My software development company took quite a complicated route into existence; it was definitely more a result of evolving ideas rather than any specific eureka moment. However in hindsight I think the driving forces behind that evolution have always been present and are fundamental to who I am. In a broad sense I would say Virtual Blue (https://virtual.blue) is the (eventual) product of two aspects of my personality: (1) my fascination with systems and (2) my (somewhat contradictory) unrelenting desire to be a part of some kind of adventure.
The first of these afflictions led me to study Physics at University; I was some distance into a PhD in the subject before spontaneously coming to the conclusion that I wasn’t doing enough to satisfy the second. I had been all set for a career in academia, a plan I had been devoutly following since school – and I remember being surprised by a lone thought which one day had suddenly popped into my head: “You don’t actually have to do this”. A subsequent soul-search led to the revelation that I was not happy. Something about the environment just wasn’t working for me. Could I really commit myself to this kind of life indefinitely? I realised my mission had started through the desire for the prestige of letters after my name, but that I no longer felt this to be important. Suddenly I wanted to get out into the world and experience something completely different. Ironically I think this reflected a thirst for real learning rather than collecting a stamp. Indeed, since then I have always been learning – in fact I believe I have learnt far more than I ever did at University not just in Physics, but in a broad range of subjects from languages to Medicine – and of course including Business related topics such as Economics, Psychology and Law.
In my opinion the only teacher that really matters is the market. If your skills are valuable – in whatever field – you should be able to sell them; if you can’t, chances are they are not worth the certificate they are printed on. If you can’t walk out with your freshly minted Psychology qualification and immediately start selling seawater to sailors then maybe what you learnt wasn’t real? If you really understand people then talking them into buying your product ought to be child’s play. Don’t give me that nonsense about “not wanting to”; you are just cheating yourself. Sure, there are other areas of Psychology than just sales, but if you can’t master this one area, why should we trust you with any other? This is why in my opinion the real experts in Psychology are the top salespeople whose skills are validated not by a bureaucratic authority but by the deals they close.
The market is the best teacher, but also the most unforgiving. I think this is something anyone starting out in Business needs to anticipate. If you are like me, you may have come from a world where the goal was to win arguments or obtain validation from within certain communities. It’s not just that back-slapping is prevalent, it’s that often this seems to be the actual objective. There is no reality check to bring your ego into line, and very often arrogance – that you are likely not even aware of – is the result. If you make an immediate switch from this kind of environment to Business you are going to get a shock. Expect all congratulations to quickly disappear and to be replaced by only varying levels of criticism. All requests for comment on intellectual topics will immediately cease. You will get far more likes and professed admiration on Facebook by posting a picture of cake you baked than by shouting about the tech company you just launched. You’re also going to suddenly find out how wrong you are about almost everything. I remember wasting a lot of time in the early days essentially trying to disagree with reality; I would try to win arguments with critics of my business proposal only to eventually discover how meaningless any such “win” really was. No sales were being made, so I was wrong – and that was the brutal end of the story. Attempting to convince anyone otherwise was just a waste of time.
In my opinion pride is the biggest potential wall to any person’s success in Business. Fail to drop it and you will simply never succeed. But once you do, get ready for a lifetime of real learning. Now you have accepted your merciless teacher’s harsh methods and can start to appreciate the incredible lessons you are going to learn. In my opinion many of those lessons turn out to reveal truths about Business that are completely opposed to the negative light in which it is often painted; for example there is the myth of the “greedy” businessperson. I think you can only be greedy and succeed if you are engaged in practices that aren’t really free-market capitalism (crony capitalism, perhaps). A greedy businessman sets too high a price for his services and is immediately punished by the market. In my opinion it is only when you learn to stop being greedy that you open the door to financial success. You need to deliver real value to your customer. Likewise the claim the businessperson must be “selfish” turns out to be unfounded. In fact what is required is incredible self-sacrifice; you need to stop trying to push your ideas on customers and start paying attention to what they really want. You are the devoted servant of your customer, which is anything but selfish.
Of course there are many other claims about Business which I have found do contain merit – for example the assertion one should have a passion for one’s trade. In my case it almost seems like my trade stumbled around until it found my passion. I think it was no surprise to anyone who knew me that I ended up in software development; but the crazy route I took to get to what should have been such an obvious destination was a lot more confusing. Much of the reason for this was circumstantial; an intended “year out” travelling in China had turned into a multi-year escapade involving all manner of tangential activities from teaching to Geophysics surveys – even at one point modelling suits! My adventurous side had taken over. There are a lot of stories I can tell from that period!
Many of the expats I would run into out there were setting up businesses, generally involving either export or education. People would spend a lot of time talking about Business ideas and I guess this started to infect me. My first forays into the Business world were mostly related to Education and generally did not get very far at all. We whiled afternoons away in “meetings” which also happened to involve beer drinking – and thus quickly devolved into nonsense. It wasn’t terribly productive – but it was a lot of fun. I think this was essentially the same process you now see playing out in “digital nomad” hangouts – but before this concept really existed. I hear criticisms of the digital nomad scene; how many of them are “all talk” and are just spending their savings while sitting around in cafe-bars browsing the internet and chatting. I find this hilarious. I think it is probably true – but nonetheless this is often how it all starts. Whatever happens, your business should always be fun.
The irony of all these early dead-end projects was that I was already conducting business successfully the whole time they were failing to get off the ground. One of the methods I used to cover my expenses was freelance work in Software Development. I grew up coding text adventure games in GW BASIC on my Commodore PC10 (boasting a whopping 256k RAM); I am drawn to coding like a magnet and find it as instinctive as breathing. I think one side-effect of being a natural at something is you can mistakenly think everyone else shares the same ability; it seems so straightforward it doesn’t occur to you that other people might not be able to do it – and thus how valuable a skill it really is. I think it is also interesting that I was frequently discouraged from what often seemed to be regarded as a bad habit during my school years. For example I remember being pulled off the classroom BBC Micro during cooking class as I had become engrossed in writing a programme which would store and print recipes. The teacher seemed to think it more important that I burnt myself, dropped things and covered myself in flour.
Even when I did embark on my first full-time tech business project, I didn’t think to myself, “I am hereby entering the software arena”; I was just suddenly captivated by an idea for a system and decided to build it. I had discovered Bitcoin around 2012 and was enthusiastic – particularly about its potential capabilities beyond that of traditional payment methods. In a months-long coding frenzy I put together a “micropayments” platform which would enable any website owner to quickly monetize individual resources (articles, photos etc.) and instantly receive small payments for seamlessly granting visitors access. The system generated some media attention. Investors were interested. A company with a huge team who had squandered a big budget to create a competing product were nervous. (There are reasons why I know this.) It was all looking very positive for Coinetize (now preserved as a demonstration platform here: https://www.coinetize.info).
The problem is, suddenly the whole thing seemed like a prison sentence. I discovered I only wanted to build the system. I didn’t want to be chained to the damn thing for the rest of eternity. Now I had built it I wanted to just carry on and build something else. I didn’t want to be lumped with endless marketing campaigns, investor pitches, customer support, and the general necessity to spend the rest of my days on “growth hacking” and promotional work. I realised both my drive and my instinct are for system development in general rather than for their wider application. So this seems a good moment to mention another sound Business insight: try to find your niche. And let me add my own morsel of wisdom: try to do it quicker than I did. Preferably a lot quicker!
So here’s the deal: YOU do all of the above. After all, you are the expert in people. You know your market. You even like that kind of thing – I know you do. My part is to provide the part you don’t like – and which probably scares you. I can help you narrow down the system which is going to give you the most efficient shot at the title, taking into account your budget constraints and broader business goals – and then we can build it for you. To be clear I am not talking about a prescriptive arrangement where development goes down blind alleys because “we are just doing what you told us”; I mean intelligently turning your abstract objectives into a realistically achievable plan – and then implementing it. More like a CTO for hire service; but much better than an actual CTO because (a) you don’t need to sacrifice a cut of your business and (b) I actually know how to develop real systems. I’m not joking about point (b); I often get introduced to CTOs and wonder how they blagged their way in. Maybe they’re already knee deep in some totally unnecessary activity. I’ll walk onto the project and say “you don’t need that internal API layer you’re building over your database – it has an interface already”. (Real example.) I can see the inefficiencies in your system in the blink of an eye – and that’s why you want me on the job. (There’s the sneaky pitch!)
One problem with the software development ecosystem is the endless stream of fads. The latest paradigm, framework or development methodology is always somehow going to be a silver bullet which magically eliminates all previous problems. Constant false claims are pushed about how all sorts of new things can be done in the latest scheme that can’t be done with the previous one. Everyone goes loopy about it. The Physicist in me shakes my head at all this; how is it not obvious the limitations are provided by the environment, and not by the method of code organisation? It’s like constantly rearranging your sock drawer and expecting it to start producing new pairs of socks. Nutty as it sounds the industry is drenched in this kind of nonsense. One great thing about operating as a Business – negotiating directly with executives wanting an end result – is being able to avoid all the silliness. I think most of our clients really appreciate that as well – and it sure does save them money.