Web presence for startups

You build a product, a web or a mobile app and then you need to build a web site to promote it, a.k.a.: the web site. There are several ways of building and maintaining this web site and I have tried most of them and today I have strong opinions about how to do it.

One alternative is to build a custom website as a bunch of HTML and CSS produced by a graphics designer and a coder. Maybe with some server side functionality. If you are building a web app, you might be tempted to mix the web presence with the web app. A lot of tech startups go this route because they have the talent and because it’s the only way to achieve the pristine look that everybody wants and that the industry giants, such as Apple, have.

This is a mistake. The mistake is not considering the process of the evolution of this web site. We only think of the initial task of building it and that tends to be easily achievable, but after that is when the problems really start. Marketing and sales will want constant modifications to that web site both in terms of content and look and feel. They’ll want new landing pages, different kind of analytics. Sometimes they’ll want to scrap the whole thing and start over. This is part of their job and you should just let them do it.

The problem of having the developers of the startup also develop the website is that they need to maintain it and if your marketing/sales people are active enough, they can easily generate enough modifications for a full time person. But your developer needs to be working on the product, not the website. Most changes requested by marketing are going to be relatively small and not as important as improving the product, which means your web presence will be neglected and your marketing person will get annoyed.

The answer is to have CMS and give write access to market and sales. Whether the CMS is WordPress or SquareSpace or something else, it doesn’t matter. I would even recommend to not host it yourself so that the marketing/sales department have a support department that can help them with issues that is not your development team.

This approach will not look as clean, it might feel a bit clunky and people inside and outside the organization are going to constantly fight it. If this is your choice, you’ll have a tough time defending it. I found myself repeating the contents of this blog post to many people over and over again and this is why I’m writing it.

Storing SMTP credentials in secrets.yml in a Ruby on Rails Application

Rails 4.1 introduced the concept of secrets.yml, a file in which you store all the credentials for your app, separated by environment, so for example, development can talk to Test Stripe and production to Live Stripe. Furthermore, this file is capable of picking up environment variables which allows you to divorce credentials from code. Not properly separating credentials from code recently cost Uber the leakage of 50,000 driver names and license numbers.

At Qredo we are very strict about handling credentials, including the ones for SMTP, which in Rails projects are normally stored in config/environments/development.rbconfig/environments/production.rb, etc. Trying to read Rails.application.secrets from those files doesn’t work, because they are loaded before the secrets, so, we came up with this alternative solution.

The environment files that need to use SMTP for delivering email have this common configuration:

config.action_mailer.delivery_method = :smtp
config.action_mailer.smtp_settings = {
    address: "smtp.example.com",
    port: 587,
    authentication: "plain",
    enable_starttls_auto: true
}

and then, on config/initializers/email.rb we finish configuring our SMTP credentials by reading it from secrets.yml:

if ActionMailer::Base.delivery_method == :smtp
  ActionMailer::Base.smtp_settings[:domain] = Rails.application.secrets.smtp_domain
  ActionMailer::Base.smtp_settings[:user_name] = Rails.application.secrets.smtp_user_name
  ActionMailer::Base.smtp_settings[:password] = Rails.application.secrets.smtp_password
end

In config/secrets.yml you need set those credentials:

development:
  secret_key_base: 123...
  smtp_domain: example.org
  smtp_user_name: postmaster@oderq.com
  smtp_password: <%= ENV["SMTP_PASSWORD"] %>

test:
  secret_key_base: c7f3f62597b14c7287d75c239168fd3a89d3a6cb51beb909679c2609e912aaa3ca0a0aa5df2e191648baed6fe49698527a75dd265d222697576405971f478c98

staging:
  secret_key_base: <%= ENV["SECRET_KEY_BASE"] %>
  smtp_domain: example.net
  smtp_user_name: staging_user@example.net
  password: <%= ENV["SMTP_PASSWORD"] %>

production:
  secret_key_base: <%= ENV["SECRET_KEY_BASE"] %>
  smtp_domain: example.com
  smtp_user_name: user@example.com
  smtp_password: <%= ENV["SMTP_PASSWORD"] %>

And that’s it! Enjoy bringing SMTP credentials into Rails >4.0 secrets management.

Show a devise log in or sign up forms in another page

This is an update of an old post of similar name but for a newer version of Devise and with better design decisions. The old post was for Devise 1.0.8, this one covers 4.0.0

I was trying to have a single page with both sign in and sign up forms with Devise 4.0.0 but this applies to whenever you want to show log in or registering individually or together anywhere on your site other than the views and controllers Devise creates for you.

For my task, I created a custom controller for it with a single new action as the create actions would be in the respective already existing Devise controllers. Something like this:

class Users::SessionsOrRegistrationsController < ApplicationController
  def new
  end
end

And then I created a new.html.erb (actually, new.html.haml, but I digress) that contained both log in and sign up one after the other. Something like this:


<h2>Sign up</h2>


<%= form_for(resource, as: resource_name, url: registration_path(resource_name)) do |f| %>
 <%= devise_error_messages! %>


<div class="field">
 <%= f.label :email %>
 <%= f.email_field :email, autofocus: true %>
 </div>



<div class="field">
 <%= f.label :password %>
 <% if @minimum_password_length %>
 <em>(<%= @minimum_password_length %> characters minimum)</em>
 <% end %>
 <%= f.password_field :password, autocomplete: "off" %>
 </div>



<div class="field">
 <%= f.label :password_confirmation %>
 <%= f.password_field :password_confirmation, autocomplete: "off" %>
 </div>



<div class="actions">
 <%= f.submit "Sign up" %>
 </div>

<% end %>

<hr/>


<h2>Log in</h2>


<%= form_for(resource, as: resource_name, url: session_path(resource_name)) do |f| %>

<div class="field">
    <%= f.label :email %>
    <%= f.email_field :email, autofocus: true %>
  </div>



<div class="field">
    <%= f.label :password %>
    <%= f.password_field :password, autocomplete: "off" %>
  </div>


  <% if devise_mapping.rememberable? -%>

<div class="field">
      <%= f.check_box :remember_me %>
      <%= f.label :remember_me %>
    </div>

  <% end -%>


<div class="actions">
    <%= f.submit "Log in" %>
  </div>

<% end %>

I actually ended up creating two _form partials and including them. In either case, when you try to render those views, you’ll get errors about some missing methods. You need to provide those as helper methods so my controller actually looks like this:

class Users::SessionsOrRegistrationsController < ApplicationController
  def new
  end

  private

  def resource_name
    :user
  end
  helper_method :resource_name

  def resource
    @resource ||= User.new
  end
  helper_method :resource

  def devise_mapping
    @devise_mapping ||= Devise.mappings[:user]
  end
  helper_method :devise_mapping

  def resource_class
    User
  end
  helper_method :resource_class
end

And now it works.

Using Non-Violent Communication for business

I’m just getting started reading the Non-Violent Communication book. I was in the middle of chapter 2 when I put it to work, with amazing results, in a business setting. Needless to say I’m sold on the idea and I’ll continue reading the book, perfecting it and recommending it to other people. This is what happened.

I was doing market-fit research for a new product called Glycast, which is like AdSense for Podcasts. Some years ago I built the core tech for it, but the timing was wrong and it sat on the shelf until now. Now I want to put this tech to good use, so I recorded some videos explaining how it works for podcasters and advertisers and started reaching out to talk to them, get their feedback, refine the product, validate the idea.

Shortly after setting up the landing page I got a message from Dave Jackson of School of Podcasting. In his email he asked a few questions about the service and linked to a YouTube video. I clicked the link to find a video recorded by him, with the title “Clueless Podcasts Advertisers”.  I though maybe this was about things to avoid, to watch out for. Nope, that video is about me. He never mentions me by name but he describes my operation and quotes me verbatim.

My blood started to boil. I’m not trying to harm anybody. I’m just searching for feedback to build a product podcasters and advertisers are happy with and the first message I get is attacking it. In my 6 years or so of running startups I been constantly attacked, so this wasn’t new to me. I don’t understand the mentality of people that when they don’t have a use for your product, they attack you, insult you, spread false information, etc. I normally just move on.

My first reply to the Clueless Podcast Advertisers video was, well, clueless. It went something like this:

I really don’t appreciate you posting a video, calling us clueless. We are not trying to harm anyone blah blah blah and you are attacking us. You are saying this and that and your are wrong, WRONG, WRONG.

Thankfully, I decided to stop and apply the principles of Non-Violent Communication I just learned. The first thing we have to do is observe without evaluation. We often mix the two. The books gives a few examples, such as:

You are too generous.

which is a mixing of observation and evaluation. On the other hand

When I see you give all your lunch money to others, I think you are being too generous.

is separating the two. Me, feeling attacked, was an evaluation of the situation. It was time to ignore that painful evaluation and observe. I re-read his email, I re-watched the video, observing, like an impartial third party and what I found surprised me.

David is helping people get into podcasting. These people are in a vulnerable position because they don’t yet understand the industry they are getting into so they can be subject to scams and abuse by unscrupulous third parties. I bet David is constantly exposed to people that signed up for the wrong service, bought the wrong microphone and now they are coming to him for help. And all he can do is break the bad news: you wasted money, you wasted time, you lost your audience, you are re-starting from scratch. I constantly see entrepreneurs making similar mistakes and I have to break the news and every time I wish I was there earlier, to warn them.

From David’s point of view, I was an potentially unscrupulous third party that was trying to pull off a vendor lock in. Podcasters needed to be warned about me! At this point, I felt I was on David’s side. How weird! It was a fast onset of high level empathy. I re-wrote my answer to be:

About the video. I’m not here to harm anyone. I’m here to make a product to help podcasters and advertisers connect, be more efficient. I’m building whatever podcasters will need to be happy. I understand your worry and your desire to warn your audience that might not understand RSS distribution and make a bad decision now that will cost them a chunk of their audience later on. That’s not something I want to do and I wouldn’t be happy with any company holding an audience hostage like that. I do want to work with you, and other podcasters, to make sure I meet your needs of an excellent platform that will help monetize your podcast, whatever your size is, whatever your topic is, and focus on your craft, on what you love, on podcasting.

I sent the email and I felt immediately better about it. Much better than if I sent the previous version. I consider it a success for Non-Violent Communication and I moved on. Shortly after he asked me for permission to publish this email and I said yes. What I wasn’t expected is that he was going to record a podcast episode reading the whole email and commenting about it: http://schoolofpodcasting.com/7141-2/

Among other things he says, referring to us:

I’m completely blown away by their response

About our solution, he says:

interesting, creative and I like it

He particularly refers to the paragraph I re-wrote as “the coolest part on the email”.

What a phenomenal result! I’m completely sold already on the principles of Non-Violent Communication and I can’t wait to finish reading the book and possibly reading other books too, to learn how to apply them.

What’s the meaning of life?

Like the question of what came first, the chicken or the egg, I feel this question is repeated over and over like it’s some grandiose enigma with no solution.

About the poultry question, at some point a non-chicken animal laid a non-chicken egg containing a chicken. Done! The egg was first. Back to the meaning of life.

Meaning

To answer the question properly, I need to know, very precisely, what’s the meaning of meaning. The answer is sort-of contained in the question, but let’s take a look at the Oxford Dictionary:

mean·ing /ˈmiːnɪŋ/

1 What is meant by a word, text, concept, or action: the meaning of the Hindu word is ‘breakthrough, release’
1.1 Implied or explicit significance: he gave me a look full of meaning
1.2 Important or worthwhile quality; purpose: ‘this can lead to new meaning in the life of older people’

Meaning is an action performed by a living creature that is intelligent. It’s a connection between a symbol, word, text, concept or action and something else. It’s not inherent to the symbol. The tree is inherently green, the word “rose” is not inherently connected to Rosa rubiginosa. We can talk about the meaning of the word “rose” because we created it with that meaning (even if the creation was accidental, like most languages).

We didn’t create life, it was here long before we were assigning meaning to things, thus, it has no meaning. You can give a rose to someone else to signify your love for them and that’s the meaning of that rose, for you, and hopefully for the recipient. But the rose growing in the wild, like life on planet Earth, has no meaning.

A meaningful life

That doesn’t mean you can’t live a meaningful life. The same we you can assign meaning to a rose you can assign meaning to your life. And that’s the gist of the issue. You have to do the task of assigning meaning. Assigning meaning is very different than finding meaning. It’s a harder task, a task with more chances of failing, a task that doesn’t have a clear path to follow, because in essence, it’s building the path, it’s creating the path.

Another clear distinction is that whatever meaning you assign it’s for you and you cannot expect it to be shared. The meaning is not inherent to the thing it’s connected to, it’s connected in your mind, so you can’t expect other minds to make the same connection. For example, you might create a meaningful life for yourself by feeding hungry children. It doesn’t mean everybody else will also agree on it being meaningful. We can’t even agree on the meanings of words and we have dictionaries!

But God!

Now someone might talk about God. What if God created us with a purpose, with a meaning. Well, there’s no such a thing as a god, but let’s assume there is. Let’s assume a super powerful external entity created us with some purpose. Maybe we are an experiment, maybe God and the Devil are trying to figure out if good or evil will succeed. Maybe God had a crush on a Goddess and we are a present, like a poem but made out of living creatures (like bacteria in the ink on a page). Is that our meaning then? Nope.

We have minds and free will and can creating our own meaning. Even if we started off as something as low as a galactic rose, the fact that we can chose our path allows us to go wherever we want.

Summary

There’s no meaning except the one you create, so, stop searching, and start creating.

Picture by Chris Sorge.

The book that changed my life will horrify some of my friends

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand changed my life. Whether that was for the better or worse, it’s up for each person to decide. For me, I’m very happy with the change and I’m glad it happened. I didn’t turn into an objectivist though.

Literarily, I don’t think the book is great. I think Ayn Rand needed an editor, a very strong one. Those 15 page-long single-paragraph monologues do not make the book better. The book should probably be reduced to 500 or 600 pages from its staggering 1192.

The book divides the world into good and bad people, like many stories do, and it’s a bit simplistic. There might be a few surprises but at the end, everyone is clearly good or clearly bad. At least from Ayn Rand’s perspective. So far, nothing surprising. What was surprising for me is how the world is divider.

Good people are producers, they are the people that come with ideas, that start companies, that push progress, that fund science. Bad people are consumers, the ones that take more than they give, the ones living on welfare, but also the ones creating welfare. Bad people are the one telling the good ones that they cannot reap the benefit of their work, that it should be share.

Atlas ShruggedIn Atlas Shrugged, the good people are the Steve Jobs, the Thomas Edisons, the Steve Wozniaks, the Elon Musks, but also the Nikolai Teslas. The badies meanwhile are the Karl Marxs, the Vladimir Lenins, etc.

That’s what the book says, what objectivism is about, and not what I necessary believe. My personal belief is that if you stop the Jobs, Edisons, Musks, then you are a badie, you are stopping progress. But as a society we should take care of the people that fall into misfortune, of the ill, of the downtrodden, of the disabled, of the needy. That’s where I disagree with Ayn Rand.

One issue with the book is that she equates CEOs to the good people and that frustrates people because a lot of CEOs are more takers than creators. And most creators, like Tesla, never carried the title of CEO. Indeed, the biggest creator of all in the book is not a CEO, it’s a lowly engineer.

I don’t believe being a taker makes you a bad person but I do believe that being a taker when you can be a creator makes you bad person and this is why the book change my life. When I read it I was a taker. I was an entitled engineer working at Google most likely not producing as much as I could take when I knew my ability to product was much higher. I was waiting for someone to open the door for me to a position of productivity and that wasn’t going to happen, you have to open the door yourself.

My life changed, I decided to become a producer. So far, I reached the point of co-founding a startup that reached 4 employees (not counting me) that created various products that hopefully are making people more effective and productive. And I’m just getting started. I want to do more, I want to get bigger and provide a great working environment for more people and produce more and better products. I want to produce and give as well as take my share for my work.

Since reading Atlas Shrugged I’m a much better member of society and I wish other people would also make this transformation but I doubt Atlas Shrugged would be the catalyst for many people. It has too many issues.

Picture by Anoop Menon

Hell yeah or no

In Tim Ferris’ interview of Derek Sivers, in which he says that if your answer to a question is not “Hell yeah”, it should be “no”. This got the “Hell yeah” from many listeners and some custom artwork created. But I’m not sure I agree.

Let me elaborate a bit on the concept. Derek Sivers’ argument is that if you say yes to too many things you are going to be oversubscribed and when something truly awesome comes your way, you won’t be able to say yes because you’ll be too busy, too tired or won’t even notice. He said that if it wasn’t for him constantly saying “no” to everything, he wouldn’t have started the Nownownow project.

What’s missing from this equation is the opposite. If you are too picky, if you often have better things to do, if you are not constantly bombarded by projects and opportunities, like Sivers is now, then you might become isolated. You might miss the great opportunities because you weren’t there to see them.

I think a better approach should be something along the line of “You should be taking N new opportunities per year” where N is of course, hard or impossible to define. It’s up to you but the frequency of saying yes and no should vary to have a constant N. If you are bombarded for opportunities, then yes, you need a strong filter, such as “Hell yeah or no” but if you are not, then you need to go out and find them and that means saying yes to things that are not “Hell yeah”.

For example, for the past 4 years I been hyper-focus on my company, Carousel Apps, and my productivity has been high. But also, I missed the enjoyment of helping others with startup and the opportunities of collaboration, making connections, etc. That’s why in 2016 I want to have one evening a week sitting down and having a long conversation with someone about whatever it is they are doing and trying to help them in any way I can.