Thank You, Senator Stevens

A month ago I wrote about the debate in Congress over Net Neutrality. While I'm still disappointed that the House of Representatives failed to pass any legislation that was favorable to Net Neutrality, I've been hopeful that the Senate will act differently. Judging by how often the issue has come up in the media, I sense that public awareness has continued to increase. I am hoping that means that more and more people are contacting their Senators, urging them to vote for legislation that contains Net Neutrality provisions.

Thankfully, public awareness has skyrocketed this week, as this Jon Stewart clip has been spreading quickly around the Internet: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DClkE64nFDY. If you haven't seen it yet, take a couple minutes to watch it as Jon Stewart mocks Senator Ted Stevens' semi-coherent speech against Net Neutrality.

Lest you think that Jon Stewart is unfairly taking Stevens' comments out of context, or otherwise doctoring the recording, listen to the full audio of the speech or read a partial transcript. While Jon Stewart's segment is hilarious, nothing beats the real thing.

Of course, it's also depressing that Stevens has the power to significantly change our lives. I'm certainly not one of those techies who look down on anyone who doesn't know anything about computers, but the soft spot in my heart hardens when someone like Stevens stands on the U.S. Senate floor, tries to present himself as an authority, and poses an argument based on enough fallacies to fill a really massive tube.

But I thank Stevens, because his speech has launched a wave of PR that the telecoms could never buy. To get a sense for the PR, listen to a few of the songs based on the speech, and read this forensic analysis of the "internet" that took several days to get to Stevens.

I'm sure Stevens doesn't feel any better about the Internet after this week.

Deal of the day

I saw this Eyeglass World promotion on 82nd St. in Castleton yesterday, and thought it was too good to keep to myself:

In case you can't read the sign because of the poor picture quality (hey, it was taken with a camera phone while driving by at 45mph, give me a break), it reads "BUY ONE, GET ONE".

It's inspired me to run the same promotion, for any product, in any business I'm involved in, for life. That's right — if you give me money for any one item, you will receive that item.

Act now.

Getting impatient

When I started Recursive Function, I put together a set of very modest goals. The goals were rooted in the practicality that my company is a very young one without a large client base, deep advertising budget, or superstar employees. The goals fit me well since I'm a practical, frugal person. I want to grow organically, building a business that will be around for a long time and not be dependent on burning through a lot of cash in order to survive.

For example, my goal when launching Formstack was to humbly acquire one paying customer shortly after launching without knowing the person or communicating with him/her before the purchase. My goal wasn't to have a launch party with musicians, celebrities, fireworks and Dom Perignon, intent on signing thousands of customers on the first day. My expectation was to start with one customer, then two, then three, and so on.

I'm pleased to say that I've met most of my goals so far, but I wouldn't be honest if I didn't say that less than 6 months into this, I have to fight hard to battle impatience.

I spend a lot of time reading business-related sites, blogs, forums and magazines. It's rare that a day goes by when I don't read about small businesses that are experiencing tremendous success, whether they're getting $1M AdSense checks from Google, or signing up thousands of customers with their new product launch.

Lest I drive myself crazy, I have to step back and really look hard at the reality behind those stories. Sure, those business owners might be luckier than I am, or more talented, or make better decisions, or be privy to business secrets that I'll never discover. But the one thing that's easy to overlook is how much time it took for them to get where they are.

For example, I wrote last week about the owner of PlentyOfFish who's making $15,000 per day from AdSense. My first impression when I read the story wasn't that it must have took him 5 years and a lot of trial and error to get to that point. As I dug more, I discovered this blog post by the owner that detailed his struggle to create a successful site. He talks about how he made $5.63 his first month and how ugly the site was. It wasn't until several years later that he started to see significant traffic growth.

I also often think about 37 Signals, the darling of the Web 2.0 world that can do no wrong. I don't know much about their back-story, but according to this Wikipedia entry, the company was founded in 1999. Reading their history raises speculation that it took them a long time to break into the successful role that they have today.

This whole thought process leads me to one of my favorite lines from Joel Spolsky. He writes in the forward of Micro-ISV: From Vision to Reality:

In the first month, you are going to make, about, $364, if you do everything right. If you charge too little, you’re going to make $40. If you charge too much, you’re going to make $0. If you expect to make any more than that, you’re going to be really disappointed and you’re going to give up and get a job working for The Man and referring to us people in startup-land as “Legacy MicroISVs.”

Joel is a lot more right than a lot of people believe. The flip side of me reading a lot of business stories is that I see a lot of posts from people dismayed at the fact that they haven't landed a single sale of their shiny new product. Some of them give up after a couple months, but it seems that those who stick with it eventually find some success.

Some of the best advice I've seen about this comes from marketing whiz Seth Godin, who wrote about the myth of the overnight success:

The challenge ... is to avoid the temptation of buying the media infatuation with the overnight success story (which rarely happens overnight). The goal, I think, is to be an overnight failure, but one that persists. Keeping costs low, building a foundation that leads to the right kind of story, the right kind of organic growth.

I hope he's right.

[Updated references to Formstack to prevent confusion about the name change]

Opposition to net neutrality

In case I came across as too one-sided in my post about net neutrality, I want to refer you to Hands off the Internet, a grassroots site opposing any sort of net neutrality amendment.

Except that it's not really a grassroots site. It's a site built and funded by the telecoms and their lobbyists, that tries hard to pretend it's built and funded by concerned citizens like you and me. In addition to building the site, telecom shills are also posting comments on blogs pretending to be concerned citizens, as some bloggers have discovered.

(This reminds me of the phony Microsoft switcher ad from a few years back, when a Microsoft PR rep pretended to be a real customer who decided to switch from a Mac to a PC.)

So these are the companies I'm supposed to trust to "play fair" when they have the freedom to control the Internet?

Making online poker illegal

Another issue working its way through our government right now is a fight to make playing online poker illegal. Opponents have pointed to the 1961 Wire Act that targeted Mafia bookies taking sports bets over the phone, and interpreted the act to cover any wagering online.

Some of the ambiguity comes from the lack of clarity about whether or not the act applies to individuals placing the bet, or only the companies taking the bet. There's also the question about whether or not poker is gambling, as it's a game of skill much closer to backgammon or scrabble than craps or roulette.

Early this month the state of Washington made it a felony to play poker online. This means that if you're caught playing penny poker on PokerStars in Washington you could face up to 5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. You would have a felony on your record, akin to a child pornographer or drug dealer. You can read more about the Washington legislation here and here.

It's an interesting note that Washington poker players are now furious given that there was no press about the pending legislation until it passed. The legislation's main sponsor is also refusing to give interviews about the issue.

It's also interesting that in 2004 Washington enacted legislation making it legal to place bets on horse races online. And there are several dozen legal casinos and card rooms in Washington. Oh, and don't forget the state lottery.

So it's not really that Washington is an anti-gambling state, it's that it's an anti-online poker state. Why the discrepancy? Could lobbying from the legal casinos and card rooms have something to do about it?

UPDATE: I just came across this Seattle Times column, where it's discovered that Washington officials even consider running a website that talks about online gambling illegal.  No, you don't have to take bets or place bets — talking about betting is considered "aiding and abetting" the online casinos.