Launch48, October 2009

Take off of Space Shuttle Atlantis (STS-117)

130 assorted programmers, designers and business folk; 6 eager teams; one crazily ambitious goal.

Launch48 was back.

The goal? Launch a web startup in under 48 hours.

I attended the first Launch48 event back in February. It was great fun and a fantastic way to meet people with entrepreneurial flair. That time, the local voucher idea I pitched was chosen as one of the projects to be worked on and I ended up leading team VouChaCha for one very hectic weekend and a couple of months afterwards.

This time around, I was keen to help organise the event and, hopefully, help edge it further towards something sustainable over the long-run. So I joined Adil, Ian, and the rest of their new organising committee, to help put the event together (this time with a one-day conference), publicise it, and make sure it ran smoothly.

So how did it go?

Well, as the last few attendees filtered out of the PayPal offices in Richmond (West London) 9 days ago, tired, yet still buzzing with the excitement of a weekend of hacking, business planning, logo drawing and generally pitching-in with a dozen or so enthusiastic teammates, I was happy.

The conference had gone well. In my opinion, the speakers were, as a rule, extremely good. The members of the six teams had worked together well. And six good presentations were given on Sunday afternoon. Best of all, it was great to see new connections made and people energised and inspired by what they’d taken part in.

Like with anything like this, there were a few glitches and issues along the way, but nothing too serious. We can learn from them and make the next Launch48 even better.

I’d like to say a personal ‘thank you’ to all the sponsors, speakers, mentors, organisers, and participants for making it such an enjoyable event.

If you’re interested in start-ups, looking for a co-founder, or just fancy meeting some interesting people and creating some cool stuff over a weekend, look out for the next Launch48.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Kenny Miller

How to Choose an E-Commerce Shopping Cart

Urban Shipwreck*

I recently spent some time comparing current e-commerce platforms (a.k.a. shopping carts). It’s a complicated area, so I thought I’d share my findings here in case they can be useful to others.

These are my opinions and analysis based on my own research and experimentation and are biased towards sites targeting a UK market.

First Things First: What is an E-Commerce Shopping Cart?

The name can be deceiving. E-commerce shopping carts are actually complete online shop sites. They allow you to set up various categories of products, set prices, calculate postage, tax and total costs, and send email confirmations to customers. More advanced systems provide features to help with marketing and customer relationship management (CRM).

To actually take payments you also need an account with a payment gateway such as PayPal or SagePay.

Hosted E-Commerce Platforms

Using a software-as-a-service (SaaS) e-commerce platform hosted by someone else is a good idea if you want to avoid the technical nitty-gritty of installing something yourself. A number of companies offer hosted ecommerce services allowing you to get going very quickly.

The downsides of hosted ecommerce solutions are the monthly fees and limited customisation options.

EKM Powershop

  • UK-only
  • Tends to produce rather dated-looking sites with table-based HTML
  • Easy to get up and running
  • Good range of features
  • Has been running for a long time, so should be stable
  • Approx £50 setup + £20 per month

Tiger Commerce

  • UK-only
  • Looks easy to get up and running
  • Approx £20 per month

Internet Retailer

  • Appears to be a fairly small company
  • Looks to provide smart and simple e-commerce sites
  • Recommended for good customer support
  • Approx £20 per month

Install-it-Yourself E-Commerce Platforms

If you want lots of flexibility and don’t mind getting your hands dirty with technical details (or getting someone else to do it on your behalf), installing and customising an open source e-commerce platform can be a good choice.

Bear in mind that if you’re not familiar with them, these do all require a considerable learning curve to get a shop up and running correctly with the various add-on modules you may want. Current shopping cart software tends to be written in php, so it’ll help if you know your way around that.


  • Open source
  • The most popular open source e-commerce platform for many years
  • Much of the community of this classic php shopping cart software has now moved on to other platforms

Zen Cart

  • Open source
  • Originally derived from OSCommerce
  • Now seems to have a greater following than OSCommerce
  • Plenty of add-ons available
  • Keeping core platform and add-ons up to date can be messy

Cube Cart

  • Open source
  • Seems less popular than Zen Cart


  • Open source
  • Based on a more modern architecture than Zen Desk, Cube Cart and OSCommerce
  • Supports multiple stores from a single installation
  • Has become one of the most popular open source ecommerce platforms over the last year
  • Still quite new, so may still have a few issues to iron out

Note: Magento is developed by a company that sells an expensive ‘enterprise’ version, however most users will be fine with the free version.


If you want a simple e-commerce site and don’t want the hassle of dealing with the underlying technology, go far a hosted e-commerce solution with good support.

If you want more control over things, the increasingly popular open source Magento platform looks like a good bet. Although less mature than OSCommerce and Zen Cart, I think Magento’s more up-to-date architecture and sizable, growing community make it a good choice for someone starting out with e-commerce today.

Have you looked into e-commerce solutions yourself? If so, do you agree with my findings? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Creative Commons License photo credit: MiiiSH

How to Test a Business Model

I’ve been researching some new business ideas lately and it struck me how rarely people seem to discuss quick and cheap ways of testing the critical assumptions upon which business models are based.

Often we’re keen to play with Excel, but less keen to check that the numbers we’re typing in are grounded in reality. The result, I believe, is that people end up taking far more risk than they need to when starting out.

Fortunately, there are some smart people out there who do recognise the importance of testing your assumptions and having a toolkit of techniques to help you do so.

Here’s a nice presentation on the subject from Steve Barsh:

Launch48 – Launching a Start-up in a Weekend

Making Stuff Happen in 48 Hours

The last couple of days I was involved in another “build a website in 48 hours” event. This time, it was Launch48, organised by a couple of friends of mine, Ian Broom and Adil Mohammed. Thanks to lots of great work from Ian and Adil, some generous sponsors who provided important things like office space and free pizza and drinks on the last night, and the boundless energy of around 70 enthusiastic participants, it was a great weekend.

We started on Friday night with a vote for our 4 favourite ideas out of a series of rapid-fire elevator pitches by anyone who fancied suggesting an idea. Excitingly, my idea was one of the four that was chosen. 15 or so people duly signed up to work on the idea over the weekend, and a whirlwind 48 hours was underway.

Local Vouchers

Our idea was to let people find vouchers for local retailers using their mobile phones. So you might, for example, be out in cental London and decide you want to get lunch somewhere. You pull out your phone and our service tells you that the cafe round the corner is offering a free dessert with their lunchtime menu. Great. You ignore the Starbucks next to you and head off to claim your bargain.

It didn’t take long for our team to get stuck into the problem at hand, figure out everyones’ talents and get to work. Luckily we found that we had a really nice spread of skills and abilities. Two intense days of design, coding, business planning, market research, PR, sleep deprivation and burrito-consumption later, VouChaCha was born, destined to bring local vouchers to your mobile phone.

A million thanks to the VouChaCha team for your immense efforts over the weekend. You were amazing! It was an incredible couple of days and a pleasure to work with you all.

What’s Next?

Well done to the other three Launch48 teams, CharityPie, DecisionsDecisions and ILikeUCoz, too. It was inspiring to see so many people come together (some having traveled very long distances to be there) and producing such neat things. What I liked best was the simplicity of all these ideas. I think they all have the potential to go somewhere.

A follow-up meeting is planned for 6 weeks’ time, so it will be exciting to see where we can all take these ideas between now and then.

Can You Help an Exciting New Startup?

If you think you might be able to help VouChaCha out in some way, we’d love to hear from anyone with experience/contacts regarding:

  • partnering with retail chains, especially restaurants, cafes, pubs and bars
  • vouchers, especially mobile vouchers

We’d also love to hear from any companies interested in sponsoring us by providing a few hundred pounds to cover our costs for the next 45 days. This is a fantastic sponsorship opportunity for somebody and you’ll be really helping us out.

If you think you can help with this or anything else, please get in touch. Thanks!

John Buckman on How to be a Successful Internet Entrepreneur

John Buckman, founder and CEO of (and founder of BookMooch), gave a really interesting talk on how to be successful as an Internet entrepreneur at Loic Le Meur’s recent LeWeb08 conference in Paris. He had a lot of good, practical tips about what he sees as the ‘right’ approach to entrepreneurship.

His presentation is pretty concise and to the point. Worth watching if you have a few minutes.

Here’s a summary of his points:

Finding a good idea

  1. Start thinking of ideas. Write them down.
  2. Do nothing for 3 months (most of your ideas will be bad)
  3. Are they still good ideas? If so, pick one.
  4. Explain your idea in 15 seconds to a friend in a noisy pub over a beer. Do they stop drinking their beer to listen to you? If not, it’s probably not a good idea.

Developing Your Idea

  1. Before you do any work, write the first line of your press release.
  2. Write the first paragraph of your homepage.
  3. Make the homepage.
  4. Hunt for unique names (but don’t worry too much – it’s not that important)
  5. Don’t borrow money. Figure out how to do the idea extremely cheaply.
  6. Make a mock-up. Show it to people. Get feedback.
  7. Launch way before you’re ready. Get more feedback.
  8. Pitch it to bloggers. If no one cares, drop it.

Other notes on entrepreneurship

  • Don’t quit your day job.
  • Only quit it once you have enough money.
  • Sales people are an extremely bad idea. They’re expensive. Your product should be great enough to spread via word of mouth from a few early users to the wider world.
  • Read a lot of books about how to run a company.

How to get great press coverage for your startup

  • be really interesting
  • convince two influential bloggers to write about you
  • focus on freelancers, not staff writers (freelancers tend to have to find interesting stories; staff writers get given them by their editors)
  • become a cause that a freelancer would like to adopt
  • once a couple of people have written about you, more (often more mainstream) people will write about you
  • think of as many edgy/juicy story angles as possible to give to journalists

Product/site development

  • Use a technology like PHP that is well proven and cheap to hire developers for
  • Don’t skimp on graphics
  • Be technical (if you’re not already, learn)

Predicting the Top-Selling Web Apps of the Future

Can Sales of Desktop Apps Predict Successful Web Apps?

Attending FOWA a couple of weeks ago got me thinking about web apps in general. With the move from desktop to web-hosted software, I’m wondering if what’s selling now in desktop versions will be a good predictor for what people will pay for in web app form? (And note that I’m talking about paying. Popularity of free apps would be a different topic entirely.)

For inspiration, have a look at Amazon UK’s current software bestseller list. Here’s how it breaks down…

This is based on a categorisation of Amazon UK’s 100 best-selling software products by units sold.

The results are no doubt skewed towards the Amazon buyer demographic. I’d guess that gamers, for example, are under-represented. Also, the average purchase price varies quite significantly by category. Education items, in particular, tend to be quite cheap, whereas operating systems and office software are rather expensive.

Anyhow, it does give an interesting idea of what currently sells in large volumes. Hidden within those categories (especially ‘Other’) is a multitude of niche products, each of which manages to sell in healthy quantities.

But Web Apps are More Than That

Of course, moving online isn’t all about who hosts your software. It’s also about easier communication and collaboration (think Facebook, for example). Top web apps won’t necessarily just be online versions of anything that existing previously in desktop form. But many will, I think, take an idea that’s worked well in the desktop era and give it a few tweaks to take advantage of the web. See Gmail, for example.

Ideas for your Next Web App

In summary, if you’re looking for inspiration to build a web app, you could do worse than finding a popular desktop app that has yet to make it to the web.

UK Advertising Industry Statistics

This data has been out for a few months now, but for anyone whose business depends on advertising, it’s worth a second look.

It’s from the World Advertising Research Center’s Advertising Statistics Yearbook 2008.

UK Advertising Expenditure at current prices, 2007

Total advertising
£ millions
% change
Press 7,716 -1.6%
Television 4,671 2.3%
Internet 3,026 39.5%
Direct Mail 2,171 -6.5%
Outdoor & Transport 1,058 4.6%
Radio 534 3.4%
Cinema 207 10.1%
TOTAL 19,384 4.2%

Note: Figures are inclusive of production costs.

Given the current economic climate, no doubt most of these numbers will be seeing a substantial dip next time around.

HelloMetro Wins Hyperlocal Trademark

Lawrence T. Brooke, Esq, 703-772-3076 Fairfax Arlington Alexandria Virginia LawAccording to their own press release, HelloMetro has been awarded a trademark from the US patent office for use of the term ‘Hyperlocal’. In a comment on Search Engine Watch, their CEO explains that their use describes their service of “advertising/providing information on the goods and services of others that are of local interest”.

Astonishing! Assuming this is true, could someone please ask those patent people to brush up on their Greek? Surely hyperlocal ought to be judged a descriptive term and therefore not possible to trademark?! Sigh.