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.

Mar 22

Let me explain. I just returned from spending the last ten days at SXSW Interactive and Music. The attendance for Interactive was just shy of 20,000 people and Music this year was apparently about 10x that number. Having attended SXSW three years back the best analogy I can give is that this star of an event has super-nova’d into a Red Giant that’s borderline overwhelming. With such an intense amount of condensed human interaction it’s like trying to drink off of a fire hydrant: you better have a formalized system for taking baby sips or you risk getting your head blown off by the stream. So here’s the three-part “GTD-like” system I used to extract meaning from this event:

The goal is to wind up with meaningful connections and relationships. If you end up with a stack of business cards and a blurred recollection of faceless conversations, you failed.


At SXSW you’ll meet no less than 20 interesting people each day. These will be folks from all over the world with shared interests and with whom (if you had hours to sit and chat) you would almost certainly find incredible commonalities and opportunities to help each other via sharing contacts/advice/experiences. Sadly you have only limited surface area at an event like this though so you have a tiny window of interaction to make a meaningful connection.

Given the choice of breadth or depth of interaction, you should err on the side of connecting more deeply with fewer people. Stay in the moment, tune out distractions and engage. At this point you’re operating on two different levels though: 1) you’re 90% in it connecting 2) you’re 10% above it indexing. When you part ways, jot a three word trigger phrase on the back of the business card you received to make a mental note of the conversation.


At the end of the day (or even better, periodically throughout the day) stop and make notes that distill the anchor points and context of conversation with each person. The half-life of a conversation is less than a day so this distillation process is essential and should occur before the sun goes down. If you wait until after you return home, you’ve likely missed the opportunity to capture and process the meaning.

I use Evernote as a general purpose note taking app and I made a single note for SXSW that I just extended each day jotting down tidbits from interesting conversations. The key here to processing is to actively brainstorm about the interaction you just had and think hard about how you can help the other person. Curate the discussion mentally and jot down a concrete follow-up action you will make to advance that cause. I added an empty checkbox by the people I definitely wanted to follow-up with (Evernote makes this easy).

BTW I hate paper- it’s something extra that takes up space and inevitably you end up losing it. And yet in spite of all our ability to put a man on the moon we still rely upon paper as the lowest common denominator for exchanging contact info at conferences. Go figure.

I use a free iPhone app called “CardMunch” that allows me to quickly convert physical business cards into digital format. It lets you retain the associative value of the business card (the visual image you link with the person and recall) while giving you the more useful OCR’d data in a format that can be exported into your contact manager.


Lastly, all is largely for nought if you don’t ping the people you met after the conference to cement the connection and open the door for continued conversation. You should ideally offer something of value – an intro, a thoughtful insight based on a previous conversation. Even if it’s just a “hey it was great meeting you” compliment, do something that allows you to stake out a tiny piece of mental real estate in that person’s mind.

If you’re a true baller you’ll use a CRM system to develop relationships. Having used a handful (SugarCRM, Highrise, Salesforce, vTiger, Goldmine, Act) over the years I’ve become a huge proponent of Ming.ly just in the past month. In my opinion it strikes the golden balance of light-weight, frictionless and useful enough to where you’ll actually want to use it religiously. If you use Gmail as your email client this extension to Gmail unifies context across all your contact mediums and social networks (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and even your phone). I recommend tagging new contacts with an identifier of the event like “SXSW2011” so it’s possible to search against the pool of people you met at a specific event. Ultimately the mental index you make is king and you’re just tagging interactions with keywords and notes that can be used to retrieve context later.


So to summarize: capture, curate and contact. Do those three activities and you’ll be surprised how many interesting relationships emerge from events. The curation step is the one that typically gets ignored and yet it’s the lynchpin for extracting the meaning from the interactions you have that allows you to develop the relationship. Try practicing the curation step next event you attend and I guarantee you’ll more frequent and quality interactions following the event.

So what systems have you developed for getting the most value out of big conferences?

Nov 12

Anyone who responds to a bunch of customer emails will be repeatedly typing the same blocks of text. You get to a point where you wish phrases and entire paragraphs of text could be treated as a single word. Well I discovered an app for Mac that lets you do just that and it’s wonderful.

Previously I had a page in our Trac instance with a bunch of boilerplate text blocks as responses to common questions. I would cut/paste those into email and adapt them as necessary based on the situation. This was a shortcut over typing the entire message from scratch. But I’ve been using an app called Typinator for the past few weeks and this allows me alias sequences of keystrokes that auto-expand into blocks of text. So for instance, rather than end each email by typing “Let me know if you have any other questions” I can just type “lmk” and it turns into that sentence. This works for any amount of text and can even do rich text and embedded images.

While it may only shave seconds off the old method, the culmination of many reputations adds up. But more than anything this is just one of those small tools that helps you conquer tediousness and feel more efficient. And you can’t underestimate the gratification of that. These guys are a small Austrian company and they make other productivity products. Check ’em out.

Oct 27

The title is a reference to the final scene of one of the radest 80’s movies ever: “Back to the Future.” I remember walking out of that theater as a kid hopped up on red vines, Huey Lewis, the prospect of time travel, and all the possibility that a flying delorean represented. It seemed like anything was possible.

I have a similar optimism today with this swirling curling storm of a revolution that’s promising to change how products will be test marketed, built and delivered. I predict this fundamental change is going to do for product development and business model generation what test-driven development did for software dev. And it’s pretty freakin’ exciting to be swimming in this stew of startup activity while this storm is developing. To explain the essence of this mentality let me first tell a story that will reveal a double entendre in this post’s title:

I don’t have the original source on this anecdote but supposedly at a California college (Cal Poly?) they were redesigning the campus and trying to figure out where to build the new sidewalks. It was a complex arrangement of buildings and there were a bunch of conflicting opinions about where the sidewalks belonged. Someone had the ingenious idea that rather than speculating, they should instead run an experiment and let the market speak. So they planted grass the first year and waited. At the end of the year they took an aerial photo and the tread-worn ground became the blueprint for the optimal sidewalk routes as chosen perfectly and implicitly by the student body.

So what does this have to do with startups?

I believe we’re on the cusp of seeing some major changes in how products are brought to market. If you follow the Lean Startup, Four Steps to the Epiphany, Customer Development movements then you have the core philosophy already. But what’s interesting is the emergence of tools that allow you to apply these concepts very rapidly on a large and targeted scale via online experiments. We in the tech industry no longer have to build and tear up sidewalks – we can just plant grass first. Rather than explain the techniques for “virtual grass planting,” I figure it will be easier to simply publish the data and methods for experiments I’m conducting now with a local Phoenix startup that I advise. Here’s the gist of it though:

You can think of this mentality like test-driven development for business.

Test-driven development (TDD) is a methodology for creating software where you seemingly put the cart before the horse and write the tests up front. You then go back and do the necessary coding to satisfy the tests. Once the code meets the test, then (and only then) do you go back and fine-tune, refactor and optimize things. Having been a confessed “cowboy coder” back in the day this style of development sounded completely absurd until I saw it in practice at the San Diego Java User Group. Writing the tests first forces you to think differently by getting consensus on the destination and then worrying about the implementation details of how you get there after the fact. In the same way it’s now possible with all these tools to front-load much of the learning about product-market fit, price elasticity & messaging before you ever actually do an ounce of engineering. It’s all about systematically removing uncertainty and converting unknowns to knowns before charging ahead with the concrete.

Anyways, I don’t mean to leave anyone with startup blue balls but we’re not quite ready at this point to open source our experiments. This is an exciting time to be in this space though. To get a good flavor for this type of thinking check out Kent Beck’s talk from the Startup Lessons Learned conference on the logical extension of Agile development to business. And if you’re new here sub the RSS of this feed or this Twitter account to follow along on how we’re validating and iterating at 88mph and 1.21 gigawatts.

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Oct 13

The offline Adwords editor is a godsend for working with ad campaigns that have large sets of keywords. But one of its shortcomings is that there is no easy way to bulk update bid amounts for keywords that fall off the first page of results (or more accurately “there is no easy way to identify these keywords in the offline editor”). I posted this question in their forum but got no love. I’ve since come up with a simple workaround that saves a ton of time over manually adjusting a bunch of bid amounts via the browser:

  1. In the web interface go into your Adwords account, choose the top-level folder on the left and then select the keywords tab.
  2. Filter on the “Status” field. Your list is now sorted by active keywords and various error messages and warnings. Scroll to the very bottom and use the paginated navigation to jump ahead to where the warning about “below first page minimum bid” message starts appearing.
  3. Shift-click on the checkboxes that “bookend” your selection, in this case we’ll just do three. Once selected click the “change status” drop-down and pause these keywords (Note: if you have existing paused keywords they’ll get mixed in when you do this).
  4. Now hop over to your offline editor, get the latest changes and open up the keywords tab. Sort by the “Status” field and now you’ll have your offending keywords all grouped together. Highlight only the ones you want to bulk edit and then click the “Advanced Bid” link at the bottom.
  5. Click the “Raise max CPC bid to first page bid estimate” and bulk apply this change to the ones you’ve selected. Post your changes live and the final step is to reactivate the paused keywords (which should still be selected if you have your same browser window open).

Obviously this technique is overkill if you only need to update 3 keywords. But if you’re dealing with 4000 and need to adjust the bids on 150 (which is the situation I had today) it’s a great time saver. Mad props to the developers that created the offline editor – it’s massively helpful.

Sep 29

Very simple: make it possible to loan a digital book to a friend. Not authorize the same book simultaneously across multiple computers on the same account, but actually de-auth it from one and give it to someone else.

IMHO the first service to do this becomes the dominant eReader format and here’s why: this is the last inadequacy that still drives people like myself to purchase physical books. The reading experience of eReaders has become adequate in every other respect and has other added advantages like search, portability, convenience of sync across multiple devices, instant gratification of being able to download immediately, etc.

I use the Mac client to read Kindle books now and I’ve tinkered with the Apple iBooks. Both are comparable but neither offers this ability to pass a book on after you read it. If there were limitless lending then it could be argued that it would wreck the eBook market and create a secondary blackmarket of people scalping loaned eBooks. But it would also cement that provider’s eBook format as the dominant format and force everyone get an account on their system. Because they still control the auth/de-auth lending process they could mitigate this problem by throttling the frequency or absolute number of times a book could be lent.

This opens a lot of doors. A lot more people would start buying eBooks knowing they could later loan them (for me personally there would never be reason to purchase a physical book again). Once everyone is using their format they make it so easy to purchase new books that whatever sales they lose from people passing on a loaned copy would be more than made up for in new eBook sales. They gain the opportunity to sell into a massive new base of account holders who are lured in initially by the prospect of a free book loan from a friend who already has an account. And they get a HUGE amount of useful data from tracking the reading behaviors and the lineage of lending. Lastly, they enable a crazy new capability if they make it so annotations can be separated from the lent copy and shared across other copies. For instance I would love to be able to subscribe to Derek Sivers’ book markups and flip on his annotations to see the notes he made while I’m reading one of the books on his list. This type of “co-reading” makes it possible to read not just the author’s message but select people’s takeaways inline.

With the release of iTunes 10 and the Ping service, Apple has finally added a social layer to its media player. I would expect eventually the social layer which is being rolled out around music will extend to all forms of their digital content be it a book, movie, TV show, song, podcast, or whatever comes next. Once the loaning capability is baked in, game over. Amazon should preemptively strike and enable this for all current Kindle owners. Turn all the old eBooks currently collecting dust on the proverbial digital shelf into a powerful, free viral campaign for its current subscribers to signup their friends.

Is there a flaw in this strategy or does this seem like an obvious move to anyone else?

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