Monday, May 23, 2011

Reading The Four Steps to the Epiphany

The Four Steps to the Epiphany
Steve Blank's the four steps to the epiphany has established itself pretty solidly on the must-read list for entrepreneurs. It's also one of the hardest books in the space to read. Where other authors have spent their  time creating pithy lists and easy to apply snippets of information, Steve has written a book that is dense and not particularly suited to skimming.

As a book there are all sorts of problems with it: it's self-published in a somewhat inconvenient format, the proof reading is poor, the writing hasn't had a fine tooth applied to it and organisation is such that while sections may be possible to read on their own you'll often miss something that Steve had defined separately in another section. However, the book is full of really good information backed up by a huge amount of experience and good reasoning.  That's why so many start-up people who have read the book recommend it so highly, it talks about the things they do or have done in a practical fashion that's easy to compare to your own endeavors if you can grasp the ideas.

It's a book that gets easier to read the more time you've spent around start-ups as you start to recognize the occurrences presented in it more easily. But that isn't when it's best to be reading it, you'll get the most benefit by reading it as soon as you possibly can so that you can better recognize the situations it applies to in your company when you hit those problems the first time. Entirely too many people premise their opinion of the book with "I wish I'd read this before my first startup" and entirely too many people say something along the lines of "The first time I picked this book up I put it back down again".

One of the central and most valuable themes of the book is the idea of market type. Are you in a new, re-segmented or existing market? Many of the sections of the book are broken down into shorter pieces dealing with each market type for that topic. For example, Steve suggests you should enter an existing market with with a direct assault of marketing while a new market requires a much slower grass roots process of convincing people they need the solution at all.

The breakdown of market types is great and covers a wide variety of differences in how you should work in different markets. Unfortunately, it also encourages a mistake when reading the book, which  is to skip the sections of the book that don't relate to the particular products you're involved in. The book hasn't been written to allow for that though, these small sections remain closely intertwined. When the book examines business development for the first time it defines it in a section regarding existing markets, but it then assumes it for the other markets when it talks abou them.

There are two sets of ideas to focus on in the book: the iterative customer focussed portion of the customer development model and the collection of smaller topics that appear throughout the book when there's some particular thing that Steve points out.

The basic customer development model relies on: iteration, metrics and feedback. Throughout the book the models of finding customers and then improving your relationships with them come back to this pattern. Talking to people, recording their responses in a way that aligns with what you business needs to achieve and then updating how you're talking to them and what you're talking to them about until you feel comfortable at that stage. In the early stages of the startup talking means finding out if they like your ideas and respond positively, in later stages it means generating sales at appropriate cost.

If all you get out of the book is taking an iterative approach to each stage and measuring it then you've easily got your money's worth. But there's a lot more in there, everything from pre-tested strategies for dealing with various types of enterprise sales to working out if you're CEO is still the right fit when you go from startup to business. Indeed, the last chapter covers the rocky time that comes when you find yourself growing past the size that the entrepreneur can control everything and how that can be managed.

If the thought of reading the whole thing is still too daunting then perhaps the best choice is to only read chapters as you start approaching the stage that they talk about in the company. You'd be better off reading it all at once, but you'll get a lot of value out of reading the relevant bits as well. In addition, Steve suggests that a good mental task is to think about what your competitors  are or could be doing, so if they're at a different stage read up on what they're likely to be facing as well.

This book isn't an easy read, but it is a valuable one. No matter how hard a book is to read, if it can make the difference between learning some of this stuff by reading versus learning it by having a startup fail then reading is the much more pleasant option. This book is definitely in that category.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Code School's Rails Best Practices Review

The guys at Envy Labs have created a really great new set of learning materials over at Code School.
I've been teaching some people Rails recently and sitting them down in front of Rails for Zombies really worked for them. The idea of mixing short screencasts with convenient practical exercises has been a great way of teaching and the web based format is really quite slick.

I wanted to try out some of their stuff myself so I went and bought their Rails Best Practices course. Honestly, the course was a little bit too easy for me, but it was something I wished had existed a couple of years ago when I was just picking up little Rails idioms here and there.  

Inside of this, the format of very dense screen-casts with quick practical excercises meant that the familiar stuff didn't really get in the way and bore me like a slower intro would have. Overall the full run through took less than two hours effort, while I know newer devs would probably find themselves skipping back and forth between the exercises and the videos.

While I knew most of it there were a few small things that for some reason I wasn't familiar with. The .presence method for example is a little thing that is easy to miss but has quickly made its way into my everyday coding after having seen it. The usage of delegate is something that I hadn't really been familiar with beforehand but now really like. A couple of other things were also new to me but don't seem so helpful, Memoizable and Nested Layouts come more under this heading.

The only drawback of the whole thing is the price really. If you're already confident that you've been reading widely on ruby then it might not be quite as worthwhile. But, I wish something like this had existed a few years ago when I was just starting to get deeper into rails. It would have saved me a lot of time. They're also giving away a free Peepcode screencast when you finish now which it a little nicer. There's no shortage of decent Peepcode videos that are worth purchasing after all.

The thing I'm most excited about is what they're going to do with this platform in the future. It really is a great system and something that I intend to get anyone I come across wanting to learn something to sit down in front of. I'm particularly looking forward to some frontend devs I know sitting down in front of their upcoming Jquery course.