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Minimum Requirement: 5 Minutes and a Heart

The holiday season and the start of the New Year is always a great time to reinforce your charitable values with your family. If you are looking for a simple and meaningful charitable exercise for your kids that works for any age and engages them on a personal (and not just monetary) level, here is a suggestion: have your child make a card with a personal thank you message to our troops and their caregivers. The card can be delivered through Homefront Hugs and their Operation Healing Angel program.

Here is an example from one of my sons:

This simple exercise creates a great opportunity for some teachable moments with your child. It's also guaranteed to generate positive energy on both sides of the send/receive equation.

On a related note, for those of you with a FamZoo virtual family bank, now is an excellent time to review any outstanding balances in your children's FamZoo charitable accounts. If a balance has accumulated, take some time this week to sit down with your child, choose a charitable organization, and make a contribution. Some quick suggestions: DonorsChoose.org (mentioned in last year's holiday blog post), NothingButNets.net, and "charity:" (mentioned in a recent blog post by the president of Charity Navigator).

As of today, a total of $3,106.01 has been added to FamZoo charitable accounts and, of that, $186.10 has been distributed so far. This leaves an aggregate undistributed balance in FamZoo charitable accounts of: $2,919.91. That's some serious money. Help your kids put it to work this week.


World of Warcraft: A Better Venue for Practical Experience than College?

My sons (along with 4 million other people in the US) enjoy playing the online game World of Warcraft. As a homework assignment for parents at the beginning of this school year, I was asked by an English teacher to submit a bio for my oldest son. Here is a relevant excerpt:

My son is also a very avid player of the online game World of Warcraft - a massively multiplayer online role playing game. The game is actually quite fascinating to observe since it involves coordination and collaboration between many players. In many ways, I think it is a microcosm of what goes on within companies and various societal groups. I actually see my son picking up a variety of valuable skills while he is playing: leadership, diplomacy, planning, strategy, etc. The downside of the game is that it can become very obsessive (like many things in life), so we set boundaries (that are not always appreciated) like no play during school nights.

So, I was amused today when my buddy Chris sent me a link to this post which captures some of the same sentiments. Here's an excerpt:

The most challenging events in WoW requires the coordination of 25 people working closely as a team. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the same situations that occur in the real-word when organizing 25 people, occur in virtual worlds as well. Problem-solving, politics, leadership, communication, team-building… just to scratch the surface.

Here's a prediction for you – right now there are teen aged kids gaining more practical experience leading and organizing in WoW then they'll ever learn in college. 10-20 years from now someone will cite WoW as the formative experience that they built on to become political or business leaders.

I guess pretty soon, we're going to start seeing World of Warcraft character levels, guild affiliations, and raid stats on the resumes of prospective employees ;-)

Seriously, though, if you are a concerned parent of a budding WoW player, I encourage you to keep an open mind. Sit down and spend some time watching them play. It's pretty fascinating, particularly when they get into coordinated raids.

And, by all means, enforce moderation if necessary. Despite the protestations of our sons, we use the game's parental controls to define the allowable blocks of play time. The controls are convenient and help to minimize the drama and tedious negotiations around play time.

Balance is key.

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Still Not Computer Literate After 27 Years of Software Development

I just finished reading the new book Bit Literacy by Mark Hurst. It is refreshingly brief and provides a nice collection of best practices for efficiently handling the increasing torrent of digital information - i.e., "bits" - like email, files, online media, etc. I highly recommend this short book to all folks who regularly interact with computers (which I guess would be pretty much everyone at this point).

One "bit" of warning though: Mark is very "definitive" in his opinions and may rub some folks the wrong way with his "one right way" 'tude. The most amusing one for me was his proclamation in Chapter 12:

This is a non-negotiable point worth restating. To become bit-literate, you must know how to touch type. So learn to type.

Sadly, I dropped out of my touch-typing course in highschool when I feared (probably irrationally) that it was going to crater my GPA and hurt my college prospects. So, I have to confess that I type with about half my fingers and live somewhere short of the right pole of the hunt-peck to touch-type spectrum. Oh well, at least I don't play computer games which Mark (self-servingly?) defends in Chapter 12, so maybe I'm making up some productivity lost ground there. We all have our vices and shortcomings...

Nonetheless, if you are willing to listen to the opinions of a bit-illiterate like myself, I think you'll find several passages in the book that will help you become significantly more productive on the computer - even if you are a wily old veteran. Personally, I found the passages on managing incoming email, managing ToDos, managing digital photos, tips for writing emails that don't waste the time of recipients, using keyboard accelerators/macros, and comments about creating "bit literate" software very helpful and actionable. At minimum, the book will force you to reexamine how you engage with the computer. Introspection is a good thing.


Teaching and Bonding with the "Big Project"

Last summer, I blogged about an Alienware gaming PC purchase experience. These machines are indeed cool. In fact, so cool that the boys have been saving up for another Alienware for months, but progress has been very slow for them given the lofty price tag. This got me to thinking about the comment/challenge left by my buddy Paul on the original post:

"Bill, you gotta check out newegg.com. What better project than to build your own kick butt gaming computer for half what you'd pay dell/alienware for."

As I mulled over the challenge, fond memories of my college days with Chris in the digital electronics lab swirled in my head. Yeah, this could be fun! On the other hand, I can just imagine sparks and plumes of smoke streaming out of a poorly assembled home-built rig upon plugging it in for the first time. I can vividly picture the dejected looks on the kids' faces and my wife shaking her head in the background as I initiate the humiliating call to the Geek Squad to bail us out. Yeah, this could get really ugly if things go awry...

But... building a killer gaming PC with my computer enthusiast son could be a great bonding and learning experience. It's an opportunity to learn some basic project skills: planning, problem solving, "disaster recovery" and collaboration. It's a tangible way to learn the importance of patience and perseverance. It's a unique opportunity to experience the pride and satisfaction that comes with building something with your own hands to your own specifications. It's a chance to learn that the journey can be as gratifying as the result. Yes, the potential upside is huge.

Well, several weekends ago (with my wife safely out of town I might add ;-) my son and I decided to go for it. The week beforehand, my son carefully culled together a list of components from the NewEgg catalog to match his gaming requirements while abiding by our budget constraints. Those who are interested can see the bill of materials in the spreadsheet at the bottom of this post. Armed with my son's list, we made the purchase swiftly online thereby enjoying another benefit of this approach: no annoying in-store Fry's experience (don't get me started!).

Paul was right: we were able to assemble a set of components at about half the cost of a comparably equipped pre-made machine. In fact, (assuming it actually works) our machine would be more powerful. It would also be outfitted with just the capabilities we wanted and valued. This goes for hardware and software. No more annoying pre-loaded promo software from the manufacturer cluttering up a substantial portion of your hard drive - nice!

Our excitement mounted with each new box that arrived throughout the week. By the time the weekend rolled around, we were ready to rock.

To guide our efforts, we Googled on "build your own PC" and used a collection of articles like this one to provide the high level recipe. This experience reaffirmed what an amazing resource the Web is. Every time we were confused or stymied, a set of well considered Google queries always (ultimately) led us to an answer - no matter how seemingly obscure the issue.

Almost 48 elapsed hours later (we were being super cautious and working in sporadic blocks of time - aka, "family mode"), we were ready for the moment of truth. As I reached for the power button, my son looked so anxious I thought he was going to toss his cookies. He wanted to wait out in the hall while I flipped the switch, but I convinced him that, being lab partners, we needed to witness the moment together...

It's working! Huzzah! Our machine whirred to life. We clapped each other on the back and grinned. We worked through the relatively straightforward task of installing the operating system (Vista). No problems. After lots of self-congratulation, we moved on to the next big acid test: installing and running the graphics intensive game Battlefield 2.

Somewhere in that process, our DVD drive suddenly "disappeared" - the operating system just no longer recognized it and, as a result, we could not perform any more installs. After poking around on some manufacturer web sites and browsing online manuals with decent sized pictures, we determined that we (ok, "I") had attached the cables incorrectly to the DVD drive. After a little dissassembly and minor surgery, we were back in business. The drive reappeared. We were able to proceed with the install and get to the Battlefield test. More self-congratulation.

That's where we ran into roadblock number 2: the game would start to come up and then crash. Doh! More googling and some diagnostics later, we determined that our graphics card was not Vista compatible. By this time, we were anxious to be done, so it was off to Fry's (sigh) to get a Vista compatible Graphics Card. (Note: we were able to return the original card to NewEgg without hassle.)

A little more disassembly and minor surgery later, we were back to the gaming test. This time: success! Battlefield worked like a dream: better performance and sweeter graphics. High fives all around!

The victory was short lived. Moments later after installing some unrelated piece of software, it happened again: the DVD drive mysteriously disappeared. Roadblock #1 was back again. Bummer! The cycles of euphoria and disappointment were starting to wear thin. Back to Google. Ultimately, we found the culprit and the obscure solution here. A little lesson in Windows Registry hacking and we were ready to reboot and try again. Success! Our DVD drive was back and working. Low fives this time (our twice-burned irrational exuberance was giving way to cautious optimism).

Well, it has now been over a month of smooth, satisfying operation, so we think it is safe to declare victory and launch this post. The project was everything I hoped it would be: a great bonding and learning experience for both of us. If you are a parent, I urge you to find a meaty project within your sphere of comfort (building PCs is not for everyone!) and go for it with your child. You'll both be glad you did.


Here is the final parts list:


Day 366: No Regrets And No Longer On My Own

My very first post on this blog was entitled "Day One on My Own". It captured my sentiments - and trepidations - on the day I launched FamZoo. Well, it's now 365 days later, and it seems that a retrospective post is in order.

First and foremost, I have to say that I have absolutely no regrets about taking the entrepreneurial plunge. I should point out that my lack of regret has nothing to do with the opportunity that I walked away from. Elance has been enjoying a solid upswing since I stepped away. (I'm hoping that is not a causal relationship! ;-). The number of projects posted on Elance is up over 50% from last year and the upward trend continues.

My no-regrets sentiment has everything to do with my own personal growth. The last year has been an enormous challenge and learning experience for me (those two go hand in hand). Starting a business from scratch as a solo entrepreneur has given me deep, firsthand exposure to an incredibly broad array of business activities. Looking back over a years worth of closed tasks in my project management system, I see everything from developing code to setting up payroll. Here's just a sampling of some of my firsthand experiences culled from 761 closed tasks: starting a blog, buying a domain name, incorporating, securing trademarks, building an internal project management system, setting up web and email hosting, setting up a Wiki-based intranet (using JotSpot), product research and design, lots and lots of coding, early stage funding and capitalization structures, small business banking, logo design, cross-browser Web page design, Ajax development using the Yahoo User Interface library, writing product help material and shooting screencasts (using an iMac, iShowU, GarageBand, and iMovie), deploying QuickBooks Online and establishing accounting procedures, competitive analysis, hiring outsourced accounting and tax help, launching a preview version of the product, developing marketing materials, signing up charter members, providing customer support, setting up a user community, networking and business development, giving demos, pitching venture capitalists, implementing a contact management system (Highrise from 37 Signals), setting up payroll (via the Quickbooks Online Payroll module), setting up a stock option incentive plan, reviewing Terms of Service and Privacy statements, ... you get the flavor.

A year later, FamZoo has gone from nothing to a functioning service running in private preview mode for 20 families.

All that said, by far the most important milestone for FamZoo occurred just two weeks ago when my long time friend and colleague, Chris Beaufort, joined the company. We are pictured at left at the "FamZoo International Headquarters". This is an enormous step forward in the maturation of FamZoo as we begin to emerge from the garage/spare-bedroom phase and move ever closer to becoming a self-sustaining, profitable company. In just these first two weeks, I can already feel the tremendous impact and vibe that collaborating with a compatible, motivated, hands-on teammate brings: ideas and designs are more thoroughly vetted and challenged, key projects move forward in parallel instead of always being serialized, and we touch far more prospects and partners. It is truly invigorating, not to mention fun.

Chris and I met on the first day of college at orientation for the Princeton engineering program. That was over 25 years ago. We went on to be lab partners, college roommates, and colleagues at two prior companies. For nostalgic and amusement purposes, here are our pictures from the Princeton Freshman Herald circa 1981 (yes, people, that was before there was Facebook)

I could really use some of that hair back!

Now I don't mean to slight my co-founding partner Bonzo, but I have to say that Chris is infinitely more productive (with none of the hygenic issues). Nonetheless, even with Chris on board, Bonzo will continue to fulfill his valuable role as loyal companion and symbol of tenacity.

Happy birthday FamZoo - looking forward to a fantastic year 2.


Honing the Message: Iterative Development Meets Marketing

In my previous post, I mentioned that I had just started signing up the first FamZoo Charter families to help me refine the service before launching publicly. One of the first things I was reminded of while recruiting my victims was the importance of "the message": the succinct and compelling description of the essence of your product and its value proposition for the target audience (a.k.a., the "pitch" ).

Now, this is something I have learned many times over in the last 20+ years of building software products. It's something that my all-time favorite boss and mentor, Sohaib, drilled into me early on in my career at Oracle. I remember storming out of his office once in frustration over his insistence that I further hone the words in one of my product pitches, only to slink back later and acknowledge he was absolutely right about the importance of carefully selecting every single word (and the fewer the better).

But since I was in the pre-launch phase of FamZoo and catering almost exclusively to folks I knew well already, I somehow convinced myself that I could skimp on materials around the message. I'd just get them to register and then they'd figure it out with a little personal handholding from me. Nope. Even your good friends want to know what they are getting into. People are insanely busy - especially those with young families. Unless all your friends are aggressive early adopter types, they have precious few cycles to tinker around. The message is still crucial.

I've always been a big fan of iterative approaches when it comes to software development, and I think the same applies when it comes to marketing activities like developing your message. This is something I think Larry Ellison is extremely good at. Over the course of my 13 years at Oracle, every time I would have the occasion to meet with Larry - typically semi-regular product review meetings with a board room full of folks - he would be testing a message. Putting it out there, probing, listening carefully to the reaction (yes, Larry actually does listen!), and filing away little mental notes. The next week, you'd hear a more finely tuned version of the message emerge and the test cycle would repeat: pitch-listen-refine, pitch-listen-refine. I think this is an excellent best practice, and it was a great education for me.

I've spent the last several weeks iteratively refining the message for FamZoo. I created a draft of the text for my FamZoo "About" pages and sent it out to a number of colleagues, friends, and family members. I would then make adjustments and send it out for another round (some reviewers the same, some new). The feedback has been incredibly useful (and, at times, very humbling ;-). As of yesterday, I'm at revision 78 and one thing I know for sure: it's a vast improvement over version 1.

Some would say that you are better off delegating or outsourcing this exercise. I think that is fine for the finishing phase (and something I plan to do), but abdicating responsibility in this area too early would be a huge mistake as far as I am concerned. You learn a tremendous amount about your product and your target audience by working through this process. It is a fantastic opportunity to scrutinize and fine tune your business.

One final comment in this area: I highly recommend capturing your message (along with a product Quick Tour) in a video and sharing it with others via something like YouTube. It's a lot easier for your reviewers to watch a 2-3 minute video than to sit down and read a few pages of text. I think it's also a lot easier to objectively critique your own work in a medium where you can sit back and watch yourself (and not have to worry about delivering at the same time). Finally, it makes you think about what visuals and scenarios might be most effective in highlighting and reinforcing your message.

These days, if you have an iMac, its pretty straightforward to put together a decent video with iMovie, GarageBand (for voiceover), and a program like iShowU for capturing your product in action (assuming it's a software product like mine). The editing iterations can be a bit tedious and there are some tricks to getting it uploaded to YouTube in a format that looks decent, but, other than that, it's pretty painless given the payoff. I recommend doing this even if you ultimately plan to have videos professionally produced. I suspect you'll get a much higher quality end result if the professionals you choose can see a concrete (yet perhaps crude) example of what you have in mind.


Turning the Burn Down Corner and Adding the First Charter Families

Just over a month ago, I shared my Burn Down Chart status and noted that I had not transitioned from burning up to burning down just yet. In fact, I was aggressively headed in the wrong direction. Well, after a month+ of solid heads-down work, I have finally turned the corner. I am now consistently completing more tasks than I am adding which is represented by the red line heading nicely downward. Furthermore, on its way down, the red line for open tasks finally crossed over my green line for completed tasks (meaning that I now have fewer open tasks than completed ones). Ahhh - feels much better.

I have also added an additional line - the black one - that denotes the total number of tasks over time so I can clearly see when work is added to (or subtracted from) the deliverable. You can see that I am still adding work as the process of discovery continues but they are being added at a slower rate and the black line is starting to level off as I get a firmer handle on the total scope.

Another nice milestone was the recent signing up of a handful of brave FamZoo Charter families. While the capabilities and implementation are still malleable, I want to help ensure that I don't build a "special" - i.e., something that just caters to the idiosyncrasies of my own family instead of being a broadly useful and useable service. I now have 6 FamZoo Charter families outside of my own family and have already received some excellent, helpful feedback.

Many thanks for the assistance!

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Let The Big Guys Serve It Up For You

In a January post, I hinted at the fact that I have been using Yahoo's open source User Interface Library for parts of the FamZoo front end. Using the library can pull some pretty hefty JavaScript files into your Web pages resulting in significant degradations in page load times. As a result, I have had it on my ToDo list for a while to start using the more compact and faster-loading "minified" versions of these files (stripped of all extraneous whitespace) instead of the "standard" versions (commented and formatted for readability) as I am now.

While pursuing this endeavor, I stumbled upon a YUI article indicating that Yahoo is now providing free hosting of the minified files. Instead of downloading the files, copying them to your own Web server, and hosting them from your own site, you can now just reference the files directly from the Yahoo network. This means you get to take advantage of the enormous investment that Yahoo makes in optimizing download times (geeky stuff like edge computing, gzip compression, expires headers, etc.) - all for free. Nice.

I've gone a similar route with all of the images that I use in the FamZoo pages. I upload them to Photobucket and let those guys worry about serving them up quickly. As of today, they claim to serve up 2.7 billion images - I figure they have much more of a vested interest in making sure those images are served up quickly and reliably than I do! Again, all for free. Nice.

I love this growing trend of large Internet providers allowing others to freely leverage their massive infrastructures. This makes it all the easier for us small fry sites to provide state-of-the-art capability and service levels at very low cost.

Note for other developers using YUI and considering this move: Yahoo keeps separate directories for each version (the version number is baked into the filepath), and they indicate on their Blog that thier "current policy is to support permanent availability of legacy YUI files". So, looks like you needn't worry about your external dependencies changing or being yanked out from under you. I also suspect Yahoo will be around for a while...

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Tough to Match Nature's Coding Prowess

My last post touched on how I have been tracking my development "progress" on FamZoo. On a somewhat related note, I was reminded today of how humbling the pace and scope of development can be in nature. No matter how many times I witness it (some would argue too many ;-), I always marvel at the process of cognitive development in young human beings. At the end of February, I posted a few drawings from the youngest member of the FamZoo fan club. Here's a representative sample:

Very cute, yet still very simple and crude.

He's been cranking out drawings of increasing detail and complexity since then, and here are a couple from within the last week:

It is fascinating to compare and contrast the illustrations (you can click on each to get a closer view). In just under two months, the level of sophistication has progressed by orders of magnitude. If only I could match that kind of progress in my FamZoo development efforts!

The human body is truly an amazing, humbling, and inspiring system.


Burning Down or Burning Up?

Several weeks back, I posted an entry about how I track my tasks and how I am dividing my time. As some savvy (aka annoying) readers noticed, one of the questions that the post conveniently sidestepped was: when will you be done? Um, well, perhaps never...

One of the more simple and effective project management tools for tracking progress towards a goal is the daily Burn Down Chart. In its most elemental form, it tracks the trend in the number of tasks that remain open each day. As you complete (or "burn down") the open tasks, your trend line should head towards zero - ideally somewhere in the neighborhood of your projected due date! However, if you are adding new tasks faster than you are completing existing ones, then your burn down line starts careening upward. Until you stop doing that, your project is "burning up" and will not converge.

Whether you are burning down or burning up, it is critical to know where you stand on a daily basis. Constant visibility is key to dissipating delusional thinking and motivating tough decisions. This week, I finally augmented my homegrown task management system to automatically produce daily burn down charts. You can see today's chart above. The red line depicts the number of open tasks - what I am trying to burn down. To make myself feel better, I also like to throw in a line for the number of tasks completed so far - that's the green line.

Uh oh! As you can see, I'm aggressively burning up rather than down (the red line continues its steady climb), and there are more tasks outstanding than there are completed (the red line still lies above the green line). You can also see when our local schools let out for winter and spring vacations - just look for the flat spots.

Note that the burning up phenomenon is not always bad. In fact, it is quite natural and expected in the early phases of the project. After all, generating lists of new tasks is the expected outcome of planning and design sessions. Also, no matter how great you think you are, development is inevitably a process of discovery. Realistically, you can't help but discover unanticipated nuances in the problem space or better, more elegant approaches as you work through the design, implementation, and refactoring of a product.

That said, at some point, assuming you actually want to deliver something, you simply must transition from burning up to burning down. Working harder and adding resources aside, this is usually accomplished by some combination of staunching the flow of new incoming tasks, completing existing tasks, and deferring tasks that are not absolutely essential to the current iteration of the goal.

Time for me to transition.


Two Solid Sites for Internet Entrepreneurs; More FamZoo Art

Recently, I stumbled upon two excellent sites for Internet entrepreneurs:

I've been browsing the content and tracking the posts on these sites for the past couple of weeks and have found the material to be practical and well-written. It's a refreshing break from the Venture Capital blogs that I have been tracking for a while...

A couple more pix from Mr. Q - the youngest FamZoo charter member:

The FamZoo Car
The FamZoo Tiger

Inspiration From the Youngest Member of the FamZoo Fan Club

While I have been furiously coding away, my youngest has been busily drawing up his own interpretations of FamZoo. He proudly presented me with the following:

I love them. Thank you Mr. Q! Very inspirational. Makes it all worthwhile.

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How I Have Been Spending My Time

Lots of folks ask about what I am up to.

"How do you divide your time between the various business functions at this early stage?"
"How much time do you spend actually coding?"
"You're really just playing World of Warcraft all day aren't you?"

One of the first things that I put into place at FamZoo was a task management system (this will come as no surprise to any of you poor souls who have worked with me in the past ;-). The system allows me to effectively plan, organize, and track all of my work. The number of tasks that go into building a company and a product can be pretty overwhelming. I discover scores of new tasks that need to get done every day. Having a place to park and coherently organize all of those tasks gives me real peace of mind. To provide a little insight into how I divide my time, I extracted the data for the tasks that I have completed so far and did a little quick Excel analysis. Here are some charts of the tasks I have completed so far grouped by highest level category (you can click on them to get a larger view):

Some quick observations:

  • Initially, items other than product development sucked up a fair portion of my time - particularly legal items related to incorporation and trademarking (using Cooley). Later, I had to allot some significant time to finance tasks related to setting up my accounting (using Montgomery Professional Services Corp) and getting QuickBooks Online up and running. Now, fortunately, I am almost 100% on product development tasks which is really where I want to be spending all of my cycles right now.
  • Not surprisingly, my productivity (as measured by closed tasks which is not a true measure of productivity, but probably a reasonable proxy in my case) tanked during the holidays. The troughs line up with Thanksgiving (week 47, 2006), Christmas and New Years (weeks 51, 52 of 2006 and week 1 of 2007). The low weeks prior to that (weeks 40-43 of 2006) were dominated by iterations on the logo design and think-time/research around the product which tends to be hard to quantify.
  • I haven't spent much time on a formal business plan, opting instead to focus as much time as possible on the product itself. See here for a discussion about a recent study written up in the WSJ covering the lack of statistical correlation between formal written business plans and ultimate success. We'll see how it turns out for me ;-)

It will be interesting to see how the allocation mix changes over time. I expect several more weeks of very heads down product development. Then, we should see some considerable percentage of time on Technical Operations as I transition from pure development mode and open up FamZoo to more outside Beta users. Having a production Web hosting solution in place will be a prerequisite for this step. As I get closer to launch, more and more of my time will be dominated by Marketing and Business Development activities.

Now, back to World of Warcraft, err, umm, I mean coding...


Yep, Still Here!

Well, it's down to the last day in January, and I figure I better post at least one entry before the month slips by entirely. So what's up with the deafening silence you ask? Well, it's been an interesting month. "Interesting" being the traditional ambiguous euphemism that parents and optimists use for both good and, well, "not-so-good".

First, let's dispatch with the "not-so-good". Early in January, I came across a WSJ article featuring a site with significant similarities to some of the core capabilities of FamZoo. (I'm not going to mention the name because I'd really like to stay off their radar for now and smart companies regularly conduct Web searches on themselves.) Finding a direct competitor was quite disappointing. Until that article, I had not seen anything deployed on the Web that came close to what I am building, and I was relishing the idea of being the first company to launch in the space. Now I am kicking myself for taking so long to get the gumption to start a company around the idea that I originally implemented for my family back in 2002. Sigh.

But, as I always like to say: "Get over it". Aside from the usual platitudes in this situation ("It validates the market", "Google wasn't first either", etc.), there have been a number of positive side effects. My focus and sense of urgency have increased substantially. Seeing a competitive offering and being able to study their strengths, weaknesses, biases, etc. has forced me to think more deeply about what to emphasize in FamZoo and what will set our offering apart from this initial competitor as well as, ultimately, many others. Being first to market will just no longer be one of those points of differentiation, which is OK because that is more a matter of personal pride than a compelling reason to flock to (and remain with) the service.

So, what have I been up to in January? User interface and user interaction design. Having a great user experience will be crucial to my success, so this area deserves a lot of attention and iteration. To date, my family has been very prolific and helpful with their feedback, and my to-do list remains well stocked. So, I will not be widening the alpha test audience just yet. This allows me to iterate most rapidly with virtually zero customer support or production deployment overhead while still getting very real and actionable feedback. It is also helpful that my family spans all relevant age ranges and has zero hesitancy when it comes to (predominantly ;-) constructive criticism. I figure low burn rate, high productivity, and plenty of honest feedback makes a good combination.

Here's a little peek at how the user interface is progressing. It is still early with lots of fit-and-finish work to go, but the contrast between the January 2007 user interface and the November 2006 predecessor should be readily apparent even with the intentionally low resolution screenshots provided below.

FamZoo User Interface January 2007
FamZoo User Interface November 2006

It's been very enlightening to learn firsthand and in depth about all of the intricacies of getting a modern Web user interface to behave consistently and effectively across the popular browsers. Dealing with issues ranging from blatant browser incompatibilities like this famous one to separation of presentation and semantic content to supporting liquid layout (vs fixed width - yechh) to honoring the user's browser font settings to reliably implementing rounded corners and tabs (should be simple right? not...) to leveraging some of the emerging rich Web UI libraries makes user interface work an interesting combination of technical and creative challenges. Subtle, seemingly small technical decisions can have very large user experience and business impact here. Just the kind of multi-disciplinary challenge I like.

Time to get back to coding.

Oh yeah, and a happy belated New Year to you all.