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Stanford Surplus: Great Deals for Startup Furnishings!

Being in startup mode (and naturally pretty frugal), I've been keeping things quite lean at FamZoo. I will however confess to exhibiting one sign of "dotcom bozodom": an aeron chair (see this comment in Guy Kawasaki's amusing blog post enumerating the "top ten signs of bozosity" in a company). Similarly, in his book, The Art of the Start, Guy admonishes us to "focus on function, not form" and ridicules the excessiveness of the Herman Miller Aeron chair: "It was a terrific chair, but I don't know if it was $700 terrific. The function of the chair, after all, is to support one's butt." I don't know about Guy, but as a software developer, I spend an inordinate amount of time sitting on my backside coding, so I figure supporting it well is a pretty good investment. Now I agree that $700 is over the top, so that's why I turned to craigslist to get a used one for less than half of the current list price.

OK, so that's still several hundred bucks and non-coders may still be left shaking their heads in dismay at spending so much on one's backside. Fair enough. Check this out: while scanning craigslist for a sturdy bookcase to hold all of my geek tomes, I came across a listing for Stanford University Surplus Property Sales. It turns out Stanford University has a sea of surplus desks, chairs, bookcases, and other office equipment priced at $15 and under. Really solid old metal stuff - no wimpy particle board here. If you're up for a 30 minute 409 scrub session to remove some dust, old bird poop and cobwebs, you can get some really sturdy office furniture for a steal. Visit the Web site to find out when and where.

Now check out my new bookcase. Very functional - some pretty heavy books in there. Tasteful black metal. I'd say it cleaned up quite nicely. Total price: $5.41 - now that's sweet a deal!

That should help atone just a bit for my Aeron purchase.

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My Doggedly Determined Business Partner

I'd like to introduce you to my business partner. His name is Bonzo and he shares the FamZoo office with me night and day, day in and day out.

Here are some of the key things that make Bonzo such a great business partner:

  • He is an excellent listener - at least I think he listens. Well, let's just say he doesn't talk back much unless it's dinner time or bone time. I read all my Blog entries, the copy on my web pages, and even some code out loud to him. He patiently endures revision after revision and helps me correct countless errors.
  • He is wise - 84 dog years old. Every startup needs a "grey hair" on the team to provide perspective and adult supervision.
  • He is always loyal and friendly - even when I am grumpy or short with him for the stunts he pulls from time to time like peeing on the computer science books I left on the floor, pulling the cloth off the dining room table and snacking on the bounty, or getting into unmentionables in the trash.
  • Most importantly, he is a resilient fighter - a hardy survivor - and exudes a presence well beyond his tiny elongated stature. As such, Bonzo is a great role model for any entrepreneur launching a venture. Bonzo has overcome huge obstacles and maintained his happy-go-lucky demeanor throughout. He started life as the last of the litter and had to be plucked out of the womb via C section and resuscitated. In mid-life, he endured massive back surgery to (partially) deal with an onset of paralysis in his hind legs. When I saw them stapling up his back, I didn't think he'd last much longer, but he's been going strong for years since then. He suffers through seizures on a near weekly basis, but always rebounds quickly. Even more miraculous, throughout all this, he survives the endless poking, prodding, "weener dog" derision, and "tough love" of countless children (think of Lennie with his puppy in "Of Mice and Men" and you'll get an inkling of the picture) . Yep, Bonzo repeatedly takes a licking and just keeps on happily ticking (or perhaps its the reverse). And, despite his diminuitive stature, he is not to be underestimated. Just ask the burly contractor that Bonzo chased out of our backyard one day or the large poodle that is missing a big puff of hair from his manicured back side. Raised as badger hunters, these little dogs are tough and tenacious.

Yes, quite the role model and partner for an entrepreneur indeed.

I just hope someone will let me know if my breath gets as bad as his though - he could really use a tic-tac. Remind me not to let him pitch FamZoo to prospective investors - the odor could be a real deal-breaker.

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Get going! (But get help!)

The third item in Guy Kawasaki's top 5 list for starting a venture is "Get Going" which translates to "start creating and delivering your product or service". There are so many logistical details to starting a business (incorporating, setting up a proper work environment, acquiring domain names, hiring legal and accounting service providers, setting up bank accounts, and on and on) that sometimes the most important thing - the product or service itself - can take a back seat to all the required, yet peripheral, minutiae. This is true even if you are aggressively outsourcing most of the functions (as I am). In my case, of the 75 items that I have crossed off of my task list so far, I can count just 9 that were purely devoted to development of the product - that's only 12%! Scary.

As a brief aside, for anyone else out there starting a venture (be it a business, a non-profit, or or any other type of organization), I highly recommend checking out Guy Kawasaki's "Art of the Start" material. His tone can be overly snide and mocking for some (and entertaining for others), but the content is rock solid food for thought nonetheless. I'd recommend watching the video (see here), browsing some choice blog entries like this one on rules for powerpoint presentations (see here), and reading the book (see here).

For my business, "Get Going" translates to "Get Coding". Thankfully, I've been devoting more and more time to coding over the past two weeks and it feels great. I really, really love writing software.

Whether "getting going" means coding as it does for me or something else for your product or service, don't get so heads down that you forget about "getting help". This holds true even in areas of your own core competence. In my case, despite spending 13 years on Oracle's technical staff, I still turn to other Oracle experts to validate approaches and to make sure I'm not missing any new developments or clever techniques. Once you get over the humbling realization that there is always someone out there who knows a domain more deeply than you do, it's all upside. And with the advent of the Internet, getting help has never been easier or cheaper.

One such Oracle expert who graciously shares his knowledge on the public Internet is Tom Kyte. He has a fantastically rich Internet resource for Oracle database developers and administrators called "Ask Tom" which is located at http://asktom.oracle.com.

Most recently, I turned to Tom's site for advice while I was designing and implementing the site password handling logic for FamZoo. When it comes to security, I don't want to make any mistakes. The information on Tom's site was invaluable (fellow geeks can see an example here) - deep discussion, analysis, and tips updated over the last 6 (!) years. I ended up leveraging a number of the suggested techniques and code snippets to come up with my own slightly nuanced approach. It saved me days of effort. Or, alternatively, saved me from hastily hacking together a naive, insecure implementation on my own.

One word of caution: for every one truly talented expert like Tom posting information on the Internet, there are probably thousands of rookies or charlatans all too willing to share their razor thin or, worse, just plain wrong "advice". So as Sergeant Phil Esterhaus used to say on the Hill Street Blues (yeah, I'm old): "Be careful out there." Proper due diligence is a must.

Well, speaking of getting going, it's time for me to get back to coding.

Oh yeah, and thanks for the help Tom.

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Introducing FamZoo, Inc. and Home Office Version 0.5

As of August 29th, 2006, my new venture is now officially incorporated. The name of the business is "FamZoo, Inc." which is a contraction of "family" and "zoo". The name is something I came up with a couple of years back when I was first entertaining the notion of starting a business around some software that I had built for my own family. At the time, I was looking at a Family Circus cartoon. Family Circus is the creation of a wonderful cartoonist named Bill Keane. His cartoons are famous for affectionately capturing the everyday chaos of the typical American family - just like ours. I was thinking that our family was more like a zoo than a circus - perhaps a little more wild than tame. So, out of that train of thought popped "FamZoo".

Unfortunately, the domain name "famzoo.com" was already taken. So, the family put its collective heads together and tried to come up with some suitable alternative names. For posterity, here were some of the serious and not-so-serious contenders:

  • famhub, fambase, famcentral - clever suggestions from my wife to denote the product as being a central connector for the family, but, alas, all taken as well;
  • faminator - a little Arnold Schwarzenegger flavor - a bit on the aggressive side;
  • famzoop - perhaps the sound emitted when the family slips on a banana peel together;
  • famboozle - indicative of how people might feel if the product does not deliver on its promises;
  • fampoof - what might happen if I don't get this thing off the ground!

Well, none of these had quite the humor, imagery, cadence, and sentimental appeal of FamZoo. Fortunately, I was able to contact the owner of the domain - a nice gentleman who had some similar unrealized ambitions for building family oriented software - and strike a reasonable price for the transfer of the domain.

To commemorate the official founding of the business, I figured it was time to move my office out of the bedroom and into its own dedicated room (apologies to the inlaws who will now have to find other accomodations for visits ;-). I wanted to create a fun environment that fit the name, so I went with a Tiger orange color and some stenciled paw prints. Here are some photos from the late night painting sessions last weekend:

A little fun with the roller before the real coat...
Marking the path of the paw prints with tape before committing to paint...
Replacing the tape with paw print stencils in pencil...
Filling in with paint...
The finished product!

Now it's time to write some software!