Aug 21

This is a cross-post of a guest post I just did on my Dad’s blog for his b-day. Cheesy perhaps but a formative moment from my youth…


This is an unsolicited guest post from son #1, Sean Tierney. Dad, sorry to hijack your blog like this but having created it I still have the login credentials. I figured given the circumstances of it being your birthday this is a valid birthday surprise. I’m writing this from London, UK on the morning of 8/19/16 but technically it’s still your bday in Phoenix, AZ…  

I wanted to share a quick story of a formative moment from my younger years that shows what makes my Dad, my Dad. The motivation here is partly that I forgot to send a b-day present this year and this is the only thing I could think of that would arrive in time from across the pond. But also I’m hoping this may motivate the big guy to resume his blogging effort again after more than a year’s hiatus.

Lego trauma and learning to color outside the lines

When you’re a five-year-old aspiring engineer obsessed with building space legos, it’s important that you get it right. Millions of lives depend on your legos having flawless structural integrity, built to spec and that they match the model shown in the instructions precisely… or at least that’s the way it feels ;-) Growing up I had no less than 16sqft of my room devoted to lego bases. That was my thing. I’d get a new kit from the toy store at Colonnade Mall, go home and spend the entire afternoon assembling it to perfection and then proudly add it to my space empire colonizing the corner of my room.

One day I came home with a set called “The Galaxy Explorer” – it was the biggest and most complex lego set I had worked with at that point and it was to be the linchpin of my space colony for the obvious reason that it had to get me around the galaxy.

galaxy-explorer

When I arrived home from the toy store I set about the most important mission of my life up to that point assembling this thing. As you might imagine the instructions for putting this together were intense. There was this 3×5″ glossy color pamphlet that unfolded into a sprawling blueprint that was too big for the dining room table and looked like one of those language-less instruction sheets for Danish furniture- just a huge set of pictures with arrows and numbers. I dutifully began my mission.

Some four hours later nearing completion of this beast I came to an impasse. The plastic lego pieces that were left simply did not match up with the ones in the pictures. Occasionally you make errors as a 5yr-old engineer so I checked and rechecked my work thus far but it became gradually clear that this was an unsolvable engineering project given the materials at hand.  3-D printers were still 30 years in the future and they didn’t sell the pieces I needed a la carte at Kay-Be Toys. Was it just pieces in this box that were missing or were the blueprints for the entire design of the Galaxy Explorer just fundamentally broken? If the latter, how many other space travelers were impacted by this omission??  I wrestled with the biggest crisis of my life to date. This was the first time I had followed instructions to a T only to hit an insurmountable wall and fail at something. All my honed lego-building skills were useless in the face of missing the key pieces necessary to complete the ship.

At some point my Dad walked in to find me at the dining room table sobbing over the nearly completed model. I was emotionally knotted and wrapped around the axle with my first experience of failure and the impossibility of making something work.  LEGO was teasing me with a picture of what it should be but an impossible task of actuating it.

The next thing my Dad did fundamentally changed my worldview not just with lego-building but everything. It was one of those epiphany cross-roads moments that evolves you as a human and opens your head to a new way of thinking. He said, “My man, these instructions aren’t the only way to build this. It’s just one suggestion for how THEY think it should be put together but you’re a smart guy. You can build an even better version of your own.” In that moment he installed a license to “color outside the lines” in my 5yr-old operating system.  But not just that- he installed also the encouragement to question and challenge instructions when they were clearly flawed along with the confidence that indeed I had it in me to come up with a better approach.

The notion that I might be able to invent a better version than LEGO and that “the authoritative instructions” were merely a suggestion for one potential way to do it blew my mind.  I immediately began cannibalizing my other space legos, pooling pieces and building out my own designs. In place of a sometimes-unworkable spec to follow, I saw ways to improve and freedom to create. Probably to the dismay of many subsequent grade school teachers I challenged instructions when they didn’t make sense. And years later this seed of thinking would eventually lead to me co-founding JumpBox, a company that fundamentally rethought the way in which software could be distributed as a virtual machine and not an installer. We used that to democratize a whole class of software known as “open source” and make it accessible to non-techies. The now-ingrained personality trait of questioning instructions and recognizing true vs. false boundaries has taken me places I would have never gone otherwise.


This is what makes my Dad, my Dad. He’s the guy who risked his life in the 60’s smuggling voter training materials to would-be black voters in Mississippi to help them gain voting status- working, not just talking, to fix a system when he recognized the instructions were simply wrong. And by his actions, showing others that it could and should be done.

Dad, happiest of birthdays to you. Thanks for this and other lessons you and mom gave Connor and I growing up.  Now please get back to blogging again so we can all hear what happened after the Peace Corps ;-)

dad-and-sean

Jun 04

I had a bit of an “ah-hah” moment this past Thursday evening at the Phoenix Ableton Usergroup (a free monthly group I organize for musicians who use this piece of software). Here’s the gist of what changed in my thinking: prior to Thursday if you would have asked me “what makes a great integrated development environment?” I would have said:

The toolset allows you to manifest what’s in your head with the least friction and most fidelity.

Post Thursday night, here’s my new opinion:

A tool whose design is so inevitable, irreverent, spartan or unique that the tool itself inspires creative ideas that weren’t there before its use.

Pat Metheny Pikasso 42-string guitarA friend of mine Brandon conducted an experiment called awhile back called “month of music” where he forced himself to author a new piece of original music every day for a month using new and different instruments. He found that the introduction of new and unfamiliar tools generated musical ideas which hadn’t existed before.

Ableton is a piece of music recording software that has (for the past four months since I began using it) continued to blow my mind at each turn with untold possibilities. It’s admittedly one of the most daunting interfaces I’ve ever had to learn and reminiscent of 3D Studio Max in its complexity. But it’s one of those rare software programs that comes along, shatters the traditional paradigm and opens up a world of possibility that sends your mind reeling with ideas. For me it’s been a “Don’t know what you don’t know” advancement – the equivalent of taking off a pair of dirty sunglasses you didn’t even realize you were wearing.

If you’re a musician and have plateaued with your musical inspiration via your current multi-track DAW recording software, check out Ableton Live. The learning curve is going to feel like standing at the base of El Capitan looking up so you’ll ideally want a trainer, a user group or a bunch of time to dedicate to watching the various Youtube video tutorials out there. But once you can get over the “suck threshold” with it, it’s amazing.

I’ll write more on Ableton specifically as I become more advanced with it but think about whatever tools you’re using now and how you might shake loose some new creative inspiration by going out of your way to do things using a decidedly unfamiliar instrument.

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Apr 09

There’s a little startup I have a special affinity for having been in the room for its inception at the LA Startup Weekend event, standing feet away when now investor Ashton Kutcher was first pitched. I had a chance run-in with the guys weeks later in a cigar smoking circle outside their RV at SXSW right after they landed $1M in seed funding. And I then got private beta access to their app at SXSW to try and solve a last-minute challenge we had in running our launch party for Scratch Audio.

The best way to understand what Zaarly does is to go to Zombocom and substitute “Zaarlycom!” They’re basically a hyper-local, real-time want ads site with no limitation on what you can ask for. Here’s why this is so cool:

There is no limit on the potential market cap for this company. Like eBay and Craig’s List, Zaarly stands to create an enormous ecosystem that will enable countless people to earn a living (and a few smart ones to become extraordinarily wealthy) by finding ways to expand the market and make it more efficient.

eBay and Paypal are so entrenched because they became core pillars in enabling others to make money. Zaarly will do the same only it will sit at meta level above each of these specialized devices essentially being this master clearinghouse of desire. In the process of making a ton of people rich, they are also going to provide a powerful secret weapon for those who understand how to wield it. Basically it’s like having your own personal “genie in a bottle” that you can pay to solve any issue for a price you name. Provided you know the value of solving the issue, you can at all times troll for a solution at a pricepoint which is profitable to you.

  • Need to get 300 mimes in El Paso by Friday? There’s a price for that.
  • Need to create and distribute 100,000 wristbands with your company logo to every fraternity member in the US? There’s a price for that.
  • Need midget geologists to sneak into a cave in mexico and perform ground-penetrating radar analysis, have it interpreted and translated into Swahili and display the results in skywriting over Chicago? There’s a… you get the point.

Sharp college kids are going to find ways to make money on the spread between asks on Zaarly and the infinite fountain of ways they can fulfill the requests. CS students will invent scrapers that check eBay, Oodle, Craigslist, etc in realtime for items sought by Zaarly’rs and they’ll broker the transactions and capitalize on the arbitrage. Entire businesses that were heretofore not feasible will be enabled by the existence of this tool. Zaarly is one of those simple business ideas like Groupon that people a few years from now in hindsight are going to kick themselves for not having thought of.

One of their other investors Naval Ravikant is a guy whose writing and speaking I’ve followed for awhile now. Knowing how he thinks and his affinity for econ, game theory and market efficiencies, he has to be giddy over the possibilities on this one. I was admittedly lukewarm on this at Startup Weekend but now that I’ve had the chance to ruminate on the implications for all the side businesses this is going to spawn, it’s genius. Every pawn shop, scrappy college kid and CL/eBay lifer is going to be all over this app. I can’t wait to see how things unfold.

The icing that actually tipped me to write this post was hustle they’ve shown in organically generating buzz the way Noah Kagan would advocate. A guy on their team (having no idea that I knew them already) reached out to me having found me via a tech-focused meetup I run in Phoenix. This is how you create a “root system” of buzz: focus on the pressure points and have one conversation at a time.

The UI for their app is gorgeous. The business potential is limited by imagination only. The team is legit guys. Their marketing plan is enlightened. And if/when this works its success will be a shining trophy and an amazing advert for the Startup Weekend event itself. I am long on both Zaarly and Startup Weekend.

Sign up for their beta – I understand they’re targeting a launch for early-mid May. This is definitely going to be something to investigate when it comes out.
Full Disclosure: I have zero financial ties w/ these guys. I just think they rule.

Feb 22

I drove 800mi round-trip from Phoenix to LA this weekend to help my cousin get real about launching the food truck business he’s been talking about. While I was in LA I learned via a random tweet that my trip coincided with LA Startup Weekend so I dropped in Saturday afternoon and ended up spending most of the day there on Sunday. This was the fourth SW I’ve attended now (the others being an early one in SF and two others in Phoenix) so I have a little perspective on these events. Here’s a quick braindump of my thoughts:

Contributing factors to why it worked so well

The venue for this event was Co-Loft which is a co-work space similar to Gangplank or Co+hoots here in Phoenix. Avesta (@avestar), Cameron (@CameronKashani) & Chris (@chrisdumler) have done a great job creating a fertile environment for supporting startups. I would not at all be surprised to see them take their formula outside LA and franchise on what they’ve done.
The logistics were perfectly handled. With the exception of occasional wi-fi flakiness (which is to be expected when you have 100+ people on the same network) there really wasn’t one glitch the entire weekend. Strangers stepped up and just did whatever needed to be done whether it was cleaning up or setting up. To me seeing that level of volunteering and frictionless participation is a statement of how healthy their community is.
The music was legit. At any given point the air was filled with sounds of Glitch Mob and Darude. At one point they had the Rocky theme song pumping full blast which was hilarious and at the same time genuinely inspiring when you stepped back and looked at all the creation that was going on. You simply cannot underestimate the value of good tunes to support an event. The other thing was the art on the walls. This was one of the pieces made by Cam (words by Og Mandino) and it hugely resonates for anyone is a free-range chicken:

The energy was electric and it never hurts to have a celebrity at the party. Rather than describe it, see for yourself:

The companies that were presented Sunday evening were definitely amongst the best I’ve seen at any of these events. Two or three could very well make it. Zaarly won it but my two favorites were CorkHub and Eventify. GrubKlub is something I would probably do – I’ve always thought someone should make a “meals with likeminded strangers” site. The guy from Hottiespottr needs to be doing stand-up. Crowdstunt is actually a really interesting experiment (put their app on your iPhone and be a pixel in a big mosaic image at a football game). I really enjoyed chatting with the guys behind that one. Which brings me to the primary driver here…

The people

were top-notch and welcoming. Keep an eye on Santa Monica it’s heating up and I would say for a non-Bay Area locale it rivals the startup scene of somewhere like Boulder. Shout-outs to these people I was fortunate enough to meet:
Patrick Vlaskovits is co-author of the eBook at custdev.com and arguably one of the pillars in the whole Lean Startup / Customer Development movement. I had opportunity to have lunch with Patrick on Saturday and got to chat with him more at the event on Sunday. Paleo and Custdev are two of the most life-changing things I’ve learned in the past year and the trip was worth it for these conversations alone. Being introduced to a high-level music contact by Paul as “a custdev warrior” was pretty surreal.
Tyler Koblasa is the founder of Mingly (a company ironically whose genesis was as a former Startup Weekend project). They make a Rapportive-like add-on for gmail that gives you CRM capabilities and helps you unify contacts across different buckets and get back in touch with people to cultivate stagnant relationships. We talked in depth about project management, working with remote teams and the food industry and education. It was pretty cool to discover that Tyler had been using our stuff (JumpBox) for the past 2yrs.
Emerson Taymor was one of the guys behind Crowdstunt and we got to discussing ideas on how they could adapt their thing to make it more viral.
Chris Dumler instructed me on the finer points of Yerba Mate and Matcha teas and convinced me to buy one of these gravity-feed tea strainers for looseleaf tea. Chris also hooked me up with an invite for Namesake, which is something to watch fo. It’s essentially “Quora meets IRC” and when I saw who was in there talking it felt like discovering this secret rave where all the cool kids are hanging out.
Nick Seguin of Kauffman Foundation is one of the dudes directly responsible for getting the grants for Venture Hacks and Startup Weekend. Government would never have the foresight to fund these efforts so it’s great to see non-profits like Kauffman step up.
Imo Udom is improving the job interview process for companies and applicants with Ovia. It’s basically a way for doing aync, proctored virtual job interviews with nothing more than a webcam and a browser. If you’re trying to cut costs on your hiring processes get in touch w/ Imo – they’re onto something big with this.

anyways, there were a ton of people I wanted to mention so just by name only Nicole of Music Boxe, Ryan of CorkHub, Vasily of Mingly, Fernando and Sheryl of the eventify team. You guys all have a place to crash next time you’re in Phoenix.

One takeaway I had from the weekend: I would love to see us establish an “underground railroad” for startups amongst the cities. We’ve talked about this in the past and whether it’s something as unstructured as an email list amongst ambassadors who are the hub for each city or something more formal like a tag or prefix to use on airbnb listings, it would be so powerful to set up sister city relationships amongst the incubators and co-work spaces. Anyone from the LA startup scene is absolutely welcome to come out and I’ll personally chauffeur you around AZDisruptors, Co+Hoots and Gangplank and introduce you to the peeps in our tech scene.

Here’s some pics from flickr as well as some of my own:
Gallery is empty!

And lastly, for anyone who happens to be going to the tribal unification / diaspora that is SXSW, I invite you to be my guest at the launch party we’re hosting opening day of the music portion for a new music collaboration startup we’re unveiling. You’ll hear more about it if you follow the SXSW announcements. Contact me and I’ll get you on the list if you’re out there.

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Feb 16

Let me explain this convoluted title. Ignite Phoenix #9 was this past Saturday and it frigging ruled. I just happened to run into the entire Ignite organizing crew at a coffee shop in Scottsdale that actually came about via a talk at the first ever Ignite. Oh and there happened to be one of the Ignite presenters here that I got to randomly chatting with so it was basically a lot of ignition going on.

Anyways the event on Saturday was flawless in every respect (mad props to the organizing committee for continuing to improve on something that was already amazing – I’ve been to 8/9 and they’ve gotten progressively better). My only ounce of negative feedback for Jeff and team was that one of the talks was clearly just a pitch for this lady’s barter business. And hey I get it: you get a captive audience of 800 people and the temptation is to pitch your biz and advance your cause. I understand, but it makes the audience roll their eyes and basically ends up being a buzzkill.

So anyways, here’s a suggestion I want to propose: we need the equivalent of a super-budget, anonymous jury system to shame people out of trying this at future events. And now here’s an even wackier proposal for what that might look like:

What if every member of the audience got a snapple cap upon coming through the door and the moderator explained the protocol that if presenters pull shenanigans and start Amwaying the crowd, the audience is to “cap their ass” with a collective gong of popping their Snapple caps to make that annoying clicking sound?

If you know you’re going to be publicly shamed on stage when you willingly violate the presentation guidelines and slang your own stuff, you’ll either a) steer clear of this practice or b) violate it and provide some serious amusement for the audience. Either way- WIN!

Anyways, I leave this suggestion in Jeff’s capable hands and will pledge to buy a few cases of Snapple to arm the audience if they decide to adopt it. Even if they just gave the front row this duty I think it would work (but it’d be way more impressive to see 800 people capping a presenter that did this). If you’re down with this idea or have feedback on how to improve it, chime in with a comment.

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Sep 24

Wow. This thing is great on so many levels. With the exception of one conspicuously-missing feature, I’d say Apple has a game-changing device on their hands.

The void that this product fills


On the continuum of multimedia-based, time-wasting activities there is a gap. If traditional television sits at the extreme of the passive / linear / spoon-fed type of media consumption, surfing the web and reading blogs is at the opposite end requiring too much effort and brain involvement for times when you just want to decompress. I just finished setting up an Apple TV box this evening and I’ve been playing with it for about an hour now and this thing falls squarely in the middle of that continuum as an easy way to consume digital multimedia without having to sit in front of a computer screen.

The Apple TV allows you to sync your iTunes via wireless and watch/listen via your entertainment system. It can aggregate media from multiple computers, display photos and album art in the background and has an interface for surfing youtube content (provided it’s connected to the Internet). There was an Apple TV at a birthday party I was at last weekend and it was a blast passing the remote around and be able to pull up an old SNL episode or Mr. T singing about his mom. In the same way that the Nintendo Wii transforms a typically anti-social activity of gaming into a social experience, the Apple TV makes for a fun way of exploring digital content.

Setup happiness

The setup was almost as painless and intuitive as configuring a JumpBox. Running the wires for the component video took the longest time of any step. Once we got the wiring right the on-screen setup of the Apple TV from that point was a snap and took all of about 30sec to connect to the hotspot and start syncing to my iTunes. We did have to disable mac address filtering for it to connect. You pair it like you would a bluetooth device by entering in a combo on the iTunes of the computer which you wish to sync and it does its thing. About an hour later it had successfully synced some 2000 songs, a handful of video podcasts and a movie. You’ll want to pull down the album artwork for your iTunes library if you don’t already have it because it makes flipping through your music feel like flipping through a CD collection.

Usability

The visual interface is clean and what you’d expect from Apple. The remote is the same one that comes with the MacBook laptop and has only a few buttons- it makes the universal remote on the coffee table look like a monster. You navigate a tree of options based on Music, Movies, TV shows, Podcasts, Youtube and device settings. The only thing that’s awkward is typing in characters for a Youtube search via an on-screen keyboard.

Valuable real estate for Apple

I don’t know the numbers on prevalence of Apple TV’s at this point- I would guess it’s just a sliver of the market. But this device represents the “last mile of track” for Apple in a digital entertainment railway into the living room. I can see how owning the iTunes player, the iTunes store and the Apple TV device gives them a wildly-valuable distribution channel for digital media assets.

My perception of the Apple TV before using it was “this could be neat but it seems like a technology solution chasing a problem.” My feelings after having used it is that it makes you forget that you’re using the Internet – it’s more like a Tivo experience than an Internet surfing experience. The interface, transitions and usability that went into it make you want to explore and play with it. By taking a situational vs. feature-centric approach, they zeroed in on the scenarios that people want to use this for and nailed it. There’s only a few minor deficiencies at this point – but like the iPhone, this is a strong first showing for a product.

Enhancements I’d like to see

  • So the obvious question is “where’s the Rhapsody integration?” They have Youtube integration – this is a glaring omission. There has to be a deal to be made there that makes sense for both companies. They have the ability to log you into your Youtube account so I can’t imagine it’s a technical issue that prevents you from authenticating your Rhapsody acct. It has to be either a political or business issue. Perhaps they see the unlimited access to your Rhapsody music eating away at iTunes purchases? I don’t buy that argument though- there’s no impulse buys via Apple TV like in iTunes because you still have to purchase via your computer.
  • Wireless keyboard – it has wireless built in but I don’t believe it has bluetooth. I don’t know how much of a stretch it would be for them to add the bluetooth capability or if there’s may an IR-based way of achieving this but it would be nice to see integration with their wireless keyboard. Typing text using the on-screen keyboard is clunky. Of course doing so makes it more like a computer at that point so I’m not completely opposed with how it is now- just would be nice to have that option.UPDATE: the iPhone “Remote” app solves the text entry issue. Sweet.
  • Be able to treat it as an external HD – I’m running out of disk space on my laptop. I’ve been meaning to buy an external hard drive and offload my iTunes library. I was hoping that I could kill two birds with the Apple TV having it serve that function but it seems it can only sync what exists on my laptop (ie. removing a file from my Mac propagates to the Apple TV and kills it there as well). There may be a way to create a current playlist of all iTunes media, sync it and then disable syncing before removing it from the laptop but that’s hackish. I’d like to see an easy way to treat the Apple TV as an authoritative media base station subscribed to various content and have the syncing work in the other direction with my laptop pulling only a subset of those files.UPDATE:Boxee solves this issue.
  • Conclusion

    This is cool device. I had tinkered with the Democracy player and Joost on my laptop awhile back thinking “wow, power to the people. I’m going to start watching non-mainstream content more” but then I never did because at the end of the day, sometimes you just want to plop on the couch and hit the remote. The Apple TV moves that unique, independent content into the living room where it can compete in watch-ability with movies and TV. I wouldn’t say drop what you’re doing and race out to get one but this definitely a neat addition to a media center and sure to further erode the receding coastline of the TV networks.

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