The smartest guys in the room

This weekend I watched The Smartest Guys in the Room, a documentary about the Enron scandal. Even though I knew the basics about the scandal, I still appreciated the in-depth look at the major players in the case, and a lot of the little details I missed when reading about it in the news. I highly recommend it for anyone remotely curious about the details in the case. Even my wife and sister found it interesting, and they wouldn't classify themselves as business geeks in any way. (There sis, I mentioned you in my blog. Happy?)

The documentary stimulated a lot of thought from me over the weekend. In some ways, the Enron case is old news, but many of the lessons are still relevant. Here are a few of the things going through my head about the case:

Disgust

It's disgusting to watch how Enron leaders blatantly deceived employees and investors. Cut from a company meeting where executives encourage employees to invest 100% of their 401K in Enron to the lineman talking about how he watched his 401K tank from about $350,000 to $1,200. How leaders froze employee accounts so they couldn't cash Enron stock at the same time that they dumped their own stock to the profit of millions of dollars. How Enron traders joked about how much money they were making from California wildfires and hoping the state would just fall into the Pacific. How traders called up power plants instructing them to shut down in order to run up energy prices while small business owners were forced to close shop and poor citizens went without heat. And so on.

Fear

I think it's scary how many people were involved in this scandal, and how apparent it is that this kind of corruption is probably behind the scenes in a lot of companies today. Think about the politicians that voted to deregulate the energy market in California in a way that benefited companies like Enron. Or the state and national administrations that sat by and did virtually nothing while Californians were taken advantage of. Or the accountants and auditors that approved Enron's cooked books every quarter. Or the lawyers that helped Enron set everything up. Or the stock analysts that were in Enron's pocket. Or the banks that helped Enron finance obviously shady deals. The news has focused on Lay, Skilling and Fastow, but there were hundreds of other players involved that are doing business as usual today.

Curiosity

Admittedly, the documentary is very much one-sided. Not that I would trust anything Lay, Skilling, or Fastow say publicly about the scandal, but they're the only ones who can answer one of the biggest remaining questions — where did things go wrong? The documentary touched on it somewhat in discussing whether people do bad things because they're inherently bad people, or because they slowly get trapped into a cycle of doing bad things and get out of control. I tend to believe that the latter's closer to the truth, and that Lay started the company decades ago with more noble intentions.

But if that's true, then could most business owners get trapped into the same cycle of greed and deceit? How easy would it be to convince yourself to employ "creative accounting" to smooth out the numbers while under intense pressure from investors? How many of us really have that in us?

The business of ice cream

My brother and I were recently sitting in Cold Stone Creamery respectively enjoying Birthday Cake and Devil's Delight concoctions. While everyone else was talking about what we were going to do with the rest of the evening, he turned to me and asked, "what do you think their margins are?"

Being the purveyor of hot air that I am, I instantly responded with all sorts of answers as if I'd been studying the balance sheets of ice cream retailers for years. We both proceeded to think deeply about the profitability of the store as if the owner had presented us with a business proposal, not a credit card receipt.

Let me pull you into the conversation with such intriguing ice cream industry questions such as:

  • Why is there always a long line at Handel's, even in the middle of winter.
  • Why does Ritter's close during the winter, and how does this affect their profitability?
  • Why does Dairy Queen sell hamburgers?

It's probably a sign that you have a businessman living inside of you if you'd rather the manager talk to you about sales figures than give you an extra scoop of ice cream. But it's not like I'd turn down the extra scoop.

Obsolete

One of the things that worries me is that one of the big guns like Microsoft, Google or Yahoo will announce a product that competes head-to-head with one of my mine, or makes a move that otherwise makes mine obsolete in some way. It's nothing that I lose sleep over, but something that crosses through my mind from time to time, as I'm sure it does every small business owner.

Along these lines, it saddens me to see that the perfect website might now become obsolete due to a recent announcement by ABC. Of course, this isn't to say that the website couldn't be quickly re-tooled to answer the slightly different question that I will now ask each week.

And isn't being able to turn on a dime the beauty of having a small business? It's the ace up our sleeve if the new Microsoft decides to task a few dozen programmers and marketers with crushing us. No board meeting to schedule, committee to form, or bean counters to run the numbers by — just tweak the right things and go. Or is that just what we tell ourselves?

Ponyfish launch

Wow. In the first 24 hours of going live, the Ponyfish site has seen more unique visitors than the Formstack in the months of March and April combined. New feeds are getting created by the minute, and a good percentage of those users are registering for accounts as well. I even had some of those users already opt for the upgrade to the premium plan.

The money so far would hardly pay for a tank of gas, and the traffic numbers would leave me far from a 4-digit Alexa ranking, but I'm pretty pleased with the response in the first day. Some of the traffic is trickling to the Formstack as well, as ponyfish.com is currently the top referring domain for the site.

Almost all the buzz can be attributed to:

From there, Ponyfish has been showing up on a variety blogs and sites.

Some of the bad news is that there are a few bugs in regards to how Ponyfish handles non-English pages, especially with languages that use different character sets (e.g., Asian languages). This is something that I might have thought to look at if I sat on the release a while longer, but then again maybe not.

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

Announcing Ponyfish.com

OK, I know I mentioned a few days ago that I was putting some finishing touches on another web service, and was thinking about releasing it in the next couple weeks. Well, in the principle of releasing early and often, I'm making Ponyfish public today.

Ponyfish comes from an idea that I'd been tossing around in my head for a while. I use RSS to keep up with new articles on almost all the sites I frequent on a regular basis, and find it to be a much more efficient way to use the web. I would get frustrated when I came across an interesting site that didn't provide an RSS feed, or provided one but didn't quite contain the content I was interested in. (By the way, if you're not familiar with RSS, or don't know why you should be using it, scroll down to the bottom of the Ponyfish FAQ for an explanation.)

Over the course of a few months I had written a handful of scripts to scrape web pages and create RSS feeds that I stored locally. They were all fairly hacked together, and definitely didn't have the user interface that Ponyfish does. I kept coming across new sites I wanted to create a feed for, but was getting tired of writing yet another script to accomplish the job. So, as all lifelong programmers do periodically, I tried to save myself some time by developing some software, and of course ended up spending probably 10x as much time developing Ponyfish than I would have had I stuck to what I was doing before.

I was also spurred by the fact that I had a hard time finding a solution out there that did what Ponyfish does, much less a decent one. The only similar service I found seemed pretty confusing to use, and it didn't work at all for the handful of sites I'd created custom feeds for. I was pretty surprised by this, as even though RSS is a very niche thing right now, it's growing quickly in popularity. I would have been overjoyed to find a good solution before setting out to develop Ponyfish, and a couple people that I pinged about it a while ago seemed to feel the same way.

In all, I really enjoyed this project. First of all, it's dog food that I love eating, and secondly, the development process was fun and challenging. There were some key areas of functionality behind the scenes that I struggled with originally, to the point where several times I nearly gave up and wrote the project off as impossible. I also spent a lot of time with the user interface, and it was fun to indulge in more Ajax and JavaScript effects than I had in previous projects.

However, from a business standpoint I'm not sure that there's as much revenue potential with this project as with Formstack. I could see there being more users, but there's less of an incentive for them to upgrade to a paid plan. But I have a few ideas up my sleeve, so let's just say that my business model is a work in progress right now.

I expect I'll write more later about the launch. In the meantime, let me know what you think, especially if you have some ideas for improvements.

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