what every start-up business needs…

When you’re trying to start your own business (or in our case, trying to start four businesses pretty much simultaneously, on a shoestring and without physically coming to blows), it is very important that you surround yourselves with things that will increase your chance of success.

We’ve had the post-its for a long time now.  I now class those as essentials.  We’ve had a few recent issues with some dropping off the walls due to our desperate open balcony door – floor fan – open bedroom window breeze inducing triangulation.  But we’re taking it all in our stride.

I keep getting The Mack to put new bulbs in all of the ceiling spots.  As if, somehow, the extra wattage will illuminate my ideas and stop them being so bloody dim.  It mainly just shows up all the dust.  And gives The Mack eye strain.

I’ve bought some plants.  For that all-important 4pm oxygen hit.  And for the seed-nurture-growth symbolism.  And finally, for sustenance – if all the projects should fail, we will be able to live off two different types of basil.  The mint plant has contracted some sort of blight.  It’s essentially dead from the roots up.  I’m choosing not to see that as symbolic.

But now that the launch of Be Neighbourly is imminent, I felt we needed something more.  Something that would make us feel importantly business-like, but that wouldn’t break the bank.  Something that we could, quite literally, pin our dreams on.

So I invested twenty-five quid and bought us a whiteboard.  It was delivered yesterday.  And it is magnificent.

Already, I can see how it’s helping.  Just looking at it makes me think of all the graphs I could be plotting, the targets we can set (Q3 and Q4), the inspirational Steve Jobs or Katie Price quotes I can write every morning.

The pens were missing from the delivery, but that’s just a minor setback.

I feel certain that the whiteboard, in all its splendid 1200mm x 900mm oversized impracticality, will give us that competitive edge.  The reverse side is magnetic.  So we can multi-task – conceptual mind-maps on front, securely fastened important documents on the back.

The magnets were missing from the delivery, too, but, again, no biggie.

It is the size of our dining table.  We don’t really have anywhere to put it (maybe we could get rid of the dining table?), and it is so cheaply constructed that the whiteboard surface has a definite ripple effect when viewed from the side.  But I don’t care.  It has a flip out tray for the missing marker pens.  It has an eraser.  And it makes me feel so goddamn businesslike, I want to air punch every time I look at it.

behold its splendour

behold its splendour

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Dear Empower Network – Blog Off!

Recently, I’ve picked up a whole legion of new fans of my blog.

Now, I know that neither my writing nor my life has got any more interesting, so I was puzzled over how I’d suddenly doubled my audience. Call me cynical, but my first thought was SPAM or scam.

So I had a little peek at my new followers’ profiles. And I found that they all had something in common. Not only were they now part of my flock, but they were also followers of A.W.O.L.

AWOL stands for Another Way of Life. It is part of the Empower Network, which claims to give people the tools and insider knowledge to be able to make money from blogging.

According to the blog of one of my new follower, Anna Linnehan’s, under the heading:

How To Create An Income Online ANYWHERE!

Most people don’t realize it. But there are an abundance of opportunities to create an income online ANYWHERE. An income that can completely pay for whatever lifestyle you choose, …

That all sounds very lovely. And very “empowering”. But c’mon people.  Let’s get something straight here.

Online income vs an online business

Anyone (in theory) can create an online income.  Whack up a basic website, scrape some generic, attention-grabbing, utter dross content (Lose 5lb of belly fat in 5 minutes with Amazing New Hollywood Diet), stick on some affiliate marketing buttons and a load of Google AdSense adverts…

And hey presto.  Watch those pennies roll in.  Very slowly.  If you’re lucky, you might make a few quid a month.  That’s an online income.  Not sure what lifestyle it is that you’ll be choosing off the back of this income, but I guess your buddies at AWOL will help you figure it out.

An online business, however, requires a bit more than that.  Trust me.  I’m on it like a car bonnet, but it’s a tough one to crack.

So what’s the deal?

I did a quick Google search under “Empower Network Scam” (lucky guess) and learned that it’s run by a couple of Dave’s, who, allegedly, have taken their own advice and gone totally AWOL – living in the kind of jurisdiction that Edward Snowdon’s looking for.

Ancient Egypt has nothing on these guys.  For anyone who hasn’t sussed it yet.  This is a Ponzi.  With a capital Ponz.

It’s actually pretty clever.  You see, what they claim to be selling is access to a blogging platform and combined internet marketing clout.  Higher rankings in search engines.  Increased traffic to your blog.  Easy ways to monetize. Em-Po-Wer.

money for nothing…

What they are actually selling is nothing.  Well, nearly nothing.  For upwards of $25/month ($100/month for the “Inner Circle”), you get your very own EN affiliated blog, hosted on their platform.  It’s called empower-network-something-or-other.  The significance of this will become clearer.

What’s less clear is why anyone would pay $25/month for a blog when the rest of the world is blogging for free on WordPress or Tumblr or the like.  But each to their own.

Now here’s the clever bit.  Pay attention.  When you join Empower Network, you are let into the secret that the way to make money from the internet is by…wait for it…promoting and reselling Empower Network.  Hold the fanfare.

If you look at the content of member blogs, you’ll notice a couple of things.  Firstly, there’s very little in the way of content.  A few pages.  All with titles like “Make Money Online!”, “Flog Your Blog!” and “Just Give Me Some Money!”.

Secondly, all of the content is about A.W.O.L. and Empower Network.  All links are effectively affiliate buttons.  They take you to the EN sign-up page.  And if you, too, become Empowered, the owner of the blog that referred you gets paid a commission.

So, as a newly Empowered blogger, if you want to make money, you need to sign up as many wannabe empowerees as you can.  And the way to do that?  By visiting as many blogs as you can, “following” and “liking” and spreading the EN gospel.  So it’s an endless viral blogging go-round.  Work, work, work.  Sell, sell, sell.  Because, remember, you’re paying a minimum of $25/month for this, so you’d better be recruiting new followers to cover your subs.

This is also the “secret” behind the claims that EN can get your blog higher up the search engine rankings.  Not quite true.  What happens is that all this recycled content, the constant pingbacks to A.W.O.L. or EN, confuse the searchbots.  It means that Empower Network, the brand, ranks top in Google.  If you’re searching for “Empower Network”, that is.

But since EN is all you have to sell, ain’t it grand that it ranks so highly on Google?

There is something quite beautiful about its simplicity.  You buy into a scheme to make money online.  Turns out that the product you need to sell to make that money is the scheme itself.  You’re paying money to a company to promote their brand, which makes them a lot of money.  If you do enough promotion and make enough sales, you might make a little bit of money.  Maybe I’ve missed something, but it looks awfully to me like the only ones making real money from this are sitting high and dry atop their pyramid.

The best bit about it?  By writing about EN, I’ve probably pushed them even higher up the search rankings and helped them peddle their snake oil to some poor schmuck.

Do me a favour will you?  Don’t Google them, don’t click on any comments, follows or likes that they send you, and definitely do not fall for their scamming ways.

Just like naughty children or dogs, the best thing we can all do is just ignore them till they go away.

start-up snakes and ladders

Confession time.

I’ve been working on one of my projects since Autumn last year and it still isn’t ready.

I started it with enthusiasm.  I was free from the shackles of employment.  This was my chance to create something for myself.  Put it out there.  Show what I’m made of.

I attended lots of start-up events, went to pitch evenings, watched live-streams that educated me on “how to work with developers”, “UX journeys for the uninitiated”, “AWS and the Elastic Beanstalk”.  Yes, really.

I followed the rules of first business projects (keep it small; base it on something you know about; don’t spend too much money).  I designed the layout of my website whilst I was away in India before Christmas.  Every evening after sunset, I’d work on it a little more, figuring out the work-flow, the right colour combinations, how many pages my site would need, what features were essential.  My mock-ups were beautifully simple.  I was ready to take on the world.

And then it turned 2013 and my enthusiasm fell off a cliff.

can’t I just go back to bed?

There’s a reason why so many successful entrepreneurs all seem to have boundless energy and the sort of pep that repels me at twenty paces.

It’s because keeping up any degree on motivation on a project is really, really hard.  And it becomes a vicious circle.

circle of despair

spiral of despair

Helpfully, the Mack has taken away all of my shoelaces, belts, etc.  And I’m no longer allowed out on the balcony unsupervised.

a real product development cycle

You see all these articles about product development with fancy graphics and jargon about the key stages of the development cycle.  They make out that there’s a sign-posted, well-lit cycle path, shielded from oncoming traffic, leading you to your dream destination.  Not in my experience.  It’s closer to a cruel game of snakes and ladders…

game of life

game of life

tantalisingly close

My project, which is a website where creatives (designers, photographers, film-makers, copy writers), can buy customised contracts for their businesses – so they don’t have to waste time and money on lawyers – is so very close to being ready.

But it feels like my bastard child.  I’m struggling to give it any love and attention.  I’m favouring other projects.  And, as a result, it keeps throwing tantrums and breaking things.

Every time I go to test that it works, the entire site crashes and comes up with a MySQL error message that sends shivers down my spine.  I have developers on standby to complete the last tidying up bits, but I can’t tell them what needs doing because I can’t get past a certain point before it boots me out.

I try to purchase a contract through the site and my Paypal account is blocked.  They need to verify my home address by calling my land line.  What is this, 1992?  Who the hell still has a land line?  I try to call customer services (from my mobile, not my non-existent land line).  The number they give doesn’t connect.  I’ve emailed them, but who knows if they’ll ever get back to me.  I’m stuck in a Paypal freeze-out.

I can’t help but have that feeling that the closer I get to completion, the further away it recedes.  Taunting me from just out of reach.  Probably sipping on pina coladas in some tropical oasis.

If I’ve learned one thing from this process it’s that you have to do some work on your project every single day to stay on top of it and keep momentum going.  Even if it’s only a small thing.  EVERY SINGLE DAY.  No excuses.  No let up.  No quitting.  Projects fail because people give up on them.  I don’t care if my projects fail because people (ungrateful morons) don’t want my product.  I do care if they fail because I couldn’t be bothered to see them through.

Woo Hoo.  Feeling pumped.  Dear Paypal….. I’m not sure you noticed, but it’s not 1992….