Shutting Down Terralien*

Posted by Nathaniel on May 17th, 2011

When I first started Terralien, back in 2004, it’s goal was simple: provide a corporate entity within which to do my personal contracting. In early 2005 I ended up taking on a full-time job, and so Terralien got mothballed for a while, but when I got back to contracting (I am just not cut out for cube life) I of course began my paid work under the auspices of Terralien once again.

In 2006, when I made that jump back in to the contracting game, the availability of Ruby and Rails work was a lot different than it is today. For a skilled Ruby/Rails dev these days, they can’t hardly go online without stumbling over opportunities, but in ’06 it was a lot harder to find Ruby work – contract or full-time. I quickly had a bit more work than I could handle, and I knew a lot of top-notch developers that were dying to make the jump from Java (eek!) to Ruby.

So mid-2006 I really put out Terralien’s shingle, and started to solicit work not just for myself but also for a sub-contracting team. Before long there was enough work that it made sense for me to stop billing and focus on the business, so that’s what I did. Work rolled in, and while I’d never say it was coming out my ears, we were reasonably busy on an ongoing basis.

You know how they say having a baby changes your perspective on everything? Well, it’s true for babies (I should know, Katie and I have five and one on the way) and it’s also true for starting new businesses. In 2007 I came up with an idea – it actually grew out of Terralien client work – to better handle subscription payments, and Spreedly was born. I intentionally started Spreedly outside of Terralien, both because I didn’t want to entangle my Spreedly co-founders in Terralien, and also because I’d seen services businesses kill product businesses with alarming regularity.

I’m still super happy with that decision, but I didn’t take it far enough and realize: Spreedly was going to kill Terralien. To put it succinctly: shower time matters. There’s a part of one’s brain dedicated to learning about a market and growing a business, and it has a single point of focus. Cross your eyes for a second… that’s what happens when you try to split the focus of your “founder brain”.

My only real regret is that both businesses got hurt for about a year (most of 2010 and the first few months of 2011) before this realization made it through my thick skull. Lots of things could’ve made “running” two businesses work: if I’d had a more consistent pipeline of Terralien work, if I’d had a partner in Terralien who could’ve taken point on it, if Spreedly hadn’t progressed or if it had taken off faster. But none of those things were true, and I ended up spending way too long trying to run both businesses and doing a poor job in each case.

So how to resolve the dilemma? Well, first of all I’ve handed all but one of the Terralien clients to sub-contractors who are carrying on working with them. The more ad-hoc nature of Terralien made the transition much easier, and I’m confident the clients we’ve worked with over the past years are all in good hands.

Second, Spreedly is now getting my full-time founder focus. Famous last words, but I’m not going to try to start and/or run two businesses at the same time again. I’m already slinging a bunch of Spreedly code, having more conversations with clients, collaborating with my cofounders more, and I couldn’t be happier about the change. A big weight has been lifted off – knowing that there’s another business that needs my attention but isn’t getting it – and I feel free to lose myself in the job of making Spreedly a bit better every day.

So here’s the asterisk: I’m still contracting. “But wait, Nathaniel, you just said…” I just said I was giving Spreedly my full-time founder focus, and I am. On the other hand, as long as I’m not the point guy I have some available hours to solve specific problems for other folks, and I’m loving getting back to coding more regularly. My family is really funny about the whole “eating” thing, and Spreedly isn’t making quite enough yet to cover all our expenses. So if you have any work that needs doing that you think my expertise might be a good match for, drop me a line. I’m particuarly interested in billing related work, be it ActiveMerchant, Spreedly integration, Spree Commerce, etc.

Terralien has been one of the best things that ever happened to me: Spreedly came out of it, I learned bucketloads from my subcontractors and clients, it let me spend tons of time with entrepreneurs, and it did a great job of feeding my family for quite a while. But the time has come for it to stop trying to be a development shop and go back to just supporting my personal side endeavors, and now that that change has been made I’m very content with the decision. And I’m really excited to dig in to Spreedly in a new way and take it to the next level.

Drop me an email if you have any questions, and thanks for reading!

How Should a Startup Evaluate Design?

Posted by John Long on Mar 22nd, 2011

With the number of products launched daily on the Web you might think that there would be more discussion about the usefulness of design as it applies to the startup. How do you choose the right level of design to test an idea or the viability of a product? Sadly, most discussion about the usefulness of design is made by people who believe that design has near-infinite value, very little value at all, or is just a mystery altogether.

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The budget

It seems like early stage custom software development project budgets are almost always set the wrong way. If I had a hundred bucks for every prospective client that has come to Terralien with a $10,000 budget, I’d probably have enough money to fund my own startup.

How do so many of them end up with this same exact number? I think it’s a combination of several things:

  • a gut feeling (what they think it should cost),
  • some informed opinion (their cousin’s friend said most apps cost $5,000-$10,000 and “don’t let anybody tell you otherwise”), or
  • a calculation based on the going rate for freelancers ($100 bucks an hour X 100 hours [that should be plenty, right?] = $10,000).

As interesting as all these are (and there are probably many more), I’d like to explore the last one first.

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Getting Schooled in User Experience

Posted by Dave Bates on Feb 9th, 2011

I’ll confess. I thought I knew more but it turns out I don’t.

I’m working on a custom software development project of my own. It has a web app back end and a mobile front end initially planned for the iPhone. I’ve got a good handle on how it needs to work. I just need to lay out the screens and voila, I’m ready to get a quote.

This shouldn’t be too hard. I’m armed with Balsamiq and a decent knowledge of how people use software. After all, I manage custom software development projects every day and have the benefit of working with some of the most talented user experience designers I’ve ever met. I don’t need to pay someone to do this for me.

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5 Marketing Questions To Answer Before You Tackle Development

Posted by Jake Finkelstein on Jan 26th, 2011

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned in working with entrepreneurs and startups over the years, its that a great idea will only take you so far. Don’t get me wrong – ideas are the seed of every successful business – but if I had to choose between a company with a great idea and an unclear execution plan, or a company with an OK idea and a fantastic execution plan, I’d go with the execution focused company every time.

One often overlooked part of the execution strategy, especially with early stage startups, is marketing. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that my experience as a marketer may be coloring my opinion here, however you can’t argue that no matter how good your product/service is, if your customers don’t a) know about it, b) understand why you’re different from the competition and c) have a clear feel for its value, then your business is certain to be short lived.

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4 Things To Do Before Asking For An NDA

Posted by Dave Bates on Jan 18th, 2011

I talk with entrepreneurs regularly. Every one of them has a new idea or a twist on something that’s going to disrupt an existing market. Most come to Terralien because they need a development partner.

They’re super excited and want to tell me all about it. The conversation goes something like this:

Client: I want to get a quote on this idea I have. It’s a game changer.
Me: Great, tell me a little about what you you’ve got in mind.
Client: Do you want to sign my NDA or send me yours?
Me: We sign an NDA when there’s an intent to work together.
Client: Well how do I know you aren’t going to rip off my great idea? You are a development shop after all…

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Leveraging iPads for Data Collection

Posted by Jimmy Thrasher on Jan 13th, 2011

Imagine you’ve just won a contract to build a form-heavy app for a medical practice with reams of paper forms to convert. And, there’s a dizzying array of information they will need to gather each day. Entering data on an an iPad will give the doctors instant credibility with their patients. Getting started is easy but if this was you, you’d hit a wall really fast.

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Time & Materials vs Fixed Price

Posted by Dave Bates on Jan 6th, 2011

At Terralien, I work with entrepreneurs to create great custom web and mobile applications. Few people get to be part of taking so many new ideas from the backs of napkins to actual revenue generating products. One of the challenges to getting things started is dealing with the question: “Can you tell me how much this is going to cost and will you agree to do it for exactly that price?”.

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Holiday Reading List

Posted by Nathaniel on Dec 7th, 2010

On Black Friday, I was working on Spreedly along with my co-conspirators in that business, and one of them threw this out in to our Campfire chat room:

“The world is consuming today and we are producing.”

Now, I’m not anti-consumption by any means – I think the giving of gifts during the Christmas holidays is a wonderful thing, and to be encouraged. That said, there is something fun about being an entrepreneur and knowing that while most of the rest of the world is blithely acquiring, you’re spending some of your time quietly creating things of value for others to use and enjoy down the road. It’s like being part of a secret club, one to which everyone’s invited but few decide to join.

And so as the holiday season shifts in to high gear, I wanted to give my fellow entrepreneurs a few reading ideas – between vacations and family time, there may not be a lot of opportunities to actually create, but while everybody else is watching the game, or having the annual politics discussion that accomplishes nothing, you can sneak off in to a corner and curl up with a good book. I guarantee that all of these books will make you think, and leave you with lots of good ideas for your business come 2011.

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Stretching the Startup Dollar: Meetups

Posted by Nathaniel on Nov 15th, 2010

A lot of entrepreneurs miss out on one of the simplest (and cheapest) ways to maximize their startup dollar: getting involved with the local entrepreneurial community. Within driving distance of most locales there are a whole host of relevant meetups, whether they be technical or business oriented, and even if there aren’t any yet, there’s usually enough latent demand that it’s easy to start one yourself.

I’ve personally started two different meetups and attended a bunch of others, and while it takes some time to be involved, it’s always been well worth the effort. Here are just a few of the benefits I’ve had from attending and starting meetups:

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You can still contact Nathaniel at