Thursday, June 16, 2011

Just Keep Getting Up

Work can get difficult. This is what it feels like right now. This is what's in my head. :(


And this is what the Canucks need to know for next year.  Darn hooligans in Vancouver.  A lot of them weren't even Canuck fans, just looking for an excuse?  :(

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The Start Line

Looking at my personal history of startup attempts, if you can call them attempts, I feel sad that they never got anywhere.  But the fact is that if I take a good hard look at myself, I know I am the only one to blame.  I just couldn't execute.  The fact is, I couldn't even get to the start line to join the race.

I love Derek Sivers' thought that ideas are a multiplier of execution.  I've had a nice history of great ideas, validated by the market, most of which my friends and I actually tried to do.  However, looking back at those times, many of my friends will say, "It was an awesome idea!  We could have made millions!"  As I work more and more trying to do startups, the more I realize the proper thought should be, "It doesn't matter.  We didn't execute."  Here's the list of all the startup visions I failed to deliver.

Now I'm working with some friends on SocialCheck.me.  Well, here I go again.  After going back to the normal work world due to having eaten up all my savings doing the other stuff, I am once again trying to do a startup project with friends.  After all my efforts, I only conclude that I probably still don't know what I'm doing.  Here's my pitch for SocialCheck.me.

So what am I doing differently this time, especially since I've eaten up all my savings and still need to work a day job to pay the bills?  What makes this web startup different?

Sometimes Rational Dedication Means Letting Go
You need your coding people to be dedicated.  These are the people making the product, after all.  My friends and I have actually been at this for a year now.  I was so focused on being the do-it-all guy that I refused to look at my options.  Part of it was driven by me reading The Accidental Billionaires.  I know a lot of people say this book paints Mark Zuckerberg as a bad guy, and Saverin and the Winklevoss twins as the good guys.  But honestly, I didn't feel that way after reading this book.  I was blown away by how hard Zuckerberg worked.  I was also annoyed at how little Saverin and the Winklevoss twins brought to the table.  I decided after reading that book that I needed to do my own coding, even though my own coding ability was nothing special.  I didn't want to be a Saverin.  I certainly didn't want to be a Winklevoss.

I had completed a full design document, describing everything from use case scenarios and vision to data architecture.  My code was based on that design document.  My friend worked as the UI designer.  But we accomplished zilch.  Nada.  Part of it was my day job, which relegated me to coding only during evenings and weekends.  That was hard because sometimes my brain felt overworked.  Finally, my friend looked me hard in the eye and asked if we should reconsider outsourcing the code.  She's one of those people who runs multiple businesses at once and collapses every now and then on the weekend.  I wanted to pull my weight and be like her.  I wanted to say no, but fact was, I wasn't getting it done.

Outsourcing our code was the best decision we ever made because we got stuff done.  We ran into some trouble with the first contractor (a revolution in the middle east changed up his life priorities), and so switched gears to another development shop.  These Proudcloud guys are amazing.  We've accomplished in 2 months everything I could have hoped for.  We have a working prototype going through alpha-testing, with a Ruby and MongoDB backend (tech platform choice was a monstrous debate, but that's another story).  We'll be set to launch early access within a matter of weeks, if not days (depending on how current debugging efforts and last-minute feature implementations go).

Outsourcing the development work was an order of magnitude better than me and my crappy coding skills.  For our dev team, it may be a day job, but that also hopefully means they're dedicated rock stars.  My friend literally traveled across the ocean to find the right guys, since she had to be across the ocean for other business work anyway.  For me, now I can just focus on product vision and feature development, managing our timeline and budget, QA, and long-term strategy.  We're getting a lot more done.  In economics, the concept is comparative advantage.

It doesn't work if you don't find the right development team.  I know all the arguments why you want your tech expertise to be in-house.  I'm just saying that I wasn't up to par, so outsourcing worked for us.  It did significantly help that I had already documented a detailed product vision and design, and also had already made some prototypes with a PHP CodeIgniter and MySQL backend.  But I realize now I'm more of a business founder.  Can multiple business founders make a web startup with no tech founders?  We're about to find out.  So far, this is working for us.  But remember that we at least still know what code is.  I'm still convinced that all business founders for web ventures need to understand how to code, even if they won't be the ones doing it day to day.  And obviously, you need to pay cash.  But you get what you pay for, so don't go too cheap.

Sales Is Hard
I learned it the first few times around.  Sales is hard.  SocialCheck.me has a little bit of a viral thing going for it, but not enough for us to depend on viral marketing as our main strategy for customer acquisition.  We're pitching to both enterprise and small businesses, specifically to hiring managers and HR departments.  As such, we're tapping our networks like crazy to get customer leads, and already have some good ones; in fact, a couple of them are currently taking part in our alpha-stage testing.  Hopefully, we'll be able to close all of them to become real paying customers, including the real big hitters, the companies with national presence.

When you work in the real corporate world, you develop a network throughout your career.  Don't neglect it and don't forget it.  It could provide you with amazing opportunities when you're running your startup.  We're miles ahead of where I was in my other experiences, just because we have some solid leads.  Now the real work starts in trying to close them.

The Start Line
As a naive youngster, I used to think that just working on a startup was amazing.  While I haven't lost that sentiment, I now also realize that all the pre-launch work you put in is really just to get to the start line.  The hellish hours, for those who can afford the risk, throwing away your savings and career (been there done that, little older and more cautious now), the fights about features, all these things are only the work required to get you to the start line.  It's like the trials they have at the Olympics.  Participating in the qualification round doesn't guarantee you a spot in the competition round.

It's as if the Tour de France forced every competitor to assemble their own bikes.  When you launch, your bike is finally done.  Then you can go to the start line.  Some people may have finished assembling their bikes weeks ahead of you, and they're now miles ahead.  Others may still yet be assembling their bikes.  But the fact is you can't race until your bike is ready.  Now similarly, I don't think you can say you're an entrepreneur until you have a product (or service) that's ready to launch.  Until then, you're working on something, who knows what, but nothing real to show for it except for sweat, blood, and tears.  It'll make for a nice story at your next job interview, but it won't earn you respect from other entrepreneurs, investors, and perhaps most importantly, all those friends and family who never understood what you were doing every day.  People can only see and discuss what gets shipped.

And even after you finally get to the start line and enter the race, the race is a long one.  I look at examples like Groupon who's about to IPO.  Even at that stage, they have serious questions, where some people are even thinking they're at best a very risky play, or at worst, a scam.  There's an opportunity to do something really cool there, but it'll be up to Groupon's leadership to steer the company down the path of Amazon (which lost money for years while it built up scale to be profitable), instead of webvan (which is the poster child for losing money in the Dotcom 1.0 days).

Passion and Drive
The more I learn from other people's experiences, the more I realize that entrepreneurship is a long hard fight. That's perhaps the biggest change in me.  Before, I didn't have the endurance for this fight and would have given up by now.  So what fuels the tank to keep fighting?  I had no such thing to keep me motivated in previous entrepreneurial attempts.  I was never personally tuned into the pain I was trying to solve.

This time around, the idea was sparked by incredulity I had about some hires with whom I needed to work.  That lit a fire in me to help organizations get more insight into the people they were recruiting.  Hiring is a process notorious for having one-sided information.  You can never get the full picture of somebody.  Someone who's a superstar may come across as a dud, and vice versa.  We really believe we can make the world better, that what we're doing is important.  Now in the final sprint to the start line, doubts are starting to creep in that maybe this won't work, maybe we won't launch, etc.  It seems there's always something new to learn.  But my original incredulity is fueling my passion to keep moving.  There's something that we can and should fix in this world.

It's up to us to finally launch.  And it's only then that the real competition will start.  Wish us luck and please check it out!  :)

The Startups I Didn't Deliver

As I work on yet another side project with some friends, which we hope this time really will become a real company, I thought I'd reflect on what I'd failed to deliver in the past and why.  The answer's usually quite simple, really.  td;lr - I didn't execute.  Here's my list; I worked with various different friends for each project.

Project Bravo:  A side-scrolling RPG developed by a company called Artificial Intelligence Entertainment.  I was convinced side-scrolling wasn't getting the development attention it deserved.  My friends and I gathered some of the best artists, programmers, etc, that we knew from our high school grad year, with the full intention of working through the summer after high school to make AIE into a real game company.  We spent all our time on storyboarding and character design, not a single line of code.  Interesting that this would be much easier to make today with things like iOS, Android, XBox Live, etc.  But not important.

Computer Evolution:  A guy I met at a university event had a small computer services company, and he wanted to bring me on board to help the company to scale up.  Well, we tried.  I found the company had no real strategy, was just him working by himself, and had no real clients.  We worked our butts off to get new clients, and I designed various websites on a volunteer basis for various clients to build up a company portfolio.  He took care of sales, so I didn't learn at the time how hard sales can be.  But eventually, I just couldn't continue, it wasn't making sense.  Companies like these were a dime a dozen, and our service was frankly very sub-par compared to competitors.

SMSMob:  My friends and I were frustrated by the difficulty of skiing around big ski resorts.  Sometimes, some would want to tackle full black diamonds, while others wanted to tackle greens.  Using cell phones or handheld radios to find each other, meet up, and coordinate our ski routes was inconvenient.  Take off the gloves, unzip the jacket, take out the phone/radio, answer.  We wanted a more asynchronous solution that still would accomplish the same goals.  Enter SMSMob, which has an exact current-day equivalent of GroupMe. We gave up our own attempt after skiing around Whistler Blackcomb and discovering that we couldn't even send and receive SMS messages due to network unreliability; the network may have improved by now.  But suffice it to say, we gave up too easily and didn't think of pivoting our use cases.

Paper Recycling:  My friends and I formed a group we jokingly called Knights of the Round Table.  We'd make a paper recycling company that gathered used paper from corporations and other organizations, and shredded what was considered confidential, and ship it off to China for recycling.  Or maybe we'd just gather the paper from waste companies who were already doing collections and shredding and simply act as an agent for shipping product.  The market was perfect, the opportunity was perfect, and China had poor quality trees for making paper.  However, my friends and I discovered changes in China's import laws that would be implemented within a matter of months, that would require certifications to ensure that we were a quality used paper supplier.  It seems everyone wanted in, so China wanted standards on what they accepted.  We gave up at the first hint of trouble.  Only a year later, we found out through some news articles that the richest woman in China ran paper recycling facilities.  Gah.  We didn't even try to hustle.

myGrapevine:  This was to be an online social network that focused on professional life.  People could keep track of their career paths, goals, and colleagues.  Correspondingly, employers could use this network to find new employees through referrals and use an expert system AI to automate analysis of candidate resumes, goals, and job/cultural fit.  We wrote up the entire vision and submitted it to a business plan competition for feedback and the hope to get some funding and mentors (the whole business plan competition was set up for this).  We gave up after being rejected from going to the next round of competition.  Today, we see LinkedIn.  You know what else we see?  The problems that existed in the hiring world years ago still exist today.

DOME:  DOME was a home automation solution that we'd create using mesh networks, specifically based on the Zigbee standard.  It would finally deliver on all those empty home automation promises we'd been seeing for years, simply by enabling all communications for every electronic device in one's home to communicate via the mesh airwaves.  We wrote up a business plan again and submitted to a business plan competition (again).  It's amazing how important those competitions seem to be when you're just a university student; things like YCombinator and the whole Web 2.0 world was only just getting started.  And we of course stopped trying when the competition rejected us.

Project M/My Eyes/Geats (Good Eats):  We wanted to make a restaurant review website with wiki-style pages, geolocation, and a mobile app for easy on-the-spot reviews.  Then Yelp made Yelp.  My friend to this day thinks our greatest blunder was us trying to hire a rock star coder I knew who had his own food review website.  We explained our concept to him, and the guy was like, "Wow, that's a great idea!  Mind if I use it for my own site?"  Excuses, excuses.  We wrote some code, but we didn't execute to the end when it mattered, and actually, neither did that guy.  Yelp did execute.  So did Urbanspoon.

Place to Study:  For this one, my friend invited me to join his co-workers from EA.  I'd be more the business guy.  We wanted to make flash card systems that could run on cell phones and MP3 players.  The iPhone hadn't yet been released, so the thought was very much make things with feature phones (using Java), Windows Mobile, the Nintendo DS, or maybe even the iPod (we had grand visions and saw the writing on the wall).  Unfortunately, everyone was too busy with their day job, so the effort fell apart.

EmployerMark:  Well, couldn't get enough, I guess.  Finally, I decided to go hardcore and quit work to try to do this stuff.  EmployerMark was a system where people could post reviews of their employers, post salaries, keep track of their own goals and wants, and employers could set up corporate profiles and do analysis to find good employee candidates for their corporate culture and available jobs.  It was like myGrapevine all over again, but cooler, with 2-way feedback.  I asked the designer and a coder from the Place to Study group to join me.  But they didn't want to quit their day jobs.  Well, we gave it a go anyway.  Unfortunately, they couldn't focus due to work, and our team started to fall apart when one guy started looking at changing employers for another game developer.  EmployerMark wasn't the #1 priority.  Today, Glassdoor.com is going strong.

Solwrks Solutions:  Well, while doing startup work, still needed to have some cash in the meantime, right?  So another friend and I incorporated Solwrks Solutions to try to make some consulting money on the side.  I was full-time, but he was part-time because (again) he didn't want to quit work.  I finally found out that consulting is hard because sales is hard.  Sales is a harsh numbers game, and so you need to be pounding the pavement and networking all the time in order to get clients.  I was able to keep it up for a while, but eventually, you can't do both sales for consulting work and coding for a startup's product development, when really, both should be considered full-time jobs.  Especially true if you're a no-name and have no client base to speak of.  I ended up finally landing 2 clients, but the money wasn't worth the effort.  Meantime, my partner worked during the day.  He was supposed to be more the business guy, but he couldn't devote the time to be the one to rack up clients, given his day job.  Eventually, we just closed up shop, because the annual incorporation fees, bank fees, membership dues for various networking organizations, etc, were just draining cash.

Omotta:  Well, funding's a problem for everyone, right?  What if we could make an easy way for people to raise seed funding?  Thus, Omotta was conceived.  My friend and I excitedly laid out the vision and designed the product.  Anyone would be able to invest any amount into any idea.  It would be like a mini-stock market of ideas, where the only shares you could purchase were issued by the company.  But as we researched how the thing would work in terms of the regulatory environment, we were very discouraged.  It looked like a nightmare.  So we dropped it.  Look at Kickstarter today.

LegalSuite:  The legal process is horribly paper-heavy.  My friend was interning at a criminal law office and complained about how inefficient their case management was.  As she described the situation to me, I got excited.  What if we designed an online system that allowed criminal lawyers (and eventually all lawyers) to do better case management?  Webifying and automating paper processes is exactly what I did at my first job after university.  I knew I could do this.  We excitedly laid out the vision, designed the product, and started coding.  It would have case workflow, document templates, and even geolocation for case management (trust me, it turned out it was actually a big issue)!  Only thing is, I discovered that while I was excited to work on a product I was confident I could actually create this time after years of no progress, I was actually pretty indifferent about the product itself.  Why did I care whether case management was inefficient for criminal lawyers?  I didn't.  So the effort slowly died.

CV Manager:  OK, still just wanted to create something.  So I thought of a little resume generator that would allow you to generate new resumes custom-tailored to fit any job application, based on criteria you would set in the app.  Honestly though, this was just me bored wanting to fill my time.  It died again from boredom.

Today - SocialCheck.me:  Well, here I go again.  After going back to the normal work world due to having eaten up all my savings doing the other stuff, I am once again trying to do a startup project with friends.  After all my efforts, I only conclude that I probably still don't know what I'm doing.  Here's my pitch.

Introducing SocialCheck.me

Hey, all you hiring managers, recruiters, and HR folks!  Having difficulty choosing the right candidate?  I know you are!  :)

SocialCheck.me is a web-based tool that can help.  It utilizes an employee candidate's social network to allow you to do anonymous and mass-customized surveys for reference checks.  We all know there are still difficult problems in the hiring space, and the hiring process results in a lot of false positive hires due to asymmetric information.  What we're trying to do is make the information field more level by giving you a survey mechanism that is private, anonymous, and customizable.  Data is validated to be submitted by people who actually know the candidate; validation happens through the social network.  Currently, we're integrated with LinkedIn, with other social networks to follow soon.

These 3 words describe what makes SocialCheck.me so good.

Anonymous
- Both the employer and the candidate cannot see who responds to the survey to protect the relationship of the candidate with his/her colleagues.
- The candidate cannot even see the contents of the survey, nor the survey results, to ensure survey integrity.
- The results data has no identifying data.
Result:  The anonymity allows colleagues of the candidate to speak freely to give a whole picture about the candidate, without fear of consequences.

Private
- Only the employer or recruiter can see the survey results.
- These surveys and survey results are not for public consumption.
- Everything will be protected by quality security measures to prevent hacking of accounts and survey data.  https coming soon too!
Result:  The relationship between the candidate and his/her colleagues is protected.  Ugly, public character assassinations are avoided.  And your surveys and survey data can be considered a safe competitive advantage in the hiring world.

Customizable
- Each job is different and will require different knowledge, skills, and personalities.  We allow employers and recruiters to customize the surveys according to the job and organizational needs.
- Custom surveys can be saved as templates for your future use for future open positions.
- The resulting survey data can be sliced and diced according to the type of relationship the survey responders had with the candidate, and other criteria.
Result:  You get a tool that will work for you because you will determine the nature of the surveys.  But to get you started easily, we'll provide you some templates too!

Sign up for early access here!

Saturday, June 04, 2011

So... thirsty...

A couple of days ago, I bought a bottle of Pocari Sweat on the way back to the office from lunch.  My co-workers told me not to drink it because there was a big danger right now with bottled juice.  Some big scandal had just broken.

Huh?

Even if there was some sort of new food scandal (so what else is new), Pocari Sweat is a Japanese brand.  Should be safe, right?  No, they warned me not to drink it.  Seriously, what's up with all the hysteria?  But after wrestling with the thought, I finally agreed with them.  Why take the risk over something where I have zero information, but they clearly seem to have some new news?  So I threw out the Pocari Sweat and thirsted for the rest of the afternoon.

My office has water coolers, but my cup easily catches some kind of weird flakes that fall from the air conditioning.  My other co-worker warned me about that one.  Great.  Still more friends told me they just drink boiled water now at the office now.  Eh?  Even though we have water coolers where they deliver those big plastic cisterns of purified water?

This is the scandal my friends were warning me about.  Oh great, the problem's in Taiwan.  And the brands are identified.  Any imported products will probably be flagged.  So we should be safe, right?  Then my friends ask me, "But how do you know which brands to trust?  There are so many."  So they drink just boiled water or soy milk they prepared themselves from freshly bought soy beans.  It's horrible when I can't find anything wrong with their logic.  GAAAAAHHH!!!  SOOO... THIRSTY!!!!

We apparently now finally have data that China is relatively safe.  Well, that's good news.  Except my friends comment, "But nothing is safe in China."

OK, seriously, what am I supposed to trust and eat?  I have no idea anymore.  Just the other day, I found out another friend never eats out.  She always makes her own lunch and brings it to work.  Why?  Because the restaurants are dirty.  "They always reuse their oil, it's never clean."

This is also remembering that my roommate uses western brand soaps and shampoo because he deems them safer, while I use Chinese brands.  He also still prefers boiled water over bottled water from the supermarket because it's cheaper.

Enough is enough.  It gets to the point where you just don't care anymore, you just want to live life.  Of course, that gave me a weird combination of indigestion and diarrhea when I went to hot pot last week.  That lasted for several days and it wasn't fun.  I was starting to get headaches.  I guess the lack of sleep doesn't help either.  Did I mention work is stupidly horrendous right now?  :)  The hot pot probably only just tipped me over the edge of health's boundaries.

I have no idea what's safe anymore.  But I've eaten crazier things and survived.  That's right.  Heck yeah.  Come on, China, get it together.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Are These the New Enders?

In one of my favourite books, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, the planet earth is facing a massive threat from an alien race.  As such, they launch an intensive effort to find and train the brightest geniuses on the planet into the greatest war minds of all time to make their military able to take on the aliens and win.  The "chosen one" that has the special potential to lead them all to victory is a child named Andrew Wiggin, nicknamed Ender.  The military program is full of brilliant kids, but Ender is the cream of the crop in every situation.

Peter Thiel has been making many headlines for calling higher education a bubble.  There's admittedly a lot of good data to back him up, more than you'd think.  As an alternative to what Thiel seemingly sees as a broken system headed for bad times, he's trying to develop a special 20 Under 20 program that will give a bunch of kids $100,000 to start businesses.  Well, that list was finally released a few days ago.

And while it may seem obvious in retrospect, it surprised me how many of the "chosen ones" were already university students.  8 were already in top-tier universities, another had already graduated summa cum laude from ASU, and still another was 4 years into a Ph.D program at Stanford after graduating from the University of Washington as a younger teenager.  That's still less than half, since there are actually 24 kids accepted into the program.

But it begs the question.  If the program is about demonstrating an alternative to university for the young and bright, why are there so many university kids in the program, especially ones who have already graduated?  Well, for the kids who were still in university when applying, the answer could be as simple as the kids being too risk-averse to drop out of school.  Thiel's program gave them confidence to push them over the edge to make the jump.  For the two kids who already had degrees, it's not so easy to understand.  I get that the program wanted to choose the best people under 20 years old.  But if the program is about demonstrating that university education is unnecessary and a lesser alternative to achieve success for people who have the raw talent, selecting two fully university-educated kids defies that purpose.

If this program was really about demonstrating that higher education was not necessary and that it's a model that would allow people from all walks of life with talent to shine, then why are the "chosen ones" so university-heavy?  Well, as Thiel notes, you can't do it all from the beginning, so he's starting at the top tier.  It is unfortunately a fact that the top tier has more talent than the bottom tier.  But I wonder if the program would be even more radical if the prototypical 20 Under 20 candidate was not Ender, but rather, Ender's good friend Bean.  In Orson Scott Card's Ender's Shadow, we learn that Bean was actually Ender's rival, even though Ender didn't know it; Bean was in the running up until the last second to lead the war against the aliens.  You don't see that story in Ender's Game, but you do see it in Ender's Shadow.

Bean's background is the opposite of Ender's.  Ender had a fairly privileged background, though not elite.  Meanwhile, Bean survived in the streets based on his wits alone, because his body was too small to be a physical menace.  Ender was also small, but didn't face the same physical dangers as Bean.  Bean was discovered by a talent scout and sent to the military academy, where he followed a path similar to Ender, and eventually ended up on Ender's team (through a crazy plot twist you have to read the book to appreciate).

So what if the Thiel Foundation's 20 Under 20 was full of Beans, not Enders?  Wouldn't that be the ultimate defiance of university institutions?  "Check it out universities, you toss folks like these aside, but now they're huge successes."  I don't know.  Maybe, maybe not.  But structuring the program the way Thiel has and then seeing some of the ideas that will be implemented, I cannot help but think that although this program clearly is positioned in the public eye to compete with universities, its more direct competitors are actually venture incubators like YCombinator.  They both give money to people to start ventures, surround them with mentors, and foster innovation.  YCombinator also has a lot of examples of university kids who dropped out of school to chase their dreams.

In fact, some of those ideas that Thiel's kids are doing look like they fit more in the YCombinator world than not.  Mobile games for improving learning?  Revolutionizing online price comparisons?  A peer-based evaluation system for recruiting?  Mobile payments?  Helping music lovers discover live shows?  This is bubble gum pop trendy startup material that is normally about making moola.  Maybe they can revolutionize the world.  Maybe not.  Or maybe they'll fit somewhere in the middle and get bought out by a big corporation before they become substantial in their own right.  I know that you can't judge what will change the world.  But it is very easy to compare and contrast these ideas with some of the other Thiel Foundation choices and see how those are focused on changing the world.  And the fact is, there are a ton of startup competitors already in those spaces too; so where's the unique value and innovation?  I know, too early to tell.

But if the Thiel Foundation's 20 Under 20 program's closest competitor really is YCombinator, not the university, then Thiel could be pulling wool over everyone's eyes.  This may not be about showing that universities are overrated.  It could simply be a case of wanting to make money.  The only difference between Thiels 20 Under 20 program and YCombinator is that Thiel's program is marketed as a breaking-the-rules alternative to school, while YCombinator is simply marketed as a venture incubator.  In this scenario, Thiel is just being sensational to raise PR for his initiative by telling talented kids they could be the next Mark Zuckerberg and therefore don't need school.  If more entrepreneurs are successful, that story gets into the public conscious anyway (it already has been for a while).  Time will tell whether Thiel's 20 Under 20 and YCombinator are both actually of the same vein, with YCombinator just getting a head start; on that front, YCombinator beats Thiel's program on funding levels too.