Results tagged “startups”

Ten Tips Guaranteed to Improve Your Startup Success

March 28, 2013

Having had the good fortune to work with a broad range of entrepreneurs and get a front-row seat to the foundations of their success, I thought it'd be good to share 10 key tips that I've found work 100% of the time to increase your odds of startup success. Try to execute on as many of these as you can!

  1. Be raised with access to clean drinking water and sanitation. (Every tech billionaire I've ever spoken to has a toilet!)
  2. Try to be born in a region that is politically and militarily stable.
  3. Grow up with a family that is as steady and secure as possible.
  4. Have access to at least a basic free education in core subjects.
  5. Avoid being abused by family members, loved ones, friends or acquaintances during the formative years of your life.
  6. Be fluent in English, or have time to dedicate to continuously improving your language skills.
  7. Make sure there's enough disposable income available to support your learning technology at a younger age.
  8. If you must be a member of an underrepresented community or a woman, get comfortable with suppressing your identity. If not, follow a numbingly conventional definition of dominant masculinity.
  9. Be within a narrow range of physical norms for appearance and ability, as defined by the comfort level of strangers.
  10. Practice articulating your cultural, technological or social aspirations exclusively in economic terms.

By following these ten simple tips, you'll massively increase the odds of success of your startup! I guarantee it, or your money back.

To Less Efficient Startups

September 28, 2012

Most of the technology world, especially the traditional venture funding infrastructure, is justifiably proud of the extreme efficiency of modern internet startups. It is a triumph for Craigslist to serve hundreds of millions of users with only a few dozen employees, or even for Facebook to serve a billion users with just a few thousand employees.

But we need to support and encourage another model, one that's less economically efficient.

From an economics standpoint, the hugely successful tech companies of our time are marvels of efficiency because it used to take a company with hundreds of thousands of employees to generate so much market value. Unfortunately, this "progress" in efficiency means a concentration of generated wealth among an even smaller, more exclusive cabal of winners when one of these companies succeeds.

Instead of generating tens of thousands of middle-class jobs as industrial-age titans did, these companies make a few dozen people truly extraordinarily wealthy, and then give generous payouts to a few hundred people who were already on a path to success by having been privileged enough to go to top universities and by having the identities that tech and engineering cultures are biased toward today. There is effectively no blue collar path to success, notwithstanding the much-vaunted stories of tech company chefs entering these companies in the kitchen and exiting as millionaires.

Beyond Efficiency

Some of the most interesting startups (the NYC chauvinist in me must point out that these are all New York companies) are not optimizing for raw market efficiency, but instead for opportunity for a broader community. Some examples:

  • Kickstarter is explicitly building an economy to support the work of artists and creators, disciplines that are often not favored by the attentions of the tech industry.
  • 20×200 has a complete structure of support for promotion and payment for artists, as Jen Bekman outlined at the XOXO festival.
  • Etsy perhaps illustrates this best of all; I talked about this a bit when recording Chad Dickerson's talk at XOXO, but his slides from that talk outline their commitment as a B Corporation to many of these principles of helping an entire community, not just preferred shareholders:

I should note that I'm friends with the founders and executives of all of these companies though I'm not part of the community of creators who benefit directly from these platforms. And of course, Ebay has had many of these tendencies for supporting an economy of creators for years; One could argue that Google's programs like AdSense helps publishers in a similar way. But before we go down the slippery slope of saying every small business ad on Facebook and Twitter is proof that many can benefit from efficient companies, we need to draw a line between explicit parts of a company's internal economics and the dollars that flow through their overall ecosystem. Because the players outside the company who are subject to the economics of AdSense or ads on Facebook or Twitter are the first ones to get squeezed if the company needs to optimize its revenues, aside from the fact that they never structurally benefit from an increase in the valuation of the company which provides them with their marketing platform.

How We Do It

I'm not saying existing companies necessarily need to radically change; It's great that many have succeeded with the model so far. But I'm hoping that people who are building and funding companies can put some thought into what success can look like for future tech companies if they also value creating lots of middle-class jobs and lots of opportunities to help blue collar or non-technical workers thrive with meaningful long-time work as their companies take off.

We tend not to think it's cool that Microsoft or IBM have hundreds of thousands of employees. But there's something meaningful, and important, and essential to our society for enormously valuable companies to also provide enormous value in the form of lots of jobs for regular folks. I'll be rooting for the next wave of startups to tackle this problem that has, so far, been too difficult for our biggest web companies.

Startup U

October 17, 2011

For a few months, those of us who care passionately about the New York City tech community have been debating the City's Applied Sciences NYC plan, which will drive the creation of a world-class research university here in NYC. Since a significant number of prominent, respected tech leaders have expressed their skepticism about the idea, I thought I'd take a minute to explain why I'm for it.

To start, though, I should explain why I'm surprised to be on this side of the debate. I didn't really go to college (I spent a few months here and there at various places, but not in any meaningful way) and have long been vocal about the fact that many people, including some of the most creative people in the tech industry, don't learn in a way that colleges and universities teach. There's often a mismatch between traditional higher education and the contemporary entrepreneurial impulse, as has been repeatedly articulated.

From Chris Dixon:

Some things we don’t need: Expensive projects like big engineering universities. Again, the more engineers and CS programs in the US the better (even better yet we need more CS majors - which probably means more CS education in high school and earlier), but I can think of far more productive ways to spend $100M to help the NYC startup and tech world.

Fred Wilson's take is less critical:

The effort to build a world-class science and engineering campus is smart. Of course, we already have a number of great universities in the city, and these institutions are not sitting still. They are producing talented scientists and engineers in greater numbers every day.

The Bloomberg administration should also consider investing in science and engineering education in our public schools -- particularly high schools -- and the existing universities. We should be supporting what's already working here in addition to building new institutions.

Even the almost-always-right Caterina Fake weighs in skeptically:

I'm skeptical that a science and engineering campus is what New York needs to become a technology powerhouse. Boston has not succeeded with that strategy.

Entrepreneurship cannot really be taught in a university setting -- that is, a factory model. It's learned by the apprenticeship model. Technology changes so fast. By the time someone becomes a professor, his or her industry knowledge is out of date. For young engineers and entrepreneurs, the only way to learn is by trying, failing, trying again until some great idea works.

Caterina's quote comes from the New York Times debate on the the topic, in the context of whether New York City can rival Silicon Valley for tech entrepreneurship. But "Should NYC build a research university" and "Can NYC rival Silicon Valley for startups?" are two different questions.

And, notably, the second question is already answered: NYC already rivals Silicon Valley for startups, and from my admittedly-biased standpoint, it already exceeds Silicon Valley by the measure of how many meaningful startups are being founded at any given time.

What a School Does

If I didn't go to college and I don't significantly disagree with the descriptions of entrepreneurial attitudes to education as described by Chris, Caterina, and others, then why do I think we need a research university here in New York City?

Because research universities make innovators out of those who might otherwise never consider entrepreneurship. Though I hate to speak in generalities, there are some common traits from those who pursue advanced degrees in applied sciences, and chief among them is that they pursue their area of expertise to sometimes unfathomable levels of detail. While the passion required for such a pursuit is absolutely parallel to that required to create a startup, it's seldom channeled into a compatible set of goals. And there are, simply put, disciplines where extensive post-secondary education is required in order to become competent as a practitioner — despite Chris Dixon's skepticism about the need for a world-class research university in New York City, every single person listed on his startup Hunch's team page has a "College Days" line in their bio describing their background in higher education.

More importantly, many of the cultures and countries which are producing the best technological talents (China and India, most notably) have cultures with a profoundly more respectful attitude towards education. Creative people who are creating brilliant innovations in those countries shouldn't be asked to forgo the educational goals they value simply because a lot of rich, privileged Americans have been able to find success without it. Keep in mind: For every Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg whose success stories include the obligatory description of "college dropout", we are glossing over the fact that they got accepted to Harvard in the first place, and made critical social and financial contacts in that context.

Because, for those whose families haven't been in the United States for generations, or whose families are not from social classes with access to capital and influence, universities provide an incredible upgrade in the amount and quality of access that less privileged students can have.

Put more simply: If you're super smart, are inventing the kind of technology that powers startups, and come from a background that's not a privileged middle-class American family, then a university may be one of the most powerful tools to put you in contact with the social world that will help your business succeed. And hey, you might even learn something while you're there.

What a City Should Do

Just as importantly, world-class universities encourage a mingling of classes, cultures and creativity outside of their walls, bringing their students and faculty in contact with leaders from government, business, and society. Has there ever been a major city that has regretted having another major university open up? Is it ever bad to have more students?

Surprisingly, some people think so. Peter Thiel just argued exactly that point against Vivek Wadhwa in a conversation that I found, frankly, absurd. It's not surprising that someone who's an extremist about the value of large institutions would feel that young people shouldn't participate in a large institution. That's Thiel's reflexive reaction to lots of topics, and it's not surprising it's the one that he brings to this subject.

Debate: TOO MANY KIDS GO TO COLLEGE

But the argument against the utility of a world-class university education is a position of privilege, the one that ignores that many people would not have access to the opportunity to excel without college providing them that opening. I know it's true, because I know what I had to do to work around it, and even that was only possible because my parents valued education. Most of the doors that are open to me can be traced, directly or indirectly, to the work my father put into a career that began with his earning of a PhD at a great school.

It's not about the school

I'm never going to enroll in an Applied Sciences university that opens in New York City, as far as I can see. I'll be 100% supportive if my son chooses to go with an alternate path for educating himself. I certainly share many people's misgivings about the brokenness in funding and financing for college education. But there are contexts and cultures that will only be attracted to entrepreneurship and innovation when introduced to it through the context of higher education. It doesn't have to be in the classic model — I hope technology can reinvent education just as much as it's reinvented so many other industries.

What we need most of all, though, is to broaden the definition of education, to encompass both traditional higher education processes as well as the do-it-yourself, trial-and-error initiative that's so familiar to entrepreneurs. We don't do that by pitting these two environments as opposing choices. We do that by recognizing that classrooms and startups are both great ways of teaching people.

Redefining The Problem

June 1, 2011

When I co-founded Activate last year, one of my goals was that, as much as possible, we'd share what we learned about helping established companies with their strategies. I know there are plenty of old-school consulting companies that publish big, fat white papers that nobody reads, but I was raised on stuff like Getting Real. I want to help articulate a message that makes sense to the CEOs of the biggest media companies around, while also compelling someone who's knee-deep in doing a startup to be able to look at a perspective on big media that gets them excited about the opportunity to collaborate. Media companies face perhaps the most acute and visible form of the Innovator's Dilemma of any industry, and it's exacerbated by the fact that startups and media companies don't really even speak the same language, let alone speak to each other.

So, we focused a lot of time and energy from our senior team at Activate on creating a presentation called Redefiners. The premise is, whether you're a big or small company, if you're going to build a big new business going forward, you'll do it by redefining a market that exists at the intersection of media and technology. Based on our work over the past year or two, as well as based on broader experiences dating back to the beginning of the web's impact on media and business, we've collected some key ideas to start that conversation. It should take you about ten minutes to flip through.

Since we first started sharing these ideas on Business Insider and SlideShare and on Activate.com itself a few days ago, about 100,000 people have read through the slides. It's been gratifying to see so many people be interested, but it's just a start. I hope you'll take a few minutes to read over it, and let me know if any ideas in particular resonated with you, or if anything seemed glaringly wrong or confusing.

It should be possible to take two important, powerful communities that are shaping culture and start to shift them from warily eyeing each other as potential threats and instead move towards fruitful collaboration together. Here's one starting point.

Reading is Fundamental

February 1, 2011

A few months ago, I wrote about fat pages, the unbearable burden of clutter that often makes reading on the web so much less pleasant than it ought to be. It ended with a sincere wish:

So, if these smart folks are right, and lots of people value a clean experience, and right now publishers are making zero dollars off of readers who prefer uncluttered reading, who is going to be the first to charge for a clean version of their site? And which bloggers are going to choose to eschew all the flashing ads and obnoxious sharing buttons, forgoing a few dollars in revenue in exchange for a better presentation for their ideas?

We already know people will pay for more control over presentation and the ability to skip ads on TV. That same drive has helped satellite radio take off. We see even the Gawkers of the world headed towards designs with fewer ads. And lots of us pay a premium to use computers that aren't pre-loaded with spammy software or covered in advertising stickers. Hell, I've been linking to the (cleaner, less ad-cluttered) print versions of articles on this site for the better part of a decade. Why not simply give the people what they want?

I didn't think it would happen so soon, but today there's an answer. Readability has launched, with a brilliant and simple web experience that gives you the control to make reading on the web as pleasant as it ought to be. It also offers a straightforward value that's not just worth paying for, but rewarding to pay for, because the lion's share of the low cost goes to the original publishers of the content. (You get to choose how much you want to pay each month, starting at five bucks.)

Be warned: This is an unabashed and enthusiastic endorsement of what Readability has accomplished, and what the team strives to do in the future. I've put a Readability button on every post on this site. And I've come on board as an advisor to Readability, and once you see what it can do now, I think you'll immediately understand why I had to jump on board.

What is Readability?

You might already be familiar with Readability's first incarnation: It was a javascript link you could install in your browser that would simplify the page you were reading to make it more comfortable. Tons of people made use of it, and the open source tech behind it was so good that in just a matter of months it got built into Amazon's Kindle, Flipboard's namesake app, and even Apple's Mac OS X itself, where it was bundled into Safari as the "Safari Reader" function. Not too shabby.

But Rich and the team at Arc 90 weren't complacent with all that early success. They kept building on that core reading function and ended up with a rich set of tools for both readers and publishers that's incredibly thoughtful and well-designed. It does a few key things:

  • You can click "Read Now" on any page to get a more readable version of the current story or article. Or you can click "Read Later" to save that article in your account for when you have more time to read. The "Read Now" and "Read Later" buttons can appear on an article because an advertiser adds them there, or because you installed a browser extension or bookmarklet on your computer's browser.
  • You subscribe to Readability for a couple of bucks a month. They take care of making sure 70% of what you've paid goes to the original publishers, ever time you click one of those Read buttons.
  • You can read your articles through the truly beautiful web interface at Readability.com or by using the iPad/iPhone app (coming soon!) that is powered by Instapaper.
  • If you're a publisher, you can connect Readability to your site just by embedding a simple button, and make more money and get more information about your readers' preferences while making them more happy, too. Plus, not incidentally, you can make some actual revenue from your content that's not from ads.

Readability split

These ideas are particularly exciting if you think back a few weeks ago to "If you didn't blog it, it didn't happen". The Clive Thompson article in Wired that inspired that piece, while touching on the importance of permanence in publishing, concluded with some other key points I found evocative:

Even our reading tools are morphing to accommodate the rise of long takes. The design firm Arc90 released Readability, an app that renders website text as one clean, ad-free column down the center of your screen—perfect for distraction-free long-form reading—and it got so popular that Apple baked it into the current version of Safari. Or consider the iPad: It’s been criticized as “only” a consumption device, but that’s the whole point; it’s superb for consuming long takes. Instapaper, an app created by Marco Arment to time-shift online material for later reading, has racked up nearly a million users with hardly any advertising. “It’s for reading,” Arment says, “when you’re ready to be attentive.”

Reading Between The Lines

In all, Readability has a wonderfully optimistic and ambitious vision, aimed at supporting great writing while making readers more happy. They're a New York City startup (hooray!) and they've assembled a fantastic team of advisors. Marco Arment isn't just providing the power of Instapaper to make Readability's mobile app awesome, he's an advisor. (See his post.) Paul Ford is on board. Jeffrey Zeldman is on board. And there are even more great advisors whose tweets I don't regularly favorite.

More importantly, the team at Arc90 that built Readability is putting their hearts into this thing. It's been extremely gratifying to hear a roomful of coders and entrepreneurs talk passionately and at length about how important it is to them to support great writing, and great journalism. They speak honestly and sincerely about being on a mission, and about building a meaningful business that's thoughtful about the way it does its work and the impact this product has on the web.

So, congratulations to the team on a great first version. And if you haven't already, give Readability a try. I'm sure they'll be listening to your feedback, and I'm sure you'll find inspiration in both the beautifully-readable articles you read, as well as in the compelling app that presents them to you.

Mom and Pop, At Web Scale

January 26, 2011

One of the first questions venture capital investors ask people who make tech products and tech startups is if the entrepreneurs behind them are just trying to have a "lifestyle business". It's a euphemistic term, usually used with a slightly derogatory tone, that indicates an entrepreneur is "only" trying to make a company that will keep them in a happy lifestyle, providing for their family's needs and their friends' employment.

But my heart lies with the lifestylers, the mom and pop businesses. Even well-known businesses can basically run like lifestyle companies, with examples including functional sites like Craigslist and 37signals' various apps (though 37signals has taken some outside funding), and media startups like MetaFilter and Dooce. Each of these sites reaches audiences of millions and has community memberships that can range up to the hundreds of thousands or even higher. For even for the good VCs that don't see "lifestyle business" as an epithet, these kinds of businesses don't represent a success that they can participate in; lifestyle businesses provide great returns for their founders if they succeed, and they almost always delight their community of members, but they don't make tons of other people rich.

Where they do succeed on a large scale has been in innovation, in creating the cool new ideas or thoughtful choices in user experience that help influence larger companies and later efforts.

So historically, lifestyle businesses in the tech realm have only had impact in the narrow niche that they focus on, limited by either geography or demography. Even the most wildly successful basically plateau at a million users. They change the future of the web through the influence of their innovations, not through the direct impact of amassing large user bases.

Except that doesn't have to be true anymore.

The Web-Scale Lifestyle Business

One of the reasons that lifestyle startups have had to avoid scaling too large is because resource constraints limited either the total size of reachable audience, or the richness of the interactivity that could be supported for a user base. For example, running a site with an enormous user database used to require a significant up-front investment in servers, databases, load balancers, and even simple physical infrastructure like contracts to power providers and hosting facilities. Those costs followed a stair-step pattern where each subsequent round of growth was followed by a huge required outlay of dollars. Even some of today's biggest-scale bootstrapped startups, like Craigslist, are relatively modest in the level of user experience innovation they offer. That's not because they lack the technical chops to do so, but because enabling the cutting-edge realtime features that many sites use today would have been prohibitively expensive during the time when their sites were first scaling up.

The fundamental economics of reaching a large audience don't work that way today, though. Cloud computing, more efficient infrastructure, and delivery as a service offerings change the math, particularly by not requiring large up-front investments. If your community takes off and you're built with a contemporary architecture, you can scale your costs along with income. This has some implications which are subtle but profound:

  • Being able to succeed with slower growth means you can respect your community members by not having to have an onrush of too many new users at once. Preserving a site's culture is good for the whole web.
  • Lifestyle businesses have much more flexibility in revenue models, often being able to combine membership, advertising and merchandising into enough money to pay the bills. Gradual growth lets the entrepreneur experiment with these different models instead of having to shake down the community all at once through a paywall or intrusive ads.
  • Not having to face the looming threat of a precipitous increase in infrastructure costs lets the startup's founder stay focused on product and community, instead of splitting time between keeping the site running in an environment it's about to outgrow and pounding the streets looking for money.
  • The single biggest value that investors would offer other than money itself was connection to a network of established entrepreneurs that could help the startup survive. But if you're building a web startup today and don't already have a network, there's probably little hope for your startup anyway. Your business is predicated on having the resource that you used to have to rely on others to provide.

And You've Got Peers

The last thing that traditional investment would offer was expertise on what to do when your company succeeds. But these days, there's an entire community of other successful scaling experts who are willing to share their lessons. Just a few years ago you could count the number of people who'd built a website with a million users on one hand, but several of the best non-VC-funded startups have bootstrapped their way to a million users already, and the people who made it happen have moved on to new jobs since then, where they're allowed to share not just their experience but often the code and technology they created to make scaling possible.

Getting past the millions of users mark and into the tens of millions level is going to become increasingly common. When LiveJournal bootstrapped its way into becoming what was likely the first richly interactive social site with a million users in the early part of this century, much of the initial technology to do so had to be created specifically for that purpose. Today, using the much larger social networks and app stores that exist for distribution, social apps are getting to a million users in weeks, using largely off-the-shelf tech.

Getting Past Goldilocks

Right now there is often a "Goldilocks" problem in traditional VC-funded companies. You can either be big enough to fit into the classic funding model, where everyone's not-so-secretly hoping for The Next Google or The Next Facebook, or you can be small enough that you're dismissed as a lifestyle business which will never impact a huge audience. If you had enough ambition to want to reach millions of people with your work, but enough sense of control to want to keep ownership of your site, though, there was never a good solution during the web's first two decades that was just right.

Entrepreneurs faced with the choice between only having a small impact, or not owning their own work, can be left wondering which one is less painful.

I don't pretend to know enough about the venture capital world to know what the implications of this change are going to mean for that industry. But I know more than enough about people who've built important, world-changing lifestyle businesses to see that having the ceilings of potential audience size removed from their work is going to have profound and positive impacts on the web. I'm not much of one for predictions, but if I had to bet, I'd say we'll see a social application reach 50 million users without having had any outside funding within the next two to three years. And that business will have a fundamentally different set of goals and values than today's large-scale sites, because of it will have been built in a fundamentally different way.

Getting to work with the New York Tech Meetup

December 17, 2010

Thank you to those of you who supported my bid for a board seat in the New York Tech Meetup election. Being considered amongst such talented and accomplished peers is an honor, and being elected from among them is even more so, especially alongside Evan Korth.

I'm looking forward to getting to work on helping serve the community. And I want to emphasize how important the work of the Tech Meetup itself is, because the elections frankly aren't that significant in the greater context of the community — the low turnout of voters demonstrates that well. I'm not that troubled by the small number of votes, as I believe it reflects the fact that people see NYTM as a value primarily for the connections and opportunities it affords between members and attendees, and thus rightly avert their focus from the machinations of the organization's infrastructure.

That being said, I'm excited to be part of that infrastructure, and look forward to doing my small part as one of the members of an exceptional board. My immediate priorities are to try to help the NYTM community be more inclusive and more effective in its goals, and I hope those of you with ideas on how to do so (including my fellow candidates) will share those ideas both online and in person.

The Other Start-up Advice

November 17, 2010

Recently, I've had the chance to talk to a lot of talented people who are working on new projects or new startups, most of which aren't really companies yet, but all of which are interesting to various degrees. It's quite a privilege, to be trusted by people who are sharing ideas that are important to them, and it's exciting, because seeing people's creativity is always inspiring.

But as I talk to more and more creators/founders, I find myself repeating a few of the same suggestions, questions, and conversations, and I thought more people might find the perspective useful. A disclaimer: I may very well not know what the hell I'm talking about. That's true for almost everybody who opines on matters of "startup advice", though. A few people have told me they found the feedback useful, so here is the way the conversation usually goes:

  • What do you consider "success"? This is one of the first questions I ask people, and usually the one they're least willing to answer. Sometimes there's a clear "well, we offer pet food reviews, and we want to be the biggest pet food reviews site on the web" answer, but as often as not, people plug away at something without a clear idea of what they're working toward. You can't say what resources you need unless you know where you wanna go.
  • Why do you need money? This flows naturally from the preceding question. People ask me, with varying degrees of directness, to either help them get money or to introduce them to people who have money. (I don't invest money in startups.) When I ask what they need the money for, it's great to hear "Oh, our system admin woman is part-time and we want to bring her on full-time." But as often as not, the reply is "Well, you know, for stuff!" Don't be that person.
  • If you need money, how do you want to get it? There's such an overwhelming tech industry bias towards this archetypical narrative of "first you get angel funding, then a VC round, then a bigger VC round, then you're set!" And the vast majority of the time, that's horseshit — you're not set at that point, you've just got a lot of stakeholders. Increasingly, when appropriate, I'm recommending that people max out their credit cards (even evil credit card companies only want a tiny fraction of the return that VCs do), or run a Kickstarter campaign, or do other things to self-fund until they're further along so they can retain control and power over what they're creating. That's not to say venture investing might not be the right choice for some creators' goals — it's just not the only option for making something great.
  • VC is not a magic bullet. Part of the reason I recommend some small degree of financial independence for creators is that I'm just saddened by how many people see getting venture capital funding for their projects or startups as the end goal instead of as merely a milestone that reflects a starting point. I alluded to this a few years ago with the starting line is not the finish line, but the simple analogy is that you train for a marathon with months of running, and then you begin running the marathon. Getting VC funding is the starting line, not the finish line, and you've gotta actually do the running.
  • Assuming you succeed, what do you want that success to look like? This is the corollary to the first question. If you make a great app that gets tons of users, but it's covered in ugly ads instead of the cleanly designed experience you initially created, will you be happy? If you make a huge amount of money but it's because you're selling tons of personal data on your users or clogging up the web with absolutely crappy content, will that be a fair trade to you? Is the continuum of choices in these matters something you're willing to compromise on in exchange for making sure your kid goes to college? What if it's just to buy yourself a fancy car?

I'm far from the first person to ask a lot of these questions, but many of the entrepreneurs I speak to, especially first-time entrepreneurs, seem to never consider these questions. Think about them, write down your answers, and then refer back to them as you have conversations with advisors, potential investors, and even your customers.

As with almost everything else, success comes from you knowing who you are and what your values are, and from being able to recognize success because you'd already defined it for yourself in the first place. Diving into an endeavor without those fundamentals is a pretty sure recipe for making sure you never accomplish the thing that it turns out you wanted.

Oh, and I never ask whether people are making something meaningful that they care about, or if they're just making something because they want to have a startup. Because I'm lucky enough that I don't have to endure the conversations with people in the latter group.

Related Reading

Three Weeks in Three Videos

June 23, 2010

Been busy running around doing a bunch of fun stuff lately; Here's some videos with highlights!

The Personal Democracy Forum invited me to talk about what we've been learning at Expert labs, which I summarized in a talk called "Startup.gov" which talks about bringing startup-style principles to government.

Ignite NYC asked me to take five minutes to show twenty slides on any topic as part of Internet Week here in New York. I decided to try to defend the indefensible:

Finally, yesterday we finally announced our first public project at Activate, the work we've been doing to help Condé Nast launch Gourmet Live. Though we've just started to explain the concept to everyone, the fundamentals of an awesome new business and some truly impressive new technology are all laid out in the introductory video:

Phew! More on all of these projects as soon as I get a little bit of time to blog about them, but thanks also to everyone who came out to the internet Week interview and all the great folks I met at Blogging While Brown last weekend. Nothing's more inspiring than the talented people I'm lucky enough to meet at all of the various events I get to attend.

(And yes, as the videos make clear, I really do have a whole closet full of dark suits and pinkish-purple shirts.)

Ignoring It Won't Make It Go Away

June 7, 2010

Michael Arrington argues, over at TechCrunch, that the startup community should ignore the current administration's entreaties for feedback on tech policy, and instead shoo policy makers away and hope for this best. This advice is naive, misguided and short-sighted and if followed, will yield less opportunity and potential for startups in the future. If the tech industry's innovators ignore government policy, it will instead be decided entirely by those who are uninformed about policy, in cahoots with the monied forces of legacy technology and media companies. Insulting government and dismissing it won't make it go away, and ignores the potential it provides for supporting new opportunities.

The Ostrich Technique

Adobe ignored the fact that Apple could regulate the app store market, and ended up wasting tons of time creating a new release of Flash that would generate iOS apps that Apple would never approve. TweetUp ignored the fact that Twitter could regulate the Twitter application market, and ended up potentially wasting tons of time creating a service that might not be able to build an advertising product that Twitter would approve.

And today, Michael Arrington suggested that startups ignore the fact that the U.S. Government can regulate the entire technology market, putting them at risk of wasting tons of time creating products or services that might be unintentionally or intentionally impacted by policy changes. Worse, he's shortsightedly advocating that there not be a dialogue between startups and policy makers, which might lead to startups missing the potential for building billlion-dollar businesses on open government platforms. Startups from Garmin to Foursquare rely on government GPS data, the Weather Channel turned government weather data into a billion dollar business, and I'm pretty sure health data is next. But not if everybody in Silicon Valley puts their fingers in their ears and says "la la la la la I can't hear you!"

There is no "The Government"

Look, I get it. Tech geeks in San Francisco always want to play more-libertarian-than-thou, and it leads to silly things like saying "the government" as if it's a monolithic entity. That's the same as talking about "the technology industry" as if somebody stringing ethernet cables in Tulsa is the same as Steve Jobs. Michael's lead example of why the current administration shouldn't engage with the tech community? Chris Dodd's cluelessness about venture capital. You'd have be unaware of the distinction between the legislative and executive branch, convinced of the not-quite-proven concept that venture capital is an unmitigatedly positive force for innovation, and ignore the fact that the tech industry is successfully fighting against the legislation in order to make even the most tenuous case that this example has anything to do with the President's agenda.

People in D.C. don't look at the crappiness of the web browser on their Blackberries and make broad declarations that "the tech industry is clueless", they say "This one product has a flaw. Let's find a better one." People in San Francisco need to be at least that thoughtful when looking eastward.

What's my agenda? Well, obviously, I'm the director of Expert Labs, which has as its mission the goal of helping policy makers make better decisions by tapping in to the expertise of citizens, especially experts like the people who start new technology companies. But we are not part of the government — we're an independent, non-profit, non-partisan organization specifically because we think that we can get people engaged in improving policy without having to work for government. Surely even the most diehard libertarian must want to support the idea that as citizens, we don't have to work for government or be a lobbyist in order to positively influence policy.

Now, I don't know Victoria Espinel, the intellectual property enforcer that Michael had such issue with. But I do know folks like Todd Park, who is part of this administration, as CTO of Health & Human Services, and the startup he built is making hundreds of millions of dollars more revenue than, say, the last half-dozen web startups that TechCrunch has covered.

But, most importantly, not liking government doesn't mean it will go away. It just means that only big, slow, customer-hostile tech companies will be the ones influencing policy. In the 90s, Microsoft ignored the entire realm of policy, thinking their hyper-competitive market couldn't possibly be of interest to regulators. Facebook's making that same mistake about privacy right now, not realizing that their continuous missteps and shoddy communications are going to doom not just Facebook, but the entire social media industry, to onerous regulations if they don't get their act together quick enough. And our ostensible voices of leadership are advocating "close your eyes and hope they go away" as a plan of action? It's clearly time for leaders who are in tune with reality when it comes to regulation.

Inevitably, people will point to failures of government as "proof" that government can't do anything right. These same people never point to corporate abuses as proof that corporations can't do anything right. And they'll use the fact that over 90 percent of venture-backed startups fail as a credential. I think all these systems and economies run the way that they do for a reason, and while I won't claim to be the best educated person in the world about all of these topics, I am someone who's worked at a venture-backed startup, started a few businesses, been involved in public policy discussions, and helped lead an effort to involve thousands of people from all walks of life in substantive policy discussions with policy makers in the White House. Talking about policy makers from a position of authority when you've failed to engage with them is even more egregious than simply judging a book by its cover; It's judging all books by one shoddy book's cover.

Quitting Is Not A Strategy

If you care about startups, get involved. Do you think the AT&Ts and Verizons, let alone the Halliburtons and BPs of the world, are going to just let the government leave startups alone? If you have a cool new music startup, and the RIAA sends 100 lobbyists to DC to crush you, and the current administration asks "What can we do to help you innovate?" and your answer is "STOP PISSING ON OUR FLOWERS YOU SOCIALISTS!", how do you think it's gonna play out?

Here's a hint: It doesn't end up with you sitting happily in a rose garden. AT&T is, (as detailed in the video below) funneling millions of dollars into fighting network neutrality, and the inventors and founders who could articulate why that's a bad thing are in danger of forfeiting the game instead of even showing up and trying to play. Stop listening to the people who've already got millions of dollars in their pockets, who already have control over tons of startups, when they tell you not to talk to your government. And stop believing the myth that the innovation and opportunity of Silicon Valley happened because "government didn't intervene". Instead, what you had was a relatively smart set of regulations that formed a framework where some small number of people could get very rich. There's no reason that system can't be expanded and improved, unless the startup community decides that there's no room left for any innovations in policy in the future.

Still not convinced? Please watch Susan Crawford articulate the challenge we all face, in her presentation on rethinking broadband from this year's Personal Democracy Forum.

One More Time: No NDAs

May 7, 2010

By unusual coincidence, this week I had a number of different folks ask me to sign NDAs about the new projects they're working on. It's great that we're in such a fertile phase for the tech industry that lots of people have new ideas, and I'm very flattered that people value my input or ideas enough to want to share their projects with me. But signing an NDA? It's a bum deal, so I don't do it.

I can explain why, but if you saw what Brad Feld or Alexander Muse or Fred Wilson or Joel Spolsky or (my favorite take) Andrew Warner write about why they don't sign NDAs, you can skip the rest of this post.

In case you missed all of those, here's a couple quick reasons I will probably decline to sign your NDA:

  • When you ask me to sign your NDA, you're basically saying, in writing, that you don't trust me. It's your prerogative to say that, but it's a pretty lousy context in which to ask for a favor.
  • I have to pay a lawyer to review a document without having any idea why I'm making that investment. No, I won't "just sign it" without having a lawyer look it over, because it's a legally binding document whether a lawyer reads it or not.
  • If your idea's that good, it's probably not that rare. I hate to be the one to point it out, but protecting your idea in general is a fool's errand — good execution is hard to find, but good ideas are cheap.
  • I could get screwed through no fault of my own if some other random person walks up to me and blurts out the same idea that you've had. Being exposed to the risk of a lawsuit even if I haven't done anything wrong sucks.
  • If I couldn't be trusted with your idea, you'd already know about it. There are folks who don't like me, or who are annoyed by me, but if I'd broken somebody's trust in regard to their work, I guarantee it'd be just about the first thing you'd find when you Google my name.
  • The biggest value I can probably offer you is that I would talk about what you're working on. If I honor your NDA, and I meet a great investor or potential employee or valuable partner for your new venture, I wouldn't be able to tell them about it.

Most other folks are too nice to actually mention it, but since I'm not a VC or big deal business tycoon, I'll just say the most important point outright: Asking for someone to sign an NDA also often makes you look amateurish. Not always, but too often.

Now, I've had clients ask for an NDA, which makes perfect sense, and I might ask contractors working for me to do the same. Or some big companies just have a boilerplate NDA that they throw in front of people as a matter of course. But for individual entrepreneurs who just have a good idea and big dreams, it's easy to be misled into thinking that walking in the door with a fancy legal document makes you look professional or "serious".

Frankly, though, you should only share your ideas with those whom you trust, if you're at a phase where disclosing an idea could negatively impact its success. Most ideas gain value when more people know about them and are rooting for them. If you can, design for circumstances where, once you're ready to start talking about your idea, you're encouraging people to "disclose" your efforts. And that shouldn't require a contract at all.

New York City is the Future of the Web

November 17, 2009

I'm here at the Web 2.0 Expo in NYC today, my first big tech industry conference in a long time, where I'm also excitedly getting ready for my keynote tomorrow.

But one of the things I'm most proud of is that has something of a valedictory feel to it, as we note that many of the best, most interesting, most subversive and disruptive startups in the world are based here. From Foursquare to Hunch, Kickstarter to Square, Etsy to the newly-funded 20×200 (they're hiring!). That's not counting the dozens of tech-based media businesses that have spring up in the wake of Gawker and Huffington Post. And best of all, I think many of them have been influenced by the seminal NYC Web 2.0 startup, Meetup, which not only helps knit our startup community together, but introduced many of the elements of social responsibility and an old-fashioned We Make Money business model that distinguish New York startups from those in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.

(Update: To my chagrin, I forgot Outside.in, another great NYC startup that I've found inspiring. I'm sure there are more omissions, too, but I'll add 'em as they come to me.)

New York City startups are as likely to be focused on the arts and crafts as on the bits and bytes, to be influenced by our unparalleled culture as by the latest browser features, and informed by the dynamic interaction of different social groups and classes that's unavoidable in our city, but uncommon in Silicon Valley. Best of all, the support for these efforts can come from investors and supporters that are outside of the groupthink that many West Coast VC firms suffer from. When I lived in San Francisco, it was easy to spend days at a time only interacting with other web geeks; In New York, fortunately, that's impossible.

Am I biased? Sure. But are there half a dozen startups anywhere in the world as interesting and full of potential as these new NYC efforts? Isn't it exciting that these are all built around the full potential of the open web, instead of merely trying to be land grabs within the walled gardens of closed platforms? I'm more optimistic about the environment and opportunity for starting new ventures than I've been in ages, and for me the fundamental reasons why are demonstrated best by startups that could only happen in New York City.

Plus, we have bagels. Delicious bagels.

These Things Are Related

September 17, 2009

Here are some interesting recent blog posts and articles, mostly by friends or acquaintances of mine, all of which add up to an interesting narrative.

Mint.com owes much of its success to one such investor, First Round Capital, which opted to back the fledgling company at a time when other VCs demurred. Indeed, the Mint.com acquisition is First Round Capital's largest exit, beating out the $100 million sale of portfolio company Powerset to Microsoft (MSFT). And although First Round Capital would not quantify the return on its investment, co-founder Josh Kopelman says the Mint.com deal generated the highest return of any deal the firm has done. Previously its best return came when eBay (EBAY) acquired StumbleUpon for $75 million, which generated more than 14 times First Round Capital's original investment. "I don't think this changes our strategy," Kopelman says. "It is continued validation for our approach."

I did interviews with most of the TechCrunch50 experts backstage and there was a common gripe about the companies launching there: Not enough passion, not enough swinging for the fences, not enough trying to change the world. There were too many people building safe businesses, too many companies just trying to make existing things slightly better, and too many people wanting to be the next Mint.com, not the next Google. Nothing against Mint, but Silicon Valley wasn’t built on $170 million exits.

Web visionaries like Reid Hoffman and Sean Parker struggled to come up with positive feedback on stage. Robert “I-get-excited-by-nearly-any-start-up” Scoble was so bored he was playing Hangman via Twitter with Paul Carr. Marc Andreessen praised Udorse—a company that he joked would make the world a worse place if it succeeded—because at least it was a new idea. Tim O’Reilly said he didn’t care whether Cocodot, one of the companies he judged, succeeded or failed because it was so meaningless in the world. And Tony Hsieh just said it blatantly: “I didn’t see anything that was trying to change the world.”

In some ways, I feel like Sarah's post is a direct corollary to my own earlier post where I'd suggested that the U.S. Government is the most interesting tech startup of 2009.

The ever-diplomatic Jason Fried of 37Signals riffs on a topic that he and I were just talking about last night, a lamentation of modest ambitions:

Mint’s sale to Intuit really pissed me off.

Why should I care? Because I think it’s indicative of a VC-induced cancer that’s infecting our industry and killing off the next generation. I don’t know the full backstory, but I’d bet this sale was encouraged by a Mint investor.

Here’s a fresh new company that was gunning for an aging incumbent. And not only gunning, but gaining. They had a great product, great design, and great potential. They were growing rapidly and figured out the revenue game. They were on their way to redefining an industry — one that was left for dead by the current custodians.

They were everything their main competitor, Intuit, was not. While Mint was inventing, Intuit was out of it. People used Quickbooks/Quicken out of habit and legacy. People used Mint because they loved it. Intuit was disgruntled, Mint was disruptive.

But here’s what happened: Intuit, last decade’s leader in personal finance, just became the next decade’s leader in personal finance. Mint had their number, but they sold it for $170 million. A big payday for sure, and if that was their two-year goal then they nailed it, but I can’t believe that was the point behind Mint. It had too much potential.

Mint was a key leader of the next generation of game changers. And now it’s property of Intuit — the poster-child for the last generation. What a loss. Is that the best the next generation can do? Become part of the old generation? How about kicking the shit out of the old guys? What ever happened to that?

There are a bunch of veteran entrepreneurs actively investing in and mentoring seed stage startups. Google has a big office here and many people seem to be leaving to go start companies.

...

New York City has many of the same strengths as Silicon Valley - merit-driven capitalism, the embrace of newcomers and particularly immigrants, and a consistent willingness to reinvent itself. Silicon Valley will always be the mecca of technology, but now that people here are getting back to, as Obama says, making things, New York City has a shot at becoming relevant again in the tech world.

Yes. As someone who goes back and forth between New York and Silicon Valley, I see more companies being started in the Valley. But I am seeing some great consumer internet companies being started out here too. Etsy is a great example. Hunch has to be on this list. And Kickstarter, which just recently launched, and is changing the way that creative projects themselves are funded. A promising beginning. There need to be more startups, naturally, and more seed capital, and a hometown newspaper, as Chris also notes. And the CS grads moving into startups rather than financial services companies. I'm optimistic.

Though Caterina is still optimistic about startups in Silicon Valley, I'll offer up that one of the biggest changes in her perspective since saying three years ago that it was a bad time for a startup is that she's spending a lot more time in New York City these days. Finally, my friend Jen Bekman exemplifies the diversity of NYC's nominal "tech" community, in that her startup and company are squarely focused on the world of fine art. As Jen says:

[T]here’s so much else going on aside from technology — the valley might hold the title of the best place for start-ups in technology, but NYC is the best place for many things.

The diversity of experience on the 20�200 team is incredible and inspiring. Everyone I work with has done a bunch of other things aside from technology, and not one of them set out for a tech career to begin with. Among us are photographers, musicians, artists, writers, lawyers, teachers and wine experts. We all love the internet (a lot! too much?) but what drives us most is our love of art and the people who make it.

Does this happen in Silicon Valley? Perhaps, but my time spent there — which I loved, for the record — was about an immersion in technology. Here in NYC it’s about the thing itself.

...

Then again, if you live too long inside the echo-chamber, it’s easy to forget who’s going to be using all this technology in the end. The reality check is important, almost as important as being able to hail a cab whenever I damn well please.

The thread that ties all of these things together for me is that technology adoption happens now because of culture and media, not simply for its own sake or because certain types of capital are available. It happens because a vision is ambitious enough to capture the attention of artist and writers and creators of all sorts, not just other technologists or people within the bubble of the existing tech community. And cities like Chicago, Boston, Washington D.C. and, particularly, New York City, have a decided advantage when it comes to connecting to those in the tech community to the rest of the world. We also have an unparalleled history of ambition (and, yes, ego) to match that potential.

I hope entrepreneurs learn a lesson from the few underwhelming startups that are out there, and realize that the model of making incremental improvements on companies that already exist is a recipe where, even if you achieve your goals, you may not have achieved much of a success. And if everyone around you has similarly unambitious goals, then maybe you need to be in a place where that's not true.

Note: I use, and like Mint.com, and I'm happy for their success and am hopeful that they have a positive impact on Intuit. I am not arguing that their definition of success should be the same as mine, but rather that they may have defined a different set of goals if they had been part of a different community.

Healthy Skepticism

August 25, 2009

I've been putting a lot of speculative ideas out lately; It's nice to see some healthy (and respectful) criticism from people who are skeptical about what I'm saying.

Gautham Nagesh followed up on my earlier post and fairly criticized the recent government websites I praised as being too tentative and unproven to merit the praise I'd given them. Interestingly, I had a throwaway half-sentence saying "I think Gautham and I just disagree about government's role in general", and Gautham interpreted this as a bit of an attack on his journalistic integrity, by implying that he wasn't being impartial about the story. That certainly wasn't my intention, but more importantly I think I just forgot (being a blogger myself) that Serious Journalists still care a whole lot about that idea. For what it's worth, I think it's great when journalists have a clearly disclosed partiality about a story.

Similarly, Mitch Wagner talked about my post a bit on InformationWeek's Government Blog, saying I'm "being excessively optimistic, because the Obama White House's record on transparency is decidedly mixed at best, as noted by the Washington Post in a May editorial." A fair criticism, though I think I was highlighting these recent efforts by the government as signals of intent to use the web well, rather than declaring Mission Accomplished. Hence, most interesting startup of 2009, not most successful. I went into this a bit further in this interview I did with Maggie Shiels for the BBC's tech blog:

"I am not a Polyanna about this, " Mr Dash told me.

"I don't think necessarily everything that comes out of this will be immediately great. It will take people some time to understand the potential there is for something great to happen.

On a less critical note, I did like that Inc's take on my post mentioned the success that private companies have had with similar API and data efforts; That was an analogy I should have made more explicitly and prominently in my own post.

Continuing the Conversation

August 18, 2009

Phew! Seems like there are a ton of people talking about the topics we've all been discussing here lately. Here's some highlights:

Startup.gov

After I posited that the U.S. executive branch is the most interesting startup of 2009, there have been some amazing responses. Craig Newmark (you love his list!) very kindly gave a nod towards my post, adding "In some results, it's run like a really good Silicon Valley startup", and spreading the word on The Huffington Post as well. Mike Masnick at Techdirt chiimed in as well:

For plenty of reasons that you can guess, I'm pretty jaded by people in government, and it's rare to come across people who seem to be doing things for anything other than "political" purposes. But I have to admit that the amazing thing that came through in both [Federal CTO Aneesh] Chopra's talks was that they were both entirely about actually getting stuff done, with a focus on openness and data sharing. Chopra talked, repeatedly, about figuring out what could be done both short- and long-term, and never once struck me as someone looking to hoard power or focus on a partisan or political reason for doing things. It was never about positioning things to figure out how to increase his budget. In fact, many of the ideas he was discussing was looking at ways to just get stuff done now without any need for extra budget. Needless to say, this is not the sort of thing you hear regularly from folks involved in the government.

Towards the end of my essay, I'd pointed out one particular challenge that faces this new startup-minded government effort: "Acquiring and retaining talent is hard, especially in a city that doesn't have as deep a well of people with tech startup experience." Amazingly, the latest perfect example of the type of talent that are heading to D.C. these days just popped up, with Christopher Soghoian's announcement that he is joining the FTC. I only know Christopher's work by reputation at Harvard's Berkman Center, but I think the fact that the government is looking for talented people in academia (a talent pool that typical tech startups often overlook) is a great sign.

Of course, there are skeptics. Gautham Nagesh covers the government for Nextgov and Atlantic Media, and he thinks I'm believing the hype". Of course, I think Gautham and I just disagree about government's role in general, and that I'll take small signs of progress as successes, even if there is a lot of work left to do yet.

In fact, I'll be talking about this a bit later today on Federal News Radio's Daily Debrief show. If you're in D.C., tune in to 1500 AM at 4:05 EDT and one idea I'll be discussing is how the recent web achievements by the executive branch are a lot like Microsoft's recent success with Bing; It doesn't mean that the whole giant organization is on the right track, it just means that it's still possible for these behemoths to do the right thing.

The potential is also hinted at in Brady Forrest's post about EveryBlock's acquisition over on O'Reilly Radar. I'm ecstatic to see Adrian and his team at EveryBlock get even more resources for their work, but just as pleased to see the government's work being discussed as a peer to even the most cutting-edge startups in the private sector.

Google's Wave Moment

After my recent posts about The Wave Way and Google's Microsoft Moment, I was very graciously invited to join Leo Laporte, Gina Trapani and Jeff Jarvis on their awesome podcast about Google and cloud computing, This Week in Google. If you have an hour or so to spare for listening to a podcast, I am very proud of how it came out, and especially that I got to participate with such pros on a show like this. TWiG is available on iTunes and Boxee and all of those usual services as well.

The idea that Google is facing a reckoning as it grows in size and influence seems to have caught on, and comparing the company to Microsoft has gone from seeming a bit radical at the time I posted to becoming much more popular when Wired covered the idea to finally having become something approaching conventional wisdom in just a few weeks. Take, for example, New Google is the old Microsoft, by Galen Ward, which lists the ways that Google ties its nascent (or even unsuccessful) efforts to the results of its dominant search engine.

Apple Blinks on Secrecy?

Less than three weeks ago, I was arguing that Apple's culture of secrecy can't scale. Fortunately, we may never know if I'm right. Astoundingly, Apple has opened up to some degree, most notably via VP Phil Schiller reaching out personally to bloggers John Gruber and Steven Frank. Of course, that's not a complete course change for Apple, but it is still significantly more human, personal and open than any recent communications they've made about their efforts.

Meanwhile, the idea that Apple's traditional secrecy is untenable has gotten an even larger audience with The Times' lengthy look at Steve Jobs and Apple:

[A]long with computers, iPhones and iPods, secrecy is one of Apple’s signature products. A cult of corporate omerta — the mafia code of silence — is ruthlessly enforced, with employees sacked for leaks and careless talk. Executives feed deliberate misinformation into one part of the company so that any leak can be traced back to its source. Workers on sensitive projects have to pass through many layers of security. Once at their desks or benches, they are monitored by cameras and they must cover up devices with black cloaks and turn on red warning lights when they are uncovered. “The secrecy is beyond fastidious and is in fact insultingly petty and political,” says one employee on the anonymous corporate reporting site Glassdoor.com, “and often is an impediment to actually getting one’s work done.”

But employees are one thing; shareholders are another. Should Jobs (who, as far as the world is concerned, is Apple) have been allowed to conceal the seriousness of his illness? Warren Buffett, the greatest investor alive, doesn’t think so. “Whether [Steve Jobs] is facing serious surgery or not is a material fact.”

Some say another sign that Apple omerta has gone too far was the death of Sun Danyong, a 25-year-old employee of Foxconn, a Chinese manufacturer of Apple machines. He was given 16 prototypes of new iPhones. One disappeared. Facts beyond that get hazy, but it is clear that Sun committed suicide by jumping from a 12th-storey apartment. Internet babble says he killed himself because of the vanished prototype and, therefore, because of Apple’s obsessive secrecy.

Pushing the Right Buttons

Finally, the idea of the Pushbutton Web seems to be gaining steam. I am delighted to point out Om Malik's The Evolution of Blogging, which Om uses as an example of a longer-form blog post he's enjoyed recently, but which I also hope will be a catalyst for the evolution of blogging that he's calling for in the post overall.

That point is taken even further with Farhad Manjoo's ruminations in Slate, which reference my Pushbutton post:

[A]s technologies like PubSubHubbub proliferate around the Web, with companies like Google, Facebook, and others embracing them, real-time Web updates will become the norm. It won't be hard to build competitors to Twitter—systems that do as much as it does but whose decentralized design ensures that they're not a single point of failure. Winer envisions these systems coming up alongside Twitter—when you post a status update, it could get sent to both Twitter and whatever decentralized, next-gen Twitter gets created. If these new systems take off, Twitter would be just one of many status-updating hubs—and if it went down, there'd be other servers to take its place.

Seeing so many great conversations pop up recently around the topics I've been obsessing over has been very inspiring; Right after I made offhand mention of one of my Big Think interviews being about the Philology of LOLcats, my original piece on LOLcat language, Cats Can Has Grammar, was indirectly cited in Time's profile of "I Can Has Cheeseburger", through a reference to "kitty pidgin". It might seem like a minor mention, but the idea that a random dude like me can write a post that results in a phrase showing up in Time or The New York Times is still very exciting to me, after all of these years.

Best of all, there have been a spate of amazing comments on all of these posts lately, both on this site and in some of the responses I've linked to above. I'm having more fun than ever in watching the conversation across the blogosphere.

In the meantime, two to consider:

  • Slow Web: "There's a web that well-considered and worth savoring. We'll show you where."
  • Every Friday, Rain or Shine: "When you see an interesting idea expressed in 140 chars that you think could use elaboration, ask them to do a longer-form post to explain. Especially on Fridays."

Details of Execution

July 16, 2008

Sometimes if you do something very difficult, and you do it really well, the end result is that your achievement becomes completely invisible.

Twitter logo

I mentioned a year and a half ago that I like Twitter. That was a little bit less common a position to take back then, but in the months since, tons of people have taken to the little messaging service, so clearly this was no great insight on my part -- it's just a useful, fun service.

But of course, that popularity has not been without its problems. Twitter's gotten a reputation for being unreliable, as a result of its rapid growth. In fact, in many ways, the Fail Whale and its related frustrations has come to define Twitter's brand more than almost anything else.

I'm no expert at these things, but there are a lot of reasons startups fail, and the reasons almost never include the fact that thousands of users clamoring for a service. Indeed, it seems to me that most companies (whether they're tech startups or anything else) fail because of being poorly managed. Put another way, execution is everything.

With that in mind, it's worth pointing out how particularly well-executed Twitter's recent acquisition of Summize has been. I don't know any of the deals of the financial or business arrangements, except that I'm a little disappointed that Twitter isn't maintaining a presence in New York City, instead moving all of the employees to San Francisco. That nitpick aside, the public face of this transition was extremely well executed.

Ev Williams, co-founder and the most public face of Twitter, speaks about the deal at some length in this excellent, candid interview with Techcrunch. (Which site, by the way, may rank as my "most improved" blog of 2008.)

Rumors of the Summize acquisition leaked a few weeks ago, but both companies kept discipline around communications and didn't acknowledge or respond to the conversation. And then, when it came time to announce the deal, the sites had been fully integrated, a lengthy and personable blog post complete with a sketch of some future ideas for integration was posted, consistent branding was in place on the acquired site, and the roadmap for what was going on with employees affected by the acquisition was clearly communicated.

In all, that's a formidable amount of coordination to happen across the country, while business deals are being worked out, and while maintaining secrecy about the fact that it's taking place. And, all of that was done with an eye towards providing a good user experience to their shared customer base.

There are a lot of things to criticize in such deals most of the time, though it seems likely that this will be a successful acquisition, from an outsider's point of view. But what's striking to me is that, as quick as so many are to criticize Twitter (fairly) for technological problems, people haven't been as eager to acknowledge a remarkable discipline and execution on the business side of the company. Frankly, all of those who'd suggested that Twitter should be sold to a larger company seem to have forgotten that almost none of the big companies suggested as acquirers have a history of consistently pulling off this kind of execution. And that's even more true for the smaller innovative companies that they've acquired.

Little Guys Care

May 21, 2007

One of the nice things about independent web entrepreneurs is that they (we?) can draw contrasts against those who are giant publicly-traded faceless corporations, either pointedly or with tongue in cheek. Some of the best recent items in this vein:

This one's from Jonathan Abrams of Socializr (except everyone still wants to credit him for Friendster). The article recites the "Top Ten Reasons Why It's Time For You To Switch To Socializr", including "Barry Diller doesn't care about Evite", "Evite doesn't offer technologies from this decade", and "Evite is a mess of invasive graphical ads".

socializr I don't know Jonathan, but I've heard fairly positive things from the people we know in common and his criticisms ring true; The fact that Evite's emails don't include the bare facts about the event you're being invited to speaks to their contempt for their users. I'm sure they had elaborate meetings years ago to justify this, but the right answer got lost along the way.

Scott Heiferman, CEO of Meetup (and a friend of mine), offers some good-natured ribbing at the expense of the Googlers, highlighting the strengths of the nimble and independent with his typical sense of humor. "At Meetup, you take the NYC subway to work. You're part of the greatest melting pot on Earth. WARNING: Some of your fellow riders aren't naturally excited about Google Apps." and "At Google, a few Googlers wish they were at a fast-growing company where they can personally still make a huge difference. At Meetup, some Meetuppers wish we had a toilet like the Googleplex."

Not too many cheap shots, just the confidence of knowing you're doing something good. I had the privilege to find out about Meetup a while before it was public, back when Scott was first launching the idea. I told him then that I wanted his company to succeed, because we needed it to, and was proud to see him being just as passionate when speaking to a room full of politicos last week. Half a decade later, I'm also especially glad he helped me understand just how smart Brad Fitzpatrick was, well before I got to work with Brad. There's some kind of kindred spirit between people who make technologies that help others.

And since Scott uses TypePad for his blog, I was going to remind him he could use TypePad's pages feature to publish his comparison. Then I realized, by using Google Docs, Scott was actually having Google pay for the resources to host his recruiting manifesto. Them entrepreneurs are a clever bunch.

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