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Monthly Archives: April 2010

learning about the sector

I’ve been reading Letters to (not always of) Joy by Bob Wyatt. I’m only half-way through but I’ve enjoyed it a lot so far. Ove the past 6 months I’ve been reading through reports about the Canadian non-profit sector, but this has a personal and narrative style that allows for more context and orientation for a reader who is still learning about the sector.

“The Foundation is pleased to publish its executive director’s Muttart Staff Fellowship monograph. Mr. Bob Wyatt’s monograph, Letters to (not always of) Joy, argues in favour of a strong national umbrella organization to advance the work of the voluntary sector.”

Imagine Canada wrote a brief entry about it recently on their blog “To Be or Not to Be … a Sector”.

I’ve worked at non-profits for a long time, across different subject areas, but I’m still not used to the terms “charitable sector” or “voluntary sector”. Neither of them seem really right for me. I kinda wish that Anglophones had a term like “le communautaire”. It seems to work better, but I probably need to double-check that with my francophone friends who work in non-profits.

Startup ideas

Handy new post by Paul Graham on what makes a good startup idea. He differentiates between thinking of solutions to problems other people (might) have, and solutions to problems you have.

There are two types of startup ideas: those that grow organically out of your own life, and those that you decide, from afar, are going to be necessary to some class of users other than you. Apple was the first type. Apple happened because Steve Wozniak wanted a computer. Unlike most people who wanted computers, he could design one, so he did. And since lots of other people wanted the same thing, Apple was able to sell enough of them to get the company rolling. They still rely on this principle today, incidentally. The iPhone is the phone Steve Jobs wants. [1]

Our own startup, Viaweb, was of the second type. We made software for building online stores. We didn’t need this software ourselves. We weren’t direct marketers. We didn’t even know when we started that our users were called “direct marketers.” But we were comparatively old when we started the company (I was 30 and Robert Morris was 29), so we’d seen enough to know users would need this type of software. [2]

There is no sharp line between the two types of ideas, but the most successful startups seem to be closer to the Apple type than the Viaweb type. When he was writing that first Basic interpreter for the Altair, Bill Gates was writing something he would use, as were Larry and Sergey when they wrote the first versions of Google.

Organic ideas are generally preferable to the made up kind, but particularly so when the founders are young. It takes experience to predict what other people will want. The worst ideas we see at Y Combinator are from young founders making things they think other people will want.

Both Ile sans fil and Ajah are products / services that I wanted to use. For ISF, it turned out that there were lots of people like me that wanted to get online in cafes and other community spaces, and more interestingly, it turned out that there were more technologists like me that were willing and ready to use their skills in a volunteer capacity to make their city better. In respect to Ajah, I have needed and wanted this service at least the last six years of my twelve years in the non-profit sector. That in-depth knowledge of a problem makes building a solution to it that much more satisfying and rewarding.

On the down side, however, I’ve noticed that my experience in the sector has made me less willing to do the extensive market research that I should have (I got impatient and cut it short after 20-30 conversations instead of keeping it going till we had *all* the answers to the question we had). Not so good :/

By |April 17th, 2010|About Ajah|0 Comments|

Startup life

We work hard. With no revenue currently coming in, only money flowing out as we pay the rent on our office, appartment / mortages, invoices from designers, lawyers, accountants, etc., we all know that we have to put in the long hours until we launch and get to financial sustainability. And long hours means long hours. Almost seven days a week type of long hours.

But somehow it’s actually not that bad. Actually, mostly we feel really guilty, like startup life should be more of a hardship. With Montreal in the thralls of the first day of spring, here’s a few things that make us happy.

1) Our office is in the Plateau – one of the best places in Canada (and by extension, the rest of the world). We found ourselves a great office with twelve-foot ceilings and ten-foot windows on the first floor of a wonderful building with seperate rooms for coding and bizdev. It’s within a 10 minute walking for Yannick, Daniel and Nicolas, and it’s a three-metro stop ride, 25-min walk, and nine-minute bike ride for me.

2) We eat great lunches. I’m in charge of making some kind of salad most days and we get amazing bread from Mr. Pinchot. French cheeses, spicy grilled eggplants, lebanese cured meats, flaky australian pies (made by my friend Don), you get the picture. And we almost always eat together.

3) Yannick brews amazing beer. Now we’re not allowed to drink it at the office, because that would be illegal (because homebrewed beers are technically only permitted to be consumed at home). But he tells us about it in great detail and it is as if we were actually tasting these divine concoctions with our lunches – APAs, chocolate stouts, spruce beers, IPAs, belgian wheats, etc. Soon he’s going to tell us all about a blood-orange hefeweizen he’s making.

But mostly, the reason’s we’re so happy these days is that we’re getting to work the way we want to work, on the stuff that we want to work on. We’re working for ourselves and everyone is able to contribute in the way that suits them best (we put together a really great team). For me that means a big part of my job is to hang out with people in non-profits and to understand what their problems are. Amazing.

By |April 4th, 2010|About Ajah|1 Comment|