The hardest part of being an entrepreneur?

People have been asking me this question lately.  My honest answer is: Being bone-tired but not yielding to sleep.

Not like I’ve never been tired before: We have four kids, after all.  But this is a new level, a new test of my will.

Every evening, for instance, I put my youngest daughter to bed.  We sit on the floor of her room and I read her stories.  She’s a toddler, so these are picture books: Maisy, Kipper, etc.

Most days, this is the first time I feel a sense of relaxation.  And that’s all it takes.  My guard is down, and I fall asleep sitting there.  My daughter wanders off, and I don’t snap back to life until she starts bugging one of her siblings.

Then comes the hard part: Realizing that the night is young.  After family time, and time with my wife, looms another shift at work.

I guess that’s what Red Bull is for.  Except I don’t drink it.

Isn’t that just a feature?

A fashionable critique of many startups right now is: “Isn’t what you’re planning really just a feature?”

This is a polite way for people to say that you’re doomed.

The logic is that, ultimately, your functionality will be emulated by, and subsumed into, a larger offering — usually a search portal, although these days Facebook and MySpace also get mentioned a lot.

Since users are creatures of habit, this critique goes, they’ll want to get your functionality from a site they already use, rather than learning how to use a new site.

Besides, isn’t a search (or social) portal a better place to execute on your idea, since it can integrate users’ existing information & preferences?

This critique is most often made by money men, and generally means that they believe you’re too risky because …

  • Your standalone business model (if you have one) can be blown away at any time by Google, or whomever; and/or
  • You’re counting on an acquisition that can’t be planned for.

Of course, in a world where Google is trying to do everything, it’s practically impossible not to be accused — and with some validity — of building a feature rather than a product.

But the same was true of PC applications and utilities, not to mention browsers, in the age of Microsoft, and that didn’t mean it was dumb to start a business back then.

(Hmmm. Or maybe it did?)

Meanwhile, Google itself started with a product that was arguably “just a feature” of a larger site: For years, Web search was outsourced as such by Yahoo.

And long before that, IBM believed that Microsoft’s operating system was just a feature of the personal computer.

So how seriously should I take this critique, which I’m sure will be applied to Loladex? Because I’m certainly not counting on being Google or Microsoft.

Well, local search is already a “feature” of all the major search portals; almost by definition, then, a specific element of local search (the social aspect) is even more so.

And those portals have an entrenched position that’d give pause to any rational person.

On the other hand, the true power and meaning of certain “features” becomes evident only when they are placed front and center.

MySpace and Facebook are a good example: They took what could legitimately be seen as a “just a feature” of AIM (or AOL or Yahoo) — the user profile page — and, by reimagining it as a social hub, popularized a new paradigm.

The same thing could have happened at AIM, and maybe should have, but didn’t. Why? Because to AIM it was just a feature.

Same story, albeit on a smaller scale, with Flickr, which is about to replace Yahoo Photos, a service for which Flickr’s sharing aspects might once have been “just a feature.”

I suppose it’s fair to say that Loladex’s core functionality (which I don’t yet want to describe in detail) is a feature of Yahoo Local, or of Google Maps, or even of Yelp.

For sure, it already exists in some form on all those sites.

Where I differ from these sites, however, is that I don’t think it’s “just” a feature. I think it’s the most important feature — and that its potential will be realized only when it’s treated as such.

This, I believe, is a legitimate reply to the “just a feature” critique.*

Simply having a head-start against, or better execution than, a search portal — or, God forbid, imagining you’ll be acquired by one — isn’t a reasonable plan.

But if you claim that your functionality should be central to the competing sites for whom it’s now, or could be in the future, “just a feature,” then you’re staking out a defensible position.

If you’re right (still a gamble!) your competition will have to change something fundamental in order to compete, which is hard for a bigger company to do.

*Another legitimate defense, by the way, is to take the long view:The Web is becoming atomized and — led by MySpace — portals are morphing into places where users assemble a personalized set of features that they’ve gathered from around the Web.

As widgets and feeds become mainstream, focusing on a specific feature is a valid long-term plan as long as there’s a business model behind it.

In this new world, the smart portals won’t bother competing with specific features. Things will be much more symbiotic: Portals will vie to provide the best platform for integrating third-party features, the best tools for communication, and the largest collection of your buddies.

If you can leverage this emerging infrastructure, then building “just a feature” will no longer be a bad thing.

The whole chicken-and-egg thing

It’s easy enough to get a “local social” site up and running. (Or let’s say it is, anyway.) The challenge is getting people to use it.

Because obviously, if a site is supposed to be animated by the contributions of its users, people won’t find it compelling until those contributions exist in sufficient numbers.

And if people don’t find a site compelling, why would they bother contributing in the first place?

It’s Catch-22 for social media — call it Catch-22.0.

Here are some elements I believe must come together for any socially driven site — not just local — to take off quickly:

  1. The site must offer some value that isn’t dependent on the network effect. In the case of a Web 2.0 site this won’t be the primary value, pretty much by definition. Still, a site better have something good to offer its very first user.
  2. The site must make it easy, from Day One, for users to share and distribute the experience. Tactics range from “e-mail to a friend” to embeddable widgets. This is received wisdom by now, so I won’t dwell on it.
  3. The site must make users feel valued for their contributions. Photos, profiles, message walls, kudos, “favoriting” — all the usual social-networking stuff. Flickr is a model in this regard. Yelp does a pretty good job in the local space.
  4. The site must quickly demonstrate its value to one or more existing communities, real or virtual. Social effects work best along established pathways, and user contributions have most meaning when they’re seen by other users who are “related” by interest, friendship or geography. Sites such as have thrived because they speak mostly to a community of geeks, for instance. Craigslist got its start in a subculture of San Francisco. Kudzu is focusing on Atlanta.
  5. The site must target, and then leverage, the users whose contributions will add most value. Which is more valuable to the average moviegoer: A thumbs-up from me, or a thumbs-up from Roger Ebert*? In a related vein, which is more valuable to you: A thumbs-up from me, or a thumbs-up from your best friend? Which is most valuable to the site as a whole: A contribution from someone who contributes daily, or another person’s first and last contribution? All information is not created equal.
  6. The site must be seeded, prior to its unveiling, with enough contributions that it doesn’t look entirely empty to its targeted community, and to the targeted users within that community.
  7. The site must make effective use of SEO, so that it quickly attracts the highly directed users who are most likely to add value.
  8. The site’s users — especially the key contributors — should have a way to share in the value they create. This incentive would go beyond the psychic rewards mentioned above. Some video-sharing sites, such as Revver, have made it a straight financial deal. I see the logic, but in the local space, at least, this makes me nervous. Squidoo is doing interesting stuff with charitable donations, which I find more palatable.
  9. Extra points if the site provides a platform for (a) creating businesses; (b) increasing the efficiency of existing businesses.

Each of these tactics is on the Loladex checklist. I believe our success will depend on hitting every single one of them. And the checklist is probably missing a bunch of stuff …

*You may argue that Roger Ebert’s opinion is “editorial” rather than “community,” but I believe that Web 2.0 is all about blurring that difference — and, importantly, that the blurring works both ways.

Good ideas are not a dime a dozen

So far Loladex is a bootstrap operation. I haven’t asked anyone for money, but I’ve spent some time looking at the world of funding. There are many sources of advice on such matters, and they all seem to agree on one cliche:

Ideas are a dime a dozen.

I’m sure every Web entrepreneur has heard this. It’s depressing to have your inspiration called a commodity, but I do understand: A half-baked idea that gets prompt and competent execution is a much better bet than a long-delayed and sloppily executed plan of surpassing genius.

Since VCs are in the betting business, they’re certainly justified in relegating ideas to third place. (First and second are industry sector and team, not necessarily in that order.)

But let me speak here as a Web user: Good ideas are not a dime a dozen, dammit.

OK, I’m sure I’d make a lousy VC. Still, if I suddenly landed on the other side of the table I’d be looking for teams of great executors, sure — but only those teams who bring a decent idea to said table.

To me this would be a requirement, not a nice-to-have.

A great team that’s busily executing on an incomplete idea, or a me-too effort, or blatant acquisition bait, or something downright stupid … well, it’s just depressing.

Life is too short, even if there’s money to be made.

This is a unique time. “Web 2.0,” or whatever you want to call it, is manifestly what the Internet was made for. There are lots of people out there right now with truly great ideas that deserve support.

But there are also lots of mediocre and bad ideas, and we hurt the greater community when we don’t make distinctions. IMO, the investing community should take an active pride in the quality of the ideas it supports. A good VC will advance the Web, not just his interests, with each funding decision.

For an entrepreneur, ideas are the opposite of a commodity: Your belief in the idea is so strong that you can’t do anything else. When the time comes for Loladex to seek money, I hope to find VCs who feel the same way.