chemical-reactions-startup-ideas

How Startup Ideas Can Be Modeled Like Chemical Reactions

I’m sometimes envious of people who studied subjects in college that correspond to their actual careers. Finance majors who become bankers. Computer Science majors who become software engineers. Must be nice to actually *use* the knowledge you spent four or more years studying. As a guy with two biology degrees, a career in marketing and (non biotech), startups is a fairly orthogonal direction.

However, I have discovered a few ideas from my academic studies that come in handy when thinking about startups. One of them is how a chemical reaction is a great model for a startup idea. But let’s first take a step back.

The Four Key Points Needed to Discuss a Startup Idea

I was recently in a conversation with a coworker about some of her startup ideas. She had one idea around revitalizing musicals that, while not her main startup idea, got me thinking about the best way intelligently discuss these types of ideas. [1] It boils down to four major questions / answers. Continue reading…

One Woman’s Incredible Startup Journey in Peru

The other night, while wandering the bustling streets of Barranco, my adopted neighborhood in Lima, Peru, I walked into a Chinese restaurant called Chifa Hong Fu. [1]

I was struggling with the Spanish-only menu and was attempting to ask the waitress what was in the various dishes, when this woman popped out from the back and asked me

Ni hui shou zhong wen ma?” (Can you speak Chinese?) My Mandarin is passable so I said I could.

She started explaining the menu to me and I asked her if this was her restaurant. She said it was. And thus began one of the most fascinating and inspiring stories of entrepreneurship I’ve learned in a long time.

Huang: The Relentless Chinese-Peruvian Restaurant Entrepreneur

Jason and Huang

(Huang and Me in her restaurant)

Chifa Hong Fu was founded in 2009 by Huang’s nephew [1] and she bought him out in 2012 to become the sole proprietor when her nephew decided to move back to China. Before that, she was helping her younger brother run another restaurant for about eight years. Chifa Hong Fu has about 15 tables and I’d guess her dishes average out to about 14 Peruvian soles (equivalent to $5.2 USD) a plate. Continue reading…

My Biggest Takeaway on 37Signals’s New Book on Remote Work (Hint: It’s Not Technology)

REMOTE: The new book from 37signals 2013-11-08 07-41-46I just finished reading Remote: Office Not Required, by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, partners at 37Signals.

It’s a great read and here’s the  basic premise:

  • In today’s economy, the quest for talent is so great that organizations can no longer afford to merely look at individuals co-located in their physical presence (their metro area)
  • It is easier than ever to coordinate the work of individuals from around the world with just a good internet connection and a few pieces of web-based software (including 37Signal’s own products)
  • There are many drawbacks to forcing people to work in an office and many perks to allowing them to work (even a few days a week) at home / at a cafe or coworking space that benefit both the remote worker and the organizations that employ them
  • There are simple ways to address many of the concerns people have with remote working (review the work, not time in seat; put relevant information where it can be seen by all, overlap working hours, etc)
  • There is a tipping point coming with remote work. Many organizations large and small, from across many industries, are using remote workers and it’s time you (the reader) became an early adopter.

They actually went out and interviewed a bunch of companies that do remote work as well so REMOTE is not just “the edgy opinions of Fried and DHH”. The book has useful tips for making the case for remote work to your boss (or to your team, if you are the boss). There’s a lot of value in learning how to structure a good remote work environment.

But personally, I got a bigger shift in perspective from something else.

My biggest takeaway from REMOTE:

Continue reading…

Sarah Allen’s Little Rules For Working Life

SONY DSCI’ve learned a lot of stuff working with the fellows in my program, particularly Sarah Allen, who’s paired with me on the Smithsonian Transcription Center. I noticed that she’d often mention a policy she had on doing (or not doing) certain things. I remarked that there seemed to be a lot of them and has she ever put them in one place?

Well luckily for us she has. Here are some my favorite policies of Sarah Allen, an incredibly accomplished software developer, manager, and entrepreneur, and my comment on it.

I never take a job where I don’t know at least one team member very well. The most important indicator of success for any group is the quality of the people. VCs invest in the team, rather than the idea, since it is easier for a great team to change their idea, but impossible for a great idea to find a new team. Where you choose to work is an investment.

Most people would say it’s good to get along with your future coworkers when evaluating new jobs, but this policy takes it a lot farther. It essentially means companies where you’re applying cold, or who are pursuing you with no prior connection, is completely off limits. I think you need to be at a certain stage in your career to be able to pull this off, but that time frame is probably sooner than you think (5 years?)

Write stuff down. I take meeting notes and send them out afterwards. I don’t work without a contract. It’s not an issue of trust. There are a thousand small decisions about the work that go unsaid in a meeting. This applies to any collaborative work. Anytime I need to say to you “I will do this” or “I expect you to do that,” a follow-up email will solidify alignment or catch misunderstandings — saving time and forging stronger relationships.

Sarah and I have become known as the note taking fellows. We have a Google Doc pulled up for almost every meeting we’ve been in. A rough count of our Google Drive has around ~170 meeting notes, planning docs, spreadsheets and talking points in just three months.

Iterate. Celebrate. Iterate. Celebrate. I wish I knew where I read this. Celebrate the little things. You can’t really control the big win. It’s the small series of little wins that we can make happen. We need to celebrate these.

One thing I wish we did more at Ridejoy was celebrate the small wins. There was a feeling from some of my other cofounders that we should only celebrate when we hit a really big milestone, but it often felt too far away, and then the celebration was a huge endeavor in itself, which was not ideal. I like this policy.

Tell someone’s boss, in writing, when they do a great job, especially if they are far away in an organization.

This is like a karma thing – we all hope that if other people work with us and find it an awesome experience, that they’d tell our boss (if we had one) how awesome we were doing.

The #1 job of a good manager is hiring and retaining great people. When I’m in a management role and things get crazy, as they often do, I tell this to myself every morning and twice during the day. It takes discipline to spend time writing an excellent job description or having individual meetings with staff when there are urgent, pressing, seemingly more important issues to deal with.

This is exactly the difference between individual contributors and leaders of teams. Your effort as a manager is multiplied when you find the right people, invest in them, and prune when necessary.

Never hire until you’ve interviewed at least three great candidates. Hiring should be a tough decision. We should have to ask ourselves what is really important so we can decide between these amazing people. We should have cause to wonder if we should stretch our budget to hire more than one.

This is such a great rule for preventing a “He/She is the the one” situations where you fall in love with a candidate. I’ll admit that at Ridejoy, we definitely hired someone we fell in love with, but I think Sarah’s policy is the right one. If you can’t do this, you aren’t recruiting hard enough.

Read them all at: little rules for working life.

A New Adventure: Working at the Smithsonian as a Presidential Innovation Fellow

Diego, Sarah, Jason - Presidential Innovation Fellows

With Diego Mayer-Cantu and Sarah Allen, my Presidential Innovation Fellows teammates at the Smithsonian

A little over two years ago, I wrote about taking the leap to start a company. Starting and building Ridejoy has one of the most thrilling, challenging, humbling and educational experiences of my life. That chapter of my life is coming to a close and I am embarking on a new adventure. [1]

Today, I am happy to share that I’ve been selected to serve as Presidential Innovation Fellow (PIF). Along with two other amazing PIFs, Diego Mayer-Cantu and Sarah Allen, I will be working on initiatives to strengthen the Smithsonian Institution’s digital enterprise. I packed up my life in San Francisco in early June and shipped out to Washington DC, where I’ll be for the next six months.

What Will I Be Doing at the Smithsonian?

We’ve all heard of the Smithsonian, but like a lot of people, I didn’t fully appreciate the scale at which it operates. The Smithsonian Institution runs  —  get ready for this —  19 museums, 20 libraries, 11 research centers, 2 magazines and a freaking zoo. There are over 137 million artifacts, specimens and national treasures in their stewardship and yet only a fraction of a fraction of those pieces are physically accessible to the public at any given time.

The organization’s mission is “the increase and diffusion of knowledge” and while you might not traditionally think of a museum as an educational institution, that’s very much what the Smithsonian is. So along those lines, Sarah, Diego and I will be working with the Office of the Secretary and staff across the various museums and facilities toward three priorities:

  • accelerating the Institution’s digitization efforts
  • building a crowdsourcing platform to enlist the public in strengthening the digital collections and
  • improving the tools for the public to search and discover digital content.

It’s an amazing opportunity, but also a huge undertaking. We have learned a ton in the past week and I anticipate we’ll continue drinking from the firehose for some time to come.

What is the Deal with the Fellowship?

At first glance, the federal government is basically the antithesis of a startup. It operates at gigantic scale, moves at the speed of molasses most of the time, and is saddled with lots of rules and regulations. Which is why the Presidential Innovation Fellowship is so fascinating.

The big idea behind the program is basically this: what if we got the best entrepreneurs and innovators in America to partner with forward thinking government leaders? Could we make some awesome things happen? Based on the work from the Round 1 fellows selected in 2012, the answer appears to be “Definitely”.

This year, 43 fellows were selected to work across 20-something agencies within the government. From USAID, the State Department, FDA, Veteran’s Affairs and more, my peers will be working on really hard, interesting and important challenges that aim to help the government deliver better services and reduce expenses. I like the way one person put it: “helping taxpayers get better ROI on their government”.

I’m incredibly excited to work with White House CTO Todd Park, and Deputy CTO Jenn Pahlka (who is directly overseeing the program and previously ran Code for America) and just floored by the talent, experience and desire to contribute of the other fellows. They have done amazing things and as a guy who rates really high on the self-confidence scale,  I am humbled to be part of this group.

Get Involved

We are just starting to figure things out and brainstorming ways to help the Smithsonian do (even more) Seriously Amazing™ things in the digital space. I welcome your help and support.

If you have ideas, resources or other opportunities you think would benefit the fellowship and or specifically the work we are pursuing at the Smithsonian, please do not hesitate to reach out to me at ShenJa@si.edu

FOOTNOTES

[1] This post today is about what’s next. I have a lot more to say about my experiences at Ridejoy but it deserves more thought and space than I have here. I promise I’ll be sharing more about that soon.