A review of “The Web Startup Success Guide”

We Startup Success GuideThis is a review of the book The Web Startup Success Guide by Bob Walsh, who is also the author of Micro-ISV: From Vision to Reality, published previously. Mr. Walsh is also the creator of the The Startup Success Podcast, and a moderator of the notorious The Business of Software (BOS) discussion forum. This book is aimed at developers who intend to create a new product and are ready to do all that is needed for getting to sell the product, so not only development, but also marketing, selling and collecting feedback.

I am writing a review of this book because I believe it fills a need which has been there for a while; I fantasized writing something similar myself, but luckily Mr. Walsh has come out with this, which spares me of the effort, which was unlikely to succeed  anyway as writing something of this kind requires a total commitment. Before this book, to collect something similar to the information reported in it, you had to painfully go through the discussions in the BOS discussion forum, find links to other blogs and books from there, parse what was outdated, what is wrong and so on (this is particularly painful also because for unfathomable reasons those discussing the business of software are not provided with the quality of service that developers get with Stackoverflow and all that family – though it is from more or less the same source, and of course we should be grateful anyway for the service as it is all free). But the book is not a mere anthology of old and new information, it gives you a structured path to follow (a guide), divided in 10 chapters. The advice and references is further supplemented by interviews  with about 50 guys from startups who have already gone through (sometimes several times) what the reader is about to start; the interviews are a great way to get informally in contact with what happens once you are “out there”.

Roman mask at Teutoburg.

Roman mask at Teutoburg.

This book is not “invaluable”, but actually concretely valuable for startups, as it can save hours of search and months of wrong paths taken; you will avoid several common blunders right from the start. Something I believe is a key to success is to choose a product idea with which you will find yourself in what may be called a good strategic position – GSP – my company is developing two new online services ideas which we evaluated along these criteria. When you are in the idea selection process (frequently referred to with the not-so-beautiful term “brainstorming”) considerations such as those of chapter 3 (“So many platforms, so many options”) will give you first criteria for selection, which won’t be sufficient, but are a good starting point: on top of that, what real user need your application solves will be crucial. Starting in a GSP will not make success certain, but at least possible. It is particularly important to start by asking you such questions before being fascinated by development in itself, which is a mistake to which we developers are prone. If you start in a bad strategic position, no amount of effort and quality of product is going to take you out of there – you’ll be the Romans in the Teutoburg forest. Solving marketing problems by sheer effort is a bad habit that many developers acquire in custom development, where they are rented by the hour – more hours, more pay. That does not apply neither in product marketing nor in product development. Unfortunately I still see product proposals on BOS which are in a really bad strategic position, like a client app for URL collecting (!), the painful proposal of a “new” Twitter client, and similar ideas; read this book!

I would like also to point out that much of the advice from the book is good also for the evolution of an existing software house, and for the launch of every single new product, not just for startups. My own software is just an example of the latter. But much is implied about how the software house should be organized for the production and launch to work if you want to follow the book’s implicit philosophy, and its assumption about company “transparency”; you can get further information starting from reading the long early articles of http://www.joelonsoftware.com.

Reviewing a book that gives advices on how to operate in a productive activity could hardly be done without experience in the field; and my review of this book is positive also because many of the findings to which we unfortunately got by trial-and-error are here reported as advices. And proceeding by trial-and-error in such time-consuming activities as software development often is not a viable solution.

Criticisms

The title part “success guide” seems to suggest that closely following the book, success is inevitable, which is false, and actually this is clearly explained in the book; I know that authors sometimes do not have the last word in picking a book’s title, and that marketing considerations get in the way, anyway I would have preferred a more cautious title. Better though unlikely would have been a simple English translation of  “Some sparse ideas for web startups valid in 2009-2010”. But as said before, the startup scope too is too restrictive, so a revised title would be “Some sparse ideas for product-launching software houses valid in 2009-2010”. Ok, its horrible 😀

In this (positive) review the title is further criticized again for being too restrictive, for the “web” word. Ok, maybe, anyway enough bantering on the title.

The part concerning Venture Capitals (VCs) and “angel” founding (chapter 5) is almost useless for European startuppers, as money lending is handed mainly by banks  and European Union  (EU) programs, and not by private founders; also American VCs are interested only in European software houses that already sell at least one million dollar/year (I know that for direct experience, as when my software house won a Jolt award we started to receive calls from American VCs), and so may be out of the scope of the readers of this book. So my personal advice to Europeans startups is for example to check your local universities engineering departments for joint applications to EU founding, instead of running after American VCs.

The worst sin I can find in the book is reprinting the word “dollarize”, which may be the ugliest expression ever selected in the (countably) infinite spectrum of possible English words.

Counter-criticism

I’ve read in other reviews that a weak point of the book is the lack of a “chapter about marketing”; this makes me wonder whether the other reviewers have read the book cover to cover, because one of the main points of the book (and one I found most interesting) is that traditional marketing is getting replaced by activity on social media: chapter 6, page 211: “social media replaces traditional advertising”. And the most interesting chapter 6 details the point further, just read it (I read it twice to be sure I got the points). Of course one may disagree, believe that it is a wrong idea, but an idea of marketing is indeed in the book, and quite articulate.

Mr. Walsh implicitly takes the position that effective marketing of software product and services is one that should appeal to a conscious, reflecting and informed user, quite differently from the unreflected stimuli on which traditional marketing relies. This thesis can hardly be held in general, in particular if one is considering business-to-consumer low cost products; but for other categories, direct and selective access to information from users has increased in time. I know that even one of the comparatively slowly evolving industry, the automotive one, is paying a lot of attention to what bloggers and other social agitators say about new car models released, so maybe its time that you too pay attention to them.

Then chapter 7 gives detailed criteria for the composition of a unique selling proposition (USP), which I believe can be useful even at the very beginning of your start-up. Try this: when you are “brainstorming” on a candidate product idea, try putting together a USP for it. Is this feasible? If not, this may show you that what you are considering maybe is not such a good idea: probably you are not solving some really felt need of the users.

Getting Things Done

Chapter 7 is about personal productivity: personally I’m a bit allergic to this topic, as it evokes images of “self-punishing solipsistic puritan bigotism”; but actually in the book it is not at all treated  in this perspective. If one bears in mind that spending too much time and concentration on priority lists and things of the sort can actually damage your meeting the main problems of your startup, the advice given in this book can reduce time wasted. If you simply get to concentrate your “social marketing” activity in definite periods in the day, instead of getting and searching continuous distractions, you’ll surely get more and better work done (I’m actually doing that for my “social” online activity). Still in my experience the key for getting things done is not as much lowering distractions, but is not working alone: write your code in pairs, discuss your specifics in general meetings, select your USP and brand images by showing them to as many people as possible, test your application with as many people you can (also with low cost testing like http://www.usertesting.com), and so on. Anyone’s energy levels change in time: the day you are feeling tired by coding, you can be a good pair partner; and you’ll probably need more energy than you can imagine you have to get your startup to succeed. Not to speak of the countable but non computable number of advantages that a mixed-gender and mixed-skill pair and group of developers / designers has by default. You can’t do it alone!

Other reviews

http://bzkicks.posterous.com/the-web-startup-success-guide-review-0

http://blog.businessofsoftware.org/2009/08/the-web-startup-success-guide—a-book-review.html

http://www.amazon.com/Web-Startup-Success-Guide/dp/1430219858

Final considerations

Putting together what written above, I strongly suggest any startup and company that wants to launch new software products and services to get this book and then read it twice 🙂 We are applying many of the ideas from the book for both an established product (Teamwork) and for developing and launching our two new online services. I’ll post here updates on our progress.

Comments
5 Responses to “A review of “The Web Startup Success Guide””
  1. Marco Abis says:

    Nice review, thanks. I have to say though that you point about VCs in Europe is totally false and probably reflect the fact that you yourself don’t know the EU VCs scene (which I agree is different from the US one).

  2. We actually had some direct experience with EU VCs (negative). But apart from personal direct experiences, which may be good or bad, consider simply the fact that we periodically get calls from different USA VCs to discuss investment possibilities, even given the complications that would be due to our being in Europe, and we never get them from the EU ones, which either testifies of their intelligence ( 😀 ) or of the fact that there are few, and not as market –evolution-aware as the USA ones. I would go for the second explanation…

    But what is most important for me is to suggest to startups and new product launchers to steer clear of VCs and adopt the so called “organic growth” model: see these pages and their references for more details:

    http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/BusinessofSoftware.html

    http://www.foundersatwork.com/joel-spolksy.html

    And the books

    “Eric Sink on the Business of Software” http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1590596234/ref=nosim/002-4644050-6998429

    “Founders at work” http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1590597141

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