Interview with a early stage SaaS founder

I had the chance to talk with my good friend and former colleague Corey Snipes about his SaaS project. He recently launched Meeting Star, a lightweight SaaS tool to help coordinate tech meetups. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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Why did you come up with this product?

It began as a desire to fill my own need, for a lightweight and inexpensive place to manage small local tech events. It seemed like a fairly straightforward set of features, which wouldn’t take long to build and release as a product. (Don’t they always?) I was aware of several other tech meetup organizers who were looking for an alternative to meetup.com (often due to price, sometimes due to dislike of the feature set or UI). I did quite a bit of research last fall and didn’t find any suitable alternatives so I built it.

What do you hope to achieve with this app?

I have a few parallel interests here. I want a tool that’s useful to me as a meetup organizer. I want to leverage my experience building, marketing, and operating other software products — both my own, and for customers I’ve had over the years. I want to add a business line in my portfolio that provides value and makes people happy, while also being financially sustainable. I also run a separate, conference-related application and I anticipate some complementary lift between the two.

How much research did you do before plunging in and writing it?

Quite a bit. You can always do more, of course. I poked around online and found several lists, articles, and discussion threads about alternative platforms. I followed conversations of other meetup organizers discussing the relative merits of various methods. I made a list and tried seven or eight of what seemed like the top contender products. I was looking for a place to run my meetups, though, not specifically looking at competition. But in the end, everything was either trying to be a full-featured community management piece, or was such a terribly crafted alternative that I felt there were exactly zero real usable options for what I wanted to do.

Who is the product aimed at?

This particular [app] was born of my own needs, and I tend toward tech and entrepreneurship meetups. It’s well-suited to tech and software meetups. Those are the people in my network. Those are the meetups I attend and organize, and those are the users whose needs I can most easily identify and meet. Since it’s a reasonably lightweight application, it’s actually well-suited to many different kinds of groups, but software/tech/biz meetups are my focus.

What would make you consider this product a success?

Right now, success is getting ten paying, happy customers and getting things dialed in to their needs. I subscribe to Patrick McKenzie’s wisdom that the first ten customers are critical for turning your idea into something people want to use. And also, for proving it’s not a fluke. If you can get to ten, you can get to a hundred. And if you can get to a hundred, you can get to a thousand. For me, long-term success is a useful, sustainable product that has revenue to turn into improvements, runs smoothly, and maybe also puts a little money in my kids’ college fund.

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You can find out more about Corey, including why he’s moving to Cleveland, at his website.


Interview with a boot camp grad

Lots of folks are moving into development and technical fields these days.  I remember that happening during the dot com book, but back then folks just read one of those “Learn Java in 24 Hours” books.

Nowadays there are a profusion of boot camps that help people gain the skills they need to be a developer. I have interacted with a few of these grads and was interested in learning more about their experience. Noel Worden, one of the organizers of Boulder.rb and a blogger, agreed to an interview.

– what was your background before you were a developer?

I got my degree in fine art photography, spent 5 years working in NYC as a Digital Technician in the photo industry, then moved to Colorado and was a cabinetmaker for 3 years.

– how did you land your first job?

I found the posting on the Denver Full Stack meetup whiteboard (https://www.meetup.com/fullstack/)

– what surprised you about the software industry?

How willing everyone is to help. It’s very different in the photo world, [which is] much more competitive, it’s hard to find guidance and mentorship.

– how did you pick your boot camp?

Bloc had one of the longest curriculums I could find in an online program. I figured when push came to shove, having more experience under my belt couldn’t hurt when competing with other junior [developers] looking for that first job. Bloc also has a part-time track, which allowed me to still work [a] full-time job while going to school.

– what is good about the job? What is challenging?

I appreciate the balance of being challenged but knowing I have the full support of any other engineer on the team if I need to reach out for assistance. Canvas United [ed: his current employer] has a lot of projects that I’ve been maintaining lately, and all are running different versions of Rails, which makes for interesting challenges. 

– what do you see current boot camp students doing that you’d advise against?

Not getting out and networking while going to school. This industry is all about networking and if you’re hoping to capitalize on the advantages of a good network you have to be building it while still in school.

– why did you want to transition into technology and development?

I wanted/needed a career path where the leaning curve wouldn’t plateau. I’m not a ‘cruise control’ kind of person, as soon as the challenge isn’t there for me anymore I lose interest.

– how can employers help boot camp grads in their first job?

Be ok with answering questions, and be transparent with the employee about the proper channels to ask those questions. Also, be upfront about the fact that it’s ok to fail (assuming that’s the case) a few time before you get to the best solution [ed: if it isn’t ok to fail, find a new job!]. Also also, a healthy balance of low hanging fruit and multi-day problems. Nothing kills my morale faster than ticket after ticket of problems that grind me into the ground.

– should employers have any different expectations of a boot camp grad vs someone who just graduated from college or high school?

I definitely think that it takes a particular type of management style to successfully level up a boot camp grad. If you’ve hired them you must have liked something about them, play to those strengths, but also sprinkle in challenges to help that developer evolve.

[This content has been edited for grammar and clarity.]


Parents In Tech Interview

baby photo

Photo by paparutzi

A few months ago I was contacted by Morgan who read a comment I’d made on Hacker News about reshuffling my work life balance.  He was starting a site for parents who work in technology, and was looking to interview such people for tips on parenting.  After a flurry of emails, we finally found a time that worked for both of us and were able to skype for an half hour.

My interview is up here.  Morgan doesn’t do a ton of editing, so it is a little rough, but you get a sense of my thought process:

M: Has having a Baby changed your worldview, beliefs, or how you treat other people? How so?

 

D: Sometimes I wonder how my parents can take me seriously, given that they saw me as an infant. You put it nicely, getting some empathy, starting out as something that just cries, poops and sleeps.

Full post here.

If you are a parent who works in technology and want to chat with Morgan, let me know and I’ll do an intro.


Interview: SEO basics for web developers with Ashley Rader

I just recently did an interview with an old high school friend, Ashley Rader, who is now in the SEO business.  Since I build custom web applications and websites, but know next to nothing about SEO, I took the opportunity to ask questions that I think web developers of my background would appreciate.  The interview follows.

Dan Moore: My understanding of SEO is that it is how you show up on the first page in search engine results.  How is that understanding incorrect?

Ashley Rader: That is mostly correct, yes.   Although if you were to ask Google that question, their aim is to deliver sites at the top of the search engines that are most relevant to the search.   They like quality sites, with unique content, and with a level of “authority” where google has found other sites to reinforce that relevance.   SEO is the process by which webmasters and site owners can attempt to increase the likelihood that Google thinks their site is relevant to a particular search. Sites can still rank at the top of google for particular results without SEO techniques, but it is a lot harder to do so.

Dan Moore: Why is it harder?

Ashley Rader: Without SEO you would have to have some other form of publicity working in your favor.   For example a new movie comes out.   There are commercials on TV and buzz amongst movie gurus.   They might naturally begin linking their websites and blogs to the movies website which in turn yields higher search engine results for that website.    The webmaster of the site probably doesn’t have to do anything “unnatural” to enhance their search engine rankings because other forms of marketing are working on their behalf to enhance their search ranking for a particular phrase.   Most ordinary website owners and business owners don’t have that kind of marketing available to them so in those cases, they would need to use SEO techniques to get the same result.

Dan Moore: So, if I understand you correctly, SEO is a form of marketing, just like TV ads?

Ashley Rader: Not exactly, there are forms of marketing that you can use as a part of an SEO or SEM campaign.   Buying text or banner links and advertising on a page might be part of an SEM campaign.   However even when it comes to marketing your site in other mediums online, there are different goals for purchasing an ad.   For our network of sites we sometimes purchase ads in order to gain traffic from a particular site, and in other cases we might purchase advertising for the sole purpose of search engine optimization and having google see a link from a particular site to our site. SEM (search engine marketing) could be considered a form of marketing, that is the broader name for it.   SEO is the process of in a sense manipulating the way google (or the other search engines) might view your site and the topics or search phrases that it might deem it relevant for.

Dan Moore: Is it worth targeting anyone other than Google?

Ashley Rader: Not worth spending a lot of time on anyone but Google, no. That’s why I keep mentioning google.   Some of the things you do will enhance the results for Yahoo, Live, etc, but not worth spending hours and hours trying to rank for both.

Dan Moore: Can you elaborate a bit on how you started out in the SEO field?

Ashley Rader: I started my website back in 2005 and really started researching online, how do all these sites get to the top of the search engine results.   I didn’t have a lot of money for advertising my website so I was more interested in finding out how to do it for FREE (or with the only cost being my own sweat and labor).   There are a million ebooks out there on how to do SEO and I was lucky enough to find one from a guy who really knew what he was talking about, and is one of the experts in the industry.

Dan Moore: How many ebooks/methods did you try before you found the one that worked?  And how did you know it worked?

Ashley Rader: Actually just the one.  As I started to implement some of the things I was reading about, my first site started moving up the search results pretty quickly.    Since then the author of the original ebook that I read started an SEO/SEM membership organization (called Stompernet) of which I’ve been a faithful member since 2006.   SEO has changed completely even since I started in 2005 so it is really important to stay current on the kinds of things that work today.   The things that I did SEO wise for my site back in 2005 might get me banned from Google today, so its always changing and definitely keeps things interesting.

Dan Moore: So even now, you are constantly overhauling your website(s) to take advantage of new techniques that you read about or discover?

Ashley Rader: Not exactly overhauling, but tweaking – yes, I’m constantly tweaking.   If you start off the bat by implementing good structure you likely won’t need to completely overhaul it, but there are always little tweaks and things that tomorrow might require a different kind of title tag, or a different linking structure.

Dan Moore: A different kind of title tag?  What do you mean–different phrasing, or what?

Ashley Rader: Changing up the keywords, changing the way it is written, changing the “call to action”.    Since title tags control what appears on the primary line of the search results, its important that they are optimized not only for SEO purposes – so including your main keyword(s) for the page.   You also need to balance that with the fact that it is your main line of advertising in the search results so you want it to be compelling for people to click on. Title tags written without keywords or with a bunch of extraneous unrelated text are often not clicked on.

Dan Moore: You mentioned implementing good structure at the beginning of website development–what does that typically look like?

Ashley Rader: Title tags – those are probably the most important on page factors related to SEO results.   You want them to be unique (unique from other pages as duplication in the title tags can lead to penalties), and keyword rich.    You should think of each page of a site not as a subpage of the entire website, but as a single page that has the potential to rank on its own.   Keyword and Description tags should be filled as best as possible (and not left blank), but they don’t affect SEO nearly as much as they used to.   Beyond that, the internal linking on the page.  Your most important pages should be no more than 2 links away from the homepage if possible.   Having good navigation that google can follow (so no javascript) is critical to the ability for google to index and revisit your site. Also using nofollow tags for links that point to pages that you don’t care about being indexed or ranking should be used when possible to boost the link authority of the other links on your page.

Dan Moore: There are ‘validation’ programs to show malformed HTML on websites; are there any analogous SEO programs?

Ashley Rader: Yes, there are a TON of programs out there that can look at many of the factors that influence ranking.   All should be taken with a grain of salt as the ultimate determining factor is how you actually rank.  The one that I use is iBusinessPromoter.   They will analyze many of the onpage factors and tell you if you are over or under optimizing in comparison to the sites that are top ranking for your particular keyword.  I have a number of colleagues who focus SO much on tweaking their on page factors and aren’t looking at the big picture of their overall SEO campaign, and they are just spinning their wheels wondering why their site is still not ranking well.   These tools can help, but are not the end all be all. Also Google Webmaster Tools provides some fantastic information as to why a site might not be ranking well whether it be the site layout, lack of incoming links, or if maybe a penalty has been imposed.

Dan Moore: I always tell people that the best way to get better placement in search results is to produce regular, interesting content about whatever niche they are in.  You have been talking about some techniques that can produce better results, so is my advice incorrect?  If so, do you have a similar (or better!) short capsule of advice?

Ashley Rader: Your advice is 100% correct.   There are other things you can do to reinforce that, but google LOVES regularly updated, unique, quality content. Google loves blogs for that very reason.

Dan Moore: Do you blog?

Ashley Rader: I have a number of blogs (I think maybe 6 or 7 for some of the niches that my websites are in), although at this time I have so many fires in the pot that I am not contributing to them as much as I should.   That is one of the areas I’m working on consolidating and improving on.

Dan Moore: 6 or 7, that’s quite a few.  How do you mean “consolidating”?  Generating more multipurpose content?  Getting other contributors?

Ashley Rader: Other contributors.  Many of them are set up right now with RSS feeds from different sources but that is not ideal.  Matt Cutts from google says that RSS feeds are ok to include, but blogs still need original content.   I have a writer from Odesk who does daily posts for 2 of my blogs.

Dan Moore: Ahh, ok.  Can you talk about the future of SEO–what developments on the horizon excite you?

Ashley Rader: Well I’m not 100% sure what lies in the future, SEO is kind of an “in the moment” type of science.   Since we don’t know what changes Google is going to make tomorrow to their ranking algorithm it is hard to say.   But since I have started, they are moving more and more towards rewarding sites that provide really unique, valuable content to their users.   Actually, one thing they are beta testing right now is the concept of “social search”.   Search results that are different for every user based upon their surfing patterns and sites they visit and elect to come up higher.   I can log into my google account and all of my websites (even my brand new ones) are all #1 on google for their search terms!   🙂   Right now google says these voted results aren’t affecting the current algorithm, but I would guess in the future they will.  Social networks seem to be the way that google is moving so out are the days where you could put crappy, scraped content on your site and spam it to rank well.   You need to provide a valuable experience for your website visitors and in turn google will begin to reward you for that with higher rankings.

Dan Moore: Are there any SEO campaigns that you are particularly proud of and/or would point to as proof of your expertise?

Ashley Rader: My main website is www.momentsofelegance.com.   Currently (just checked) #4 on google for “wedding favors” which is a very popular and competitive search phrase. During the summer months which is the height of wedding season, we get about 3500 hits a day and 98% of those are from organic google search results. Sorry it’s #5 on google not #4.

Dan Moore: Cool, well, thank you very much for your time. This was very helpful; any parting thoughts?

Ashley Rader: The most important factors I would say are make sure you know and understand your industry, the search phrases that people are using to find the times of products or services that you offer (and to research this as what you “think” people might not be searching for is not always what people are actually looking for).  Use those keywords in your site design – not in a spammy way but a natural way.   Then if you are providing good, quality content that appeals and attracts visitors, your site will gain relevant links and will be rewarded by google with better rankings.  You’ve got the right idea, content is king and with good content you will have more returning visitors and better rankings.

One other small point I should make is not to ignore the “long tail” or more specific keyword searches for a site.  We get about 25% of our traffic from our main search phrase “wedding favors”, but the majority of the traffic comes into our product pages using very specific keywords.   Those are actually the “money phrases” as people who are looking for “wedding favors” are usually just researching, people searching for “hot pink favor boxes with personalized ribbon” are usually ready to buy.   Just an important distinction to make to not ignore the more specific search phrases.

Dan Moore: That’s actually how the search keywords for my blog work out–the majority of the search terms are unique and I get maybe 1 hit a month on them.

Ashley Rader: Thats the good thing about blogs, there are a few basic plugins you can use and your site is pretty much SEO optimized and your internal blog pages can rank very well for the longer tail search phrases.

Dan Moore: Thanks again!

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