Over the past 11 years, I’ve been involved with 3 start-ups:

  1. In 1999, while working for PricewaterhouseCoopers, a co-worker and I designed and built StockTipster.com, a site where people could submit stock tips and we would track success/fail rates – and assign reputation points to the best “tipsters”. With the NASDAQ crash in April 2001, so went StockTipster.com.
  2. In 2007, while on vacation in Maui, my beloved partner and I conceived of a realtor reputation system called What-Customers-Say.com (still technically live but not ‘alive’), where clients of realtors could rate their experiences – good or bad. Unfortunately, as a group, realtors don’t want their clients being honest about their experiences, so our target customers were ultimately against us.
  3. In July 2010, Joanna and I decided to build Page99Test.com, another user feedback system – this time targeted at aspiring writers – that enables readers to rate the quality of writing from a single page of a manuscript (you guessed it… page 99). We sincerely hope it’s a success story in the making…

In those 11 years, probably the biggest challenge for me, as an entrepreneur-in-training, has been working through disagreements between co-founders. It’s something that all co-founders will eventually face, so the goal should not be to avoid the inevitable, but to handle it in a way where everyone walks away feeling heard and supportive of the decision.

Compounding the challenge for me is the fact that my co-founder in 2 of the 3 above ventures is also my amazing partner in life, Joanna. And while many of you may have decided to part ways as start-up co-founders due to a conflict – and this is certainly an option even for life partners who run a business together – dealing with a business casualty can add significant strain to what is otherwise a loving personal relationship.

This post is about reflecting back on what has worked for me and what hasn’t, but I am most interested to read your suggestions for how to do it better.

Here are the most common conflict resolution options and outcomes in my own experience:

Option #1: Game of Chance

It’s possible to resolve a conflict using some form of chance, such as flipping a coin or playing ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’.

  • Pros: Quick, easy to implement (providing both parties agree to use this form of conflict resolution).
  • Cons: It’s kind of like throwing your arms up – or giving up on your point of view without a fight.

Option #2: Art of Persuasion

This is where one co-founder tries to convince the other to come around on their point of view, and vice versa. From my experience, the intensity of the conversation can vary between completely calm and over-the-top-crazy-with-emotion (the former usually resulting in a better outcome for all). The key here is to really listen to the other party. You don’t get to speak until the other person has stated her point of view – and listening doesn’t mean formulating your response in your head as the other person speaks. You may also agree in advance that whoever feels strongest about the issue is the person whose solution is implemented, but this is easier said than done.

  • Pros: Likely more effective than flipping a coin because reason is used, both parties can come away feeling good about the solution.
  • Cons: Can be an exercise in debating skills, really only works if both co-founders are open to listening.

Option #3: Tell It to the Judge (or Democracy Rules)

If there are three co-founders and two are not in agreement, then the third can be the tie breaker, although the perception of alliances can create different problems for a team. A better option may be to present both sides of a conflict to someone who can act as a mediator and a judge – whereby both parties present their ‘case’ and then the judge makes her decision.

  • Pros: You’re not trying to convince each other, so it’s less of a debate.
  • Cons: It may be just as difficult to agree on an impartial judge.

Option #4: Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

It sounds extreme, but it happens. A conflict about one thing can be the symptom of a much bigger issue, and if neither co-founder is willing to give or explore other options for resolving the conflict, then sometimes this is the only possible solution.

  • Pros: No more conflicts to resolve.
  • Cons: Is holding onto your point of view really worth dropping a great business idea over?

I’ve tried the first three options with varying degrees of success, and for me, no one method of conflict resolution has worked consistently well. Yet option #2 is still probably my favourite because it usually results in both parties feeling pretty good about the solution – but it all rides on how well you listen and your ability to keep pride out of the discussion.

What little tricks for resolving conflicts have worked for you in your start-up? Any disaters?

How do you know if what you’re receiving for feedback on your page 99 is any good? That question was virtually impossible to answer up until about a week ago, when we began including “Average in this genre is X%” on the writer’s upload page – and on the page where readers get to see all the ratings for a specific page 99.

We added this data point to the site so that writers can quickly get a sense for how their page is performing relative to others:

Prior to making this small improvement, we’d heard from several concerned writers… about their disappointment in the reader feedback – specifically in their page 99 ‘thumbs-up’ ratings of only 65%, or 58%, or 53%. For anyone who considers himself an effective writer, these ratings would appear to be low indeed. But without context, it’s difficult to say for sure. And since ratings like what we’re providing on Page99Test.com don’t exist anywhere else on the Web, there is no context.

So we simply wanted to provide a benchmark for writers to measure against. And that’s why we decided to include the average rating for each genre on the site.

One of the things we’ll soon be adding is a series of awards (or badges), which will serve to shine a nice, bright spotlight the page 99s receiving outstanding feedback. The badges, in conjunction with a Top 99s page, will give the outstanding page 99 submissions the recognition they deserve.

Here are the badges: (actual percentages are not yet finalized)

In order to determine the percentage thresholds for each of the badges, we’re waiting and watching to see how the average ratings pan out across the site. If we choose cut-off points too high, then it’ll be nearly impossible for a writer to achieve the recognition. If, on the other hand, we choose cut-off points that are too low, then the badges will be too easy to attain and result in nothing meaningful.

Stay tuned for this as well as some other features that have been suggested by the readers and writers of our growing community, such as a way to follow writers on Twitter or buy their books, and a way to go back any time to review the page 99s you’ve read!

By the way, we’re working hard to bring traffic to the site – to ensure writers get plenty of great feedback in a timely manner (the quicker, the better). But as a boot-strapped start-up, we could definitely use some help spreading the word. For example, if you happen to frequent writer forums such as:

… or any other related online communities, please consider sharing your experience on Page99Test.com with others.

Many thanks,

Lance, Joanna, and Steven

… or without even knowing it, for that matter.

This post is about the recent launch of our start-up, Page99Test.com, and an interesting phenomenon I first heard coined by Jason Roberts of TechZing fame (a podcast I highly recommend for tech entrepreneurs): “Luck Surface Area”. As I understand it, Jason believes that by putting yourself out there… blogging, podcasting, commenting in online discussions, and following up with every customer and user, you increase the likelihood of having a serendipitous moment. It’s a fun concept to consider – but perhaps less of a scientific occurrence than yet another example of the Law of Averages. Whatever your belief system, something very interesting happened on the day of our launch…

For a little context, our Web site (which lets published and unpublished writers upload page 99 of their book or manuscript and get immediate first-impression feedback from readers on the quality of their writing) was launched in beta on October 10th (10/10/10) to about 100 people who had signed up on our pre-launch landing page.

During our 2-week beta test period, I had tried [unsuccessfully] to get some initial traction on Hacker News by writing a few posts on this blog about launching a start up, building an audience, etc. My attempts were likely unsuccessful because just as we were preparing to launch, there was a glut of “Ask HN” submissions for Rate My Start-up that were seeing fewer vote-ups and fewer promotions to the HN home page. So much for serendipity.

I had mentioned my goal (and fast-becoming obsession, frankly) of writing something of value for the HN community and landing on the front-page to my partner – in business, life, and love – who is always supportive of my endeavours, crazy as they may be (thank you, Joanna!). She is also an amazing Web copywriter and agented fiction writer who always reviews my blog post titles for ‘click appeal’ (like sex appeal, but for… well, you know). So when she learned of my obsession, she decided to spend some time on Hacker News to see what all the fuss was about. And in the time that she spent reading a few posts, she responded to a simple request for help by a HN member named Shereef, who was looking for some copywriting tips for his start-up, BetterMeans.com.

Being the generous person that she is, Joanna offered to help put together a brief list of recommendations that Shereef could implement on his site. But Shereef had no idea what he was about to receive. And with absolutely no expectations – and nary a mention of her work on BetterMeans.com to me – Joanna compiled a thoughtful and detailed list of best practices and recommendations on writing more effective copy for Shereef. I’m sure she thought that would be the end of it.

Fast forward about a week to October 26th… official launch day for Page99Test.com – and which also happened to be Joanna’s birthday. We spent the day making sure that when we launched the site to the 2,100 people who left us their email addresses, there would be no user experience or technical glitches – having read enough horror stories about sites that managed to get some tech news big coverage but collapsed under the traffic pressure (oh, but what a problem to have!).

We sent out our launch email and posted to Twitter and then got ready to head out for a romantic birthday dinner. We came home after an evening of awesome food and wine and couldn’t help but take a quick look at our traffic using Google Analytics. To our astonishment, traffic had soared while we were out, with our site receiving over 2,000 visits in the time it takes to finish a 5-course meal.

Thanks to Shereef’s gracious acknowledgement of Joanna’s work, the HN post received 423 points and 120 comments in 24 hours, landing easily on the front page and staying there for a good stint… and Joanna’s PPT deck (that Shereef posted to SlideShare) saw more than 7,500 views in that period.

Post on Hacker News: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1836538

Joanna’s PowerPoint deck: http://www.slideshare.net/shereefb/recommendations-for-bettermeans

During the burst of activity on HN, Joanna received many requests for copywriting advice, and true to form, she’s making her way through a bunch of Web sites – despite being extremely busy with our own start-up and her day job as a senior Web copywriter for Intuit. She (and I) has also been fortunate to connect with some amazing people as a result of that one post – like Patrick McKenzie of Bingo Card Creator and Appointment Reminder.

Whether you call it karma or expanding your luck surface area, it’s clear to me that sometimes you can try too hard and miss out on letting good things happen. While I tried for weeks to think up creative ways to get some Hacker News love, Joanna was just herself and ended up with one of the biggest recent posts I’ve seen on HN about someone’s generosity.

Good things come from doing good deeds. It pays to be generous and help others out, because you never know who you’re helping, and it may come back to you many times over – in ways that you can’t even imagine.

Thanks, Joanna. I love you.

Lance

My frazzled brain can barely wrap around the fact that this day, the first official day of Page99Test.com, is now drawing to a close. Isn’t it odd that people in startups get this insane thrill – this rush – at the idea of staying up late to work on our little websites? Anybody out there who’s bootstrapping it works almost nonstop… and we love it.

The day you launch is pretty serious chaos. The emails sent through MailChimp. The help requests managed through Zendesk. The press release (eek! going out first thing Tuesday AM) sent through PRWeb. The pre-launch podcast on FoundersTalk. The custom emails to the many PR contacts your contacts hooked you up with. Tweeting and following tweets. Facebook updates. Checking in on the site repeatedly and facilitating that community. Dashing off page meta descriptions ‘cos you weren’t thinking about SEO quite enough, I guess. All while holding down your day job? Love it.

Even now, tired, head pounding from staring at these screens all day and night, I’m totally jazzed by it all. In fact, here is my haiku in place of an ode to being a bootstrapped-and-proud-of-it company called Page99Test.com:

Even now, tired
Head thumping, thumping, eyes strained
I love this startup

~joanna

Well, we’re planning to launch Page99Test.com this Tuesday, October 26. And we’re, um, exhausted. Our developer Steven has obviously been slaving away since receiving feedback from our “exclusive private beta” testers. And Lance has been forming new relationships with cool people, like some fine fellows over at AbeBooks and AnyNewBooks. I’ve been working on stuff like our first actual press release.

But we’re pretty jazzed about the amount of press we’ve already received without, well, ‘trying’. GalleyCat wrote about us, and the Guardian (UK) did a great article on us – as did The National in the middle east. Tons of bloggers have covered us – from editors to agents to writers to librarians. And CBC Radio here in Canada did about a minute on us… which is wicked-cool. Read the rest of this entry »

SUMMARY: Before the Kindle, was the price of a book merely a function of its printing, production, and distribution costs? Or was the price a measure of its value to the consumer? If it was really the former, then one would expect prices to fall with the advent of a digital distribution network. But if it’s the latter, then why are prices of books, movies, music, and software falling?

I noticed something interesting about my own behavior this weekend using Netflix, and I can’t help but wonder if it applies to others.

Netflix recently came to Canada with a $7.99/month all-you-can-eat, streaming media service (movies & TV) that works with your computer, iPhone, iPad, Sony PS3, and Wii. Despite a dearth of recently released movie titles, I can see this service severely cutting into my own visits to the local Blockbuster. Not only can I pick from a huge library of titles and watch them on demand, but Netflix does a decent job of recommending shows that I’ll likely enjoy. Read the rest of this entry »

You make a product. You think it’s great. You launch it… and no one shows up. How’s a startup supposed to grow in an environment like that? – where you can build something useful that only 1/100,000 people are interested in? (Yay for early adopters! But every startup wishes it had more early adopters.)

It’s a problem we all have to face, of course. Attracting users is sort of hard. “If you build it, they will come” is simply not the case; and it’s never been the case – at least not since ye olde days when Kevin Costner had a career. No point in complaining, though. We just, as struggling startups, need to figure out a strategy to attract interest and/or get some press.

But even the old-fashioned problem-free path to press – throw money at a PR firm – won’t get a tech startup very far, necessarily. Michael Arrington’s been pretty vocal about sucky, annoying PR ‘stars’ who make rabid pitbulls look like Jedi masters. Press releases just feel dull. And, with success stories like Mint aside, old-school PR just isn’t cool enough or smart enough or ‘with it’ enough in the tech community to help startups get the blog coverage we need. Read the rest of this entry »

If you’re ever feeling great about yourself and wonder when the high is going to stop, here’s a quick way to expedite the inevitable low: try to make the publishing world less serious. Try to have a bit of fun in the ultra-serious world of Books, capital B.

It’s a sure-fire way to get knocked to your knees.

Something I just read makes me feel like a victim of publishing elitism… but I feel too low to recount my own story quite yet. So, instead, I’ll reference two classic examples of people who were flatly rejected by book snobs when they tried to inject a little fun into books: JK Rowling and Stephenie Meyer. Read the rest of this entry »

Since Microsoft Word 1.0, there has been a low barrier to entry for anyone whose dream it was to write a book. If you had an idea for a story and the time to dedicate to the keyboard, you could produce a manuscript to enjoy by yourself or share with others. There have always been writers… with stories to tell… and very little friction – besides hard work and determination – to get in the way of completing a manuscript.

Now, if your dream extends beyond a Word document, let’s say, to getting your book sold through the retail channel, the barriers to entry become very large, very quickly. Unpublished writers are faced with trying to convince the gatekeepers of the publishing world – known as literary agents – that they have a marketable asset… something that can sell in volumes large enough to offset the tremendous costs of getting books into stores and in the hands of readers. Before the Kindle and e-publishing, this was practically the only path to getting published. Read the rest of this entry »

Every two weeks, we’ll post the published book deals for newly discovered fiction writers – because new writers need & deserve publicity. We’ll tweet these posts, in case you miss them. Also, if your first book deal has escaped our attention or if we’ve missed/inaccurately represented any details here, please comment or email us

AUTHOR: Taylor Polites
TITLE: Untitled
AGENT/AGENCY: Trena Keating of Keating Literary
PUBLISHER: Touchstone Fireside (Trish Todd)
DEAL DETAILS: Pre-empt between $50K – $100K
About a young wife whose husband dies of a mysterious blood fever, leaving her to navigate a world irrevocably altered by war, political treachery, and racial conflict where everyone is hiding something from her and her desire for independence may cost her her life. Read the rest of this entry »