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So, getting to know what holding companies are. There is a big Wikipedia entry about them, but I am giving up on Wikipedia in favor of rumor and innuendo. Going to go on the definition my friend Mickey gave me, which is corporations formed for the express purpose of building prisons, zookeeping and technical instruction on the art of grappling. Having access to lions, convicts and Hulk Hogan types may be useful...
The past few weeks have had me jumpy, I don't like the idea of doing work without a realistic expectation of payment. The only answer to this ASP idea is to continue collecting information about the real potential and make a decision based on the best facts available. It's a risk to do it, it's a risk not to do it, and the best thing I can do it look at it right now and resist letting other people push me into a questionable decision.
I called everyone I know who has successfully run a business last week and asked for advice. Some of them didn't understand what I was talking about and didn't want to talk. Some of them were tied up with other things and just weren't going to have time. Some of them were interested in helping me over the hump and we lined up meetings. Spent time with some people today, meeting with a couple more tomorrow, then going a non-linear route over the weekendand talking with the family.
The first thing was to talk about market research. Spoke with a PR guy who has a background in marketing technology. It is never a good idea to jump into a new vertical market without knowning a thing or two about what you plan to do when you land. Fortunately, the research bug hit over the weekend and I was able to put together a lot of information about our 'target market'. I had been collecting bits and pieces over the last 6 months and was able to put together some fairly articulate comments about what I was planning to do. The person I spoke with told me I had an over optimistic view of events and more than likely this was a bad idea to begin with. He explained a little bit about identifying markets, how NAICS codes don't really mean anything, and how getting 10,000 people to adopt a new piece of technology was going to require an investment of resources. Offered to put me in touch with some contacts who have done some of this themselves. Also offered me a couple reports on effectiveness of online advertising rate adjusted for blog traffic based on some kind of correlative something something, allegedly this disproved the idea you can just put something out there on Google and break even. Probability says you can't in 99.99% of cases no matter what keywords you choose.
It is good to get knocked down sometimes, lets you know where you need to fortify. I was expecting to be asked questions above my pay grade and walk away feeling low, but knew I was better off for scrutinizing it all. It was a bit humbling seeing how the pros do it. Reminder to myself: never underestimate the power of the DOC's Web sites, they are awesome tools.
The second meeting was more interesting, we talked about founding a holding company to control risk within my primary organization. That way, if the ASP idea does go belly up, the holding company can absorb the losses without causing my main consulting company to run into challenges. This made a lot of sense but sounded complicated. The Houlden Caufield part of me kicked in and wondered what good was it anyways if I had to take money from one to fund the other (something has to give), and may have sent the wrong signals. Made a good point that building products is not the same as delivering services and most products brought to market leave the stage shortly.
So, all jokes about the name aside, a holding company is kind of like an umbrella shielding numerous businesses from the storms raging outside. I was planning on reorganizing my company as an s-corp but now may create second company to hold ASP stuff and holding company to rule them all.
So, you say ASP to a Web developer, they say 'Huh, you mean Microsoft?' Now, I deal exclusively with open source developers (except for the occassional Flash and Java guy) and there is a basic unfamiliarity with the term and the concept amongst many people in this area. It's not like I talk to thousands of developers or conduct any research on this, but the basic conversations I have with people always start this way.
I'm not trying to find a new way to phrase things here, only to point out that not everyone is an ASP developer. My company is starting a new line of business where we are going to be deploying 'ASP services'. When I say ASP services, what I mean is hosted applications built on top of existing FOSS products. In some cases, we are going to be deploying versions of these products with value added features we put in ourselves to make them 'better'. In some cases, we are going to be using them to deploy applications we build on on this platform to deliver specific solutions for various markets.
As a someone who has been a victim of good ideas in the past, I am entering into this with eyes wide open and looking at all the things that could happen. To start with, the company has become transparent about our plans with the greatest resource we have - our people. I made the entire development team aware of what we are looking to do and explained all good ideas are welcome. I have been speaking to SMEs with experience in the area, and found some good people locally who could fit the bill. There is a lot of enthusiasm around this push, and some developers have told me privately they would be willing to forgo extra salary to put in extra time.
All the people stuff is encouraging, but no substitute for proper business planning. I keep meaning to read that book on how to run your own successful ASP service from a manager's perspective but can't seem to find a copy (recommendations are welcome). In lieu of some plan someone else has already done, I am actually writing a business plan to guide our efforts. We are starting with a single application with the intention of using the lessons learned as a blueprint for what to do with the next one. We know that we are not going to get everything right the first time around, but we are going to learn enough to guide us as this service expands.
First off, we have performed ample amounts of market research, which has broken down into several categories of inquiry: attracting customers, understanding the competition, and pricing our products / services. As this is development on an open source platform, our market research has included supporting the community and evaluations of other companies attempting to use this platform in similar contexts. Our customers will be SOHO businesses and small agencies with a need for... uh... maybe that's too much detail. But we know there are about 700,000 potential customers domestically, more than that internationally, and getting just a small share of that sector will make this a huge success.
Our competitors are a collection of other ASP services with varying strengths and weaknesses. There are a lot of competitors in this market, at least 20 of them, and there are some big divisions in what people find useful about each one. Concerns generally break down into 2 camps and we are looking to provide enough features to avoid being classified in one or the other. This should serve to distingush the service and give us a place of special mention for people talking about the market.
In terms of pricing, we know the pricing policies of our competitors and think maybe kinda sorta we can do it cheaper. We are in a position where we don't need to make a huge profit off this to be successful and our plans are to price in line with the market and offer incentives to customers who sign up early that would put us below our nearest competitiors.
In terms of the community, there is an active community of 1000s of developers working with this platform. Our strategy is to provide the community with patches for specific issues related to scalability, new modules we have developed in house, and reports about our server infrastructure that will serve as guides for other shops looking to go this route. This should win us some points with the powers that be and generally evoke feelings of respect from the people who's hard work makes this all possible. Should the service actually make any money, we will start making strategic donations at that time.
Secondly, I am looking at the costs to deploy the service. This breaks down into 3 categories: development, scaling, and support. Development is the cost to build the version of the application you are hosting. To my great astonishment, off the shelf FOSS products don't always scale to meet the needs of thousands and thousands of concurrent users. We have had to scrutinize the platform in 100 different ways already just to figure out if this is possible, and we are satisfied we understand the challenges of deploying the core platform and have strategies in place for how to scale it. Beyond just the platform, there is the application being built on top of it. In a Web 2.0 world, everything has to be usable and include enough AJAX to make people go wow. We have worked through the issues surrounding functionality and interface design and gotten it to that 80/20 place. There is a good amount of development to be done, and much of it is going to be just centered on usability concerns.
But the costs of development, in this case, are not limited to the actual expense of building the application. My company has a core consulting service that also does a lot of business. Right now, we have close to $500k in work in the pipeline, and we get about 4 requests for more work each week. Having developers build the ASP application means we are going to have to scale back on the consulting work, and the question is how much do we scale back. We also have to hire people to work on the ASP, and we have to hire people who really are SMEs in production processes. It's a matter of finding the balance between payroll and infrastructure versus intentionally forgoing work to get there. The company has never taken any debt and we have worked hard to pay off occassional investments by principles (well, everyone except me). The idea of not being able to directly bill a client for each hour worked is new for us, and overcoming this mentality makes drawing this line a little more complicated. Basically, we want to stay far enough substinence levels we can make sure there is something left over at the end of the month, and avoid doing so much we have to hire too many new people to get there.
The second component of cost is scaling. Developers hear this and think servers!' Businessy types hear this and think 'FTEs!'. If I had to come up with a definition for this word in this context, it would be providing sufficient resources to ensure the proper operation of the hosted service and meet the demands of the market. We think we are going to have to hire 2 full time support people at the time the product launches, a marketing person who can actually talk to potential clients and get us some press, and a second product manager (one for UI, the other one for new additions).
There will need to be more servers added as time goes on and additional development, and these are parts of the cost of scaling. We are going to have special server installs running the applications and are currently evaluating the costs of doing it through a partner or building everything out ourselves. We have a choice of co-location providers who are willing to charge semi-reasonable fees.
The next thing is marketing. To make a product successful, people have to know about it. We plan on going commando on google ads and blogs to start, including a private beta to a number of bloggers in this area. We figure they are going to find it boring, which is why we have worked in some clever bits into the application that poke a bit of humor at other players in the market. There is an outdoors sports theme to the whole concept of the application that we are going to play off of to give it some class.
The product is going to have a bunch of distinguishing features that set it apart from the other systems. Hard to talk about what they are, but there's 4 of them.
Anyways, lots of work just planning it that I am not getting paid for. Biggest stressor about it all is doing the math around scalability, hard to predict and few case examples to work off of.
I was thinking about using Slashdot's journal as a central place for all my blogging. There's another post in here about trying to get everything I write together in one place. The trouble is, feeds of my journals get imported into other systems without line breaks. Everything gets compressed into one gigantic paragraph and makes it hard to read.
I am using Facebook for aggregation. *sigh* Gonna have to figure something else out...
I was searching through the Grand Haggerty library today, looking to settle a question about a work by Voltaire. A friend and I were discussing politics and got stuck on the question of the origins of the word Candidate and whether or not it is related to the word Candide (which I believe is French, and which I was told means 'optimism'). Which, of course, brought to mind the story about the auto-de-fey and how it was just about the most horrible torture people have ever cooked up. Having not heard of it before, this person questioned whether or not such a thing was possible. It was, I said, and it was detailed in Candide. But then I was told I was full of it because, look, there is no article on an auto-de-fey in the Wikipedia entry for Execution methods!
So this got me all ready to stand on my high horse, unwilling to be contradicted by a social encyclopedia over something I feel has a special significance in the realm of academics and thought. Way back when, I took an introduction to philosophy class with a particularly grim professor. This guy was all about the hemlock and looked like he was waiting for someone to pass the cup. On the course syllabus, it listed everything we had to read, when the papers were due, and all the gruesome things that happened to the authors of various works or their characters. Pythagoreas and the field of grass, Socrates and the final happy hour, Nietzsche and his madness, terrible things happened to all these great minds over the years. On the one hand, I guess professors need a way to make the material come to life, and nothing captures peoples attention like the end. On the other, I had the impression this professor was saying something about the relationship between society and violence, and that, one way or another, we find a way to ferret out the smartest and the greatest and destroy them once and for all (Social Darwinism as a Law of Averages).
Anyways, in this class, we did spend time talking about the most horrible fates that befell these great minds and the irony that came along with it. Pythagoreas, with his ideas about transsubstantiation, was killed by a mob when he refused to run over a field of grass because he supposed the individual blades may be reincarnations of former friends. Plato, with his ideal of what a citizen of a state should be, drank his hemlock rather than save his own neck. Nietzsche, with his, um, 'enlightened' views of feminism, by all accounts contracted some hideous disease through his sexual relations that preyed upon his mind and ate away at his soul. There were others, but their stories were not so rich in irony. And don't get me started on the pre-socratics here, I am aware of the role violence played in early Greek society and still think of Anaximander as the real life counterpart to the Christian conception of Satan.
Candide, the protagonist from Voltaire's novel of the same name, had it the worst. This auto-le-fey thing was really bad news. You were hung, stripped of your skin, drown, burned alive, and more, all in front of a big crowd and in an effort to make you confess. It's the sort of thing that can only happen in societies with a highly evolved concept of multiple sins and the need for a method of cleansing each before sending someone to eternal justice. I imagine it took centuries to perfect this particular form of torture and the work of many scholars of the day to really perfect the method of purging the taint on the way to one's maker. From what I hear, this was considered the Cadillac of execution methods. The electric chair is positively burnt out by comparison and this method made the guillotine look like a cheese slicer for it's lack of pagentry.
What's interesting here is that the auto-le-fey, conceptually, was all about cleaning someone's soul, stripping away their sins and sending them to a better place. It is the justification for it that is important, because no one really wanted to live in a world where arbitrary violence is handed out and the state is made to look like a bunch of butchers. This changed over the years. At some point, captial punishment itself was divorced from it's roots as a purification method for the benefit of individual and all pretence about mercy and sanctity was dropped in favor of a purely humanistic version of slaughter for the benefit of society at large. The idea became one of keeping the streets safe from human predators and capital punishment has since been idealized as the ultimate deterrent against specific crimes.
Although we did not go into the ethics or morality of any specific cases, there was a clear subtext here tracing the relevance of execution methods to the particular forms of society in which these people lived. It became the source of my own objections to captial punishment in that, when viewed on a grand scale, societies are always doing terrible things to their brightest minds, it's really just the excuses we come up with for why that change. To call a state sponsored killing justified in any sense is simply a way large numbers of people abandon reason all together, a kind of block party of the passions where someone is going to get left with the entire mess.
For these reasons, I can't believe the auto-le-fey has been forgotten, especially if Candidate and Candide are really related etymologically. What does this mean for our own society and the ways we treat our own best and brightest? Look at what happens to people running for high office. They are ridiculed, judged on sound bytes, opposition groups devote massive amounts of money to investigating and incriminating them, pompous talk show hosts set them up as straw men, people sometimes burn them in effigy, we set up whisper campaigns with jokes about things we tag them with that may or may not be their fault, basically people end up running the gauntlet every time they want to represent the masses. While I thourough vetting of someone's background is certainly in order, there are times when people cross the line and actually damage the lives of private citizens to score political points and use the process as a form of violence. By destroying someone else, another world view can work it's way into existance, and people can only go on with their daily lives once this question about prevalence has been settled.
I remain optimistic that I shall never stand too far out from the crowd, or become a target for this thing that societies do.
So, yeah, I write a lot of things in a lot of places. I've got travel journals up on 43 places, Slashdot comments all over the place, various mailing lists I am active on, letters to the editors of the big 5 newspapers, articles that have appears in various technical journals, a couple blogs no one ever reads, plus the stuff I put up on my company's blog.
People get a good sense of all the things I have to say about a topic depending on where they read it, but never really get a sense of all the things that interest me. I have been thinking about a blog aggregator for a while, just to capture all the stuff I have been writing. Gonna try putting it all together in my Facebook account for now and see how that works.
Er... actually, all I can get in there is one feed at a time. I think I may just start putting things into Slashdot going forward. Or maybe get everything in a different blog aggregator and pull feeds from there. I don't know what to do.
Understanding the big picture of the political scene is very difficult. Many sources are charging the Democratic party is out of touch with core American values and cannot connect with the average voter. High level statements like this can often not be evaluated with any clarity, and attempts to answer the question seem to end up with answers specific to the questioner.
In these days after the election, I am taking stock of this charge and wondering what this values gap really consists of. Many of my clients, colleagues and friends are GOP operatives, many others are Democratic. While I do not normally characterize either side except to say what are simply the facts about who they are, I have begun to notice differences in each side's standards for accepting what is 'real'.
By 'real', I mean those ideas which identify with our common beliefs about the world. On the one hand, some people seem driven to find emperically valid, factual truths and use those to develop their conceptual understanding of the world. There are other people who set the bar a little lower on the valid side and seem more driven to go with what their gut says about things.
If this is the gulf people are talking about, and that perceptual issues about the nature of things are driving the American political experience, I cannot help but wonder why. If 'grit' and 'guts' are the substitute for reasoned political discourse people expect the Democrats to accept, I argue this is a Catch 22 that will only lead to mob rule. If there is no threshold for what can be considered 'truth', if our concept of the real is governed by whomever is in power, our understanding of the ends of our democracy are at the whim of whoever can govern popular belief.
Below is a reprint of an email I received from Media Matters for America. Interesting read.
Conservative criticism of "liberal bias" in "big media" rings hollow
Since President George W. Bush's November 2 reelection, several conservative columnists have accused "big media" of liberal bias, claiming that news outlets actively campaigned against Bush throughout the pre-election period. Nationally syndicated columnist Thomas Sowell, Weekly Standard staff writer Stephen F. Hayes, Wall Street Journal contributing editor Peggy Noonan, and conservative columnist and author Mona Charen have all chastised media outlets for providing election coverage that favored Senator John Kerry -- but their criticism is at odds with substantial evidence showing a conservative bias in election coverage.
Throughout the presidential campaign, Media Matters for America documented countless examples of media coverage -- in both conservative and "mainstream" outlets -- that benefited Bush and/or hurt Kerry, including:
MMFA's recent examples of anti-Kerry campaign coverage: "Top Ten Reasons why Media Mattered in the 2004 Presidential Race"
MMFA's analysis of how flawed coverage affected the election: "Top Ten media failings in 2004"
In his November 7 "Commentary" column in The Washington Times, Sowell wrote:
The election demonstrates mainstream media have lost their power to control what the public will and will not know. Without alternative media like talk radio, Fox News and the Internet, the public would have heard only pro-Kerry spin disguised as news.
In the November 15 edition of The Weekly Standard, Hayes criticized the media for conducting "fact checks," apparently arguing that checking the veracity of candidates' statements is a bad practice:
For some 16 months, then, journalists at the New York Times and the Washington Post and the television networks saw themselves not as conveyors of facts but as truth-squadders, toiling away on the gray margins of political debate to elucidate the many misstatements, exaggerations, and outright lies of the Bush administration and its campaign affiliates. Sometimes these "fact-check" pieces were labeled "news analysis." More often, they were splashed on the front page as straight news or presented on the evening news.
The nonpartisan Columbia Journalism Review's Campaign Desk website, however, has frequently noted its belief that such fact checks aren't common enough.
In her November 5 nationally syndicated column, Charen wrote:
[Philanthropist] George Soros, [author and documentarian] Michael Moore, [advocacy group] moveon.org, [actress] Whoopi Goldberg, [actor] Ben Affleck and a few other plutocrats spent a reported $200 million attempting to defeat George W. Bush. They had the energetic assistance of The New York Times, ABC, NBC, NPR, CNN and particularly CBS. They retain (for how much longer is open to question) the power to shape the national debate.
In a November 4 Wall Street Journal opinion editorial piece, Noonan wrote:
But I do think the biggest loser was the mainstream media, the famous MSM, the initials that became popular in this election cycle. Every time the big networks and big broadsheet national newspapers tried to pull off a bit of pro-liberal mischief--CBS and the fabricated Bush National Guard documents, the New York Times and bombgate, CBS's "60 Minutes" attempting to coordinate the breaking of bombgate on the Sunday before the election--the yeomen of the blogosphere and AM radio and the Internet took them down.
MMFA previously noted Noonan's attempt to deny the truth of an October 25 New York Times report that hundreds of tons of high-powered explosives went missing in Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003. Numerous reports set out clear evidence that large quantities of the high-grade explosives HMX and RDX were present at the Al Qaqaa military installation when American troops arrived at the site in early April 2003 and were looted shortly thereafter.
I am part owner of an ASP and have a day job consulting. One of the most frustrating parts of this situation is handling problems with the small business during the day, I have to wait until after 6pm to look at them. Gives me a sick feeling in my stomach when I go home to know the first 3 hours are going to be spent doing QA / bug fixes.
Growing the business is turning into a monumental effort and each new client we add brings a fresh set of problems to work out. Funny, frustrating, USER problems. Today I get an email and a phone call from a new client I didn't even know we have, and he is having a problem trying to upload a CSV file into the database. He has a file that was created on a Mac, saved under OpenOffice on Linux then put back into a CSV file under Excel on Windows. I have no clue what the carriage return codes are for this after travelling so far so fast. Salesforce.com must have had it the same way.
Just driving through traffic is getting to be a pain. I always scan for shortcuts these days and become frazzled when cars get backed up. I am always thinking about how much time I lose to red lights now, never used to be this way in my 20's. My head starts to hurt and my stomach starts to turn when the car stops making forward progress, and road accidents mess me up even more. Listening to the radio is aggravating, the commercials have somehow become more annoying recently and I can't listen to them for very long.
When the anxiety gets to me, I visualize pleasant things in my mind's eye. My list of pleasant things is shrinking, however, as I outgrow some of the things I used to love. I feel out of place when going to see live music these days, I am usually about 5 years older than the rest of the audience. Sometimes it's just teenagers, so I don't do that as much anymore. The batting cage is almost inaccessible to me since I hurt my shoulder last year. Been a while since I broke up with my girlfriend, I find myself thinking about her more often and wishing things had been different. Still like programming, but I never have time for personal projects anymore.
Books are still a favorite pasttime, for the 5 minutes or so each week I get to read. Started in on a new book last week, can't even remember the name now. Was an encyclopedia of horror film characters and cliches, very interesting but definitely not in line with my other stuff. Still read 2600 and Dr. Dobbs, but mostly on airplanes now and mostly on my way to DC. Everyone once in a while someone recognizes 2600 and either stares at me funny or throws me some gang sign to tell me they are a hacker. Would just like to read sometime, and maybe hack a hotel entertainment system.
I hardly ever drink anymore, and constantly wish I had time for a beer. I have a refrigerator full of Heineken and Guinness, I buy some every time I go to the grocery store. I think I lost the bottle opener, it hasn't been there the last few times I thought I might enjoy a cool one.
Everyone tells me I am doing a wonderful job, I think I have finally learned how to offend no one and be successful managing projects. My partners think it is amazing I am able to keep up with the demands of the company and the consulting work. Our business grows with each passing day, and soon we will be hiring more developers. Bothers me things keep happening the way they do.
I am getting sick of comment moderation. Not that the system itself is flawed, it's almost ideal. It's the people doing the moderating that bug me, they do not improve the quality of the posts one iota.
Case in point: I made a joke in a discussion about Dungeons and Dragons. Got modded way, way down because the moderators lack a sense of humor / are too impulsive to meaningfully read sigs. In a discussion about Half Life 2, I posted a complete lie about how to crack the game. Gets modded Interesting +42.
Went to my first political rally event yesterday after 5 years living in the District of Columbia. It was a meet and greet for Wesley Clark's campaign, I was shocked by how grass roots things are right now.
I received an email about 10 AM requesting some help down at the Capitol dropping of letters and Clark bars to congressional offices. Went down to check it out, met with one of his campaign managers. Naturally, the talk turned to tech - I asked him if he needed any volunteers to help organize Web intiatives. He points to this kid and explains how well equipped they already are. This kid got a whole email campaign set up and ready this morning (!).
Anyways, within 20 minutes I was given a stack of letters and told to go hand them out in the Cannon House Office Building. Left with a group of 3 other people, none of whom had ever met before, and we started handing stuff out, shaking hands in congressional offices, and feeding hungry staffers candy bars (BTW, there is no exaggeration around the legendary hunger of congressional staffers, even the republicans were gobbling up these Clark bars. One person offered to talk to her representative about a statement on P2P if we gave her one).
When I say grass roots, I mean this is people going out to set up a movement by themselves with nothing to get them started. While I knew what this meant, there is a difference between knowing about it and seeing the process up close. To think there are people who do this day-in-day-out for no money, this idea makes me appreciate the work these people do.
I was just thinking how great it would be to develop software to support these kinds of movements. This would be a great open-source deal. Something that lets you track and manage mailing lists, does some project planning, and keeps contact lists.
This is a test of my online journal system at Slashdot. I have a lot to write about, mostly non-technical in the common sense, but sharable nonetheless.
* The things I need to write down: *
The vicious cost waterfalls of Six Flags
The joys of Vermont and the family farm
Bringing my daughter to work with me this summer
My parents breaking up
My Dad's family coming back together
Katie growing from a 4 to a 6
The bunk bed
Katie starting soccer practice.
Being asked to coach soccer.
Law School and how important the SAT was
Trying to get some education! I miss academics
Java. Cold Fusion. PHP. Postgres. SAPDB. 3DSMax. Other means of wasting free time.
Being laid off from Lockheed Martin.
Being *ahem* laid off from other places...
The good job where I can be late and not lynched.
Free Diet Sodas.
The voice on that cartoon I saw last night with the siamese twins - I know that voice from another cartoon but can't remember - OH WAIT KATIE'S FAVORITE TIME SQUAD!!!
The Redskins and Shane Matthews going 327 yards on opening day
The Orioles losing 10 in a row after finally reaching