Archives for the month of: November, 2010

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, 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
  2. In 2007, while on vacation in Maui, my beloved partner and I conceived of a realtor reputation system called (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, 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 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 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,, 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,

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 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 – 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:

Joanna’s PowerPoint deck:

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.