Need a Last Minute Stocking Stuffer? Try the Gift of Giving...

If you are searching for that last minute stocking stuffer, perhaps suffering from a touch of yuletide materialism fatigue, and seeking to involve your youngsters in charitable giving - here's a quick and easy idea: consider a charitable gift certificate that allows the young recipient to choose where the funds go.

In my case, I purchased gift certificates from DonorsChoose for each of my kids (click here). I suspect there are other similar sites, but this is the one I am most familiar with, and I really like it. Selecting the email delivery option, I was able to print out the certificates, place them in envelopes, and add them to my stocking stuffer stash - all in a matter of a few minutes. Here's what one looks like:

I'll be challenging each of the kids to make their charitable selections by January 1st. Seems like a nice way to close out the year and kick off 2007.

Happy holidays to all!




I have to say that my fundamental belief in the old adage "There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch" (TANSTAAFL) gets thrashed on a regular basis when it comes to software and the Internet. Yeah, sure, I know that, technically speaking, there is a cost in time, materials, etc. for somebody when it comes to providing all that amazing freeware out there. Practically speaking though, when it comes to software, I'm dining for free on a regular basis and loving every bite of it. In fact, sometimes the free meals are vastly more tasty than the ones that cost money.

Latest case in point: I bought a Seagate 300 GB External Hard Drive to perform regular backups of the files on my laptop. The package includes a program called BounceBack Express that allows you to define, schedule, and manage the backups. Here's a screenshot of the program "running" on my laptop:

Yikes!! Dig that user interface - a self-reflective mess! Doesn't exactly instill confidence does it? Can you find the prompt "Would you like to create a backup set?" Ummm, "No thank you..." And, by the way, I'm not running some bizarre or exotic operating environment - just a very vanilla Dell laptop running Windows XP. Believe it or not, being a persistent and forgiving type, I actually navigated a few of these bizarre broken screens (all laden with obscured prompts and buttons) to define a backup set and ultimately initiate a backup. The end result: the program crashed a few seconds later with an unhandled exception. Pathetic.

So it's midnight last night, and I'm really ticked because I wanted to get this item off my ToDo list. (It's not too smart to go for very long without adopting a responsible backup regimen, and my procrastination was getting somewhat ironic/hypocritical given that I am building a service that purports to encourage responsible behavior... ;-) Not to worry - free midnight snack to the rescue. A quick browse through the Backup section (under Utilities & Drivers) on c|net's download.com turned up a nifty little program called SyncBack provided by a small software company in Singapore named 2BrightSparks. It had solid user reviews (I liked how the first one was titled Please, marry me! ;-) - obviously a satisfied user), over 56,000 downloads since its release in June of 2006 and no reports of embedded spyware. What the heck? Certainly couldn't be worse than the BounceBack experience. Indeed! A quick download, a lightweight install, and a few clicks later, I had defined a simple custom backup profile and was happily backing up my files on a nightly schedule. Task accomplished, guilt assuaged. Simple, fast, effective. And, oh yeah, completely free. Gotta love it.

Another free tasty software morsel that I have been ingesting as of late last week: Google Analytics. One little cut and paste of a few lines of javascript into the page template for my Blog (which is also hosted for free on Google's Blogger I might add) and viola: all kinds of neat reports on the traffic over time. Check out the cool dashboard which shows traffic trends, geographic origin of the traffic (note the inlaws in Texas ;-), new vs. repeat traffic, and the web source of the traffic (for example, I can see that some traffic is coming from click throughs on startupnation.com where I maintain a profile and have posted in the forums - good to know):

Um, OK, no snickering at the tiny traffic numbers - remember, I'm in "stealth mode" (that cute startup euphism for having no traction yet ;-). Besides, as Guy says, better to take the "red pill" everyday and know the whole truth (see entry #11 here).

The above are just a few small examples of how the cost structure of starting and running a responsible business has changed drammatically over the past several years. Funny, I used to scoff when Oracle temporarily adopted the tag line "The Internet Changes Everything" back in the mid 1990's. It never ceases to amaze me how true that line is on a number of (but not all mind you) fronts.

By the way, the screenshots above are courtesy of a free screen capture program that I really like called ScreenHunter from Wisdom-Soft. Also, I have been developing the FamZoo application using a free hosted development environment from Oracle called Application Express. The list goes on...

TANSTAAFL.....I don't think so!


(Very) Private Preview Goes "Live"

In my post back on November 9th, I indicated that I have been busily coding away on an "Alpha" release. The Alpha1 went live this morning and is an early preview release suitable for consumption by very forgiving audiences (i.e., my own family). The release contains first phase core functionality and a very bare bones user interface. In the earlier post, I confidently declared that the release would be available "before Thanksgiving at the latest". Doh! Did I really say Thanksgiving? I meant Christmas! Okay, I have to confess that I missed the deadline by 11 days. You can rest assurred that my tardy delivery is not going unpunished: the CEO has cut my salary in half and my business partner has given me several severe reprimands. Nonetheless, my spirits remain high, and I look forward to a plethora of suggestions and bug reports from my family. I've already compiled a lengthy list on my own.

In honor of the Alpha release milestone, I have updated the FamZoo Web site from being a straight redirect to my blog to being a very simple splash page:

You'll notice that I incorporated some feedback on the logo from Mark, Ben, Shawn, and several others (many thanks!). I ditched the striped tail idea - keeping it clean and simple and removing any possibility of competition for attention between the lettering and the icon. I widened the chimney a bit. And I aligned the bottom of the paw-in-house icon with the baseline of the FamZoo lettering while adding some spacing between the two. Despite all my prior rationalizations for insetting the "F" beneath the eaves of the house, aligning the bottom edges just feels more balanced visually. I also want to thank Morgan at Designs That Work for the vectorized version of the paw-in-house icon which he kindly supplied free of charge. As a vector graphic, it can be scaled smoothly in PaintShop Pro and still look crisp at any size. (Morgan says it only took him a few minutes, so he did not feel good about charging me despite my offer to do so. Of course, it would have taken me a long time to figure out how to do it properly, and I think this qualifies as a perfect example of "mensch behavior" as described in entry #2 here. Thanks Morgan.)

I am also considering going with a more rounded font and perhaps using VAG Rundschrift Light: Despite its trendy Web 2.0 status, I still think this is a clean and appropriate font and I plan to try it out with the logo this week.

So, what's next on the release front? Having been a huge fan and practitioner of iterative development for many years, I plan on doing a succession of preview releases while gradually widening the audience of handpicked participants over the next few months. (Note: If you are interested in participating in one of the FamZoo preview releases, please send me an email at "info at famzoo dot com".) Provided that the exposure and expectations are properly contained, I think getting something crude but usable in the hands of protypical users as early on as possible and then incrementally refining it based on feedback is a superior model for building great products. This is consistent with the spirit of entry #3 in Guy Kawasaki's "Art of Bootstrapping" list: a maxim he calls "Ship Then Test". Of course, as an engineer who believes fervently in the importance and responsibility of rigorous testing, I would never call it that. (I'm sure Guy was just trying to be provocative, being a marketing/evangelist type person and all.) No, I would not wish untested sofware on anybody - not even my own family!


Gary Vaynerchuk (Re)Visited. Sharing the Love.

A while back in a post titled "A Tribute to Passionate Craftsmanship", I blogged about Gary Vaynerchuk over at Wine Library TV and how impressed I was with his sincere, down-home yet technically savvy, customer-centric approach. Just recently, my brother-in-law, Jon, was in New York and had an opportunity to take a side trip to the physical Wine Library store in Springfield, New Jersey. It turns out that Gary was on-hand, and the two had a chance to meet in person. In that visit, Gary personally reaffirmed all of the laudable behavior that I blogged about previously. It was a delight to learn that the physical persona matches the online one - and more. He treated Jon to some great hospitality, was generous with his time, and even indulged us with a short video including a very nice plug for WillToons.com (shot on Jon's digital camera, so no ripping on the "production values" ;-). Check it out:

Just yesterday, I was alerted that a quote from my original blog entry was featured in a full page Wine Library TV ad in the Wednesday New York Times:

Aside from being a bit of a kick for me, I was struck by the fact that even Gary's ads are community oriented and customer-centric. Of particular note, check out the special attention and explicit credit they give to Chris Stanisci - an enthusiastic customer who put together an elaborate spreadsheet summarizing Gary's ratings:

Engaging the customer community, leveraging their skills, and sharing the credit (or "sharing the love" as Gary refers to it) are sincere cornerstones of the Wine Library business strategy. It's kind of like the emerging principles of Open Source development and Web 2.0 user generated content (UGC) meet retail. The "new" world infusing the "old". Very cool.

Toward the end of my original post on Gary and Wine Library, I remarked: "To date, I have not bought a single product from the Wine Library, but I'm sure that I will someday, if for no other reason than the fact that I admire Gary and enjoy the experience he is sharing. To me, that's just good business - no hard-sell needed." Well, the time indeed came. Last night I purchased a half case of the 2004 Gravity Hills Tumbling Tractor Zinfandel featured on his Thanksgiving Wines Episode (free shipping!). I'm sure it won't be the last purchase.

There's a lot to be said for fostering a loyal community of customers by treating each of them as you would a friend - no matter what business you are in.


Too Dull? Alpha Update and the FamZoo Logo Goes Urban...

Too Dull?

Still thinking about whether I need to jazz up the lettering treatment in my latest revision of the FamZoo logo or just keep it super clean and simple. Here is an example of my recent experimentation:

This injects a little fun and a little color into the lettering without getting cartoonish. It feels a touch unbalanced visually though. I probably need to experiment a bit more. As always, comments are welcome...

Alpha Update

For those of you who may be thinking that I fritter away most of my time tinkering around with the logo in Paint Shop Pro and writing goofy blog entries (ummm, Dad ;-), I just want to reassure you that I have actually been spending the vast majority of my time writing code lately - really!

My first tangible deliverable is an Alpha version of the site for use and evaluation by my own family. Target date: Thanksgiving at the latest. The focus of the Alpha is functional as opposed to visual. In other words, it is about as visually appealing as craigslist - very bare bones look-and-feel-wise. For the Alpha, the majority of my mental energy has been devoted to developing the data model, the "business" logic, and the core page flows (i.e., the key pages on the site and how one moves between them).

My Alpha strategy is in no way meant to diminish the importance of the visual aspects of the site. In fact, an appealing design as well as excellent usability will be essential to FamZoo's success. My feeling (and prior experience) is that I will be far more efficient and successful working with a professional web designers and usability experts if I have a functional, working site for them to interact with in a hands-on way. Allowing them to actually experience the functionality first-hand with real data (instead of just reading, hearing, or guessing about it) minimizes ramp-up time, eliminates conceptual disconnects, surfaces what otherwise would have been unforeseen corner cases, and just generally optimizes communication all-around - particularly if the collaborators are in remote locations (highly likely). If you are interested in reading more about these kinds of product design and development issues, I recommend checking out Marty Cagan's Silicon Valley Product Group Web site and reading articles like this one.

The FamZoo Logo Goes Urban!

As a fun parting note to this week's post, my boys have been working up their own ideas for an edgier, more urban FamZoo logo. Here are their submissions:

Easy extra credit: See if you can match the picture with the associated grade level - elementary, middle, and highschool.

I'm thinking the skull and dripping goop themes might be just a touch off base for a family-oriented site focused on fiscal and social responsibility. Gotta like the artistic and creative efforts though!


Latest Logo Revision and a Great Site for Exploring Fonts

I have been iterating on the logo concept that I posted last week - the "hybrid icon" that combines a home symbol with a paw print to capture both the "Fam" and the "Zoo" in one clean, simple, yet unique visual. To be perfectly honest, I received both positive and negative feedback on the idea, but since I really like it myself, I decided to focus on the former and filter out the latter! I guess that's one of the nice things about being in charge... Besides, my wife likes it too - need I say more? I commissioned Paul from MotorG (the Elance designer behind my favorite submissions in the initial mockup round) to work up some color, font, and placement variations. I then did some cutting, pasting, placement, and font refinements of my own to come up with the latest revision. Here it is: Whaddya think? Please post comments. Some of the key design refinements and associated rationale are:
  • Color: I think the white paw on the colored house background coupled with the black text works best. The other combos (see bottom of post) feel too distracting or dark to me.
  • Paw print orientation: I like having the paw print slightly angled - it feels more "wild" and accentuates the contrast with the orderliness of the straight up-and-down, rectilinear house. I prefer the paw print to be heading toward the "FamZoo" and not away since I prefer to send the subliminal message that users will want to flock to FamZoo rather than flee from it!
  • Font choice: For the font, I am looking for a combination of "responsible" (sturdy, symmetrical, clean) plus "child friendly" (somewhat rounded with a handwritten style lowercase "a" - the way kids learn to write in school) plus "modern" (since FamZoo leverages Internet technology). After browsing fonts for a couple of hours on the FontShop Web site (more about this site below), I settled on "Futura Medium". I also considered "Gill Sans Schoolbook", but ultimately decided that the flaired tail on the "a" gave it a weaker feel. I'm very open to other recommendations, but I feel this one does a pretty nice job of covering the three themes. I suspect it is weakest on the "modern" theme since the only particularly modern thing about it is probably its name. I like "Neo Sans Medium" as a more modern font, but it does not have the handwritten "a" style that I prefer.
  • Icon size and placement: I experimented with a number of different options for the size and placement of the icon relative to the text (see bottom of post). I like having the icon and the text aligned horizontally instead of stacked vertically. I like the choice aesthetically, but it is also more economical from a vertical real estate standpoint which has practical benefits when it comes to Web page layout design down the road. I like having the icon larger than the text - seems like a bolder statement. As for the detailed alignment between the icon and the text, I ultimately chose to have the "F" in FamZoo evenly inset within the eaves, the side, and the bottom of the house. This frames the "F", gives the "F" a subtle sense of depth, and creates a nice integration between the icon and the text.
As you can see, I like having subtle but definitive reasons for each of the design decisions, even if few folks ever know about (or fully appreciate) them. I guess the engineer in me is showing ;-) An aside about the font selection process: looking for some inspiration, I figured I would check out what the latest "Web 2.0" companies were doing in the logo design area, so I googled on "web 2.0 logos". The first hit was this excellent blog entry by Stephen Coles of the FontShop. It's a very interesting analysis of the fonts used by various "Web 2.0" brands. This blog entry ultimately led me to the FontShop's Type Navigator which they describe as the "world's first interactive visual font search system". If you are searching for a font, I highly recommend using this tool. When you generate your search results, don't forget to type your sample text (like "FamZoo") into the field at the top of the page and hit refresh. This will let you see exactly what your text will look like in each of the candidate fonts. Really cool and useful. To give a full sense of the iterations over the past week, I'm including the revisions from Paul and my own subsequent iterations plus various font candidates I considered. Refinements from Paul at MotorG: First Round: Second Round: Some classic Web 2.0 Fonts from the FontShop blog post: Some of the fonts that made my shortlist after browsing: Some other fonts I considered: The various placements with my two top font choices On a final note, I'd like to acknowledge the extra and very professional efforts of Elance provider Adrienne Reitz for sending me some unsolicited concept refinements after reading the last blog posting. Adrienne is very professional and passionate about her craft - someone to consider if you go through this exercise yourself. Update 11/9/06: In the comments on this post, Murali mentions a mockup that is a mashup of the lettering in MotorG submission #3 and my FamZoo icon. His goal is to restore a little more fun in the logo. Here is what he sent me:

My Favorite FamZoo Logo Concept Submission and a New Proposal

Many thanks to those of you who submitted comments and feedback on the initial FamZoo logo concepts. Your responses were extremely helpful.

First, let me reveal the submission that I favor most and why. I like elements of several of the submissions, but my favorite overall is the first one by MotorG (however, I would drop the tag line from the core logo). Here it is again for reference:

The reason I like this submission best is that it feels very clean and simple (I think it passes the "embroidery test" mentioned in my brother's comment). I also feel that depicting "famzoo" in a clean, regular font that is stamped over an irregular, wild paw print does a good job of capturing the mission of FamZoo (as described here) - i.e., overlaying some semblance of order and responsbility on our hectic and occasionally "wild" family lives. Refinements (beyond removing the tag line) might include trying different color combinations, experimenting with various clean orderly fonts, and perhaps capitalizing the "F" and the "Z" to match the official name of the company (although, lowercase may lend a more regular, balanced look - also it matches what people would type into a browser).

All that said, several of you registered concern about the logo concepts placing too much emphasis on the "zoo" vs the "family". Excellent feedback.

My wife as well as Jayesh and Malvika (see comment), have suggested incorporating a simple house icon as a clean representation of "family". I like that idea, but I was having a hard time giving up on the paw print (sorry Jer ;-).

I thought of a hybrid icon today that might address these concerns and still cater to my affinity for the tiger paw print. Below are scans of two very rough logo concepts that I sketched in my notebook moments ago:

I think the icon captures the idea of putting some order around the wildness by having the paw print within the confines of the house. I like how both "family" and "zoo" are represented in a single graphic. I like how the graphic can stand on its own without the company name, although I would definitely include "FamZoo" in the core logo. I think it passes the embroidery simplicity test and works even in black and white (still want color in it though). I think it is pretty unique - even if paw prints are somewhat overused in logos elsewhere. I'm not sure which orientation of text relative to the graphic I like most (to the right vs. below). I'm not sure what kind of font would be ideal. Nonetheless, I think this might be a good start on a concept...

What do you think? Please leave a comment if you have an opinion.

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FamZoo Logo Concept Project Submissions

In my previous post, I described how I have been using Elance to generate a wide variety of rough concepts for the FamZoo logo. Here are the logo concept submissions I have received so far listed in alphabetical order by Elance provider user name. Please post comments regarding which ideas you like best and any refinements you would suggest. If you fancy yourself a graphic artist, feel free to submit your own ;-) Or, if you happen to know a logo designer who you think would do a fabulous job, feel free to leave a reference in your comment. Be kind. Remember, I paid for rough mock-ups (some more rough than others!) and not finished logos. Try to focus on the main ideas behind the rendering and not the initial execution per se. There will be significant polishing and refinement work between rough mock-up and final logo. I appreciate your feedback. 1) 5 Web Design (Elance username: 5webdesign) 5webdesign: Submission 1 2) Eye 4 Design (Elance username: AdrienneReitz) AdrienneReitz: Submission 1 3) AdrienneReitz: Submission 2 4) Designs That Work (Elance username: Designs_That_Work) Designs_That_Work: Submission 1 Designs_That_Work: Submission 2 5) DNA Dublin (Elance username: dnadublin) dnadublin: Submission 1 dnadublin: Submission 2 dnadublin: Submission 3 6) E-Genius (Elance username: e-genius) e-genius: Submission 1: 7) PolyChromia Graphics (Elance username: Gunnjg1) Gunnjg1: Submission 1 Gunnjg1: Submission 2 Gunnjg1: Submission 3 8) MotorG (Elance username: MotorG) MotorG: Submission 1 MotorG: Submission 2 9) Raewell Graphics (Elance username: raewellgraphics) raewellgraphics: Submission 1 10) Santa Fe 360 (Elance username: SF360) SF360: Submission 1 SF360: Submission 2 11) Line & Color (Elance username: VisualModality) VisualModality: Submission 1 VisualModality: Submission 2

FamZoo Logo Concept Project

Recently, I have been spending quite a bit of time thinking about the right logo for FamZoo - something that really captures the essence and style of the company. I'd like a style that appeals to both parents and children. I'd like a logo that is clean and simple, but not boring. I'd like it to be somewhat playful, yet still professional. I'd like a logo that symbolizes the key goals of FamZoo which are:

  • to help busy, modern families inject some consistency and structure into their occasionally wild, "zoo"-like lives (family lives subjected to the frenetic influences of dual working parents, constant "multitasking", blurred work/family boundaries, overloaded schedules, etc.)
  • to help parents introduce and encourage fiscally and socially responsible habits in children who are being regularly bombarded by an increasing array of self-indulgent and impulsive influences on the internet and elsewhere.
To ensure that I consider a wide range of creative input and minimize the risk of committing to a single designer or style too early, I have decided to try a little experiment. I am breaking the FamZoo logo design effort up into two phases - a concept phase and an execution phase. To generate a sufficiently broad array of rough logo ideas at a reasonable cost, I decided to post the concept phase project on Elance. Elance is an online marketplace that matches (typically small) business buyers with a global pool of providers (such as freelance logo designers). As mentioned in my first post, I am very familiar with Elance because I worked there for two and a half years prior to starting FamZoo.

You can see my Elance postings for the FamZoo Logo Concept Project (along with the associated bids from service providers) here and here.

I posted the projects in mid September and allowed bids to come in for a week. I received a total of 37 bids from logo designers around the world (Canada, Ireland, Argentina, Ukraine, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Romania, Poland, Slovenia, and all over the US). I then set about the fairly time consuming task of evaluating each of the bidders and winnowing the list from 37 down to 10. This took about 2 to 3 days. To keep track of the process, I created a simple scorecard in Excel and ranked each bidder on a set of weighted criteria:

  • how well the provider read and followed my bid instructions (weight=4),
  • my impression of the provider's portfolio (weight=10),
  • the number and quality of the provider's Elance buyer reviews (weight=10),
  • my perception of the provider's ability to communicate clearly (weight=8),
  • the size of the provider (I favored individual designers over larger firms since I felt I would get better individual attention and focus) (weight=7), and
  • an intangible scoring that captured how well I felt the provider "resonated" with the project based on preliminary communication during the bidding phase (weight=9).

On September 30, I awarded the project to the top 10 providers in my scorecard (and one "wildcard" provider who showed a particularly keen interest to participate). I negotiated concept fees with each provider individually (since most of the bids reflected the price for delivering a finished logo, whereas I was just interested in the rough concepts). I paid almost all of the providers up front as a show of good faith. (Payments are handled through the Elance payment system using, in my case, a credit card. Note: Elance is rolling out a nice escrow feature shortly that will really enhance the payment experience for both parties, particularly for larger transactions with multiple milestones - see the announcement here.) 10 of the 11 awarded providers accepted the project and started working on their concept submissions.

Over the course of the last 2 weeks, all of the concept submissions have come in (one provider is working on one last revision cycle). Most providers did 1 to 2 rounds of revisions after receiving feedback from me on their first submissions.

In my next post, I will show all of the logo concept submissions and solicit feedback from friends and colleagues.


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.


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!