When Software is Eating the World, You Better Start Making Dishes

Photo Credit: Kuba Bożanowski via Compfight cc

One of my goals for 2013 is to learn enough about programming to build and release publicly a simple web application that does something interesting.

I’ve been working toward this goal for about a month and wanted to share some thoughts on it so far. In this post, I’ll share my history with programming and why I’ve dedicated myself toward this goal. In a later post, I’ll talk more about how it’s progressing.

My history with programming

In high school and college, I took a few basic computer science courses. I learned Java and Python, played with if/then statements and while loops, and built little applications that did things like simulate games of Craps.

While it was interesting, I struggled with the assignments and learned more towards basic sciences, like biology, where simply mastering a lot of content was enough to get good grades. I didn’t pursue advanced studies in CS.

In September 2010, I made my first attempt at learning Ruby on Rails. Back then I was still working at isocket as a business guy and not a founder.  I made a number of mistakes, including not having a learning plan and trying to start on the newly updated versions of Ruby and Rails at the time (1.9.2 and 3.0.0, respectively). Continue reading…

My First Screen iPhone Apps as of November 2012

Jason iPhone 5 Home Screen 2012

I recently got an iPhone 5 and have gone on a new tear in exploring apps, downloading new ones and re-evaluating their priorities.

I’m always curious to see what constitutes other people’s first screen apps – this is where many mobile entrepreneurs dream of living – so I thought it might be worth examining mine.

I’ll give a run down of my home screen apps as of November 26, 2012.

Notable & Unique

These are the interesting apps that give you a sense of my personality – they’re tools that make my life work more efficiently and enjoyably.

  • Pennies – a really barebones budget tool. I tell it my monthly spending goal, and it gives me a simulated “gas tank” of money. As I record purchases, the needle drops, showing me exactly how much I have left for the month.
  • Runkeeper – I’ve talked before about how much I like Runkeeper, the iPhone/web app I use to track my running, and it definitely makes the first screen
  • Evernote – if you don’t already have a note system, I recommend Evernote. Syncs notes from desktop, web and mobile. I use it to draft blog posts, record new ideas and manage a lot of the info for my startup
  • Songza – my new favorite music app. I pay for Spotify Premium to hear the songs I know about but Songza is free and gives me playlists of music I haven’t heard of (including great electronic dance and instrumental music)
  • Pocket – a new favorite, great for waiting in line, sitting on the bus or when you’re bored and without signal
  • Instacast – while walking to work, I listen to my podcasts: BacktoWork, The WSJ Morning News, Systematic, Planet Money and Here’s The Thing
  • Quora – the social q&a site always has new fascinating answers to thought-provoking questions. A place to learn and sometimes get taken down a rabbit hole
  • Chrome - my cofounder convinced me to install Chrome as my default browser – unlimited tabs, address bar knows your favorites if you sync with desktop chrome, and tabs open in the background

Common

You probably have some of these on your home screen too – which just shows how ubiquitous some services are to our lives.

  • Facebook – for staying in touch with friends, though I really only check it when I have notifications
  • Twitter – for staying in touch with the world – specifically my world of technology, entrepreneurship and SF-flavored pop culture
  • Hacker News – interesting articles and discussions specifically geared towards entrepreneurs
  • Gmail/Mail – I like Mail because it’s faster for checking messages and composing. I use Gmail when I’m trying to search for a specific email or email someone who’s contact info isn’t on my phone, but in Gmail
  • Dropbox – I have most of my working files stored in Dropbox so it’s nice to be able to access them instantly via my phone
  • Google Authenticator – you use two-step authentication for Gmail and Facebook right? No? This is one of those security measure that is really worth taking.

Navigation

When you’re on the go, one of the most valuable things your phone can help you with is getting where you need to go. These apps help me arrive at the right place and on time.

  • Apple Maps – despite the criticism, I think the standard iOS 6 Maps app is doing well enough. The worst thing is it’s lack of transit directions
  • Routesy Free – super handy for the real-time MUNI and BART schedules when I already know which bus/BART train I want to take
  • Google Maps (web bookmark) – when I need transit directions to get somewhere new
  • CityMaps2Go – offline maps, useful when traveling abroad or navigating SF without signal
  • QuickMaps – drag to get Google Maps directions from where you are to key locations (home, work, etc)
  • Caltrain – necessary when planning trips down to Palo Alto from SF

Standard Issue

Sometimes you don’t need a custom app when the standard-issue app does just fine.

  • Settings – turning on Airplane Mode, fiddling with Wi-Fi & Brightness
  • App Store – finding apps I read about online, seeing what’s new/featured, updating apps
  • Calendar – checking what day of the week some future event lands on; most of my event input goes in iCal on my MacBookPro
  • Clock – setting my morning alarm and countdowns for or a work session or laundry reminder
  • Camera – loving the Panorama feature of the built-in app
  • Photos – mostly used to email a photo or screenshot I just took
  • Phone/Text – they don’t call it an iPhone for nothing

What I noticed: my most accessible apps are either communication services (email/phone/text), useful tools (evernote/camera/navigation), or content (instacast/pocket/HN). Facebook and Twitter are like a combination of all three.

What about you? What are your favorite homescreen apps? Let me know in the comments!

The Story of How a Business Guy Earned the Opportunity to Co-Found a Tech Startup

I recently heard the story of how my friend met his cofounder and had to share it. I think there are some great lessons here for business folks looking to team up with smart technical people. I changed the names and am vague about certain details because they don’t really need the attention from this story, but it’s all true.

Chris’s First Startup

I met Chris at Stanford: really smart guy who studied CS and has a great eye for design. He cofounded a company right out of college, a collaborative editing/viewing tool, raised a round of funding, grew the team to six and eventually sold it for a small sum to a much larger technology-for-enterprise firm.

Chris stayed on post-acquisition, working on various projects for his new employer. While heading up a mobile app project, he ran into an challenge and can’t find a good solution for it in the marketplace. He decided to start working on a home-baked solution on nights and weekends as it was somewhat tangential to his day job, but wisely kept his employer in the loop about his efforts*. The entrepreneurial side of him started to wonder if there might be more firms out there with the same problem.

Meeting the Business Guy

Chris began working on it as a nights and weekends project, letting his firm know he was making this for the company, but that he also saw greater potential for it. One day, at a tech meet up event, Chris strikes up a conversation with a guy named Mike. Mike is a few years older than Chris and has been a part of the tech scene for some time, having most notably hacked on a consumer web product that got strong traction in the early-to-mid 2000’s.

However, these days Mike spends his time blogging, advising startups and angel investing. He’s turned into a “business guy”. Mike is intrigued by Chris’s side project and tells him:

“That’s a great idea. But you gotta stop calling it a side project, because it’s clearly a startup idea. Listen, I’d like to be involved. I think I could really help you out.”

Chris rolls his eyes. Having sold his last company, he doesn’t really need money – there are lots of investor who want to back a successful entrepreneur with a new idea. What does Mike have to offer? He has been out of the game technically for a few years and his experience is in consumer web, not enterprise, which is what this new idea would be for.

“Sure, whatever,” Chris replies, “I’ll let you know if I take it further.”

Hustling Pays Off

Some time passes and Chris has nearly forgotten about the whole interaction. Then, out of the blue, he gets a phone call:

“Hey it’s Mike.”

Oh boy, now what?

“Listen, I was serious about helping out. Over the last two weeks, I’ve called over 40 companies and pitched your product. I’ve gotten 30 who are willing to integrate with your service and try it out.”

Whoa. Now we’re talking.

I’ll skip ahead.

After meeting up, talking quite a bit more and working together, Chris and Mike eventually decide to join forces and co-found a new startup together. They raised a seed round and then a series less than 6 months later, have gotten tons of press and most importantly, has been a hit in the mobile development industry, with 100’s of customers ranging from one-man dev shops to publicly traded companies.

Lessons Learned

It’s dangerous to extrapolate too much from a story, but every data point is worth something. Here are two take aways:

  • You gotta be legit. Mike was already an impressive guy, with money, connections, professional clout and a technical background. But being legit wasn’t enough.
  • You gotta overdeliver. Mike didn’t complain about how Chris didn’t “appreciate the value he brought to the table”. He went out and proved that he could bring in business for the company. Getting a hold of the right person at 40 companies in a few weeks and actually convincing ~30 of them to say yes on a cold call, without a demo or even screenshots, is very hard.

If you’re a non-technical guy looking to co-found a startup, realize that you have far less leverage than whoever you choose to work with for your technical co-founder. You have to prove your worth both from the resources you have access to, the skills you can bring to bear on the project, and your relentless resourcefulness for getting sh*t done.

Do you have a story about co-founders meeting that you’d like to share? Leave it in the comments!

Photo Credit – stuck in customs

FOOTNOTES

*the company, to their credit, was pretty open and happy about Chris’s side project efforts

Great by Choice: the surprising lessons of how tech startups succeed over the long term

Note: This is a pretty long article (~4000 words). You can skim it now but you might want to also bookmark it and fully review it when you have 15 mins or so.

Summary: Great by Choice describes the results of a deep investigation into how young companies can survive and thrive in chaotic, turbulent environments to achieve spectacular results. The book is of great value startups and entrepreneurs seeking to build enduringly great companies. In this blog post, I look at how his concepts of fanatical discipline, productive paranoia, and empirical creativity apply to building a startup that succeeds over the long-term [1].

Introduction

I just finished reading Jim Collins’ new book Great by Choice: Uncertainty Chaos and Luck—Why Some Thrive Despite Them All (GBC from here on out). GBC is the spiritual sequel to a highly-regarded & best-selling book published by Collins in 2001 called Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t. Both are great reads, but I find GBC particularly relevant to technology entrepreneurs (like myself). Why? Two reasons.

The level of research behind the book:

Unlike many business books, this is not just one successful guy waxing philosophical about how he made stuff happen [2]. Jim Collins and his coauthor Morten Hansen had entire teams of research analysts work for 9 (!!) years to complete the book.

They picked industries that were highly volatile and selected young/small companies that did extraordinarily well (beating their industry’s average stock growth by 10x or more for at least 15 years). They found comparison companies that were started off very similar to the “10x companies” but only had average performance, and dissected all the data they could gather on both companies to find the differences. For more, see Appendix A below.

The companies / industries studied:

  • Computing/Software: Microsoft vs Apple [3]
  • Integrated Circuits: Intel vs AMD
  • Biotechnology: Amgen vs Genentech
  • Medical Devices: Biomet vs Kirschner
  • Surgical Devices: Stryker vs USSC
  • Insurance: Progressive vs Safeco
  • Airlines: Southwest vs PSA

The companies are relevant and familiar to tech entrepreneurs like me and many of the folks on this blog. My focus in this post is to look at how the conclusions from the research could be applied to early stage startups that WANT to build enduring and spectacularly successful companies. I’m excited to see what we find.

MYTH-BUSTING: It’s not about more vision, creativity, risk-taking or luck

One of the great things about this study is that it’s not just studying winners but looking at the difference between winners and losers. GBC found that the 10x companies were NOT more creative, visionary, ambitious, lucky, hard working, risk-taking, innovative, etc. It’s not that those things weren’t important – I think they were/are. And GBC acknowledges this.

It’s just that both groups had lots of these things. Yet they had different outcomes. So we have to look at what DIFFERED between the 10x and comparison companies. Let’s start by looking at how innovation happens at 10xers. Continue reading…

Amazing Across the Board: Cristina Cordova in Kick Ass Interview #3

You guys are in for a treat. Kick Ass Interviews have returned (see one and two) and they’re starting off with a bang. We’re joined by Cristina Cordova – a rising star in the tech world and an all around awesome gal. She shares some great stuff with us including:

  • How she ended up becoming VP of Business Development at a super hot startup
  • Her 3 key instructions for people interviewing at startups
  • The pen-and-paper productivity hack she uses that’s “better than any app”
  • The 4 lessons she’s learned on kicking ass
  • And why she thinks Facebook is “skirting its ethical responsibilities”

Enjoy guys!

– Jason

You work as the VP of Biz Dev at Alphonso Labs, which makes Pulse, an iPad app that made a big splash last year and even got Steve Jobs calling it “a wonderful RSS reader”. How did you get the opportunity to work in this role? What is your work like day to day?

I was in my last year at Stanford and working for Tapulous (makers of the Tap Tap Revenge iPhone game) in May of 2010. I was just about to finish my work there and relax until I started full-time at Google after graduation. My TA from my computer science class (Akshay Kothari, co-founder /CEO for Pulse) asked me if I could help him and his co-founder out with their app that was taking off. I agreed and I began to help Akshay and Ankit (co-founder/CTO for Pulse) out with marketing and publisher relations plus a few other things.

I left Pulse for a month and a half to give Google a try and it didn’t take long for me to realize what I was missing out on. I came back to work in “business development”, but it would be more accurate to say I do “everything else”.

My work day-to-day varies quite a bit. When I have meetings, I work with publishers big and small to get their content into Pulse. I manage our catalog of news sources and our efforts to get new and interesting content in front of our users. I also run our analytics, assessing our metrics for all the platforms we’re on and making sure our team is focused on key data necessary for our success. I also still do quite a bit of our marketing, blog posts and social media.

It’s fantastic that you’ve had the opportunity to get involved in so many great tech companies big and small. Many of The Art of Ass-Kicking readers are non-technical but interested in getting involved in business positions at tech companies and startups. What are your top recommendations for how they can land a great gig? What are common mistakes you see people making?

At a start-up with a small team, hiring the right people is extremely important and consumes a significant amount of time for the CEO and other key members of the company. Startups can be more cautious with hiring that at larger companies because each hire has an enormous impact on the entire company.

For those who are seeking marketing or business development positions, my first piece of advice is to do your research. Just because you’re not interviewing at a company with a market cap in the billions doesn’t mean that there isn’t information about the company or industry for you to consume before your interview. Read most, if not all of the company’s blog, twitter and facebook posts, locate all the press you can find on it and research who you’re interviewing with and their backgrounds.

Next, prepare for your interview by pretending you already have the job. Ask yourself what your plan would be from the second you started the role. Don’t think you’ll be handed a job description or given an outline of what your role consists of (I have never gotten this at any startup I’ve worked for). Assess what the company is not doing well, whether that is social media or strategic partnerships and prep solutions for how to improve it. Be creative and have at numerous ideas for what you would do if you got the job.

Last, be passionate. An interviewee can have all the experience in the world, but if he or she is not passionate about the product and the team, the company won’t take the risk.

You’ve been co-hosting the Girls Out Loud podcast on tech news with your friend Maya for over 6 months with 30 episodes under your belts. I enjoyed listing to Episode 29, where you explored some of the ramifications of the tsunami on the Bay Area. The dynamic between you and Maya is also great. What drove to do this initially? What keeps you going? How do you find the time?

Maya and I met initially through a mutual friend – she was just about to finish her first year at IBM and join a startup and I was working for Tapulous at the time. She wanted to start a podcast focused on technology and asked me if I would join her. We both knew that there was a lack of a female perspective on technology and we thought that we could deliver it.

It’s great to see how far the podcast has come. Some things haven’t changed – we’re still recording over Skype with the microphones on our Apple headphones.

Finding time for it has been a challenge at times, especially when we’re traveling or have big deadlines for work that require working at all hours (we have certainly missed a few weeks of episodes). I often take over the sole conference room at work at night and take a short break to do the podcast. Making time when you have very little is probably the hardest part.

Time seems to be the one thing that no one has enough of and it seems to be slipping through our grasp all the time. What is your approach to managing your work so that you have the time to do the things you need to / want to do? (Apps you use, processes you employ, mindsets you hold, etc)

For work, I stick to a to-do list in a small lined notebook. Every day I start a new page and list out everything I need to get done. If I don’t finish something, I move it to the next page for the next day. Crossing items off the list is much better than any feeling an app could give me. I try to keep my inbox to less than 20 when I leave work at night.

Some days it’s impossible, but as it piles up I’ll have an “email day” where I knock everything out. For managing relationships, I use a Google Docs spreadsheet listing all of my contacts, things that are pending etc. I try to work out everyday for at least 45 minutes. I work non-stop during the week, but the last 30 minutes before bed are for relaxation, usually watching TV or casual reading.

I try to stay away from my computer on Saturdays and go outside, take walks, have long meals with friends and generally enjoy life. It’s a mistake not to take time for yourself – even if you have to make time to do it.

You wrote a thesis on ethics of privacy in social networks. I think that’s great that you picked a more mainstream and accessible topic than most people do (my Ethics in Society thesis was on liver transplants). Can you summarize the overarching message of the thesis? What was the most valuable thing for you about writing it?

The basic message of the thesis is that there are ethical standards for using personal information (whether online or offline). I argue that Facebook violates many of these ethical standards by not notifying you before it collects your information, not giving you the opportunity to refuse consent to share and for using your information for purposes beyond which it was originally gathered. Facebook has been making it more difficult for you to control your information over the years and has been skirting its ethical responsibility to make it easier.

Taking part in a large research effort over a year and half was definitely my most treasured academic experience and taught me quite a bit about a product’s user experience as well. It also taught me to take my academic experience into my own hands. I didn’t want to write the typical honors thesis that never sees the light of day. I wanted it to be relevant and I wanted to it to be something I was personally and academically invested in.

It’s ironic that you said how accessible and mainstream the topic is. My thesis adviser recently told me that faculty in the department thought my topic may not have been worthy of academic inquiry in the beginning. Thankfully he didn’t tell me this until after I submitted my final copy because it ended up winning the award for the best thesis in the department. That’s probably another lesson in going after what you want when your own blood, sweat and tears are involved.

[Editors note: see a presentation of Cristina’s thesis here and the full paper: “The End of Privacy as We Know It?: The Ethics of Privacy on Online Social Networks” here.

I love that you chose this topic and succeeded with it even though others felt it might not be worthy. Way to get after it. This blog is all about learning how to kick more ass at stuff. What’s your take on the idea of “kicking ass”? What lessons have you learned about how you can take matters into your own hands and make things happen?

Kicking ass to me is being excellent at not just one thing, but everything one does. I admire people who have interests beyond work (i.e. staying fit, spending quality time with family, hobbies, philanthropy) and are amazing all across the board.

Lesson #1: Ask and you shall receive. Most women don’t negotiate their salaries and go on to make less than their male counterparts. Everyone has some leverage and can use it to their advantage in negotiations.

Lesson #2: Never be afraid to take a chance. I would consider myself someone who likes to play things safe, but I’m willing to take a risk if given the right opportunity. This played a key role in my move back to Pulse from Google.

Lesson #3: Plan to get where you want to be. If you want to move up from being an Account Manager to VP of Sales, get on the path that leads there and stick to it. I’ve been a planner my whole life. I applied to 17 colleges, numerous scholarships so that I didn’t have to pay a dime to attend and had ridiculous spreadsheets to track completion. Planning can get you most of the way.

Lesson #4: Never let obstacles stand in the way. I applied for an internship at Google and didn’t get it. I worked at a startup for the summer instead and got a full-time job at Google a year later. If something doesn’t work out, take an alternate route.