What if your work is your hobby?

After spending yesterday afternoon in the office in a hack-a-thon – hat tip to Glenn for joining me – and much of today getting a plan together for CeBIT this year, I was feeling pretty amped about the month and a half ahead and the challenges therein.

So it was funny to have my girlfriend, who’s feeling a bit under the weather at the moment, ask me how I know I’m happy, and ask me to break down how I spend my week. She was basically saying “you work a lot – don’t you need some time that isn’t working, reading the paper, watching interesting stuff on TV, studying and the like to know you’re happy?”

It got me thinking. Am I lucky because my work is my hobby and the challenges of every day are (mostly) exciting? Or am I just deluded: I’m nothing more than a work-a-holic.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments…

Get your product/service into CeBIT's Webciety Showcase – FREE!

CeBIT is happening in a month and a bit in Sydney, and this year they’ve decided to focus the eyes of the tens of thousands of show visitors on a new showcase section, called Webciety. Webciety is going to showcase a dozen of Australia’s hottest web-software companies, and if you think your company deserves to be there, you can enter a competition to win the wildcard Webciety spot.

CeBIT is Australia’s biggest technology trade show, and it is on for its 10th year in Australia this May, between the 12th and the 14th. I’ve been involved in CeBIT in Sydney for a number of years now, and I even managed to squeeze in a visit to the original big-daddy CeBIT in Hannover, Germany in 2006.

As a tradeshow, CeBIT has a pretty broad range. While checking out the latest gadgets and marvelling at the ever-increasing size of flat panels each year has been pretty impressive, I’ve sometimes felt like software – particularly the web software space where I’ve always played – is a little bit scattered and doesn’t pack the punch it should.

This year, however, things are going to be different with the Webciety showcase.

The Webciety part of the show is designed to showcase how web-based technologies, products and services play an increasingly important part in our lives. After debuting in Hannover in March this year to an incredible response from visitors, the Australian organisers have decided to make the Webciety feature a centrepiece of the Australian show.

CeBIT is a pretty incredible event, with around 35,000 people attending Sydney’s show last year. In these tougher economic times, people are hungrier to find better ways to work, and if the experience at the 2009 show in Hannover last month is a guide, there should be a large number of high quality and very interested attendees heading down to Darling Harbour in May for this year’s show.

If you’re keen to get your company and its product/service included in the showcase, the good news is that CeBIT has set aside one of the Webciety spots as a “wildcard” entry. By nominating your company, you could find yourself included in this prestigious showcase, completely free! Entries close on Wednesday the 22nd of April 2009, so get in quick!

Mike Arrington's Time Out and the decloaking the mob with Torches & Pitchforks

I wasn’t that surprised to read Mike’s post today about some really bad stuff happening over the last 6 months.

I didn’t know the details until I read them on TechCrunch, but I knew something was up when I messaged him to let him know I was going to be in the Valley for a couple of weeks in November. To my surprise, he told me he was going to be out of the state, at his parents place, and this was with months of advance warning. The Mike Arrington I know doesn’t make many plans that far in advance, and he’ll the first to admit that being right in the middle of Silicon Valley has as much to do with Techcrunch’s success as the many other factors. Being out of town – and the state – for months didn’t seem right.

I thought it might have been family stuff – I knew where he told me he was going to be was his parent’s place – and was hoping it wasn’t bad news or health stuff with him or his folks, and instead that he just needed to get out of the Valley to get out of the echo chamber for a while.

Of course, little did I know it was work related, and he was trying to get away from it, but instead of another Vulture piece from ValleyWag or a hatched job from the clearly jealous and much less talented writer, Betsy Schiffman, it turns out someone with a felony, and gun and an axe to grind was stalking Mike and his staff.

I’ve lived as a house-guest of Mike’s on a number of occasions, initially for 3 month stint in early 2006, when TechCrunch was less than 6 months old, and during that time I felt like I got to know the guy really well. We chatted about times before Techcrunch, women and relationships, lessons from previous business ventures and more. Those were personal conversations, and they’re going to stay that way.

My point is, however, that I got to get to know a person, a man I regard as my friend, thankfully for me at a time when he still “assumed most people were essentially good, and assumed that an individual was trustworthy until proven otherwise”. I saw someone who’d always take a contrarian position and get you to justify it. I’d watch – and cop – him taking the piss out of people, but we’d give as good as we got. I reckon he’s got more than a small potential to become an honourary Aussie: he didn’t care for status/authority, is direct, and loved to stick it to the man, which in his industry, is the incumbent media outlets. Pure Aussie in my books.

I also saw up close just some of the untrustworthy people, the types who lie even when the truth will do just as good a job, who’ve tainted his perspective. I’ve been frankly stunned that such an insightful and intelligent guy could be so trusting of people who’ve since screwed him over. And still he didn’t raise a finger in anger or retribution using his extensive online influence.

I’ve watched from afar as one storm or another has erupted online as people struggle to realise that just because its easier to click a mouse button, it doesn’t make it any less of a fight, and reflected that, with the exception of the stouch with DEMO, none of those fights were of his making. Sure, he’s no shrinking violet – he’s an attorney who loves a fight as much as the next lawyer, but more for the challenge than for the desire to stand upon the head of a lifeless opponent – but frankly, the vast, vast majority of the attacks and abuse levelled at Mike over the last couple of years have been way off base.

So, what’s the deal with these attacks? Given we’re talking about real world threats and attacks, its really worth having a look at them, and potentially shining a bit of light on the attackers. I believe they fall into one of three categories:

  1. Jelousy and Self-Interest – this one is the de rigueur attack motivation for the journalists out there covering tech. Many of them represent old-media, who see the competitive pressure of TechCrunch to be more than a little intimidating. The story I read on SMH today over lunch almost made me choke: headlined “Tony Soprano of Bloggers Faces Death Threats“, and in a piece that characteristically didn’t link to its sources, feature quotes taking shots at Arrington, including the one used in the headline, from other traditional, dead-tree media, who’ve got a pretty clear self-interest in taking him down. I thought this was a bit rich given most tech stories I’ve seen in SMH Tech News lately have been rehashes of TechCrunch pieces with a 12 hour delay and no links to sources. Moving away from traditional media to the other tech bloggers, a decent amount of the attacks are motivated by jealousy. And in the cases where they’re really legitimate differences of opinion, rather than just hit jobs, things are resolved amicably, and mostly in person. I enjoyed lunch with Mike and Dave Winer not two months after this comment’s little dust up, and there were no hard feelings at all around the table in Palo Alto.
  2. Bitterness of Rejection – there’s been a few recent posts about how stupid it is for startups to pin all their hopes on success, interest from VC’s and the implicit legitimacy of a positive review on Techcrunch. I can see how a want-re-preneur might get angry and upset about getting passed over, but if their key to success was a favourable Techcrunch post, I’d argue they don’t really have a business, just a fantasy of rock-star success and a Tesla in every garage. This sort of bitterness is just sour grapes (ok, enough taste metaphors already). The guy who did the spitting might have been responding to the bitterness of rejection, or he could have just be someone acting out the next point…
  3. Tall Poppy Syndrome – anyone who’s spent any time with Mike knows he isn’t a geek, programmer or deep technologist. To my knowledge, he’s never pretended to be. He does business analysis of businesses that just happen to be in the tech scene. Most of the flames I see posted in comments are either from people bitter after being rejected, or just pissed off that some guy who doesn’t know Perl from Python commands so much attention in the tech world. If you’re some random hater who’s rejoycing that Arrington is ‘out’ because you don’t think he knows tech enough, my suggestion is to think about what you’re going to do when you get pink-slipped because the business bit that pays for your lifestyle doesn’t work out, and hope that XKCD remains free so you can at least have some humour.

Anyway, the key point I’m trying to make here is that Mike’s a great guy: within 10 mins of meeting me and my business partner in Palo Alto, he offered us his house for as long as we needed it. All this stuff about Tony Soprano is just plain bullshit peddled by people with their own agenda, and if we let the bitter, jealous and tall poppy types continue with their baseless tirades without any accountability, we’re going to loose more and more good people.

Lets hope the serious stuff of the stalking ends, and for personally, I hope those enjoying the specatle of watching one of their biggest competitive threats bow out (hopefully temporarily) wake up with a nasty hangover tomorrow when they realise their rehashed and late stories, with little analysis, depth, opinion and conviction, supported by a business model more conflicted that Arrington’s ever was, is crumbling around them.

It feels like there's a community forming…

Just a few late night reflections on the (Sydney-centred) Australian Startup Community, and more particuarly, SiliconBeachAustralia.org at the centre of it.

While I’ve personally been playing the startup game on and off for a while now (first with Internetrix, which is now pretty established, then Omnidrive that taught a lot of lessons on how not to do things, and now Hiive Systems, which we soft launched over the Christmas break), including time in Australia as well as Silicon Valley, I’ve never really felt like I’ve been part of a community. Whether the community I associate with SiliconBeach existed or not in the past is something for others to say, but from my perspective, feeling like being part of the startup community is a fairly new thing.

Almost by definition, being an entrepreneur is a lonely existence.

It isn’t that we’re loners, antisocial or isolationists – there’s good reasons for feeling alone a lot of time.

Firstly, we’re kinda busy a lot of the time – more so than most of our friends or family seem to be – trying to create our dreams, but it really just comes across as being workaholics. Sure, we’re having fun in a perverse way with the stuff that really drives us crazy as we learn the things that don’t work, but it does make for a certain amount of loneliness.

Secondly, the things that we care about – investment, scaling, staff, company structures, marketing and so many more topics – isn’t really pub conversation, so while we’re quite happy to talk about whether Hayden should be dropped from the next Test or not, it probably isn’t the thing at the top of our mind.

I’m sure there’s plenty of other things that lead to being a bit lonely in our endeavours, but its late, and I’ll leave it at that…

The thing I’ve been most impressed about professionally over the 6 months or so is that I’ve seen a community start to form and take shape. Again, it probably existed long before I noticed anything or was included, but this is my blog, so I’ll take a naive 1st person reference point or we could be here all night.

So, why do I think a community is forming?

Firstly, entrepreneurs are building relationships. Real relationships. I’ve actually made real friends, people I’ve enjoyed beers with, had lunches and dinners with, and more than anything, have gotten to know and respect. I like these people, and really enjoy their company, and they seem to tolerate mine. Why are we forming real friendships and relationships? It surely isn’t just the work: I think its about a shared lifestyle, a shared passion, and a shared outlook. I might never work with any of them, and I don’t really care – while entrepreneurship (and thus by proxy business) might be the common thread, its the people at the ends of this thread that are worth knowing. This isn’t some virtual social network substituting for real friends and human relationships.

Secondly, people are having real conversations. Talk is cheap? Sure it is, but it takes time and effort, and you know a community is forming when there’s care and passion in the talking. There’s been a few little dust-ups and differences of opinion, but that’s a good thing in moderation: people care enough to contribute, and as long as they listen to the other guy/girl’s point of view, it’s all good. On the lower friction side of the equation, and following on from the relationships thing above, I’ve just come off a 40 minute Skype chat with @Nickhac, someone I wouldn’t have gotten to know – and massively appreciate and value taking the time to talk to – if it wasn’t for the SiliconBeach community.

Thirdly, people are interacting, not just occassionally, but through both casual and signifcant events that cost much more than money – they cost time. It’s now 4 months since StartupCamp was held in Sydney, and StartupCamp II is coming in a couple of weeks. This is on top of the regular Friday Drinks, a range of other events including BBall, and finally the conference circuit which those of us too busy can follow thanks to the likes of @kcarruthers. 2009 is looking like a bumper year for quality interaction in the entrepreneurial scene. I’m really looking forward to StartupCamp II in Sydney, and I really hope Geekdom can handle us, since there’s something like 90 people already signed up to come. I’m mildly concerned about what we’ll do without Bart there to guide us, but hopefully we learned enough last time around on the maiden voyage to have a stab at it.

A big thankyou… to you

So, in summary, I’d like to thank Elias for kicking off SiliconBeachAustralia.org, and I’d also like to thank all the other people who’ve contributed to the 1400+ messages over the last 5 and a bit months. Lets keep this community growing, and don’t be afraid to say hi – introduce yourself on the list, come along to StartupCamp or follow the action on UStream or startup-australia.org or technation.com.au if you’re too far away to make it in person.

But, most of all, if you’re an entrepreneur, you don’t need to be lonely…

Trademark Applications in AU and US

I recently got a letter from a law firm in the US, alleging that my new business, Hiive Systems, has infringed their trademark. Unfortunately for them, the best they could do in claiming a trade mark was allege our logo was similar to theirs (we don’t think it is), and even though our businesses are in different industries, they demanded we stop using our name, logo and relinquish our registered domains, or they’ll sue us under some loose Common Law precedent formed in 1870 or so when the US government sued a counterfeiter.

Anyway, this is all going to play out over the next few months, so I won’t name names or go into details here lest I prejudice things or give these guys cause to make the issue (more) personal, but the upshot was that I did one of those important and non urgent things, and registered my trademark for Hiive Systems, initially in the US and Australia, and soon via the Madrid protocol.

For the benefit of those that haven’t gone through the process, but have been thinking about it, here are a couple of notes/observations. The key point is that it isn’t that expensive, and it isn’t that hard – if you’ve got a brand you care about, you really should be protecting your rights through a trade mark.

Australian Trade Marks (via ipaustralia.gov.au)

The process of applying for the trademark was fairly straight forward. The online application form was quite user friendly, and they made it easy to upload files and search for categories you want your trade mark applied to, from within the application process/form.

What surprised me the most was the vast array of detailed classifications for trademark categories: while I had previously thought the applications were for around 45 “high level” classes of registration (such as Class 9 which includes computer software), there are hundreds of sub-classes, and each one you select using a checkbox costs you more ($120 a pop). For example, “software” as a search phrase returned more than 80 sub-classes of Class 9 alone.

Starting small, we’ve spent $240AUD on an application for two categories, payable by credit card, and now we wait for the examination process to unfold. So far, pretty easy, and if/when they get accepted, we’ll be up for $250/class to actually register the marks, and then $300/class/year to maintain them: a total startup cost of $370/class.

IPAustralia is currently estimating less than a 3 month assessment period, which is nice – if I’m lucky I’ll know the result by Valentines Day.

United States Trade Marks (via www.uspto.gov)

The US Trade Mark system was decidedly less user-friendly, however, with patience and reading the fine-print, it worked out well.

Much like the Australian example, there are hundreds of sub-classes that you can apply against with your Trade Mark application, and each of these has a cost attached: US$275 per sub class, using the online TEAS-Plus system, which is a little more demanding of what you give it (and which presumably saves the examiners time). The good news is that these fees also appear to cover the actual registration if the mark is accepted, which is a good thing, since they’re a fair amount higher than the Australian application fees.

One snag I got stuck on while registering was the need to declare the reason for the registration for each class – it was important to select one box at a time, and in my case, choose 1a) since we’re already trading, and then upload some proof that we were already using the mark, in our case, a screenshot from our application. This form and button processes was very poor on user friendliness, and I had to delete and re-add records after accidentally setting them to be 1b) (not in use yet) and start over.

The email from the USPTO states that it is likely to be about 5 months until the application even gets examined, however, when it comes to challenges on validity of the trademark, they’ll use the application date as their reference point. If I’m lucky, I’ll know the result before the start of next year’s ski season.

If YouTube's struggling, what hope's anyone else got?

Was just reading a post from Mark Cuban, Blog Maverick, about what he percieves as desperation on the part of Google when it comes to monetising all that User Generated Content on their site.

Frankly, I don’t have the time to be a big YouTube watcher, so I’ll take Mark’s comments about changes and user experience at face value. Regardless though, I’ve long been a skeptic of the “we’ll build a loss making business with lots of eyeballs, and work out how to make a buck from it later” approach used by so many Web 2.0 consumer web plays.

And if Google can’t seem to make this work, you’ve got to ask yourself: “what hope does anyone else have”?

As remarked by Mike Cannon-Brooks in a SiliconBeachAustralia podcast, the sheer volume of eyeballs required to generate a sustainable business, assuming generous CPM’s, is amazing. If you want to have a $10m revenue business, you need to make close to $1m/month. If you manage to get $10 CPM, then you need 100 million page views per month – this is pretty massive scale, all for a business that could afford to employ, at most 50 staff, and that’s assuming you’re generating all of your own content (no licencing costs), and that your server and bandwidth costs aren’t too high.

Of course, this doesn’t mean is isn’t possible (divide all numbers by 10 if you and a few mates want to make it as a small crew), but unless you’re able to drive up your CPM by having content close to a transaction, in the current economy, its going to be an uphill battle.

1800 and 1300 Numbers in Australia

I’ve been doing a bit of research lately on phone setup for my new startup, Hiive Systems. Part of the establishment work is around phone numbers, and I’ve learned a few things I thought might be worth sharing.

Firstly, I’ve learned that – in Australia anyway – VoIP services haven’t yet come of age. Even after iPrimus came and gave a presentation at the Australian Telecommunication Users Group about their new VoIP services (and how their roll-out for Rebel Sport saved a lot of money and made them much more efficient), the presenter admitted that it is really about point to point type services where you’ve got multiple offices.

Secondly, I’ve learned a bit more about the 1300 and 1800 phone number system. We’ve had a 1800 number with Internetrix for a while, and we got it as part of a long distance plan through AAPT some time ago. In setting things up with Hiive, I wanted to have another look at how it all works.

Turns out, there are lots of companies out there that specialise in these sorts of services. Generally, you pay a monthly fee, usually with no committment, and then you pay a price per minute to receive calls. The prices of two companies, AllTel and Telcoworx are included in the attached spreadsheet, which you can see by clicking here.

These companies will route your call to any landline – or, for a higher cost, mobile – number you like, which makes sense. What surprised me the most, however, is that the difference between 1300 (cheaper, because the caller pays something) and 1800 (free to the caller) is bugger all. So, given 1800 numbers look a bit better/more professional/generous, we’ll be getting one of those.

The other thing that was new info is how the numbers are allocated. Since this is a national namespace, it works a bit like domain names, and some numbers – which can spell your company name on the handset – cost more than others. There’s a Federal body responsible for auctioning off numbers that are more in-demand, usually because they use a lot of repetition – called SmartNumbers which appear to be a part of the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

What surprised me was how they price these numbers. By going to the search form on the SmartNumbers website, you can do a search for the phone number you want, and they’ll tell you if it is a premium number, which they’ve determined will have a reserve price at an auction; the more repeating numbers, the higher the reserve it would appear.

As a result, changing the leading digit at the beginning of the number I’m looking for – I’ll keep it a secret for the moment until I’ve won the auction – changes the price from being a reserve of $500 to, in one case, a reserve of $12,500 – that’s a 25x increase in reserve!

Also like domain names, it would appear that once you’ve got one of these numbers, you become the “Rights of Use” holder; I think this is a bit like a lease on a domain name; you never own the domain, but you have the rights to it exclusively.

I remember a Fourth Estate Domain presentation some time ago with the (younger) Jack Singleton, who runs/ran Phone Names, and was trying to tap into this gold rush aspect. While it looks like the Feds have wised up with an auction system to stop companies “claiming” the rights to thousands of names, just to on-sell them like domain squatters, the more open nature of the process now should make people in business think about reserving a number that matches their business name.