37.77716 -122.45762. Rooftop. FAN-f’ing-TASTIC :-)
Having just completed the 54-hr-whirlwind journey of launching a startup company from scratch in a weekend here in San Francisco, I wanted to share some thoughts about what worked and what didn’t. I was fortunate enough to be able to interview the founder of startup weekend Andrew Hyde and one of his dramatic cohorts, Michael Gruen. It’s a short/sweet 30min conversation and gets at the heart of what they’re trying to do with these weekends.
Let me just say that in every respect this was an amazing event. It condensed a year long product dev and launch cycle into just 2.5 days and it began on a Friday night with a room full of 132 complete strangers. The fact they were able to keep the wheels on the bus and deliver a working alpha by midnight on Sunday was an impressive feat in itself, but what was even more impressive was to see how leaders emerged and groups solved problems. The company we launched, HelpHookup.com managed last night to make the homepage of Techcrunch (something we still haven’t achieved in our year of lobbying efforts with JumpBox).
What worked well
The selection process was well-run. Ideas that had been proposed prior via the web site were pitched by their originators and every fourth idea the room broke into small groups of four to discuss. Someone called it “speed dating for nerds” and I suppose that was an accurate description of that frenzy. The selection was ultimately whittled down to just three ideas. Oddly enough, none of them won and one of the lesser-voted ideas re-emerged to win the selection process. I proposed a mutation of my Feelrz concept based on a genius twist that Josh Knowles had. Unfortunately the idea didn’t make the cut. The room divided into functional groups (development, creative, marketing, bizdev, legal, usability) and I gravitated to the marketing group initially. Being that I wasn’t super-stoked on the idea that got selected, I made the decision about 30min into it to play the weekend a bit differently than most would. Rather than lock into one group and engage vertically, I would bounce around and assume a horizontal role observing the activities across all functional teams. Granted, the weekend wouldn’t work if everyone were to do this but I had the unique opportunity to assume more of a “press” role and observe how the teams worked and communicated with the larger group.
The majority of comments on the TechCrunch article were positive but there were a handful of haters that derided the weekend pointing to the unlikelihood of anything material benefit for the attendees. This position is understandable if the person attending the event goes in with the expectation that the sole value of the event is in the shares one receives in the startup that emerges. The true value of this weekend as I saw it was:
- A firehose of practical knowledge – wandering around the room absorbing all the dialogue and interaction between usability people, developers, marketers, etc. I couldn’t help but think of that scene in the Matrix in which Trinity is asked if she knows how to fly a helicopter and she responds “not yet.” Moments later a lifetime of flight experience is dumped into her brain and she has what she needs. The value of the collective experience from the folks that were interacting in that room was incredible. For anyone who’s entertaining doing a startup, attending a weekend like this would be invaluable in getting a taste for what’s involved.
- A connection bonanza – given the nature of the event and who decides to stick around until day 3, it’s no surprise that the solid people filter through and you meet incredible individuals that share the same passion for the industry as you. I met some kick-ass people this weekend (Jeff, Mike, Andrew, Chris and Jeremy).
- Lessons in leadership – you get to see first hand how certain people emerge as leaders, how the stew of different personality traits creates pockets of different styles and how natual selection naturally takes care of the wacko’s.
Suggestions for improvement
I do have some suggestions what modifications that could make the weekend better:
- Allow multiple ideas – I know this is counter to the mission of picking one idea and having everyone rally around it but there was 50% attrition each day and I attribute this to lack of interest in the chosen idea on the part of those that left. I was more interested in the event itself but I probably would have not returned the second day if I was purely there on valuation of the chosen idea itself. I would urge the organizers to experiment with one weekend where the group is permitted to organically self-form around any ideas. There will naturally be one or two that are more popular but I would expect to see great things from a small 4-person team if they were passionate about the concept. Plus, some of the functional groups could work across ideas (creative for instance should necessarily be partitioned and constrained to working in 4 different silos in the event 4 ideas are chosen – dev makes sense to split into teams however). This is the biggest qualm I had. I understand the counter argument to this approach in that it might fragment folks and detract from the community aspect which is the primary goal, but I don’t believe that would happen if it were glued together properly and certain teams worked horizonally across multiple projects.
- Phone tree buddy system to reduce attrition – so obviously this is the “stick” as opposed to the “carrot” method above for mitigating the attrition problem but implementing some kind of buddy system in which you got a phone call the next day from someone in your group saying “hey where are you? we need you to do xyz” would keep more people there the same way having a workout partner at the gym is just enough to make you go back to the gym. This is a challenging problem and one we encountered first-hand with Grid7 Labs – when people aren’t on the hook to deliver it’s easy for them to blow it off. I would expect this problem to lessen if suggestion #1 is followed.
- Better ad hoc infrastructure – this is a shameless self-plug for our stuff but a would be ideal instead of the hour it took them to get a subversion repository setup. The dev team also would have had access to the ticket system in Trac at that point which would make the accountability and assignment of tasks much more efficient. I showed Andrew the Trac JumpBox and it sounds like they’ll be using it in the future. This is precisely the scenario it was made for. Likewise, the talks I heard about securing a hosting account early in the event could have been avoided by merely serving it from a virtualized instance on someone’s laptop in the room and deferring the hosting issue until it was necessary. If the weekend is mapped time-wise to a year of the life of a startup, deferring the hosting decision translates to month’s of saved hosting fees plus the access to the local machine is much snappier than hitting a remote box over the internet during dev.
- Connectivity – this is just an issue of over crowding on a connection that wasn’t intended to have 130 people accessing it simultaneously but connectivity needs to made more reliable. Perhaps getting multiple EVDO cards and having alternative shared connections via that would help? I’m not sure of a silver bullet for this problem but solutions should definitely be explored.
Anyways, the weekend was fantastic and much props to all the people that labored to put it together. I met some great people and plan to stay in touch.
Ahhh the trials and travails of couch surfing in San Francisco.
I’m moderating a panel tomorrow on Innovation at the Arizona Entrepreneurship Conference and then jumping in my truck and driving up to San Francisco. I’ll be staying in the Bay Area for a month couch surfing and hitting various conferences and user groups. Here’s the tenative itinerary:
If you’re in the Bay Area, drop me a line and let’s meet for lunch. My whole goal is to get “in the mix” and meet progressive tech people in the area and see what everyone is doing. We’re somewhat isolated from the real action down here in AZ and I’m looking forward to traveling around Silicon Valley to meet folks and spread the word about some of the great things that we’re doing with JumpBox.
Starting a new monthly tradition, here’s a smorgasbord of thoughts, none of which is significant to merit its own post but all of which deserve mention.
Buying a place in Mexico
I just did it. This one will get its own post at some point as I intend to journal the entire process of what’s involved in legally establishing ownership rights to coastal property in Mexico. Basically, Americans are not allowed to own property within a certain proximity to the coastline in MX (200mi?). The way it’s achieved is via what’s called a “fidei comisso” or a trust established through a Mexican bank with yourself listed as the sole beneficiary. The trust is renewable indefinitely and gives you all the rights of ownership to be able to deed, inherit, sell, whatever. My friend Benny and I just picked up this pre-construction condo in Playa del Carmen (shhhh don’t tell anyone, this place is poised to explode). There are a bunch of great pics from my college reunion trip down there last week that show how nice Playa is. I’ve almost perfected the art of the tripodless QTVR and I shot two down there, one on Mamita’s beach:
oh and here’s a video that shows where the Mayan athlete’s played this wicked game of cricket where the winner got beheaded as a sacrifice to the gods. Talk about motivation for point shaving and throwing the games… jeesh. My plan is to live down in Playa for about 3mos out of the year next year once G7 is in full swing with steady revenues. Their internet is fast and living is cheap.
Airplane headphones off indicator idea
So this is a random thought, but on the way back from MX both times the flight attendant lady had to come by and tap me on the shoulder to say “the pilot has announced you need to turn off your headphones.” I had to take my headphones off and ask her to repeat what she just said- there’s zero chance that anyone with headphones on would hear the pilot tell them to shut them off- they need a visual indicator. I’m thinking every airplane still has the antiquated “No smoking” illuminated signs left over from the 80’s when there were actually times when people could smoke on the plane. These signs stay illuminated 100% of the time- what’s the point? They should really just paint a “no smoking” sign and swap out that illuminated sign with a “no electronics” indicator so that passengers have a visual cue when to disable things like headphones. Audible cues don’t work too well when you’re jamming out…
Art of the Start and Purple Cow
I finished both and they were each good in their own right. I should really write up cliff’s notes on each one but the 30sec take on these books is:
- AOTS – dense book packed with many genuine, actionable insights from Guy Kawasaki – the core essence of what he proposes is to focus on creating meaning rather than creating money. I’m a big fan of this guy and his syle, he was the product evangelist for the Macintosh and he has a knack for slicing through the “bullshitake” as he calls it and getting to what’s real. He’s very 37signals-esque in this respect and anyone who is starting up a business or a project of any kind for that matter would do well to read this book. I also recommend tuning into his blog which is also excellent and obviously interactive and current.
- PC – Seth Godin crams a lot of nuggets of wisdom into this short book. It had aromas of both Gladwell’s books, Tipping Point and Blink and a smidge of Christiensen’s Innovator’s Solution, but the idea is that either your business is remarkable (like a purple cow) or it’s invisible. The covers all the different ways you can transform your idea to be remarkable. It discusses why the traditional evolution of companies cause incumbent businesses to grow complacent and fail to innovate beyond their first home run. Seth recommends poaching from big marketing budgets and channeling those funds into internal skunk works R&D projects. Focus on creating a killer product that people will rave about rather than marketing to people to tell them how good your blah product is.
Grid7 update: McPing and Rawjobs
A bunch of people have asked me what’s up with Grid7- we definitely haven’t kept the homepage current with the progress we’ve been making but in our defense, we’re focusing strictly on development at the moment. We launched the first G7 project which is not sexy in itself but serves as a cornerstone for the bigger picture of the structured blogging initiative in which we’re engaged. McPing is live but not officially announced, you can take a sneak peek and we’ll make the announcement once it’s loaded with useful data (disclaimer: we’ve had server instability issues this past week so the site is intermittently down until we move hosts). Here’s how it works:
Structured blogging is the passion of my partner Kimbro and it’s where blogging/RSS is all headed. There are three moving parts to the structured blogging thing- the content feeders, the notification router and the end-user directory services. MCping is essentially the Ping-o-matic of structured blogging and serves as the librarian that knows where all the feeds are and passes realtime notifications through to the edge aggregators that are monitoring the feeds. Again, it’s not visually sexy (but then again neither is Ping-o-matic) – it’s a foundational piece for us though and finally nice to have something live as our stake in the ground. The first edge aggregator vertical we’re tackling is the job postings market. The site were building is called RawJobs (raw as in, “the stem directly from other blogs using structured blogging to post them, no middlemen involved). To the end user it will function not much different than all the other job sites out there except for one major distinction under the hood: how the jobs postings are acquired – it’s entirely open in its approach and anyone who posts using the jobs micro-content definition format will have their listing appear on RawJobs by virtue of their use of this format. Pretty slick.
More to come on this stuff as we roll out the structured blogging initiative. We’ve setup a Grid7 blog and just need to customize it before adding it to the site. In the meantime if you’re interested in learning more about structured blogging, there are a ton of resources we’ve clipped on our “Tag” page.
Cold Turkey Adult Prom Gig
Cold Turkey played one of the most fun shows of our musical career the night after I returned from Playa. I setup a flickr account for the band and posted a slideshow on our site.It was a wild time and proved that many people (myself included) still have a repressed desire to relive the 80’s hairmetal days. My brother had an emergency come up last minute and we found ourselves scrambling for a bass player the day before the show. Fortunately my boy Manny filled in and turned what could have been a disaster into one of the best performances we’ve had. Big ups to Dixon Oates for organizing this party- it became an overnight legend.
2 iPod Hacks
- Does everyone know you can play audiobooks back at 1.5x their normal rate? The setting to achieve this is under Settings > Audiobooks > Faster – I haven’t figured out how to add podcasts and voice memos as audio books to appreciate this same benefit on other spoken word audio, but I’m sure there’s a way. I would think this would be mega-useful for any student that wanted to record a lecture via iPod and doze off or work on something else- he/she could digest the material in 2/3rds the time at a later point.
- The “Hold” button on the top of the iPod can be used to hold it in the off position just as effectively as it holds it in the on position while working out or doing anything where buttons are inadvertently pressed. Maybe this was obvious but I just discovered it and it saved my batteries this trip (last time it got jostled around in my bag turning it on occasionally so my batteries were dead when I arrived)
Odeo and iTunes store review
I’m in the process of setting up a client with the capability to do weekly podcasts and distribute the audio he currently sells on CD via the iTunes store. I’ll blog what I learn once the iTunes store has been established but I can say that Odeo makes about as simple as it could be to record and syndicate a podcast via your site.
Massive Del.icio.us goodness
I finally got around to one of those much-procrastinated items on my todo list of transferring all my firefox bookmarks over to del.icio.us (btw, does anyone else find it a pain to write the word “D E L . I C I O .U S ?). There is a ton of gems in this pile – I didn’t realize that they had the ability to protect certain bookmarks so now I have all the server maintenance-related stuff in there as well which is nice because I can get to this stuff remotely if I’m not on my own laptop.
The Three Burials of Milkiado Estrada – obscure independent film that slipped under the radar. Well worth renting when it comes out. Also, Why We Fight – another independent that looks at the military industrial complex in the US and traces its origins back to WWII. The old footage of Eisenhower’s speeches cautioning the public to keep the MIC in check are eerily relevant today.
VPC / Eclipse filesave slowdowns
I had a day’s worth of hair pulling associated with this problem I’ve encountered where saving files in Eclipse over a mapped drive to a virtual PC instance takes like 15sec on each save. When you’re deep in development and you’re saving and testing repeatedly, that’s a serious morale killer and causes big delays. After ruling out various culprits, we sniffed the traffic on the network interface and discovered a shit-ton of chatter on the SMB protocol. I disabled the SVN browser plugin I had installed on eclipse and that seems to have helped and gotten filesave time down to about 5sec, but it’s still problematic. I was advised to eliminate the mapped network drive aspect as Eclipse has problems saving this way. I tried UNC paths but that was actually worse for me. My friend Benny recommended NFS which I’ll probably try next but the real solution here it sounds like is to get VMware running on one of the new Macbook Pro’s. Budget-permitting I hope to make that switch this summer…
Stop this ridiculous telcom bill
Take 2min and fill out this petition. It’s disturbing that they have this bill on the ballot and clearly the result of some slimly lobbying by big Telcom companies but this will pretty much ruin the Internet for people if it goes through. It’s the equivalent of asphalt companies in the US suddenly banding together and declaring that all streets are now toll roads… insane.
Avail for consulting
Lastly, my partner Kimbro and I will be available for consulting contracts shortly. He’s big time software architect and knows about 20+ languages. I’m talented with Coldfusion as a developer but my strong suit is in business process analysis and distilling true business requirements and managing the development of a project. Kimbro is avail now and I will be looking for the next contract around mid-may when I deliver the massive extranet we’ve created for ABC that helps them interact with their housing providers and social workers. If you have a relatively-large project and need consulting, get in contact with us.
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is an amazing place. My friend Benny and I just got back from a 2wk trip there and took a bunch of good pictures. It was our first time and both of us are now looking into buying property there. Having been to quite a few places in MX (Mazatlan, Guadalajara, Puerto Penasco, Cabo San Lucas, Loretto, Rosarito, Ensenada, Tijuana, Nogales, Laredo) I can say that of every spot I’ve been so far Playa is definitely my favorite. It has a high concentration of European tourists and is also apparently a popular tourist spot for Mexicans so you end up with this melting pot effect of non-local Mexicans, Italians, Dutch, Spanish, Kiwis and Norweigans mixed in with a handful of Americans. With the recent devastation of neighboring Cancun and Cozumel from hurricane Wilma, I really think it’s poised to explode in value. It reminds me a lot of how Puerto Vallarta used to be ten years ago when it was still an undiscovered gem . I’m glad the closest major airport is an hour away because it should help keep it “inconvenient enough” to deter the typical gringos and attract only the more mellow travelers.
Observations and Reflections
Mexico trips are always these rejuvenating experiences and before the excitement of the trip wears off and and the daily grind resumes, I want to write about the random things we observed and experienced. It’s surprising how after only 2wks of not driving an automobile, it feels completely foreign. Other stuff that seems strange right now:
- throwing your toilet paper IN the toilet. Seriously. They are all on septic down there so you have to put it in the waste basket (which sounds gross but it’s just the way it’s done). Try doing that for 2wks and I promise you that you will have to make a conscious effort to actually drop it in the bowl when you come back.
- drinking fountaiins: we take them for granted. All of Mexico’s water system is non-potable and used only for washing purposes. It’s odd to come back and be able to drink from the tap or a public drinking fountain.
- the air and food are not as fresh here which is so funny because the stereotypical image of Mexico tends to be a dirty town like Tijuana and that’s just not representative of the rest of the country. Phoenix in the winter has a bad pollution problem with the inversion layer that traps our smog close to the ground. Both Benny and I noticed we felt significantly healthier day to day down there and that the air in Phx actually has a bad taste that is only noticeable when you come back to it. Same goes with produce and poultry, in Playa it’s all grown right there so it’s tough to beat the freshness.
PDC is not perfect- it’s definitely humid and supposedly their summers are unbearably hot with 100deg temperatures and 100% humidity. There’s a very real possibility though that you could set up a small office there for six months out of the year. Their internet connectivity was actually very good. I ran a traceroute from an internet cafe and there were surprisingly few hops to my server.
Actually I wasn’t intending to check email at all but we came back to the hotel one morning to find an note the hotel staff had posted on our door relayed from an ex-FBI detective who was working with my father on a big case in Florida. He needed server logs to confirm a hypothesis and I was able to assist his investigation remotely by providing by using RDP to get in and give him what he needed. Remote access is great.
I read two Paulo Coelho books down there (Eleven Minutes and The Zahir). Coelho books are ideal vacation reading material and while neither one was as good as my favorite Coelho book of all time, The Alchemist, they were both good. The Zahir hit very close to home and made me realize I have a zahir of my own right now, a face indellibly etched in my thoughts that refuses to leave. Coelho is the latest addition to the smart people list- he writes with a simplicity and honesty that nobody else does. Probably the greatest testament to his skill as a writer is that his books have been translated into every known language. If you’ve never read the Alchemist, you owe it to yourself to check out that book.
What worked well
- Before we left, Benny and I hit up Walgreens and stocked up on a box of these $2 laser pens. It sounds funny but cheap electronic gadgetry is worth its weight in gold down in mexico and each night we went out we would bring a “super pluma” with us and invariably find a way to trade it for something worth more to us. They were practical in that you could point out stuff half a mile away or grab each other’s attention across the crowd. We both agreed it would be valuable to learn morse code as a means of communication. There were also countless other stupid uses for these pens.
- Fortunately neither one of us lost any crucial travel documents and therefore didn’t have to rely on our remote backup plan but it was nice to know that we had it if we needed it.
- The restaurants all hung these ziplock water bags above their outside tables. We asked why they were there and our waiter jokingly told us that it was in case we didn’t leave a good tip, they could shoot them and drench the gringos. It turns out they actually repel flies. I have no idea HOW it works but we did notice that the restaurants without them had significantly more flies. I would love to hear the explanation of why this trick works if anyone knows.
- The iTrip came through big again and I used it to record an interview with the owner of one of the smaller hotels down there. We realized that there are a large number of hotels down there that don’t currently do online reservations. After talking with the owner of a small one we think there’s opportunity to mimic their current homegrown Foxpro booking systems that everyone seems to use and turn it into a local app that broadcasts availability to a central server. Their hangup on accepting creditcards is that it’s very difficult to get a merchant account in Mexico and their discount rate is like 6-7% (3x that of the US). We were thinking of ways to solve the online res problem in the face of these higher transaction fees. We came up with the idea of creating a type of escrow service based in the US that would allow people to book their res online by authing their card. The guest could then pay cash for their room and the hotel owner would still achieve full price without having to jack rates to cover merchant commission fees and at least the small hotels could capture the res online. . We thought setting up this service on a mac mini and selling it as a cheap appliance and taking a comission on the transactions we generate would be ideal. This could make an excellent Grid7 project. My friend John Blayter pointed me to this existing product which sounds to have a similar goal but appears to be a traditional reservation system and not the same escrow concept. Anyways, it’s an interesting idea. Here’s the interview for anyone interested.
Lessons learned for next time
- Don’t change a light bulb while standing in the shower. This is obvious in hindsight but Benny nearly electrocuted himself in our cabana at La Ruina. He was knocked ten feet onto the bed and, fortunately so, because it broke the circuit and he escaped with just a shock.
- Zip ties and carribeaners would have come in handy on a couple occasions for fastening stuff. We rolled with hiker packs and the trip would have been impossible with regular baggage. The mobility afforded by having a pack proved to be key when (due to a booking oversight on our part) we got kicked out of our hotel and had to find a new one at the apex of their tourist season on New Year’s eve.
- _Never_ use a flimsy plastic bag as a carry-on with a bunch of stuff in it, it will turn your fingers into sausage links and you will arrive at your destination with zero perfusion and have pins & needles the rest of the night (notice the hand turning purple – not cool).
Here’s some cool videos :
- their equivalent of Times Square on New Years
- these crazy fire dancers we saw at the Blue Parrot club.
- a cool QTVR I shot at La Ruina
My New Year’s resolution this year is to eliminate daily distractions and have laser focus on the things that matter. I’m actually resolving to read _fewer_ blogs (which is probably hypocritical because here I am writing my own huge post). I came back to 227 emails and 454 unread blog posts which really puts into perspective how much distraction I willfully subjecting myself to each day. Even with David Allen’s GTD method, it’s just a deluge of info that leaves your head spinning at the end of the day. As far as what’s going on for me now, I start classes at this entrepreneurial workshop called FastTrac on Tuesday with the goal of sponging off other entrepreneurs and ironing out the kinks in the Grid7 model. My office partner Kimbro is now my business partner and over the break he hashed out the skeleton of an immense side project he and I will be undertaking together that dovetails perfectly with Grid7. I know I’ve been talking it up for a few months now but February is the month this stuff all launches and we both have huge faith in this endeavor.
Other than that, I’m moving out of my house right now and converting it into a performing asset as a rental. It should cover itself plus my apartment rent which will nice. This is all part of a massive downsizing effort for me to sell off all my stuff, simplify, consolidate and become mobile for a big US working roadtrip I plan to take in August. This is a neat time of year because everyone has these bright hopes for the coming year. I share the same optimism but I’m always reminded of that lyric from the U2 song “nothing changes on New Year’s day.” It does and it doesn’t. It’s an arbitrary line in the sand but it helps us frame things and establish goals which is always a good thing.
I wanna end this post by paraphrasing this cool passage from The Zahir book. “Two firemen go into the woods to fight a forest fire. They both return only one’s face is covered in soot while the other’s is perfectly clean. Which do you think washes his face?” It’s like that cardgame “booger on the head” also called “indian poker” – you can see everyone else’s cards but your own. The fireman with the clean face will see his partner and assume he’s covered in soot and conversely the guy who really needs the bath will look at his partner and assume he’s clean as well. This was such a simple yet mind-blowing way to look at why some relationships fail unexpectedly.
Anyways, 2006- bring it. This image captures the essence of what I’m in for this year:
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