Training course update

I ran my second ‘Start your own software business’ course over the weekend of 22/23 March. Here is what some of the attendees had to say:

“I thought I knew most things about setting up and running an ISV but Andy filled in all the gaps and taught me stuff I hadn’t even thought about! I would, without hesitation, recommend this course (which is great value) to anyone thinking of starting a small software company or even an existing company that wants to ensure they give their business the best chance for success. Well done Andy!”
Anonymous (gainfully employed)

Roger Pearson“PC Pro magazine (not easy to impress) gave PerfectTablePlan a glowing review. That gives you some idea of Andy’s talent for programming and marketing. His weekend training program allows the attendees to garner his expertise for themselves and their software projects. Andy knows his subject – his experience is extensive, practical and hard-earned. I have run 2 successful small software business in the past. By attending his course I wanted to find out from someone who was actually doing it today, how I could apply techniques and best practice to my next software project. Did I succeed? Without a doubt. Andy was meticulous in his planning of the event and thorough in his presentation. I couldn’t ask for more. Top marks. I recommend Andy’s course to anyone venturing into the world of running a small software business.”
Roger Pearson

Derek Ekins“I recently attended Andy Brice’s “Start your own software business” course. Andy teaches some very practical skills to evaluate your idea, find if there is a market and launch your product. Behind most of the topics Andy had a story of how this particular lesson was learnt and how he has successfully implemented it. I now feel I am equipped with some practical knowledge of how to launch a software product. Thanks Andy.”
Derek Ekins

I will be following all their progress with interest.

I hope to run the course again in 2014. If you are interested in attending, please fill in the form on the training page.

Twitter Demographics Are Bullshit

twitter demographicsI have been experimenting a bit with promoting my software using promoted tweets. You can target people based on their interests or the Twitter handles they follow. I have chosen the latter approach with the aim of getting people to a) click through to my website and b) retweet (in the hope of more click throughs).

The results haven’t been great, with only 25% of the ‘engagements’ I paid for resulting in clicks through to my website. Here is a direct comparison between traffic from AdWords and Twitter ads to my seating planner software website (data from Google Analytics).

AdWords search
campaign
Twitter sponsored
tweet
Bounce rate 43% 78%
Av. pages visited 3.10 1.48
Av. time on site 1:51 0:40

Ouch. Then factor in that the Twitter traffic cost me 2.5 times as much per click through as the AdWords traffic. Double ouch. But that’s fine. You have do lots of experiments to find out what works. Most of them won’t be successful. This experiment only cost me £150.

However I was a bit puzzled by the ‘interests’ report from Twitter. Here are the top 10 ‘interests’ of the people that were shown my sponsored tweet, as reported by Twitter ads.

twitter demographicsBear in mind that I was targeting various Twitter handles related to the events and wedding industry for Twitter users in the UK, USA and Canada. According to the report:

  • 72% of them are interested in ‘Politics’.
  • 69% of them are interested in ‘Hip hop and rap’.
  • 62% of them are interested in  ‘NFL football’.
  • ‘Weddings’ is way down the list at number 55 with 15%, between ‘Leadership’ and ‘Dogs’.

Hmm, something is a bit fishy here.

I ran some more campaigns to promote my UK training course for people who want to create commercial software products. The ticket price for my course is higher than for my seating planner software, so I thought it was worth persevering a bit more with Twitter ads. Here are the top 10 ‘interests’ for the 3 campaigns I ran.

twitter demographics twitter demographics twitter demographicsBear in mind that this time, I was targeting various Twitter handles related to software development, marketing and entrepreneurship for Twitter users in the UK. We love our comedy in the UK and most of us could stand to lose a few pounds. But I can confidently state that the vast majority of people in the UK know almost nothing about NFL (American) football and care even less. ‘Computer programming’ and ‘Startups’ were waaay down all 3 lists.

Twitters says:

We infer interest from a variety of signals, like the accounts users follow and the Tweets they engage with.

I emailed them to point out that the interests seemed to be highly suspect, but I didn’t a substantive reply.

I can only conclude that either Twitter isn’t doing a very good job of the targeting or (more likely) it really doesn’t understand the interests of its customers and is doing a very poor job at guessing. Consequently I would urge you to be very wary of paying for promoted tweets on the basis of ‘interests’.

5 things you can do to improve your AdWords profitability in the next 30 minutes

Lots of people set up AdWords campaigns and then leave them to run unattended for months at a time. Bad. Idea. I know, I know, you’ve got a million other things to. So I am going to give you a very short and very specific list of things you can do to improve your AdWords account. Right now. No excuses.

1. Check your ‘Geographic’ report for under performing countries

Different countries can perform wildly differently for the same keywords, ads and bid prices. This is particularly the case if you compare rich industrialised countries with developing countries.

  1. Choose a campaign and date range.
  2. Click on the AdWords Dimensions tab then select Geographic.
  3. Remove any geographic columns apart from Country/Region.

adwords geographic report

Are some countries performing considerably worse in terms of click-through rate, cost per click or cost per conversion? If so, depending on how differently the countries are performing:

  1. Stop targeting the under-performing countries; or
  2. Make a duplicate of that campaign for the under-performing counties, but bid less ( It is easy to duplicate a campaign in the free Google Adwords Editor); or
  3. Use a negative bid adjustment for the under-performing countries:

adwords geographic adjustments

2. Check your ‘Time>Day of the week’ report

Some products sell much better on certain days of the week. For example, B2B products probably sell better during the week than they do at the weekend. The opposite might be true for some B2C products. You can easily check this.

  1. Choose a campaign and date range.
  2. Click on the AdWords Dimensions tab then select Time>Day of the week.

adwords day of week reportAre some days of the week performing significantly better or worse than others? If so, you can schedule your bids to be more or less on different days of the week.

adwords bid adjustment schedule

3. Get rid of the dead wood

Keywords with low quality score and low click-through rates can drag your whole campaign down. You can easily set up filters to find the culprits.

adwords filteradwords filterAnd then pause or delete these keywords.adwords delete keywords

4. Add sitelink extensions

If your ad appears at the top of the page, you can optionally show sitelink extensions that hyperlink to particular pages. These increase the amount of screen real estate and text available to you and they don’t cost any extra. What’s not to like?

adwords-sitelink-extensionsTo add sitelink extensions:

  1. Select the appropriate campaign.
  2. Click on the Ad extensions tab and select Sitelinks extensions.
  3. Click the +EXTENSION button.

site link extensions

5. Check your ‘Search terms’ report for negative keywords

Unless you are only bidding on exact match, the queries that result in your ads being shown are not the same as the keywords you supply to Google. You need to use negative keywords to further control which search queries your ads appear for.

For example, if you are selling Windows backup software and bidding on backup software (as broad or phrase match) your ad may appear every time someone searches on mac backup software. This hurts you twice: wasted clicks (which costs you money directly) and reduced click-through rates (which reduces your quality scores and costs you money indirectly). You can avoid these issues, just by adding mac as a negative keyword.

To look for negative keywords:

  1. Choose a campaign and date range.
  2. Click on the AdWords Dimensions tab then select Search terms.

dimensions search terms report keywords

You will see a list of the searches that actually triggered your ads. Are there any searches there that shouldn’t be? If so, add the offending words as negative keywords, (either at campaign or ad group level).

Plug:  My Keyword Funnel AdWords tool can be very useful for sifting through large amounts of search queries to find negative keywords. Just paste in thousands of keywords from your search terms report and look at each keyword by frequency and context.

keyword funnel adwords tool

(This article was first published on www.keywordfunnel.com)

Exploit the long tail of Adwords PPC with Keyword Funnel

Adwords Keyword FunnelI released my new product Keyword Funnel today. It is a tool to help Adwords advertisers improve the profitability of their Adwords campaigns.

I have found the best way to get a decent volume of affordable conversions from Google Adwords is to use a ‘long tail’ strategy. For my Perfect Table Plan product there are a few ‘head’ keyword phrases that have high search volumes, such as “table plan” and “seating arrangement”. But these aren’t very well targeted (“table plan” might have been typed in by someone who wants drawing plans to make their own dining room table). Also lots of other people are bidding on these head phrases, pushing the bid prices up. This combination of poor targeting and high click prices makes it hard to make a profit on head keywords.

So I prefer to concentrate on ‘tail’ terms such as “table plan software mac” and “wedding seating arrangements program”. These are much better targeted, so convert a lot better. The clicks are also cheaper because less people are bidding on them. However the search volumes are much lower, so you need a lot of these tail terms to get a reasonable amount of traffic. At least hundreds, and preferably thousands. Hence ‘long tail’.

the long tail of Adwords PPCThe good news is that you can mine lots of different sources of data for these long tail keywords. For example you can extract keywords from your web logs, Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools accounts. Even though many searches are now listed with the keywords ‘not provided’ by Google, it still isn’t hard to come up with thousands of candidate keyword phrases. The bad news is that they aren’t in a usable form. Before you can import them into Adwords you need to:

  • Sort out duplicate phrases, foreign characters, capitalization and other noise.
  • Remove unwanted and negative keywords.
  • Group keyword phrases into tightly focussed adgroups.
  • Put the results in a form Adwords understands.

I tried to use Excel for this. But, marvellous tool though it is, it really wasn’t up to the job. So I wrote my own tool. This worked very well, but it wasn’t a commercial quality product. So I started again, from scratch 6 months ago. Keyword Funnel is the result.

Keyword Funnel allows you to add hundreds of keywords to new or existing Adwords campaigns in minutes, rather than hours. This makes long tail Adwords campaigns with hundreds or thousands of keywords a much more realistic proposition. It also allows you to set up new campaigns in a fraction of the time.

Keyword Funnel is available for Windows and Mac. It is priced at a one-time fee of just $49 (up to 2 Adwords accounts) or $99 (unlimited Adwords accounts). You can download a free trial from the website and it comes with a 60-day money back guarantee. The website is currently a little unpolished, but the software is well tested and robust. Any feedback is welcome.

Try Keyword Funnel now!

The psychology of successful bootstrappers

the psychology of successful bootstrappersI am curious about how the people who bootstrap software businesses are different to the general population, and to each other. I investigated this using a standard (‘big 5′) personality test. I think the results make for interesting reading.

I asked a number of software company founders to complete an online personality test and send me their results. 18 of them did (19 including me). You have probably heard of some of them, however I promised anonymity. We are all founders of bootstrapped (i.e. not VC funded) software product companies and have been involved in programming a significant portion of our products. Most of us are solo founders. Some of us (including myself) are lifestyle programmers, others have employees. We are all successful to the extent that we make a living from our software product sales. None of us are billionaires (Bill Gates probably wouldn’t return my email).

The test measures personality across 5 major axes of personality identified by psychologists:

  • Extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved) – how much you derive satisfaction from interacting with other people.
  • Conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless) – how careful and orderly you are.
  • Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident) – how much you tend to experience negative emotions.
  • Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. analytical/detached) – how much you like and try to please others.
  • Openness (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious) – how much you seek out new experiences.

See Wikipedia for more details.

For each personality axis I have created a histogram of the results, showing how many founders fit in each 10% ‘bin’ compared to the general population. For example, for extraversion: 0 bootstrappers were in the 1-10 percentile (i.e. least extrovert 10%) of the general population, 1 founder was in the 11-20 percentile, 2 were in the 21-30 percentile etc.

extraversionconscientiousnessneuroticsmagreeablenessopenness

Extraversion Conscientiousness Neuroticism Agreeableness Openness
average (mean) 59.9 61.7 37.6 48.3 50.3
standard deviation 23.0 21.9 23.1 21.1 23.2

If bootstrappers were like the general population we would expect each bar to be the same height, with a bit of random variation, and the average score to be 50. Clearly this is not the case.

We are more extrovert on average than the general population. Although programming is stereotypically a profession for introverts and quite a few of us work alone, you need to get yourself noticed and interact with customers and partners to be a successful bootstrapper.

We are more conscientious on average than the general population. Shipping a software product requires a lot of attention to detail.

We are less neurotic on average than the general population. You need a some self belief and a thick skin to weather the ups and downs of being a bootstrapper.

We are about average for agreeableness. However the scores are not evenly distributed. Only 1 scored above the 70 percentile. Perhaps being too ready to please, rather than following your own vision, is a handicap for bootstrappers.

We are about average for openness. But the scores are clumped around the centre. Initially I was a bit surprised by this result. I expected bootstrappers to be inventive/ideas people and to score well above average. But perhaps the people who score very highly on openness are easily distracted (squirrel!), and never get anything finished.

The 5 personality traits are supposed to be orthogonal (not correlated). Picking some random pairs of traits and drawing scatter plots, that does indeed appear to be the case. For example extraversion doesn’t appear to be correlated with conscientiousness:

extroversions vs conscientiousnessI am aware that this survey suffers from some shortcomings:

  • The test is fairly simplistic. It doesn’t begin to capture what unique and precious little snowflakes we all are. However I don’t think I would have any results at all if I asked people to complete a massive survey. We are busy people.
  • Any survey suffers from selection bias. I am more likely to know other founders who are extroverts (the introverts probably go to less conferences). It is also likely that the people who responded were more conscientious and agreeable than those that didn’t!
  • 19 is a small sample size.

Correlation doesn’t imply causation. So these results don’t prove that high levels of conscientiousness and extraversion and low levels of neuroticism make you proportionally more likely to succeed at bootstrapping a software company. But, given that personality is considered fairly stable over time, it seems unlikely that the success caused the personality traits. However both could be correlated to some underlying factor, e.g. these traits could conceivably make you more likely to try starting a software business, but no more likely to succeed. Or the correlations could conceivably be a statistical fluke. I leave it as an exercise for an interested reader to work out the exact level of statistical significance of these results. It would be interesting to compare these results with those who tried to bootstrap business, but failed. However such data might not be easy to come by.

Given what I know about the trials of starting your own software business I think an above average level of conscientiousness and extraversion and a low level of neuroticism are a real asset. However it is also clear that the personalities of individual founders vary a lot. So don’t be disheartened if you don’t fit this profile. There are successful bootstrappers who don’t fit the profile. Personality is not destiny. And you can always partner with or employ someone who has complementary personality traits. But if you are a slap-dash, neurotic, who doesn’t like talking to other people, perhaps bootstrapping a software company isn’t for you. A career in government funded IT projects might be more suitable.

I sent a draft of this post to Dr Sherry Walling for feedback. Sherry is particularly well qualified to comment as she is both an adjunct Professor of Psychology and married to well know bootstrapper/micropreneur Rob Walling. Her response (paraphrased a bit) was:

“Your standard deviations are quite large which indicates that there is quite a lot of variability in your data. You would much rather have standard deviations between 0-10 when working with this kind of scale.

From my perspective, the only domain where I would expect significant difference is Conscientiousness. Conscientiousness is an essential bootstrapper trait. I am not sure how a solo founder could be successful if he/she is not naturally conscientious.

There are so many ways to be a successful bootstrapper. A neurotic person can fuel his sensitivity to negative emotions into hard work. A less neurotic person may not have enough anxiety to get up early and get to work. On the other hand too much neuroticism can be very debilitating. I don’t think there is a formula. The combination of factors could vary tremendously with each person, but conscientiousness is the one that seems essential.”

If you want to do your own analysis, the anonymised results are available to download as a CSV file here.

Many thanks to everyone who took part in the test.

You can do the test yourself. You don’t have to give your email address or answer the additional questions at the end. How do you compare?

Coding my way around 100 countries

Running a software company from a laptop while travelling the world sounds like a dream lifestyle. But what is it really like? Steve McLeod was kind enough to share his experiences as a nomadic software entrepreneur.

Running a one-person software company while travelling doesn’t work. And yet I’ve been doing it for years. I’m writing this in Patagonia, in a hotel lobby. There’s pop music playing too loud to fully concentrate. The Internet connection is sketchy; in fact I’m writing this now because the Internet is unavailable again. The chair is not good for my posture. The table is too high for comfortable typing. My productivity is abysmal.

I’m partway through adding a new feature to my software, and doing it in this environment is unproductive. There is a big glacier an hour’s drive from here that I’d rather be viewing. I know that tomorrow or the next day, when I see the glacier, I’ll come back to the hotel too exhausted to code or to deal with customer support.

What does this mean for my business? Low productivity and poorer-than-intended customer support response times, which lead to lower sales. My alternative to spending a decent part of each year travelling would be to stay in my home city, working better, selling more software and earning more money.

Here are some real problems I’ve faced working on the road:

  • In Ukraine my MacBook Pro’s screen stopped working. I didn’t intend to return home for another week. I had to choose between returning home earlier; trying to get the computer serviced promptly in a foreign country; supporting customers for my Mac software for the next week on Windows computer in Internet cafes; or buying a new computer and trying to get all my development tools on it.
  • In Turkey, YouTube was blocked. Which was mostly a good thing for productivity, but as my video demo was hosted on YouTube at the time, I couldn’t monitor it.
  • In Syria, Facebook was blocked. Okay, that was incontrovertibly good.
  • In Turkmenistan there was no Internet in my hotel. Or any hotel, just about, except on age-old computers in one hotel’s inaccurately-named “business centre”. No WiFi in cafes. For a few days my company was getting no attention.
  • Travelling in a shared taxi for hour after hour between obscure locations in Iraq (true story!) left me utterly spent. All I wanted to do after getting into a hotel is to relax. But that customer support backlog is nagging, nagging, nagging at me.
  • Skype is blocked in Qatar and in some other countries. This really ruins the conference call you had planned.
  • In Lebanon I needed to update my product with a critical fix. The Internet at the time in Beirut was so bad, it would take an hour to upload my 20 MB software. An hour! During which time I’m hoping not to get a network disruption, from one of Beirut’s daily 3-hour power outages. My 2-minute scripted solution for building and uploading updates, followed by a 5-minute smoke test turned into a 2-hour task, during which time I need to keep ordering coffees so as to keep the staff happy in the cafe supplying me with WiFi.
  • Coding while sipping a cocktail in a beach-side bar in the Caribbean is difficult. The brilliant midday sun makes the laptop screen hard to read. Actually that doesn’t sound too bad at all.

A very real risk includes getting my computer stolen, which, by some miracle, has not happened yet.

How do I make this running-a-one-person-company-while-travelling thing work? Here’s some things I do:

  • I keep everything in multiple online places. I use DropBox for documents and code. I use GitHub too. Without excuse, everything needs to be recoverable without drama if the computer breaks or gets stolen.
  • I set aside frequent rest periods where I can get through a backlog of harder customer support issues and work on new features or bug-fixes. It is actually nice sometimes to not climb Andean glaciers nor to see orang-utans in Borneo, and instead to do something prosaic like working for a day or two.
  • I try to be disciplined in keeping my customer support inbox empty. When I arrive at a new hotel after a long, dusty trip, before rewarding myself with an ice-cold beer, I’ll force myself to tackle the inbox.
  • In recent months I’ve been outsourcing customer support. I pay my support representative a monthly fee in return for which she deals with what she can handle herself each day. This helps so much.
  • I aim to spend my months in my home city in high-intensity bouts of feature-adding, taking advantage of having a good work environment.
  • I produce desktop software. Not SaaS, which would be terrible to support and monitor in these environments.
  • Moving source control from Subversion (which needs an Internet connection to be usable) to Git has helped a lot.
  • I concentrate on keeping my software as solid as I can, and the user experience as smooth as possible. These two things help reduce the customer support load.
  • I try to keep things in perspective. Yes, getting my computer stolen would be a minor catastrophe. Yes, a sketchy Internet connection is annoying. Yes, some customers might get irritated at the occasionally slow support. But here’s the other side: Three years ago the city I grew up in was destroyed by two earthquakes, killing hundreds and destroying a significant amount of the city. A year before that I suffered a terrible personal tragedy. Do other things matter so much that I should sit at home to keep customers as satisfied as possible?

Although my lifestyle might seem enviable, it can be lonely at times. You don’t realise how nice it is to be able to regularly catch up with the same friends for dinner or a drink until you can’t do this for long periods. Luckily, I often manage to find someone I know well to join me for part of each trip. Here in Patagonia and beyond, my girlfriend is travelling with me for two months or so. I’d not be travelling for so long anymore without companionship.

On the other hand, my one-person software company has enabled me to reach a goal I’ve long had: to travel to more than 100 different countries. I earn a decent income from my work and thousands of customers love my software. And that is enough for me.

Photos copyright Steve McLeod.

Steve McLeod runs Barbary Software, a one-person software company. Barbary Software’s main product is Poker Copilot, hand history analysis software for online poker players on Mac OS X.

Further reading:

32 fun and geeky things to do with kids

Not only do you have to feed, clothe and generally look after the physical welfare of children. You have to entertain them as well. Kids have low boredom thresholds and short attention spans, so this is no easy task. The good news is that there are lots of things you can do that are fun for the adults as well. Here are some of the things I have done with my son (now aged 7) over the last few years. I’m interested in science and computers, so some of them are unashamedly geeky. I hope that it gives you some ideas for things to do with your own kids. Or other people’s kids (other people’s kids are the best, you can give them back when you have had enough).

Note that some of the links below are Amazon affiliate links. If you buy something, I get commission to spend on more toys! Other vendors are available.

Make a potato cannon (spudzooka)

Potato cannons are great fun. Ram a spud down the barrel, spray some butane, hairspray or similar into the combustion chamber, create a spark and WHOOOOMP. Your spud can go over 100 metres. If that doesn’t put a big smile on your face, you must be clinically dead. You can see one in action here. They are relatively easy to make. Various plans and videos are readily available on the Internet. Mine was based on these plans and the parts were sourced from the UK supplier they recommend.

make a spud cannon

Disclaimer: A potato cannon is potentially very dangerous (the clue is in the word ‘cannon’) so exercise common sense.

  • The fumes from the glue during construction are potent. Do your construction in a well ventilated area and avoid sparks.
  • Use pressure rated materials and don’t use high power fuels such as acetylene. Your spud cannon could explode.
  • The spud comes out of the barrel at great speed. Never point it at a living thing.
  • Firing the gun is definitely a job for an adult.

Learn to program

The Scratch programming environment is ideally suited for creating simple games and is a fun and free way to learn to program. Programs are constructed by snapping together colour coded blocks – there is no syntax to learn and very little typing. Within an hour children can go from nothing to having created a simple example game with graphics and sound.

programming for children

Children too young for Scratch can still play simple programming games.

Make a house from cardboard boxes

Children have a habit of ignoring expensive presents in favour of the boxes they came in. We had a load of cardboard boxes and packing tape left over from moving house. We used them to make various constructions, including a train and a house.

cardboard box playMake mega bubbles

Blowing bubbles is fun. The bigger the bubble, the more fun! We purchased a mega bubble kit. It contains a bubble wand, some instructions and the secret ingredients list for making mega bubbles (hint: include some cornflower to make the bubbles more durable).

mega bubblesDo some star gazing

Every child and adult should have the chance to gaze in wonder at the stars from time to time. Ideally do your star gazing well away from city lights, on a cloudless day when there is no moon. The very impressive Star Walk astronomy app (for iOS and Android) will tell you where the satellites, planets and stars are. The best time to spot satellites is shortly after sunset. You can use ISSTracker.com to work out when the International Space Station is passing overhead.

ISSYou can sometimes see several of Jupiter’s moons just with binoculars. If there is a full moon, look at that instead.

Tip: If you have a trampoline in your garden, that can be a comfy place to lie back and look at the stars.

Make a water slide

Water slides can be great fun, especially if you have a slope in your garden. You just need a big sheet of thick plastic, a hose pipe and some washing up soap. The Slip N Slide slides aren’t particularly well designed or made, but the plastic sheet has lasted ok.

slip n slide water slideFor the more ambitious, there are some instructions on how to make your own monster slide here.

Watch Star Wars

Star Wars is an essential part of any budding geek’s education. But I think episode 3 is too dark for a 7 year old, so we have only watched episodes 4, 5 and 6 (the best ones!) so far. More on this topic over at Scott Hanselman’s blog.

Make an igloo

If you get a good amount of snow (rare in the UK) you can make your own igloo. After a couple of attempts at this, I believe the best approach is to make ‘bricks’ by packing loose snow into boxes. Each ring of bricks being of smaller diameter than the one below. Ideally use rectangular/square boxes of varying sizes, with the  biggest ‘bricks’ at the bottom. More details here.

iglooMake something from Lego

I love Lego and I think it is great for encouraging creativity in kids. But, in becoming the corporate titan it now is, Lego seems to have lost its way a bit (particularly in their pink and pony themed ‘friends’ range for girls, ugh).

When I was a child there were few kits or different types of pieces. Mostly I had red, white and blue 2×4 bricks and I used my imagination to come up with my own designs. (Interesting trivia, apparently the founder of Lego was a pacifist and he didn’t want little boys making tanks, so that is why there were originally no green or brown bricks.) But now Lego seems to be all about following instructions and finding the right piece. I bought loads of 2×4 bricks and other basic pieces from the bricklink.com website. The website UI is a bit confusing at first, but once you get used to it, it is a great resource for buying Lego relatively cheaply. You can also buy second-hand Lego from e-bay. I just kept bidding low on job-lots and picked up a few bargains (plus one rather disgusting consignment that got sent straight back for a refund). Here is something I made recently, mostly from 2×4 bricks (I got a bit carried away).

My Lego cruise linerTip: You can wash second-hand Lego by putting it in a string bag in the dishwasher. But don’t put it on maximum temperature, unless you want a Salvador Dali effect!

If you are going to buy new kits (hard to avoid) get the Lego Creator ones, as they generally allow you to create at least 3 different models from each kit. This means better value for money and it encourages kids to pull their creations apart and make new things from them. The Crazy Action Contraptions kit is also good fun.

Play computer games

My son loves playing computer games. There are a lot of great apps for kids. Here are some of the better ones.

Pre-school kids:

Older kids:

  • Bridge constructor (iPad)
  • Cut the rope (iPad)
  • Splitter Pal (iPad)
  • Incredible machine (iPad)
  • Maths vs zombies (iPad)
  • Wipeout wall (iPad)
  • Crane Lite (iPad)

I also think the open and constructive nature of Minecraft makes it a good game for children. But, be warned, it is very addictive.

There is also a good list of ‘analogue’ games at gameskidsplay.net.

Make a scale solar system

You can make a scale model of the solar system with household items to show just how vast the solar system is. This link allows you to work out the size and distance of each planet based on the size you choose for the sun. For example, setting the size of the sun to 300mm (about the size of a soccer ball) means an earth of about 3mm (about the size of a peppercorn) at 32m. Choose the size of your sun according the items or space you have available.

Tip: If you are doing it in your garden you need either a very small sun or a very large garden!

If that isn’t mind boggling enough, try this flash simulation which goes from subatomic particles to the whole universe (requires Flash).

Watch Mythbusters

My son and I both love the Discovery Channel TV series ‘Mythbusters’. In case you aren’t familiar with the premise: the hosts try to replicate various myths to see if they hold any truth (e.g. are you safe from bullets under water?, would a penny dropped from a skyscraper kill you?). It’s basically the scientific method disguised as an entertainment show. And very entertaining it is to. If you can’t get it on your TV, you can see lots of excerpts on Youtube.

MythBustersTip: Many of the episodes are not suitable for young children (e.g. is it possible to decapitate someone with a ceiling fan?). So check them out first.

Read Peter’s Railway

Peter’s Railway is a wonderful series of books about a boy and his grandfather building a miniature railway. They combine quite a lot of science and engineering with a great story and illustrations.

Peter's RailwayLaunch a bottle rocket

  • Take an empty plastic 2 litre drink bottle.
  • Fill it about a quarter full of water.
  • Find a cork that will fit tightly.
  • Get a foot pump with a needle valve and push it through the cork.
  • Push the cork into the bottle.
  • Point the bottle rocket in the air.
  • Keep pumping until it takes off.

It can go surprisingly high and fast in a gratifying demonstration of Newton’s third law. More information here.

Disclaimer: Half a kg of water travelling at 10+ metres per second could do some damage, so be careful and make sure it doesn’t fall over during pumping.

Play trump cards

I used to play trump cards when I was a kid. In case you aren’t familiar with the concept, you have a pack of cards on a certain theme (e.g. sports cars or jet fighters) each with certain attributes (e.g. top speed or horsepower). When It is your go, you call out what you think is the best attribute of your top card. If it is better than your opponent’s top card you take his card and go again. If not he takes your card and it is his turn to choose. The game continues until one player has all the cards. The best thing about trumps is that it is teaching kids to understand numbers on the sly. It certainly helped my son to learn his numbers.

Tip: Top Trumps used to be the best brand of trump cards in my youth. Now they have gone for all sort of lame merchandising tie-ins such as Harry Potter and Star Wars. Sigh. The Ace trumps brand is better (and cheaper). Or you can go for the fantastically geeky Dr Hal’s Physics trumps.

Dr Hal's physics trump cardsPlaying 21/Pontoon/Blackjack with your kids is also a good way to improve their addition.

Play double or quits

I heard that Warren Buffet put a fruit machine in his house to teach his children about the folly of gambling. So I sometimes offer my son to play double or quits with his some of his pocket money. If he accepts, we flick the coin. If he wins I double his money and he has the option to play again. If he loses I keep his money. The first few times we played, he kept playing until he lost his money. Now he has learnt a bit about probability (the hard way) and won’t play, or perhaps just 1 flick of the coin. Result!

Tip: If they lose, don’t give them their money back. No matter how much they plead. Otherwise they will learn entirely the wrong lesson. Tough love.

Do some experiments

There are plenty of books with experiments you can do with kids at home, e.g. Do try this at home by the Science Museum.

home experimentsDig a hole

We designated our son a corner of the garden as his. He has spent many a happy hour there digging holes and filling them in. Sometimes the simplest things in life are the best.

dig a holeMake a small explosion

Most things in fine powder form will combust very rapidly (big surface area). Kids love explosions. We poured some icing sugar down a long carboard cylinder onto a tee-light candle to make a satisfying ‘whoomp’.

Disclaimer: Try this outside and entirely at your own risk.

Make a stop motion animation

It is relatively easy to make a short stop motion animation using a digital camera (ideally on a tripod) plus some toys or Lego. You can use free software, such as Windows Movie Maker, to join the stills into a movie. There are lots of videos showing how to this on YouTube, for example.

Solve a 3D maze

3D mazes are fiendishly difficult and quite addictive.

perplexus 3d mazePlay chess

Chess is great for helping kids to concentrate. Keeping it interesting for the adult can be a challenge though. I’ve tried the following to handicap myself with various degrees of success:

  • Only allowing myself a few seconds per move.
  • Starting with less pieces (e.g. no queen or no castles).
  • Allowing them to change sides part way through.

Chess for childrenDo some electronics

We bought our son the Hot Wires electronics kit and he has played with it loads. The kits is surprisingly well made, but the instructions aren’t great. They clearly show how to make 100 different circuits, but they don’t really explain how any of the circuits or components work. However my son was quickly building his own simple circuits and learning by trial and error.

electronics for childrenGo to a hands-on museum

The best museums are ones where you play with the exhibits. Our favourites are:

Watch a Youtube video

Whatever geeky things you are into, there are almost certainly some videos about it on YouTube. I particular like the Open University 60-second adventures in Astronomy series.

Tip: I strongly recommend you turn ‘Safety’ on if you are browsing YouTube with kids (or your parents, come to think of it).

Grow something

I think it is important that kids know food doesn’t appear by magic in supermarkets. Potatoes are pretty easy to grow.

grow somethingPlay a board game

My son likes Monopoly (interestingly, a game originally invented by Quakers to teach people about the evils of property ownership). All the dice rolling and money changing hands is good for his numeracy. But it is a rather brutal game that can go on forever. I prefer Ticket to ride, which he is also very keen on. This is a German-style game of strategy that can be played in an hour and you have no idea who has won until the very end.

Ticket to ride gameWe have also had a lot of fun with Cube Quest, which is a good mix of dexterity and tactics.

Do some plumbing

We had some drain pipes and guttering left over from renovating our house. Rather than throw them out we let our son play with them. He has spent many happy hours connecting them up and putting toy cars, balls and water down them.

Fly an RC helicopter

The latest remote control helicopters are amazing. I have a little Syma indoor RC helicopter that I bought for about £15. It flies amazingly well and it is still going strong after countless crashes onto a tile floor. I find it hard to believe such an amazing piece of engineering is so cheap.

remote control helicopterI also have its big brother, but I find the indoor version much easier to fly (and less dangerous!).

Have a Scalextric party

For our son’s birthday we hired some guys to set up their Scalextric track in our house. The kids had so much fun. It was unanimously declared ‘best party ever’.

Scalextric partyTip: Book an extra 30 minutes for the adults at the end!

Play Mastermind/Brain Master

My son enjoys playing this classic logic game from my youth. It can be a bit trying when you are trying to guess the colour and they score you wrong, but you can award yourself bonus marks if you can spot that have scored you wrong without seeing the code!

mastermind logic gameBuild a go-kart/gravity racer

I’m not very good at making things, apart from software. But my father is. He made my son this rather splendid go-kart. I just wish it was big enough for me.make a go kartDisclaimer: It is possible to flip a go-kart. We proved it. So do wear some protective gear.

Your turn

What fun and geeky things have you done with kids? Please add a comment below.