Startup School Recap Part 2: Joel Spolsky, StackExchange

Joel Spolsky reassured me.

As a student very interested in technical entrepreneurship, most of what I read about are the companies getting tons of press. These “hot” companies are the ones most people know. This isn’t unreasonable, as it makes sense that Facebook appears on TechCrunch more often than KissMetrics. However, as I want to work for a startup (and perhaps one day found my own) this is very intimidating. There can only be so many billion dollar ideas, and the smaller successes tend to get lost in the clutter of Silicon Valley reporting/analysis.

There is a sense that the only successes an entrepreneur can have is to build an enormous company (billions of dollars of value), or sell your smaller company to one of those larger firms. Joel Spolsky directly addressed this apprehension of mine.

In relating the details of his two major entrepreneurial endeavors (Fog Creek and Stack Exchange), Joel spoke about how there IS still opportunity for small bootstrapped businesses to find success. Specifically, he encourages entrepreneurs to figure out the market for your company EARLY.

1) The “Land Grab” Scenario: Get Big Fast

  • Network Effects- The more users you have, the more valuable the network is. Think Facebook, its value lies in the # of users. I want to be on Facebook because everyone I know is on Facebook.
  • Scale Quickly- Network Effects create Lock In. No one is going to leave Facebook for a social network that is 50% or even 100% better, as all of their friends are already on Facebook. That value cannot be as easily replicated as product features.
  • Make lots of Mistakes- Iterate quickly. Move fast and learn as you go. Mistakes can be covered up through VC money that you raise externally. Mistakes won’t cost customers like in bootstrapped business.
  • Take VC Money- Don’t fret about profitability from the start. Instead, focus on growth.
  • For Joel, Stack Exchange is an example of this type of scenario (well built question and answer sites). Network Effects are HUGE in this space.

2) The “Organic Growth” Model: Grow Slowly With Paying Customers

  • Bootstrap- Live very cheaply. Build a product that you can begin to sell immediately. Reinvest everything in company.
  • Market Fit- Unlike “Land Grab,” where there is probably an open market, the marketplace is going to be crowded with competitors in an Org Growth model.
  • Don’t Make Mistakes- You need to retain paying customers to survive! Mistakes can KILL your business.
  • Growth- Slow and steady. You are trying to steal customers, one by one, from your competitors. You must be in it for the long hall.
  • End Goal- It isn’t to sell the company or be acquired. It is to build a long term, sustainable business.
  • For Joel, Fog Creek Software took an Organic Growth model.

This was my take on his speech, and it really put me at ease. There is still hope for entrepreneurs who just want to build a viable business; companies don’t need 25 Million users to be successful.

You can watch Joel’s speech here.

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Interesting? 

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Startup School Recap: Ben Silbermann, Pinterest

Last weekend, I attended Y Combinator’s Startup School at Stanford. To say the least, it was an empowering, informative experience. Not only did I meet many like minded individuals, but sitting in on talks from the leaders of the tech world was just plain awesome. Over the next several days, I’m going to publish short recaps/responses to my favorite presentations of the day.

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Ben Silbermann, the co-founder and CEO of Pinterest gave one of my favorite talks of the day. In short, he spoke about tenacity. He described feeling this overwhelming passion to build a great product, one that truly added value to people’s lives. Pinterest, despite all its current success, started extremely slowly. Neither Ben nor his original co-founder are technical wizzes. Many, many investors passed on Pinterest as it struggled to gain traction. People did not understand the product. The challenges seemed endless.

Yet, Ben was very encouraging. He said that we should take advice, even from very accomplished individuals, with a grain of salt. Want proof? look at the returns in the venture capitol industry! The fail:success ratio is not pretty. Instead, trust your gut!

Many entrepreneurs spoke about hard work, disruption, or product integrity. All are valuable. But Ben’s speech stood above the rest for me. His passion for EVERYONE to unabashedly pursue their dreams was very empowering. It made me feel like Pinterest would be an amazing place to work.

Sidenote: The potential business model for Pinterest was extremely intriguing. Not your standard add-based model for a social site (future post coming).

Here’s the video of Ben Silbermann’s talk.

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Interesting? 

Our Generation: An Apathetic One, Yet Proud

This past weekend I went to Las Vegas. The trip commemorated a friend’s 21st birthday. I normally hate Vegas (drinking, gambling, clubs all disagree with me). This trip however, was extremely fun! I realized the success of this adventure was because of my crew of friends. They are all intelligent, low maintenance, fun people. But, they are ALL conservative.

I am a fervent liberal, and proud. I can understand (though I disagree with) fiscal conservatives. Personally, I think trickle-down economic theories are a joke, but hey, whatever floats your boat. What I can’t stand however, are social conservatives. Especially ones my age. Get a clue.

However, I rarely encounter young social conservatives. During the car ride back from Las Vegas we entered into a fairly animated political discussion. It was intelligent and respectful. We surprisingly had a lot in common.

Don’t get me wrong, they HATE Obama. They HATE Obamacare. Sure, they give Obama some credit for increasing our international standing, but after the Bush years…

GWB or a Baby? You decide…


a toddler could have enhanced the perception of America on the world stage. But, these young men aren’t against Gay Marriage. They aren’t anti-abortion either. If anything, they wish their party would let go of its antiquated social views. However, my friends vote along with their fiscal beliefs.

After the argument peaked and calmed, we began to discover our common ground. The common ground lay in apathy. None of us have any faith in either party. Sure, I’ll vote for Obama, and they for Romney, but we do not have faith in either (or congress for that matter) to positively influence our domestic society in drastic ways.

Same Joke, Different Party

As we began to digress into a religious discussion, we began to find even more common ground. My friends (who strongly identify as Christian) and I, a proud cultural Jew… don’t really care. We agree that religion does good for society by setting a high moral standard. We also agree that after thousands of religions have come and gone, it takes an extremely conceited opinion to think yours is the “one true faith,” with the “one true god.”

2000 years ago, the Greeks and Romans were “sure” of their polytheistic faith. Now, we laugh at them…. 2000 years from now Humans may be laughing at Christianity and Judaism… why would we be any different?

Finding such a large common ground with my different ideologically-minded contemporaries was comforting. We’re apathetic. We have lost faith in the magic of American society. Despite our different backgrounds we had such similar opinions. Politics? Joke. Religion? Joke. The beautiful part came at the end: we all share a huge amount of pride in both America and Humanity. We believe in human beings, flaws and all.

It is common for the youthful generation to be rebellious. It is common for them to embrace counterculture. BUT, with the connective fiber that now runs though society in the form of the Internet, this embrace of counterculture is different than ever before. Society is becoming participatory AND transparent simultaneously. We the people have access to instantaneous truths and information, while we can also create and share with communities in ways never before possible. Physical geography is becoming irrelevant. Are many of the other mainstays of society becoming outdated and irrelevant as well? Perhaps religion in its current form? Perhaps government in its current form? I believe so.

I am incredibly excited for my generation to continue assuming more power in society. Hopefully, with it will come great change. Being surrounded by such intelligent and forward thinking individuals is a blessing. The future holds many great things.

That is what I left Vegas thinking. And that is why it was a great weekend.

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Hands Free Mobile Devices

“Startups should be solving for a world where the device in our hand is more useful than the device on our desk.”

-Aaron Levie, Founder of Box.com

Ray Kurzweil wrote in 2001 about the accelerating returns in technology. Essentially, the technological progress of society to time ratio is exponentially increasing. Whether or not you think Kurzweil is a joke, the fact remains that in modern society, the half life for technologies is shrinking. Vinyl Albums, Tapes, CDs, and Ipods all lost relevance with a decreasing shelf life. Now Ipods are dying as our music players and phones have converged into one device.

I find Aaron Levie’s quote to have a lot of relevance. He is an extremely accomplished individual, and we both have distaste for our alma mater (he dropped out of USC, I am a still suffering student). However, I can’t help but think that it is only a matter of time until having a device in our hands is no longer relevant. Look at Google Glass, look at the current state of nanotechnology. Shit, there are working prototypes of bionic eyes which can cure blindness.

Image

Within 10 years, I bet that all our devices will be hands free. Maybe all our computing will be done in front of our eyes through glasses. Maybe chips will be implanted and interfaced directly into our brains. Does it seem ludicrous? New technologies often do. When the automobile first become popular, the President of Michigan Savings Bank declared, “The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty- a fad.”

By his statement, I believe Aaron Levie is saying that mobile computing is the future, not that all mobile devices will be hands-based. BUT, it is still interesting to wonder… how much longer until we are truly hands free? Never underestimate the desire of humans to be lazy; people love to avoid work. No matter how little work it requires to use a smart phone compared to a desktop computer, people will continue to strive to reduce the amount of work required to accomplish tasks.

 

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Radio Show

Last night I had my first on air set at KXSC (USC’s radio station). I have been shadowing my friend Jason Adams on his hilarious show Multiple Personality Syndrome for several weeks, and finally stepped up to the plate. I went with a 5-song, all soul set (see below) and spoke on air several times. GOD DAMN WAS IT FUN

1. Grace Jones – Pull Up To The Bumper
2. Quantic – I’ll Keep My Light in My Window (with The Combo Barbaro)
3. Joss Stone – I’ve Fallen In Love with You
4. Nneka – Do You Love Me Now
5. Alabama Shakes – Rise to the Sun

I’m working towards having my own show once school begins, and after last night, I couldn’t be more excited. Turning the lights down in that beautiful broadcasting studio and playing a set that took hours to put together is quite remarkable. It’s a form of musical self expression that doesn’t require composition, but that only adds to the fun. Assembling a coherent set of other peoples’ music is a fresh challenge, and I look forward to doing it again soon.

It’s a bummer commercial radio is so lackluster. Thank the lord for KCRW.

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First and Foremost

It is strangely fitting that my first post comes several days after my 21st birthday. This is not to say I am a significant consumer of alcohol: I’m not.  Rather, I can’t help but feel as if I am only now, at 21, beginning to find my voice. This discovery is happening while upwards of 75% of my “significant” birthdays are in the rear view. My birthday is in late May, so growing up it always felt like simply completing a year of school justified a party. This meant that every birthday was significant… while the parties felt undeserved.

Sad Birthdays… Undeserved Celebrations…he might be happier in less pink

Looking backward, I think that some of the emphasis on birthdays should come at a time when we as individuals are more secure. I am just now starting to narrow my interests and find focus. In the past, celebrating the passing of a year without seeing much progress was depressing. “What do I really have to celebrate other than this number?”

Looking forward however, there are not many major birthdays left to celebrate.  Sure, 25 is a milestone—a quarter century. 30 is tricky. 50 is a crisis. But, as of 4 days ago, I am a full-fledged adult.  I have the same rights that my father does (minus rental cars and a presidential candidacy). But have I really done anything worthy of celebrating?!?!

Bald Man in a Sports Car... Top Down

Midlife Crisis… #usesunscreen

I have several goals for this summer. Most of these goals revolve around writing, analysis, problem solving, and self-education. As such, I hope to use this blog as a way to chronicle and share what I learn along the way. Next year, I want to celebrate 22 with a genuine smile, knowing that the past year was not passively spent.

With that in mind, thank you for joining me. I hope to offer up a variety of insight in this setting. Though most of it will focus on music, technology, and the Internet. I hope to hit on many other topics as well. Feel free to comment, criticize, or argue… because, well, haters gonna hate.