With all the recent debate about “teaching kids to code,” here’s a great reminder of the distinction between what it means to “learn to code” and “learning computer science.” Computer science is the why, code is the how. Or as Terence Eden puts it:

Let’s put it in language the humanities graduates can understand.

Learning to code is merely teaching people to spell.

Computer Science is about what makes a poem beautiful, why alliteration is alluring, how iambic pentameter unlocks the secrets of Shakespeare.

That is what I think we need to be teaching.

February 7, 2014

I learned Ruby through Rails, so as I’ve ventured more into the Ruby world, Sinatra is a great framework for building simple apps. Alex MacCaw gave a good beginner overview on how to structure a Sinatra application.

February 4, 2014

Looking over other people’s Sass code, you might have noticed the !default flag when defining variables. This is actually an incredibly powerful tool that lets developers build modular components for your CSS. Stefan Baumgartner gives a great overview of how this can work. If you’re not a Bower user (I’m not), you can skip ahead.

February 3, 2014

Justin Jackson:

Barber: “Almost all my bookings happen on the phone, or via text message. There’s nothing I’ve found that’s more efficient than looking at a paper calendar on the wall, and finding them a time. If I have to walk over to the computer, I’ve already wasted too much time. I have 5 seconds to look, and determine when is have a spare block. All the software I’ve tried just gets in the way.”

All the plans in my head, for incredible barbering software, were crushed, in a single conversation.

This is the power of getting out and actually listening to people.

Justin hits some great points home here: namely that a “great idea” is only validated by observing users. Sometimes better software isn’t even the ideal solution. We need to throw out our preconceived notions and listen to our users, and Justin has some great tips to do that.

January 31, 2014
January 30, 2014
January 29, 2014

Brennan Dunn has an epic guide to how to create an email course to better market and help your customers. This is a fantastic way to counter the credibility issue you’re bound to run into when selling your product:

It’s very, very, very hard to sell anything to someone who doesn’t know and trust you. Let’s say you write an ebook and you buy some cheap PPC ads that drive traffic to your sales page. Unless you have some sort of unicorn product, your conversion rate will be low — and you’re probably going to lose money.

January 22, 2014

From the MailChimp blog:

Once you get to the scale of computing we’re at, the language you use is much less important than the platform you build on it. A simple language change isn’t going to make these problems less complicated, or less awesome.

Building an Ad Network

Brent Simmons and Lex Friedman threw out an idea for someone to make a new Podcast ad network:

My advice is that someone should do The Syndicate for podcasts. Roll up small shows, and charge on a CPM model. (Small-reach tech shows should think $20 for pre-rolls that are shorter, and $30 for mid-rolls that are longer.) Insist that all shows measure downloads in the same way (SoundCloud?), roll-up the rates accordingly, and take a 20% cut. Pay shows on a percentage basis according to their downloads.

Marco also shared why direct ad sales rarely work. Namely, it’s a lot of work:

I tried selling the sponsorships myself in the early days of ATP, but was quickly demoralized and jaded by the reality of that job. It takes a lot of email, some long phone calls, a lot of paperwork, and a lot of nagging to get past-due invoices paid. It’s common for sponsors to ignore your payment-due dates and pay months after you actually do the sponsorships. Most big sponsors have their own way they “need” to work, blaming “the accounting department” or “policy”, and these arbitrary accounting rules and policies often mean that your ad salesperson has a lot of work to do and you’re not getting paid for a long time.

Running an ad network is something I know a thing or two about, and Marco is right: selling ads is no small job. I started The Syndicate expecting it to be some passive income I could run on the side: a sort of “build it and they shall come”. I mean, Jim Coudal has shared that The Deck has an 80%+ renewal rate for advertisers.

But that’s not sales, especially online ad sales when you have no existing relationships. I found myself having to schedule calls at the strangest hours, and I was hustling 20-30 hours per week outside my 40+ hour per week job. Sales also came in waves. One day I’d be scraping to get the next week’s sponsor booked, and the next I’d be booked out two months unable to serve everyone emailing me. There was even a day that I was away from my computer for my day job and my entire URL redirection platform went down for over 6 hours, meaning no sponsor links worked.

Advertising is a hard business.

So to the aspiring entrepreneur who wants to get into this business: there’s probably nothing more ripe for the picking right now than a mid-sized Podcast ad network. But know that the income is very far from passive. Don’t get into this if you have a 9-5 job to pay the bills. Advertising is about scale, and the big names in advertising won’t be interested in your $200/week network. It’s not even a blip on their ad budget. You need to be able to grow it to something sizable that delivers a lot of traffic, and then get them renewing on a regular basis. There’s a reason why you always hear Squarespace or Igloo sponsoring every podcast.

I personally decided to move on from The Syndicate when my wife got pregnant with our first child at the end of 2012. My family was too important. BuySellAds has done a fantastic job of running the network and have some big plans for this year. But most of all, they have the experience, the scale, and the advertising relationships to grow the business in a way I would have never been able to as a side project.