tag:blog.thirdyearmba.com,2013:/posts Third Year MBA 2016-04-23T18:31:42Z Dana Levine tag:blog.thirdyearmba.com,2013:Post/743144 2014-09-17T20:31:11Z 2014-09-18T13:52:09Z Why Intel Should Be Scared of the Future

Intel recently announced that its new Core M Processor is 2-3X as fast as Qualcomm’s high-end Snapdragon 801 and 805 chips. That’s great, but Intel has a real problem on its hands - pricing. Core M’s volume pricing is about $281 in quantities of 1000 - Snapdragon 801 has a volume price of about $41. The Snapdragon 805 sells at a bit of a price premium, but even at $100, it’s still just over 1/3 of the price of the Core M. In the next few years, ARM-based chips are going to bridge the performance gap (or at least come close) - the 801 and 805 are actually just incremental updates put in place to stall until 64-bit chips are available early next year. And the next generation of ARM chips will be manufactured on a 20nm process, allowing them to run faster and use significantly less power than current designs.

So here is Intel’s problem - Intel is used to selling expensive processors used in PCs. Qualcomm is used to selling cheap processors used in smartphones and tablets. To admit that the market has shifted to the bottom, Intel has to admit that its high-end market for expensive processors is slowly going away. For a long time, Intel didn’t even get involved in the low-cost mobile space - this is the the typical attitude used by high-end players who are being disrupted from below. The first "smartphones" were toys, and tablets hadn’t even been invented. 

A History of Small Computing

I fondly remember my circa 2001 Palm Pilot with a 33 mhz Motorola Dragonball processor - it was relatively limited in terms of capabilities (I used it for keeping track of my schedule and playing Bejeweled). At the time my PC had a 733 mhz processor, and ran Windows XP. My phone at that point was a Motorola Startac, which pretty much just made calls (no web browsing or camera, and definitely no apps). If I wanted to do anything “real”, I booted up my desktop computer (a big tower with a 19” Trinitron CRT).

But mobile chips slowly got faster, and people began to do more with them. For a long time, it was all sort of a joke, but some time around ARM11 (the chip powering the original iPhone and Android devices), Intel started to see that these entrants were getting close to posing a threat. About 5 years ago, it

begrudgingly released the low-power Atom, which debuted in the ill-fated Netbook (again, the typical response of a high-end player is to launch a low-end, crippled version of their technology). Atom proved a reasonably capable chipset for Windows-based tablets, so it basically ended up as a platform for high-end tablets/low-end laptops (not the most exciting part of the market, but it made sense to Intel). Atom then evolved very little as ARM-based processors slowly caught up, moving up from low-res smartphones to much higher-res tablets. At this point, the Snapdragon 801 and 805 (not to mention Apple’s A7/A8) are comparable in performance to the highest-performance Atom. In face, Qualcomm’s chips are quickly becoming good enough to run demanding applications at high resolutions - many current smartphones and tablets run at either 1080p or 2560x1440, equivalent to the highest resolutions supported by today’s desktop computer displays.

What Intel did in response was to strip down it’s new high-end mobile processor (Broadwell) to use extremely little power while still providing pretty good performance. Core M’s low power usage allows it to run without a fan, allowing for use in super-thin systems (like tablets). Intel says that Core M will work well in high-end tablets, priced at $700 and higher (sounds similar to their strategy with Atom). Great, but from what I understand, the market for $700+ tablets is fairly limited, with the possible exception of loaded up iPads. The real market is for cheap tablets and smartphones, and there is no way to put an almost $300 chip into a $4-500 device. So what Intel is heralding as a “victory” over ARM-based chips is actually an acknowledgement that its competitors are getting far too close for comfort in a key market.

The Road Forward

Right now, Intel has two options. One is to focus on making better low-cost processors, rather than rehashing the same designs year after year. The problem is that they don’t really want to do this - if they make cheaper chips perform better, then they won’t sell as many of their expensive chips. So their best bet here is to advance the “state of the art” of their low-cost processors just quickly enough to keep competitors at bay. However, since their primary focus on is on building expensive processors, this will always be a secondary goal, and they will eventually lose to companies whose “state of the art” processors are low-end chips.

Intel's second option is to bow out of the low-end and focus entirely on the high-end. My guess is that they will eventually do this, whether by choice or by force (when ARM-based designs make it impossible for them to compete here). The problem is that this will accentuate disruption from below. “Low-end” chips will continue to improve in performance and drop in price, until they are good enough to meet the needs of pretty much all consumers. It’s actually only a matter of time before Apple releases a laptop based on their A-series of processors (possibly as soon as next year, but definitely by 2017), and from that point, the rest of of the PC market will slowly follow. In the end, Intel will eventually be driven out of the consumer market, and into high-end servers (where they will continue to dominate for quite some time).

As a footnote, I think that AMD is doing the right thing by transitioning to ARM-based architecture (if you can’t beat em’, join ‘em). The only question is whether they will be able to shift their thinking quickly enough to build products that serve new markets (tablets, phones, and smart devices), rather than focusing all of their efforts on ARM-based servers.

Dana Levine
tag:blog.thirdyearmba.com,2013:Post/700717 2014-06-05T20:10:54Z 2015-01-22T19:14:59Z Dealing With The Loneliness of Working Alone

For the past six months or so, I’ve been primarily doing freelance development work. And I have to be honest - it’s pretty lonely a lot of the time. Sure, I have a decent number of meetings with the people I’m working with or with friends/contacts, but a lot of this interaction is via the computer, and I end up spending a lot of the day on my own, staring at my computer screen.

Now, I’m not the most extroverted person out there (if we’re being honest, I’m a mildly to moderately shy introvert), but I do like being around other people at least some of the time. For the past several years, I’ve been noticing that I get lonely when I’m sitting in front of my computer coding. I like interacting with machines - they fairly simple and reasonably predictable, but after a while, it gets sort of old. Even though socializing hasn’t come naturally, I’ve found that I enjoy getting to interact with other people on a daily basis. The tasks I enjoy most are building things and seeing how real humans interact with them. Unlike computers, humans will always push the button that says “don’t click this,” or try to use your product for a different use case than the one you intended. They constantly surprise you. I’ve realized that I find it a lot more enjoyable to build things that real people can use than to build things that are just technically interesting. So, over the years I’ve been moving more towards “product-focused engineer” than “backend engineer,” even though I’ve had a lot of experience building backend systems. A lot of the work I’m currently doing involves building out front-end user experiences for early-stage products. Even though the actual work can be lonely, at least there is a part of it where I get to see the results of my work.

When I’m working for a company, typically I have coworkers who are in the same situation, so there are lunch times and periodic breaks to play chess/get coffee/etc… The problem with working on my own is that I don’t have those. And, to boot, I need to worry about hours on the clock, so every time I take a break, I end up feeling guilty that I’m not doing billable work. I’m slowly getting over that one, mostly because I realized that the best way to get in more billable hours is to take care of myself. When I’m feeling lonely, I tend to not be very productive, and I end up spending most of my time surfing the web and wasting time.

Loneliness is the primary thing that has killed it for me in the past. The last few times when I ended up in a flat spot (typically after the death of a startup), I ended up find a job pretty quickly. Typically, it ended up being the next reasonable option rather than the thing that felt right to me. Because, to be honest, anything felt better than sitting alone at home and trying to get myself motivated to be productive (when I didn’t even know what I was going to be productive with). But this time I resolved to stick it out for a bit longer. And things have gone reasonably well so far. I’ve found some great projects to work on, and I’ve been learning that it’s possible to make a living without having a job that I go to every day.

How to (Begin to) Deal With This
So what are the solutions that I’ve tried or seen for combatting loneliness? I can’t say that I’ve figured it out (I actually started writing this post because I was feeling lonely), but I’ve had the opportunity to try a number of different things. And talking to some other people, I’ve found that a lot of programmers/solo practitioners have to deal with similar issues, even though it isn’t something that comes up all that frequently.

The most important thing is to take care of myself (kind of strange how this ends up being a blanket solution to most of the problems one will encounter). If I’m not eating right, or sleeping enough, or exercising, or even meditating enough, I’m going to find myself feeling depressed and lonely  (I haven’t been doing too well lately with a few of these). I also need to make sure that enough time is spent working on things “for me,” like writing blog posts, or building projects that I want to build. Finally, I’ve found that not working weekends is one of the nicest things I can do for myself. When I work weekends, I usually end up feeling resentful, and reducing my productivity during the week. I’ve recently instituted a “working hours” policy during the week. I set particular hours when I can do work, and the rest of the time I’m “off.” Even if I haven’t “done enough work,” it’s time to put away my stuff and go home when my “work day” ends. Of course there are exceptions, but I find that the “extra time” I work during off hours is generally pretty unproductive, and is better-spent reading or watching cat videos on Youtube.

The second piece is making sure that I have a reasonably active social life. This can be tricky if I worry about “the clock,” but in the end, I’ve decided that the clock will figure itself out if everything else is right. So I generally plan to go to events two to three nights per week. My philosophy on events is that it’s fine to leave if I’m not having fun, but at the very least I go and give it a try. Meeting up with friends/acquaintances/people who seemed nice at Meetups is also a good thing - I schedule at least a few coffees/lunches/meetings each week. I don’t accept everything that comes my way, but I find myself going to a lot of speculative meetings. Sometimes these even turn into paid projects, but even when they don’t, it’s fun to meet up with people and hear about what they are working on.

Another solution (this is actually turning out to be a necessity) is working out of a shared space with other people around. I tried working from home for a while, but it was way too isolating. I sometimes spent the entire day sitting at my kitchen table, and when it was time to go to bed, I realized that I hadn’t left home. After a while, I found a co-working space, which was fine for a while, but after some time I realized that it wasn’t the right situation (it was too far from home, so I ended up just working from home most of the time). So I visited a bunch of spaces until I found something that seemed right. The space that I chose is a 5 minute bike ride from home, gets enough sunlight, is fairly quiet, and still has the benefit of having people around. Plus, they have events a lot of nights, so if I end up working late, I might be convinced to go the to event instead.

A final solutions I’ve seen other people try is to find a business partner whom they can work with. It’s nice to have someone else around, especially if his or her skills complement yours, and whenever you’re feeling down, there is a good chance they can pick you’ve up. I’ve done this with startups, but I’ve held off on my consulting business, although I have friends who have used this to reasonably good effect. With a consulting business, it’s a bit trickier, because one person typically ends up having to find projects for both people. Which is more efficient in some ways, but considering that I haven’t had a full plate of work until fairly recently, I’ve held off.

On a related note, it can be good to have some people to talk to (even via text or GChat). It's easy to think that since I'm all alone at work (or wherever I am), no one wants to be around me. But that's clearly not the truth. I have a decent-sized list of people who I can ping whenever I'm feeling lonely or down. I used to suffer it out by myself, but I've learned that this is almost always a mistake. Within a few minutes, I can usually get someone on the phone/computer to talk to. Talking to another person for even a few minutes can make a huge difference. A lot of people are in a similar situation, and can sympathize with where you are right now. Heck, if you are ever feeling down, you can even ping me if you want.

So these are just a few things that I’ve tried - clearly it isn't an exhaustive list, but everything on this list has helped me at some point (and often many, many times). If the people reading this have any suggestions, I would be happy to hear them.

Dana Levine
tag:blog.thirdyearmba.com,2013:Post/699267 2014-06-02T22:07:53Z 2014-06-03T21:04:32Z Apple’s “Handoff” Technology Shows Us the Future of Run-Anywhere Applications

I thought that the highlight of today’s WWDC Keynote was “Handoff," technology that allows iOS and Mac OS apps to share data in real time. In one demo, Craig Federighi began composing an email on an iPhone, and then he completed/sent it with a desktop Mac. Another demo involved opening a web page on a Mac, and then showing it to a friend using an iPad. Apple didn’t announce whether this technology will be available to third parties, or only in first-party apps (Apple often releases new OS features to internal apps before it makes them available externally). I’m guessing that even if this technology isn’t available to everyone this year, it will be by iOS 9.

The thing that excites me about this announcement is the potential of interoperable, run-anywhere applications. We are in the process of transitioning from having our applications and data tied to a single device to being able to access them anywhere. While this has actually been underway for quite a while in the data realm (thanks to DropBox, iCloud, etc...), this move begins the transition towards run-anywhere applications. One could argue that the advent of rich web applications was the beginning, but the longer-term goal is to allow even native apps to share data and run anywhere.

I can see a future where developers build a single version of their app that runs on iPhone, iPad, and Mac OS X (and hopefully Linux, Android, and Windows OSes, although let’s leave that discussion for another time). We already (sort of) have device-independence for the web in terms of responsive web applications - developers can build a single version that scales to a variety of different screen sizes and platforms. Since pretty much any device can run a web browser, we have a low level of device independence. However, web applications are still much slower than native apps, and lack direct low-level access to the hardware. In the long-run, I’m guessing that web apps will merge with native apps as web browsers improve in performance and gain greater hardware access (Google is doing some interesting things in allowing developers to build Chrome apps that look and work like desktop apps). But we aren’t quite at this vision of a unified platform, and won’t be there for quite some time (if ever - that would require too much cooperation between companies that hate each other).

iOS already has a mechanism to build apps for both the iPhone and iPad, although it isn’t as elegant as responsive design (developers use discrete layouts rather than designing a single layout that scales to the appropriate screen size). So, for now, that will have to do. Now the big question is whether it’s possible to extend similar support to the Mac. Obviously there would need to be an elegant way to deal with differences between iOS and the desktop, such as the touch/click difference, window chrome/resizing, and multitasking. But, even if there were an API that glossed over these differences by default (specify one fixed window size and convert touches to clicks), it would be a good start. That way, you could get instant cross-platform compatibility, and could extend the apps to elegantly support each platform.

Now we have to consider data sharing, since it’s important to have not just run-anywhere applications but also access-anywhere data. The Mac OS App Store moves the desktop more towards a sandboxed version of the world, so it’s feasible that all of the data would be stored in Apple’s iCloud rather than on your hard drive (most of my data on my SSD is just program files - all of my data is in the cloud). Once we have everything stored on the cloud, and appropriate APIs to support access, we can easily have our data anywhere (and we do even today, so long as we have an appropriate application that can read/use that data). There’s still the need to synchronize data that hasn’t yet been written to a storage device (such as an email), but technologies like Handoff have tricks to handle just such a problem. When developing applications for the unified platform, developers will be able to annotate the data that needs to be available anywhere, and then the applications can take care of state synchronization between devices. If it’s truly a single code base that’s running everywhere, the synchronization problem is actually easier to solve, because you only have to write the logic once.

The result is that you can put down one device, pick up another, and continue working with the same applications. Sure we’ve sort of had this for years, but only in bits and pieces, and not as a single, coherent solution. In its latest attempt to tie us even more closely to the Mac platform, Apple actually shows us the high-definition version of this vision.

Dana Levine
tag:blog.thirdyearmba.com,2013:Post/682641 2014-04-26T22:51:48Z 2016-04-23T18:31:42Z If You’re Feeling Totally Lost, You’re Probably on the Right Track

From time to time, I find myself feeling lost. I don't mean a little bit lost - I'm talking about the existential questions. 

"What the fuck am I doing with my life? Am I wasting it all? Is everything going to be for naught? What will everyone else think of me?" 

And, when that happens, I usually assume that I’ve made a wrong turn somewhere, and start to freak out. But, in truth, I’m usually onto something big when I have that sort of feeling. Which leads me to freak out, question myself, and inevitably self-sabotage by talking myself into abandoning what I’m doing and turning back. Here’s a quick parable for what’s happening.

The Receding Shoreline
When you feel utterly and completely lost, you have managed to swim far enough that you can’t see the shore any more. You know, your old life, that comfortable albeit somewhat boring existence where you went to work every day and worked on someone else’s projects. If you were halfway good at your job, you probably made a decent amount of money and were in general mostly content. Except for that subtle underlying malaise that led you to leave in the first place. Now, when you left that life, and started swimming away from the shore, you looked back every few strokes to make sure that it was still there. Because, you know, it could have moved or something. And maybe you even shouted to someone on land every once in a while. “Hey! How’s it going? What’s the weather like on shore?”

But, over time the shore moved farther away and became smaller, until finally it was just a dot on the horizon. And when you called back to your friends on shore, they couldn’t hear you over the noise of the surf. And finally, one day, you couldn’t see the shore any more. But the strange thing was that you could see another dot in the direction you were swimming. Actually, you could probably see many, many dots, in every direction other than the one you came from. And it was probably pretty scary and confusing, because you didn’t know what dot to swim towards. So you panicked and froze, and realized that you had three options.

Your Three Choices
The first (and most obvious) option is to turn back. That is probably the easiest option, because you knew what would happen if you chose this one. After all, the shore wasn’t that far away, and if you began swimming back, you could probably get there pretty soon. Sure, your whole trip may have been a waste, and you weren’t excited about that place you left, but hey, it’s sort of comfortable in a warm and fuzzy sort of way. So there was a pretty good chance you turned back. And, if you did, you probably ended up with a pretty good job at some company that only left you mildly dissatisfied. 

In all honesty, this is probably the best option in most cases, and if you haven’t taken it before, you might want to. Because, by the second or third time you have to make the choice, you will probably be ready to make a bolder choice. But hey, experience doesn’t come cheap.

The second option is to drown. That isn’t really an active option, because no one willingly drowns, but if you keep treading water for long enough or if a shark came along, it was definitely a possibility. By continuing to not act, you continually increase the probability that you won’t make it to any shore, so it becomes the default option. You could take drowning to mean suicide, or the inability to find a job, or whatever you want to make of it. But, in general, drowning isn’t really a pleasant option. So I would recommend doing anything possible to avoid drowning, i.e. one of the other two options.

So, the last option is to forget about where you came from and to swim like mad for a point on the approaching bank. It’s important to pick one point, because if you pick too many, you will bounce between them and never get any more. And eventually you will either drown or turn back. But assuming that you can focus hard enough and kick hard enough, hopefully you will make it. At least until the next time when you decide to look back and notice that the shore still isn’t there any more.

Why You Shouldn’t Quit
So, what’s the lesson here? The point when you are feeling lost is precisely the one where you shouldn’t quit. Because you’ve already made a lot more progress than you can imagine. It’s only when you can begin to see the goal that you start to freak out for real (our own self-sabotage is actually our biggest enemy). So you can turn back and give up everything you’ve fought for so far, or you can keep moving towards the unknown. Which won’t be anything like what you are imagining, but I’m sure that in the end it will be a lot more satisfying that where you came from. But the choice is yours.

Dana Levine
tag:blog.thirdyearmba.com,2013:Post/664075 2014-03-15T05:00:57Z 2014-03-15T05:02:36Z Why Your Life Will Unfold Differently From Anyone Else's

A while back, I wrote a post about how it doesn’t make sense to compare yourself to others. My justification was that this inevitably leads to depression, self-flagellation, and all sorts of other bad things. But there is a completely different reason why you shouldn’t compare yourself to others - you are completely different from everyone else, and no matter how hard you try, you aren’t going to be like them. I know that you probably watched Fight Club, and accepted that you aren’t a special snowflake. And I hate to break it to you, but that’s all lie. It’s just an excuse that we tell ourselves to allow ourselves to fall into mediocrity.

The truth is that your life is going to unfold completely differently from anyone else’s life (even that of your twin brother or sister). And for good reason; you have a unique set of things that drive you. Those drivers are going to cause you to do things differently from anyone who has ever lived before (or who will live in the future). When you combine those different choices with a different set of luck and circumstances, your life will look radically different from any other life (if only on a microscopic scale). Sure, there are probably common themes that run through most peoples’ lives. All of us will be born, and will die. We will probably have jobs at some point, and be in some sort of relationship (more likely plural than singular). Maybe we will get married and have kids. We will likely experience loss at some point in our lives, and feel alone and isolated. And at other points we will feel completely connected and plugged in to the world. But, at the end of the day, each of us will have his or her own experience. And each moment is uniquely ours, to be experienced as we see fit.

So what does this mean? Well, when you compare yourself to others, you rob yourself of the richness that is your life. In wanting someone else’s life, you actually forego living your own. In truth, you probably aren’t going to have what someone else has by the time that you reach whatever age that he/she had it at. That person was driven by his (or her) own motivations, and he got what he sought through some combination of doing and happening (let’s not begin to discuss the ratios of the two). And if he didn’t get what he thought “wanted," then maybe the conscious motives weren’t aligned with the true motives. So, if you think your motives are exactly the same as someone else’s, they aren’t (caveat emptor to anyone who is trying to find a business partner - the best you are going to do is to find alignment on a small but crucial set of points). It is impossible to know someone else’s motives - you can only guess based on your personal interpretations of what they say and do. 

For example, there was a long-standing rumor in the valley that Mark Zuckerberg wouldn’t sell Facebook until he could have a billion dollars after taxes. Clearly, that wasn’t the case, or he would have sold Facebook a long time ago. It’s also possible that he had this intention at some point, and then his agenda shifted later. Truthfully, no one knows why he built Facebook, not even Mark Zuckerberg. He can say and believe whatever he wants about his starting motivations, but no one (even him) will ever truly know why he opened up his computer one day and began writing code. All that we can say with any certainty is that it happened. And no one knows why he quit Harvard to work on his little startup, or why he stuck with it until he owned the largest stake in one of the biggest tech companies in the world. He just did a series of things, and had a series of interactions with other people, and had various occurrences of luck, and the end of the day, he somehow ended up as the chief executive officer of Facebook. This is not to say anything about whether he deserved it or how much luck was involved vs skill - Facebook as we see it today is just an emergent property of the system that includes Mark Zuckerberg and some combination of other things.

So, if you want to be a billionaire, your best bet is probably not to try to have the same motives as Mark Zuckerberg, or even to do the things that you think that he did to earn a billion dollars (actually, it’s more like $30 billion in his case, but numbers stop mattering once they cross a certain threshold). Because you can’t ever truly know what was going on when he did those things, and without the same motives (and luck), there is no way for you to replicate what he did. If you do want that billion dollars, your best bet is probably just to make having a billion dollars your number one priority. Focus all of your attention on that desire, and let that guide you towards actions that will bring about the goal. And, if you fall short, the simplest conclusion is that you got sidetracked on something else, and you focused on that instead. 

Just don’t ask me what to do, because I’ve never been good at making large amounts of money (my general priority is to have just enough money that I can effectively ignore money in most cases). I will give you some advice that will probably save you a step and lots of heartbreak. No one ever truly wants money just for the sake of having money - money always represents something else. Just want all of the things that you will be able to have when you have a billion dollars, and go for those instead. Because I’m betting that you don’t really need a billion dollars to have any of them, and even if you want to a professional sports team, you might actually have to forego a bunch of the more important items on your list to achieve that (most billionaires spend the vast majority of their time working, even if they are sitting in the owner’s box watching the game).

Dana Levine
tag:blog.thirdyearmba.com,2013:Post/645229 2014-01-23T19:59:36Z 2014-01-23T20:00:59Z How To Protect Your Startup Against The Things You Can’t Predict

Many years ago, I was an engineer at a large software company, and helped to launch a new product. I spent months going to preparation meetings, and filling out various readiness checklists. People looked over our code for security issues, and we had to do “load testing” (although, in my experience, the only real load testing you can do is with live users). And, after what seemed like an eternity, we were finally ready to launch.

We went live, and were instantly overwhelmed by the traffic we received. A security issue popped up due to the load - basically, if the auth server fell over, we would let the user in (this was my fault - I didn’t know any better). We ran out of disk space within a few days, and had to switch over to larger servers (which required manual intervention). Overall, it took about a month to get our servers stabilized, and while nothing catastrophic happened, we couldn’t exactly say that we were prepared for launch. So what was the purpose of all these checklists?

The Problem With Checklists
Well, in my experience, most safeguards involve making a list of all of the things that went wrong in the past, and preventing these from happening again. And that’s great - if you make your list long enough, you will prevent most of the common mistakes. As a result, large companies tend to have lots of red tape, and to launch anything, you need to clear all of that red tape. This has a way of stifling innovation, or at the very least, reducing the outliers to the mean. And, you have the added problem that, no matter how many safeguards you put in place, you won’t ever prevent bad things from happening. This is the whole thesis of the book "The Black Swan," which asserts that while the chance of a specific outlier happening is pretty small, the total sum of outliers (i.e. the long tail) is actually pretty significant (if you’ve read the book, you won’t be surprised by anything I’m going to say from here on).

So how can you guard against things that you can’t even predict? I mean, if you are a new startup these days, you probably finish coding your MVP, push it to Heroku, and then post it to Hacker News/Facebook/Reddit as quickly as possible. There are a million startups doing exactly what you are doing, so time is of the essence. You probably don’t have time for launch checklists - heck, a lot of early stage startups don’t even bother with testing (we can debate the merits of this later). Anything that reduces your velocity is probably impeding your ability to succeed, right? So how can you predict which one of a million bad things could possibly happen to your company? After all, the most important thing is getting people to use your product.

The Solution?
So, here’s what I would recommend - think of the most common classes of things that could go wrong, and then figure out ways to mitigate the damage of these outliers. In general, these would be:

  • My server goes down, either because I get too much load, or because a component fails. The load situation probably isn’t going to happen at first (you might want to focus more on the situation where no one comes), although there might be pieces of infrastructure that won’t even handle a minimal amount of load. You should know what your weakest points are, and how you are going to handle these either going down or not performing adequately. Also consider what happens if a service provider isn’t up to spec. On this line of thought, I've had a lot less stress when I've used known service providers (e.g. Heroku, WPEngine, Posthaven) than when I've tried to host things by myself. Yes, Heroku is down/slow sometimes, but less frequently than your server will be if you don't have a full-time site reliability engineer.
  • I get hacked. Probably not going to happen at first, but by the time that it happens, it might be a big deal (see Snapchat or Target). Try to make sure that, even if someone compromises your production database, they can’t get any payment information or cleartext passwords (and salt your hashes).
  • Some "idiot" on my team accidentally deletes the production database (and I put it in quotes, because intelligent people screw up every once in a while, and it's fine, so long as it's once in a while). I actually had this happen once recently - good thing we had a fairly recent backup. And you bet that I put in place a much more aggressive backup scheme once we lost 6 hours of user data and had to apologize. There is a subtler version of this, and that’s that I push a totally broken build, and there’s an irreversible database migration so I can’t go back to the old build. This is like a failure scenario, but the problem is that you can’t just push a new database server unless you have a backup of the database (you should probably have a mitigation scenario for anything that’s irreplaceable). In general, the solution is a fairly frequent backup that’s stored offsite.

There are probably a bunch of other things you should account for. If you have dependencies on external servers or services, try to understand what having them going down will do. This may cause you to go down, and that might be ok (just put up a big fail whale), but try to make sure that there isn’t any non-deterministic behavior (i.e. your auth server goes down and people can suddenly view the contents of every account). While you aren’t going to make your server hacker proof, you might want to think about the consequences of a security error and plan accordingly (i.e. you forget to auth protect a new page that you put on the server) - in general it’s better to blanket deny access than to blanket grant it.

And one of the most important things I learned at that big company was to put in place a service that emails you whenever you get a 500 server (there are a number of good services). Same thing for server monitoring – it’s better to get an email that your database server is down than to hear from an angry user who can’t access his data.

A lot of good companies go further than just having a plan - they actually stage failures, and try to recover from them. I’ve heard that the Heroku team used to play a game where someone would take down pieces of their service in a creative way, and then other people would have to figure out how to recover. Apparently, the Obama campaign’s IT infrastructure stayed up through Hurricane Sandy because they had already staged the contingency where the eastern seaboard went down.

Planning For Your Business
Finally, there are the disasters that are specific to your company’s business. For example, what happens if your competitors send you a cease and desist? What if Google drops you from their index? What happens if your sole data supplier revokes your access or pulls your contract (hint - never single-source anything if you can help it)? What happens if a founder walks out one day (this happens all the time)? While you aren’t going to predict all of these, you can probably figure out the major classes of disasters, and take some steps to prepare for their possible (likely?) occurrence. For example, if the Internet goes down, I’m going to walk up and down Valencia Street passing out paper copies of my blog post to all the hipsters sitting in coffee shops.

In general, while you aren’t going to be prepared for everything, intelligent preparation goes a long way. Emphasize velocity above everything else, but having a mitigation plan for your most common disasters can save you a lot of stress later on. Because we’ve all been in the situation where we we’re running around trying to fix an issue, and it’s always worse when users are screaming at us over email/Facebook/Twitter/phone and we have no idea what we’re going to do to get through this one.

Dana Levine
tag:blog.thirdyearmba.com,2013:Post/643629 2014-01-20T01:07:56Z 2014-01-20T01:07:56Z Learning How To Avoid Mistakes

Over the years, I've frequently heard it said that success is about not making the same mistake twice. I originally thought that just being aware of my mistakes would allow me to act in a healthy (and more sane manner), but sadly, this has not always been the case.  Over the past several years I've noticed myself making similar mistakes more than once, and even once I've become aware of a mistake, that doesn't mean that I'm free of it. By studying this process, I've learned achieving success is actually a lot more complicated than noticing mistakes - you must discover and correct the major areas that block you from success.

After much trial and error (and self-reflection), I've discovered that the process of learning to not make a particular type of mistake is actually akin to attaining mastery at a skill. There are four different phases in the process of mastering something new: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and unconscious competence. When I decide that I'm going to try something new (let's say playing tennis), I start out lacking competence and also lacking awareness of that lack of skill. Once I start training, I gain awareness of my lack of skill, and begin to correct that. Over time I gradually build skill, and finally that skill becomes part of who I am. At that point, I am said to have mastery of that skill (although even that is an oversimplification). In a similar vein, I present the stages of learning to avoid a particular class of mistake:

1) Being Unaware of My Mistake
I'm sure that you have hear the old adage, "ignorance is bliss," but sadly this one isn't always so true. We make many mistakes unconsciously, and don't even realize that we have made them until we see the eventual consequences. For example, I have this habit of finding fault with things and then pointing out those faults in a way that isn't terribly diplomatic. Typically, I don't even notice that I've made a mistake until either someone calls me out on this mistake or I find that there are consequences down the road. For example, there are times where I unknowingly piss someone off and it eventually comes back to haunt me. You would think that I would become aware of this after the first time, but I realized recently that I had been doing it for most of my life, and wasn't even aware that I was making a mistake, because the consequences weren't always immediately apparent.

2) Having Consciousness of My Mistake
After a while, I start to realize that I'm making a mistake. It isn't enough for other people to call me out on the mistake - I have to actually notice that I am making the mistake, and accept that this mistake is having an impact on my life. For example, I have a "friend" who sometimes tells me about things other people observe in him, but it always comes from the perspective of a detached third-person observer. Until he is able to see the impact that these mistakes are having on his life, he is unable to accept that they don't help him and start to work on a solution. This stage actually has two phases. In the first, I see the impact of my mistake on my life, but only after the fact or in a cumulative manner. 

By the time that I reach the second phase of this stage, I am able to see this mistake happen. For example, I realize that I'm geting resentful at someone or something, and I want to say something to them. And then I notice myself blowing up. One would think that as soon as I'm able to see the consequences of my actions, I would be able to instantly avoid those actions (and hence the saying about not making the same mistake twice), but I often find myself making similar mistakes numerous times before I correct them. At some point, the pain of the mistake builds up enough (for example, it causes me to leave a string of jobs), and I finally resolve that I'm going to do whatever it takes to correct it.

3) Consciously Avoiding My Mistake
This is when I actually start to notice that I'm on the cusp of making the mistake, and I take steps to behave differently than I would have in the default situation. In many cases, I will have to learn new skills for handling situations. For example, when I find myself feeling resentment towards something or someone, I may write about it until I am clear on the underlying feelings and fears that are leading towards that resentment. At that point, I may decide to change my behavior to address those fears, or alternatively I may share my underlying feelings with the original object of my resentment. 

One example of this would be that I find fault in my coworkers, but the underlying fear is that I'm jealous they have skills I lack. After doing some reflection, I will either realize that I have the skills (and just lack confidence), or I will just tell the coworkers that I admire their abilities (and am slightly envious of them for those skills). Then I can look at the issues I found, and find a reasonable way to address these. Regardless, I will probably have to make this into a conscious process for quite some time, and I may find that for quite some time, I'm getting it wrong as frequently as I get it right. Over time, the ratio will slowly start to tip, and eventually, I will find that the new behavior is (nearly) automatic. 

4) Autocorrecting
By the time that I reach the final stage, I rarely make the mistake because I have learned to autocorrect. The new behaviors I have taught myself become so well ingrained into my consciousness that I don't need to fall back on the behaviors that lead to the mistake. In a situation such as the example above, I may find myself doing a daily practice to keep myself clear of resentments, so I address any issues before they threaten to become blowups at other people. Or, I may find myself gravitating towards situations where I don't have as much propensity to become resentful at others (potentially because I realize that I offer plenty of value and don't need to hold jealousy). And, once I have dealt with all of the underlying issues, I am easily able to effect the things that I want (although probably not 100% of the time). This stage is the equivalent of "Mastery," and in fact it is a mastery of sorts. Mastery is probably more of an asymptote than something I can actually accomplish. There is probably always the opportunity to get to a higher level of "mastery," although at some point, you will find that the mistake is no longer holding you back from success, and it's time to shift attention to something else.

Dana Levine
tag:blog.thirdyearmba.com,2013:Post/642833 2014-01-16T23:16:05Z 2014-01-16T23:16:05Z On Feeling Sorry For Myself

I find myself frequently falling into a pattern where I compare myself with other people, and this never leads to a positive outcome (I often find myself becoming depressed). The reality is that almost anyone I can think of has something that I don’t have (no matter how trivial), and thinking of it is an inevitable downer. Maybe they have a great marriage and a family, or maybe they have made a lot of money/have a job that seems great. Or maybe other people just like them more for some reason. But, at the end of the day, this way of thinking is always a trap. And here’s why...

First of all, no one’s life is perfect, and there is always something to find fault with. Which is to say that even if I had the same things that they had, I’m sure there would still be something to complain about. Complaining is a coping mechanism that we use to prevent ourselves from moving forward. When we complain, we are actually saying, “This won’t do. I’m going to use it as an excuse to avoid moving forward.” In truth, there is always something to complain about, and the people who succeed focus not on what’s wrong, but on what’s right. People who have found success managed to silence most of the complaints that arose, and moved forward despite them. I haven’t mastered my objections to the point where I can achieve at the level they do, so even if I were magically advanced past my self-imposed barriers, I would instantly be stuck with a new set of challenges.

Second, even if some people have more than I do, the vast majority of people in the world have less than I do. Like probably 1/10 of what I have, or even less. And I know for a fact that many of those people are quite happy with what they have. I’ve been given an obscenely large amount of both talent and luck (not to mention financial resources), and although there are few things in my life to complain about, I still find plenty of opportunities to complain. Whenever something bad happens, I get stuck in those moments, and then when it’s time to be grateful for the good things, I quickly put them out of my mind forever. On the other hand, there are many people in this world who don’t have a lot of good things happen in their lives, but when something positive does happen, they manage to show copious gratitude. Whenever something good happens, I find myself coming up with some way to marginalize that good event. For example, I might obsess about the next deadline. All of this shows that the key to being happy with oneself is not having more, but learning to be happy with what you have.

And a bit more on idealizing other people’s lives. I was recently hanging out with a friend who has a lot of things that I don’t (he’s married, has a family, makes a lot of money at work, just bought a nice house, etc…). But strangely, when we were talking, he actually seemed pretty unhappy, possibly the least content in the whole time I’ve known him. He was the happiest when I met him five years ago and he was a poor entrepreneur. And then it all came together.

The truth is that the most valuable thing you can have is flexibility to do whatever you want with your life. And, if you believe that you have absolutely nothing going for you, then at the very least, you probably have a lot of flexibility (good things take a lot of time and effort to sustain). So you could go out today and do pretty much anything you want (and if not today, then maybe tonight or this weekend). Write a book (or a blog post). Take a trip (or even just walk all the way out to the beach). Start building a new product that you’ve always thought the world needed. Learn a new skill. Take a course online. The possibilities are actually endless. It’s your choice to actually go and seize the day, so start taking advantage of all those possibilities. Because you won’t always have as much flexibility as you have now, and when you don’t, you will romanticize about where you were right now. So what are you waiting for? Go and do it!!!

Dana Levine
tag:blog.thirdyearmba.com,2013:Post/639068 2014-01-07T21:49:23Z 2014-01-07T21:49:24Z Why 4K On The Desktop is a Big Deal

This week, a bunch of hardware manufacturers announced 4K monitors (http://www.engadget.com/2014/01/06/asus-28-inch-4k-display/) for about $800. These monitors, which actually aren’t quite 4K (more like 3.8K), cram 3840x2160 pixels into a 28-inch screen. For those of you doing the math, that’s exactly 4x as many pixels as in a traditional HD display, or 2.25x as many as many as the current state-of-the art display, the 27-inch (2560x1440) monitor. 

Computer monitors have had a pretty interesting evolution (or lack thereof) over the years. For a long time, monitors were pretty low-resolution - you were lucky to get 1024x768 in the mid-90s (and for that, you had to spring for a state-of-the-art 17-incher). Then 20-inch CRTs came out in the late 90s, and got us up to 1600x1200. But since then, things have remained relatively stagnant - as monitors transitioned from CRT to LCD, maximum resolutions stayed put, and the only evolution they’ve had is to match the widescreen (16:9) aspect ratio of HDTVs (great if you use your computer for watching movies). Your 2014 23" HD display has a resolution of 1920x1080, which actually gives you fewer vertical pixels than your 20" monitor had 10 years ago. Many professionals use 27” or 30” monitors with more pixels, but the information density is the same. Most desktop displays currently max out at about 100PPI. 4K monitors will finally change this.

So why would you want more pixels on your display? The answer is more complicated than just “you can fit more information onto the screen,” because the human eye can only perceive detail down to a certain level. My 13.3-inch Retina MacBook display contains as many pixels as most 30-inch monitors, but I can’t display it at full-resolution, because the text would be too small (leading to eye strain and eventually blindness). So, the trick is that you can display an image at less than the full resolution, but use the additional pixels to improve the image quality. Apple calls this “HiDPI” - they render the image at twice the indicated resolution, and then display it on a high-resolution display.

Apple’s “retina displays” depend on the principle that your eye can only perceive a certain amount of detail. This is why 1080p screens don’t make much sense on 5” smartphones, except for marketing purposes (a 720p display should be sufficient). When the pixels drop below a certain size, your eye ceases to see them any more, and all that you can perceive is the image they represent. When Apple’s Retina MacBooks first came out, I was skeptical, but then I saw one up close, and decided that they were pretty amazing (I bought the second generation rMBP shortly after it was announced). I don’t get significantly more information on my screen than I did before, but everything definitely looks a lot better.

The threshold for a retina image depends on how far away the device will be (http://isthisretina.com/). For a smartphone, which we hold about a foot from our face, we need about 300 ppi to reach true retina density. For a laptop or tablet, which is perhaps 18 inches away, the required density drops to maybe 220. A desktop monitor is a bit further yet, at about 24-inches, and at that distance, we need maybe 150 ppi to hit retina densities. The upcoming 28-inch 4K displays squeak in under the bar, and will give a significant increase in display sharpness.

While $800 seems like a lot to spend on a monitor, existing 4K monitors cost about $3,000, so that’s a big price drop. 27-inch displays currently cost about $5-700 (excepting the cheap Taiwanese monitors off of eBay), and an Apple Thunderbolt display costs about $1,000. The result is that the new crop of displays will give a pretty big visual upgrade at only a modest price increase, and expect prices to drop further over time. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple releases a Thunderbolt display based on this panel, styled the "Retina Thunderbolt Display.”

We only have one remaining issue - many existing computers have trouble displaying a 4K image at full refresh rate (60hz). HDMI and Displayport, the two most common connectors on modern PCs and monitors, max out their bandwidth at about 2560x1600x60hz. If you want to push twice the number of pixels, you have to halve the refresh rate. This is why the one affordable 4K display (

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) is limited to 30hz when you’re using it as a monitor. You have two options for getting around this. One is to put two HDMIs/Displayports on the monitor, and use each for half the image. This doesn’t work too well on most laptops, which only have one video out port. 

The second option is to use a feature of DisplayPort called MST (Multi-Stream Transport) mode. Originally designed to allow Displayport monitors to be daisy chained, it will also enable a single 4K monitor at 60hz. The problem with this is that not all video cards support MST quite yet. The new (trashcan) Mac Pro supposedly includes 4K support via MST mode, and rumor has it that the Retina Macbook Pro supports MST on Windows but not in Mac OS (http://9to5mac.com/2013/12/23/new-retina-macbook-pros-can-drive-4k-displays-at-60hz-when-running-windows-mac-os-needs-new-drivers/). Expect wider support to come in the near future.

So, 4K support is coming soon, and despite all of the nerdy details, I’m guessing that it will actually yield the first major upgrade to desktop displays that we’ve seen in many years. The future is starting to look a lot sharper.

Dana Levine
tag:blog.thirdyearmba.com,2013:Post/638659 2014-01-06T22:39:44Z 2014-01-06T22:39:45Z How I Usually Write a Blog Post

The most challenging thing about blogging regularly is that it requires me to suspend my self-judgment for long enough to let the magic happen. I have more than enough potential ideas for blog posts - during the average day, I’m flooded with thoughts, and pretty much any of them could turn into a reasonable post. Usually these ideas flit out of my head as quickly as they enter, but when I take enough time to actually write those ideas down (walking around with a smartphone or paper notepad definitely helps), I quickly come up with an imposing-looking list of topics. So, I should never have to worry what my next blog post will be ”about,” because it’s already taken care of. But a strange thing happens when I think about sitting down to write - all sorts of fears and judgments do their best to dissuade me. For example:

“What if it isn’t as good as my last post?” 

“What if no one wants to read it?”

“What if it isn’t on-topic for my blog? (one of my favorite things is when a writer I like publishes something completely off topic - it gives me a chance to see how he or she can apply that familiar style to a completely new and different arena)"

“What if people read my post, and that causes them think that I’m stupid or not a good writer?” 

“What if I can’t think of enough interesting content to fill 1,000 words (if you read all of my recent posts, you will find that most of them are approximately 1,000 words, including this one)?"

There are literally hundreds of reasons why I could avoid sitting down and writing a post, and they probably all come up at some point during the creative process. I’ve found that setting aside an hour works pretty well - if I write for longer, all the better, but an hour is enough to get somewhere, and if nothing comes out, well, I’ve wasted more than an hour on many occasions. So I sit down, and deal with the inevitable distractions that come up whenever I sit down at my computer (such as checking my email and looking through every single browser tab that’s already open). And then, when my mind is mostly clear, I can finally start to write.

I begin writing on the intended topic (or just typing things out in a stream-of-consciousness sort of manner, which typically works pretty well), and all the while, I’m coming up with reasons why no one would ever want to read my writing. About 40 percent of the time, the demons win, and I drop the post by the end of the second or third paragraph.

“See, there wasn’t enough material here to fill an entire blog post,” I tell myself, and then I promptly delete everything I’ve written. Or, even worse, it sits in limbo on my computer forever, in a Gmail draft or in a sticky note (I clear these out once every year or two).

Usually, though, I keep on typing, because sometimes when I hit the end of the second or third paragraph, a strange thing happens, and I start to drop into a flow state. For just a split second, I can see the big picture, and my job becomes simple – just find the words required to paint that picture so that everyone else can see it.

I’ve learned the important thing is being able to silence the demons long enough to see the big vision, bang out a draft, and hit the post button. There are a number of blog posts that I wasn’t going to publish because "they weren’t good enough." And then I begrudgingly showed them to one other person, who managed to convince me otherwise (all it took was a little outside validation).

But the coolest thing about a blogging practice is that I’m actually writing for myself, and the goal is to write, not to win love and adoration. If anyone else finds my writing interesting, then that’s awesome, but if I’m the only one who ever reads this post, then I probably got something out of the process of writing it (and publishing it publicly on the Internet for everyone to potentially read).

So, I keep writing, and as I go, I add, delete, and rearrange a bunch of sentences and paragraphs. I take some of the passive voice sentences and rewrite them in the active voice (thanks to Mr Bruner, my high school English teacher). It’s likely that I find a bunch of things don’t really fit with my original argument, so I get rid of them. And I add in a few points to flesh out the places where the argument isn’t completely clear and coherent. And then, finally, there is this point where the first draft of the blog post seems more or less complete.

I typically read through it, thinking up a bunch of reasons why I should just hit the delete button and put the post out of its misery. But, after a few more read-throughs, with some minor changes each time, I figure that it’s pretty much now or never, and I might as well just publish my writing for the hell of it. I copy and paste the document from my notepad into Microsoft Word, look for typos, add some witty headings, and then check the word count (hopefully I’m close to the magic number 1000).

Finally, I open up my blogging software, and paste in the final article. After taking one last read-through, considering scrapping the whole thing once more, and hovering over the button for about 5 minutes, I hit submit, and the article (*finally*) goes live. At that point, I read through it once more just to check for typos, and I probably find one or two nitpicks to adjust. Then I post to Twitter and a few aggregator sites, and check my blog stats page every five minutes to see whether anyone new has read my post.

And, that’s it. My work is done, at least until the next regularly scheduled session.

Dana Levine
tag:blog.thirdyearmba.com,2013:Post/638133 2014-01-05T20:45:32Z 2014-09-25T01:50:45Z Learning How To Give and Receive Love

When I announced recently that I was leaving a group I belonged to, there was a huge outpouring of love. People came out from the woodwork to tell me that they loved me and would miss me. A bunch of people even told me something along the lines of, “I feel like I took you for granted because I thought that you would always be around.” It was interesting - if all of that love had always been there, then why couldn’t I feel it, and why hadn’t it been expressed before? I talked to a friend about this, and she noticed something similar when she moved from New York to San Francisco. All of a sudden, there was love coming at her from places she never expected. People were going to miss her, but prior to that moment, they never seemed to care.

So, why is this? I think it’s hard for people to tell other people about their true feelings. There’s some inequality in being vulnerable and telling someone else how you feel about them. What would happen if they don’t reciprocate our feelings, if we tell them how important they are to us, and they respond that we are insignificant to them? We would probably shrivel up into a little ball and die, right there on that spot. So, we do the easy thing, and we don’t say anything. And then other people miss out on knowing how we truly feel about it. And, when faced with a loss, we finally admit to some small part of what we were feeling all along. It seems like a shame that the world works this way.

Recently, I did an experiment for a week where I told other people that I loved them. I just let myself notice all of the little times when I felt love - you know, that warm affectionate feeling in the middle of my chest. And then, if that love was directed at someone, I told them about it. With no expectation of getting anything in return - I was just feeling my own love for other people, and if they happened to have something to say to me, that was fine. Overall, the experiment seemed pretty successful. It didn’t have any overt effects in my life, but it made me feel good while I was doing it. It got a lot more in touch with my feelings, and it made me feel closer to some people who I hadn’t before. 

Another side effect was that I realized how difficult it is for most people to receive love. When I told people that I loved them, and in a way where I meant it, I could see them visibly clench up. There was that reflexive “I love you too” that people used to diffuse the situation. Less frequently, I would get a “thank you,” which sometimes indicated that the message was received and accepted. Most people just aren’t used to receiving love on a regular basis. It’s something that we get every once in a while as a reward for doing something good or trying hard to make someone feel good. But it’s a rare case where someone stops what they are doing and spontaneously gives us love. 

Then I realized something - I find it really hard to have other people love me. Like, not only do I have trouble asking for love from other people, but when people spontaneously start saying nice things about me, I feel my body tighten up. I just want it to stop, want them to tell me that I’m a stupid idiot again (that’s pretty much my baseline self-perception). It’s actually too much for me to accept that others love me unconditionally, without expecting anything in return. I always think of love as being conditional - if I’m good, I will receive love. Otherwise, I’m probably a bad person, and no one cares about me. I never really accepted that people do love me, and that it just might be too much for people to express their love in an open and vulnerable way. That we are desperate for affirmation, but mortally afraid of being rejected.

So, I’m going to propose a game (yes, blog posts can give homework). Think of three people whom you feel love for, and tell them about it. Do it however you want - text, email, or call. While I guarantee that there isn’t anyone out there who doesn’t want to feel loved, use your best judgment, and don’t call anyone who has a restraining order against you or anything. When we are down, sometimes all it takes is knowing that other people love us, and suddenly everything starts looking better. So give three people that gift today, or if that seems like too much, then just do it for one person.

Now here’s the hard one. Call someone up (or text them if it’s too scary), and ask them for love. Sure, you can give other people what they want, but how hard is it for you to ask for what you want?

Dana Levine
tag:blog.thirdyearmba.com,2013:Post/637736 2014-01-04T19:14:44Z 2014-01-04T19:14:45Z What I Tell Myself When I’m Depressed

I’ve struggled with low-grade depression for about as long as I remember. It always hits its peak around this time of year, and starts to recede by March or April. Sometimes when I’m in the grips of depression, I have thoughts along the lines of, “maybe the world would be better off if I weren’t around any more.” Never to the point where I would actually do anything about it, but there is that point of despair where life doesn’t really seem worth living, and I seem to hit it once or twice a year. Fortunately, I’ve gotten better and better at managing my mental state over the years. So here’s what I’ve started telling myself when I’m in one of those moods.

First, I look at the consequences of me taking my life. In that case, a bunch of people would probably be sad for at least a little while, so that would probably result in a net negative effect. And, assuming that I the work I do has some positive impact on peoples’ lives (and I have pretty much no doubt of that), then there would be some loss of value if I made a grand exit. So, I can definitively say that I would not make the world a better place by leaving it right now.

Then, I start to do some cost-benefit analyses relative to that point. Let’s assume that I keep on living for the rest of my natural lifespan, and resolve to do absolutely nothing, other than making the minimal amount of income required to sustain myself while doing absolute nothing. This seems like it would have at the very least a net neutral impact, and would definitely be better than killing myself. But that’s pretty much just the base scenario.

Now, let’s assume that I continue to be as miserable as I am when in the grips of depression, but dedicate the rest of my life to serving others. Then, even if I’m unhappy, at least everyone ends up better off (even me). That seems like a better overall outcome than either of the others. And, when I think about that, I realize how lucky I am, and how much I have. And, once I run myself through that exercise, it's hard to keep repeating the same old negative thoughts. And, if I do find myself still running negative though patterns, I just run through the same exercise a few more times, and that inevitably works.

Dana Levine
tag:blog.thirdyearmba.com,2013:Post/636978 2014-01-02T19:08:56Z 2014-01-02T19:08:57Z How I Make Difficult Decisions

There’s a decision I’ve been sitting on for the past couple months, which involved making a big change in my life. On one hand I felt like my mind was pretty clear on what I wanted to do, but at the other hand, I kept agonizing over the decision. Back and forth and back and forth. I had all the information, or did I? Every time I came to the brink of making a decision, I made up some excuse for waiting longer. Maybe if I thought about the choice for a little bit longer, I would come to a point where everything seemed crystal clear, and I could jump forward without any regrets. But, strangely, that never seemed to happen.

I feel like I spend a lot of my life in the limbo between seeing decisions and making them. The process starts when I find an important decision looming on the horizon. Do I leave my job for another opportunity? Do I take that new job that’s being offered versus remaining a free agent? Do I go to graduate school? Do I end a relationship that has some good qualities, but that isn’t working out in some way? Do I move cross-country for the promise of a new future? Do I commit to a new activity that will take a large amount of time or attention? At any point in time, at least one major decision always stands in front of me (and the same may be true for you).

There are two major types of decisions in life - the ones that have straightforward answers, and the ones that don’t. A decision with an easy answer will have a single clear upside, and any downsides will feel small and manageable. I’m pretty good with those decisions - I look both ways (sometimes a little too quickly) and then jump (sometimes in the wrong direction). The decisions that tend to trip me up are the ones that don’t have an easy cost-benefit analysis. In making a hard decision, I have to give something up, often in exchange for the possibility of a future payoff. For example, “I’m going to leave my job that pays a lot of money in order to start a new company.” Actually, the previous has been a remarkably easy decision at various points in my life, but it all depends on the circumstances.

The primary tool for decision-making is rational analysis, i.e. “choice X is better than choice Y because of information Z.” The problem is that, with a difficult decision, rational analysis probably breaks down. Choice X and choice Y seem equivalent in some major respect. So I’m not going to reason it out with the information I currently have. Which leads to a few other tactics, namely waiting it out or consulting outside sources.

My usual response when I have a hard decision is to sit on it for a while. At first, it appears that things will get clearer as time elapses, but in many cases they don’t. I get more and more information as I wait it out, but that information is often conflicting, and falls on both sides of the decision. Experience tells me that obsessing about a decision for twice as long will make me about 10% more clear than I was before. And the return diminishes over time. So, if I’m 50% clear on something after 3 days of deliberation, maybe I’ll be 55% after 6 days, and 60% clear after 12 days.

The conclusion is that it makes sense to give myself a reasonable but firm deadline to make decisions. Putting a hard deadline on it tends to work best, since soft deadlines can always be pushed off for later. So, it’s better to make it such that the decision gets automatically made on some particular date if it isn’t made by then. At the very least, that keeps me from obsessing about it ad infinitum. And, if it’s a hard decision, there’s a good chance that either opportunity 

Another common strategy is to ask others for advice (either human or spirit-based advisors). I have a few trusted advisors who seem to make suggestions based (mostly) on my interests. When I have a difficult decision, I usually consult one or more of them before putting anything in stone. But, in general, you have to consider a person's self-interest when asking him for advice. You can’t expect someone to give you advice that contradicts his own self-interest in favor of your own (although, you could make the argument that doing things in others’ best interest will yield a long-term positive effect for you). So, you would never (for example) want to rely on the advice of someone involved with the decision, or whom its effects might impact. Unfortunately, there are many decisions that will probably involve just about everyone in your life (if only peripherally), so it’s better to use other people as a sounding board rather than an oracle.

In the end, it’s important to trust your own gut. There are as many neurons embedded in your stomach lining as there are in your spinal cord, and although that may not actually mean anything to you, it sounds pretty important to me. Regardless, I’ve learned over time that my gut is pretty good at staying in tune with what I really want. So, when I get a feeling in my stomach, that probably means something important is underfoot. For some reason, a negative gut result is probably more accurate than a positive one. If something doesn’t feel right in my gut, then it probably isn’t good for me. However, if it feels good, then I may or may not have all of the relevant information to make an informed decision. I’ve made less than 100% sound decisions because they felt right in my gut, and usually I could attribute this to incomplete information. So, there’s some combination of gut feeling and rational analysis is required.

So, after much reflection, I finally decided to make a decision. I jumped, without knowing what lay on the other end. It felt kind of like jumping off the high dive after spending a long time with my toes hanging over the edge (you know that tingly achy feel). Was there anything worthwhile at the bottom of that pool, or was there just self-doubt? Regardless, with the decision made, I can move into 2014 without looking back (too much).

Happy New Years!

Dana Levine
tag:blog.thirdyearmba.com,2013:Post/632558 2013-12-19T19:36:48Z 2013-12-19T19:36:48Z Don't Fight Your War on Two Fronts

One of the most common things I hear from first-time founders is, “we need to launch our new product on every platform at once.” iOS, Android, and web, and maybe mobile web for good measure. I’ve rarely seen this pan out well, especially if launch timeline is a priority. The problem with this strategy is that it’s akin to fighting multiple wars at the same time, each with their own dynamics. In the short-term, it seems somewhat invigorating to solve for multiple platforms at once, and multiple platforms theoretically increase your total user base, but you end up exhausting your resources at a geometric rate. As an early-stage startup, you have extremely limited resources with which to execute your vision. Your most valuable resources are your time and attention, and launching multiple products is going to compromise both of those. Even if you happen to be flush with cash from a monster seed round, you probably have a limited supply of engineering/design/product management, so developing for multiple platforms will take significantly longer than for one. And, if you do manage to successfully build two products at once and get them out the door with no issues, you still have to support and enhance them over time. Which is never as easy as one would imagine.

Ok, you say. “I’ll build a mobile web version. That’s almost like the web version.” Or, even, “we’ll just build a responsive version that works on all screens.” And it’s sort of true, but you are still responsible for building and maintaining multiple separate products. In the case of the responsive app, you have to optimize it for each screen size that you intend to support (go media queries). It’s easier to support two web versions than iOS and HTML5, but only marginally so. I’m currently going through this one myself. After inheriting a product midway through development, it became clear that the customer needed a mobile version. If I were building it, I probably would have gone mobile-only, but the desktop version existed, so I hacked together a mobile-optimized app. But now it comes back to bite me every time that I want to add a feature. I need to setup two different sets of pages, and the UI often needs to be rethought to work on mobile. Each time that I hack together a new feature and it’s ready to go on desktop, I realize that I need to build it on mobile as well (lest the mobile users complain). For some reason, that mobile web version always takes longer than the desktop version, perhaps because I’m resentful about it.

So what’s my recommendation? Pick one - either iOS, Android, or web, and make the experience great. Then, ignore all requests to support an additional platform until you have succeeded on the first platform (with success being defined as having enough resources to focus on the new platform without sacrificing attention on the existing platform). A mobile-only strategy is making more and more sense as smartphones become the dominant platform (if they haven't already become it). A number of hugely successful apps sacrificed desktop support to keep their focus on mobile. For example, Instagram was iOS-only for the longest time (they were acquired before Android launched), and even now, their front page is basically a redirect to the app store. It’s ok to pick iOS OR Android - although potential users will be pissed if their platform isn’t supported, it’s better to provide a great experience for fewer users than to launch a half-baked product that no one really wants. So, resist the urge to branch out - really, and focus on the things that will lead you to success.

Dana Levine
tag:blog.thirdyearmba.com,2013:Post/630407 2013-12-14T18:20:37Z 2014-09-25T02:02:39Z Jumping Off The Train

Many of us live our lives as if we are required do to them. Maybe we aren’t obligated to complete our daily routines, but to an outside observer, it would appear so. Here’s a prototype that looks vaguely like my routine at various points. At some time (relatively early in the morning, but not before the sun is up), I wake up, check my emails/text messages, get out of bed, get dressed, eat breakfast and go to work. Then maybe I surf the web and read internet news before getting motivated to actually do some work. Finally I buckle down and work on a project for a while. But before I know it, it’s time for lunch, so I go out to lunch and chat with coworkers for a few minutes. Then I go back to my desk and surf the web before setting into and afternoon routine (which looks more or less like the morning routine). At 7 or so, I feel finished and decide to knock off for the day. Then I have a few hours to eat dinner and do whatever I want before going to bed (probably involving some sort of web surfing or TV watching). And then the next day it happens all over again, five to seven days a week. On some level, it feels like riding a train around and around the track. All that we can do is to keep riding the train, watch the scenery go round and round, and toot the horn every once in a while.

So, here’s a little secret. None of it has to be that way. Nothing is holding us there, other than social pressure. From the moment we are born, we are inundated with programming, coming from our families and from the media and from what we see and hear around us. “You have to have this kind of education, and take this kind of job, and marry this kind of person, and have these sort of things.” So, we continue to do things the way we always did them because that’s how the world works, and those things lead us towards the goals that society programmed into us. It’s possible for us to stop doing those things at any time, but there is a lot of pressure in place, and things get extremely uncomfortable when we try to move in a different direction.

The truth is that plenty of people live a life that looks nothing like yours. Maybe they started out with a life that resembles yours, and made a change. And it’s possible that they grew up with values that led them in a different direction altogether. Some of them follow a routine that happens to be completely different. They ride a different train round and round, and watch a different set of scenery. There are whole communities of people who live their lives completely outside of the parameters that most people would define as normal, but still keep to a precise routine (you can find many such groups in the SF Bay Area). They have goals, but those goals look nothing like the goals that you and I would set. To some degree, these are interesting, because there is so much diversity in what we would call a “normal” routine, but we can go even further.

Let’s talk about the people who choose not to ride the train at all. You need a ticket to get on the train, but no ticket is required to get off and walk. Some people choose to do that - some of them never even got on (as hard as that is to believe). Sure, you cover less ground when you are walking, but you get to stop whenever you want to smell a flower, and you also have the opportunity to notice all of the little details in life. And, whenever you want, you can curl up and take a nap in the grass. Some people don’t even follow a routine - they just do whatever motivates them at the moment. Depending on your lifestyle and choices, you may not need as much money as you think. You would be surprised by the number of people who manage to get by on 10 to 20 hours of sporadic work a week. They don’t have new clothes and cars and computers, and have living arrangements that might offend most peoples’ sensibilities, but somehow they manage to make it work. What they trade off in means they earn back in flexibility.

So the point of this story is that you can do whatever you want. Sure, your mental programming is telling you to stick with your old routine, but at the end of the day, it’s just programming, and that can be overwritten (more on that later). If you realize that what you're doing isn’t working for you, well, you have a lot more power to change it than you think (the alternative is to either stick with something that’s broken or to drop out altogether). So here’s a homework assignment (yes, I assign homework from my blog). Take one thing that you think you need to do, and change it up. Maybe you knock off work early one day when you feel like you’re not at optimal productivity, and go do something fun instead (even for just an hour or two). Or maybe you have an honest conversation with your boss or significant other, and ask for something you want. I’ve been amazed by the power of actually asking for what I want. 

A lot of times, I assume that other people will figure out what I desire and then figure out how to give that to me. But in reality, they often don’t know what I want, and their goals and motivations may be completely different from mine. So, even if they did know what I wanted, it might not make sense for them to give it to me unsolicited. By asking for what I want, I actually tell them where I am, and give them the opportunity to meet me there. And, if they can't give me exactly what I want, maybe they can get me closer. Regardless, asking for what you want breaks down a barrier that once was there.

Dana Levine
tag:blog.thirdyearmba.com,2013:Post/629330 2013-12-11T20:05:07Z 2013-12-11T20:05:07Z The Story of My First Startup Failure

When I started my first company, I had it all figured out. Up to that point, things had gone relatively well for me, at least on paper. Undergrad at MIT, a software engineering job at Google, and then grad school at MIT. But the thing I had always wanted is to start a company, create something new. So, when I entered my last year of business school (in Fall 2008), I was ready to do it. I was going to found my own startup.

The first thing you need to start a company is a product idea, and one night when out to dinner with friends, an idea was handed down to me from the heavens (we had a long wait for our table). I was going to replace the restaurant pagers with a system that sends out text messages (suspend your disbelief for the next two minutes). I was in business school at the time, so I went to various mixers for the business plan competition, and found people who seemed excited about my idea. Not surprisingly, I found a few people who might be interested in helping out (one became my awesome cofounder Jeff Shi), and we started hacking together the initial concept. We came up with a decent name (InstantQ), and put together a two-page executive summary that got us to the finals of the executive summary competition. We didn’t win, but it apparently was close. I was well on my way to success as a startup founder (or so I thought).

Our next step involved building a product (your business plan competition entry is much more believable if you have a product by the final phase). So Jeff and I sat down and hacked out a quick prototype in a weekend. The next step was to find someone to sell it. My business plan required a lot of sales, and I sure wasn’t going to do it by myself (I’m a nerd. The last thing I really tried to sell was Cutco in high school, and I didn’t sell all that much). So I went out and found the schlockiest salesperson I could find (to be fair, he was actually a great guy, but he totally rubbed me the wrong way). I didn’t really like him all that much, but based on my totally flawed sales sense, he seemed like he could do the job. We went out one night and got really drunk, and I convinced myself that I could grow to like him. He more or less did his job (at first), and managed to get one restaurant in Cambridge to try out our system for one night. The reception was kind of lukewarm, but hey, it was just an early version, so we were well on our way.

We didn’t win the business plan competition, but we did make it to the semifinals, and got invited to a bunch of dinners and received $1000 to cover some expenses. We also got into YCombinator - Paul Graham actually hated our idea, but we were two nerdy guys from MIT, so we had a lot going for us (we didn’t bring the sales guy to our interview). So we moved out to California and rented a cheap apartment within walking distance of the YC office. Everything was great - we spent a lot of time coding and occasionally went out to the bar to blow of some steam. We were living the startup dream - we had crappy office furniture in our living room, and the walls were covered with shower board.

About the second or third week in California, we realized that we hadn’t actually closed any customers (or gotten anyone to even use our product since The Asgard in Kendall Square tried it for one night), and we probably needed to start working on that. Our sales guy was talking to restaurants, and they weren’t exactly giving him overwhelming feedback. It turns out that most restaurants didn’t have lines out the door on the majority of nights (the economy wasn’t exactly up at the time). So, like good little YC Founders, we went to Paul Graham’s office hours, and he had an idea. “What about a dial that restaurants can use to turn up the supply of customers?” We bought, it, and decided on a two-tiered approach. On busy nights, we replace the pagers, and on empty nights, we give you a marketing solution that you can use to bring back your existing customers.

This time, we tried to take a more customer development focused approach. We walked into restaurants with our laptops, and forced the manager or proprietor to look at our demo. They seemed semi-interested, if we could make them money. We took this as enough validation to move forward, and hacked together something that worked well enough. Or so we thought.

As we found later, the real problem was acquiring customers who would actually pay us for our product. There is a big difference between building a product and building a product that people actually want to pay you money for. It turned out that our sales guy wasn’t so good at selling a product that didn’t exist yet - he was a lot less experienced that we originally gave him credit for. After hanging out with a good friend who has been a pretty good guide over the years, I decided that we needed to let him go, and Jeff agreed. So we cut him loose - he moved back to the East Coast and has done quite well since then.

The conversation the day after we got rid of our sales person went like this. “Wait, we don’t have a sales person any more. I guess that we need to go out and sell now.” So Jeff and I spent the next couple of months going out and selling, and we slowly realized that it wasn’t going to work. Despite initial enthusiasm for the idea, neither us were passionate about selling to restaurants. And, as the rejections racked up, we became more and more discouraged. YC Demo Day came and went, and we hadn’t launched (we never launched publicly because we never had any paying customers). Investors seemed lukewarm at best - we had one or two meetings that went nowhere, and our hearts weren't really in it. To be fair, Fall 2009 was a relatively difficult time to raise a seed round, but we weren’t exactly primed for success.

We talked about pivoting to something else, but we never raised any money post-YC, so finances were sort of tight. Plus, I moved up to San Francisco while Jeff stayed in Mountain View. Paul Graham’s comment was something like “that’s too far - it won’t work.” To be fair, it seemed like we were already drifting apart. I have never taken rejection well, and having two products fail was too much for me at that point. I was pretty much ready to quit after less than a year. We met several times a week to brainstorm ideas, although I remember playing a lot of Farmville (this was right as Zynga started taking off). We initially found some consulting work to tide us over, but we weren't exactly overflowing with ideas to change the world. 

Then a bunch of life circumstances intervened. Jeff’s wife got pregnant with their second child, and he needed a steadier income. My father died suddenly about a month after that, and I was thrown totally off balance for about six months. Both of us decided to bow out of the startup game, although we dragged our feet for a while. I spent about four months working on various projects and dabbling in consulting, but my heart wasn’t really into it (I was still in shock and feeling pretty unstable). In the end, I took a job at another startup that seemed relatively promising, and we shut the company down. Jeff did another startup, and then ended up at Netflix. So that’s it - the story of my first startup. I wish I had more to talk about (like customers and revenue), but hey, that comes later (I’ll tell you about my second startup failure later).

Dana Levine
tag:blog.thirdyearmba.com,2013:Post/434703 2013-04-21T21:17:02Z 2013-10-08T16:54:43Z The Power of Attention

I was talking to a stripper recently, and she told me that a lot of guys pay just to talk to her all night. That's it - they come in, talk, and give her money. Some of her clients come in on a regular basis just to talk, kind of like they are visiting the therapist every week or two.  I recently heard a similar story from a friend's trip to Vegas, where an acquaintance racked up a $1500 bill at the strip club by talking to a stripper all night. This is a good looking, cool guy who is engaged to an attractive woman (ok, she's a cold bitch). But yet something was missing from his life such that he would spend over a grand for a few hours of attention. It's interesting that people are so starved for something, and they don't know what that something is, and they think it's physical connection or sex. But once they get that attention focused on them, they realize that attention is what they want, that attention is what they are starving for.

Why can't we get that kind of attention in our everyday lives? To be blunt, most of our interactions are surprisingly shallow. I was recently at a dinner party held by a good friend, and there were only about ten people there. I knew most of the people in the room pretty well. Yet, the conversation stayed at a pretty shallow level. People were trying to say entertaining things, and not to create an honest connection with each other. I actually left feeling more disconnected than when I came, and somewhat disappointed in myself. Mostly because I had expected connection to come to me, rather than trying to create it.

A lot of our daily interactions are surprisingly scripted, with little real emotion or vulnerability.

"How are you doing?"
"Good! You?"

And, in most cases, neither person is just "good;" there's always something a lot deeper or more vulnerable that we could say. But we don't say it, for fear that we will offend the other person, or seem negative, or tell them too much such that they won't like us or want to talk to us any more. So we stay in the "safe" zone, which actually just isolates even further. And then we end up "hungry," but we can't quite put our finger on what we want. Except that we feel lonely and disconnected.

So why not go to a therapist if we want attention? After all, that's what they are supposed to do; you pay to talk to them. First of all, there is still some stigma around seeing a mental health professional. If I go to a therapist, I am admitting that there is something wrong with me. Plus, whenever I go to a therapist, I feel like they are trying to fix my problems, rather than truly listening to me. "Tell me about your relationship with your parents," they say. And, sure, I want to talk about my relationship with my parents. There are a lot of things that happened while I was growing up that led to me becoming the person that I am right now, and there are a lot of skeletons in that closet. But, right now, I just want to be heard. I just want to feel like someone is listening to me, and cares about what I have to say.

So what's the solution? Our attention is constantly being diverted, and shifted, and pulled off of other people by all of the distractions of modern society. Emails, texts, app notifications, etc…. They are all great, but they constantly pull us out of focusing all of our attention on any one thing. The result is that we end up with fuzzy or diffused attention. One of the most interesting things about going a year without a smartphone was that when I was hanging out with someone, I could put all of my attention on them while we were together (or get them to focus all of their attention on me). We spend so much time "around" other people without actually being "with" them. Right now, I'm writing this blog post as I sit next to someone I know. I'm writing on my computer while he watches video on his iPhone.

So, here's an experiment to try that might create more connection. The next time you are spending one-on-one time with someone, agree to shut off your smartphones for half an hour or an hour and just be present with each other. Then try to focus all of your attention on the other person for 15 minutes, and see what happens. You might be surprised by what happens. And maybe you'll feel some real connection.

Dana Levine
tag:blog.thirdyearmba.com,2013:Post/426103 2013-04-21T00:45:00Z 2013-10-08T16:53:02Z The Value of Downtime

Last night, some friends and I were having a conversation, and one person said that she needs some downtime to recover. The response from someone else was, "You don't need any downtime. Look at our friends who work for X Company, who work 7 days a week and just keep going." Unfortunately, I've found this to be mostly an illusion. Sure it looks like they can do it for now, and maybe it will work for months or years, but even the best will eventually burn out (or at least need a rest at some point). First of all, a lot of people find that they aren't at optimal productivity when working that much, and that they can often accomplish more by working less (and being more focused). But, additionally, working 24x7 puts a toll on your body, and pulls you out of the natural work/rest equilibrium. If you love and are engaged by your work, you can manage to push the biggest consequences off for months or years, but eventually you will need to pay off the debt you've accumulated.

I used to have this dream that I would find the holy grail of 100% productivity. In my vision, I would wake up in the morning, eat breakfast, go to work, and progress down my task list for 10 to 12 uninterrupted hours. Then I would go home, read a book for a few hours, and then go to bed (hopefully having lucid dreams where I would figure out answers to some of the problems that arose during the previous day). By doing some controlled experimentation where I got rid of nearly all distractions in my life (more on that in another post), I figured out that this is mostly possible (ok, except for the lucid dream part). And it worked great for about a month or two - I achieved probably 1.5-2X my normal productivity level at work. At 2 or 3PM every day, I would comment that I had already knocked off a full day's tasks, and I still had 3-5 hours left at work. And when I left the office, I have plenty of time to go on a date or read 50-100 pages of a really dense book before finally getting into bed (and I slept great). In the span of a month or two, I knocked off "A People's History of the United States," "The Singularity is Near," "No Logo," and a bunch of others. Basically my entire reading list at the time.

The problem was that it all fell apart at some point. I found myself drifting towards distractions more and more regularly. First I started losing focus at work, and then at home, until I was basically back to where I started (my productivity was essentially random on a day-to-day basis). While this was somewhat depressing, I had a number of interesting realizations about the value of downtime. First of all, it is important for recharging your "focus batteries." Just like sleep recharges your body and brain, downtime recharges your attention and willpower. It's like there is something that you are using up when your brain operates in a structured way, and at some point you will use it all up. If you can regularly go down in a planned and scheduled way, you can make the "uptime" even more productive.

Additionally, unstructured time allows your brain to operate in a much more freeform and creative way. My most creative ideas always come on the tail of a long break. When my brain is too focused on the here-and-now productivity mindset, it doesn't have an opportunity to focus on what could possibly become in the future. However, when I allow it to wander in a controlled manner, it magically use its power to generate all kinds of new things. Which is why, when I hit a roadblock, the best thing to do is usually to take some time off and think about nothing in particular (or take a nap). Strangely, the solution usually emerges relatively quickly.

So we all have two different modes, one that is structured, and another unstructured. If we engage only the structured, then we can't accomplish our highest and most creative purpose, and if we engage only the unstructured. then we probably won't get much done. The challenge is figuring out creative ways to allow both to emerge. In the end, I don't want to be 100% productive. I just want to be happy and fulfilled with what I have in my life. And, while I probably won't complete the maximum possible amount of work at every moment, I can build a life that allows me to hit a fulfilling balance. At least that's the goal.

Dana Levine
tag:blog.thirdyearmba.com,2013:Post/397267 2013-04-14T22:19:34Z 2013-10-08T16:47:24Z Measuring My Words

My post yesterday got an interesting response (via Hacker News).

Maybe the whole "write a [b]log post a day" thing is not the right way to go. You can reflect without broadcasting to the world and committing to something like that. Just relax for 30 days and don't do anything of importance, just be.

I actually agree with the intention of that. In fact, the "write a blog post every day" goal is kind of antithetical to my goal of "doing nothing for 30 days." 

However, I think that there is something deeper that I'm trying to access. I currently have this perception that every post has to be an essay and a masterpiece, and I want to break that in favor of more honest, free communication. I have this deep-rooted fear that someone will read one of my blog posts and judge me as "not a good writer," or "not all that intelligent." As a result, writing a blog post becomes a project in and of itself. 

First I have to think up "the idea," and it has to be really, really good (at least in my mind). If it isn't good enough, then the post dies there. Then I need to write the first draft, preferably in the range of 500 to 1000 words. In the case that I can't think of enough to write about, I kill it. Or it sits as a zombie draft in my inbox for six months to a year, until I finally clear it out. The net result is that I've averaged about one post a month for the past four years (credit goes to one of my former coworkers for coming up with this statistic). 

And there's nothing to be ashamed of about one post per month, but one of my current life goals is to write more. I have always enjoyed writing, and have "intended" to make it a bigger part of my life, but it has remained an "aspiration" rather than an "occupation." So I'm going to try to write something every day, even if I can't think of anything better than transcribing my grocery list. And, if the quality suffers in favor of quantity, I'm going to be ok with that, and work my way through. I hope that the net result will be more honest and unfiltered communication.

And that's Day 2.

Dana Levine
tag:blog.thirdyearmba.com,2013:Post/393182 2013-04-13T22:05:40Z 2013-10-08T16:46:38Z Taking a Break

Let's step back to the time when I graduated college, which would be June 2002. I landed a job post-graduation at a tech consulting company called Appian Corp. The recruiter encouraged me to begin my orientation on June 18, about two weeks after I graduated. My older and wiser friends (who were a year or two out of college at the time) suggested that I take some time off and enjoy myself before throwing myself into the working world. I took the August 5th start date, and had a great time hanging out with my college girlfriend, living in my parents' basement, and visiting some friends in Alaska. It was pretty glorious, and probably the last time that I had two whole months off.

In fact, I think it was the last time that I took any deliberate time off between jobs. When I left Appian a couple of years later to join Google, I had just a week in between, and that time was spent moving cross-country. I left Google about a week before I started grad school at MIT, and that also involved a cross-country move (and a four day long cross country drive). By the time I finished grad school, I had already started working on InstantQ and had received seed funding from YCombinator. InstantQ is a bit more complicated, because when it failed, I tried a number of other startups before giving up. But, if I remember correctly, I had a new job at Zecter about a week after I finally gave up for good.

Moving forward to 2011, by the time that I left Zecter, I had already started working with Sam on SpeakerGram/Scaffold. Moving forward to last summer, when we finally decided to call it quits, I lined up a new job within two weeks. Well, I had originally decided to take some time off to reflect and enjoy the summer in New York City, but I began to feel anxious and depressed after about a week. So, as soon as Jason called, I was pretty much ready to go.

So I left my most recent job a bit over a week ago. Things weren't working out for me, and it made sense to move on. Overall, it was about as amicable as such a thing can possibly be, and I don't feel like there are a lot of regrets (maybe I'll write more about this later). My normal move would be to jump immediately to the next thing, but I had a sense that this might not be the right play this time around. So, I decided to try something new, and pledged that I would take thirty days off before starting to think about what I would do next. 

I have noticed that whenever it comes time to figure out what I'm going to do for work, I jump to make the first reasonable choice that comes along. This has happened with jobs, but also with picking startup ideas to work on. It's just so easy to say, "that will do," rather than having the strength to wait for the thing that's actually right. Paul Graham once said something to me along the lines of "It took a lot of time and effort to kill your startup idea. You might as well take your time when deciding what to work on next." While that seemed like pretty good advice, I jumped into the next thing that came along, and the next, and the next. Until I was finally willing to listen.

What am I going to be doing during the next month-or-so? Well, the short answer is basically nothing. I've been going to a lot of Bikram Yoga, spending a lot of time hanging out with friends, and taking regular long walks to Ocean beach. I'm also resolving to write something in my blog every day (today is actually the first such day), and I'm going to come up with a bucket list of things to occupy my time. I have a trip to New York planned for the end of the month, and maybe I'll take another trip somewhere else. But, most importantly, I'm trying to commit to as few things as possible, and to enjoy every day for what it is. More on this later...

Dana Levine
tag:blog.thirdyearmba.com,2013:Post/33756 2012-12-23T23:08:00Z 2013-10-08T15:28:52Z The Giant Wasteland and the Tiny Vault

This post was originally published on the 42Floors Blog.

So there’s this popular series of video games with the title “Fallout,” which are set in various post-apocalyptic versions of the US. In addition to presenting hours of engaging gameplay, they represent a rich metaphor for startups and life in general. In each game, the hero emerges from a tiny underground vault where he (or she) has lived his entire life thus far. The vault is completely isolated from the outside world, both to keep the residents safe and to prevent them from leaving. Never mind the reasons for the hero’s emergence; they are slightly different in every game, although always related somehow to saving the world. The first thing that the vault dweller notices is how big the outside world is. He never realized how tiny his world was until he left it. The second thing he realizes is that the world is full of radioactive mutants (or are they zombies?) who want to kill him. He proceeds to spend the rest of the game blowing those mutants to pieces (and that’s where this parable starts to diverge from the point I’m trying to make).

I would say that all of us (at least everyone reading this) have at some point had an awakening. We were toiling away at our corporate job, or suffering through some unsatisfying relationship, when at some point a light went off. We realized that we didn’t have to stay in the vault, or possibly we even noticed for the first time that there was a vault at all. A lot of vault dwellers just sort of assume that the world begins and ends at those doors marked “don’t enter”, and never really give much more thought to it. Or, for the startup founders out there, possibly we became obsessed with an unsolved problem, and realized the only way to solve that problem was to go out on our own.

So we packed our bags, and said goodbye to all our friends (or maybe we snuck out at night), and headed out those big doors. The first thing we realized was how big the world out there was. And that’s just what we can see. It goes on and on and on and on. For a while, it’s fun. We’re on our own, doing our own things. And killing mutants is kind of fun, and least for the first few weeks or months. But then we realize that it’s sort of lonely out there. and that we don’t always know what we should be doing. Maybe our first startup idea didn’t work out, and we had to pivot, or maybe playing the field was fun, but we realized that we only get to eat what we kill (even lions and tigers don’t get to eat every day). Somewhere down the road, there was the realization that if you stay outside by yourself for too long, eventually you turn into one of those mutants.

Around this time, we started to notice that there were a lot of doors out there. And they led to other vaults. Some of them said things like “Big Corporate Job,” while others might have said “Series A Startup,” or even “Developer Training Bootcamp.” I bet that a number of them were labeled with various types of self development programs or meditation retreats. And I’ll also put money on the fact that a bunch of them even had people camped outside, trying to get us to come in. Some of us were able to ignore those doors, and decided to hold steady and pitch our own tent, but most of us probably tried visiting a few of those enclaves.

As we entered some of those doors, we realized that these vaults came in all shapes and sizes. Big and small, accepting and exclusive, homogeneous and heterogeneous. We could find pretty much anything we were looking for, if only we knew where to look for it (this is San Francisco, after all). But, most importantly we realized that we could only visit one vault at a time. So we had to make choices. And once we stepped through those doors, there was a certain amount of gravity keeping us there (it was almost like they wanted us to forget that the outside world even existed). Some of the vaults were led by charismatic and well-spoken leaders (the Paul Graham type, or the Steve Jobs type, or maybe even the Charles Manson type in some unfortunate cases). Some of the people in one vault would tell us about the evils of other vaults. “That one is a cult,” they said. But that always shifted the burden onto the accuser. “Why aren’t you a cult as well,” we would ask.

But at some point, we realized that they were all the same. Not in that they were all actually the same, but in that they were vaults. They all contain interesting and potentially valuable things, but are designed as vaults, which mean that they try to keep other things out. And since we made the decision up front to not be contained, it probably isn’t in our interests to join one whole-hog. But rather, it makes sense to stay for a while, to absorb what we can, and to take it with us. And then to head back out into the radioactive wasteland, to do it again. Maybe one day we will find a vault that fits us perfectly, but more likely, we will eventually build our own vault, which contains an amalgam of the things we discovered while we were out there. Some of them came directly from other vaults, while others may have come to us while we were camped out in the wastelands. And some may even come in the form of other people, whom we met along the way and decided to team up with. Because it’s a lot easier to kill a mutant when you have him flanked.

So what’s the lesson here? First of all, you’re probably doing a lot better than you think. You took the hardest step when you decided to leave the vault for the first time. Everything after that is just keeping the momentum. And don’t let anyone force you back into a vault. And make your time count. Because, at the end of the day, none of us wants to turn into a radioactive mutant.

Dana Levine
tag:blog.thirdyearmba.com,2013:Post/33761 2012-11-06T21:28:00Z 2013-10-08T15:28:52Z Why everyone loves the iPad mini (even though the screen sucks)

I was hanging out in downtown SF the other day, and of course I had to visit the Apple Store to play with the new iPad Mini. Everyone pretty much ignored the all-new New iPad (let's refer to it as iPad 4), while there was a 3-deep queue to play with the mini. I even seriously considered buying one on the spot (pending availability). So why are people going gaga over the mini, when the iPad 4 is actually a much bigger refresh in terms of hardware? (iPad 4 is a generational leap in both CPU and graphics performance).

So I'm pretty sure that cost is not the distinguishing factor. Last time I checked, you could buy a refurbished iPad2 for just $349, which is pretty close to the mini's price. It's likely that a lot of people don't know about Apple's refurbished models, but if cost were the biggest factor, people would be breaking for the Nexus 7 at over $100 less (and they are to some degree, but I'm guessing that Apple will sell a lot more iPad minis than Google sells Nexus 7s).

Retina Displays Aren't Disruptive
So when we look at the mini more closely, we can start to understand why it's so great. It basically has the same guts as the iPad 2 (the 2011 model), but in a smaller and lighter package. The screen is about two inches smaller, but the same resolution as the iPad 2. Which gives it a higher pixel density (the dots are closer together) than the iPad 2, but a lower density than the new iPad 4. All of the reviews complain about this, but the reviewers proceed to lavish praise on the mini, and say that it will replace their other iPads.

So there's a problem with these retina displays that Apple is gradually rolling out on their machines - they are a nice-to-have, but not really disruptive to what we already have. When you look at disruptive technologies (as defined in The Innovator's Dilemma), they typically enable use cases that their predecessors didn't (such as allowing devices to be smaller or lighter). There isn't actually any new use case that a retina display enables, other than being prettier. It's not like visible pixels in any way diminish the functional experience. Sure a lot of uber-geeks rushed out to buy the Retina Macbook Pro, but I'm actually waiting until retina displays become the default in a year or so (and they will, if you look at Apple's typical technology adoption curve). Apple even went in sort of the wrong direction when they rolled out the retina iPad - it was a bit thicker and heavier than its predecessor, and the battery took longer to charge. This is not to say that iPad 3 was a flop, just that Apple has typically focused on size and weight above any performance specs. The iPad 2 has continued to sell briskly despite being almost two years old, and I think that part of the reason is that people don't entirely get the retina display thing. The iPad mini corrects the big iPad's deficiencies by offering an alternative scenario, one where size and weight are king.

Size Does Matter
Here's where the iPad mini wins over iPad 4. The iPad mini is small and light - actually shockingly so. It's a lot smaller - the roughly two-inch difference on the diagonal translates into 50% less screen volume (and the area surrounding the screen is smaller as well. But the most amazing part is the weight - while the iPad was always uncomfortable to hold for any length of time, the mini can be held effortlessly with just one hand (and, if you look carefully, every press photo of the iPad mini includes a hand grasping it). I could actually use it for reading a book, much as I currently use the Kindle. I pulled out my new Kindle Paperwhite and compared it to the iPad - the Kindle has a significantly smaller footprint, but the iPad is noticeably thinner (and still fits comfortably in one hand. The Kindle weighs a bit less, but it's actually less significant than you would expect.

Pretty much every reviewer lauds the mini for its size and weight - I think that's the real disruption here. Much as the tablet is disruptive to the laptop, the 8-inch tablet is disruptive to the 10-inch tablet. My short-lived Nexus 7 (I sold it after a month) was a bit too small for comfortable reading, but 7.9 inches seems like an appropriate tradeoff. With the iPad mini, you can do everything you can on the iPad, pretty much without compromises. Text is still readable at that size, and the touchscreen isn't any more difficult to use. I found the Nexus 7 to be slightly uncomfortable when compared to both a smartphone and a tablet - Google uses a slightly awkward version of the phone UI with the Nexus 7. Part of this may have to do with the aspect ratio - the Nexus 7's screen always seemed a bit too narrow, while the iPad's 4:3 ratio is just right (even though it has to letterbox movies).

Putting Lipstick on a Bulldog
The Mini is also arguably prettier than the full-sized iPad, which hasn't changed much in terms of looks since the second model. The mini looks (and feels) a lot like a blown up iPhone 5, which is actually a good thing. It's likely that some of the interest is due to the iPad mini looking so different from the iPad - non-nerds definitely don't care about what's inside of the box (so long as the performance is reasonable).

So the iPad mini is better than the iPad 4 in all of the ways that matter (size, weight, and cost), and only lags in the ways that don't (namely performance and screen resolution). Which gives it all the makings of a disruptive technology. I suspect that it will become Apple's best-selling product, and the big iPad will become akin to the 15-inch Macbook Pro, which is vastly outsold by its 13-inch little brother. But that's ok, because Apple is the most profitable company in the world, and they can afford to build two lines of products, one for technology nerds and the other for the mainstream.

Dana Levine
tag:blog.thirdyearmba.com,2013:Post/33763 2012-10-23T17:28:45Z 2013-10-08T15:28:52Z Has AMD's Clock Run Out?

AMD recently announced that they massively missed their quarterly numbers, and that they plan to lay off 15% of staff. Of course they are blaming it on the economy, but as a long-time follower of the CPU scene (and a perpetual fan of the underdog AMD), I can say that isn't really the case. Sure, PC sales may have ticked down a bit, and even Intel's numbers lagged this quarter, but the real problem is that AMD has become irrelevant by failing to release competitive chips. They relied on the low-end market for the bulk of their sales, which was and extremely dangerous move (as I will explain later).

About ten years ago, I wrote a column about AMD's upcoming Athlon 64 processor, which was to be the first mainstream 64-bit processor. At that point, 64-bit processors were exciting because they finally allowed PCs to address more than 4GB of RAM, and also offered a number of improvements that are extremely exciting to CPU geeks. While Intel had offered 64-bit processors in a few high-end workstations, they were ridiculously expensive, and never really caught on. AMD was essentially offering an affordable processor with next-generation capabilities.

I actually bought one of the first-gen Athlon 64s soon after they launched. I loved that machine, and every now and then, I drag it out of the closet whenever I need an old Windows XP machine for some testing. The Athlon 64 had a long life as a desktop processor, and it was also popular in servers. A number of top tech companies used it in their servers because it could do more work per watt of power consumed (which is the most important thing once you reach that scale). In fact, Dell sold a diminutive computer just a couple years ago with an original Athlon 64 inside.

The problem was that the Athlon 64 was pretty much the last in AMD's string of hits. Intel quickly eclipsed them by releasing the first dual and quad-core CPUs, and managed to scale performance much more quickly. While AMD did pretty well in the server market, 64 bits didn't offer a huge advantage on the desktop, and Intel eventually released their own processors that were 64-bit compatible. By the end of the decade, AMD needed a new hit. They did manage to release an affordable 6-core processor  - I happen to own one of those, being the CPU nerd that I am. However, Intel's midrange i5 offered more performance at tasks that don't require massive numbers of cores, so they sold modestly at best.

AMD needed a new hit. They bet on an entirely new architecture, nicknamed Bulldozer, which completely rethought the way that chips were designed (I won't go into the specifics, but it attempted to compete with Intel's Hyperthreading technology). It promised up to 8 cores on a single chip, where Intel offered a maximum of 6. The problem was that Bulldozer was about a year late, and when it finally came out, performance was much lower than expected. In fact, the Bulldozer processors are usually slower than the generation that they replaced. AMD pretty much admitted defeat on that one, and announced that it was basically withdrawing from the high-end PC market (although they continue to make processors for the server).

So AMD retreated to the low-end, releasing chips that performed modestly for a reasonable price. Since acquiring ATI in 2006, they have focused on creating chips with integrated graphics capabilities. At the low-end, they offer significantly better graphics performance than Intel's integrated graphics, and a lower price. The problem is that the margins on these low-end PCs are small, and they are extremely sensitive to economic fluctuations (AMD actually had to take a write-down because they have so much unsold inventory). Although AMD managed to turn a profit in the past based on these processors, it's unlikely they will be able to continue this in the future. More importantly, ARM is taking over the low-end.

As I've pointed out in a few previous posts, ARM is quickly increasing its chip performance to the point where it overlaps with low-end PCs (for the uninitiated, ARM designs power most smartphones and tablets on the market these days). People are already replacing their laptops with tablets (one of the real reasons AMD's sales have dropped), and within a year or two, we will be seeing PCs and laptops based on the ARM platform. Google's just-announced Chromebook is only exceptional in that it features an ARM processor rather than an Intel chip. And rumor has it that Apple is considering moving its Macbook Airs to ARM, which would allow them to decrease size without compromising on battery life.

So AMD is being squeezed on both ends. At the top-end, Intel is beating them on performance, and on the bottom, ARM manufacturers are eating their lunch. They have a few reasonably competitive products in various niches, but that's about it. This is pretty much the classic story of a company undergoing disruption by competing technologies. My guess is that it struggles along in mediocrity for a few more years, and then either exits the processor business entirely or is acquired by a competitor. It's possible that AMD will pull an ace out of its sleeve with the next generation of processors (currently not even on the roadmap), but it seems like this might be the end of the rope.

Dana Levine
tag:blog.thirdyearmba.com,2013:Post/33766 2012-07-13T16:06:00Z 2013-10-08T15:28:52Z Why Ouya isn't Going to Work

So there has been a lot of buzz on the Internet about a Kickstarter project called OUYA. For the uninitiated who have been living under a rock for the past week, OUYA is an open-source game console based on the Android Operating System. It plugs into your TV, and allows you to play games on your big screen (rather than on your phone or tablet screen, which has been the recent trend). And the overall mission is for this to be an open platform, unlike XBox and Playstation, so anyone can develop games for it (most independent developers can't afford the fees required to publish their games on the big consoles). And one more thing - it only costs $99 if you donate to Kickstarter right now. Unsurprisingly, Ouya was the fastest project to ever hit $1 Million in funding on Kickstarter, and it crossed the $4 million threshold in just a few days. I think it's also likely to be Kickstarter's first huge flop. I'm skeptical that they can make the product they are promising, and this should be obvious to anyone who gives it a close look. I see a few major red flags - namely that there are too many moving parts in getting the hardware right (let's not even address the software and marketing issues), and that the team doesn't appear to be cut out for the mission.

Hardware Manufacturing Costs and Complexity
Let's be realistic - even if they use completely off-the-shelf components, the cost is just way too high for them to pull this off at the promised price-point. If you look at the specs they have given, we are probably talking close to $50 just for the raw materials required for the console. From what I can determine, the Tegra3 SOC is $15-$25, but that's only a small part of the console. A number of other pieces are required, as the SOC doesn't include a number of important interfaces (Bluetooth and Wifi). Even if they can find an off-the-shelf logic board that includes all necessary components, they still need a custom case and a power supply.

Had the team decided to focus on just the console, and designed it to work with some common USB or Bluetooth Controllers (eg the XBox or PS3), they could have shaved off a significant amount of the cost. Sure, I know that a top-notch controller is important, and the company really wants to distinguish itself from what's out there, but there are plenty of off-the-shelf controllers that could suffice for now. As it is, they specced custom a gamepad with integrated touchpad, which can't be cheap to manufacture. If they can source the parts for $25 at the scale they are proposing, I would be seriously surprised. Se we're talking at least $75 in raw parts, plus the cost to put it together and ship it. So building the hardware will cost at least $100, and probably more than that.

So manufacturing hardware isn't cheap - everyone I know who has built a hardware product has found it to be far more difficult and expensive than anticipated. The biggest problem is typically not designing the hardware or building the prototype - it's getting the thing manufactured so that it would actually work. A lot of things that work in your R&D lab can't be manufactured at scale, and you usually don't find that out until you try. The first run production usually doesn't work, and then you have to figure out what happened (at your cost, not the manufacturer's). Having experienced hardware engineers and supply chain people can help, but there has to be a large enough "screw-up" budget. At the prices they've listed, I can't see much room for that.

So who is team OUYA? Well, that's not entirely clear (most of the people on the promo video are game developers). So far as I can tell, the company doesn't even have a website at this point (which is strange, considering that they aren't exactly in stealth mode). From the Kickstarter page on OUYA, I've been able to determine that the CEO is one Julie Uhrman. Perusing her Linkedin, I see that she has about nine years experience in the gaming industry, so at least she has something that could be helpful in building a new platform. The problem is that none of that experience involved manufacturing hardware. If she is so experienced, and the opportunity so big, then why hasn't she been able to raise money from institutional investors?

I also see that Yves Behar is involved, which is where the sleek design for the controller came from. A sleek design is important, but it's not necessary to build a good console. The original XBox did fine despite being pretty ugly and having a poorly designed controller (although it did have Microsoft's marketing muscle behind it). And it isn't clear that Behar is any more than just a consultant (OUYA is working with fuseproject, Behar's consultancy). The Kickstarter page says that plenty of other people are involved, but they "would get fired if we tell you who they are." So hopefully there is actually some real firepower behind the hype, but those people need to leave their existing jobs before they can work full-time on OUYA. Honestly, it kind of says something when a founder can't get his or her team to quit their day jobs. I regularly see founders get great people to quit jobs and take huge pay cuts to work with them.

As it stands, OUYA has a team that's obviously long on design and hype, and short on documented execution. Which makes sense given that they have been able to collect $4 Million in "donations" with very little to show for it. For all we know, the "working prototype" could be a Tegra3 development kit with a USB controller attached.

I'm actually less worried about the BD deals than the manufacturing. If the team succeeds at building the hardware but can't get anyone to develop for it, I'm sure that they will at least figure out how to get some existing Android games to run. So backers will get a working device with a small library. If, by contrast, they screw up on the hardware, the whole thing is completely useless, and no one ever gets anything. It doesn't matter what cool launch titles are out there if the hardware isn't right. 

To be honest, unless they manage to poach someone senior from Apple's supply chain and manufacturing, I don't think that they have a shot of pulling this off for real. 

Comparisons and Conclusions
So how is this different from The Pebble or any of the other projects that raised a ton on Kickstarter? Well, in general those were the product of an experienced team who had built comparable products in the past. The team behind the Pebble built a similar watch for the Blackberry that, while simpler, showed their ability to produce. Some of the other high-grossing projects were video games by developers who have already built similar hits (Brian Fargo, who is building a sequel to Wasteland, built the original game and founded Interplay). And, to be fair, none of these high-grossing Kickstarter projects have delivered yet, so the jury is out on all of them. I faintly remember a metal iPhone case that completely killed the phone's reception, and hope this won't be one of those.

So I wouldn't recommend putting your money on OUYA. If they are successful, you can buy the console when it comes out. When you figure in the probability of the team delivering a real working product that lives up to the hype (estimated generously at 10%), the retail price would have to be $1000 for a commitment to be worth it. Since they have already hit the funding target, I would let them work out the kinks with the money they have already raised.

Dana Levine
tag:blog.thirdyearmba.com,2013:Post/33769 2012-05-17T17:28:14Z 2013-10-08T15:28:52Z Pivots are a Trap

It's kind of common in Silicon Valley to meet up with someone you haven't seen in a while, only to find out that his startup has completely changed directions. Like it used to be all about selling catfood, and now it's all about building a better mousetrap. In fact, if you've talked to me in the past year or so, you've probably heard at least three different stories about what I'm building, depending on when we last talked. Over the past few years, the term "pivot" has entered the technology startup vernacular in a big way. The problem is that pivoting is actually one of the biggest mistakes that startups make.

So wait a second. Pivots are a bad idea? Why are pivots a bad idea? Well, I can think of at least two reasons. The first is that most startups pivot way too soon, and the second is that when you pivot, you are generally trading a set of known problems for a set of unknown problems.

Success Takes Time
I'm going to put it out there - most technology entrepreneurs fail because they don't stick to any one thing for long enough. Success is hard, and it takes time - a lot of startups take years to achieve even ramen-level profitability. So when I see someone building a completely new product every six months, I wonder whether they are giving themself enough time to actually validate their concept before moving on to something else (note that I've been as guilty of this as anyone else). It's super-easy to justify why your idea didn't work - "nobody wanted it" or "we didn't build the right product." Sure, maybe you didn't build the right product, but if you only spent a couple months trying to sell it, it's impossible for you to know that.

About a month ago, I was having lunch with an old friend who doesn't work in the startup space (it can be a good reality check to have a few of those). I told him that I was feeling dejected because no one wanted my product. After giving me a brief pep talk, he asked me how long I had been trying to sell this product. It turned out that it had only been about three months since I started actively working on this manifestation. He laughed, and said that it's pretty close to impossible to build a product and get paying customers on only three months. I realized that my expectations were unrealistic, and decided to keep going at it for longer. It's kind of interesting to talk to non-startup people - they always have a much different point of view than startup founders/employees. For example, my mother (who is an entrepreneur, albeit the old-school type) has been telling me for years that I need to stick with things for longer. It just took me a while to see things that way. Sure there are some overnight success stories, but most of the time it doesn't go that way.

Most successful people I know took several years to achieve success. I was recently hanging out with some people who were in my YCombinator class back in Summer 2009. They have been working on the same product for about three years, and didn't hit profitability until the end of year two. And that seems like it's about par for the course. My friend Gabi launched her food blog over three years ago, and just had her first cookbook published this month. Point is that this isn't going to happen overnight, and you need to give it time.

So I know - being an entrepreneur takes your entire working career and compresses it into just a few years (or at least that's what Paul Graham says). When you've been working on a product for three months, it's like a year of big-company time. The problem is that the outside world doesn't operate at the same pace. So, entrepreneurs often end up giving up way too soon, and move on, hoping that the next thing will be easier (more on that later). I know a number of really smart people who launch interesting product after interesting product. But the problem is that once they finish one product, they are on to the next before they truly see out the first.

For a lot of people, it's easier to build products than to make businesses work, so they default to building new things on auto-repeat. Now, they can just say "I pivoted," and all is good (except that it's not). Since this blog is all about self-discovery, I will admit to having made the mistake I warn you about. We built two products at our current startup that we abandoned. Both of them were reasonable businesses, and we abandoned them way too soon. We were hoping for some sort of magical adoption curve, and when it was hard to close our first paying customer, we paniced and pivoted. But I'm pretty sure that we could have succeeded with either one in the longer-term, and that pivoting was a mistake. But hey, hindsight is 20/20.

You Succeed By Learning
One of the nice things about startups is that you learn a lot of new and interesting things. In fact, if I had to pick one reason to start a startup rather than working at a big company, it might be that I would learn much more at the startup (assuming that I used the time effectively). You can immerse yourself in an entirely new industry of your choosing, and learn a ton about that industry in a relatively short time. The problem with pivoting is that you often throw out a good portion of that learning in the process.

Assuming that you have spent some time working on an idea, you have probably immersed yourself in the market, and have gotten to know the players. Maybe you know what makes them tick, or what their problems are, or even what they don't want (if you built a few products that they wouldn't buy). One of the ways to learn how to succeed is to methodically eliminate all the ways not to succeed. If you can keep the problem space relatively constrained, you can eventually work through it. But when you pivot, it is likely that you put yourself back at square one. This is a calculated risk you have to take, and sometimes it makes sense, but I think that people are too prone to doing it. Maybe, rather than picking a new target customer or going from B2B to B2C, you can figure out a slightly different manifestation of your product that would address your customers' objections. Since you've already spent time getting to know them, and it's probably easier to get them to buy than trying to sell an entirely new product to someone you don't yet know.

Success is About Execution
There's another elephant in the room, and it's that execution is the most important thing. Lately it has been in vogue to say that "ideas don't matter," and you know what, they really don't. The most important thing is that your team can execute (meaning some combination of building a product, getting people to pay you for it, and raising money). And, if you can't execute successfully on your current product, you need to ask yourself why you will be able to execute on the new idea. Nothing is going to magically change if you pivot. You still need to build the product and either get people to pay you for it or give you funding.

I find that, a lot of the time, "we pivoted" means "we couldn't execute." I will even apply this to myself. At my first startup, we had a tech-heavy team and were trying to build B2B products. Which require a long sales cycle, and we weren't able to stay motivated for long enough to execute. It's possible that we could have succeeded with a different product, but I also think there were a number of lessons we had to learn, and if we had been able/willing to stick it out for longer, we might have learned them (I'm only learning them now). If you want to figure out how to execute, you probably aren't going to do that by changing directions, but by figuring out how to get past your customers' objections. When you pivot to something new, you just mask the problem because building something new feels inherently productive. Instead, you should spend your time figuring out how to actually execute.

Wrapping Up
So, even though giving up what you're working on and building something else often seems like the best option, it usually isn't. Do something that you're willing to stick with for a long time, and then stick with each manifestation for long enough to make sure that it actually has time to work. Mark Pincus recently had a quote that I think sums it up pretty well:

One thing I learned is that while your vision should never change, you should keep trying different strategies until one works. If you can fine-tune your instinct and have confidence in it, then you can keep taking different bites of the apple and keep approaching the problem in different ways until you get it right.

But it's important to realize that taking different bites of the same apple is very different from biting into an entirely new pear or banana, and it seems like a lot of people are actually doing that. But, if you're willing to be honest with yourself, I'm pretty sure you will eventually figure it out.

Dana Levine
tag:blog.thirdyearmba.com,2013:Post/33772 2012-03-25T23:31:00Z 2013-10-08T15:28:52Z A Rant On The State Of E-Books

I've noticed a disturbing trend lately. Despite having a Kindle (which I sometimes prefer to reading a physical book), I still find myself buying a ton of paper books. And it's not that I want to read books on paper - I love being able to carry around a single device that has my entire book collection stored on it. The problem is price - if you are buying books that aren't newly released, you can typically get the print version for significantly less than the e-book. Sometimes you have to buy a used book from an Amazon merchant to get a big discount, but you can often buy the book directly from Amazon. For example, I just ordered this book, and paid $6.80. By comparison, the Kindle version still runs $13.99.

E-book pricing may be the only thing that keeps brick-and-mortar booksellers in business. The other day, I was visiting The Strand, a bookseller in New York City. At the front of the store, they have a section labeled "Lower Priced than E-books," where they prominently compare their in-store prices with Amazon's Kindle prices. It makes no sense that a brick-and-mortar reseller should be able to undercut the Kindle on anything (except for maybe used books, which I will get to later). While I love browsing the bookstore, a bookstore has both less selection and higher fixed costs than someone like Amazon, and there is no way they can possibly compete on price (unless this is just a gimmick to get you in the door).

Have I yet mentioned that e-book pricing is ridiculous? And I don't even care that I don't actually own the Amazon e-book like I would a paper book (although a lot of people take issue with this). For me, the problem is that I shouldn't have to pay more for something that required less work to produce and ship to me. I'm doing you a favor by buying the e-book - it costs a lot less to sell an e-book than a paper book. You don't have to print the book, ship it to stores or the reseller, and then finally deliver it to my doorstep. I just click "buy," and you copy a few bits to my device.

E-books also get rid of that pesky resale market (you know, the one that lets me get my paper books for less that they would cost on the Kindle). You don't see Amazon merchants listing used e-books for sale, since Amazon doesn't allow you to resell your Kindle books (this would be possible to do in a secure way, but I'm sure that publishers will never allow it). E-books are forever tied to the system you purchased them on (except for one not-very-generous "lend"). There is pretty much no way for anyone to sell an e-book for less than retail price?

So what's the problem? I think it's the publishers. Amazon actually tried pretty hard to keep the price low on e-books, limiting the price of most books to $9.99. Then Apple negotiated different terms on its iBooks program, and Amazon had to kowtow to the publishers to keep its rights to sell the books. Prices quickly shot up to $12-15 on a lot of books. Now, most e-books come in at prices that are equal to or higher than the print versions. This sounds great for publishers, but hurts everyone in the longer-term. It takes longer for books to move over to digital, people buy fewer books, and overall the economy stagnates.

Amazon has attempted to encourage lower prices on the Kindle store by increasing the revenue split on lower-priced books (books between $2.99 and $9.99 are eligible for a 70% royalty rather than a 35% royalty). This works great for independent authors, and you see a lot of books on the Kindle Store for less than $10, because the author makes more money in most cases. The problem is that e-books compete with paper books in the publishers' minds - every time they sell an electronic book on the Kindle or Nook, they have lost a potential book sale at the full hardback or paperback price. Never mind that they might actually make more money by pricing the book lower (because they would make more per book AND sell more copies) - the publishers still see e-books as a threat.

So what's the solution here? I think that e-books need to move to a system where they decline in price over time. It's fine for the price to be equivalent to a paper book at first, and the price should stay in lock-step over time. As the price declines, Amazon should encourage publishers to drop the e-book price as well. A related scheme would involve dropping the E-book price by X% of MSRP every three or six months until it hits a preset lower bound. In the shorter term, Amazon may want to consider dropping prices to price-match used book prices. By the time that a book hits $0.01 on the Amazon marketplace, there is a lot more supply than demand. By lowering the e-book price to $4 (the minimum cost with shipping on the Amazon marketplace), publishers could probably sell a lot of copies of these previously dead books.

I guess there is another solution, and that's the death of the traditional publishing model. Since anyone can publish a book on Amazon and sell it in the same place, there is no need to go through a traditional publisher. More and more authors are taking this route, because they end up with much higher royalties (no fixed costs to recoup), even if they sell significantly fewer books. Sure, authors still need to figure out how to market their books, but Amazon already does this to a degree, and I'm sure that they will become more effective at this over time (maybe Amazon will offer marketing services for a small fixed fee or per-book royalty). Plus, from what I have heard, the publishers' marketing efforts are pretty poor on all but the most popular books. It might be preferable to just come up for a bit of money to do electronic marketing, and to just consider that a cost of business. I'm sure that many well-known authors will switch entirely to digital over the next few years - the question is how quickly and completely this transition will occur.

In conclusion, I think that I'll keep buying paper books for the time being. Sure I love my Kindle, but the paper book economy is markedly better for the consumer right now. Plus, I still need a doorstop every now and then, and the Kindle just doesn't do a very good job with that.

Dana Levine
tag:blog.thirdyearmba.com,2013:Post/33774 2012-03-10T21:35:00Z 2013-10-08T15:28:52Z We Interrupt The Regularly Scheduled Message For a Sponsored Tweet

American Express and Twitter just announced a new promotion. If you link your Amex card with Twitter, and then Tweet out a sponsored hashtag, then you will receive a discount at a selected merchant. For example, if you tweet out #AmexHM, you receive a $10 back on a purchase of $50 or more at H&M. This comes close on the tail of American Express' recent deal with Foursquare, which allows Foursquare users to receive a discount on their bills at selected restaurants and stores when they connect their cards and check in on Foursquare.

Everyone expected that Twitter would eventually figure out how to make money from its 350+ million of users and 200 millions of tweets per day (those numbers were released in June 2011, and are almost a year out of date - I'm guessing that the real numbers are around twice that). I had always expected them to monetize the twitter stream by inserting ads into the stream, or by running banner ads on Twitter. Twitter does now support "promoted tweets," but this is clearly just the tip of the iceberg. People have gotten really good at filtering out advertising (I didn't even notice that there were ads on Google until it was pointed out to me), so promoted tweets are obviously just that - ads. What we are now seeing is an entirely new kind of advertising, and this one is much more subtle. Rather than having the brands advertise directly to their customers, Twitter and Foursquare are getting you and me to fill that role instead. 

Hashtag Marketing
The hashtag was invented around 2007, although Twitter didn't officially support it until somewhat later. It essentially allows Twitter users to mark their tweets with relevant metadata, such as #SxSW or #500Startups. Twitter now lists the trending hashtags, and if you look at those tags, you can actually get an idea about what is going on with the Internet and in the world in general (this is clearly a distorted view of the world, but let's leave that alone for the time being). Regardless, hashtags have become an accepted part of our culture, enabling us to sum up important concepts and memes in a single word (#lolcatz).

So now that the hashtag has crept into our culture, brands have figured out how to co-opt and even corrupt this medium. As you read through your Twitter stream, some of the content is free and well intentioned, and some of it is paid. The problem is that it isn't immediately obvious which is which, at least upon a quick read. As we quickly scan through our Twitter feeds, we pick out a few links for clickthroughs, and quickly discard the rest. But this is where the insidious part comes in - even if we don't consciously parse the ads (or immediately discard them), our brains are still receiving them. When we see "#AmexHM" in our feed, potentially accompanied by a message about how awesome American Express is, we are subtly influenced to apply for our own American Express card, or even to use it more (disclosure: I happen to have an American Express card). In the case of Foursquare, we see that our friends have checked in at a sponsored venue, and may be more influenced to go there ourselves (and when we go there, we will use our American Express card to get the discount).

I personally am somewhat offended by the whole thing. I have built up a (small) Twitter following through posting quality content to my Twitter feed, and now corporations expect me to spam my friends in order to get discounts (which also requires me to spend money on their brands). This makes sense from a business perspective (they are literally paying us to do their marketing for them), but it somehow feels distasteful. And as I browse through a Twitter search for some of the sponsored hashtags, it appears to be working. Is it working well enough to make lots of money for everyone involved? I'm not sure, but I think that this is the start (or maybe just the mainstream emergence) of a new type of marketing.

Are we headed towards a digital dystopia, where brands are able to corrupt every aspect of our lives? I think it's too early to tell, but Twitter has definitely stumbled onto something big. By teaming up with brands to add promotion to the "non-ad" parts of their platform, Twitter may be able to infuse marketing into increasingly greater numbers of tweets. If they can manage to extend this concept without overusing it or making it stale, they may be able to build all their potential into a real business. The next few years will be interesting as these businesses mature, and may transform the face of Internet advertising.

Dana Levine
tag:blog.thirdyearmba.com,2013:Post/33776 2012-03-04T21:00:09Z 2013-10-08T15:28:52Z Are You Solving Problems or Just Building Products?

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post-mortem for ten products that I built and subsequently killed (actually nine, because the tenth is in progress and appears to be doing well so far). I got a lot of comments, both on my blog and Hacker News, and they led me to think a lot about what I learned. Some people questioned whether I had learned anything because I restarted so many times, and I had to ask myself whether that was true. Should I just throw in the towel and relegate myself to building things for other people, or have I learned what it takes to be successful this time around?

Then I started to think about my current product, and why things seem to be going pretty well. When I thought about it, I realized that we have done things in a fundamentally different way this time around. I'm convinced that this difference in approach is the main distinction between success and failure, and I'm going to attempt to describe it in the next few paragraphs. Essentially, you should be asking yourself the following question:

Is your goal to solve a problem, or just to build a product?

Problems vs Products
A lot of entrepreneurs (and especially wanna-be entrepreneurs) do things entirely the wrong way. And I've made this mistake many times, so I have the right to be critical. In essence, they think up a product, and then decide to build that product. So, this works sometimes, but it's not a fundamentally successful approach. And the reason is that, at the point where you think up the product, you have no idea whether or not someone actually needs it (sure, you can imagine in your head that someone else needs it, but who knows whether that matches reality). It just seems like a sort of interesting product that might be fun to build, and that someone might be willing to pay for. Maybe you even thinks it solves a problem that you have, but who knows whether it even truly solves your problem? When you use this approach, you care more about building the product than actually solving any real problems.

At this point, a lot of people go out there and attempt to get validation for their product. If you go to any startup weekend, you will see a lot of people doing exactly this sort of stuff. Which is better than just building the product right then and there (especially if you have to pay someone else to do it), but these folks are already starting off on the wrong foot. There are a few factors conspiring against their success, and the most important is confirmation bias.

If you already have a complete product concept in your head (possibly including screen shots that you mocked up in Balsamiq or Keynotopia), you already are somewhat attached to it. And you will be focused on trying to build up mental support for that product while simultaneously writing off anything that disagrees with your hypothesis. Any time someone tells you that they like your product idea, you are going to mark that off as a potential win, and any time someone tells you that they don't like it, you mark it off as someone who probably "didn't fit your target market." I've been through this with a lot of fledgling entrepreneurs, and I've seen it happen many times. They are trying to prove to themselves that their product is awesome, and by extension that they are awesome (you are already awesome, whether or not you build this stupid product). The problem is that building a successful company has very little to do with this sort of mental masturbation.

A slightly better question than "is this product awesome?" would be "does this product solve an important problem?" But even that isn't quite there, because even if the product does solve an important problem, you are still focused on that stupid product that you invented in your head before you ever talked to a single customer. You aren't focused on the problem, but on building that product. Even if you do build it, and it does sort of solve a problem, it is likely that you will be too focused on realizing your vision to pivot the product so that it solves the problem.

Some successful businesses are built in this way, because the company eventually figures out that the product does solve some major problem, finds a lead customer, and then throws out their preconceived notions in order to actually make that customer happy. The problem is that it's hard to get your head out of your butt long enough to realize this, and customers don't always tell you "I would LOVE your product if only you changed it to do something slightly different." Actually, people say this sort of stuff all the time, but many of us are pretty poor listeners. Once you've been around the block a few times, you actually start to pay attention to this sort of feedback, and when someone tells you something, you sort of start to get an intuition as to what they actually want (hint: customers don't always tell you what they want, because they often don't really know what they want). 

So What's The Problem?
Now that I've spent a while talking about how not to do it, I can move onto the "correct" way to do things (at least in my opinion). So, instead of thinking about building any particular sort of product, you want to formulate a hypothesis which looks something like the following:

I think that (Problem X) is a significant problem for (Customer Y) 

That's it. Now hopefully you will have some idea that it's actually possible to solve Problem X, but even if you don't, you may be able to figure this out later. Not knowing how to solve the problem is potentially even better than knowing the solution, because you won't lean towards any one solution before gathering enough evidence. Remember that if something is a large enough pain point, people will use pretty much any solution, even if that solution is only moderately less painful than the original problem. But it's now your job to validate that the problem exists. So your first task is to spend a few weeks (or maybe more if the problem is super-complicated) talking to everyone who might potentially have Problem X.

Don't hold back, and don't be secretive. Just talk to people who have that problem, and be totally open. Let everyone you know that you are trying to solve this problem, and ask them for intros to their connections who might have it. Here are some of the questions you might want to ask your potential customers.

  • Is X a big problem for them?
  • Is X their biggest problem? (if not, you may want to just ask whether you can solve their biggest problem instead)
  • Are they willing to pay money to solve this problem? 
  • Are they willing to invest their time in solving this problem? (your lead customers will probably end up investing more time than money)
  • Are they willing to pay for a beta product that solves even a marginal portion of this problem? 

Once you start to do this, you will realize one of several things. The first could be that this problem isn't something that keeps people up at night. Maybe they would like to have it solved, but they won't really put any time and effort into solving it. Which bodes poorly for you, because they actually have to use your product, and unless your product provides enough benefits, they won't bother to adopt it. Now it's possible you will realize that your target market isn't the right initial target, but if that's the case, you want to start talking to people who do fit the new target market.

The second thing you will hear is that this is a big problem, but it isn't the blocking problem for most busineses. We recently had one customer whom we really wanted to land. After spending a while talking to them and even building custom features for them, we realized that they were more focused on solving a different problem, which was blocking their business progress. Since they were spending all of their engineering effort on solving that problem, they didn't really have time to work with us, even if we kept lowering the barriers to entry. We eventually realized that we should focus on solving that particular problem later, and change our energies to focus on a slightly different problem for other customers.

So, there's a third answer, and that's the one you want to hear. "I stay up all night thinking about that problem. We couldn't find a solution so we're even thinking about building one ourselves." When you hear that from a few people, you just might have hit on something.

Iterating Towards a Solution
So, what do you do now? You have a problem that people need a solution to, but you still don't want to jump immediately to the solution. It's likely, however, that you will need a product to get much further. So you want to define a fairly narrow and limited product that demonstrates some sort of solution to the problem. Most likely it won't solve the entire problem, but that's why you want to make it narrow and limited. Building a small product forces you to narrow your scope until you have something that's actually doable within a small amount of time (it's going to take a lot longer than you think). So you build the product, hopefully in less than month, and you go back to the customers with your prototype.

Now you are at the big moment of truth. Most of the time, that product won't be exactly what your early adopters want, but hopefully it will be close. At that point, they can make the small conceptual leap and tell you how to change the product so that it meets their needs. You do that, figure out how to productionize things, and you have the beginnings of a business.

And, if your customers hate it, you can go back to the drawing board. Maybe you need to solve a slightly different part of the problem, or maybe the problem as you understood it was different from the problem that they understood. It's likely that you will actually have to show your customers a few different concepts before you hit the nail on the head. You just want to make these iterations as small as possible so that you waste minimal time and effort (and also so that you can solve your customers' problems as quickly as possible).

Our Story (So Far)
So, as you probably guessed, most of my previous products were just that, products. And it turned out that the problems they solved weren't big enough (or, at the very least, we weren't focused on the solution, but rather the product and its features). This time around, we started out broad, so broad in fact that we didn't even have the initial problem in mind. We just said that we wanted to solve problems within a particular economy, and spent a while thinking about what the biggest problems were for that economy. Once we had some concepts, we started doing customer development. I think that we put in about a day of engineering effort into hacking together a demo to show to these initial customers. But it didn't really have any features - it was just an illustration of the broad problem we wanted to solve.

From the initial customer development we did, we were able to get enough information to build a rather ugly prototype, which took about a week. We were still focused on the problem - we just wanted to show some different approaches we could use to solve that problem. With this demo, we got some more customer feedback, which actually got us to the point where we thought we knew which approach to pursue first. We spent about a month building that product, and then went on a massive customer development trek to the bay area. We met with about 15 potential customers within the span of a week, but by the end of the second day, we realized that our customers wanted something different from what we had built (the features were pretty much correct, but the format was slightly wrong). The only plus was that several people told us they wanted this new product as soon as possible. We headed back to New York, and started building that new product. We hope to have our early adopters using it (and paying) by the end of the month. So that's our story so far; I will let you know how things turn out.

Dana Levine
tag:blog.thirdyearmba.com,2013:Post/33778 2012-02-26T22:48:38Z 2013-10-08T15:28:52Z How I Made Information Consumption Into A Conscious Choice

I recently realized that I just don't have enough time in the day. Having just moved to New York City a few months back, there are a ton of things that I would like to do and see, but I never seem to have time for them. For example, I've been here six months, and haven't been to the theater, and I've only been to one museum. Now working on a startup is a compromise - it's next to impossible to make a startup successful while leading a balanced lifestyle. However, if all you are doing is working, then something is probably out of balance. While you can work 14 or 16-hour days for a short period of time, this isn't sustainable over any significant duration.

In my case, I found that I would arrive home (from work) at around 10PM most nights, and then I would spend an hour or two lying on the couch surfing the web, mostly because I was too exhausted to get up and go to bed. At 11 or 12, I would stumble into bed, only to repeat this cycle the next evening. Maybe I would do something fun on Sunday, but it is likely that I would actually be too burned out to accomplish anything other than vegging out.

I was recently hanging out with a friend, and told him that I was feeling tired and burned out. His response was that I should do yoga. He told me that monks practice yoga 24/7, and never get burned out or tired. This advice seemed almost right, but I felt like there was more to it than just that. I wasn't looking for a band aid, but wanted to get to the core of the problem. I thought for a while about what exactly it is that makes monks able to work day after day without getting tired. And then it hit me - conscious consumption of information.

The Root of the Problem
A monk in a monastery is making a conscious choice to practice yoga and meditation. He is always focused on the present, and never has to focus on more than one thing at once. He doesn't get distracted from his tasks or meditation by email or by his cell phone - he does just one task at a time, and is fully focused on only that. This led me to form a new hypothesis - the fatigue that we experience is caused not by working, but by fighting to stay focused and on task. Every time you have to fight your attention span, you fatigue yourself. I have admitted for quite a while that I am a poor multitasker, and get distracted pretty easily. When I have three things on my plate at once and work on them simultaneously, it takes longer to get them done that if I did them sequentially. I do best when I can make a list of the things I have to do, and then work down that list one item at a time, focusing all my attention on the task at hand.

The problem we have in our society is that there are too many distractions in daily life. Most of us go through the day with our email open, and some people even receive a popup whenever a new email comes in (I have no idea how they manage to handle this). The web allows us constant access to any information we could possibly want - it's as simple as popping open a new browser tab and doing a Google search. And, since the advent of smartphones, we have access to this information pretty much anywhere in the world. You can't ever get away from this continuous data feed, which only widens over time. And the amount of information we have access to keeps increasing. In the past several years, we have seen the emergence of Facebook, and Twitter, and Foursquare, and aggregators such as Reddit and Hacker News. With all of this stuff, it has become possible to fill an entire day with the consumption of empty information calories.

I thought a lot about how I consume information, and noticed some disturbing patterns. A lot of times, I would begin my day by popping open Hacker News or one of my favorite new sites, and clicking a few links. These would have links to other articles, which I mindlessly clicked on. Before I knew it, I had wasted an hour or two, and actually hadn't learned all that much useful information (yes, reading some news is good, but the returns diminish over time). This would often repeat several times over the course of the day, often starting when I woke up and continuing until I was actually lying in bed.

Another scenario is that I would be working on something productive, and would notice that I had a message or two in my email inbox (thanks to the unread message count showing on the tab). I flippped over to my email inbox, and the message was inevitably bulk mail of some sort. This lead to me being both annoyed and distracted from whatever I was working on. At this point (since I was already off task), I typically found an article that I previously opened in a browser tab, but hadn't yet read. Half an hour later, I realized that I should be working on something else, and that I hadn't gotten as much done that day as I would have liked.

My Solution (Yours May Vary)
As a result, I started thinking about how I could tune my life to reduce distractions. I don't believe in self control - studies have shown that exerting self-control today makes us more likely to cheat later on. The only way to effect long-term change is to modify your behaviors such that your old habits are no longer possible. I realized that the main problem was mindless information consumption - reading a web page is fine, but you should be conscious about the decision to visit that page, and that should be all you read (unless you consciously decide to consume a different page). Likewise, doing email is fine, but there is no need to do it constantly. Despite spam filters, there is still a lot of semi-spam to deal with every time you open your inbox (for example, newsletters that you want to receive but that show up at some random point during the week). If you only check mail a couple times a day, you can reduce the inpact of that semi-spam to an hour or two a day.

The final problem is smartphones, which make information consumption continuous. I actually held out a lot longer than many of my friends before making the plunge into the smartphone world. I remember being slightly sad when I got my first smartphone, because I knew that I was an Internet addict, and know that this would make the addiction continuous and complete. And this prophecy was true - my smartphone consumed me. Whenever I had a free moment, I would check my email. It actually felt like a real addiction - I would start to go through withdrawal if I went for more than a few hours without email. Every time that I wanted more information about something, I would pop open a browser and look it up on the web. If I was ever bored, I would just pop open my favorite browser and start reading (even if there were other people around).

So I made three resolutions.

The first was that if I wanted to look something up on the web, I had to write it down on paper first. I can look up anything that I want - I just need to think about it consciously beforehand, and to decide that it makes sense to interrupt my work flow. This helps to keep me honest, because  lot of times I realize that whatever I'm curious about isn't all that important.

The second was that I would only do email twice a day. The first time would be when I get to work, and the second would be right before I head out of the office. If people need to get ahold of me faster than that, they can call or send an SMS. I may eventually setup some sort of system for dealing with urgent emails, which are a lot rarer than one would expect. It's pretty uncommon that someone NEEDS to hear back from you in less than 8 hours, and can't get ahold of you via some other method of communication.

And the third was that I would get rid of my smartphone, at least for a few months. I ordered an LG phone from circa 2009 off of eBay. It does phone calls, and text messages, and that's about it. It actually does have some sort of crappy web browser, but it is slow and inconvenient enough that I won't be tempted to use it unless necessary. Interestingly, it is now impossible to activate a phone on Verizon without at least a minimal data plan - I had to select 75MB for $10, meaning that I only save about $20 per month by ditching my smartphone.

At this point, it has been just over a week, and I'm already feeling better. My head is clearer, and I'm feeling slightly happier. When I wake up in the morning, I have time to make a good breakfast and meditate for half an hour before heading in to work (since I don't check email before heading in, it's a lot easier to do this). I can focus better at work, and I get more done (even though I leave the office earlier). And, when I get home, I have an hour or two to read before going to bed (about halfway through A People's History of The United States). Sunday is reserved for doing something interesting that involves zero technology. Sure, I do worry about getting lost since I don't have Google Maps at my immediate call, but that's actually part of the fun. There is actually research showing that overreliance on navigation software is turning our brains into mush...

Dana Levine
tag:blog.thirdyearmba.com,2013:Post/33780 2012-02-12T20:05:00Z 2013-10-08T15:28:52Z Post-Mortems For Ten Products I've Built

I recently made a list of all the products I've built (in full or in part) since I started working for myself, and there have been at least ten of them. Yet, none of these have gotten significant traction, and most have eventually folded (with the exception of my most recent project, which I'm sure will eventually be a huge success ;-). I have never really done a post-mortem for anything I've built, so I decided to write out a brief description of each, including my take on why it failed. To be fair, other people have successfully executed projects that are very similar to some of my failed products, so I'm not saying that any of these ideas is unworkable. Here they are (in no particular order).

1) Tweedledo
This was a web-based todo list (still live at http://www.tweedledo.com). I built the initial version in late 2009, and added features through the beginning of 2010. This was mostly an experiment that eventually became a semi-useful product (for me at least). The key differentiator from other task lists was that you could use SMS or email to make the item show up on your todo list. I find that I often want to write something down while I'm talking to a friend, and this is a simple way to make it an actionable item. I never really figured out how to get people to use this - I told some friends about it, and while a bunch tried it out, the product didn't seem to be sticky. When coupled with the lack of a reasonable revenue model, I eventually abandoned it. I still use it on occasion to write down my own tasks, although I have found that sticky notes/whiteboards are more useful.

2) InstantQ
This product provided a replacement for the restaurant pagers that alerted patrons when their table was ready. Rather than using a pager, this system notified patrons via a SMS or phone call. We got to the semifinals of the MIT 100K business plan competition with this concept, and were accepted into YCombinator (even though Paul Graham hated the idea). Basically, when we started to talk to restaurants, we realized that most restaurants didn't need it (since they didn't have lines, even at peak times). The ones who had the most demand already used pager systems, and weren't really interested in getting rid of it (even if we were cheaper on a per-unit basis).

Incidentally, at least one company (www.qless.com) has managed to build a business out of a similar product. It turned out that the primary challenge here was building an effective sales and marketing strategy rather than just building technology (which was relatively simple). QLess succeeded by casting a much wider net than just restaurants - they focused on all sorts of businesses with waitlist problems. Our engineering-heavy team wasn't able to make the sales effort that was required for this to succeed. We may have actually given up too soon on this one, although I have no idea as to the actual size of the business opportunity.

3) InstantQ V2 
This was our pivot from the original InstantQ product. Paul Graham imagined a dial that restaurants could turn to adjust demand on a real-time basis. What we built was a restaurant marketing platform that sent targeted, time-sensitive promotions to drive demand on off-peak nights. Business were supposed to get email addresses and phone numbers from their customers, and we would then send out promotions on a nightly basis. This was built by the same engineering-heavy team that build the previous product. We gave sales/BD our best effort, overall spending about three to four months trying to market this by going door-to-door at local restaurants. Eventually, we discovered that the willingness to pay was much too low when compared with the amount of time required to close a sale. It can also be difficult to get restaurant patrons to give away their personal information - I think that significant marketing expertise is required to make this work.

After a while, we got tired of selling and gave up, allowing our startup to die. To be fair, there were issues in both my personal life (my father passed away quite suddenly) and my business partner's personal life (his wife got pregnant) that made our arrangement untenable. However, I think that we were fundamentally unable to execute on this idea in the first place. I suspect that this business could have worked if we had tweaked some parameters and assembled a more sales and marketing-heavy team.

4) Rentize
The concept behind this was that you could rent your things to people in your neighborhood. We built a product (in early 2010) that allowed people to list the things they had for rent, with the idea that we would build the other half (allowing people to actually rent those items) once we had a significant inventory of goods in our database. We killed the platform before launch for a number of reasons.

After spending a while thinking about the things that people would rent, we identified a few major categories (tools, party supplies, etc...). We quickly realized most items wouldn't actually rent for all that much on a per-day basis. When you couple this with the fact that the parties involved have to schedule two meetings (one to pick the item up and another to drop the item off), the value proposition seemed pretty bad. We figured that most people wouldn't go through the schlep required to make a few bucks. Even if you ignore this, the amount we could make as a per-item commission would be pretty small.

A few companies appear to have built this concept into a company (eg RentCycle), but they have had to essentially hack the system by focusing on B2B rentals. Businesses usually have a physical location, allowing customers to walk in and pick up/drop off the items (reducing friction). Some rental businesses even provide drop off/pick up services, reducing friction even more. Businesses can also charge more per day for a rental than would a regular person, and typically carry insurance that covers loss or damage (eliminating the need for the marketplace to carry insurance).

5) Wish List
This product was a wish list that allowed people to find the best prices on the things they wanted. Basically, you type in whatever you want, and the product finds the best prices on the Internet. It then sends periodic email updates as prices drop. The problem with this (we found) is that most people don't know exactly what they want to buy. As we did user testing, we realized that people weren't responding terribly well to the product.

Our conclusion was that a search engine wasn't really appropriate, and that a browse-based interface would probably be more effective (since people didn't know exactly what they wanted off the bat, and needed to be guided down a decision tree). To make this feasible, we would have had to narrow down the scope of the product from "everything" to one particular vertical. One of my business partners (the guy who had been working on this the longest and held controlling equity) was unwilling to pivot the concept, leading to a standoff where the other two of us walked out. The product eventually ended up dying as the remaining guy went back to work.

The lessons learned here were more structural than technical (I think that the product could have gone a lot further if there hadn't been irreconcilable differences between the founders). First of all, I learned not to ever do free work "for equity." In this case, I worked for about six weeks without having anything signed, and when I walked out, I got nothing for my efforts. This is not to say that I won't come on as co-founder, but I believe that the initial dating phase should involve a paid contract (I'm willing to be flexible on rate so long as there is a good faith effort). Also, no work happens before the paperwork is signed (I will give people one day of free work as a good faith effort, but that's my limit).

In addition, I learned that I have to be aware of what my business partners are working on at all times. At some point, I kind of realized that I was doing all of the work (building/refining the product), and no one else was really getting anything done. When I am engrossed in coding, it can be challenging to pay attention to the other aspects of the business, but I need to do this.

6) SimplyHours
This was a platform that allowed people to hold open office hours. People could register and list office hours, and other people could come in and schedule them (by providing a phone number or Skype). We got a few VCs to actually use this, and they seemed to respond relatively well (got some reasonable leads). We started to think that this could be used as a marketing platform for service professionals (basically, people would offer open office hours every day or week to bring in new customers).

This idea was abandoned when my partner decided that he wanted to work on something different. I was already in talks with my current business partner to come aboard his startup, so I didn't continue the project alone. The site is no longer live because the domain expired, although I may put it back up at some point, since I think that there could be some potential to make this work.

This mishap only helped to reinforce the "I don't work for free" stance. I'm still friends with the guy I worked on this with, but I believe that he significantly undervalued my work. Basically, I built the whole damned thing, and then he wasn't willing to put in the time to market it (he did put in some time, but less than I spent building it). He now pays for programming talent on an hourly basis.

7) SpeakerGram
This provided a platform to connect speakers and conference organizers. Speakers could put up a profile, and then organizers could use the platform to request engagements. We signed up about 3,000 speakers, including some high-profile people. After running the site for a month or two, we realized that there were two sides to this, the speakers and the conference organizers. In order to succeed, we would have to initially focus on one or the other.

After some debate, we decided to focus primarily on meeting the needs of speakers (our friends at One Clipboard have built a great solution that caters to conference organizers). There were actually two kinds of speakers - the speakers who get too many requests to handle, and the speakers who would like more requests. Serving the latter would primarily involve doing lots of SEO/SEM (which was basically uninteresting to us), so we decided to serve the former. We were already serving Foursquare, who was getting several requests per day, so we used them as the prototype, building out a number of new features. We signed on a few more customers, and were ready to start billing them (at one point we were a week from launch). However, back-of-the-envelope revenue calculations told us what our investors had been saying all along - the market wasn't big enough. We looked at the most popular features in our platform, which led us to the next product offering.

Eventually, we decided to shut the product down because it was taking up too much of our time. As a startup, we have limited resources, and supporting our existing product was detracting us from building the next thing. We decided the honorable thing to do would be to let our customers know we were shutting the product down, and to give them a reasonable amount of time to find a new solution. In the end, we announced our shutdown around the end of December, and shut off new signups at that time. Existing customers were promised support until February 1, and we offered to export data for anyone who requested it. The site is actually still live (http://www.speakergram.com), but we will be taking it down in the next month or so.

8) About/Team/Press
For a small company (and even a large one), managing a website can be a pain in the butt. First of all, you have to build these pages in the first date, and then you have to keep them up to date. Most likely, this requires some sort of content management system or static web pages that are distinct from the company's actual product. In many cases, the engineers are the only ones who can update the about/team/press page, and they are busy doing other things. The result is that most companies have about/team/press pages that are significantly out of date. Ironically, these pages are some of the most frequently viewed on a website. We built a solution that allowed people to easily create and manage a company's about, team, and press pages.

We abandoned this when we were on the verge of launching an MVP (the customer feedback was reasonable given the state of our product). There were some issues with market sizing, but this wasn't really the resulting cause. Essentially, my business partner decided that he wasn't interested in spending his time selling this product, and decided he wanted to do something else instead (something more exciting). We ended up restarting the company, leading to what we're working on right now. It's actually live on the web, although I'm not going to publish the URL because the demo is slightly broken (and I don't have time right now to fix it).

9 & 10) Two Consulting Projects
I can't say much about these since I signed NDAs in both cases, but I built two projects as consulting gigs (one in early 2010, and another in early 2011). The idea in each case was that I might come on full-time if the product took off, but as I learned previously to always charge for my work, they were initially structured as consulting work.

The first project was built for someone who was already a successful offline businessman. It was a great idea with significant revenue potential, but represented a huge departure from the client's existing business. In addition, there were significant regulatory hurdles that we would have needed to clear. I built a working web-based prototype, and delivered it to the customer, but in the end, he never had sufficient time to see this through to launch. I think that his initial vision was too large - he wanted to roll out web and mobile at the same time, but had no idea how big an undertaking it is to even launch one product. I got paid, but I was kind of disappointed because I would have liked this to launch (I think it would be useful to a lot of people).

The second project was built for someone I knew socially who approached me when I had some time to do extra work. I could tell that he or she wasn't serious about this project, but somehow suppressed those concerns (I will write it off to poor judgment). The project quickly spiraled out of control as the client added more and more features to the specification. In the end, the client decided to change his or her mind and work on something completely different, and expected to not pay for any of the work I did. Fortunately I learned my lesson on previous projects, and collected an up-front deposit, so it wasn't a total loss. I ended up spending about twice as many hours on this as we had initially anticipated in the SOW, and collected only a fraction of the contract price. In the end, neither this nor the alternate concept ever launched, and this one hit the deadpool before it went live. I think that it had some potential, but clearly the person I was working with had neither the experience nor skill to pull it off.

My big learning here is that I need to carefully vet all clients, even if I am doing work on a contract basis. If I think that the client isn't serious about launching this or see any other red flags (such as the lack of ability to focus on a single project), I need to run away as quickly as possible. Also, it definitely makes sense to have a lawyer read all contracts before signing.

11) Scaffold
This is the project we're working on right now. No post-mortem yet, since we are destined for incredible success. It's completely different from anything I have worked on before, and I think that it has a huge amount of potential.

I think it's important to pick apart both your successes and your failures. In many cases, you learn a lot more from the failures than from the successes (since, when you fail, you make mistakes that you can learn from and try to avoid the next time). At this point, I've worked on enough projects to see some interesting patterns emerge when I study things at a macro level. It can be difficult to see your flaws when you are deeply engrossed in something, but if you step back, you can a slightly more detached view. While I've pretty much run out of space for this blog post, It is likely that these patterns will be the focus of a future essay.

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Dana Levine