Advice for First-Time Attendees to MicroConf
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In April, I attented MicroConf.
The talks and conversations were invaluable to my business.
As the tickets for MicroConf 2016 are going on sale shortly, I wanted to write up advice for first-time attendees, especially those who are early in their business and want to learn a lot.

If you’re attending, read the “Preparation” section now to get ready.
The rest is best read in the days before the conference to start off right, but might also be useful if you’re on the fence about whether to get a ticket.
But the short version is that if you’re starting or growing a tech-related, self-funded business, yes, you absolutely want to go.

Preparation

First, read How to Win Friends and Influence People.
This mindset of being curious about and generous to people is exactly right for MicroConf.
You’ll get practical advice that significantly improves your experience (not to mention the rest of your life).
Prefer the original version to the 1970s revised edition, but don’t skip it if you can’t find the original.

The only other thing you need to do more than a week in advance is get business cards.
There’s only ~250 attendees and you’ll meet a quarter to half of them so you don’t need a ton, but really don’t want to be without.
Leave the back blank and stick a pen in your pocket.
Then, when you talk to someone, write them a note to jog their memory about who you are, what you’d like to hear more about, and what you can do for them.
This will dramatically increase the quality of the connections you make and the conversations you have after the conference.

Think hard about what you’re working on or could be working on, and choose the most important thing for the “business” field when you register.
This will be printed on your badge, so almost everyone will ask you about it.

Speaking of your badge, when you pick it up, they’ll offer a ribbon you can stick on reading “First-Time Attendee”.
Don’t decline it because you feel self-conscious.
People will use it as a conversation starter and be happy to see you; no one will roll their eyes at the newbie.

You should prepare a short description of each of your business projects.
Not an “elevator pitch”, it’s rude to try to sell to other attendees, but a few sentences to introduce people to what you’re doing and what you’d like advice on.
It’s worthwhile to finish by saying that you’re looking for practical, unfiltered advice rather than polite questions.

Some questions are very common, so also think of what your answers to them will be:

  • Has that launched?
  • Who are your users? How many do you have? Are they all paying customers?
  • Are you full-time on it?
  • Where are you going with that?
  • What’s your goal for the business?
  • What’s your marketing plan?
  • What brought you to MicroConf?
  • What’s your revenue? (It’s OK to decline to answer or be vague, but there’s a trusting atmosphere and sharing more will get you better info. Likewise, keep the revenue/profit amounts that the speakers or other attendees share with you private.)

Some questions you should be ready to ask are:

  • Design questions specific to your business
  • How should I market this?
  • What else can I offer my customers?
  • What’s going to get your unlaunched business bringing in revenue?
  • What’s going to make your existing business many times more profitable?

Mark three hours on your calendar for the day after the conference to reread your notes, move your to-do list into whatever you use to track to-dos, and email all the people you met.

Presentation

The talks are generally goldmines of real business experience.
Most slides will be available after (though unfortunately not every speaker will mention this in the first minute…), and if the trend of previous MicroConfs holds, someone will be taking detailed notes.

So you should plan to take notes on things that are especially interesting to you or relevant to your business.
Don’t try to take everything down, it’ll distract you from learning.
If you’re using a laptop, close your email, close Slack, close Twitter, close everything that might distract you.

The conference will probably have an official “backchannel” website or iOS/Android app for attendees to chat amongst themselves.
I was frustrated in 2015 because didn’t have an iOS/Android device to follow it, so I missed out on kibitzing and some social planning.
This year I plan to try setting up an Android emulator so I can get it, though maybe it’ll be easier to buy a cheap Android phone to use a few days, I dunno.
Phones are awful.

In any case, Twitter will also be a backchannel.
Set your client to search for “MicroConf” and “MicroConf2016”.

As you listen to talks you’ll start putting things on your to-do list.
Don’t intersperse these with your talk notes, you want all the to-dos in one list so you can review them after the conference.

The Hallway Track

This is the best part of MicroConf.
While it’s fun to meet the people who are famous in our little community, it’s not worth your time to seek them out.
You’ll get far more out of a random chat with someone you’re surprised to learn has done something exactly like what you’re doing, and the event is small enough you’ll run into the famous people anyways.

MicroConf is not mercenary.
Don’t pitch, even if your thing is valuable for other entrepreneurs.

When you talk to people, take notes during the conversation.
It’s not rude, it’s practical.
Get their name, business, major challenges, and top-of-mind topics.
Follow-up after the conference with more information, advice, or questions for them.
Don’t forget to give them your card.

Use the talks as conversation topics, but mostly think about and ask how you can help them.
Think about who you could introduce them to here at the conference or by email.
If you thought it sounded silly and skipped it, seriously, read How to Win Friends and Influence People.
The conference is about generous collaboration, be prepared to give as much as you get.

If you need polite conversation-enders: say that you’re going to wander around some more, you see someone you’re meaning to catch up with, you want a cup of coffee, you’re heading to the restroom, or simply, “It was good talking to you, I’ll send you an email about [topic].”

Then look for an unfamiliar face and do it again.
It’s loose and unstructured and far more social than technical conferences.
If you keep talking to new people you will have conversations that significantly improve your business and your life.

Evening Socializing

In the evenings folks head out to dinner and social activities in groups.
These are generally informal, arranged after the last talk as clumps of people head out.
It’s not impolite to ask a group where they’re headed and if they’d like one more person.

If you’re organizing a group, don’t have a democratic group where you try to poll everyone about what they’d like to eat and reach a considered consensus.
If someone isn’t the leader of the group, you are the leader.
Nobody cares much where they go as long as they can keep talking.
Pick a place you can walk to on Yelp, say that’s the plan to give anyone with dietary restrictions a chance to object, and go.

If your clump of people has 4-6, go, don’t wait to grab one more person.
A restaurant can easily seat up to 6 people without a reservation.
And past 6 you get coordination issues because in the time it takes someone who wants to stop off and do a thing or grab one more person or finish a conversation, another person will think of some little thing they need to do and you’ll all stand around until you starve to death.
If you walk into a restaurant and it’s too noisy for easy conversation, turn right back around and eat next door.

After dinner, check the backchannel or contact someone you met earlier to ask what they’re up to.
People will often socialize over drinks, in the hotel bar/restaurant, or at a gambling table, so you’ll recognize faces and can join groups by walking around.
No one will pressure you to drink alcohol or gamble, even if you are the only person in the group not doing so.
I was at a craps table with a handful of people who were drinking and betting $20-200 per roll and nobody batted an eye that I was sipping water, totally ignorant of the rules, not betting, happily chatting about life and business, or that I called it a night earlier than they did.

Don’t go to play casino poker in a group.
There’s always a bunch of people who want to play poker, and a casino will not seat you all together (you might be cheating collaborators) or start a private game for you (apparently that’s illegal).
You’d walk all the way over there, get shot down, and then stand around at loose ends.
This happened to at least three groups last year.

Leave time at the end of the night to glance at your notes and flesh out anything that’s occurred to you or that you can jot down about the people you met. Then go to bed early enough that you can get up and do it all again.

After the conference, email the people you met to talk about what they’re doing, what they told you, and thank them for your conversation.
If the previous 1,600 words haven’t made it clear, it’s all about the people.
Humans are socially driven, so the connections you make and community you participate in will is vital to your success.
That’s the moral of MicroConf.


That’s all I got about MicroConf, I hope to see you there.
And if you’re living in Chicago and reading this, you are now required to email me at ph@ this domain so we can meet up.

Y Combinator News
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A few weeks ago my RailsConf talk on writing better web apps when they outgrow MVC was posted to Y Combinator News. It hung out on the front page all day, spending some time at the #2 slot. Over 35,000 people visited the page and 3,700 watched the talk video, which thrills me.

But I’m not posting to brag about traffic, I’m posting to explain the quirk in the previous paragraph.

I say “Y Combinator News” but the site calls itself “Hacker News”.

“Hacker”, eh? Yeah, I know:

To the popular press, “hacker” means someone who breaks into computers. Among programmers it means a good programmer. But the two meanings are connected. To programmers, “hacker” connotes mastery in the most literal sense: someone who can make a computer do what he wants—whether the computer wants to or not.

Paul Graham, founder of YCombinator and creator of YCombinator News
in The Word “Hacker”

1. A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities […]

8. [deprecated] A malicious meddler who tries to discover sensitive information by poking around. Hence password hacker, network hacker. The correct term for this sense is cracker.

The Jargon File’s definition of “Hacker

The ‘hacker culture’ is actually a loosely networked collection of subcultures that is nevertheless conscious of some important shared experiences, shared roots, and shared values. It has its own myths, heroes, villains, folk epics, in-jokes, taboos, and dreams. Because hackers as a group are particularly creative people who define themselves partly by rejection of ‘normal’ values and working habits, it has unusually rich and conscious traditions for an intentional culture less than 50 years old.

The Jargon File’s Introduction

In 2015 these old words sound desperate. I love the idea of “hacker” as a badge of pride for elite programmers who push systems in exciting, undexpected new directions. But the battle is over, and it was lost before those words I quoted were written.

“Hacker” means someone who breaks into computers in the mainstream, and computers are mainstream. The internet isn’t a private alternate realm, a special place you can go. It’s part of life, an overlay on the world. Virtual reality is dead, but now we all live in augmented reality.

The only people I see persisting in using “hacker” are involved in the Bay Area startup ecosystem. And as much as I tried to be charitable in my last post, I can’t find good motives for YCombinator News continuing to promote the term.

Y Combinator is a venture capital firm that invests in very young startups. Like any VC firm, it exists to turn money into more money by trading dollars for equity in a portfolio of ~170 companies per year. Y Combinator realizes these returns in “liquidity events” when a company is acquired or makes an initial public offering. Y Combinator’s success is the sum of the outcome of its portfolio, and the returns from individual companies vary hugely.

None of this means that the Y Combinator principles are not “hackers” in the classical sense. I don’t think they’re mustache-twirling evil exploitative capitalists but I think it’s vital to know on which side their bread gets buttered. When you’re trying to understand humans, incentives tell you the most about their actions. The stories they tell themselves are rationalizations to make life comprehensible, not the motive source of actions. (And I say “they” but I’m not immune to this; it would be totally fair to note that my last post admits that I fail to understand the worldview Bay Area in self-justifying ways.)

But it all means I don’t buy Y Combinator’s myth-making.

This idea that a startup is visionaries hustling long hours against tough odds in hopes of billion-dollar results is an idea that benefits venture capitalists. When you own one company it’s in your best interests to accept modest returns by minimizing risks. When you own a portfolio of companies it’s in your best interests to encourage those companies to get big returns by having companies accept huge risks. The failures cost you very little compared to the windfall of an AirBNB, a Slack, an Uber. You want companies groomed for gross revenue, potential growth, and acquisition, not steady, realiable profit.

And you have to convince the companies in your portfolio that these risks are in their best interest. You produce hagiographies of successful entrepreneurs and claim that failure isn’t a big deal, it’s a learning experience, a badge of pride, it makes you a better entrepreneur. Entrepeneurs must to try big to win big, and burnout is a personal failing that can be overcome with a personal retreat or by taking up meditation or with anything but structural change.

A venture capitalist firm owns and operates the most popular news site for programming and entrepreneurship. I’ve been reading it since it was announced, and I unsarcastically think it was started with motives as pure as the driven snow. It was an experiment to prove Arc, to help people suceed in business, to improve the practice of programming, to showcase intellectually stimulating stories. Even as I participate on other news sites I know they’re comparatively tiny and far less useful.

But I know humans have biases, and one of the biggest is that we don’t think we have them. That our actions are the result of the reasons we think they are. That those reasons aren’t rationalizations.

And to remind myself of all that when I visit the site that dominates my industry, I call it “Y Combinator News”.

(Besides, that’s the domain name.)

2017-10-23: I’m now the sysop of a tech news site.

Acceptable Errors
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I really liked Adrian Holovaty’s suggestion that Chicago stop trying to be the Bay Area and focus on bootstrapping. Chicago will always be an also-ran as long as it’s running someone else’s race.

The other night I was at an entrepreneurship mixer anchored by a panel discussion with five successful entrepreneurs. They were going on about how Chicago most startups fail for lack of capital (not, uh, “profit”), that Chicago is getting better all the time for funding, that employees are much “more loyal” than the Bay Area (that is, lower cost), and still — in the Valley they have so much more ambition.

As I was sitting there, it occurred to me to think of the difference between Chicago and the Bay Area in scientific terms. Phrased this way, we’re choosing different classes of errors.

In Chicago’s bootstrapping we’re avoiding false positives: businesses that sound amazing, but fail. In
the Bay Area’s funded startups they’re avoiding false negatives: businesses that wouldn’t get started because they sound ridiculous or only figure out how to make money 6-18 months down the line.

Bootstrappers fear false positives because they want to own one sustainable business. A couple hundred thousand dollars a year is a wonderful success for a small team. You don’t need to take huge risks, to get out in front of the market, or to take funding to get to that level. You can find a need and fulfill it by carefully researching an audience and steadily delivering more value at a reasonable price.

Venture capitalists don’t care about small, reliable successes. Their returns are the sum of their portfolio, not the median, let alone one business. They want “growth”, pronounced “variance. Capital is rocket fuel and it doesn’t matter if half the businesses explode on the launchpad (“undergo rapid unscheduled disassembly“) as long as a few make it into orbit and one makes it to the moon.

Both camps know they won’t be perfect, but prefer different errors because they have such different ambitions. I’m speculating, but I think Bay Area VC culture dominates because a billion-dollar unicorn is such an exciting story compared to a dozen five-person consultancies or solo-founder products. There’s a drama in “and then the team had to grind day and night to close our series C in four days to make payroll before our growth would hockey-stick!” compared to “after the three of us served a dozen clients on hourly contracts we productized that and bought houses in good school districts”.

When I’m feeling more cynically conspiracy-minded I say the entrepreneurship zeitgeist skews towards VC because they spend on PR to get more labor into their system. A venture capitalist is a stable owner and the entrepreneurs are not the jockeys, they’re the horses. The VC want a steady supply of fresh foals because these purebred race horses are delicate and when the stress of the race breaks their legs they get put down so their next contender with a goofy name can take a shot at the crown. But I try to be kind, and I think this view is the reverse of the Bay Area thinking Chicago lacks ambition: our culture and goals are so different that we can’t make sense of the other, we’re evaluating each other by the wrong criterea.

Maybe these different error classes can help with that understanding, maybe they’re more fuel on the fire. Either way, good luck with your business. (But I still think it’s a better idea to make a good life for yourself than gamble big for someone else.)

Hiring Apprentices
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Lately I’ve been talking with students at programming bootcamps about their overwhelming fear that they’re not learning quickly and thoroughly enough to find employment afterwards. I think it’s generally produced more by the intensive crunch-time atmosphere of the schools and growing recognition of how big and complex programming is than by an actual deficiency in skills.

At DevMynd we’ve hired four apprentices in the last 2.5 years, all fresh from programming schools. I’ve interviewed candidates and been part of deciding who gets offers. I’ve also worked with a dozen dev school grads in client offices: we’ve seen a number of companies that mostly or only hire new devs, probably because of salary costs. A few times now my contracts have been more about mentoring new devs than banging out features. All considered, I’ve had a many opportunities to evaluate new developers from the new programming schools. Most students have been from DevBootcamp Chicago, but I’ve also met students from Starter League, App Academy, Mobile Maker’s Academy, Turing School, The Iron Yard, and probably more.

So I’d like to talk about what we look for in candidates for apprentice and junior developer positions and how we evaluate them. I hope this helps students who are studying to be developers understand how they’ll be evaluated when they finish their programs, and I hope other employers will also publicize their strategies.

Evaluating

The thing I most want to see in candidates is improvement. I don’t expect to see amazing Rails chops, I expect to see someone who is genuinely curious, experiments, studies, and will keep learning new things. I don’t expect to see much competence, but I want to have confidence that they’re on the right track to continually acquire more. To really hammer this home: it’s not about how much a junior dev know, it’s about how much they’re learning.

Candidates need to have the instinct to look up documentation and make sense of it, whether that’s the Rails guides, RubyDoc.info, StackOverflow questions, or some dev’s random rambling blog post where they puzzled out some obscure Rails feature two years ago by reading the source. This gives me hope that they can solve some of their own problems and learn things above and beyond what they get through pairing.

Candidates need to be able to write syntactically valid Ruby in an editor with syntax coloring. Their code has no syntax errors 9/10 times, and that other time they can almost always fix it on the first try. It’s just too painful to watch people struggle with nesting parentheses, quotes, or ‘end’s.

Candidates need to actually read error messages. Some new developers will get an exception and do one of two wrong things: 1. get stuck and throw up their hands 2. instantly flip back to their editor and change a random piece of code. I know they’re a foreign language at first, but the error messages do actually mean things about the code (and they emphatically do not mean “you’re dumb”). If nothing else, give you the name and line number of the file you should start in. And you have to reread them when you change code and it’s still broken, because code will often break in a slightly different way that gives you more information about what went wrong. (There’s a really good debugging strategy hiding here, too: if you’re stumped on what an error means, try making a change that will cause the error to happen worse or earlier.)

Finally, candidates need some basic Ruby knowledge. Just an idea of what functionality is available, like “well, I have a bunch of things, I’ll put them in an array” or “I could use ‘split’ or maybe someone has already created a gem to parse a CSV file”. Also some knowledge of what goes where in Rails – not a lot, because Rails is big and complicated, but some idea that you put database code in the model, decide what to do in your controllers, use helpers as a junk drawer, etc. More Ruby and Rails knowledge is always nice, but this is not a pressing concern.

These are basic requirements for hiring a junior developer. I don’t expect a wizard who can conjure websites out of thin air. I expect someone with some basic skills who won’t get totally stuck more than once or twice a day.

It’s a nice bonus to see that the candidate has made a small site or app so I can read more of their code and see that they can finish things. But it’s only a bonus because it’s not vital that a junior dev can finish a site on their own and it also evaluates whether they have the free time to do something on top of or after school.

Interviewing

Programming interviews are generally pretty terrible. Interviews are really stressful and not especially meaningful for understanding whether someone can do a job.

So we do things differently at DevMynd, and encourage our clients to do the same. We have the candidate sit down with an experienced developer and spend an hour pairing on a real codebase. They’ll do this two or three times with breaks in between. We’ll spend some time (perhaps lunch) away from a keyboard to tell them more about what DevMynd is like and answer questions.

The last time I interviewed apprentice candidates I set them up to debug a real bug I’d recently fixed in a client app. It required following a value from controller to view, and fixing it revealed another bug that could be fixed in a few different ways. This let me see that they could read other people’s code, navigate Rails, reason about errors, look up related docs, experiment to understand the code, and write a basic test. I wouldn’t be concerned by the quality of the code and test they produced unless it was incredibly bad (and this didn’t happen with any candidate).

Every candidate fixed the same bug. Yes, it was kind of boring for me to re-fix a bug four times. But boring is a feature: it gives me more room to pay attention to the candidate and how they’re working through something I understand very well. I want interviewing to be less subjective and random: if every candidate had a different feature or bug my evaluation of their ability level could easily be overwhelmed by how easy the task happened to be.

I want interviewing to be a lot less subjective, too. I deliberately don’t want to interview for “cultural fit”. As a consultancy, we’re constantly working with new teams of developers. If we can’t adapt to different personalities in our office, we’d never be able to adapt to clients’ different personalities. And “cultural fit” is also a great place for bias to seep into the process, where I’d subconsciously be evaluating “do they look like previous developers I’ve met?” rather than “can they do this job?”

Or worse! I could evaluate candidates based on some useless metric like how confident and clever they can be under the stressful conditions of an interview. That skill is not at all relevant to or predictive of their day-to-day job of writing code.

We also want to lower the pressure of the interview by telling candidates exactly what they’ll be evaluated on, what skill level we expect, what the day’s schedule will be, and also give them room to relax privately during the process. The less of that stress there is, the better we can approximate what it would be like to work with them.

The Bottom Line

New developers don’t have a realistic assessment of how much they’ve learned and what employers will reasonably expect of them. I’m sharing this description of what I look for in candidates and how I assess them in the hopes that other folks at other companies share their thoughts so we can build a shared consensus of expectations. Feeling useless and overwhelmed is really lousy, and the better employers communicate what we want the more likely it is we’ll get it. Please chime in.

So Play We All
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Peter Harkins, Jim C. Gadrow, and Luke Hutscal are each building an online game as part of a contest between us. Every week we’ll pick a new area of our games to code on and budget how many hours to spend on it. Every week, someone will be judged to have done the best. Anyone who doesn’t put in the time pays the price by funding the others’ games. Anyone who quits has to delete their entire codebase and all backups.

2011-06-13: We’ve built a website with the current rules and progress updates at So Play We All.

Our Rules

  1. Fuck it, we’ll do it live.” Games are live as currently developed, even if they suck, starting from “but it’s just a login screen”. Develop on master, develop on prod box if you have to, but don’t hold any code back.
  2. Each week we’ll collectively choose how many hours to spend on our games and a non-mandatory topic. Anyone who doesn’t spend the time (or cheats and spends more) funds the other games by giving a $20 gift card to each other player for game-related expenses (eg. ThemeForest, Linode, AdWords). If you finish early, you rock. Boast a little bit and make the others bow to your awesomeness. (Exception for suiting up: if you have to wear a suit to a funeral, a close family wedding, or a court date, you are allowed to miss that week. No other exceptions, not even dismemberment.)
  3. Deadline is Wednesday at noon GMT to deploy code and publish a blog post, schedule it to make it happen.
  4. A BBGameZone forum poll judges who won that week, 24h window.
  5. By Saturday noon GMT, write a blog post to respond to others’ updates, talk smack, enjoy victory, critique game design, suggest improvements, etc.
  6. Not just OK but encourage to find or buy assets: art, themes, libraries, modules. You can reuse your own pet library as long as it has been released publicly before that week, but outsourcing code is forbidden.
  7. Whoever reaches $10k in profit first wins the contest. But whoever turns their game into a full-time job wins all the bragging rights.
  8. Rules can change by unanimous acclaim.

So say we all. So play we all.

Week 0

We’ve already gotten under way, the goal for our first week was to pick a domain name, set up a blog, and write a blog post describing out game. Here’s my blog post about Oaqn, a game about trading. Please vote for it on bbgz if you’re on the forums.

And here’s Luke’s post and Jim’s post about their games.

Interview Questions
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When I got my first jobs, I didn’t know that job interviews should include the candidate interviewing the company. I learned from the experience and, in talking with others, have slowly accreted a list of interview questions I’ll bring (yes, really, print out and bring) to learn interesting things about employers and avoid dysfunctional workplaces.

Most of the questions are intended to start interesting conversations about the workplace, though a few (“Which source control do you use?”) do have wrong answers (“None.”) that end an interview as quickly as a candidate being unable to solve FizzBuzz.

Job

  • What is your typical day like?
  • What are the normal work hours?
  • What is the office environment like? Can I see it?
  • What is the job title?
  • What is the employee review process?
  • What benefits? (medical, dental, vision, 401k, transit, vacation, bonuses)
  • How is the team at deadlines?
  • Is there continuous learning?

Company

  • Who are your clients?
  • What makes the company special?
  • How do you see the company growing?
  • What are the NDA/NCAs?
  • How long have employees been here?

Coding

  • What is the codebase like? Can I see it?
  • What tools do you use?
  • Which source control do you use?
  • Is your build and deployment process automated?
  • How often do you build or deploy?
  • What testing (automated + Q&A) do you have in place?
  • What bug database do you use?
  • Is your code great or good enough?
  • Do you release open source code?

Manager

  • What’s your personal management style?
  • What books have influenced you the most?
  • What technologies do you plan to use?
  • Do you have any concerns about my application?
  • Do you think I would be a good match for this position?

Do you have any questions you always ask?

Freemium and Segmentation
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How do games on Facebook make money?

That’s how the conversation started: no hello, no context, right to the heart of the matter. I love it when fellow geeks IM me.

My friend has a lot of experience in software and tabletop games, but has stayed away from the Privacy Destroyer. From the outside, online games didn’t seem to make any sort of sense – if it’s one free click to add a game to a social profile, how do you sell your game? How do you make any money at all?

The answer is that there’s a bit of advertising and merchandising, but by far the bulk of the profit is in virtual currencies. Pay $10, get 75 gold coins you can spend in-game on items, upgrades, downtime removal, etc.

It’s successful because it allows for perfect market segmentation. Some of your customers are willing to pay much more for your product than others, whether you price low or high you’ll lose some potential profit. Losing potential profit is deeply painful to entrepreneurs, so you sell a copy of the product at the low price and another at the high — and to keep it from looking silly, you differentiate them by calling one “premium”, or limiting quantities of one, or selling it in a bargain bin after six weeks, or selling in different venues (soda machine vs. grocery store); anything that lets you charge multiple prices with a straight face.

If you do this wrong, people will mock you mercilessly and the nerds will point out you’re really selling only one product. (But you won’t notice because you’ll be busy trucking your wheelbarrows of cash down to the bank.)

This is so powerful that Facebook games (and a growing number of other games with low distribution costs) are “free to play” (f2p) or “freemium”. You can play as long as you like for free and buy virtual currency if and when you see something interesting.

Virtual currencies allow for perfect segmentation. If Alice thinks your game is worth $5, that’s what you’ll get from her. If Bob thinks it’s worth $5,000, you’ll get it from him for the exact same game. I’m not exaggerating; last week a payment processor shared data on their top five spenders:

From a traditional gaming perspective, Facebook games look like the purest kind of bubble, a lunatic asylum dosed with crystal meth. Don’t charge for your game? Don’t sell expansions? Get everyone to bother their friends? Offer gold coins for taking surveys?

It’s not insane, low distribution costs and efficient capturing revenue so efficiently means a fundamentally different business model. And a great environment for making games.

Domain Registration Survey
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I’ve had all my domains registered at Name.com for a few years – great price, decent control panel, and competent support. Last week I went to renew some domains and found that Name has quietly doubled their prices by charging for the whois privacy protection that used to be free.

Name didn’t warn any customers this was coming and didn’t email customers about it, which is funny because they’ll send a half-dozen warnings if a single domain name nears the end of its registration. They know very well the effectiveness of sending emails, so instead they made a brief blog post (who knew they even had a blog?) to announce the price hike as quietly as possible. The post doesn’t mention the new price is $8/year (laughably saying “While some registrars charge as much as eight or nine dollars per domain for this service”) and falsely claims pre-existing domains will continue to receive free privacy protection (the control panel shows that this will expire when the domain is up for reregistration). Unsurprisingly, the comments have filled up with comments from angry, shocked customers and Name is only responding to the few people who had billing problems with the related pricing promotions.

I’ve got around a hundred domains registered, mostly because I handle domain registrations whenever I give a friend hosting. It’s worth the $800 per year to take a few minutes this morning to survey competitors and maybe get better customer service (besides this unpleasant surprise, I’ve never seen Name respond to a support request in less than 36h).

In the table below, domain cost is the highest cost I could find on the site for a .com, I’m not interested in dancing around promotions and “restrictions may apply” loss leaders. The “upselling” column is whether I was disgusted or confused by the amount of upselling of related domains and products during the registration process. Survey was taken on 2010-05-03 and prices ending in .95 or .99 were rounded up.

Registrar 1yr .com Privacy Upselling Total/yr
1&1 $9 $0 ugh $9
DirectNIC $15 $5 $20
Domain.com (Dotster?) $10 $7 ugh $17
DomainMonger $17 n/a n/a
Dotster $16 $7 ugh $23
DynDNS $15 $10 $25
Enom $6 $6 ugh $12
Gandi $15 $0 $15
Moniker $8 $4 ugh $12
NameCheap $9.69 $2.88 $12.57
Name.com $9 $8 $17
NearlyFreeSpeech $8.59 $3.65 $12.24
NetworkSolutions $35 $9 ugh $44
PairNIC $19 $0 $19
Register.com $35 $11 ugh $46
Yahoo! Domains $10 $9 $19

I didn’t include Fabulous because it has great prices but is primarily (only?) for domain parking and requires customers to have >750 domains. I didn’t include GoDaddy because I don’t like their support of torture and their habit of deactivating/deleting/holding hostage domains in response to any outside complaints.

If you’re not familiar with domain names, they’re a perfect commodity. Except for customer support issues (easy bulk management, quick responses to questions, downtime), every .com domain is exactly the same and costs the company the same $6.86 to register with Verisign, the .com registry.

Anyone have a registrar I should add to the list? Any stories, good or bad, about managing a lot of domains at any of these?

Admitting Diminishing Returns
Biz:
2 comments

In 2009, I acted like this equation is true:

(I chose The 4-Hour Work Week and Hacker News because they’re two very popular resources, but there’s dozens I could’ve chosen.)

I read quickly, I’m endlessly curious, and I have a completionist streak. I wish this formula worked, that somehow the process of absorbing and evaluating lots of different sources of information would make a successful business appear. I wish it more than you do. Last year I read scores of business books and blogs, screened dozens of hours of podcasts and videos.

These things contribute to business success, but there’s a point of diminishing returns that’s much nearer than I’d like to think. I’m glad I’ve read about prioritizing, delegating, and goal-setting, but The 4-Hour Work Week and No B.S. Time Management for Entrepreneurs are 90% the same material dressed in different writing styles.

Reading about a topic I already know something of is seductive. It’s easier to connect with other concepts in my head, I get the satisfaction of judging whether the author is proficient, I’ll cross another book off the list faster. And it’s sure as hell easier than fishing another case out of the issue tracker to fix a bug, add a feature, follow up with a contact.

The equation feels true but is a lie. It doesn’t much make my work better to keep reading instead of building. So in 2010 I’m building more and considering this business ‘research’ as the entertainment is is. We’ll see how it goes.

Efficiency Replaces Autonomy
Biz: , , ,
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I’ve been pondering the rise of metrics-driven game design — from the sites I follow it sounds like the game industry at large has been as well. The makers of retail games are realizing they can make more money with less risk by careful analysis of how they directly charge gamers in the free-to-play (F2P) model.

Game designer and thoughtful critic Ernest Adams (his Designer’s Notebook column at Gamasutra is good reading) mused about an F2P developer’s presentation:

Zhan Ye explained in his lecture that in F2P game design, every feature must be measured by two metrics: is it fun, and does it make money? The designer is no longer free to concentrate purely on creating a fun game; the designer must be a businessperson.
[…]
The F2P business model seems a bit weird to me — it distorts what I think of as the designer’s main role — but it’s not wrong in and of itself, just different.

This reminded me a lot of a complaint from a graphic designer leaving Google a few years ago:

Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such minuscule design decisions.

The industrial revolution – and especially the concept of scientific management – replaced the concept of craftsmanship with the efficiency of repeatable production. You can’t manufacture the creative work of ad copy, game design, or graphic design, but metrics allow businesses to know with industrial precision what works and doesn’t.

Every formerly creative decision is now an opportunity to be unambiguously wrong. Efficiency replaces autonomy.

Where it used to be possible to design things for design’s sake to meet a designer’s personal standards for quality, it’s increasingly easy for businesses to analyze the effects of even very small aspects of those designs. The designer is used to relying on personal taste, gut instinct, or professional standards to deal with the thousand small questions that crop up in every design, and it feels good to intuitively know the right answers.

The first thing everyone writes about metrics (like A/B tests) is that you’re going to be surprised how often your intuition is wrong, even on questions that seem obvious and easy to answer. The new (or newly accessible) metrics are immensely frustrating to designers for three reasons:

  1. Analytics tools are one more damn thing to learn
  2. that often reveal experience to only be assumption
  3. and transform personal decisions into business decisions.

The valid argument I see against the intrusion of metrics is that they’re short-sighted, eg. a green button may increase sales 8% now but introduces an inconsistency in overall site theme that won’t be measured in the future. That’s hard to make when the web’s cheap distribution can give you millions of new opportunities for revenue in a matter of a few days or hours — or allow you to earn more than you thought off the very few you do have.

Designers are going to have to live with metrics trumping their professional experience and personal taste, at least whenever they work for a boss or investor. it’s not that this is a new awful trend, it’s that capitalism is redefining what it means to do design. The pursuit of profit isn’t strangling creativity, it’s changing what it means to be creative from achieving a singular artistic vision to experimenting and improving iteratively.


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