Personal Productivity

That’s me in the corner

That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight  ~ [Losing My Religion, R.E.M.]

I’m a classic introvert. I’m not shy, because introversion has nothing to do with shyness. It also doesn’t mean I have no social skills, no friends or that I can’t deal with personal contact – I’m quite happy getting up on a stage and speaking and have done so at several international conferences (and a local one last week), and I think most people will tell you I’m not afraid to express my opinion at such events. I’ve worked in and run teams with people from all over the world, and I enjoy many regular group activities. But even while I might enjoy group activities, while I’m doing so I’m burning through emotional energy, and eventually I just want to go somewhere quieter, either alone or with one or two people I know well enough that I can sit, think, read and say mostly nothing and it won’t be weird. That’s where I recharge and do the kind of deep thinking and independent creativity that I crave intensely. Some people like the ‘buzz’ of being around others all the time, but I don’t; extended periods of quiet solitude are absolutely essential to me, even if you can’t tell when I’ve got my ‘social hat’ on. When I go to these events I do so because I like occasional social contact, influencing and being influenced by other people, but it doesn’t mean I want to do it all the time. Don’t take it personally, but I need my space.

There are plenty of people who just don’t understand this, and even people who might relate to it but who have been convinced that it’s somehow an “incorrect” preference that they must learn to get over. Sometimes it seems like the modern world is all about 24/7 collaborative working, teams ‘working and playing hard’ together , open plan offices, and that social must be woven into every facet of your day, otherwise it’s somehow a lesser experience. It’s actually nonsense to think that this is a universal truth, and I’m glad that people like Susan Caine have written books and spoken so eloquently to large audiences on why some people are different, but still, it remains much more fashionable to be an extrovert. It certainly doesn’t help that the people who think extroversion is the norm tend to also be the loudest and most attention seeking people in the room, skewing the perception of the average towards that end of the scale.

So I’m very flattered when I get invited to events, programmes and group activities, and I’ll accept some of them. But if you’re expecting a fully engaged community person eager to fill his calendar with group activities, unfortunately you’ve got the wrong guy. Mentally I’d be a dried out husk in short order if I did that, and there’d be nothing left to do what I enjoy most – I’m an independent maker of things at heart, and while I love to meet and converse with people, receive feedback and debate, this isn’t how I actually work. For me it’s the occasional stuff between the ‘real work’; still important to do because it influences and informs the work, but it’s not the core of it like it is for some people.

That’s the best way I can explain how I like to work. I’m fortunate that I’m now in a position to choose to work how I want to, and I’m old enough that I don’t want to burn time working someone else’s way. Beyond that I’m also informed by a decade I spent over-working which caused me health problems and which I never intend to repeat. I sometimes get concerned that it may offend nice people when I stay somewhat at arms length from organised groups when they kindly invite me to take a more active role. Please know that it’s not you, it’s simply my preference and energy conservation system to be merely peripherally associated, but I hope we’ll continue to intersect occasionally & swap notes. :)

Business Games Personal

Free to play will neither destroy nor save the world

Money for nothingSo there’s been a ton of talk lately about the state of the mobile games industry, and specifically the place we’ve reached now in the race to the bottom on pricing,  which has meant people concluding that if you make a mobile game today, it has to be Free To Play to be successful, and that this fact is either ridiculously awesome because it’s leading to vast riches from new audiences, or that it’s an insidious evil which is destroying the game industry forever.

I’ll nail my colours to the mast right now and say that I don’t like free to play games. I think there’s only a very small segment of F2P that doesn’t fundamentally break game design by  relying on behaviour that is anti-enjoyment (such as the horrid timers and difficulty spikes we see so often), and that segment is occupied by a very small number of games, those where you only pay for cosmetic customisation, and those where you pay only once or twice for large chunks of content which are balanced just like a non-F2P game would be. Not many people manage to make this model work, because it’s harder and most studios are too busy chasing the juicier whale-driven bucks. Which is why I don’t even bother with F2P games anymore unless I know for sure they’re in this small segment, because I know they’re just going to be wasting my time. I just want to have an honest transaction with the developer, money for good content, period. If your game is constantly putting the begging bowl in front of me or engineering a kink in the difficulty curve just so I’ll spend money on finite consumable power ups (and for goodness sakes, even the formerly respectable PopCap now commits this crime), I want no part of it. My iOS purchases are limited to rare excellent pay-for titles like The Room and its sequel from Fireproof Studios.

Obviously there are large numbers of people out there that are totally happy with the F2P value exchange, willing to put up with timer gates and even willing to spend vast amounts of money on a ‘free’ game to get an easy ride. I can’t possibly understand it, but then I don’t understand why people watch soap operas either. Vive la différence and all that.

So why all the hand-wringing on this subject? Is the mobile game industry, or the game industry as a whole, doomed to fall into a rut of constant nickel-and-diming and gameplay compromised to fit the needs of a new business model? There seem to be a lot of people panicking about this, and it’s even infected the management at traditional AAA console studios, as the horrible debacle of the Forza 5 launch proves. Basically, some people even in the more traditional game industry have seen the millions that King are making every month and are being driven by the Fear Of Missing Out to shoehorn these models into their own games, even though the idea that  you should hold back launch content from a game you’re asking $60 for should feel absolutely abhorrent to anyone who really loves games. Clearly the tail (business) is wagging the dog (gaming) and it seems surprised when it backfires.

Personally I think it will all blow over. The trouble is that the traditional game industry always experiences instances of plateauing growth, which when coupled with ever-increasing budgets has a chilling effect on those holding the purse strings. We’ve had a couple of cases where a new audience has suddenly entered the fray, boosting the revenue of those that discovered it, and making all the suits in the other companies panic and rush to jump on the bandwagon. It happened with the Wii, after which suddenly every company needed to have a division targeting the ‘casual audience’, and suddenly everyone is building hardware and software which lets you interact with your games using waves and pelvic thrusts, even if you didn’t feel you needed that.

The mobile gaming industry has also discovered a whole new audience, or at least a whole new revenue stream which doesn’t overlap with the traditional PC and console gaming that much, such that it has delivered real growth again, so everyone feels they need to get a piece of it, and so tries to take what’s working in this new segment for others and crowbar it into their own games, even if it makes no sense whatsoever.

Growth is attractive, particularly to the kind of management bean-counters who have zero emotional commitment to the medium and might as well be organising shipments of corned beef as games. A gold rush always leads to a bulge of bad decision making which eventually corrects itself. People who prefer pay-for games have not gone away in this gold rush, they’re still there – they’re just not a double-digit growth target so they’re suddenly less interesting to these kinds of people who make reactive business decisions. Meanwhile, this segment is still being happily served by many developers, in the console and PC space, and they’re still an incredibly diverse bunch.

And really, it’s the diversity of the game industry that will make this whole F2P flap blow over eventually. Once the F2P profits stabilise in exactly the same way as every new market eventually does, it’ll just be another relatively stable market segment running in parallel with all the others in gaming. It’ll still be extremely good money, and when compared with previous decades it will no doubt have grown the overall revenue in games by capturing different demographic, but it won’t be growing exponentially any more. That doesn’t make it bad, in the same way that right now the other segments aren’t bad either – you can still make a good living today making paid-for political simulators, craft-em ups and luchador-themed platformer/fighter hybrids. When F2P eventually discovers its own inevitable plateau, perhaps some other growth segment will pop up and people will start saying that that is the only way to make profitable games now, and that it will now destroy the rest of the industry. Perhaps at that time you will roll your eyes in the same way I’m doing it now.

Because growth segments don’t destroy existing ones that aren’t directly comparable. You don’t have to make free to play games if you don’t want to, because the game playing public is far more diverse than that. Forget how much money King is making, it really doesn’t matter – OK if you’re fixated on being just a part of the mobile games industry you might find it harder (still not impossible, see Fireproof, Vlambeer and Simogo), but that’s your own choice if you decide to pen yourself in. I still buy the same types of games I did before F2P blew up, and so do millions of others, and there are a ton of indie developers out there making a decent living by ignoring F2P. Just because someone struck a brand new gold seam doesn’t mean all the other seams are now worthless.

So in short, yeah F2P is huge money. But we don’t all have to enjoy playing them, and nor do any of us have to feel forced to make them. There’s plenty of room out there for a vast range of content with paying customers waiting for it to be made, just the way they want. Get over yourself, F2P.

Cocoa Development OS X

Auto Layout and tab ordering

Because SourceTree has continued to support versions of Mac OS X back to 10.6 (Snow Leopard), we’ve still been using the ‘springs and struts’ approach to user interface layout up to now; we couldn’t adopt the newer Auto Layout without restricting support to 10.7+. So I’ve only just started experimenting with Auto Layout recently, and I ended up getting stuck for a while on something that seemed like it should be really simple, and yet I couldn’t find any hard information about it on Stack Overflow or via Google: how to specify tab ordering.

Usually, you don’t have to manually specify tab ordering – when you create a window layout in Interface Builder and drag controls on to it, tabbing between controls is just magically organised for you. The problem arises when you either:

  1. Need to customise that tab ordering, or
  2. Need to dynamically switch subviews in code, after which the ‘magical’ tab ordering fails to work any more

Without Auto Layout enabled, this is easily resolved – you just Ctrl-dragged from one control to the other, starting with the parent view if you’re talking about a custom view you’re switching out, and assigned the ‘nextKeyView’ outlet to the next control which should receive the focus on tabbing:

autolayouttab3

When using this with custom NSViews which I dynamically switched, when I embedded the new subview I’d use a simple line of code to automatically give the first control keyboard focus:

[viewContainer addSubview:newView];
[[self window] selectKeyViewFollowingView:newView];

That worked in countless interfaces I’d created in the past. But what I found when enabling Auto Layout is that you can’t Ctrl-drag to assign the nextKeyView outlet any more, because Auto Layout completely takes over the Ctrl-drag behaviour between controls to assign constraints:

autolayouttab4

Where did the outlets go? Why did Apple just completely remove them – these outlets are still useful even if you’re using Auto Layout. How in hell do I set them up now outside of doing it all manually in code?

After a lot of searching and failing to find anything, thinking that maybe I’m the only person to ever have this problem, I eventually discovered this option instead – you can still set the nextKeyView outlets up, but you have to do it backwards, from the next tab receiver to the previous one. And you can’t start it from the Interface Builder canvas. Instead, you do this:

  1. Select the target of the nextKeyView in IB
  2. Switch to the connections inspector (6th tab on the right hand side)
  3. Drag the circle on the ‘New Referencing Outlet’ entry to the previous control (which might be the containing view if this is the first control on the view)
  4. Select nextKeyView, like so:

autolayouttab5

Using that approach, you can still rig your tab order the way you want in IB with Auto Layout enabled, and make sure that switching subviews dynamically in code doesn’t suddenly break tabbing through your dialogs. Maybe I’m the only person to need this, or maybe there’s a more elegant way to do this that I don’t know about, in which case please tell me in the comments. Otherwise, I hope this saves someone else a bit of time.

Business Personal Productivity Random

Pendulums

20131202-165521.jpgI don’t know about you, but I’m a swinger. Not in the dodgy suburban wife-swapping sense, but in the sense that many aspects of my personality – creativity, gregariousness, concentration for detail tasks etc – seem to be in regular flux, swinging back and forth like a pendulum – the frequency (or period, physics pendants) is different for each but there’s definitely a cycle there.

I used to think this was odd, maybe even a sign of a very mild bipolar or something, because no-one in my professional circles really talked about it much. The working environment (at least the ones I’ve experienced) often tends to imply that everyone is expected to maintain a fairly consistent level of all the major personality traits all the time, what you might call your ‘baseline awesome’, otherwise how would you ever plan anything? Over 20-odd years I learned that peaks and troughs of personality traits like productivity and creativity are actually really, really common – maybe even universal – and the best thing you can do is roll with them as they happen. But I’ve also found that usually, the pendulums swing between 2 opposing but equally useful traits, both of which can be useful to indulge as they enter their dominant periods, if you allow it. The typical rigid post-industrial model of employment doesn’t always allow for this kind of flexibility of course, but bear with me.

Having slight or moderate swings in your affinity with certain aspects of work doesn’t mean you have periods of just being useless, at least if you don’t just try to force things (which can lead to disillusionment, apathy, conflict and other negative outcomes). It often means that to be most effective, it helps to be able to adjust your workload to better fit your current state. For example, I find that one of my ‘pendulums’ has exploration and creativity at one end, and nose-to-the-grindstone detail execution at the other. If you’re feeling capricious and explorative it’s great to use that to try new things, whereas other times you might just feel like cranking out implementations of existing ideas or really deep-diving into that gnarly problem you’ve been wanting to tackle for ages. Conversely if you’re trying to focus on detail work but you just keep getting distracted by other things, it can be more effective just to take a break and indulge those rather than force it – get the creative stuff out of your head and onto paper or something, and you’ll probably find yourself much more productive at the other task later.

Another pendulum for me is how social I’m feeling – sometimes I’m feeling gregarious and doing some workshop collaboration and customer support totally pushes my buttons, other times I just want to lock myself away and work on the really hard stuff without being disturbed. If you are a programmer, or live or work with a programmer, you’ll know ‘that look’ which just means ‘my head is full of complex state right now, keep walking’. At other times that person will be super-happy to shoot the breeze with you and knock out some brain storming sessions, it just depends on the day.

None of these states are absolute, nor are they immutable. You can drag your pendulum from one side to the other despite the inertia, it’s just that you put a lot of effort into doing so and will almost certainly not get an optimal outcome (and with a risk of the aforementioned negative outcomes). Sometimes you do have to do this, but whenever you can, indulge those pendulums in your head, work with your current vibe, and don’t feel like that’s a weird thing or somehow incompatible with being a valuable worker. In fact it’s the opposite in my experience – some of the best people I’ve worked with are inconstant, producing their best work when allowed to follow their gut. It’s the people whose pendulums have stopped, stuck right there in the middle at a predictable mediocre that I worry more about. ;)

Business Personal

Startup adventure: excitement and loot, forests and monsters

dragonslairI’m passionate about the fact that there’s never been a better time for people with talent and passion to get out there and start their own businesses. The Internet has flattened the playing field considerably, and globalisation and the recession has led to a lot of people to realise that employment isn’t the safe harbour they might have previously thought it was. The opportunities for making an impact from a small starting point are more numerous than ever, and people are increasingly aware of their options in a way that was unthinkable 10-15 years ago. I enjoy encouraging and advising people who are thinking of taking that first startup journey, because I discovered it mostly by accident after a long time of adhering to ‘the norm’ and have seen first hand how it can improve your life.

However, I’ve found lately that I also have to be careful with my enthusiasm and really make sure that the person I’m talking to is aware of and ready for the challenges and sacrifices that such a path entails, as well as encouraging them. The downside of all the attention the startup route is getting is that sometimes it can be mistakenly perceived as a kind of ‘Rock Star’ lifestyle, when in fact really, while it’s quite likely to be the best thing you ever do whether you succeed or fail, when you get down to it it’s a lot of hard work, long hours, and often stress. Not so much if you’re just doing a hobby business on the side for example, but if you plan to replace your day job, even if you build it up part-time first, it’s important not to underestimate the commitment required. There’s adventure, excitement, thrills, danger, loot, fame and reward, but you have to be ready to tramp through seemingly endless murky forests and swamps, fighting monsters both mental and physical, to get to where you’re going.

The last thing I want to do is discourage people here, and I can regale you with all sorts of reasons why starting your own business is totally awesome, and how all those people trying to put you off are usually overstating the risks. I love the journey I’ve taken in the last few years, but I realise I have to be really careful not to sugar-coat it. Assuming you’re looking to build a business that can eventually be a full-time gig for you, you have 2 basic choices of route:

  1. Give up your day job and focus 100% on the new business.
    Pro: You’re totally focussed and can give all your time to this baby
    Pro: Freed up from distractions, you’re likely to perform better, and others will take you seriously seeing your commitment
    Con: Risk. You probably have no income for a while. Unless you’re rich you’ll be anxious.
    Con: You’ll work long hours to get it to work because you’re all-in. You may become a scraggly, wide-eyed hermit.
  2. Grow the business part-time alongside your day job, in evenings, weekends and holidays.
    Pro: You keep the security of your day job so are less anxious
    Pro: You have more time to experiment & fail by retaining a primary income
    Con: Forget free time. And sleep. Even if you start slow, if you start succeeding this will eat all the time you have, and then more.
    Con: You will be tired, cranky and your wife and children might resent having to make appointments 2 weeks in advance to talk to you.
    Con: You might even get health issues because of the hours spent hunched like a troglodyte over your computer.

For the record, I’ve taken both of these routes before, so the pros/cons are from direct experience. Both routes are hard - but I have absolutely no regrets at having pursued them and would recommend them to anyone, enthusiastically and wholeheartedly; provided you’re really willing to take it on and don’t try to convince yourself that the cons won’t apply to you.

Because I’ve noticed that some people are in danger of kidding themselves that starting a business can be done without having much impact on the rest of their life. They might be fired up about the startup stories, and they have the ideas and the enthusiasm, and that’s good – I want to encourage and help these people. But what happens sometimes is that they start throwing in too many conditions:  they can’t take a risk so have to keep their day job, which is fine, that’s option 2,  but then they also say they have to keep social or family time sacred so can’t work many evenings & weekends either. Surely they can just optimise their life a bit and grab an hour or two extra a week and still do it? Or, maybe they want to do it full time but they also want to keep their existing lifestyle – so maybe they can just get an investor to pay their current corporate salary for a couple of years so they can do that? That happens in Silicon Valley right? It’s clear they really want me to tell them there’s a path around the forest and monsters, a way that is neither risky for them nor is going to require lifestyle sacrifices. At this point I have to be the Bad Guy – I don’t like it, because I want to encourage people, but if I told you what you wanted to hear, I’d be doing you a disservice and setting you up for a nasty shock later on.

All ‘serious’ businesses – not ‘serious’ as in suits, ties and business cards, but ‘serious’ as in trying to succeed well enough that you can eventually do it for a living, at whatever scale you like – consume large amounts of time. My own benchmark, which is based on software products, is that it takes between 3,000 and 5,000 hours to get a product from inception to profitability – and if you do it part time, you’re likely to slide towards the high end if anything because the longer incubation period usually means more changes. All ventures are different, but I think that’s probably a reasonable ballpark.

A part-time venture which always cedes time to your other commitments is really called a hobby. Hobbies are good, you can make a bit of spending money that way too, and I know first hand that hobbies can turn into ‘serious’ businesses organically, but it takes a significant upscale in effort to do that, taking it way beyond the comfortable ‘do it when you like and fit it around your current social life’ kind of time commitment. If you love what you’re doing you won’t mind that, it’ll hardly seem like work at all, but you won’t avoid having to deal with the effect on your social and family life, and potentially your health (direct experience here) and that’s what some people can be in denial about. The other idea, that someone else will invest in your idea and pay your salary for a while – well, getting investment is hard, if you have no track record you’ll only get it once you have something to show first anyway, unless perhaps you have wealthy and indulgent parents. Plus, investors won’t want you blowing it all on a comfy corporate-level salary for yourself anyhow, it will be for growth; if you don’t believe in your project enough to take a personal risk on it, why would they?

Now, maybe you’ll counter my argument here with what Tim Ferris says about being able to run serious businesses on 4 hours of effort a week. I’ve read some of his books, and do find some of his ideas useful to throw in the mix, but I’ve never seen anyone actually achieve that 4-hour goal for a business that they can live on. Not even close – at best, they’ve kept to a 40-hour week despite being in a startup (taking the riskier option 1 of course), and that’s an achievement in itself. But, if you can make it work, awesome – ignore everything I’ve said. To me it’s beyond a long shot, but maybe that’s because I gravitate to businesses that I’m directly involved in rather than just being at the centre of a web of delegation. YMMV.

So, in summary, and in the interests of reinforcing the positive notes too: the adventure of building and growing a business can be highly enjoyable, rewarding, and life changing experience. I absolutely want regular people like me to feel empowered to explore this territory, and not to be put off by people who say it’s only for the kind of mega-startups that get reported on TechCrunch etc. Starting a business is something anyone with the right attitude can do now. Just please don’t ask me to tell you that you won’t have to make sacrifices (particularly in time) or take risks along the road.

What I can say: in my opinion, they’re totally worth it.

Music Personal Tech

Creating drum sheet music with Lilypond

Tick Tick BoomI’ve been trying to find a good tool to create drum-specific sheet music on my Mac, and have largely been frustrated. Expensive tools that do it all like Finale and Sibelius are just too heavyweight, both require lots of of tweaks to work well for drums, and felt a bit clumsy to me just because of their level of complexity. MuseScore looked great but the editing workflow just frustrated me, trying to get multiple voices in one stave (required when you have to chart up to 4 notes at a time in one place, because drummers have 4 limbs ;)) was far too fiddly and resulted in many annoying round-trips. Finale Notepad was almost the tool I needed, except that it refuses to properly annotate open/closed hi hats which makes it completely useless in practice (in the full Finale you can customise the notation to do it, but why do you have to?).

In the end I found Lilypond, and it’s wonderful. Not only does it support the full set of drum notation, it’s also based on text markup, making it a lot like LaTeX, which as a programmer is just perfect. Everything can be expressed as a nested syntax, copy & pasted easily, wrapped in repeats and context-specific tweaks when you need them, and I can version the whole thing in a git repository when I refine my tracks. Superb.

However, I did find that the default notation that Lilypond uses for drums was different to what I was used to. There’s no one standard notation, but the one I always use (and encounter most in places like Online Drummer and Rhythm magazine) is as denoted here. Conversely Lilypond seems to default to what Wikipedia says, which is just a weird version (to me). So the first thing I did was customise that – luckily being programmer-friendly Lilypond lets you alter most things using include files, which I used to shift the notation the way I wanted. Here’s my current standard include file, which in addition to making the notation ‘standard’ as per my experience, but also defines a useful macro ‘\flam’ which lets you create flams really quickly.

Did I say this tool was awesome? :)

I could talk about all the cool things it supports really easily, like repeat segments with alternate endings, vocal part overlays, smart auto-layout and more. But instead, I thought I’d just share what I created today in just a few hours despite only finding Lilypond yesterday. I’ve created a public git repository with my first attempt at a full song score (pull requests welcome if you think you can improve it :)), which is Tick Tick Boom by The Hives. I want to play this but I couldn’t find a proper score for it, and I like to read a score when I’m practicing. So now I have one. :) I charted all this myself so I’ve tried to get it as accurate as possible, but as I say if you see any mistakes please feel free to fork my git repo and submit a pull request.

Here’s the video:

And here’s the PDF version produced when you run my .ly file in the git repository above through Lilypond:

Tick Tick Boom

I predict I’ll be using Lilypond quite a lot in future!

PS: One problem I did have yesterday on OS X Mavericks with the standard Lilypond build is that it hung when I just saved the test file and tried to run it. I’m not sure why, because after saving a different file and loading it at startup Lilypond hasn’t hung since. So don’t be put off if the test file hangs the first time you run the program.

PS2: Lilypond.org seems to be having some problems with their web site right now, I can’t reach it right now. Hopefully they’ll be fixing this soon!

Business Local

Yes, I’ll “Buy Local” – IF the product is good

buylocalThere’s a campaign that’s been running here for a while called ‘Buy Local’ which encourages people to buy things from their local shops rather than ordering online, thus putting money back into the local economy. In general, this is a sensible message that I can support. But the more I think about it, the more I think it may be missing the point.

I think what needs to be said is that the fact that you’re local isn’t justification for customers to prefer you over another supplier if your product or service are sub-par. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great local shops and suppliers who provide excellent products and services. But we also have some who, let’s just say, “phone it in” – you probably all know a few examples.

In the past, before the Internet, these businesses could get away with providing average service, slow delivery, awkward ordering processes, and sub-par products because people didn’t have any other convenient alternatives. Sure, those of us who read specialty magazines would find ads for companies we could order from over the phone to avoid the teeth-sucking of local vendors when we asked for unusual products, but it was low-volume. All of a sudden the Internet made sure that local vendors have to compete on a far more level playing field with, potentially, the world.

A lot of the argument tends to revolve around price, but to be honest it’s really not about price (for me). Low-value, commodity, non-perishable goods are always going to be very hard to compete on and you should probably get out of those businesses these days if you’re a small supplier (wherever you are). But I will pay a percentage over the odds for good face-to-face service, convenience, and on items whose quality I care about – especially higher value items, or perishable ones. I don’t mind if you’re a little bit dearer locally if the service is good, the product is good, and especially if you have it in stock already. What I will not accept is a poor customer experience or an inferior product, both of which I have experienced on occasion when trying to ‘buy local’ over the alternatives. As I said, this is not universal, and there are good local suppliers, but there are quite a few who are still living in the past, those salad days of little effective competition, and are not putting enough effort in to cope with the new norm. Sometimes I feel that the ‘Buy Local’ message can be used as a diversion – “Shame on you for not supporting local businesses!” – instead of accepting that people are going elsewhere mostly because you’re not offering what people want. The market speaks – some local vendors need to realise that while locality is a selling point, your core product / service quality has to already be competitive for it to matter.

I think we can get complacent in the western world, and especially in comfortable, previously isolated places like Guernsey. Guernsey leans heavily on its ‘special’ legal / tax status as a lever in the financial services sector, which I think might engender an attitude in some that ‘being different’ excuses not being competitive on a level playing fields in other sectors.  My experience is quite different; I’ve been selling software products & services to a global audience for years, and I gain no advantage in that market from the nuances of my location, so I’ve had to compete on the same terms as everyone else, no excuses. Again it’s not all about price – programmers in developing countries are much cheaper than I am – but get the product and service right, and customers will come. Excuses related to the oddness of my location are irrelevant, because the customer simply doesn’t care, the product must speak for itself.

I think the Internet has brought that hard reality to the local retail sector too, and it’s a shock to some. The proper response is retail stepping up its game to meet that new reality, rather than leaning on ancillary arguments for why a customer should choose to buy local. If the product and service is good, and you get the message out, they’ll choose to do it anyway. So if they’re not, IMHO you need to question the real underlying reasons for that and address them, rather than expecting a PR campaign to solve it.

All things being equal, buying local is good – just don’t use that as a crutch.

Internet Local

Guernsey broadband should aim to lead, not bring up the rear

snailI was invited to write this blog post by @cutoffgg, a group raising awareness of how poor the broadband options available in Guernsey are, and I readily agreed. Everyone I talk to in Guernsey, whether they be a businesses or home user, has something to complain about when it comes to the Internet service they receive here for the price they pay, yet the our providers continuously give us the impression that should be grateful for the ‘competitive’ service we receive. I’d like to illustrate how disingenuous that is based on my experience over the last few years, and why that’s a problem.

I’m a software developer, a technophile, and a local. I like making tools, engines, applications and other bits of software kit which scratch my various itches, which most recently have been real-time graphics and developer tools. In previous years, being unwilling as I am to join the rank and file of our local finance industry would likely mean I’d have to leave for more suitable climes, but the Internet changed all that and allowed me to remain here to indulge my sentimentality and keep my wife happy.

So, I’ve worked from home for the last 7 years, and have spent that time freelancing for companies around the world and also building my own software products for the global market, one of which end up being acquired (the obligatory ‘look Mum, I’m on TechCrunch’ link). During these 7 years, 99.9% of my customers and co-workers have been outside Guernsey. I’ve sold software in 40 countries and worked in teams which regularly cross 3 or more time zones – we use an array of tools (video chat, persistent text chat, rich wikis, forums) and working approaches (self-motivation and trust is key) which make this manageable – although meeting in person is still necessary and desirable sometimes of course. Still, distributed working and instant access to a global audience regardless of my location on a small dot in the ocean is just ‘normal’ for me by now, and I can’t imagine working any other way.

The Internet is absolutely vital to opening opportunities, and it’s an incomparable access port to the world which is especially vital for small, isolated places like Guernsey; and yet our connections here are over-priced and under-specified, lagging behind most other places in the developed world. When it comes to competing on the world stage, we should be aiming to have some of the best connectivity available in order to balance out the disadvantages we have due to our isolation and lack of land area. And yet,  in all the distributed teams I’ve worked on in the last 7 years, my connection has always been slower and more expensive than anyone else’s on the team.

This is always most pronounced when it comes to upload speeds. Internet providers seem to assume we’re mostly just consumers of information, and that we hardly ever upload. Newsflash guys, the Cloud happened, YouTube happened, online backups happened, and if you’re a digital exporter like me, upload speed is extremely important. I have years under my belt of being that guy who pushes the red button to launch new releases to that global audience, and we all sit there drumming our fingers while the progress bar creeps languidly upwards.

OK, so that’s the background, let’s talk specifics. I currently pay £50pm for a ‘Pro’ ADSL connection from Sure. I pay this crazy price for a ‘Pro’ version for the promise of a lower contention ratio and for a marginally increased upload speed, which tops out at a staggering 1Mbps (which is still about 50% faster than the non-Pro). The downstream rate is advertised as 20Mbps, but actually delivers 7-9Mbps in practice. My house is 20 minutes walk from the centre of our main town, so I’m not exactly deep in the wilderness, but the nearest fibre cabinet to me is just under 2km away, which is why I get such a poor connection. Our monopoly infrastructure supplier apparently has no plans to change that in the next 18 months, meaning the whole area south of our main centre is poorly supplied. While the supplier makes an alternative VDSL option available, which looks better on paper, but in practice unless you’re basically sitting on top of a DSLAM performance is no better (and sometimes worse, judging by some reports I’ve heard).

I also kinda thought I’d get an improved customer experience with the ‘Pro’ package too, but actually I still get 2-3 unexplained disconnections a day. Thanks guys, really helps when you’re on a video call with your co-workers, or you’re in the middle of a release going out to a hundred thousand people.

I did a quick poll to compare the practical experience friends in my industry are getting in other countries with their personal connections. Below are the results from people who answered in the time window; these are not numbers plucked randomly from marketing materials, nor are they ‘limited’ plans, the usual response I get from telcos here:

Location Monthly Price Download (Mbps) Upload (Mbps) Comments
Me £49.99 20 (really 9) 1 My Pro ADSL. I could reduce the price to £25 if I went non-Pro & get the same speed in practice. Advertised rates for VDSL seem unachievable for most.
Singapore £25.85 150 70 And yes, this is his real achieved speed and not just the advertised rates!
Vienna, Austria £21.51 50 5 Occasionally (5% of the time) rates drop well below advertised, otherwise OK
Toronto, Canada £78.56 150 10 Canadian telco duopoly makes it expensive, but speeds are far above what we can get
Wroclaw, Poland £19 20 1.5 The closest to ours so far, but still cheaper
Jutland, Denmark £19.50 30 30 I want to live in Denmark
Maryland, USA £54.24
£88.82
32
150
8
65
Kinda expensive for the USA but still better than ours, especially upload, and scales up fast
San Francisco, USA £39.22 50 10
Carrickfergus, N. Ireland £26 80 (really 45) 10 'the tin-pot local Northern Ireland' – his words not mine :)

Even if you discount my connection down to £25pm by dropping the ‘Pro’ option (which in practice I’m not convinced is benefitting me at all), Guernsey is right at the bottom of the pack. Singapore and Denmark have just awesome deals, and most other countries are in the middle somewhere. Only Canada has the same sort of over-pricing that we see in Guernsey, for similar reasons (not enough competition in infrastructure) and even then the speeds they have access to are far in excess of ours, and they have far more serious distances to cover. While many of these results are from cities, not all are and you only have to look at the expanding fibre coverage in the developed world to see why we’re getting left behind.

Seriously, we must aim to do better than this. We’re an isolated community with limited physical space and connectivity is a key to both staying in the games we’re already in, and providing escape hatches to finding new ones. The regulator CICRA is currently conducting investigations into business broadband provision, which is great, but I hope they also consider home and ‘prosumer’ connections at some point, because those are the ones used by freelancers and small independent creators, who are a growing part of the economy. Great communication links offer opportunities for lightweight diversification without creating more population issues, and gives easier access to remote expertise on demand. The old assumption that the only way create a new business is to squeeze a load of bodies into one place is long dead. Wake up and smell the coffee, people. Jersey has ;)

Games hardware Personal

My home-brew ‘Steam Box’ for the living room

I’ve already posted about how I’d decided to choose the PC as my ‘next-generation’ gaming platform, and last weekend I built the first iteration of that machine. I say the first iteration, because a PC is inherently an evolving platform, and I expect to refine it and upgrade it in future, but this is where I’m starting from. I thought I’d discuss the choices I made, and the experiences I’ve had so far. Be aware, this is a long one with quite a lot of technical detail, so buckle up :)

My Criteria

The problem with buying a PC is that you can quite easily go absolutely nuts and blow a fortune on it, by creeping up specification scale gradually without even realising – it’s only a little extra to move one notch up on a component, but then the other components are letting the side down, and before you know it you’ve blown a couple of grand. So, I deliberately set myself very clear goals in building this machine and didn’t allow myself to stray from that:

  1. It had to fit in my cabinet under the TV and not look out of place, and had to work in a living room environment generally
  2. Despite 1, it had to be full ATX with room for 2 full-length GPUs (even though I only plan to buy one initially), and have good ventilation
  3. It had to be approximately the same performance as Xbox One / PS4, give or take, because that would be the benchmark for most game developers going forward. I’ll compare to the PS4 since that’s the more powerful of the two.
  4. I set a budget limit of £700-£800, or about 2x a next-gen console. Mostly this was because I felt I needed to set a reasonable limit to avoid the ever-persistent ‘just one more upgrade’ temptation on PC, but also because it felt like a reasonable test of whether you could build a decent lounge setup for a reasonable sum. It’s never going to be as cheap as a console, but I’m willing to pay extra for a more open & flexible gaming machine.

With that in mind, I went shopping :)

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Business Personal

The “90% of startups fail” boogieman

scary“90% of startups fail”

I hear this meme repeated over and over, from ordinary people whom it terrifies into spending a lifetime using their talents primarily for someone else’s benefit, to those business leaders who use it either to discourage shifting investment away from their ‘safe’ industries, or more subtly dropping it into conversation to increase the chances they’ll keep their best staff.

I hate it, both because of the psychological blackmail it represents, and because for the vast majority of people starting a business, it’s total and complete nonsense.

The statistic is true for only a very specific type of new venture, one which has very specific inputs and very high bars to reach to avoid being called a ‘failure’: the high-stakes, high-growth startup. Yes, if you’re starting a business which needs to raise multiple rounds of VC funding accumulating in the 7-figure range, then yes, your chances of being deemed a ‘success’ by VCs are about 10%, but that’s because that ‘success’ benchmark typically means a least a 10x return on that 7-figure investment. Of course you’re stacking the odds to a challenging level in that case.

Even if you pick that high-stakes route, and you’re considered to be one of the 90% ‘failures’, it doesn’t mean you’ve totally blown it and are destitute. That’s because ‘failure’ isn’t defined the way most people assume it is (i.e. you crashed and burned and now live in a cardboard box under a bridge). There are many studies showing that roughly 60-70% of new businesses return at least their investors original money or more, and about 20-30% return an ‘adequate’ return on investment. But at this level anything less than a stellar exit multiple is considered a ‘failure’, which is where the 90% comes from, but far too many people assume that it means ’90% of people are bankrupt after starting a business’. It’s just not true – in almost all cases even the ‘failures’ go on to other things having had a valuable experience and are in strong demand if they want to re-join the regular workforce. And yet this definition of ‘failure’ is used as a red flag to scare people into remaining wage slaves at big corporates their entire lives?

And it’s not as if the rarefied ‘startup’ space is the only option; I’ve said before that scale isn’t everything. ‘Success’ is a metric that you can define if you don’t require big up-front investment, and could be anything: a lifestyle business which simply pays the bills while allowing you flexibility to live how you want, a small business which employs a handful of staff doing things they love, or a personal creative journey where the hits make up for the misses enough for you to carry on. Success stories are all around; people who have ‘succeeded’ at the traditional startup game might be rare, but I know lots of people who have chosen to go their own way and definitely consider that to have been a success – sometimes way outside their expectations.

So my message is – please don’t get hung up on this ’90% failure’ meme, and please don’t repeat it glibly to others without a giant caveat made up of the points above.