Thursday, September 24, 2009

Escaping spreadsheet hell

Have you ever seen someone get excited about accounting software? Yes, I mean the kind of software for which you used to need a diploma in number-crunching and a PhD in bean-counting in order to be able to use it.

Enter PC Pro’s review of FreeAgent, the web-based accounting tool that I’ve joined as an investor and advisor earlier this year.

This is not one of those product reviews where someone spends an hour testing five different applications and writes a roundup afterwards. No, this guy has spent a year working with FreeAgent, so his opinion is extremely well-founded. The article gives a good overview of what FreeAgent is all about and why it’s so much better than Sage (which is or at least used to be the de-facto standard accounting software in the UK).

I urge you to read the full article, but if you want the conclusion only, here you go:

FreeAgent ranks in my top couple of web applications of any sort. As an extremely busy person, I confess to almost enjoying doing the accounts now!

It’s rare that I feel able to recommend a product unreservedly: this is one of those occasions. FreeAgent starts at £15 per month for a sole trader and, given the range of features and ease of use, could easily become your most important application for administering your business.

Congrats to Ed, Olly and Roan at FreeAgent Central for building such an outstanding product – and for managing to turn an extremely unsexy product category into something which people get excited about!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Paul Graham on Enterprise Software

A link in today's TechCrunch posting about Y Combinator's "Request for Startups" idea brought me to an earlier "Startups ideas we'd like to fund" list, published by Paul Graham about a year ago. It's a terrific list of ideas, and I applaud Paul for sharing them (execution is everything!). If you're toying with the idea of founding an Internet startup and you're not sure what kind of business you're going to start, I highly recommend going through the list. I'm sure you'll find lots of inspiration.

One thing that I'd like to quote from the original article is the paragraph on Enterprise Software:

Enterprise software companies sell bad software for huge amounts of money. They get away with it for a variety of reasons that link together to form a sort of protective wall. But the software world is changing. I suspect that if you study different parts of the enterprise software business (not just what the software does, but more importantly, how it's sold) you'll find parts that could be picked off by startups.

One way to start is to make things for smaller companies, because they can't afford the overpriced stuff made for big ones. They're also easier to sell to.


Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Europas - Cast your votes!

"The Europas", the tech award that was brought into being by TechCrunch UK's Mike Butcher (profile, Twitter account), is getting a lot of attention in the tech world at the moment. The award, which "honors the best tech companies and startups across the web and mobile scene from across Europe, the Middle East and Africa", will be presented in a big ceremony on July 9 in London.

I'm delighted that two of "my" companies (i.e. startups where I'm an investor and active advisor) have been nominated in the Best Enterprise / B2B Startup category – congrats to Mikkel and the team at Zendesk and Ed and his team at FreeAgent Central.

If you're a happy Zendesk or FreeAgent Central customer or partner (or if you just want to do me a favour :-) ), please go ahead and vote for us. There's no registration required so it's really quick and easy to cast your vote. The voting deadline closes today at 23:59 GMT so you'll have to hurry up a little.

By the way, I am also nominated in the "Best Investor Personality" category. Most of the other investors on that list have a lot more experience than I and have helped many more startups succeed than I, but if you still want to vote for me, here's the link. :-)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Guy Kawasaki's fun email signature

I just got an email from the famous (and with respect to his Twitter activity, some would say infamous) Guy Kawasaki. His email signature is really hilarious, which is why I want to share it with you:
Sent from a MacBook not an iPhone.

Guy Kawasaki
Nononina, Inc.
360 xxxx Street, Suite 100
Palo Alto, CA 94301 (best way to get in touch)
650-838-xxxx office (you'll never get me here)
650-387-xxxx cell (Spinvox will convert voicemail to email so I don’t have
to listen to people ramble)
650-853-xxxx fax (what's a fax?) (if you have no life) (if you want to see why I have no life) (if you want to see how I have fun in my life)
(Replaced some details with Xs to protect his privacy in the unlikely case that he has any.)

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Zendesk - Help Desk 2.0

Following my long-due update on Pageflakes here’s an update on what I’ve been doing since I’ve left Pageflakes. After spending some time with my family at a beautiful place in the sun, I started to look for new opportunities (to be perfectly honest I of course couldn’t resist researching new ideas while we were still on Barbados. Caribbean beaches and a DSL connection, what more can you ask for?). For various reasons I wasn’t yet ready to start my own thing again so I started to look for existing early-stage companies where I could come in as an angel investor and advisor. To some degree I “went to the dark side” (of funding) as it’s sometimes referred to but I’m really trying to be worthy of the term “angel” investor by really trying to help my companies in many different ways.

The first company I’ve made an investment in is Copenhagen-based Zendesk, founded in 2007 by a rock-star team around CEO Mikkel Asger Svane. This is no new news since it was announced last June and covered by Om Malik and others but I still wanted to blog about it here. If you don’t know Zendesk yet, the company offers a beautifully simple yet powerful on-demand help desk solution. You can buy and operate the system online and never have to worry about downtime, upgrades, security, backup or training. Setup is extremely easy and you can be up and running in hours.

Any business that serves more than a handful of customers needs a help desk solution in order to handle customer questions and support requests. Existing solutions are expensive, painfully difficult to set up and hard to use. Zendesk combines a professional-grade feature set with a beautifully simple Ajax-based user interface that resembles everyday web applications. If you want to have more productive and happier customer agents and want to save money along the way, check it out!

Monday, February 02, 2009

An update on Pageflakes

It’s again been a very long time that I wrote something here, and an even longer time that I wrote about Pageflakes or about what I’ve been doing since I left the company about a year ago. I did become a reasonably active Twitterer in the meantime though – the 140 character format is probably better suited for my literal talent! Anyway, I thought it’s time for a quick update.

One of my last blog posts about Pageflakes was about my attempt to convince Mike Arrington and Pete Cashmore that Pageflakes was the Next Big Thing, my goal for 2006 as I put it (half joke, half serious). While both of them were very skeptical about the whole thing in the beginning, Pete wrote a very favorable posting about us in October 2006. Convincing Mike was more difficult but he got more and more positive over time as well, covering our 2.0 relaunch as well as release “Flurry” and “Blizzard” (thanks, Dan, for introducing a nicer release terminology!).

With each of our major releases we made it easier to create a personalized page and to get all the best the Web has to offer on one page. I think we also raised the bar for the whole category of personalized homepages with each release. This is the result of a huge team effort, which the whole Pageflakes team can be very proud of, especially if you consider that our most important competitors were iGoogle, MyYahoo and (vastly better-funded) Netvibes.

Nevertheless, although we did get more and more users who loved Pageflakes and used it as their very own entry point to the Internet and did get considerable mindshare, especially in the Web 2.0 community, we (and the whole market, for that matter) never grew as fast as we hoped. One of the reasons was that as much as we tried to make the product as easy-to-use as possible, the barrier to adoption was still a tad too high for many users. Creating your personal page just never got as easy as watching a video on YouTube. YouTube offers users instant gratification. Your own Pageflakes page may provide you more value in the long term, but getting there also takes a little longer. Likewise, although we had considerable success in redefining the product category of personalized startpages into a more "social" one, Pageflakes never got (and never could get) as social as, say, MySpace. Although hundreds of thousands of users created an extremely diverse variety of Pagecasts and shared them with their friends or with the general public, the majority of our users just enjoyed their pages privately. That didn’t come as a surprise, of course – Pageflakes falls under the 90/9/1 rule whereas you have to connect with friends on social networking sites.

We did hope that the product would get more viral and social though, and in order to become the next Yahoo! (our slightly ambitious stated goal when we started at the end of 2005) we would have needed higher organic growth rates (ironically, if Yahoo! continues to fare as badly as it did in the last months, we can still become the next Yahoo! ;-) ). So when 2007 turned to a close, we had an award-winning product with a loyal user base that was growing but wasn’t big enough and wasn’t growing fast enough in order to monetize the service effectively in the near term. Around the same time, the appetite of VCs to fund companies like ours started to decrease, resulting in worsened terms for startups. In that situation, we thought our best choice was to partner with a large player that has a huge amount of users.

Many know the rest of the story: In April 2008 we got acquired by LiveUniverse, the new media company of MySpace founder Brad Greenspan. Unfortunately our initial enthusiasm about the deal started to fade away quickly since Pageflakes quickly started to suck. First just a little (no more new features), then more and more (bad customer service, sudden introduction of obtrusive ads on users’ pages without any communication, downtimes), and the last dark climax was an outage of about four days without any communication from LiveUniverse to its users, causing a ton of understandable complaints of Pageflakes users on Twitter. It took me a long time to admit this publicly and I really don’t like to badmouth the company that bought Pageflakes, but it’s time for me to say sorry to all Pageflakes users. If a super loyal Pageflakes user like Phil Bradley has to write a blog post like this, you know that you have crossed a line. Phil has been using Pageflakes for years and wouldn’t leave the service light-mindedly. But enough is enough – his post says it all.

As of right now, Pageflakes is up again but because of the almost complete lack of communication on behalf of LiveUniverse I don’t know how long it’ll stay up and running. The company told CNet's Webware on Friday that the downtime was due to a data center migration but I don’t know if it’s true. Other reports indicate that they are in trouble. I’ll continue to use Pageflakes for now and will keep my fingers crossed that LiveUniverse will change course. If you do have to shut down the service, dear Brad Greenspan, please give the users at least two weeks’ notice to save their data and move to another service. There are many legitimate reasons why a company can fail or why a service needs to be shut down. But you really have to make sure that users get a chance to save their valuable data. Failure to do this is not only puts Pageflakes users in trouble, it also undermines users' trust in the cloud in general. Thank you.