Startups: Not for the faint of heart

Early on during this startup adventure, a person I trust told me, “Watch out — startups aren’t for the faint of heart.” Looking back on my personal net income graph from 2009 to present, I can see what he meant.

May 2009 is when I entered Dreamit Ventures to begin working on what would become Parse.ly. That’s when I plunged my “savings buffer” into the company. The few months after that had me frantically trying to recover from the realization that startup progress is measured in months and years, not days and weeks.

Sachin and I switched gears from targeting consumers with a free product to targeting large online content properties with a paid product, and bootstrapped the company with side consulting gigs. We didn’t tell anyone we did the side consulting work (unless they specifically asked). We watched other entrepreneurs go into credit card debt and borrow money from trusting friends and relatives. We didn’t believe in that, so we took the hard road of “earning our survival”.

However, our costs were going up, not down, as we pursued a more ambitious product with more demanding clients. Also, my expenses skyrocketed as COBRA disappeared for my health insurance and I had to pay for horribly overpriced sole proprietorship plans. (Fact: America’s broken healthcare system is harmful to entrepreneurs.) I knew I needed to do something to “stop the bleeding” on my financial situation — so, I took on more consulting gigs…

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Understanding Wisconsin protests with big language data

I made an interesting discovery today.

“Free Market” vs. “Labor Union” in Google Ngram Book Viewer

Explains why no one has heard of labor unions and everyone is raving about the free market 🙂

(by the way, you can download the entire dataset behind this neat little Google Labs project)

It’s easier to play the option than the bet

Let’s say that you want to make some money at the horse tracks. The guy behind the booth gives you the following choice:

  1. The Bet. You can place a bet now, before the race starts, on the horse with, in your view, the best odds of winning.
  2. The Option. Instead of betting now, he will sell you an option. The option gives you the right to bet on any horse during the race, up until 5 seconds before the first horse crosses the finish line. However, there’s a small catch: everyone else who owns this option has the same right, and only 3 gamblers are allowed per horse during the race. If all the spots fill up, you simply get your money back. Further, each other gambler’s choice will be made publicly available to others during the race.

Most people, even if they don’t know much about horse betting, will rightfully think The Option is the way to go. No matter how much information you might have about each of the horses and riders before the race, the information you gather during the race is much more valuable. A top-ranked horse might break a leg, or its rider might trip up on the start. Even if you pick a favorite before the race begins, once it gets going and you see him lagging behind, the economic reality put in front of you will override your speculative capacities.

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Pythonic means idiomatic and tasteful

Pythonic isn’t just idiomatic Python — it’s tasteful Python. It’s less an objective property of code, more a compliment bestowed onto especially nice Python code. The reason Pythonistas have their own word for this is because Python is a language that encourages good taste; Python programmers with poor taste tend to write un-Pythonic code.

This is highly subjective, but can be easily understood by Pythonistas who have been with the language for awhile.

Here’s some un-Pythonic code:

def xform(item):
    data = {}
    data["title"] = item["title"].encode("utf-8", "ignore")
    data["summary"] = item["summary"].encode("utf-8", "ignore")
    return data

This code is both un-Pythonic and unidiomatic. There’s some code duplication which can very easily be factored out. The programmer hasn’t used concise, readability-enhancing facilities that are available to him by the language. Even lazy programmers will recognize this code’s clear downsides.

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The Startup Diet

Last summer, we got our company, Parse.ly, off the ground at DreamIt Ventures incubator program in Philadelphia. Since then, we’ve talked to a lot of founders about our experience in the program. Many founders are data-driven people who are looking for concrete advice about how to optimize their experience at these programs. One of the most successful runway-extending pieces of advice we have given has been to keep food costs low. We were able to get our food cost down to $4/person/day through some simple planning during that summer, and each of us also lost 10-15 pounds in the process. We felt great, were productive, and made our DreamIt investment last. I think this might be one of the core reasons for our company’s survival and success. This is the story behind “The Startup Diet”.

DreamIt Ventures had just cut us a check for $20K to get our startup off the ground. But my cofounder Sachin and I were worried. $20K seems like a lot of money, but it’s actually not that much. Not when you’re using it for both living expenses and to hire other people to get your company off the ground. So we started planning our spend and rationing the money immediately.

We knew we’d use some of the money for our living expenses. We had just arrived in Philadelphia, and we were living in a startup house with Matt and Burak, the founders of Tidal Labs, and Jack, one of the founders of SeatGeek. It turns out that rent wasn’t that expensive in Philly, especially in this arrangement. Instead, our number one cost, we determined, was going to be food.

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What One Does

One of America’s greatest strengths is social mobility. There are several cases of an individual starting with nothing and persevering to become rich, powerful, and influential. Success stories of this kind have become an important part of American business mythology, especially in the world of entrepreneurship. They are strong motivators for individuals embarking on companies of their own.

For those of us who start companies, we see the company as a vehicle to creating something valuable and lasting for society, while also advancing our personal goals. This isn’t usually hubris or ego, though sometimes it may be. Instead, it’s usually an attempt to make your time worthwhile: to yourself, to those close to you, and — if you’re lucky and persistent enough — to the entire world.

The problem with social mobility is that not every individual begins at the same starting line. In fact, the range is huge. Those who start with an influential family or significant capital resources have a much easier time getting to the top. For those who don’t have this head start, things are a lot harder.

Though America is not entirely merit-based, it can reward individuals for hard work. I’ve experienced the benefit both of an advantageous starting point and hard work in my 26 years on this earth. I also believe that with each step and milestone in my life, my potential to create enduring value for society has increased significantly.

Beginnings

The inspiration for this essay was a comment I read online about a successful young businessman who was the son of a successful businessman. “I’d [like to] read a story about a 25-yo [who] made good on the same scale[,] who went to a state college, had screwed up parents who were too busy fighting with each other or gettiing drunk to even have a clue what he was doing, isn’t childhood friends with a celebrity… Just happened to be smart and hardworking and optimistic even despite all those factors. That would actually be an interesting story.”

My parents weren’t screwed up, but they did fight a lot — my Mom and Dad separated when I was in elementary school and divorced shortly after that. I’ve not been childhood friends with a celebrity and I don’t have a trust fund.

I’m not saying I came from a disadvantaged upbringing — in fact, quite the opposite. I went to public high school in New York. To a New Yorker, that may not sound like a huge step up in the world, but I recognize that public school in New York represents one of the top educations you can get.

I grew up in a nice house in a quiet suburban neighborhood. I had good, encouraging teachers. My parents were liberal and a positive influence. I didn’t have a silver spoon in my mouth, but I also didn’t have any serious handicap in my upbringing. Probably my biggest step up in the world, given my current trajectory, was that when I was 10 or 11 years old, my Dad noticed an interest I had in computers. And so, he bought me a PC (running DOS / Windows 3.1) and set it up for me on Christmas Day. From that point forward, I was enchanted by the machine. And once I got a 28K modem and dial-up access to the web (on one of the first ISPs, The Pipeline), I became a citizen of the world before I had even hit puberty.

This I do know — though I had a head start, I also worked hard. I was a geek — as I got older, I built my own servers in my basement, taught myself to program, and discovered Linux and Free Software. But I also kept ahead in “the real world”. I did feel a little disconnected from my peers in my private pursuits; reflecting on my childhood, I realize I “grew up” a little more quickly than my peers.

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Flavors.me emerges from beta: lifestreaming for the masses

My good friends at HiiDef just launched a new app that has been in beta for awhile, Flavors.me. This is an excellent tool that has a great, simple, and usable design.

What’s the value preposition of Flavors.me? It’s to unify your various “online identities” into a single, dynamic, automatically-updated, and elegant website.

What do I mean by that? OK — so, like most people on the web, you spread public information about yourself in multiple places. You might run one or two blogs (personal and work?). You might have a Facebook account, a Twitter account. You may share your favorite books at GoodReads, your favorite movies at Netflix, and your favorite music on Last.fm.

Flavors.me lets you take all that information and put it together in a single website to serve as your “online identity”. All your publicly shared information, aggregated in one place, and displayed beautifully.

I’ve been running a Flavors.me site for some time that you can see here: http://flavors.me/pixelmonkey

pixelmonkey-flavorsme

Now, that’s the end product. All the content gets pulled dynamically from your various online feeds. The real magic with Flavors.me is how easy it is to get there. You can drastically change the look and feel of this site using a dynamic, “WYSIWYG” interface. You can do one or two clicks to add a service, reorder it, rename it. Another couple of clicks and you change font sizes, colors, and even the overall layout.

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The danger of feature-driven design

I recently re-read Douglas Crockford’s JavaScript: The Good Parts. I have been writing more and more JavaScript lately, especially object-oriented JavaScript plugging into existing frameworks. Re-reading the book has definitely been a useful exercise — I think when I first read it approximately 6 months ago, I didn’t fully understand it. But now, I do.

I also found it very interesting to hear Crockford wax poetic about the virtue of simplicity in all forms of software design. The following passage concludes the book.

When I started thinking about this[…], I wanted to take the subset idea further, to show how to take an existing [product] and make significant improvements to it by making no changes except to exclude the low-value features.

We see a lot of feature-driven product design in which the cost of features is not properly accounted. Features can have a negative value to consumers because they make the products more difficult to understand and use. We are finding that people like products that just work. It turns out that designs that just work are much harder to produce than designs that assemble long lists of features.

Features have a specification cost, a design cost, and a development cost. There is a testing cost and a reliability cost. The more features there are, the more likely one will develop problems or will interact badly with another. In software systems, there is a storage cost, which was becoming negligible, but in mobile applications is becoming significant again. There are ascending performance costs because Moore’s Law doesn’t apply to batteries.

Features have a documentation cost. Every feature adds pages to the manual, increasing training costs. Features that offer value to a minority of users impose a cost on all users. So, in designing products[…], we want to get the core features—the good parts—right because that is where we create most of the value.

We all find the good parts in the products that we use. We value simplicity, and when simplicity isn’t offered to us, we make it ourselves. My microwave oven has tons of features, but the only ones I use are cook and the clock. And setting the clock is a struggle. We cope with the complexity of feature-driven design by finding and sticking with the good parts.

It would be nice if products[…] were designed to have only good parts.

I removed direct references to the main subject of Crockford’s discussion — namely, the JavaScript language itself. The truth is, this advice is much more valuable for the design of all software products. Perhaps one day someone will write the much needed book, Startups: The Good Parts.

Persistent Folders: Or, why ideas don’t matter, and execution does

I’ll start off this post with a somewhat controversial claim: I invented Dropbox.

I’ll show why this claim doesn’t matter later, but for now, I’ll assure you that it’s true.

How many of you out there use Dropbox? If you don’t, you should — it’s an excellent tool. In its free version, it provides you with 2GB of storage “in the cloud”, using a new kind of folder called a “Dropbox”. What distinguishes a Dropbox from other folders on your computer? The following:

  • Every file put in your Dropbox is automatically (and securely) uploaded to Dropbox’s servers, ensuring you have an offsite backup of all data therein.
  • Multiple computers can gain access to a Dropbox, ensuring files are automatically synchronized across computers without having to use complication version control systems.
  • All files in your Dropbox are versioned, ensuring you can always recover an older version of a file in case you accidentally overwrite a good version.

Dropbox is supported on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux, and now even has mobile applications, as well. Further, I have a special place in my heart for this service because I started using it almost 2 years ago, and it has acted as a file sharing and project management tool for my own startup’s internal operations at Parse.ly. I was therefore more than ecstatic to discover that this excellent tool and its smart founders had also made it through all of the hurdles necessary to get an early-stage company the financing it needs: they’ve raised over $7 million in financing and have over 3 million users.

But there is another reason I absolutely love Dropbox: because it was my idea. I invented it.

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Simplifying CSS with 960.gs

I recently did some web design work in collaboration with a graphic designer. She introduced me to what has become my latest favorite piece of CSS code: 960.gs.

960.gs is a CSS grid framework, similar in spirit to Blueprint CSS and YUI Grid. However, 960.gs is at once more minimalist than these approaches, and more thorough.

The author has a detailed blog post explaining his motivations for working on 960.gs, so I won’t rehash each of those. Instead, I’ll just dive into what I liked about it.

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