Many people have asked me on why I released my Vim book under a Creative Commons license instead of getting it published.

(1) First of all, I did try to talk to publishers, hoping that I would convince them to release the book simultaneously under a free license as well as a printed version (which is true for many technical books these days). All the publishers I spoke to said there is no market for such a book and said no to the idea. But that didn’t deter me, because I really wanted to see such a book out there, so I wrote it anyway.

(2) Technical books readership is on the decline. It seems very few techies buy and read books, they just google it and solve their immediate problems vs. reading a whole book.

If you don’t believe me, see what John Resig, Charles Petzold, Jeff Atwood and Eric Sink have to say on the subject.

(3) I had a concern bigger than not getting it published, it was that nobody would get to know about the book and hence the book would go in vain. Since money was not a motivating factor in this particular case, I was far more interested in seeing lots of readers and widespread usage than to see fewer readers with the published book although the latter would make me more money.

Tim O’Reilly’s words remained stuck in my mind:

“Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy.”

Of course, I did have a printed books option, so I still could have made money just like 37 Signals did with their “Getting Real” book which was free to read online plus available as a paid PDF download. Unfortunately, it seems I lack their marketing pizzazz.

(4) The book was intended to be a contribution back to the open source community. We constantly keep taking and taking – whether it is using Linux, Vim, Firefox, or countless other software, so it felt great to be useful to the community in return.

As Steve Jobs said:

You know, we don’t grow most of the food we eat. We wear clothes other people make. We speak a language that other people developed. We use a mathematics that other people evolved… I mean, we’re constantly taking things. It’s a wonderful, ecstatic feeling to create something that puts it back in the pool of human experience and knowledge.

(5) My experience has been that a lot of people would like to translate such books to their native languages to help more people use the software. So, I’m happy to see volunteers now translating the new Vim book to Chinese, Russian and Swedish languages!

I needed a balanced approach to what I was trying to achieve, and all the above reasons led me to use a Creative Commons license.

Execution is one aspect of making an idea successful, I would say the other is having a business model.

And the latter is very hard as well. Why? Because it is not obvious how to make money online, especially in India.

The obvious way would be to have freemium models such as Flickr and 37 Signals. IMHO, I believe that this is the only sustainable way.

BUT:

  1. How can you make this successful in a country like India where people are NOT used to paying for things online especially on a subscription basis? For example, how many people do you know are buying things online that does not have a physical aspect to it? i.e. most people buy movie tickets or pay phone bills online, compared to how many non-techie people do you know who are paying for Flickr or for online storage or similar services?
  2. How do you prevent free websites from eating you up? For example, Wufoo did a great job of both execution, including winning awards and having a clear business model. But I am not inclined to using it because Google Forms is free, has no limitations and is a good-enough surveying option. Google doesn’t make money off of this option but they surely have taken away Wufoo’s lunch.
  3. Ideas such as scribd.com, and StockTwits are useful and interesting, but even they don’t know how to make money off of it. Heck, even Google is having a tough time in making money off YouTube.
  4. Ad-based businesses don’t work in Asia, or so is the impression that I get. Is there a single web application site, NOT a content site, for India that is purely making a business out of displaying ads?
  5. I have a feeling that almost all websites that are popular today and that will be popular in the next 2-3 years will have to have a physical component/aspect to it, whether it is payment collection at your doorstep for BharatMatrimony or Zapak running corporate gaming tournaments. This is something that may not be viable for small companies. Perhaps after 2-3 years, things will change.

Bottom line: Without getting funding, and without a clear path to charge for things, how is it possible to make a sustainable web application?

Is this just me or is this the path that every online startup faces?

My Online Life, in Mint Lounge

A list of blogs I read has been published in the Mint Lounge newspaper on 13-Dec-2008 Saturday.
Read it online on the Mint website or in the epaper section.

Thanks to Sidin for asking me to write this and publishing it in Mint.

Unfortunately, as typical of newspapers, my words were modified to something that is newspaper-y which is really not my style, and the article was printed before I got a chance to review. And no, that short bio was not written by me :)

(more…)

As a small experiment, I had put up a skribit sidebar where anybody can suggest what I can write about. Little did I know that it would actually be used seriously. Someone posted the topic “On how fresh graduates can learn independently and grow. Instead of waiting for the Company to help” and today, there are 9 votes on it!

To be honest, I think I am not qualified enough to answer this question. I am certainly no role model. But since 9 people have voted on it, I feel obliged to write something useful. I have jotted down some thoughts on what ideas and habits have helped me, it may not necessarily be useful for everyone. I hope these fresh graduates who voted will pick the best ideas and habits suited for them.

Character and Lifestyle

Instead of focusing on building a career, why not focus on building a character? The career will take care of itself.

  • “Sow an act… reap a habit; Sow a habit… reap a character; Sow a character… reap a destiny.” – George Dana Boardman
  • As Cal Newport would say, “Fix the lifestyle you want. Then work backwards from there.” … Too often, we confuse the medium (lawyer, doctor, engineer, etc.) with the message (what is important to us, what we want to do). So it’s far more important to figure out what you want out of life, then figure out how to achieve that rather than the other way around. And only you can figure this out for yourself.
  • I would recommend reading First Things First by Stephen Covey to help you understand your priorities in life.
  • Most important of all, find your inner peace. Remember that “Satisfaction is within.”

Career Building

Basically, you need to take initiative in what you want to achieve, no one can tell you what you have to do, life is not that simple. I’m glad the original question poser said that he/she wanted to grow “Instead of waiting for the Company to help”, you’ve got that part right already.

I recommend reading:

Get Results

Ultimately, you need to take action and get results. It’s not enough to just plan and hope. As Morpheus would say, “There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.”

Read

My personal slogan is “I read. Therefore I do. Therefore I am.” If I compare myself to my school days and today, there has been a major transformation in character and outlook, and I attribute that purely to reading.

A great part of my learning also comes from writing, hence the blog, wiki, books, and twitter. It might seem like a waste of time, but I learn more by communicating. But that’s just me.

If you don’t know where to start, I would suggest The Personal MBA Reading List.

Friends

Make valuable friends. This is the most important tip I can ever give you.

Equally important, make the right kind of friends. Yes, it’s tough to let go of friends who you intuitively know are not the right influence on you, but speaking from experience, it is worth it in the long run.

As a wise man once said, “Tell me who your friends are, and I will tell you who you are.”

Learn Your Trade

For example, if we are talking about a software engineer:

  • Debugging is the most important skill, not coding. I wish I had known this when I was in college.
  • Reading is a great habit that has a side-effect that you will also have the ability to read a lot of code and build up the structure inside your head about how the code works, just like you have to imagine what is written in a book or novel.

I also recommend reading:

If you are looking for more in-depth knowledge, I would recommend taking a look at this Stack Overflow discussion.

Make A Difference

Consider this excerpt from a Business Week article:

One vocal camp even maintains that the repetitive nature of writing software code has corrupted Bangalore’s intellectual spirit. “These 20-year-olds are like coolies, doing the same job over and over,” says CNR Rao, a Bangalorean scientist who has been an adviser to the Indian government for decades. The software industry, he says, has turned the city into a glorified sweatshop. “Where is the innovation?” he asks. “How does this contribute to anything but greed and commerce?”

The joy of programming is the joy of building and creating something. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we can build and create something useful for other people? If yes, why aren’t we doing more of that? After all, there is no dearth of things that we can create.

Closing Statement

Hopefully, I have given some food for thought here.

If this article was useful, please feel free to post suggestions on what I can write about on my skribit page.

Update on 29-Oct-2011: Also read this great article by Patrick McKenzie (a.k.a. patio11) called “Don’t Call Yourself A Programmer, And Other Career Advice”

I just finished reading “Subject To Change: creating great products and services for an uncertain world”. This book is written by Adaptive Path, the same guys who invented the words “blog” and “ajax”, as well as creators of the Aurora browser concept.

It has been a revelatory book for me, a developer who considers himself to be the last person to know about “design.” The book mainly focuses on the lessons learned from their experiences in working with clients to design and create products and services.

Design

They define design as an activity, as opposed to a look and feel that is added later on. The activity incorporates:

  • Empathy – Design must serve a human purpose, and so design requires an understanding of how people will interact with whatever you’re designing.
  • Problem Solving – Design really shines when it’s used to address complex problems where the outcome is clear, many stakeholders are involved, and the boundaries are fuzzy.
  • Ideation and prototyping – Design produces things, whether they’re abstract (schematics, blueprints, wireframes, conceptual models) or concrete (prototypes, physical models). Design is a creative activity and thus requires actually creating something.
  • Finding alternatives – Design is less about the analysis of existing options than the creation of new options. Sometimes that means looking at existing options in new ways, and at other times that means creating from scratch. An effective design process typically offers many solutions to a problem.

They repeatedly explain that the experience is what matters to the end-user and that’s the real product rather than how it is delivered.

(more…)