar baby here -- but it's safer, less stressful, and you don't have to be a programmer, generally speaking. The programmer is unlikely to run off with your baby if it doesn't look like a "google killer".

The problem is that great ideas are easy -- the means to really make them work is the harder part (invention = 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration). I'm frustrated with people who want to "share" the rewards of their great web program idea (equity sharing) of up to 50%, but won't be doing any of the actual work to make it hang together and be practical. If someone comes to me with a truly great idea (and I have NDA's if they don't), I can find them a great programming team, but the team will probably want cash on delivery, not equity. More "google killers" die every day than make it. They're not original ideas, and if a site dies before it makes money, there's no equity and it's a huge waste of the programmer's time.

Imagine that someone turned to you and said, "I have a great idea for a newspaper! I'll give you the ideas, you develop the newspaper and run it, staff it, write for it, etc. I'll give you 50%." That approach frustrates me. People don't get it. I can translate it to dozens of other fields -- "I have a great plan for a house, you just have to build it. Then you can live on the top floor, and I'll live downstairs. Ok?"

Somewhere in there people are cheapening the act of programming. After all, it's just bits and bytes, right???

The Internet mimics life in a "survival of the fittest" way. I don't pretend to know what's "cool" or "hot" anymore -- I work with "useful" :) I won't get rich but that wasn't in my personal game plan. I have my own great or good ideas, some might make me money, some won't but will look really good on my resume.

Then there's the flip side of this: If you're not the head of the programming team and you've paid someone to build the google killer -- what if it works? Now you have to program new features, fix bugs, etc. You either need to re-hire the same team, or get a programming staff. You go on Craigslist and choose the person who claims somehow to be able to fulfill your great Internet dream, but if you have this beautiful web baby together, are you really ready for that long-term commitment with a total dweeb with no business sense?

I can't wait to be so busy with people I've looked in the eye and shaken the hands of that I can't afford to even GLANCE at another Craigslist ad. I love my clients dearly, but you don't know how rare it was that the people I dealt with BECAME clients at all. I certainly wouldn't want to become business partners with some guy with the "next killer app" idea and had to actually look on Craigslist for a programmer. So wait -- your only experience is the front end of websites as a user, and you think you can somehow manage a killer web application programming team? That's an incredibly poor business move and you'll get laughed out of the bank. And you want the programmer to work for nothing but equity? That's spec work.

That brings me to another thing: Have you ever had one of those managers who knows absolutely nothing about what you do? It happens in IT all the time, but much less so in other professions. BUT if you've ever heard a nurse bitch that someone "stepped in" as the head of the nursing staff from a business-only background, you might get the idea. In most large corps -- and this is a place where Microsoft does NOT get bad rankings -- the heads of the corporation have NO IDEA how to produce their main products...much less have a clue what their IT department does sitting at their computers all day.

It's never a good idea to manage something you don't understand. Ever.

On that note, are you interested in a basic web programming class? :)


  1. " ItÂ’s never a good idea to manage something you donÂ’t understand. Ever " -- Its true most of the times, but not always..not everyone can specialize in everything. For example in IT/Electronics Hardware industry, its somewhat common that a frontend manager sometimes manages the entire design flow which includes backend..As long as he is good at people management and project management and doesnt bullshit around with his backend team..its okk...This is from a true managerial perspective..but from enterprenuer perspective and when ur product/company is still in prototyping/incubator stage..I totally agree with you..

  2. I'll tentatively grant that a kick-ass manager is a kick-ass manager -- staying out of the team's way, developing team rapport, enabling the team by helping with theory/research/resource acquisition, building the team's strengths, finding ways to compensate for the weaknesses... and it hardly matters what the manager is managing if they're a management miracle worker.

    That said -- I still assert it's not a GOOD IDEA, because those types of managers are so *#*@(@)# few and far between, and they'd be EVEN BETTER if they understand the technology (or process) they are managing. You have managers that want to micromanage something they don't understand. The ones too proud to admit that the tech is over their heads. The ones that ONLY want results by any means and no ethics to make sure it's done right.

    A manager for a car manufacturer with no idea about cars... pick a business. The miracle managers are heaven-sent managers when they actually have a clue what they're managing. Otherwise they're over-glorified ignorant team players with a lot of time on their hands and paper to push until someone on the team screams "mercy".

    They still beat the socks off of the Type-A ignorant manager who beats his subordinates into submission to meet deadlines.

    They're just not particularly well placed. Add to the miracle manager the ability and desire to learn from the subordinates as s/he goes along and then they're taking care of that ignorance issue, and they might graduate to godsend.