Lesson learned from learning

Lesson learned from learning

Here are some lessons learned along the way from my journey into coding:

Learning to code is not something you do on the side, this requires 100% of your attention

You can’t learn coding from reading or watching videos, you actually have to do it, understanding things passively is totally different from getting a machine to do what you want, which involves getting many small details right

You can get lost for days in endless searches to figure something out, and then all of a sudden everything falls into place over the course of 30 minutes

In the beginning, your code is fragile and you are hesitant to touch anything once it is working (but you don’t truly understand how), over time you get mor courage to perform drastic surgery as you are confident you can restore things to the way they were

Throughout the process your program UI needs to look “nice”, at least for me, staring at a horrible temporary user interface is not motivating. (I have the same with designing slide decks, I can’t stand ugly charts, even if they are drafts)

Coding an app involves a lot of challenges, if it starts to overwhelm you, pick one and completely nail it, even in a separate test app if necessary

I think it is OK to become lazy and “forget” how exact syntaxes work, there is always Google to fix that/remind you, as long as you understand the broader concepts

Google is a jungle: it has all the answers, but also many answers that are wrong, or highly dated, in which case the right answer might be lurking all the way down at the bottom of a page, written down by someone who does not really master English

The amount of computing power today is liberating compared to the 1990s, you don’t like how a browser renders a page? Just recalculate and render “by hand” at every mouse move and the user still does not notice.

Most importantly, when coding, everything is possible and can be solved!

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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Pitch advice

Pitch advice

Some useful guidance by Jason Lemkin, a VC. Two items on the list stand out:

The initial decision is made within 20 minutes of the first face-to-face. Make it exciting, speak with data, and get to the point. The initial Yes, Maybe or No decision is made within 20 minutes. So save slides 20–200 for questions and back-up.

Making stuff up is death, or close to it. If you don’t know the answer, just say that, it’s fine. But make something up that the VC knows the answer is otherwise … that’s almost always a No right there.

Photo by Jhonatan Saavedra Perales on Unsplash

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Presentation hygiene

Presentation hygiene

Most technology investors have a decent understanding of the market context your startup is operating in. So there is no need for that awe-inspiring, eye-opening, TED-talk style introduction presentation that plants an idea in the audience head they never heard of 17 minutes before.

Most VCs I speak to value a deck that makes it clear what the company is doing, how to compare/contrast it to companies and technologies they already know, how for the development is and what the background of the team is.

So, an Apple product launch-style is not needed, but still there are some pitch deck hygiene factors. Your deck should look decent and professional, not only so that the VC understands it, but maybe even more that the VC gets confidence in you as a professional communicator:

  • Can you sell to potential customers?

  • Can you sell ideas to the board?

  • Can you sell to investors in future fund raising rounds?

The strategy “I sent a bare bone deck in standard PowerPoint format because we spend our time building a company instead of presentations” might look cool, but it will leave a lingering question in the investor’s mind.

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Phone laptop convergence - 2019

Phone laptop convergence - 2019

Another blog post by an experienced technology user predicting the future where tablets and other mobile devices will take over from laptops. I disagree.

I think there are vastly different user segments in technology. Fred is a senior executive who is at the receiving end of a huge inflow of pitch decks, is probably on the road a lot, and has dozens of deal negotiations running in parallel most of which go via email. Tablets work great here.

Bloggers/journalists who can work all day from a coffee shop are probably best equipped with a tiny laptop or tablet with keyboard. Management consultants posted at a client out of town need a heavy duty work horse laptop with the biggest screen possible. Traveling salesmen need a device with lots of storage and good connectors to projectors. Developers need a high powered laptop with a big screen.

And… designers and analysts, they actually need a desktop… Having a calm creative space to create a new presentation. A big canvas to map out a new spreadsheet model. Being able to pull data from multiple sources you have open on your screen.

My own setup is a laptop, but it is hooked up to a big monitor. The laptop is just an insurance for the odd trip out of the office where I still need to access my data and/or make emergency edits / solve an issue for a template store customer.

You can see when people are working in the wrong device. The analyst making mistakes in the company valuation as she insists on working on that latest super thin/light laptop. The spelling mistakes in important emails written hastily on a mobile phone.

All these user segments have always been there, the available computers just did not match them. Now that the devices are proliferating people begin to discover their favourites.

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The emperor has no clothes

The emperor has no clothes

I am diving into the joys of user interface design and start to understand some of the anecdotes of Steve Jobs giving feedback to his design teams. That box that is just slightly, slightly off by a few pixels, or that slide that refuses to scale up to the exact size of the screen. You can spend days on getting the most trivial things right.

I am also looking around at a lot of user interfaces that were developed recently, and must say that, yes, things look prettier than in the 1990s, but are they easier? I am afraid not. Clunky fingers are not the best instruments to create business documents. Small screens are not the optimal canvas to be creative. Nobody remembers what a 3 finger touch press does, minimal interfaces look really cool but are useless if you can’t find what you need to find, it is weird to see how hard it can be to figure out how to create a new document, save it somewhere, find it again, and send it to a colleague. And most desktop software with mouse interfaces groups features by similarity, not by how often and when you use them.

In PowerPoint, I am using 25 years of experience and a custom toolbar at the top of the screen to bypass 90% of the regular user interface. And yes, my own web app has a few hick ups as well. I am working hard to fix things.

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Seed funding "slump": pitch deck implications

Seed funding "slump": pitch deck implications

Every founder should read this post by Mark Suster about the decline in seed funding:

  • It has become a lot cheaper to start a company

    • Less $$$ needed

    • VC can wait on the sideline a bit longer to monitor progress

  • VCs have gotten bigger because of institutional investors seeking alternatives to traditional asset classes, are lured by those big exits and IPOs

    • VC don’t have the people/patience to monitor a scattered portfolio of dozens of small bets

    • The small bet roulette economics don’t really stack up

Here is the deck:

So what does this mean for a seed founder:

Think whether you actually need the big VC check at the moment or can self-fund a bit longer. This will give you a bigger stake in your own company in the end, plus frees up a lot of time to focus on your product

Seed pitch decks with rosy stories that are just PowerPoint and no product and/or people are probably going to put in the “let’s monitor” box. A big bold vision is nice, but your deck should equally focus on the tangible progress you made with the product, and the credentials of the team.

This opens up an opportunity for a savvy angel investor though. Someone who really, really understands a specific market (better than VCs), and/or someone who has first hand experience of the talents/skills of an entrepreneur who might not “look good on paper” to VCs.

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Every chart starts with a count

Every chart starts with a count

Most slide layouts for me start with counting:

  • There are 3 objectives to the strategy

  • There are 2 options with 3 evaluation criteria

  • The architecture consists of 4 layers

  • We are pulled in 2 different directions

  • The market can be segmented alongside 2 axes

  • The process has 3 steps

  • There are 2 reinforcing loops

That first observation pretty much decides the composition of the chart, which you can design without the actual content. Putting in content first, and then worrying about layout is the wrong order to do things.

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Blogging in 2019

Blogging in 2019

I have been writing posts on almost every work day since 2008, and now and then I look back (like other bloggers do) and ahead. It has been instrumental in my career as a designer, without my blog, there would have been no way I could have sustained a presentation design business in Tel Aviv serving clients all over the globe.

The world of blogging has changed. When I started out, I was up against SEO-keyword stuffed marketing fluff, later the social media experts stuffing their feeds with links to stories.

I did basically my own thing, not worrying about any of this, and just creating a trail of stories that were mostly based on client work I did everyday. As a result, things will change a bit into the future, as my design work has now stopped and I am focusing fulltime on coding the 2nd version of my app.

Let’s see where it brings us.

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Pay attention to PowerPoint theme color names

Pay attention to PowerPoint theme color names

Most people who customise a PowerPoint theme color template simply plop in new colors in the boxes without paying much attention to what they are called. It is worth doing that though to save time. When you copy a presentation with another color scheme into yours, PowerPoint will color the new presentation with specific rules. For example, text is set in “Text/Background - Dark 1”. If you colored that box with your logo accent color, you are going to spend a lot of time converting the pink text back to black every time you receive a deck from a colleague with a different template.

Screenshot 2019-02-11 07.57.00.png

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Common make over fixes

Common make over fixes

I offered to do a quick slide polish on a deck of a long-standing client who gave the SlideMagic template store a go for a business plan. My objective was to learn how the slide templates are used “in the wild”. The results were encouraging, here are a few examples where I had to step in:

  • Set the exact accent color that matches the company logo

  • Put the occasional rogue bullet chart into a proper 3, 4, 5, or 6 box slide template

  • Move slide content a bit so they fit exactly in the same frame on each page

  • Reduce font sizes a bit here and there to give text a bit more space to breathe in busy tables

These were slides in a business plan, not a TED talk, and exactly the sort of every day presentation they were intended for.

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2 presenters: difficult

2 presenters: difficult

You are 2 co-founders, or have both worked on a big project, and/or could not really decide who gets to shine in front of the audience and want to give a shared presentation. You can either split up the deck and go one after the other, or, try doing it as a true duo: presentation the slides together.

The latter option is tricky:

  • You very little room for improvisation or the hand over to the second speaker will go wrong

  • The audience needs to lock into 2 different presentation styles

  • It requires careful scripting…

  • …and a lot, lot, of rehearsing

As a result, most duo presentations feel a bit unnatural. Make a video of your rehearsals before making the final decision to do it

Photo by elen aivali on Unsplash.

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Make over: managing complex change

Make over: managing complex change

This diagram originally created by Mary Lippitt of Enterprise Management is floating around the internet in varies shapes of forms:

Managing complex change

I attempted to give it a makeover by trying to do the following:

  • Cut the word repetition to reduce clutter

  • Simplify the labels a bit

  • Add some color

  • Add movement (the arrow) to show that other options are a dead end road

I have uploaded this chart to the SlideMagic template store, subscribers can download it free of charge.

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White elephants

White elephants

A VC friend got sent a pitch the other day that sounded like an exact copy of a company that underwent a spectacular and well-known crash a few months ago. The pitch completely ignored this white elephant and followed the standard presentation structure.

It is unlikely that this copy was indeed an exact replica of the famous failure, and it is unlikely that the pitching entrepreneur would think that seasoned investors did not know about that crash.

So in your pitch, you might as well take it straight on. The highly publicised failure did already part of the work for you, that, if you get this company to work, the market expectations are pretty big. Now on to the more difficult part, why that one failed and this one won’t.

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Most good presentations are repeats

Most good presentations are repeats

It is extremely hard to put a presentation together from scratch on a completely new subject and make it interesting. Come to think of it, most (maybe even every) good presentation you see, hear, read is a repeat: it has been given hundreds of time before.

Not necessarily with these slides, or in this format though. The startup founder starts building the story of his company the moment he puts the first line of code down. The CEO of that Fortune 500 giant has been selling cars since she joined the company 25 years ago, now she is selling the whole company to investors. The job applicant is pressing play on the story he kept on telling himself when he left his job to study an MBA 2 years ago.

Repeating makes you get better at the telling the story, learning from the verbal and non-verbal reaction of anyone you told it to. A good story is hardly ever born overnight.

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Staying focussed (2)

Staying focussed (2)

No post today as I am out with a small fever. It is interesting to see that in my previous, non-freelance jobs, you could simply plough on as a kind of endurance test with tasks that require less focus when you are a bit sick. Writing code or coming up with a new design concept for a presentation: forget it when your mind is not 100% there.

Photo by Masaaki Komori on Unsplash

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"The opposite..."

"The opposite..."

Many writers use this type of wordplay, for example Seth Godin in a recent post:

Just because it’s easy to measure doesn’t mean we should (and the opposite is even more true).

It can be a nice word play, but maybe it is me, I find it hard to understand. I actually need to reconstruct the opposite sentence, “read it to myself", and then go back to the original one.

When you use it, use it as a last sentence somewhere (like Seth did), to give the audience a little brain teaser.

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Staying focused

Staying focused

In my work as a designer, and now as a founder-coder, I have the luxury that most people working miss: hours of meeting-free, uninterrupted time to get things done. I think anyone who managed to build a career in this working model has proven to be able to stay focussed and disciplined, when there is no boss around who can remind you that watching Netflix episodes during work hours is not what you are supposed to do.

Still, my work is not an endurance test to resist temptations. I tend to group my work into different types and switch between them when I am stuck, bored, tired, energetic, full of inspiration, suffering from the downstairs neighbour who is drilling in the ceiling.:

  • Cracking a complicated problem (fundamental code architecture, the visual approach to a new presentation)

  • Just making something look pretty (user interface, that competitor slide)

  • Googling for solutions for that nasty, but actually unimportant, bug

  • Doing accounting

  • Writing a week full of blog posts in one go

In my time as a consultant when I was working with lots of people, I could not really set my own working schedule. Now that that noise has disappeared you start noticing there are huge differences when you do certain things during the day, and in what mood.

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Can you pull it off?

Can you pull it off?

That is a key question every investor is pondering while you click through the slides of your investor deck. But it might also go through the mind of a CEO of a big corporation who listens to the final results of a consulting project that talks about let’s say a major reorganisation.

There is often infinite amount of logic and data about how people should be grouped together, and when the the coin can fall right or left, it is probably the gut feel about you as a person that leads to the decision.

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Visual mathematical proofs

Visual mathematical proofs

Like coding, mathematical language needs to be precise and as a result looks super scary to the outsider, turning of many people that might have had an interest in exploring more. Here is a great picture that should be an inspiration for the rewriting of mathematics education:

Photo by Antoine Dautry on Unsplash

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Subscriptions update

Subscriptions update

I started the subscription slide template store almost a year ago, and the first subscribers will soon receive an email alerting them about the upcoming subscription renewal. I must admit that over the past few months I have not added as many new designs to the store as I had planned to, since I am investing a lot of time in developing the next generation of the SlideMagic app.

I have lots of ideas for new slides, but the underlying platform makes it very cumbersome to maintain everything, especially in multiple slide formats and aspect ratios. The Shopify platform I am using is built for selling t-shirts in different sizes, and is less suited for digital downloads.

A 1 year unlimited download is still a tremendous deal with the current library, but I understand if people decide not to roll over the subscription into a second year. The site should give you the tools to stop the subscription, if you need help please reach out. Obviously, you are invited to continue to support me as I am trying to change the world of presentation design.

The new app will include a better solution for accessing templates, now that my coding skills are reaching a point where I am less dependent on out-of-the-box platforms. Eventually we will get there.

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