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Chris Cardell

Interview with Will Royall (Factory EStores)

Factory EStores is an online furniture store.

I interviewed Will Royall, Factory EStores owner to find out more. This interview is the fifth in a series of DW ecommerce interviews. Big thank you to Will!

How would you describe Factory EStores in under 50 words?

Factory EStores is a multi-million dollar e-commerce conglomerate, specializing in furniture, hot tubs, hardwood flooring, and playgrounds. The company started in 2010 with youth furniture. Currently the company has 20 employees, 15 websites, 6,400SF of space downtown Orlando, and 150,000SF of warehouse space in Sanford, FL.

How would you describe yourself in three words?

Determined, Intelligent, Decisive.

Tell us a bit about your background. What made you decide to set up Factory EStores?

I also own an advertising agency, Royall, and made a lot of other companies a lot of money. As a full service agency we’ve worked with big brands such as Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Holiday Inn Club Vacations, Hilton Grand Vacations, CiCi’s Pizza, and other smaller local companies too. We’ve learned a great deal working with so many large companies, and seem to have an advantage over other ad agencies in the online marketing, search, paid search, and e-commerce areas. This advantage translated into us watching as we made our clients more and more money (tracked from our online marketing efforts) and as the amount we were making them was outpacing what we were charging them, we thought – why not do something like this for ourselves?

I was waiting for the right opportunity, and one day my neighbor took me to lunch and presented a possible partnership with a children’s bunk bed manufacturer. After looking at the numbers, and doing some due diligence online, we jumped in with $12,000 and two year’s later are doing close to $10 million in revenue. We could do this over and over… we just need more opportunities for great products, backed by great numbers and margins.

Do you consider yourself competitive? If so, in what ways?

The company is definitely competitive – we sell a lot of the same things some other e-commerce guys bigger than us do, so we’re always on top of pricing, and our customer service is over the top. We want to stand out there so we personally call every customer who orders from us twice, once to thank them after the order, and a second time after they get the product to make sure everything is OK. If it’s not, we send replacement pieces to make it right, and a sorry card with a gift. If everything is OK even after the phone calls we follow up with a Thank You card in the mail. If you spend over $2,000 with us you get placed in our VIP club and you then get a second thank you card from our customer service team with a VIP gift. Everything we do is over the top – and we think it’s paying dividends.

Personally, I would say I’m very competitive. Always at the top, and if I’m not, I’m determined to get there. The truth is, all it takes to win, is to put in a bit more than the other guy – and while a lot of the time that means working harder, and working longer- it’s not always about that, it also means working a little bit smarter too.

What was the reason for recently redesigning and relaunching your websites?

Back in July we did a complete redesign of the sites to help increase conversions and take them to the next level. The new design was cleaner, and had better navigation, as well as included video on product pages. The conversion rate has doubled, meaning for the same marketing dollar we’re driving twice as much revenue and have increased the profit margin considerably.

We’re no where near done either and have a lot more split testing we’ll be running to continue increasing the conversion ratio. A lot of smaller design changes will be following. Honestly, we’ve been moving so fast, we’re already discussing the next redesign and may possibly be starting over with a newer version of our e-commerce platform. We’ll see how soon before we do it again.

The updated sites include videos of behind-the-scenes tours, product demos, and manufacturer interviews. With your interest in video production, how involved have you been with this?

Actually, I’m at High Point, NC right now grabbing more manufacturers on camera for our site. We’ve seen that conversions are 50-100% higher on product pages with video so this is key for us moving forward. Personally I’ve been doing video production stuff since middle school so I’m the guy at Factory EStores who knows this the best. We’re creating a position though whom we may already have a candidate for going forward. We want to do more than product videos and such, focusing on some educational and how to type things… teaching people about the types of furniture out there, helping them to make better informed decisions about what their buying – not focused specifically on one product at a time. If we can be a resource for people, they’ll come back time and time again.

We also want to eventually stumble upon a great viral video idea for promotion. Dollar Shave Club for example is one of my favorites that really helped build their e-commerce business for razors – YouTube it if you haven’t watched it.

Once purchased items are put in the hands of the delivery service, the quality of customer service is in their hands. What efforts have you made to ensure the quality of the delivery service meets your standards?

We actually used to use purely LTL Freight companies to do deliveries, but you hit the nail on the head that the customer service with these companies is not always top noch. Damages too tend to be higher and we were running a damage and re-shipment cost, of about 5.5% of revenue (low actually for this vertical).

Recently, we started to send about 50% of our shipments through a new white glove service for our customers. This company makes extra calls to our customers and our customers never not know where their shipments are. They’re delivered in a van with two people and the product can even be brought into an upstairs room, and they’ll remove and throw away the packaging for you (upgraded shipping).

What we’re finding is that many of our customers are appreciative of the added services they can upgrade when deciding on their shipping type, and the amount of damage as a cost of revenue is going down, while customer service is going up. The added cost of using the service is made up by the fact that the damage cost is going down. It’s a win win all around as basically we’ve shifted the money we were spending in damage to provide a better customer experience. We’re looking for ways to send more shipments now through the new white glove home delivery company because of this.

Has Factory EStores got the growth you expected?

Factory EStores is growing way faster than I expected. It’s exciting, and scary all at the same time. 16,700% growth actually since month 1.

Where do you see Factory EStores in 10 years time?

It’s so hard to answer this question regarding where we’ll be in 10 years. The industry changes so fast, and since we’re growing so fast I couldn’t tell you the types of things we’ll be doing by then. I know that mobile will become a bigger and bigger focus for us, but I think in 10 years it will be something else all together. Honestly, by then, we’ll either be bought up by a giant, taken public, or at least have had a VC step in and inject some cash to further our growth rate.

How do you plan to stay ahead of the competition?

Right now, our size allows us to be nimble, quick, etc. So being faster at reacting is one way. However, as we grow that will get tougher and tougher. Truth is, it’s all about the customer. We’re going to be so damn customer focused that anyone who’s done business with us once, will only think about doing business with us again.

What is the biggest hurdle you have faced or are still facing?

Big Data. That’s about all I need to say about that. Once your database gets to a certain size, it becomes very difficult to manage. Speed becomes affected. Small issues that pop up can cause other issues which you may not even see affecting the way things function. Big data is hard to deal with. Period.

What mistakes have you made, and what did you learn from them?

Biggest mistake was probably growing our product line too fast. Doing so, some of our product team Factorians, pushed with deadlines, threw up a lot of products without really well built out descriptions and some duplicate content. We’re going back now and cleaning all of this up, but in hindsight we were just trying to get as much on the site as fast as possible. Really to convert and sell online you need quality, not quantity. We knew this but growing so fast didn’t really pay attention to it. Clean up crew is on it now though.

What advice would you give to someone starting an e-commerce business?

Find a great product, with some great numbers and margins, make sure people online are looking for it, and then call me. ;-)

What are you most excited about at the moment?

We’re wrapping up some big integrations right now that is going to allow us to process orders faster with our vendors, and streamline marketing. We’ve already done the math and these integrations will show a 2,500% increase in productivity for the fulfillment, finance, and marketing departments, and if we had to hire additional Factorians to do the same job, saves us an estimated $30,000 / month in overhead costs. Just imagine what you can do if you were 2,500% more productive and an extra $30,000 in your pocket monthly! (Hint: We’ll be reinvesting that in our growth)

Can you convince the reader to visit Factory EStores in under 50 words?

If you need something for home, you’ve got to check with us first. We’ve got a low price guarantee, and the customer experience is over the top. Heck, if you reference this article, I’ll put you in the VIP club even if you don’t hit the minimum spend limit.

Finished reading? Check out Factory EStores!

Interview with Allan Stevens (InstallerParts)

InstallerParts provides a vast catalogue of cables and accessories for home systems.

I interviewed Allan Stevens, InstallerParts co-founder to find out more. This interview is the fourth in a series of DW ecommerce interviews. Big thank you to Allan!

Give us the elevator pitch for InstallerParts.

Nearly everyone today has a TV, computer, or ten of each. We recently launched a website, InstallerParts.com, that sells virtually every cable, adapter, connector, TV wall mount, and accessory you could ever need to properly setup your equipment.

Our pitch is that we, the guys who founded InstallerParts.com, have spent the last 15 years, hooking these devices up for you in your homes and business. We’ve used our experience and knowledge to source over 5,000 products we know you’ll like, at prices that make Wal-Mart look like Neiman Marcus.

Additionally, we’re here to help you with your audio/video project questions, and as experienced industry professionals, we’re confident we can.

What are your most popular products?

We have incredible prices on Cat5 & Cat6 patch cables and sell a ton every month as a result. TV/monitor arm mounts of all sizes, and oddly enough a DC power plug that apparently everyone loses or cat chews through.

Where are you based?

Bellevue, WA.

What is your background? What made you and your cousin, Denny, decide to set up InstallerParts?

I started installing car stereos in 1995 then switched to home system installations a few years later, eventually ended up starting and building a home automation company, which was acquired by a larger company in 2005. The housing market was booming back then and we were fortunate to have some very good clients. Some of the projects we worked on would blow your mind. One house had a man-made river running through the hallway and another had a 50-car garage packed full of American muscle cars in flawless condition.

I left the audio video world to pursue a social network startup, but unfortunately it wasn’t the next Facebook. The audio video mafia lured me back in and this time I partnered with my cousin Denny to once again run an integration company. When we got together, this was after the 2008 crash. This was not the same market I once knew. The big whole-home new construction projects were few and far between and now customers were going online to shop our bids against Amazon prices. Ask any audio/video installer how they feel about this and you’ll get an ear full of fun words.

When we started finding cheaper prices online then at our wholesale distributors, it became ultimately clear that times were changing and rather than fighting them we decided to take our specialized knowledge and join them.

What’s it like working with family?

I’ve advocated against working with family and friends to anyone who says they plan to do it, then, started this venture with both. When everything is going great, it’s fantastic. Who better to share the successes with than your family and friends. The problems come when something isn’t going great. No sane person wants to fire a family member or lose a friend over some pointless dispute. Fortunately for us, business is good and we make a great team. Ultimately, I’m extremely thankful that I’m able to work with them, even if I’m a hypocrite.

What has been the most insane moment of running your own business?

In 2005 I had just finished a pretty massive audio/video system for a new sports bar in Seattle, and was invited to attend a small private grand opening party for the investors. There were 48 HDTVs scattered throughout the place and a custom programmed touchscreen that operated them all. The real reason I was invited was to show everyone how to use the equipment! One of the notable investors attending this party was the King himself, LeBron James. He was there with his family and half of the Cleveland Cavilers who had just played a game and lost to the Sonics across the street at Key Arena. After spending some time showing him how the touchscreen controlled everything, we hit it off and decided to go hit a couple local nightclubs together.

The stars had aligned; we had just completed some work for another club owner where the SuperSonic’s frequented after games. I called him up and was able to get the whole place setup for us before we even got there. We left the sports bar to head that direction and I had Lebron in my car with half the Cavs following closely behind. As a huge NBA fan at the time, this was just a surreal moment for me. I ended up flying to Cleveland and doing some work for Lebron in his first house later that year.

Where do you see InstallerParts in 5 years time?

I heard a comment recently that we’ve reached a time in history where technology is advancing so quickly that it’s virtually impossible to imagine even 5 years out. Selling technology products on a technology platform makes this a real tough question to address seriously. Our plan is to continue to identify the needs of our customers, source out products that provide great value, and make our purchasing experience as positive and efficient as humanly and technologically possible. And we’d like to have a private space program.

Has InstallerParts got the demand and growth you expected?

Yes and no. Initially, we thought it would be easier to convince Installers to visit our website simply by mentioning our insanely low prices and incredible selection. Turns out people are so busy and numb to solicitation, even if you truly have a unique and valuable offer, a very low number of customers will actually follow through and end up making a purchase as a result. The good news is that our online marketing efforts are working very well and we have an incredible number of repeat customers with compounding sales growth.

What is one mistake you’ve made, and what did you learn from it?

When we were first developing our website we had it hosted on a basic, cheap hosting plan so we could save some money until we launched. The hosting company advertised nightly backups with a money back guarantee plus all the usual promises. We assumed that because it was nicely designed and advertised on their site with a big green check by it — it was a matter of fact. Turns out it wasn’t, and yep; their database server crashed. We had local copies of our application files but two and half months of product data entry was instantly vaporized on their database machine. We got our money back for that month of hosting as promised, $15. The hard lesson learned; even if you trust your hosting company, you should always make your own provisions for a backup of their backup.

Name the toughest challenge of starting your own business.

I’d say the toughest challenge when starting up would be making time for everything that your business will require of you if you really want to be competitive and successful. It’s best if you can build it when you’re single without kids because you need to put in the time or your competition will simply outpace you.

What one piece of advice would you give to someone starting an e-commerce business?

Tell your ambitions to wait or you’ll find yourself spread too thin to be really good at any one thing. It’s easy to convince yourself you need to spend time & money on all sorts of must haves, but most of the time in retrospect they’re not absolutely necessary. Start thinking in absolute terms early on, focus on the one thing you’re really good at and grow up instead of out.

What are you most excited about at the moment?

Right now, our value proposition to customers is basically three things; we have really good pricing on parts that virtually everyone uses, we have a much wider selection of audio video parts than you’ll typically find at other retailers, and finally, we are installers ourselves, so we really understand the products and their application better than most.

Price and selection are important, but only really matter if you’re making a purchase. A lot of people are just looking for information to help them plan a project, which we have plenty of. The problem is it’s in our heads and you have to call or email us if you want it. What we’re most excited to be working on is our solution to this problem. We’re in the process of adding some features to our site that we believe installers and do-it-yourselfers will greatly benefit from.

Can you convince the reader to check out InstallerParts in under 50 words?

If you own a TV, computer, or both; InstallerParts.com can help. We have over 5,000 cables, adapters, connectors, TV mounts and accessories, at prices that make Wal-Mart look like Neiman Marcus. Check us out and see why companies like Red Bull, Nissan, and UPS shop with InstallerParts!

Finished reading? Check out InstallerParts!

Interview with Omar Farra (Scooter City)

Scooter City are UK distributors of the latest brands of mopeds and scooters as well as accessories and parts.

I interviewed Omar Farra, Scooter City founder to find out more. This interview is the third in a series of DW ecommerce interviews. Big thank you to Omar!

You’ve been in e-commerce for over 10 years. Tell us how it all started.

It all started like a lot of E-commerce companies do, in my garage. I saved up £5000 and went to a local computer components wholesaler and purchased the cheapest motherboards, graphics cards etc I could find. I would then build the components up into completed computers and sell them on eBay, through local newspapers and at the Manchester computer fair. Once I had built up a little profit I started to buy consumer electronics and toys from auctions in the UK and from wholesalers in China. One of the products I was bringing in from China turned out to be very popular, miniature video CCTV cameras and at that time I was the only person selling them on eBay so they were flying out at a good margin.

Tell us a bit about each of your current businesses including Nitrotek, Scooter City and eComm Angels.

Nitrotek is a distributor of radio controlled models. We sell online through our site but also dropship for many other companies. We also have nine European sites such as Nitrotek.fr, Nitrotek.nl and sell both to the retail and wholesale markets in those countries.

Scooter City is our new site launched this year selling both toy micro scooters and proper road legal scooters. Like with any new company there is always teething problems but overall it has been a good start and we expect to have a good 2013 as demand for scooters increases in these tough economic times.

We have an office in Asia that employs local IT professionals who do tasks for us such as data entry and SEO work. These guys are very useful for eCommerce company tasks so we have just started eComm Angels that will allow other companies to hire their own full time staff like this for a very low monthly fee.

What got you into the business of remote-controlled toys and scooters?

In 2004 one of my contacts in China opened a new factory making gas powered radio controlled cars and asked me if I wanted to be the UK distributor. I agreed and put every penny I had into buying a full container of stock and Nitrotek Ltd was born. The agreement was that I had to buy $350,000 worth of stock a year to be the exclusive distributor which at the time was very scary. It’s good to have a little pressure like this and we ended up doing a lot more than this. We still distribute for that factory and many others.

In the recession the radio controlled toys market has got more difficult as it’s a luxury product market so we started to look at products that would sell well in a recession. Our first idea was Bogo.co.uk which is a site that buys people’s electronics and media for cash and then re-sells it. It was going pretty well and we were getting a lot of stuff sent through but sorting it and testing everything was turning into a nightmare. If it was going to work out it would need going all in 100% and I decided that was not what I wanted to be doing so I put that project on hold for now. I saw on Dragons Den last week a new company doing the same thing and they got investment so maybe it was a mistake to put it on hold.

Anyway, instead we started Scooter City as the savings from running a scooter instead of a car are very big. Nitrotek already employs mechanics and has a warehouse so it’s a perfect match.

Do you have a scooter yourself?

I used to have one before I had a car and I used to love it. I’m going to get one again in Spring, they are a lot of fun.

What e-commerce platform do you use?

We use Magento. We have tried a few other in the past but will stick with Magento now, it can do everything you could possibly ever want.

You have found a way to combat the recession by offering customers who qualify interest-free credit for six months. What made you decide to implement this payment option?

Well this was probably our customers’ idea. We kept getting customers ask for it so clearly the demand was there. Many customers will probably save more by driving a scooter instead of a car than the monthly payments for the scooter itself so it is perfect for a recession.

Has there been much of an increase in sales since you implemented this payment option?

Yes the sales have increased a lot. It’s difficult to put an exact figure on it because a new company’s sales will always increase as initial marketing starts to kick in, but for sure it has made a big impact.

What do you wish you’d have known 10 years ago that you know now?

So many things, I don’t even know where to begin! Everything has been started from scratch so every lesson has been learnt the hard way. There are little things like we did a television marketing campaign that cost a fortune which did not pay off or I paid for a consulting company that again cost a lot but was a complete waste of money. But on a bigger scale if I had known how some online markets were going to grow such as online fashion then I may have gone for a bigger market.

Has Scooter City got the demand and growth you expected?

It’s still early days but considering this is a new project I am very pleased with how quickly it has grown. We link to Scooter City from the Nitrotek site which has helped to boost sales.

What are you working on right now?

We have a few startup projects we are working on. Nitrotek has an office and warehouse in Poland also so we have built up some good contacts in Eastern Europe. For example Poland is a big manufacturer of furniture, so we are currently working on a new furniture site that will sell high quality low cost furniture that will be made by factories we have partnered with over there. Also there is a lot of work to do with the eComm Angels startup. We hope this will do well in the recession as there are big savings to be made by employing one of our agents compared to employing an on site full time member of staff.

What is one mistake you’ve made, and what did you learn from it?

I started a whole airsoft toys site and purchased a container of airsoft products. Then a few months later airsoft was basically banned in the UK! I’ve learnt to look into things more and to be more cautious before jumping in. If I had done proper research I would have found out that there was already talks about banning these types of toys in the UK.

With over 10 years experience in e-commerce, what one piece of advice would you give to someone starting an e-commerce business?

Keep control of your costs. Don’t blow your budget on a fancy office, the best website and staff you don’t need. There are always unexpected costs so you are better keeping this money in reserves.

What are you most excited about at the moment?

On Nitrotek over the next few months most models we sell will have a QVC type video presentation that will be neatly displayed below the picture gallery. I think this will increase sales and also make us really stand out from our competitors.

On Scooter City we are looking at how we can increase the number of customers that will be approved for finance and if we can make that happen we should see sales increase a lot. Plus there are all the new projects that I am very excited about. I think 2013 is going to be a busy but exciting year.

Finished reading? Check out Scooter City!

Interview with Firas Kittaneh (One Mall Group)

One Mall Group is an ever expanding group of online stores. Amerisleep is One Mall Group’s flagship eco-friendly memory foam mattress store.

I interviewed Firas Kittaneh, One Mall Group co-founder and CEO to find out more. This interview is the second in a series of DW ecommerce interviews. Big thank you to Firas!

Describe yourself in three words.

Passion drives everything.

Tell us a bit about your background. What made you decide to set up One Mall Group?

I was on track to become a medical doctor. There was an intense itch to create something larger that went beyond myself. I wanted to create jobs, not just have a job. I wanted to create something sustainable which delivers incredible value and service. I wanted to be learning for the rest of my life. Being an Internet Entrepreneur, which is a constantly changing field, forces me to stay nimble and on my toes. We’re still little babies swimming in the huge internet, and its very much the Wild West – it can be very scary, exciting, overwhelming and yet empowering all within the span of a few minutes!

In your experience, what’s the best way of choosing a supplier?

Remember, they work for you, too… so don’t be afraid to negotiate. Be honest about business problems so you can work them out together with your supplier. They rely on you to bring in sales just as much as you rely on them to deliver the product. Never forget that you’re in a symbiotic relationship, where everyone is helping each other to succeed.

At One Mall Group, we’re never in competition with our suppliers. We are successful because we make it clear that we’re all looking out for each other, all the way from the manufacturer, to the supplier, to the retailer to the customer. It’s an inclusive, positive relationship where everyone can win.

Has One Mall Group got the growth you expected?

My expectations are very high so I’m tempted to say no. But if you travelled back in time and found the younger me and said “This is what you’ll be doing in 6 years,” there’s no way I would have believed you.

Where do you see One Mall Group in another 6 years time?

I want to discover new talent through crowd-sourcing, help bring this raw talent to a big market that they can’t reach on their own, into the retail stores and on the big box shelves.”

What do you think the e-commerce industry will look like in another 6 years?

Crowdsourcing is taking over. Small-time designers can get a million hits overnight with a breakthrough product. People everywhere vote on the design and give instant feedback to the designer.

The supply chain is going to change in a big way. eCommerce sites will be able to know right away what’s hot and what’s not, based on the amount of social attention a new product gets. Hopefully this means a lot less waste, because we’ll know a product is hot BEFORE we bother to stock it in our warehouse.

What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken, and did it pay off?

I shut down our flagship retail store even though it was profitable. I knew without question the internet was going to dominate the marketplace. Looking back it seems silly, but 15 years ago nobody would have predicted the sheer volume of money passing through the ‘net. The single decision to shut down our retail store and concentrate our efforts online eliminated hundreds of headaches in one fell move. It let us avoid the hassles of dealing with running a brick-and-mortar outlet. There is no question that it took us to the next level. We were able to focus ALL of our energy towards the online customer experience, which exploded our growth.

What is the biggest hurdle you have faced or are still facing?

Getting customers to pay for high-priced items without touching and seeing them in person has always been our biggest hurdle. Luckily, we’ve become experts at showing them “virtually”.

Which entrepreneurs do you most admire?

Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were both were doing very well and worked together in Edison’s company. But Ford was so focused on his own inventions, he was forced to leave his job and file for bankruptcy. He just kept going. Almost exactly one year later his invention – the Ford Motorcar – broke the land speed record. The press he got helped him launch Ford Motors.

He was driven by an intense passion for his product, putting everything else aside to build the best product he could dream of. It helped him build a company that has stood strong for over 104 years. If he’d let a little thing like bankruptcy stand in his way, this story would have been a lot less interesting.

As an entrepreneur and e-commerce expert, what advice would you give to someone starting an e-commerce business?

Build value into your brand. No matter what you sell, you are in the CUSTOMER business. Your job is not to sell things, it’s to create evangelists… people so incredibly happy with your company they rave to their friends and family.

Don’t sell anything you wouldn’t buy yourself and don’t cut corners. Make something you are proud to put your name and face on! You can’t convince people to buy a lousy product, no matter how great your web site is, and it’s 1000 times harder if you don’t believe in the product yourself.

And have fun. Create the ideal job for yourself. If something doesn’t “feel” right, do it differently and do it the way that makes you feel good about building a business. Make sure your employees love their work, too!

What are you most excited about at the moment?

I think that the next evolution of the internet will be more and more high-resolution 3D graphics inside a regular browser. Instead of browsing flat pictures on a store’s web site, you are transported INTO their store in 3D, thumbing through racks of clothes or virtually picking up a pair of shoes. Later, we’ll be able to create a digital version of ourselves and our homes so we can see, “What will this couch look like in MY living room?” It’s coming sooner than we think, with advances in WebGL and the newest HTML5 standards.

What should we look out for from One Mall Group in 2013?

Shopping in 3D. :-D

Finished reading? Check out One Mall Group!

Interview with Sasha Dennig (Callixto)

Callixto sources local handicrafts, jewellery and accessories from around the world.

I interviewed Sasha Dennig, Callixto founder to find out more. This interview is the first in a series of DW ecommerce interviews. Big thank you to Sasha!

Describe Callixto in under 50 words.

Callixto is an online boutique dedicated to bringing together unique pieces of jewellery and other accessories from far-flung places, with a focus on originality, craftsmanship and beauty.

What made you decide to quit your job as a corporate lawyer and set up Callixto?

I had been working for 3 years in a large corporate law firm when I realised that no matter how hard I worked, and paid my dues the level of work and stress was never going to ease up. I didn’t see how I could be successful as a lawyer and have a family at the same time. I felt overworked and underpaid, and was generally miserable.

How did you come up with the name?

I spent a lot of time thinking about it and researching a name that had both meaning and could be pronounced in all languages. Because the concept behind Callixto is very much travel I started looking into the stories and myths behind constellations. Stars being the original navigation tools used by travellers before the advent of GPS, I thought it would be fitting to call my venture after a constellation. Callixto is an alternative spelling of Callisto who was the nymph that was turned into a bear and thrown into the sky by a jealous Hera. She became a The Big Bear Constellation.

How did you fund Callixto in the beginning?

I have taken a very organic approach to funding and growing the business. I put in 50,000 USD to start off with and am only growing at the rate that my initial investment allows me. I work from home, and as a result have no overheads. So far so good.

Who is the team at Callixto? Where are you based?

The Callixto Team is comprised out of me and my husband. He very kindly goes to the Post Office and sends my orders when I am travelling. I am based out of Hong Kong.

How is business so far?

Business is good. I have good months and months that are not so good. On average though I cannot complain.

How successful was your first pop-up shop in Hong Kong in June? Do you plan to make this a regular thing?

The pop-up shop was incredibly successful and I would like to do at least two a year in Hong Kong and potentially in London. The difficulty when trying to organize a pop-up shop is finding a good location/venue in which to hold the shop. It is easier said than done!

Has Callixto got the growth you expected since launch?

It has exceeded expectations in terms of sales. I completely underestimated the amount of work a website requires though. It has not been easy!

Where do you see Callixto in 5 years time?

I would love for Callixto to become the go to destination for women that want unique jewellery and other accessories that have a story as well as a distinct provenance.

While in Turkey for your honeymoon (congratulations) you squeezed in some sourcing. How did your new husband feel about this!?

My husband is incredibly supportive of Callixto. He hated me being a lawyer as I was either working ungodly hours or tired and grumpy. He is incredibly patient when it comes to sourcing with me and even helps me negotiate when needs be. Of course he also has all sorts of games on his iPhone to help him pass the time!

What has been your favourite country to visit and source from so far?

I love Turkey. I love Istanbul. I love the Grand Bazaar. I love Turkish food. There is really nothing about Turkey that I do not like. Turkish jewellery has a very distinct look which is very much up my alley. I like bold, big and colourful pieces and that is exactly what Turkish jewellery is like. It is also an easy place to do business in. It is easy to get around and easy to communicate. Really, I cannot speak highly enough of Turkey.

Do you ever encounter any problems as a woman doing business?

I have not had any problems so far. The interesting thing is that I thought I would be dealing exclusively with women as jewellery and decor is very girly. Almost all my suppliers are men though. Every once in a while I meet a couple where the wife designs and creates and the husband deals with the the production and sale of the product.

The only real problem is travelling alone. There are some destinations that are maybe not that advisable to visit if you are a woman travelling alone.

What is the biggest hurdle you have faced or are still facing?

At the moment I am a one woman show and it’s becoming more and more difficult to keep up with everything that has to be done. Equally this is my baby and I am finding it hard to give up control of even the smallest things! It has come to the point where I should really be outsourcing some things but I am finding it very difficult. I still take all my own pictures, I do the sourcing, I deal with the the wholesale orders and I do all the marketing and social media aspects myself.

What advice would you give to someone starting an e-commerce business?

Just do it. Don’t think too much about it. If you have an idea, and a bit of cash saved up, go for it. You can wait your whole life for that one idea to come that nobody has ever had. But ultimately Pepsi was made on the back of Coca Cola. You don’t have to have the most novel idea for it to work. You just have to dedicate time and effort to it and do it well.

Where are you heading to next?

My next sourcing destination is either Morocco or Vietnam.

Finished reading? Check out Callixto!

Interview with Daniel Sternlicht (Compare Ninja)

Compare Ninja is an online tool for creating beautiful HTML and CSS comparison tables.

I interviewed Daniel Sternlicht, Compare Ninja founder to find out more. This is the hundred and forty third in a series of DW interviews. Big thank you to Daniel!

Describe Compare Ninja in under 50 words.

Compare Ninja is a great tool for site owners to spice up their website with beautiful comparison & pricing tables. Compare Ninja has a lot of great features including a CSV to HTML converter, dozens of table skins, analytics tools and more.

Describe yourself in three words.

My name is Daniel Sternlicht and I’m a highly motivated Front End Developer with a great passion for UX and Web Design.

How did you get into web design and development?

Well, my engagement with web design started a few years ago while I was active in forums as a signature designer – you know – the small images with your super cool nickname under each message you left.

After I discovered that I was in love with graphic design I thought it might be a good idea to become a professional web designer and make some money out of it. Only a few months after I started to work at my first job I read a few informative articles about why web designers should also have web development skills – which actually brought me to develop front end technologies while designing in my spare time.

What made you decide to start working on Compare Ninja?

I designed and developed a lot of websites and noticed that every time, the most annoying thing in the process is designing HTML tables with CSS. I saw a need and decided to provide a fast solution for this issue.

How long did it take to put together Compare Ninja?

The first version of Compare Ninja was released one year ago and it took me just 1 month to put it together. However, it was a mess. So I started the whole process again which included a redesign, more functionality, premium features and more – 2 months of hard work.

What was technically the most challenging part of developing Compare Ninja?

A few weeks ago I got a very exciting opportunity from Wix to develop an App for their App Marketplace. It was a very complex task which included an integration with their API, developing a custom product for Wix’s platform and I had to complete it in less than 3 weeks for their App Market launch.

What technologies have you used to build Compare Ninja?

I based the back end of the service on PHP & MySQL which was a great decision because it has great support, documentation and community. The front end based on HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript (with jQuery).

How do you make money from Compare Ninja?

Compare Ninja also has premium only features. Those features including a CSV to HTML converter, premium table skins, unlimited rows and columns per table, ad-free tables and more… the price is very low and totally worth it :)

Has Compare Ninja got the feedback and growth you expected since launch?

It has grown better than I expected – the platform has already generated more than 15,000 tables for more than 8,000 users!

What other projects are you working on right now?

I have another project called youRhere. It’s a Chrome plugin which allows you to mark your article reading progress by just clicking it. The plugin was released a few months ago and has been installed by over 4,000 users.

Name 3 trends that excite you.

1. HTML5 & CSS3.
2. API’s – the best thing that the web can offer developers.
3. Google – they do amazing stuff.

What one piece of advice would you give to someone starting up?

Don’t think. Act!

I mean, almost everyone has an idea that can change a small piece of the world. Why not act on it?

Can you convince the reader to start using Compare Ninja in under 50 words?

If you’re a site owner that needs to create a comparison table for you website and fast – there is no better way to do it other than Compare Ninja :)

Finished reading? Check out Compare Ninja!

Interview with Percy Stilwell (Resource Guru)

Resource Guru is a web based resource scheduling application.

I interviewed Percy Stilwell, Resource Guru co-founder to find out more. This is the hundred and forty second in a series of DW interviews. Big thank you to Percy!

Describe Resource Guru in under 50 words.

Resource Guru is a simple way to schedule people, equipment and other resources online. Companies can replace their existing scheduling systems with a great looking app that helps them get visibility of their team on one clever calendar. Companies are using Resource Guru to become more efficient and profitable.

Describe yourself in three words.

Resource scheduling pervert.

Tell us a bit about your background. How did you and co-founder Andrew Rogoff meet?

I studied fine art at the Ruskin School of Art, Oxford University. After graduating in ’95, jobs were scarce especially for art graduates but the internet was just getting going so I got some work experience at a place called football365.com. After that I worked in digital agencies up until 2010 when I decided, it’s now or never, if I don’t get out of this rat race soon, I’m going to get ill.

Andrew and I met 10 years ago working at an agency which then belonged to Euro RSCG. Andrew was project managing quite a big web build for a Guinness music festival in Ireland called Witness and I was launching a global Yahoo! promotion for the World Cup. I hate to say it, but I think it was as long ago as 2007 when we first had the idea for Resource Guru. We talked about it, and talked about it, then started writing up some user stories and it wasn’t until 2009 that we started prototyping it. It’s unbelievable how long these things take to get off the ground, when you’re juggling work, family and all the rest of it. But somehow we’ve got to where we are today. I think that’s where having a business partner really helps. I would never have got here by myself. We’re pretty good at keeping each other going and our working relationship is very good. Neither one of us has a particularly big ego and when we argue, it’s never personal – strictly business. We’re both reasonable guys, so we always manage to get to a resolution – so far at least! Anyway, it’s healthy to have a few arguments, otherwise it means you don’t care enough.

What made you decide to start working on Resource Guru?

We were using Microsoft Project and back then collaborative apps were in their infancy – Basecamp hadn’t been going for long. MS project was rubbish for the simple task of scheduling the team. If Google docs had existed then, we would probably have used that, but it didn’t, so we had a single resource scheduling spreadsheet on our company server and we all updated it. You can imagine the nightmare! Every agency we’ve ever worked at seems to use a scheduling spreadsheet and they just weren’t designed for the task. We decided to scratch our own itch and build something from the ground up which was specifically for the task of scheduling resources. It’s very early days for Resource Guru, and there’s plenty in the pipeline…

Where are you based? Who else is involved with Resource Guru?

I’m based in North Norfolk near the sea and Andrew is based in Pimlico, London. We spend about an hour on Skype video chats every day which is good, otherwise I think the cabin fever could begin to set in. We use a great Ruby on Rails development company in South Africa called Platform45. We have a very good relationship with them and it all works very smoothly.

How long did it take to put together Resource Guru?

It’s been a long haul! We’ve been working pretty much flat out since 2009. Most of that was spent prototyping, designing and building the app. But a large chunk of it was spent writing the business plan, raising investment, drafting the legal documentation etc

What was technically the most challenging part of developing Resource Guru?

The biggest challenge was probably designing an intuitive and simple UI for something which, once you start to delve into the nitty gritty of it, is really very complex. The calendar is probably the most custom-coded element on Resource Guru (presenting info right, different types of bookings, repeating, splits, availability, historical data etc.).

Another challenging aspect was the optimising of our database and table joins. Each account pulls in large quantities of data so it was a fair bit of work ensuring the app remained snappy while doing some pretty heavy lifting.

Who uses Resource Guru?

We initially conceived Resource Guru for creative/digital agencies but during the planning stage we spoke to people from other business sectors including architects, engineers, film production studios etc. and realised that we should make it flexible enough for any business to use. To date we have subscribers from large multinationals like JWT and BSkyB to tiny little 5 man UX shops. Our pricing makes it affordable for even the smallest teams. We also seem to be used by verticals within a company, so while the whole company might not be scheduled using Resource Guru, a project manager who’s probably fed up with a clunky system their company forces upon them has gone out to find something to help them manage their team more efficiently. We’ve recently put some testimonials live on our homepage from some of our happy users :)

How do you balance your time between your businesses and family?

I have a wife and two children who are in need of more attention! The past year has been exceptional – Andrew and I have been working 7 day weeks and most evenings. There’s only so long you can keep this up before you start losing your joie de vivre! There comes a time when you have to get things in perspective and remember why you’re doing what you’re doing. That year was a sacrifice we felt we had to make to get Resource Guru up and running but now we’re trying to get a work life balance back. I think also, if you work too much, you become less effective. As our guru, Saas-Devi says, you need time off every now and then to sharpen your axe.

Do you have any new features in the pipeline that you can share with us?

We sure do! The most pressing ones are:

– Zoomed out view
– Drag and drop bookings
– Integration with other productivity apps
– Public API
– Daily email reminders to inform resources of their bookings
– The ability for users to add downtime which will ultimately make managing holidays and other downtime a lot easier
– Time tracking/recording
– Outlook/iCal integration

Aside from the new features, we want to enhance many of the current features. There’s a lot we want to do with projects, eg add timelines, tasks, budgets, rates etc. We want to have filters in reports as well as Bookings. We want users to be able to sort bookings by project or client as well as the custom attributes you can currently filter by.

Above all, we want to ensure that Resource Guru remains a simple tool with an uncluttered interface and not bloated by features. There’s plenty more in the pipeline too and not enough hours in the day!

How have you funded development of Resource Guru?

This is an interesting question as many tech startups have one or two good programmers who can actually start building the app with little or no external investment. For us, however, we needed to raise some seed finance and outsource the development. Andrew made a video blog about how we went about finding our developers.

Has Resource Guru got the feedback and growth you expected since launch?

We’ve had a terrific response to Resource Guru – you only need to look at the testimonials on our homepage to see that. We also get lots of feedback in our support centre. Most of it is very complimentary but often pleading for a new feature (see new features above!). After a few months we have over 1000 users logging in on a weekly basis and I think we should be pretty happy with that given the limited marketing activity we’ve had.

What is the biggest hurdle you have faced or are still facing?

Cashflow! Do we grow organically or do we get more investment and accelerate things? We’re mulling this one over at the moment…

What one piece of advice would you give to someone starting up?

Unless you’re an exceptional person (in which case you probably won’t need any advice) you’re unlikely to pull something like this off alone. Find someone you work well with. Preferably not a close friend or a member of your family. I’m not sure why, but that combination seems to go wrong a lot.

What are you most excited about at the moment?

Christmas!

Can you convince the reader to start using Resource Guru in under 50 words?

Either you have a need for Resource Guru or you don’t. If you need to have a birdseye view of your resources and know who/what is available when, then Resource Guru is a no brainer at a starting price of only $19/month.

Finished reading? Check out Resource Guru!

Interview with Michael Allen (ZebraZapps)

ZebraZapps is a cloud-based system for building interactive media applications.

I interviewed Michael Allen, ZebraZapps founder to find out more. This is the hundred and forty first in a series of DW interviews. Big thank you to Michael!

Describe ZebraZapps in under 50 words.

ZebraZapps is cloud-based technology for building interactive media applications for fun, sharing, teaching, and training. Its editor allows non-programmers to quickly create spectacularly interactive, animated, media-rich applications. Its publishing capabilities allow distributing apps through on-line shops, or embedding them in blogs, Facebook, and other social media.

Describe yourself in one sentence.

Someone who just won’t give up trying to improve learning experiences offered everywhere, through any means, so that no one ever needs to be embarrassed or frustrated while trying to reach their full potential.

What frustrates you?

People staunchly defending presentation of content as sufficient and appropriate learning support. If carefully organized, beautifully presented information were sufficient, we wouldn’t need schools; libraries would suffice. We know so very much about human learning and have such powerful tools to support it, and yet people continue to serve up mounds of boring content.

Effective instructional concepts are not complex to understand and employ, yet so much money and effort continues to be wasted by focusing on content presentation instead of the learner’s needs and the learning experience. PowerPoint-based instruction? Add quizzes? Are you kidding me? When did we get so lazy, insensitive to learners, unwilling to create inspiring learning experiences, and happy to relinquish learning opportunities? We know how boring meetings can be with endless bullet and clip art slides. Why would we inflict the same on learners?

What motivates you?

Seeing our work benefit a learner. There’s nothing better than helping someone learn what they’ve previously struggled with.

You are best known today for founding Authorware where you designed and built the technology that led to the formation in 1992 of Macromedia which revolutionized multimedia software development. You are also a bestselling author. But what people might not know is that you contributed to the first Internet-based solution demonstrated to reduce the spread of HIV, reduction in school gang violence, and academic success by those failing in traditional education. Could you elaborate on how you started out and tell us about some of the most interesting things you have worked on?

I have been blessed with being in a good place at the right time, over and over again. To have had the opportunities and experiences I’ve had is truly a blessing. Sometimes people must wonder why I persist in trying so earnestly to improve the levels of individualization in e-learning. Even why I’m still at it at 66 years of age. I take no credit for this, but rather point to the amazing things I’ve seen happen when technology and good instructional design come together. They inspire, motivate, and reveal how much good can be achieved. They also reveal how much work is necessary to turn the inertia of rapidly thrown together, content-focused, “tell and test” e-stuff in favor of courseware that genuinely helps learners use their time efficiently and productively.

When I started my work in this field, I had great prior insights to build on. Early pioneers in the field, such as Patrick Suppes, Seymour Papert, David Merrill, Don Bitzer, and Peter Fairweather, saw technology not primarily as a convenience or cost reduction, but as a means to providing more individualized and effective instruction that was possible through any other means. Computer time was expensive then, but the possibilities of providing exceptional quality learning opportunities, study and evolve them continuously, brought serious thought to instructional paradigms. No one just dashed something off, but rather gave very careful attention to adapting activities to each learner’s needs.

Working with the advanced NSF-funded learning lab at The Ohio State University where every available technology was made available to present content to learners, I created software that would help learners decide what would be the best use of their time in the lab. It’s fair to say the lab had been floundering because, even way back in the 1960s, too much focus was on content delivery and not enough on the learning experience. But with our software, not only could we detect various learning styles and abilities, such as reading comprehension, and help students learn, but we could also help learners go beyond just learning the material to build sustaining confidence in their new knowledge and skills.

One student had been failing in every other course she was taking, but with the software’s assistance in Biology 101, she earned perhaps the first A she had ever received in school. After watching this success, seeing how it changed her, and seeing all the benefits occurring through effective technology-enabled instruction, how could I stop doing all I can to share what it takes?

What made you decide to start working on ZebraZapps?

There are more development tools than ever in the market, but none of them, with the exception of hardcore programming, gives us the flexibility and power that good learning experiences require. They don’t have the strength of Authorware nor the power my studios need to create learning experiences that justify the consumption of precious learner time. We—and everyone, I believe—need tools that can produce adaptive, individualized, action-oriented learning experiences and help us produce them much more quickly and easily than programming. ZebraZapps does this.

How did you come up with the name?

Steve Birth, chief software engineer for Authorware and again for ZebraZapps thought the name should begin with a “Z”. If it did, we could say we’d produced instructional software “from A to Z.” So we were looking for a distinctive Z word. When my son, who I’m proud to say is working with me on ZebraZapps, returned from his African safari honeymoon and was sharing some great photos, we spotted a Zebra. A Z word! Because Zebra stripes are unique and distinctive, and our authoring and publishing system was too, the name fit.

When we saw how fast Zebra users could zap out apps, we just coupled it all together and got ZebraZapps. Zebra zaps out apps!

What was technically the most challenging part of developing ZebraZapps?

It’s always user interface. Processing functions are almost always trivial in comparison to user interface. Our goal is to give people an extremely high percentage of the flexibility and power of a programming language, but with the simplicity of use so that children can learn and use it easily. This means direct object manipulation and visual representation of logic. Through testing prototypes and alpha versions, we’ve verified that we’re meeting this challenging goal.

Has ZebraZapps got the feedback and growth you expected since launch?

Yes, given that we haven’t been pushing it much. Although Joe Ganci, industry pundit, observed that ZebraZapps has far more capability than would be expected or necessary for a first version product, we’ve wanted to do everything necessary for people to feel comfortable switching to ZebraZapps as their tool and platform. So while we already have thousands of subscribers, we’re continuing to pound on it and use it to produce our own apps. We will eventually begin marketing campaigns, but just now it’s more important to make the product “insanely great.”

Can you give us some examples of how ZebraZapps is being used?

The range of uses is exciting and rewarding. Browsing through all the ZebraZapps applications published is a greatly rewarding experience for us. We can see that it’s being used for everything from animated and interactive “hold the date” wedding announcements to military tactical simulations. Kids are using it to “show what I know,” creating simulations of processes to reveal the depth of their knowledge. CEO presentations allow stakeholders to suggest alternatives that can be simulated to see what the expected financial outcomes would be. Serious games. Holiday cards. Vacation diaries. And, of course, ZebraZapps is being used for the full range of e-learning paradigms, from making dynamic tutorials out of YouTube videos, to competency tests. Just about anything you can imagine.

In your view, what does the future of e-learning look like?

I wish I had more confidence in my ability to predict. As I mentioned, when the field was in its infancy, we expected instructional courseware would be scrutinized continuously, evolving and improving. We expected there would be competition among educational and training courseware products to motivate producers to create the most adaptive and effective learning experiences. Quality would be studied and rise perpetually.

I admit, perhaps foolishly, I’m still clinging to that dream. It think it’s possible, but I wish those so focused on cheaper and faster would instead use their energy not to promote ridiculous avatar diversions but to sincerely take up the challenges of improving the quality of learning opportunities. I’m worried that they never will.

Congratulations on your 2011 ASTD award for Distinguished Contribution to Workplace Learning and Performance, and your 2012 Ellis Island Medal of Honor from the The National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations (NECO) Advisory Committee. Who helped you get to where you are today?

If I could use all the space you have, I know I still would have omitted people who helped me. I’m sure I’m not even aware of all those who have anonymously lent a helping hand. No one gets such recognitions by his own hand. I’ve just been one of the participants in a lot of amazing projects.

I immediately thank my parents and wish they were living. You know they had more to do with your successes than either you or they can even identify. Same with my fantastic wife and children.

But let me name one individual, William C. Norris, founder and CEO of Control Data Corporation. This was one amazing guy who saw social needs as business opportunities. While many kinds of businesses can thrive, he wondered how you could be happy just to make money when the same energy and work could simultaneously do real societal good. If you could make a meaningful contribution and also become self-sustaining so that the contribution could continue, one could reach a much higher level of satisfaction.

Perhaps you can think of it as an enterprise version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, with self-actualization being the reward for being successful in meaningful business.

These momentous awards, both received in the same year, have made 2012 unbelievable. My business colleagues, employees, clients, learners, and friends have all had a hand in this, and I couldn’t be more grateful. I am continually motivated by Mr. Norris’s vision.

In your opinion, are entrepreneurs born or made?

I think they’re born, although nurturing is critical. I say born because my brother, sister, and I witnessed our father’s insatiable entrepreneurship alike. He was excited about fund raisers, community crazy days, selling hot dogs in the park on the Fourth of July. He saw opportunities everywhere, had the energy to pursue them, always worked with integrity, and was still running his 76 year old printing/publishing business when he was 100 years old.

But neither my brother nor my sister would claim to be entrepreneurial. We all three have professional psychology backgrounds, although with different field emphases, but I’m the only one with the insatiable entrepreneurial streak. I think I got the necessary DNA.

What do you love being most – software developer, educator or author?

I wouldn’t be happy being just one. And while my educational aspirations are what reassure me that I’m trying to do the right things, learning that my writings have actually been of value to others sends incredible joy through my veins. I really, really love the challenges of software design—especially the incredible complexities of user experience design. But when I know what I want in the software, I want it immediately. The individual conquests one experiences in software development are each rewarding, just like winning a game of chess; but my patience for pulling it all together and getting software products in use is really the hard part. I want to know how it enables people, and I want to know now.

What is one mistake you’ve made, and what did you learn from it?

Thinking that the quality of instructional software would automatically rise as a function of tools that make it faster and easier to create. I was so slow to realize easier to learn tools would foster creation of so much of the boring, ineffective, content-centered stuff that so disappoints me. In fact, by enabling the multitudes without instruction design skills to build courseware, the noise is drowning out the good. We succeeded at in our chosen goal only to arrive at a place needing more help than ever.

I’ve learned that the primary barrier to excellence isn’t the development challenge, although that factors into the mix, but rather having good grasp of what it takes to facilitate learning and influence behaviors. Role models are so important, not only in business leadership but also in the many professional skills that our industry requires.

Which other entrepreneurs do you admire?

My dad, Bill Norris, and Steve Jobs. The first two gave me excellent guidance, but everyday I also aspire to be a little more like Jobs was. Not in personality, diet, or personal hygiene, of course. I actually disagreed with him once and felt that he acquiesced to my position. I understand that was not a common outcome, and I’m a bit proud of that moment yet to this day. But boy, did he ever get a lot of things right. What I especially admire is the organization he built, his ability to instill his personal standards and aspirations, and see them executed so well and faithfully throughout his company. I hope everyday to achieve a little more of what he did in that regard.

Having Authorware under your belt, do you ever worry that the bar is set quite high for future successes?

Oh, yes. Authorware was an amazing success. It still returns many rewards through comments I receive from people about how valuable Authorware was to them. In quite a few cases, I learn how people still use it. I mean, I was in Kuala Lumpur, checking into a hotel, and a guy in the lobby introduced himself to me. I’m not sure how he recognized me. He learned Authorware and credited it (and me) with his career in the Malaysian air force.

There are so many cases where people have failed to achieve a second success. That worries me, sure. I think in many cases that people once successful feel they know how to do it. Just turn the page and repeat. But I think successes are the culmination of many intersections. You can do everything right and not have a success. So I’m not over-confident; just really hopeful. One thing I’m repeating: I designed and built Authorware as a tool I really wanted and needed. It turned out a lot of other people wanted the same thing. I’m doing the same thing with ZebraZapps and hope I’ll have company once again.

With substantial experience in business and entrepreneurship, what one piece of advice would you give to someone starting up?

This is actually an easy question. The key to success is persistence. In any difficult pursuit, there will be moments that feel like failure. If you give up, the feeling becomes real and you’re stuck with failure. But if you keep going, even when you can’t see how you can keep going, you’ll eventually have a success. All those failures will have contributed to the success and people will ask you for what one piece of advice would you give to someone starting up.

If you asked for a second piece of advice, it would be this: There are many tasks that have to be done in starting up. It’s unlikely you relish all of them. Since you’re much more likely to be good at tasks you like, don’t force yourself to do tasks you really dislike. Instead, surround yourself not with people as similar to yourself as possible, but rather with people who really like to do what you don’t. Together, you can be quite successful.

What are you most excited about at the moment?

It would be our daughter’s upcoming wedding. But beside pride in our daughter, her fiancé, and other joyful family matters, it would have to be ZebraZapps. If this product is what it seems to be, we really will have a new opportunity to return to a seriousness in e-learning that characterized the early promise: that e-learning introduces an opportunity to see extraordinary learning opportunities emerge. Continuously improving educational opportunities could be available around the clock, around the world; quite conceivably free. Crowd accelerated innovation in learning could bring our most talented, knowledgeable and creative minds together, working to create rich libraries of learning experiences.

Finished reading? Check out ZebraZapps!

Interview with Vaughan Rowsell (Vend)

Vend is a online retail point-of-sale system for bricks and mortar stores.

I interviewed Vaughan Rowsell, Vend founder and CEO to find out more. This is the hundred and fortieth in a series of DW interviews. Big thank you to Vaughan!

How would you describe Vend in under 50 words?

Online retail POS, Inventory, CRM and analytics for offline retailers. “Offline” meaning “not-online”, which we are making a bit of a misnomer now as with Vend all retailers are online. Online offline retail. Also it’s called Retail 2.0 now. It is a thing.

Describe yourself in one sentence.

Guy with huge mustache who rides bikes long distances and revolutionises retailers lives the world round.

You say Vend does more than the average POS system. What makes Vend different from other POS systems?

Firstly it doesn’t suck. Vend is really nice to use and all our customers tell us so.

Secondly, it wasn’t coded in the 90’s. Seriously, look at the software most retailers are using in their stores. It looks like it was written in Foxpro or Access by the store owners 2nd cousin who “knows a bit about software”.

Thirdly, it’s 100% online baby, which means Vend is uber-connected (Not with Uber, but you know what I mean). You can connect your eCom, your accounting, your customer loyalty, your email marketing campaigns and your customer reporting all to Vend. We have APIs too so you can build on top of Vend to build your own Retail 3.0 service. Perhaps a mobile app to find Jumpers for Cats on special near by. Try that with FoxPro.

A software developer by profession with years of experience in innovative projects, your career started in the telecommunications industry where you developed New Zealand’s first (and possibly the world’s first) tele-voting system, among other projects. What made you decide to start working on Vend?

I developed a mobile blog platform in ’99 called Soapbox. I wrote it so I could blog about my European holiday from my Compaq iPaq, loading photos from my canon 1mp digital camera via SD card and uploading it all by hacking into french pension’s phone lines with my iPaq modem jacket. I never finished productising it, and to be honest the code was a little bit crap. But it worked for me and my parents could keep tabs on me in real time and see I wasn’t dead.
I started Vend completely by accident. I actually had another idea, as awesome as Soapbox, that was mobile and could let you find Cat Jumpers in stores near by from your phone. Well that was one of the premises, but basically it was a social network for shopping. A little before it’s time, but it made me look at what would be required to make something like this actually work. The further I dug into it, it became obvious that the whole offline retail platform needed to be rebuilt from the ground up, starting with the software retailers used to run their businesses. Product, inventory, payments and customer data all needed to be on the cloud. So I started there, and that became Vend.

Congratulations on being named a finalist in the Innovative Software Product category at the 2012 New Zealand Hi Tech Awards! You have based your career on solving the hard problems using innovation. What is the biggest challenge you have faced?

We have won a few awards now, Best Small Workplace, Innovator of the Year and so on. They are all very flattering, but the BEST award and BIGGEST challenge to date is to have 10’s of thousands of customers loving Vend around the world. A trend we plan on continuing.

Who do you see as your target audience?

Any retailer with a bricks and mortar store. We have customers with 1 – 100 stores in one hundred countries. Anyone can use Vend.

Not Walmart.

How did you come up with the name?

I wanted something short and memorable. Also I have this thing with the letter “V” with the last three of my gigs being with “V” companies. Vianet, VoomStudio now Vend. Might be a “Vaughan” thing too.

Vend is a verb, to sell. I thought that was perfect.

What technologies have you used to build Vend?

We are your bog standard PHP mySQL *nix stack with a few other things thrown in too. HTML5 plays a big part of our approach to delivering Vend to devices, but we also have native apps too.

How long did it take to put together Vend?

I was working on version one for about 6 months, then found customers wanted to pay me money to use it, so I launched. There were 6 months of doodles, thinking and impressive data models drawn on the kitchen fridge with whiteboard markers prior to that.

Do you have any new features in the pipeline?

Always. We have a lot of great features planned, but what I am most excited about is the amount of third parties who are developing other apps on top of Vend. Customisations for hospitality, loyalty, integration with scheduling apps, eCommerce and more more more. We have a fast growing developer ecosystem which means there will be a wave of great innovation on the way for retailers using Vend.

What do you wish you’d have known 5 years ago that you know now?

That I would still be in a technology startup. I have been in the startup space for 10 years or more now, and I promised my wife on day one that me being unemployable and on minimum wage would be a temporary thing. So if she had known back then it would be 5 more years she probably would have divorced me on the spot.

In retrospect I should have set her expectation around me getting a real job to be never.

Has Vend got the feedback and growth you expected since launch?

Oh yes, we are growing like crazy. We have grown 400% in the last year and have more ambitious growth planned ahead. The feedback we are getting is amazing. We are really changing retailers lives all around the world, and they is pretty cool.

Where do you see Vend in 5 years time?

The #1 retail platform for small to medium sized retailers.

Who would you say is your biggest competitor?

The incumbents and their FoxPro databases. Them and dumb-ass cash registers.

In 2009, you rode the length of New Zealand. What prompted you to undertake this huge challenge?

A few reasons.

1) It was the start of the global financial crisis and everyone was saying it was the end of the world. I didn’t agree, and wanted to make the point that in the times of adversity is when you need to do something different and make a change. So not only did it push me to do Vend, I wanted to make the point in another way by doing something I thought was impossible and people were also telling me I couldn’t do. I was unfit, overweight and riding a bike 2,000 miles solo was something no one for a second thought I was capable of.

2) I was about to launch Vend and so I knew I was committed to making Vend a success for the next 5-10 years. I wanted to go for a bike ride before I got busy :)

3) I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. And to loose some weight.

For the full reasons go visit my cycling blog.

Have you passed up any opportunities which you now regret?

I once had the chance to sail a charter launch around the world, and then work on it in Greece for a year. That would have been cool. But I went to university instead to do a computer science degree, and that has worked out OK so far too.

What’s the impact on your home life been like?

Being married to a startup husband, and having a startup Dad is not easy, and so I need to be very considerate to the beautiful girls I share my home with, my wife and two daughters. But it is all about balance, so not working 12 hours every day, being at home to put the kids to bed, and taking weekends for the family. They are all very supportive. I am a lucky guy.

Who helped you get to where you are today?

Most important person? My Mom. Honestly, she has always taught me that nothing in impossible. A paraplegic who raised three sons on her own, she taught me a couple of things I live my life by. It is all about people, be good to others and they will be good to you. Never give up. All success is 99% perseverance. Also smile LOTS.

What one piece of advice would you give to someone starting up their own business?

To start. Seriously, it seems to be the biggest stumbling block for most people. Just do it, there is always 10 reasons why you shouldn’t. Ignore them, those reasons are just distractions and are often wrong. Like, who needs a salary when you can live the startup lifestyle?!

What are you most excited about at the moment?

Vend. 24/7. We are changing the retail world and peoples lives, and that is really exciting.

Can you convince the reader to start using Vend in under 50 words?

Yes. Visit vendhq.com.

Finished reading? Check out Vend!

Interview with Christofer Karltorp (Zerply)

Zerply is a professional network with a difference.

I interviewed Christofer Karltorp, Zerply co-founder to find out more. This is the hundred and thirty ninth in a series of DW interviews. Big thank you to Christofer!

How would you describe Zerply in under 50 words?

Zerply is the professional network for people who create things; musicians, developers, producers, designers, marketers, entrepreneurs etc. People who understand that their professional identities are made up of more than vague job titles, but of the actual things that they create.

I am sure you have been asked this hundreds of times, but what makes Zerply different from LinkedIn?

LinkedIn is built for the Fortune 500, focusing on resumes and rolodexes for all the suit clad, stock image professionals out there.
Zerply is for the makers; the hackers, designers, producers and artists who in one way or another create digital content. We’re the essential evolution of the resume, the portfolio and the recruiting process – built for a generation of web natives.

What made you decide to start working on Zerply?

We loathed the idea of having to become suit and tie professionals. It just wasn’t us. We just wanted to create cool stuff, and we realized there were a lot of people like us. So we figured, why can’t we be the ones building the professional network for people who make cool things?

We obviously didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into, but wanting to scratch that itch is what the beginning of Zerply :)

How did you come up with the name?

The name is actually derived from Serious Play. It’s basically a homage to the saying “when you love what you do, you never work a day in your life”. Our idea has always been to lighten up the professional world, making it more creative and playful.

What technologies have you used to build Zerply?

It’s a fairly basic LAMP stack. PHP & MySQL.

The design and feel is elegant and simple with room for adding personality. How did you decide on the look and feel of Zerply?

The most frustrating thing for us in the early days was that anything professional automatically equalled corporate and boring. Just do a Google image search for “professional” and you’ll get my point :) We wanted to build something non-corporate, something that’s playful and individual at the core that’s actually appealing to our generation. We basically designed what we’d want to use ourselves.

What was technically the most challenging part of developing Zerply?

The more recent additions like Zerply Converse and our yet to be announced makeover (internally dubbed as ‘redux’) has been the most challenging technically. Besides that, we’ve found that building something that seems simple is not easy at all! A lot of thought and energy has gone into creating the look and feel of simplicity, even though the underlying tech is kind of complicated.

How long did it take to put together Zerply?

It’s hard to say. There are so many different versions and iterations that lay the foundation of what Zerply is today. We launched our public beta in June 2011 and had worked on various iterations for about 6 months prior to that. The thought process had of course been going on for much longer than that however.

Do you have any new features in the pipeline?

We sure do! Like I mentioned above we’re working on a makeover that will redefine how experience is being handled and displayed on Zerply. A large majority of our users are project oriented, and right now it’s hard to get a good overview of all the various projects that people are involved in. We aim to change that and create a much more engaging way to interact with your skillset. So stay tuned :)

What were you doing before starting up Zerply?

I was studying at Stockholm University and doing consulting on the side in my hometown in Sweden, looping Taaniel in on more and more development projects. We did a workshop about cloud based services for small businesses in late 2009, and that’s how we came in contact with Dropbox and a few other Bay Area startups and realized something was going on out here. We visited the area briefly and decided we’d do whatever it takes to move out here.

Where do you see Zerply in 5 years time?

In five years Zerply will be the top network for anyone in a creative capacity – be it accountants, videographers or mechanical engineers. It will be the most straightforward way to find out who someone is, what they’re good at and if it’s someone you’d like to collaborate with.

Has Zerply got the feedback and growth you expected since launch?

Yes and no. The feedback from our users had been truly amazing. There’s been an emotional connection with our users where many have said that they absolutely love what we’re doing. I had no idea that would happen, and it’s really cool to see. When it comes to our growth, our early estimations have been so off that I almost cringe when I find old notes about where I thought we’d be at various points of the journey. I really didn’t have a clue :) It’s been such a learning experience with tons of iterations to find our place on the market. That said, we’re growing nicely and we’re very excited for what’s about to come in the fall & winter – and this time it’s not just pulled out of thin air ;)

What is the biggest hurdle you have faced or are still facing?

I believe the biggest hurdle for every startup is to matter to a lot of people. To build something that a lot of people want to use on a regular basis is hard. Once you have a small group that truly cares about your startup, that excitement has to be translated into new areas and gain mainstream growth at scale. This is hard, and definitely one of the things we think about the most.

What piece of advice would you give to someone starting up?

Don’t give up. Not under any circumstances (if you really believe in your vision that is). You need massive amounts of perseverance to be able to pull off a startup. At first no one will care. Then they won’t care some more. Then finally a small group of people might start to care enough to use your product regularly (which is the best feeling ever). Then it’s about learning why that happened and how it can be happen with other groups as well. Rinse and repeat.

What are you most excited about at the moment?

It’s really rewarding to see something that you’ve poured your heart and soul into for so long gain recognition and praise. It certainly didn’t happen the way we first thought, but we have indeed built something that people want to use and that makes us very excited!

Can you convince the reader to start using Zerply in under 50 words?

If you’re good at something, you want that to show. You want to use your talent where it matters and makes a difference, no matter where the opportunity presents itself globally. Zerply highlights your skillset and puts it into context so you can be found and collaborate with others like yourself.

Finished reading? Check out Zerply!

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