Me And the Boys

Limulus-Systems-IconRecently I’ve been participating in Sprint planning with the guys at my Funnelcake development team, Project Ricochet. The Sprint planning meetings are weekly video conferences in which we go over the list of tasks that need to be accomplished to develop Funnelcake further. We prioritize tasks and assign the tasks to the participants to be done that week as a way of managing the complex job of software development. I’m glad to be included in the conferences, not because I can contribute much to the details of software development, but we often end up making decisions about the functioning of the app, and it’s important to be able to participate in that.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

What I want to talk about is a revelation of sorts that I had during Sprint planning; namely, that the Funnelcake development team is all guys. Half of our partnership, Limulus Systems LLC, consists of myself and Tom Norton, Creative Director Extraordinaire, while the other half, the programming team, consists of Project Ricochet. Project Ricochet, reflecting much of the tech world, is also all men.

It was certainly not intentional to have only men working on Funnelcake. I would prefer to have women involved in Funnelcake development, as they are likely users of the app and would provide a valuable perspective on the app and how it might be used. In fact my initial app idea of digital scrapbooking would have been used almost exclusively by women, so I have all along supposed that I would require a female perspective on my app. That being the case, how did we get this way?

My excuse is a sort of go-with-what-you-know-and-trust laziness. When I formed Limulus Systems, I needed graphic design help to carry my project forward, partly for creating advertising and partly because my original app idea was the design-heavy digital scrapbooking app. In addition, I needed another person just to bounce ideas off, to make sure that I wasn’t coming up with some crazy unachievable plan. Somebody sensible who is also good with graphic design? As it turned out, I had the right person immediately within reach, my brother-in-law Tom Norton, who is everything I wanted in a partner – but he’s a guy. I decided not to hold that against him and thus a great partnership was born.

Could I have found that female design partner if I had put my mind to it? Of course, but it would have taken a lot longer, first to find such a person, and second to build up the trust that already existed between Tom and I. Tom was perfect for the partnership and was immediately at hand, so why would I look further?

Much the same dynamic existed between Limulus Systems and Project Ricochet when it came time to think of taking on a partner. We had been working together for a few months and found each other to be reliable and committed to the successful launch of our app. Why should I have gone looking for another partner when I had a great partner right in front of me? Project Ricochet was everything I needed in a development partner – except they were all guys. Once again, I decided not to hold that against them.

It’s not as if women have been completely absent from the process. It was a female web designer that pointed me towards Project Ricochet in the first place, and we’ve conducted many one-on-one concept testing sessions with women, in addition to doing some beta testing with women as participants. The information we’ve gleaned from them has been invaluable in coming up with our current version of the app, but somehow it’s not the same as having women on staff during development. What would the app look like with a woman on the team?

It’s not as if there is a lot of male-specific behavior going on in our meetings that might turn off a female partner. We don’t spend our time spitting, cussing, and drinking rotgut whiskey, and I like to think that our partnership would be a friendly and supportive place for a woman to work. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to test that assumption, however. I can’t do much at this point to change the current gender bias in our partnership, but you can be sure that when the time comes to expand our little group, adding women to the team will definitely be a priority.

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Anybody Wanna Trade(mark)?

Limulus-Systems-IconOne aspect of protecting your intellectual property is making sure that nobody can copy your work and claim it for your own. The main ways of doing that is via patents, copyright, and trademarks. Patents will protect your inventions, copyright covers your creative work, but what about your brand? What covers your good name, developed through hard work and good will towards your customers (or clients or whatever)? Or your cleverly-thought-out logo, developed at no little time and expense? For that, you need to be trademarked.

So when the partners decided that we need to protect the Funnelcake name, that meant trademarking it. I naturally volunteered to take care of the problem. I know what you’re thinking – what in his past career would lead him to think he knows anything about trademarks? The correct answer, of course, is Nothing. That’s right, I don’t know a thing about trademarks.

Truth is, I was ready to barge into filing for a trademark without doing any research. I mean, how hard can it be? You just go to the USPTO (that’s the US Patent and Trademark Office to you), fill out a form and send it in, done. That was until I found this on the USPTO website,

“Filing a trademark application at the USPTO starts a legal proceeding. Most applicants hire an attorney who specializes in trademark matters to represent them in the application process and provide legal advice. While a USPTO trademark examining attorney will try to help you through the process even if you do not hire a lawyer, no USPTO attorney may give you legal advice.”

Hmm…most applicants hire a lawyer? Do they know something that I don’t? I’d better do a little research before I blunder into a big mistake. As I said, I don’t know much about this stuff.

I don’t know much about trademarks, but I do know how to find the answers I need, and so I picked up the Nolo Press book, Trademarks: Legal Care for Your Business and Product Name, by Stephen Elias and Richard Stim. After going through the book it turns out that, yes, while the basic process of filing for a trademark is as simple as filling out an online form and being charged $275 for the privilege, the background information you need is a bit tricky to figure out the first time around. It definitely matters how you do it because you (a) don’t want to waste money on your non-refundable application fee, and (b) certainly don’t want to infringe on somebody else’s trademark, with all the waste of time and money that would involve.

The most time-consuming task in filing a trademark application is the search process for previous trademarks, performed on the USPTO website. You ideally want to make sure that there are no other companies in your business space using your name. For Funnelcake, it was no surprise to find that there were several food purveyors using the word “Funnelcake” in their name, including the Funnelcake King, whose business model was apparently helping other people set up their own funnelcake operations. Despite the fact that some companies were using the exact same name as us, it shouldn’t prevent us using the name. We operate in a different business space as those companies and we wouldn’t be infringing on their trademark. The closest competitor I could find for our name was FunnelCloud, a web design company (they have a cool little tornado for a logo).

In addition to doing a search, you have to pick the proper “product code” from the myriad of possible products that can be made, and as you might imagine, that ranges very widely, from edible funnelcake to plastic funnels to mobile software applications like Funnelcake. Even in the software realm, there are a lot of possible codes to pick from, and woe be unto him who picks the wrong one and gets their trademark rejected as a result.

The galling part is that after all this research and effort, it may still be the case that your trademark will not be allowed (and good-bye to your $275, thanks for nothing!) You can’t know until the examiner looks it over and approves it, and the process can take twelve to eighteen months. I rather suspect that ours will be allowed, as I couldn’t find any close competitors, but you never know…. The USPTO website also makes a point of telling you that the applicant must check in with them periodically in case additional information is required – the USPTO does not inform you of the progress of your application (so what am I getting for my $275?), you have to check on progress yourself.

In any case, the application is done, and I’ve learned something new about an important business practice. At some point, we’ll trademark the Funnelcake logos, the color, the jingle, and the official scent, and I’ll know how.

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Vacation 2014

Almost ready for Demolition Derby action, Addison County Field Days Vermont 2014.

Almost ready for Demolition Derby action, Addison County Field Days Vermont 2014.

It’s vacation time for Limulus Systems – in Vermont for a couple of weeks, as usual. Keep reading for more exciting news in the future!

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Christmas in July

Limulus-Systems-IconEverybody loves a holiday, and everybody loves getting something for free. That’s why Christmas and birthdays are so popular. Unfortunately, Christmas is a long way off and birthdays don’t come often enough. Here at Limulus Systems, we hope to alleviate this problem by proclaiming Christmas in July for our readers. Yes, it’s time to give something away to everyone who takes time to read this blog. So get out your holly and mistletoe, mix up a batch of eggnog, sit back and enjoy the season!

As always, the question of what to give is a tough one. In the past, I have given the gift of software, with mixed results, the low point being the organizer application doo, which closed its’ doors and shut down their service soon after I mentioned it. Coincidence? I’m not sure. To be on the safe side however, I am going with something different this year. Knowing your refined taste, it has to be something with a certain panache, something beyond the ordinary. It also has to be consistent with the season of Christmas. But what? Exotic pets? Expensive sports cars? Those all come with burdens for the recipient and don’t fully express the uniqueness that is you.

No, to me the only gift that fully expresses the Spirit of Christmas is a bunch of creepy stories about unspeakable horrors haunting a small town in the desert. Ring in the season with roving packs of ferocious feral dogs! In other words, I give you the series of podcasts known as “Welcome to Nightvale”. Described as a cross between a “Prairie Home Companion” monologue and a Stephen King story, these podcasts are wonderfully low-budget and should satisfy even the most discriminating listener. Available on iTunes, you can settle in and enjoy stories of the dark hooded figures in the dog park as you sip your eggnog, waiting for Santa to come…or is it something else coming down the chimney? Whoops, maybe you shouldn’t have listened to that episode alone in the dark! Well, lock the doors, latch the windows, turn on all the lights, and enjoy them if you can.

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The Funnelcake Media Channel Is Live

Limulus-Systems-IconOur Funnelcake media push is up and running! I posted some introductory paragraphs to our Funnelcake pages on Facebook and Google+, and likewise posted to our Tumblr blog. Throw in a couple of tweets from @FunnelcakeApp and some screenshot images on Pinterest, and you have the beginnings of a social media presence. The posts on Facebook, Google+, and Tumblr are all based on the same article, so if they sound similar, well, they are.

I realize that it’s only a humble start, but you have to begin somewhere. For now, I am not going to worry excessively about the efficacy of our social media. It’s enough that we are on the web in case someone comes looking for us. In the long run, however, social media platforms have to serve our larger goals.

More than just getting the word out about Funnelcake, we want social media to increase user engagement, lower the cost of new user acquisition, grow our user base, and add to our bottom line. To do that, our social media will have to offer real value to the recipient so that they stay involved. In a world with a lot of distractions, it’s not enough any more to put the word out and assume that people will flock to your product. You have to capture people’s attention in a way that is engaging for the user (and cost-effective for us). Our social media has to be interesting and useful, personable and fun.

Being interesting, useful, personable, and fun will take some creativity on our part. I hope we’re up to it.

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Funnelcake Media Plan: Next Steps

Limulus-Systems-IconAs Funnelcake development continues and we approach a general release, it comes time to begin our social media push. Nobody is following us yet, which is OK for now, but we still need to post a few things so that we have a presence on the web. We won’t look very professional if people come looking for us on the web and all they find is a bunch of empty pages.

What to post? I envision a series of progress reports on the app, images of our re-design, teasers about the release, descriptions of the app, company news, maybe profiles of the team, that sort of thing. That will give some sense of anticipation in the run-up to the app release.

To start, our web posts will be mostly news about Funnelcake, though in the long run, we will need to use social media for more than just news. Using social media as a news outlet is fine, but news alone is insufficient reason for people to “Follow”, “Like”, or otherwise share our information. We have to give people more motivation than that. To encourage following us, we will need to include value for the follower – maybe social media-only coupons? Invitations to join premium status? “Like” us on Facebook to receive something? I’m not sure yet, as it will depend on how people use the app and what they value most from it.

Our initial tasks are:

  • Post app design images in Pinterest;
  • Ditto for Instagram;
  • Come up with initial Tumblr blog posts;
  • Fill out Facebook/Google+/LinkedIn pages with company information;
  • Start to populate Twitter feed;
  • Make sure the look of all pages is correct;
  • Create a favicon for the website;
  • Come up with a media list to promote Funnelcake (app review sites, etc.);
  • Make sure the look of the website is consistent with the app;
  • Create a blog page for our website.

This is just the beginning, and while there’s more we could do, this list will be enough to keep us busy for a while. Is there anything big that we’re missing? Any other social media sites you would use to search for Funnelcake? Any important tasks I haven’t included? Let me know.

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Mysteries of the Modern World

Limulus-Systems-Icon-200x200Sometime I just have to vent. I normally reserve this blog to chronicle the progress of Limulus Systems, but on occasion other topics take over my consciousness and refuse to let go. These topics are generally the Mysteries of the Modern World, too big for any one person to hold in their head, and so must be shared. Reader, prepare yourself for what must follow.

In this case, my mystery surrounds a Microsoft Xbox gaming console, and its’ baffling and unpredictable behavior. What, you thought my mystery was going to be some philosophical conundrum? Hah! Philosophy is for hacks, there’s no mystery there. If you want mystery, attend to your modern appliances.

The Xbox in question was a Christmas present for my son, who wants to be an avid video gamer. I say “wants to be” because unfortunate things like school, homework, and his parents prevent him from being the professional gamer he aspires to. In any case, he got the Xbox and it worked for a while, long enough to become part of his weekly routine. Racing games, battle games, it was all good. Oh, happy day when that Xbox worked!

But one dark day it happened – the Xbox failed to deliver! Not only that, it failed in a somewhat mysterious fashion. What happened was this: my son began his nightly gaming session with his beloved Xbox, settling in for an evening of defeating his sworn online enemies, the Red Team. The Xbox went on as normal, the monitor flashed bright, and the “On” light on the wireless controller glowed. The onscreen user menus came up on the screen and my offspring prepared to maneuver his way through the menus – only to find that nothing worked. And when I say nothing, I mean really nothing. The screen reacted as if there were no controllers in the room.

Simple, you say – it’s the batteries in the wireless controller! Well, we thought of that, but the rechargeable batteries had been plugged in all day and the charge indicator said full charge, so that wasn’t it. But fail not! We had a second wireless controller charged and ready to go. We’ll go ahead and play with that one, losing only a little play time. Unfortunately, the second controller did not work either.

Then it must be the console gone bad! That would, of course, be a reasonable conclusion. The odds of two controllers going bad at the exact same time would seem to be pretty small compared to the odds of one faulty console, so I proceeded online to find a way to return the cursed thing to Microsoft. I won’t go into the details of how long it took me to find the online help, and how it took an hour in a chat window sorting the whole thing out, but the upshot of it was that they refused to take the console back before we ran more tests. They suggested we find a friend with a working Xbox and test the controllers and console against their equipment.

Great idea, except that we don’t know anyone with an Xbox. That left us searching around for stores that had a working model on the shelves for demonstration purposes. We didn’t find one. We did however, find a sympathetic GameStop employee who said we could bring the unit in and test it with some used controllers they had around. Surely that would definitively prove that our console was bad.

I dutifully disconnected the many wires of the Xbox and brought it to GameStop, where they kindly let me set the unit up with their monitor. Ah, that fateful day! The GameStop employee produced their controller and, lo and behold, the console worked properly! It was apparently our controllers after all! A mystery solved! Except that I’m a person who likes to dot my i’s and cross my t’s, you know? I had brought both our controllers from home and figured, what the hell, I’ll double-check our result by trying out the apparently dead controllers. But to my surprise, both of our controllers worked properly too!

Now here was a mystery. The Xbox did not work at home, but the entire unit was fine when we took all the parts to the store to test it. I thanked the employee, feeling foolish for having wasted her time, took the Xbox home and set it up. I told my son how foolish we had been and how the unit was working fine and that he could play any time he wanted. And he did play – for about two minutes, until it stopped working again, in exactly the same manner as before.

What do I do next? I don’t know whether to take it in or not, risking embarrassment once again. It’s been about a week and intermittent checks during the week have revealed that it still doesn’t work. This morning, I was about to disconnect it again, and take it to (a different) GameStop, but I figured, what the heck, I’ll do a final check before I go. I turned everything on, and contrary to expectations, the console worked properly! Miracle of miracles! How long it will last I don’t know.

I’m not sure what to do now. Do I take it in somewhere for repairs or pray that it keeps working? If I wanted to return the damn thing, what would I tell the person at Microsoft? This mystery is going to require some pondering.

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New And Improved

Limulus-Systems-Icon“Enough about the trials and tribulations of being an entrepreneur! What’s up with the Funnelcake app?” That’s the feedback I’ve been getting recently about this blog. “What’s the next step for Funnelcake?”

Truth is, I haven’t talked specifics of the Funnelcake app in a few weeks because there hasn’t been a lot to report. After testing version 1.0 in front of potential users, we went back to the drawing board to make a bunch of corrections, improvements, and enhancements based on users’ comments, and all that programming is taking time. It takes longer than I would like, but then, I want everything done yesterday.

One thing I can talk about, or better yet show you, are drafts of the app re-design. Version 1.0 was functional, but not as pretty as it might have been, so a little design love was in order. Here is the re-designed view for the sign-in screen:


It’s simple and straightforward, but pretty attractive, don’t you think? I’m pleased with it. Here’s an example of the screen that displays nearby funnels:


Again, it’s simple and easy on the eye, elegant and functional. Testing will determine how well people take to the re-design. My main worry is whether people will be able to easily figure out what each button does, but if there are problems, it’s a fairly small matter to alter icons and buttons as needed to make it clearer. The re-design will go a long way towards making the app look professional enough to begin actively promoting it. That’s when the fun really begins!

Posted in Progress | Tagged , | 2 Comments

A Distraction-free Environment to Work In

Limulus-Systems-IconOne of the keys to working at home, as I do, is a distraction-free environment, a place where you can work without interruption, since those extended stretches of quiet are required to accomplish a concentrated task like creating a blog post. My fellow writers and at-home workers find that a separate room in the house is ideal, or better yet, one of those stand-alone small office spaces in the backyard that seem so popular today. Whatever the space, as long as it’s a place where you can leave behind the world to focus on your work….

…whoops, sorry, I just heard the washing machine buzz, the laundry is done – be back in a minute…

Ha! Wouldn’t it be nice to have a dedicated space? In fact, my workplace is a corner in the living room, with distractions galore. A glance around the room reminds me of the window frames that need painting, the vacuuming that should have been done, and the shelves that need organizing. It’s a quick trip to the kitchen where there are dishes waiting and a floor that needs repair. And don’t get me started on our aging dog, who needs to go out every half-hour or the fact that my workday ends when my son gets out of school…

…OK, I’m back. It was just a telemarketer on the land-line, nothing urgent. Where was I?…

Surely that is not what the working-at-home efficiency experts have in mind when they write about the virtues of working at home. Everything I read says that you have to create an efficient workspace; your files in a drawer nearby for rapid referral (they’re down in the garage), all of them neatly filed (well, mostly); your trusty printer at your side (it’s in another room); handy reference books nearby (also in the garage); and a big whiteboard to do your thinking (forget it). Efficient, it’s not.

See, we live in a small house, one without the extra space for an office inside or out. As a result, the only place for anything resembling office space is in the living room, which doubles as the guest room when we have visitors. It would be nice to be able to leave papers lying around, or to post stickies on the wall, but since I’m in the living room, my space has to be more controlled than that.

However, I’m not complaining, or at least, mostly not. I’m pleased to be able to work at home and at this point would have a hard time trading it for an office with a long commute. I like the freedom of working at home, and while it can be isolating without nearby colleagues to chat with, it forces you to reach out and get your social interactions by other means. No, it’s mostly a great situation and I would recommend it to anyone. I bring up the difficulties of the distractions and the imperfect space because I feel like if I can do it with my limitations, anyone can. It’s not necessary for your space to be perfect, you just have to really want it.

An aside: Congratulations to me! This is my 150th blog post, my sesquicentennial! There have actually been more than 150 posts total, if you count the odd video or cartoon, but this is the 150th that I’ve written myself. What that means, I don’t know, but it must be a milestone of some sort. A testament to persistence in the face of distractions?

Posted in Useful Information | Tagged | 2 Comments

Following the Path of the Lean Startup

Limulus-Systems-IconOver the past year or so, I’ve talked about the need to follow the path of the Lean Startup, as described by Eric Ries in The Lean Startup. But how well are we following that path? In the simplest terms, Lean Development is:

“…a systematic process for iterating from Plan A to a plan that works, before running out of resources.” (Ash Maurya, Running Lean).

That sounds easy enough and sounds like something any business would aspire to. But how to accomplish it? That’s where the details become important.

At it’s heart, Lean Development is a process of constantly testing your ideas in front of potential customers in a process referred to as Customer Development. As Steve Blank and Bob Dorf say in The Startup Owner’s Manual:

“There are no facts inside your building, so get the heck outside.”

Basically, as entrepreneur you come up with an idea for a product, a feature, or a business model, test it in front of people, modify your product or whatever based on what you learned, and repeat, in a constant iterative process, until you get it right. You go into the process being prepared to fail, and possibly fail often, as you test your ideas against real people in the real world. Anything not tested in front of potential customers is considered to be just a guess, and guesses have a way of being wrong.

With this in mind, I am constantly questioning how we are doing in our Lean Development.

  • are we looking hard at the data or only seeing what we want to see?
  • are we moving fast enough?
  • are we testing enough?
  • what are we assuming?
  • what are we missing?
  • are we flexible enough?
  • are we asking potential users the right questions?
  • are we lean enough?

In other words, what mistakes might we be making with Funnelcake? I believe we have a good start on version 1.0 of our MVP, having tested it in front of a bunch of potential users, gaining valuable feedback along the way. So far, people are enthusiastic about the product, despite it having very few features. Testing has demonstrated some limitations and areas for product improvement, which we’ve definitely taken into account.

As far as our business model goes, it is also very much still a work in progress, in which we don’t yet know what the customer will pay for, and won’t know until we put the product into the hands of customers. We’re making no assumptions about what form the business model will take at this point. As with product features, it will require testing with customers.

I believe that we’re following Lean methodology, but still, I can’t help wondering if we have a blind spot somewhere that we’re missing. What could prevent user acceptance of the product? Where are we wasting our efforts and money? I hope that the answers to these questions will become apparent as we progress towards having a viable product.

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