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This essay is derived from a talk at the Harvard Computer Society. You need three things to create a successful startup: to start with good people, to make something customers actually want, and to spend as little money as possible. Most startups that fail do it because they fail at one of these. A startup that does all three will probably succeed. And that’s kind of exciting, when you think about it, because all three are doable. And since a startup that succeeds ordinarily makes its founders rich, that implies getting rich is doable too.
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If there is one message I’d like to get across about startups, that’s it. There is no magically difficult step that requires brilliance to solve. In particular, you don’t need a brilliant idea to start a startup around. The way a startup makes money is to offer people better technology than they have now. But what people have now is often so bad that it doesn’t take brilliance to do better.
Google’s plan, for example, was simply to create a search site that didn’t suck. They had three new ideas: index more of the Web, use links to rank search results, and have clean, simple web pages with unintrusive keyword-based ads. Above all, they were determined to make a site that was good to use. No doubt there are great technical tricks within Google, but the overall plan was straightforward. And while they probably have bigger ambitions now, this alone brings them a billion dollars a year. There are plenty of other areas that are just as backward as search was before Google.
I can think of several heuristics for generating ideas for startups, but most reduce to this: look at something people are trying to do, and figure out how to do it in a way that doesn’t suck. For example, dating sites currently suck far worse than search did before Google. They all use the same simple-minded model. They seem to have approached the problem by thinking about how to do database matches instead of how dating works in the real world. An undergrad could build something better as a class project. And yet there’s a lot of money at stake.
Online dating is a valuable business now, and it might be worth a hundred times as much if it worked. An idea for a startup, however, is only a beginning. A lot of would-be startup founders think the key to the whole process is the initial idea, and from that point all you have to do is execute. If you go to VC firms with a brilliant idea that you’ll tell them about if they sign a nondisclosure agreement, most will tell you to get lost. That shows how much a mere idea is worth. The market price is less than the inconvenience of signing an NDA. Another sign of how little the initial idea is worth is the number of startups that change their plan en route.
Microsoft’s original plan was to make money selling programming languages, of all things. Their current business model didn’t occur to them until IBM dropped it in their lap five years later. Ideas for startups are worth something, certainly, but the trouble is, they’re not transferrable. They’re not something you could hand to someone else to execute. Their value is mainly as starting points: as questions for the people who had them to continue thinking about. What matters is not ideas, but the people who have them.
Good people can fix bad ideas, but good ideas can’t save bad people. What do I mean by good people? One of the best tricks I learned during our startup was a rule for deciding who to hire. Could you describe the person as an animal? It might be hard to translate that into another language, but I think everyone in the US knows what it means. Almost everyone who worked for us was an animal at what they did.
The woman in charge of sales was so tenacious that I used to feel sorry for potential customers on the phone with her. You could sense them squirming on the hook, but you knew there would be no rest for them till they’d signed up. If you think about people you know, you’ll find the animal test is easy to apply. Call the person’s image to mind and imagine the sentence “so-and-so is an animal. You don’t need or perhaps even want this quality in big companies, but you need it in a startup.
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For programmers we had three additional tests. If so, could they actually get things done? And finally, since a few good hackers have unbearable personalities, could we stand to have them around? That last test filters out surprisingly few people. We could bear any amount of nerdiness if someone was truly smart. What we couldn’t stand were people with a lot of attitude.
But most of those weren’t truly smart, so our third test was largely a restatement of the first. When nerds are unbearable it’s usually because they’re trying too hard to seem smart. But the smarter they are, the less pressure they feel to act smart. So as a rule you can recognize genuinely smart people by their ability to say things like “I don’t know,” “Maybe you’re right,” and “I don’t understand x well enough. This technique doesn’t always work, because people can be influenced by their environment. In the MIT CS department, there seems to be a tradition of acting like a brusque know-it-all. I’m told it derives ultimately from Marvin Minsky, in the same way the classic airline pilot manner is said to derive from Chuck Yeager.
Even genuinely smart people start to act this way there, so you have to make allowances. It helped us to have Robert Morris, who is one of the readiest to say “I don’t know” of anyone I’ve met. At least, he was before he became a professor at MIT. No one dared put on attitude around Robert, because he was obviously smarter than they were and yet had zero attitude himself.
Like most startups, ours began with a group of friends, and it was through personal contacts that we got most of the people we hired. This is a crucial difference between startups and big companies. Being friends with someone for even a couple days will tell you more than companies could ever learn in interviews. It’s no coincidence that startups start around universities, because that’s where smart people meet. It’s not what people learn in classes at MIT and Stanford that has made technology companies spring up around them. They could sing campfire songs in the classes so long as admissions worked the same. If you start a startup, there’s a good chance it will be with people you know from college or grad school.
So in theory you ought to try to make friends with as many smart people as you can in school, right? What you should do in college is work on your own projects. Hackers should do this even if they don’t plan to start startups, because it’s the only real way to learn how to program. In some cases you may collaborate with other students, and this is the best way to get to know good hackers. The project may even grow into a startup. But once again, I wouldn’t aim too directly at either target.
Ideally you want between two and four founders. It would be hard to start with just one. One person would find the moral weight of starting a company hard to bear. Even Bill Gates, who seems to be able to bear a good deal of moral weight, had to have a co-founder. But you don’t want so many founders that the company starts to look like a group photo. Partly because you don’t need a lot of people at first, but mainly because the more founders you have, the worse disagreements you’ll have. In a technology startup, which most startups are, the founders should include technical people.