Friday, April 29, 2011

Startups are like computer games

I used to love computer games and would play them all the time. If the time I had spent playing the Civilization series was instead spent doing something constructive like learning Mandarin or the guitar, well, I would be pretty good at those other things.

I've pretty much gone off computer games in the last 6 months, I have no desire to play them anymore. And the reason I think is that Shoes of Prey has taken the place of computer games for me.

Here's what I used to love about computer games:
  • Strategic thinking - My favourite computer games were always the strategy games. The Civilization series, Sim City, the Command and Conquer Series as well as business sims like Theme Park and Transport and Pizza Tycoon. I love thinking strategically and up until starting Shoes of Prey I never really had an opportunity to do this in my work.
  • Near instant feedback and rewards - This has to be one of the best things about a computer game. You do something, you get instant feedback in a higher or lower score, moving up a level or getting more of some important resource. This is hard to replicate in the real world as feedback and rewards tend to take longer to achieve. The online world has reduced this feedback time, we can make a change to our Google AdWords campaign, on our Facebook page or run a YouTube promotion and see near instant feedback in Google Analytics or in our sales.
  • A release for my addictive personality - I'm pretty sure I get addicted/passionate about things more quickly and easily than most people. Fortunately I've managed to avoid addictions to most bad things, but I certainly used to find myself very addicted to computer games! I can now safely say that I am addicted/passionate about Shoes of Prey instead. I'm happy to work on the business 15 hours, 7 days a week when it's required - about the same amount of time I was capable of spending playing Civilization II during school holidays until my parents kicked me out of the house to go do something outside.

In addition to all those things Shoes of Prey provides:

  • A positive feeling after working on it - as opposed to that awful 'my god, I just wasted 10 hours of my life today playing Civilization' feeling.
  • A potentially significant real life monetary reward - if we achieve all our goals.
  • Social interaction - I work on Shoes of Prey with other people, and people who I've never met are actually interested enough in what we're doing to read this blog. My nuking of the Aztecs after a big day of Civ was never of much interest to anyone except my mate Bob who happened to playing as the Aztecs. ;)

I still occasionally get the urge to pull out a computer game and play it, but that urge is much less than it used to be as our startup now fulfills this role for me.

Image credit

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Tech Talks at Shoes of Prey Sydney

When I worked at Google they used to organise what are called 'Tech Talks'. A Tech Talk could be given by someone either inside or outside Google on any topic that might be of interest to people working at Google. It might be someone inside the company talking about something interesting that they're working on, or someone outside the company coming in to share their experience on a topic of interest. Most Tech Talks are related to the work Google does, like this one on how open source projects survive, but some veer to other topics like this one on human rights issues in North Korea. Google have recorded some of these Tech Talks and they're available to watch on Google's Tech Talk YouTube channel here.

We ran this concept past the Shoes of Prey team based in Sydney and everyone loved the idea, so we're going to try it out ourselves. And given the challenges we've had finding time for non core business meetings, we thought we'd open some of them up to anyone who'd like to come along.

The plan is to run them fortnightly on Friday nights at our office in Surry Hills. We'll kick off at 5:30pm sharp so it's not too late for our team who want to stay around, but that should also allow time for others to arrive from work. The idea will be to have a 20-30min presentation on an interesting topic, then we'll have some drinks and chat about the ideas in the presentation or the entrepreneurial / online retail world more generally.

We're going to kick things off this Friday with a talk by entrepreneur Jeremy Levitt of Service Seeking. Service Seeking was founded in October 2007 by Jeremy (an ex-lawyer) and Oliver Pennington (an ex-sales analyst). The site allows customers to post a job for any type of service, businesses then bid for those jobs. The site has listed more than $300m projections since it's launch, has had over 200,000 listings and more than 40,000 businesses quote for work. Service Seeking has raised more than $4m in venture capital and employs 9 staff in Sydney.


I've been catching up semi-regularly with Jeremy since before we launched Shoes of Prey and he and Service Seeking's success have been an inspiration to what we've achieved with Shoes of Prey. Jeremy will be sharing the Service Seeking journey with us particularly focusing on some of the innovative things they've done around:

  • Promoting their business through PR
  • Managing a high volume of customer service at scale
  • Combining customer service with a strong sales culture
  • Leveraging internal data for business development and press opportunities
  • Growing the business through key parternships and deals

You're welcome to join us from 5:15pm. Jeremy will take us through Service Seeking from 5:30pm-5:50/6pm and we'll aim to finish up around 7pm. Our address is 12/285A Crown St. Surry Hills. For those who can't make it or who aren't in Sydney I'll aim to summarise Jeremy's presentation for a future blog post.

You can RSVP either in the comments below or by email to michael@shoesofprey.com Thanks!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Visualizing Global Sales Data With Google Earth

This post was written by Charles Ma, one of our software engineers based in Sydney. The post is also cross-posted to his personal blog which you can check out here.
As an early employee of the unique design your own shoe company Shoes of Prey, I'm intrigued by how quickly the company is growing. It seems like every time I walk into the office there is a new employee in Sydney or one of it's partner offices around the world. As the business spreads into new markets across the globe, we start to ask questions like "how quickly are we growing in Japan?", "how successful was our valentine's day campaign?", "how can we replicate our Australian success in Russia?". We can take information like where and when we're making a sale and apply basic statistics and number crunching-fu to try and answer some of those questions, but that's no fun. What if we could see our growth with our eyes?

Google earth is an excellent tool for visualizing geo-location data, and that's exactly what we chose to use. In a few hours, I was able to create a visualisation of shoe sales around the world over time. Here is a video of Australian sales:


Seeing the growth of Shoes of Prey over time is exciting, and it only takes the right tools and bit of programming background to put something like this together. This post gets technical from here, so skip to the end of that's not your cup of tea.

Displaying time sequence animations in Google Earth is easy, it's a matter of getting your data in the right format. It uses a format called KML, for which you can find documentation here. I'll summarize what it took to put the animation together.
You can place a "placemark" on the map with the following tag:


<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<kml xmlns="http://www.opengis.net/kml/2.2">
  <Placemark>
    <Point>
      <coordinates>-122.0822035425683,37.42228990140251,0</coordinates>
    </Point>
  </Placemark>
</kml>
Furthermore, you can add a custom icon as well as a "TimeSpan" to specify when to display that "placemark". This is what we use to display those red shoe icons on the map.

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<kml xmlns="http://www.opengis.net/kml/2.2">
  <Document>
    <Style id="iconStyle">
       <IconStyle>
          <scale>1.0</scale>
          <Icon><href>shoe.gif</href></Icon>
       </IconStyle>
   </Style>
  <Placemark>
      <TimeSpan>
        <begin>2009-10-09</begin>
        <end>2009-10-16</end>
      </TimeSpan>
     <styleUrl>#iconStyle</styleUrl>
     <Point>
       <coordinates>-122.0822035425683,37.42228990140251,0</coordinates>
     </Point>
  </Placemark>
</Document>
</kml>
The "kml" above will display a single shoe icon at GPS coordinates (-122.0822035425683, 37.42228990140251), you can add more points by adding more <Placemark> sections.

Creating and animating heat maps is more difficult and will require some programming. Python is a major programming language we use at Shoes of Prey and luckily I found a Python library that not only generates heat maps, but also generates kml code to overlay the heat map on Google Earth. The heat map library by itself had a few limitations for what we wanted to do; mainly, it was too slow and it was limited to only generating a single static heat map and kml file. However, the great thing about open source software with modification friendly licenses is that you can modify it if it doesn't do exactly what you want it to do. I had to modify the library to make it faster and generate a time sequence of heat maps like the one you see in the video. You can find the source code of the modified version here. All you have to do is give it the data in the right format, the library does the hard work for you.

import heatmap
# Code to format your data goes here #
hm = heatmap.Heatmap()
hm.animated_heatmapKML(pointsets, outfile_name)

The first argument to the animated_heatmapKML functino takes an array of 3-tupples in the format like below:

pointsets = [(start_date, end_date, [lat, lng]), (start_date, end_date, [lat, lng]), ...]


The second argument is the name of the output file, e.g. "heatmap.kml". There are other optional parameters, see the documentation for more details. That should generate a "heatmap.kml" file as well as associated heatmap images heatmap.kml1.png, heatmap.kml2.png, ... to go with it. Open the file in google earth and slide the timeline to see the heatmap change over time.

What do you do with your business' data and how do you use it to improve your business?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Shoes of Prey launches in the Netherlands!

Last Thursday saw our official launch into the Netherlands and Flemish speaking Belgium with the Dutch version of our website now live at www.shoesofprey.nl.

The Netherlands has been one of our best markets to date. The Dutch clearly love fashion and designing their own shoes!

Like Japan and Russia we've launched the localised version of Shoes of Prey with a Dutch partner - a company called Distribution Partners lead by Lisette Spaanbroek and her husband Andre.

Lisette and Andre import and have the rights to a number of international hair care products for the Dutch market, so they've been involved in localising international brands in the past. They've also developed an excellent list of PR and media contacts in the fashion and beauty space which they'll be able to leverage for launching Shoes of Prey.

Lisette was in Sydney last week to meet with us and learn the Shoes of Prey processes. It was great to get to know her and we're excited to have her and Distribution Partners as our partners in the Netherlands.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

US PR Agency: your recommendations

To date the US has been a strong off-shore market for Shoes of Prey, but not one that we have been especially dedicated to cultivating. Aside from being a strong off-shore market, we've also had some excellent press placements there that we've generated from Sydney, including:

However, one of the great lessons we've learnt from our partnerships in Japan and Russia is that by being local we get introductions and connections that would be tough to generate over email. To facilitate this in the US, we're thinking about engaging a PR agency to share their rolodex, relationships and expertise given that this is a market that we're not as well-connected with as we are in Australia. We're looking at both East and West coast and we want access to stylists, celebrities, editors, producers and fashion influencers. To this end, we're not interested in pitches from agencies but we would love your recommendations (or warnings) on agencies you have worked with. We'd also be so appreciative of any tips, lessons or advice you'd be willing to share. We've learnt some tough lessons of our own in this space and would love your help avoiding learning it all the hard way.

Do you have any advice about working in the US market? Have you used a PR agency in the States that you'd recommend or warn us against? What were the lessons you learnt out of this?

Photo credit.

Friday, April 15, 2011

How do you turn down meetings?


I love meeting new people, it's one of my favourite things. I find it fascinating listening to what people are doing and the journey they've taken. There is often so much I can take from those conversations and apply it to my own life.

For the first time in my life I'm having to turn people down meeting new people and it's hard. We're at a fairly critical point for Shoes of Prey. We've hired a lot of new people and moved into a new office so our fixed costs have gone up. We've still been restrained with that growth but it's as important as ever that we continue to grow our sales aggressively while helping the new team members settle in.

While our business grows and our network expands, there are more new people to meet. That's fantastic and up until recently I made a point of meeting up with anyone I could in the entrepreneurial and online retail space when the opportunity presented itself. As much as I'd like to, unfortunately I just don't have time to do this anymore. I'm working 80 hour weeks so it's not possible to add anything more, and in my list of priorities, Shoes of Prey has to come first. Some non-essential meetings are easier to turn down, like where a company is trying to pitch for business. Some are much harder, like where someone is starting a new online retail business and they're in the position we were only 18 months ago. Or where someone is keen to learn from us and they also have skill sets they can share with us. I have a particular dislike of arrogance and I never want to be or even have the appearance of being arrogant - and turning down a meeting with someone certainly feels a little bit like I'm doing that.

Most people who are in the situation where I seem to have found myself simply stop responding to emails. I often contact people who I know are very busy and don't get a response and I can understand why. And perhaps there's a time where that will come for me too. For now I've come to the conclusion that the best thing to do is to be open and upfront about the fact that as much as I'd like to, I don't have time to meet with everyone, I need to focus on our business. It's a difficult change to make, particularly when it's people who are doing exactly what we were doing only a year or two ago.

How do you deal with the situation where you have to turn down meetings?

Image credit

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Welcome to the new Shoes of Prey Sydney office



Last Monday we moved into our new Shoes of Prey Sydney office and one week in, we couldn't be happier!

We leased 140sqm of space at 285A Crown St. Surry Hills. For those who know the area it's the building next door to The Winery, we're on the first floor above Thomas Dux, Zushi and Madam Cha Cha.

The space is not cheap, it's the most expensive space we came across in Surry Hills. However it's also by far the best space we came across and as much as we looked at other places, we just kept coming back to this one. We're bootstrapping Shoes of Prey and everything we do is funded out of our cashflow so we're very conscious of costs throughout the business, however we're also well aware that building a strong team is critical for our business as we grow, and we feel that office space like this is going to help us attract and retain staff and build a great culture within the business. It's also an excellent place to host press so will help us from a PR point of view, and the quality of the space and location will allow us to experiment with some offline retailing without going as far as opening a store.

We've started putting on lunch for all our staff. For the moment we're picking a local take-away restaurant and all ordering from there with one person going to collect lunch. We then eat around a communal table in the office. There's some fantastic food in this area, last week we had lunch from my favourite burger place Grill'd, Zushi, Mad Pizza, Madam Cha cha and Pie Face.

We've got more space than we need for the moment, however we're undecided on whether to sub-lease the space or just keep it for ourselves. Some extra money would be nice and with the right co-tenants it could create an interesting environment. However we're also conscious of wanting to build a strong, effective internal Shoes of Prey culture, and having our own space will make that easier. We've decided we'll wait a month or two until we've settling in then decide whether to sublease or not.

Mike, Bel and Mel hard at work in the foreground.

Jonaye putting together leather samples.

Diane Wong, our marketing intern.

Jodie settling in with matching skirt and chair, and fantastic leopard print ankle boots by Shoes of Prey. ;)

Monday, April 11, 2011

Welcome to the team Holly and Jonaye

Holly Hu joined us in a permanent role 3 weeks ago. We initially hired Holly on a 3 month contract to help us while we moved into our new office but after 3 weeks we realised what a fantastic addition she was to the team so we hired her permanently.

Holly has joined us after spending 3 years with a US biodiesel firm based in China working as a translator and assisting in negotiations with suppliers. Having worked as a translator her English is excellent, and she's already proven her worth as a negotiator negotiating better deals for us with various suppliers in China.

Holly will work closely with Penny and Qun managing our order and shipping process in our china office.

Holly enjoys cooking and made the team an excellent chicken soup and dumplings for breakfast while I was in China 2 weeks ago. :)

Jonaye joined us last week as a customer service wonderperson. Once again we had over 20 applications for this role which was only advertised in early March via this blog and the Shoes of Prey blog.

Jonaye comes to us with a forbiddable skill set in relationship management and office administration having most recently worked as an administrative assistant for the Victoria Police Force in their crime department. She'll be working closely with Susie ensuring our customers are the happiest in the land and after only one week she has already picked up our sometimes chaotic systems and processes very quickly! Jonaye is also a singer, actor and dancer in her spare time.

We're so excited to have both Holly and Jonaye join the Shoes of Prey team.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Launched: Harvey Norman Big Buys


This morning Harvey Norman have launched Harvey Norman Big Buys. It's a daily deals site that's pretty much identical to Catch of the Day and DealMe.

I actually drafted a blog post a couple of days ago discussing how I thought Harvey Norman's online strategy wouldn't work given I thought they were likely to just replicate their offline store experience online, so hats off to them for not doing that and thanks to them for launching their Big Buys site before I published my post! ;) It's great that Harvey Norman have recognised replicating their offline experience online won't work and that they're exploring other paths for online retailing.

That said, the site could certainly use some improvement, the design and colour scheme strikes me as ugly and I'm not sure how attractive the products on offer are. Replicating exactly what others have done before them doesn't earn them an A+ for innovation either. Still, it's their launch day so no doubt those issues will be improved.

Incidentally while checking out Catch of the Day and DailyDeals for this post I ended up buying 8 headphones from Catch of the Day and a case of wine from DailyDeals for our new office. Both sites have great offers.

What are your thoughts on their site?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Investors can provide more than money

In two recent posts we discussed a business plan for online retailers and the stages where capital investment can contribute to the growth of an online retail business. When talking to investors there are other key areas where they can contribute to the business: their contacts, relationships and expertise.

I caught up with Mike Canon-Brookes, one of the co-founders of Atlassian recently. Accel Partners, one of the top VC firms in the US recently invested $60m in Atlassian. In addition to their capital Mike was telling me some of the additional benefits Accel Partners are bringing to the Atlassian business:

Assistance with hiring - The people working at Accel have great contacts in the software space that Atlassian operate in. Accel are helping Atlassian with key senior hires for their business and are assisting Atlassian in recruiting members for their board of directors which they are putting together.

Reputation - For Accel to invest in Atlassian they obviously conduct quite rigorous due diligence and are strong believers in the potential of the business. This feedback from a company like Accel shows that Atlassian is clearly a successful and strong business. This helps in attracting new hires to the business, business development opportunities and marketing their products.

Media coverage - Accel's investment in Atlassian lead to quite a bit of media coverage. This has helped raise awareness of Atlassian which helps in marketing their products but particularly in improving business development opportunities and helping to attract new talent.

Networking with other Accel companies. Mike said there have been occasions when he's faced a business problem recently and he's run it past Accel. They've mentioned that another company in their portfolio faced a similar issue and Mike has been able to pick up the phone and speak directly to someone at that other company about how they dealt with the issue. Mike and Scott will both be attending an Accel CEO's forum in the US later this year. They'll hear from and present to CEO's of other Accel Partners companies - people like Andrew Mason of Groupon and Drew Houston of Dropbox.

In addition to capital they could provide, how could an outside investor assist an online retailer like Shoes of Prey?

Similar to how Accel has helped Atlassian the right outside investor to Shoes of Prey could assist us with hiring, growing our reputation, media coverage and networking.

Manufacturing in China. An investor with manufacturing experience in China might be able to help us with sourcing new factories to work with or new suppliers to buy components for our shoes from. They might also be able to help us with hiring in China as we continue to grow our team there.

Online retailing and marketing. An investor with experience in online retailing and online marketing might be able to assist us in these areas, as well as hire good people with online retail and online marketing experience.

Strategy. It's still relatively early days for the Shoes of Prey business and an experienced external investor would provide a great source of ideas and sounding board as we determine the best direction for the Shoes of Prey business to develop.

One of the great things about having an outside investor help in your business would be that they have skin in the game, they've invested their capital, so they're going to be going out of their way to assist you in growing your business. Many angel investors and venture capital firms will only look to invest in businesses where they have relevant experience because a) these are the businesses they understand best and b) these are the businesses they can offer the most assistance to. Having an investor with the right experience can in many cases be more important than maximising the valuation you get for the investment in the business.

What other ways have you seen investors help a business they've invested capital in?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Putting people management systems in place as we grow

The Shoes of Prey team continues to grow. We're now a team of 11 and we're looking to hire another 3-4 team members over the next month. With this growth comes a need for people management systems and processes.

If you count part-time / casual roles I've worked for more than a year at 6 different companies prior to starting Shoes of Prey. Out of those different companies Google was definitely the stand out in terms of how they manage their people. They had an excellent review process that for the most part did a great job of identifying the best and worst performers and while their system certainly wasn't perfect, the imperfections were more a result of the systems struggling to scale to 20,000 people, a challenge we shouldn't face at Shoes of Prey in the near future. ;)

The goal of any good people management system should be to motivate employees so that:
1. They enjoy coming to work. Work makes a huge part of people's lives so why not help make that enjoyable for them!
2. They perform at their full potential.

We plan to take a lot of what we learned from Google and apply it to Shoes of Prey.

Goal Setting
We plan to work with a quarterly goal setting and review process. At the start of each new quarter, the employee and manager will individually plan out the top 4-6 goals for that employee over the next quarter. They'll then come together and agree on what those goals will be.

Weekly Meetings
We have started and will continue to have weekly 30 minute meetings between each manager and each of their reports. When things get busy this is something that can be very easy to cancel. I was initially sceptical of this time investment when I started at Google as I hadn't worked for a company who had formal weekly meetings like this, but these sessions proved hugely valuable. Just taking the time to sit down with my manager or my reports lead to so many new ideas, more efficient ways of doing things being developed or introductions from my manager to other people within the business who would assist me with what I was working on. Weekly meetings also lead to a much better performance review process as feedback is given regularly throughout the quarter.

Performance Reviews
The majority of the performance review process will informally happen during the weekly meetings. If an employee is doing something well, or not performing in a particular area then the weekly meetings are where those issues will come out and plans can be made to maximise the good work, or improve the poor work.

The formal performance review happens at the end of each quarter. Both the employee and manager will individually review the employee's performance against the goals that were set at the start of the quarter. They will then come together and discuss the employee's performance, and their worked given a formal rating for the quarter. This rating is then used to calculate the employee's bonus for that quarter, together with the sales performance of the company.

Remuneration
Remuneration for each employee will be made up of a combination of base pay, bonus and stock options. When I was at Google the majority of my pay was base pay. My standard bonus was 10% of my base and the value of my stock options was less than 10% of my base. I was pretty motivated when I was at Google, but after working on Shoes of Prey for nearly 2 years I realise I definitely wasn't performing at my peak at Google, and I think a key reason for that was the low proportion of my pay that was performance based and that I could influence. The company was so large that I had 0 chance of influencing the value of Google's stock. And it was a similar story with the company revenue proportion of my bonus. What this resulted in was that if I performed really well I might move the needle enough to get an extra 5% on top of my base compared with if I was an average performer. Money is not the only motivator for me but I do need more than a few thousand dollars a year to encourage me to work on my weekends or late at night when the workload requires it! Google actually changed this for the team I was on shortly after I left which I think was an excellent move.

The great thing about a startup is that working in such a small team, employees can influence the value of the company's stock options, and the company's revenue. We also plan to make the bonus and stock option components of our employee's pay higher than mine was at Google. That said, different employees have different goals and motivators, so we'll speak with new hires during the hiring process to determine what motivates them and we'll do our best to structure their packages appropriately for them. For example, we plan for our stock options to vest annually over 4 years. This will encourage employees to stick with us for that 4 year period, and work hard to help increase the value of our company in that time. Some employees may want to take a much lower base in exchange for a higher stock options component of their salary and if they want to do this it's certainly something we would encourage as it more closely aligns the employees interests with the company's.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on people management systems that you've worked in at other businesses, or used for your startup.

Image credit

Friday, April 1, 2011

Custom retail - Gemvara

We've written about custom jewellery retailer Gemvara before, and last week they raised their 3rd round of funding, a massive US$15m round bringing their total funding to US$26m.

They're planning to use the funds to expand their product range and hire a massive 30 new staff! Looking at their jobs page today they have 7 software engineering roles advertised, along with roles including everything from website copywriters to jewellery buyers and quality assurance staff.

It's very inspiring for us to see other online custom retailers growing their businesses so quickly. We're still undecided on the concept of raising capital versus continuing to bootstrap, but it's very interesting to watch the path other custom retailers like Gemvara are taking with this.

Video interview with founder and CEO Matt Lauzon:



Hat top once again to Fan Bi of Blank Label for the link.