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On Tech Startups and Tacoma

· Posted Wednesday October 8, 2008 by jamie

Recent Seattle P-I to Puget Sound Business Journal transplants John Cook and Todd Bishop have temporarily set up home at Where Are John and Todd? while their new BizJournal site comes online. Today John writes about a recently-started Seattle angel investment group called the Founders Co-op. Their philosophy: provide limited capital (typically $50k to $200k) to seed stage tech startups, usually those still in the two- or three-employee stage, while also fostering an atmosphere of openness and support amongst their community of entrepreneurs. Similar smaller-than-VC-amounts investment groups exist in the Seattle market in the form of Curious Office and Monster Venture Partners. This all on top of a generally high level of networking and community amongst those in the Seattle startup community.

Now, what for Tacoma? We’ve got a couple of small tech companies around here, but choosing to locate in Tacoma (rather than, say, Pioneer Square AKA startup central) is the exception to the rule. There’s not a lot of networking between employees at different companies. There’s not “district” where these companies tend to locate. Programming talent is hard to find. (I’m not sure if this last thing is because programmers don’t live here, or because they’re all commuting to their jobs in Seattle/Redmond/wherever…)

But generally, the question is begged, why isn’t there an active startup community in Tacoma. We are within an hour of the Seattle market. There are all sorts of buildings with the cool loft spaces that small software firms like so much. UWT’s Tech Institute is by all indications growing, turning out both undergraduate and graduate software developers. UPS and PLU, both excellent schools, also turn out CS graduates in respectable numbers. Sure, there’s not the sexiness of being in Seattle, and I don’t have any illusions of Tacoma having as broad a tech presence as said neighbor-to-the-north, but it’s hard to see what’s standing in the way of more of a startup presence here.

I wonder if maybe the funding piece of the pie is one of the factors holding us back. Yes, there’s the Tacoma Angel Network (and non-funding-related support from the William Factory Small Business Incubator), but those are a little bit heavy on some of the details that many tech startups tend to scoff at, such as detailed business plans. In all honesty, most of these startups are coming to fruition through the efforts of programmers and designers, not MBAs and marketers, and the value is in the idea (and making it come to fruition), not long term goals and overly-thorough market analysis. Yes, there will be failures, but providing a framework for seed-funding ideas for small companies, without formal business process overhead, simply works for small tech companies. Bay Area venture firm Y Combinator has proven it with companies like Justin.tv, Loopt, and reddit. Curious Office has seen success with Imagekind (acquired by CafePress) and Shelfari (acquired by Amazon). Granted, there’s nothing precluding any of these firms from funding a Tacoma company, but to my knowledge it hasn’t happened yet.

So what if there were a Tacoma tech startup funder/incubator? It could be an extension of the Angel Network or it could be it’s own thing, but the operative thing is that it would provide relatively minimal funding (at least in the venture funding sense), and favor ideas over formal business plans. Picture a shared office of small two-to-three member teams working on a number of projects, each with just enough funding to cover equipment, salaries, and other overhead. An exciting collaborative atmosphere. Tons of new tech jobs for Tacoma residents! If it were connected or closely allied with the UWT Technology Institute (and/or UPS, and/or PLU), even better, because we can tap that talent before it takes jobs elsewhere–a great way to keep one segment of “cultural creatives” in town after they’re done with their degrees. (And the area around the UWT would be great, location-wise, for this…) Now, I don’t have the money to be a part of making this happen, but I really think it would open up some exciting potential for the future of Tacoma, downtown development, commerce, etc.

Thoughts, anyone?

Link-fest:


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Design/UX (and Customer Service) at Shoes.com

· Posted Tuesday July 1, 2008 by jamie

Disclaimer: I’m not a designer or a user interface expert, by any means. Heck, I don’t even play on on the Internet. Maybe I’m just feeling extra design-observant after finishing Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind or something…

Melissa recently purchased some fine footwear from Shoes.com, and various aspects of the site left some impressions on me. Mostly positive, though I had a couple of observations of things that could be improved, too…

First of all, I’m just generally pleased by the overall look of the site. I find the mainly orange/chartreuse/cyan/gray palette quite pleasing to the eyes, and love the typeface of their no-nonsense logo (here’s where I don’t even pretend to know jack about typefaces).

I also sort of dig their interactive search mechanism. Three drop-downs on the page allow you to select the initial category (mens’ vs womens’, type, etc.), size, and color…the basics, nothing magical here:

However, I thought the results screen was pretty bad-ass. In addition to allowing you to page through your search results from those initial categories, they include a number of refinement menus in the left navigation bar, wherein you can narrow your search by more refined categories (e.g., work, bridal), brand, heel height, even narrow to only sale or new items. Neat!

I like the overall simplicity of this experience. The only aspect that leaves me slightly uncomfortable is the interplay between the 3 initial drop-downs and the refinement options on the left. Especially once you’ve refined the results, it can be somewhat non-intuitive to get back to where you were before (via a “clear” hyperlink in the appropriate refinement menu). But overall, kudos.

Now, for the customer service aspect. We were pretty happy with this. I mean, they didn’t have free shipping like Zappos or anything, but paying shipping doesn’t seem so bad. The difficulty came when we attempted an exchange due to some slight imperfections in the shoes that arrived.

The Shoes.com site makes it really easy to return items by allowing you to print a return shipping label that you can tape to the box for either USPS or UPS. However, to get here, you have to bring your order back up. Since Melissa didn’t set up a Shoes.com account, we had to look up the order via order number and ZIP code. No problem, we have that on our packing slip…except…not found???? WTF!? Okay, let’s try ZIP+4, since that what the slip shows, and…no!? Crap. Well, okay, last try, let’s remove the four leading zeros on the order number, and…we’re in!!! But…WTF? Doesn’t it make the most sense that if someone typed in their full order number, the system could find it, especially since that’s how it’s written on the packing slip? Like, maybe the webapp could remove the leading zeros before looking up the order. Anyway we got past that fine…

Until we reached the next point at which I entered info as it appeared on the packing slip. Seems that to do an exchange instead of just a return, they have you enter the item number, color, and size information. So I entered the item number as it appeared on the packing slip. Now, granted, that was just a number, and the browser display if the item I was returning had that number prepended by a couple of letters. But I figured, meh, just the numbers should match (it’s on the packing slip, after all), and after moving past the page, there were no warnings, so I figured all was fine. Until I got to the final confirmation page, where I was informed that the item could not be found. Wow, thanks for the warning, after I can no longer do anything about it. Hmph.

Anyway, those slipups in the customer experience aside, things were taken care of really quickly once I emailed them to figure out how to resolve the problem. Seems they no longer have the shoe in the right color/size in stock, so, given our preference to keep the slightly-imperfect shoes if we could not do the exchange, they credited our Visa for 15% of the shoe price. Woohoo! Way to go Shoes.com! Their customer service makes it all right in the end. Just fix those other things, guys, k?


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A Day in the Sun for Skoot

· Posted Wednesday June 6, 2007 by jamie

Skoot, the large file transfer software that has essentially been the constant focus of my day job for about the past year and a half, is getting a day in the sun today with the launch of TroopSkoot, a program to allow soldiers and their families to use the service for free.

As always seems to be the case with any news coverage, I have a few quibbles with the details, but it’s nice to have it out there and see some press for something that I had a big part in creating.

Here is a bit of the coverage in the news and blogs:

I also want to plug the free trial available for anyone who wants to give Skoot a try. It is available for both Windows and Mac OS X. Just head to SkootIt.com and give it a shot.


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