03 – The Machine

Or 5 secrets to a product plan

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PodcastFlow is an internet machine. PodcastFlow completes a series of tasks, has some automation, required designing and building, and it uses energy.

What is a Machine?

Once upon a time, we could clearly discuss the difference between computer hardware and computer software. Together, they create a machine that does something.

During the recent two decades, all of what I knew about hardware and software disappeared. You were likely taught: Hardware is that stuff you can touch. Software is stuff someone writes. For all of you that held on to those definitions, it just isn’t true anymore.

Give a tug on your helmet strap, tighten your bootlaces, and take this leap with me. Since around the year 2000, the entirety of a computer can be managed as software. That chunk of iron and plastic you have as a laptop, desktop, or even as a mobile phone can or is actually entirely software. Yes, your laptop computer is still hardware. You can touch it. You can toss it out of a window and smash it. That physical bit of stuff is actually and still hardware.

But, somewhere in a massive room in Ashburn Virginia and other places on this globe, people like me run computer that are entirely software. The server itself – all of it’s bits: the disk drives, the internet connection – all of that is software. We can make a copy of it. We can move it. We can clone it. We can instantly make it run faster with more memory and more processors. It is, in the parlance, a virtual computer.

The servers upon which we run our Oracle software, the servers upon which we write in the language PL/SQL are virtual. I carry a mental picture of a flat black box mounted on a 19-inch rack in a computer server room. I haven’t seen one in fifteen years, so I cling to that image.

That image that is wrong.

A machine does something, maybe something useful. I have given up differentiating the difference between an engine and a machine and hardware and software. No solid lines of demarcation exist. Each are simply metaphors. Sure, I can – sometimes – point to the engine on a jet or the engine in an automobile. Probably because that is where the noise comes from and I might just see a cog, or something move.

Maybe one would expect that an engine or a machine is the sort of thing you can whack with a hammer or find a bolt to tighten with a spanner. That definition is a legacy from the industrial revolution.

An engine is a thing that does something. Let’s improve this definition: How about an engine is a thing that does something to something with a bit of automation in it? Or maybe a machine is a thing that does something, has some automation and it either uses or produces energy.

Someone designed and built a machine to do something.

PodcastFlow is a machine that helps people plan, promote, produce, and profit from podcasts.

Our machine sits in the Center of the Internet – The Cloud. It uses cloud computing and cloud storage. It is hardware and software. It has digital data connectors to several vendors. The machine is a bunch of different parts that work together. When you stand on the outside of that machine, it just looks like magic.

Wanna know what else I know about machines?

People do not buy machines. People buy tools, but only when they understand their value and importance.

I am fascinated by tools and machines from hand planes to airplanes. That’s me and that can highlight a significant flaw when managing a business. 

The 5th of June 2019

In Chapter 1, I introduced you to Kelly Dodge who called me on the 5th of June 2019 with an idea. As a software developer, listening to an idea for an app is as common as a medical doctor having to listen to some rando sequence of symptoms when not at work.

“Oh, you’re a doctor. My clavicular sphincter resonates whenever I eat fried broccoli then stand near a green Volvo.” Seriously, stop reading the internet looking for medical assistance.

Clearly swiping left and swiping right caught on. That thumbs-up thing became popular. Also, I have heard I can learn some dance moves on other apps.

Kelly got my attention with a good idea. Let’s help podcasters plan and produce a podcast.

Kelly knew what to say to a business owner.

First, she described a suite of services or tools that podcasters would value. Nice start, especially when talking with a tool smith. Interesting tools are cool. I build tools.

Kelly did not know we had a related tool that had no market and no customers.

Second, Kelly described the market potential for a business venture. She knew how many podcasters there were; the growth rate of that market; the potential for revenue in that market.

Third, Kelly identified what the market was missing. She saw a niche. A niche is important for a new product. How do you find your customers? And how does your customer find your product? You need to differentiate your widget from all other widgets.

Fourth, she outlined how the business venture would be valuated for potential sale to another firm. Kelly put the end-in-mind at the outset of the project. That’s a trick many of us learned from a guy telling us about the seven habits of successful people.

Fifth, she stated that she, Doctor Doctor Dodge, would be invest and participate in the venture. She accepted marketing and product design as her role and key contribution.

Kelly and I have collaborated since 2010 on projects. Normally, I work for her as a ghost writer. I know her well enough to understand her entire presentation was off-the-cuff. At 24 she was the V.P. of a company with 5,000 people and tops in its industry. She was later a business development executive and strategic planner at B.A.E. – a global defense, security, and aerospace company.

Off-the-cuff, Kelly hit five key elements of a product plan. Given her background, that she does this is not a surprise. It is a necessary discipline for business owners and software developers thinking of that killer app.

Throughout my career, I emphasized my skills designing and building tools. Let’s go build a tool and we’ll find a market is a strategy I have engaged in repeatedly. Which is how my firm owned a project management application in the spring of 2019 with no customers.

Task number one – identify a market for the machine you want to build. I did not do that with my project management tool. Our customers in Puerto Rico wanted a means of coordinating the complex activities of their disaster recovery staff. My response: I’ll build a classic project management tool that does Gantt charts, makes pretty calendars, emails people tasks, keeps track of meeting notes, and stores project documents. There is a disconnect. This tool smith built the tool I thought I’d like.

The center of the thought process can not be “me” but “market” or “customer”. That’s a fail. With Podcast Flow, we made the commitment to serve the market on their terms. Thank you, Kelly.

Task number two – understand the market potential before spending money. Ventures, even non-profits, need to balance the financial books. The bills must be paid, and payroll must be met. Pulling out a tape measure while striving to measure the potential revenue and potential size of the market must be a factor in deciding in going forward.

Task number three – seeing the niche, recognizing the needs of people. Better and different may not be sufficient factors to get people buying your engine over the engine of another.

Podcasting, like so many concepts on the internet, started because one or more of my kind said: I can do this. Podcasting is a kludgy mess of borrowed technology. Those who want to write, produce, and profit from a podcast must engage in numerous disciplines. Entirely analogous to being an entrepreneur – writing, audio engineering, geeky-web stuff, social media, communicating with your listeners, and finding sponsorship. That’s a minimum of six skillset. Not a barrier, just a challenge. Even opening the simplest of businesses requires: bookkeeping, attracting and retaining customers, doing that thing that is your business, dealing with vendors.

Apple does a fine job of hosting podcasts and so do another dozen companies. Looking into a market space to see what is missing, then knowing you can meet that need – that is a gift.

PodcastFlow is not technology tossed into a marketplace full of technology. That results in failure. When talking about opening a restaurant, or a retail shop, or an on-line market stall, or personal services firm; knowing how you will differentiate yourself is key.

Task number four – always know where the exits are. There are eight emergency exits on this plane – we know the song and the dance that goes with that routine. Each business plan, or product plan need a minimum of two exits. What to do when you recognize failure? And what to do when you recognize success? Of course, of course, we never plan for failure, blah blah blah. Entirely not true. I have been a volunteer firefighter since I was about 18 years old. Off and on during my life, I have worked as an EMT then paramedic. And I spent a year in Iraq as a civilian member of the U.S. Army’s Fourth Infantry Division. Guess what, in every case, I was trained to plan for failure and have plans for when things go horribly wrong.

Planning for failure and planning for disasters does not make them come true. And it does not create a defeatist attitude. These plans often demonstrate depth and resiliency.

Planning for success is often just as difficult. Most of us that start a business think about paying the monthly bills, eating regularly, and taking care of those around us. When you deliberately plan the exit strategy for success, then you’ll necessarily push the event horizon. One might just recognize that retirement and family and activities other than work could, just maybe, take tick higher in priority.

Our exit strategy for Podcast Flow LLC is simple. When the annual projected revenue meets x value, the company will be valued at Y. At Y value, we will sell and do something else.

And task five – Acknowledging that marketing a new product requires lead time, cash, labor, thinking, and commitment. Marketing and product development must interact, collaborate, and share common goals and commitments. If you are that special, amazing person that can do both, celebrate that.

I am a tool smith. I have long known that. I rely on others to support me in the marketing roles. I must work within a team to bring the balances needed for success. 

A sixth rule exists too. One must be flexible. Semper Gumby baby.

Semper Gumby

The 6th of June - D-Day

Within a day, Kelly and I roughly described the needs for a product. It had no name. It had two elements. One: We had complex suite of unused software that needed a market. Two: We had a pretty good sense of the market.

Podcasting is a repetitious activity. Atul Gawande wrote a terrific book called “The Checklist Manifesto” informing the reader about the value of the lovely and humble checklist. Atul Gawande is a surgeon writing a book, therefore included the surgical theatre in his stories. I read this book while training as a paramedic. Shortly after reading this book, I stood as the junior-most person in attendance at a surgery. The head surgeon and chief nurse in the room stepped through a practiced checklist, as if they too read “The Checklist Manifesto”. In a full clear voice, a young doctor-in-training read the patients allergies. A check in a box. We called out our names and our reason for being in the room. I was there to intubate the patient. I had interviewed the patient. I had gotten consent from the patient. I would insert the plastic breathing tube, test it and walk out. One of the statements on the checklist was: Everyone is equal when seeing a problem. When the first drugs were given, I stood at the head of the patient. A young doctor taped the patient’s eyes shut. I said: “Patient allergies included tape adhesive”.

Damn if the entire room didn’t listen to me. The checklist worked.

The planning, production, promotion and even profiting from a podcast involves a series of detailed checklists. Some of the tasks are things we love like writing. I love to write and tell stories with words. Some of the tasks are things we may hate doing. For some that may be writing. I like to write. I hate to self-promote. I hate to tweet.

The gift of a checklist comes from the consistency. A surgeon with decades of experience listened to a paramedic who remember that sticky tape will cause an allergic reaction on the patient’s eyes. “Gee whiz doc, my knee feels good, but I can’t open my eyes.”

The checklist also facilitates teamwork, coordination, and collaboration.

The humble checklist permits us to refine a process then improve it. I know why a surgical team reads a patient’s allergies out loud to the entire team. Let’s not forget that step next time. Somebody made that mistake before, right?

Kelly listened to a podcast hosted by a team of people who wrote a series of checklists for podcasters. Follow these steps and you’ll be more successful with your podcast. Nice. Perfect.

Spreadsheets are terrible at scheduling on a calendar. They are terrible for tracking complex data like a database does. Spreadsheets rather suck at sharing data. So many problems.  

I get it though. Spreadsheets are easy and accessible.

Is managing a series of checklists really what an internet machine does? Sure, why not?

What gifts does the internet have to offer a podcaster, or anyone involved in repetitive processes? The internet connects things. Checklists connect with calendars. Calendars connect with email. Email connects people. Checklists now connect with people.

The internet stores things. So instead of just ticking that a task is done, put the data with it. Put the script next to the tick-mark for the script. Show the keywords. Show the episode plan.

Show and tell and do and share. Now you are on the internet. A spreadsheet can’t show and tell and do and share simultaneously.

My team had built a classic looking and classically functioning project management software application. Rather stodgy looking too. It can have an infinite number of projects and tasks. It tracks dollars and time. It tracks the completion of tasks. It does all of the things that Microsoft Project does except it does it in an Oracle data and runs on a web browser. And because it is on the internet, it can email people. It can send information to people’s calendars. People, when the login can see what they are supposed to see, and they cannot see what they should not see. That’s just modern software. There are numerous competitors and some of their products are pretty good. I believe I saw a niche by blending it with our grants management software. Track the dollars, documents, and data related to grants. Then also track grant funded projects: who is doing what with what due dates. That sort of thing.

This big robust tool sat on the proverbial shelf when Kelly describe the need for a checklist.

Oh, isn’t a project management tool really just a big complex checklist tool? They are kind of the same.

Our team could nearly immediately offer Kelly an expanded view of the process.

Instead of calling anything a project, we call it a show.

Instead of sub-projects, we call them episodes.

Instead of hand-keying tasks for each episodes, use standardized and tested checklists. Let’s replicate successes and avoid known failures.

So now tasks are checklists and checklists are tasks. But these tasks carrying the intelligence of other people’s experiences and successes. They are not just tasks or checklists, they become workflows. When people collaborate, discuss, share, and improve on workflows everyone does better.

Podcasters are not competing for an audience with other podcasters. There are more listeners than there is podcast material. The audience for podcasts has unmet needs.

This podcast, my podcast called “The Soul of an Internet Machine” about business ventures, entrepreneurship, software development, and technology will not steal anyone else’s audience. An audience will enjoy this show and that show. Podcasters can collaborate and share without competing.

This internet machine that behaves a bit like a project management tool to help people with repetitive tasks in podcasting, also brings the value of people in community and shared ideas.

From this first day, Kelly and I included members of my team. We added and rejected ways of expanding this product.

We knew that we needed to be as hip and cool as other internet based services: we had to permit people to express interest, register, buy, and gain access to the software without any behind-the-scenes human effort. We were not going to pay for technical support staff to work around the clock to help setup customer accounts.

We had to entirely automate the buy, registration, and setup process.

Kelly, of course, had very simple notions of this. The technical team kept hearing, its just as easy as setting up an on-line market space.

Sadly, no.  

Our machine had to process credit cards and register users automatically – which is not something our firm had previously done. We’ve worked on big database projects managing billions of dollars and 400,000 documents for governments. Not the sort of thing a person-off-the-street buys access too.

Our machine needs to be easy and enjoyable to use – rather as intuitive to use as a knife or an axe. An axe does not have a sign that says: this is the handle; and this is the sharp part. Many of us have used an axe as a hammer. And some of us have used a knife to whack things too. But that is off topic, but only sort of. Software developer also think about, what will the users of this tool do with it?

Our machine has to email people and track stuff in a podcast-y way. A podcaster, even a new podcaster need to look at the machine and see what to do. Software is never as elegant as an axe, but it is a nice idle image: hold here, hit with sharp part.

Our machine may just need to store data such as scripts and draft audio or meeting notes or whatever else we can envision, or a podcaster can envision.

Our machine has to be useful while helping podcasters achieve the successes they desire. Some podcasters want revenue. Some want to support a cause. Each has a voice that deserved to be heard.

That becomes our commitment. Let people be heard.

How we build a machine that aid people in being heard will come in the chapters and stories in these series. I release new chapters each Wednesday at 6am Greenwich Mean Time or UTC.