Thursday, February 23, 2012

Startup Lessons from StartupRiot

This year I had the opportunity to attend the excellent StartupRiot conference in Atlanta.  It was a great one day conference that provided 30 different startups the opportunity to do a brief presentation and compete for prizes etc.  There were also two excellent keynotes and an after-party that really made the experience worthwhile.  Here is what I learned from the event.

A $100,000,000 Mistake
Noah Kagan of AppSumo gave the afternoon keynote and really did a fantastic job.   He was real, he was genuine and honestly you could tell he was having a good time (that is always a good sign in a speaker!).  His essentially enumerated a litany of mistakes he'd made in his career and how we could learn from them.  Most notably, he talked about the fact that if he'd have managed to not get fired from Facebook (he was employee #30) he would currently be getting ready for a 100M payday; yes...  that says 100M.  And yes, he did suffer some depression after this experience (wouldn't you??), but he didn't let it keep him down.  He got up, kept pushing forward, and now is running a successful business in AppSumo; and he's doing it on his terms which seems to fit Noah better than tagging along behind Zuck.

Moral of the story? Success is getting up one more time than you are knocked down.  Get up and keep going!

Take Your Shirt Off
Of the thirty (yes thirty!!) presentations by startups during the day, easily the most memorable was BodyBoss.  You could tell the guy had spent some time in the gym when he walked out on stage, but all doubt was removed about a minute into it when his shirt came off and he juxtaposed a slide of a flabby, slightly hairy, belly with his ripped six-pack and bulging biceps.  Was it a trick?  Yes. Would I have done the same thing?  Thankfully for the audience, No.  But the idea of getting out of your comfort zone and doing something did resonate with me; it seemed to work for him too... they made it into the Top 5 out of 30! I'm not sure what this will look like for you, but take some inspiration from this guy and do something BIG.  Do something SHOCKING.  And whatever you do, don't be BORING!  Oh, and as a favor to the rest of us... go ahead an leave your shirt on! 

Don't be a Jackass
I like Robert Cringely.  I read loads of his articles back when he was at PBS, so I was pleasantly surprised when he came on stage as one of the judges for StartupRiot.  He was easily the harshest of the judges which personally didn't bother me; the real world is harsh and the sooner we learn to deal with that fact the better.  Nevertheless, Mr. Cringely's treatment of Kyle Henderson from YouEye just made the former sound out of touch.  The money quote came during a disagreement in which Mr. C boasted, "I built the first usability lab at Apple & Microsoft, so I think know something about this [usability testing]".  Well congratulations!!  Everyone stop what you are doing and kneel before the sultan of UI/UX.  Listen Robert... we know you are smart guy ok?  We get that.  But that doesn't mean you know everything or that you have a monopoly on ideas related to this field.  Oh and by the way, guess who is  customer of YouEye?? Microsoft!  I love the irony here!

Sometimes I act like Robert did;  I act like I know it all and everyone that disagrees with me is an idiot. Don't act like that.  Offer feedback.  Disagree even.  Defend your position.  But don't act like the north end of a south bound mule.  Don't do that.

StartupRiot was a great experience.   Sanjay... you did a great job with the event man!  Especially your selection of keynote speakers (I didn't even have time to mention the awesome job Michelle Zatlyn did [1])  I'm sure I'll try to go next year and if you are within striking distance of ATL (or even if not!) I'd encourage you to attend.  And if you missed the event this year you can still benefit from it!  Just 1) Keep Going 2) Go BIG and 3) Don't be a buffoon!

[1] What? You still reading??  Great!  If I was taking the time to point out a lesson learned from MichelleZ's talk it would be Sacrifice. Startups take sacrifice.  She doesn't go out drinking b/c she needs to be fresh.  She doesn't go to Tahoe b/c she is busy building a startup.  She had a compelling story, but one great nugget from the talk was: Startups require sacrifice.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

UI Blueprints 1.0 is Released!

Today I launch the first version of my first product: UI Blueprints, an easy to use tool for creating mockups and wireframes.  I'm happy with the initial feature set and am looking forward to making lots of improvements to the software.  The initial goal for the tool was to offer a solid set of UI widgets along with all the standard features you'd expect in a useful mockup tool including grouping/ungrouping, resizing, undo/redo and several different options for customizing various widgets.  In addition there are several controls for building wireframes of mobile apps; this is an area I'd really like to build on to help designers make rich mockups before one line of code is ever written.

There is still a lot of work to do, but it feels good to get the One Point Oh release out the door!  Check it out at UI Blueprints - easy to use mockup software!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Best Hacker Conferences in 2012?

One of my goals for 2012 is to break out of my little corner of the world and attend a couple of developer conferences.  There are two primary benefits of doing this: 1) learning about a technology that is interesting (and hopefully valuable!) and 2) networking with other developers.  But given the plethora of conferences out there, and the inherent cost in attending, which ones provide the best opportunities to derive these benefits?  Read on.

There are several dimensions that can be used to compare and contrast the various conference options.

Specific vs. General
Lots of conferences focus on one specific technology, like a programming language, framework or platform.  This is 101 stuff. Interested in Ruby? Check out the RubyConf and/or RailsConf.  Python? PyCon. Facebook's F8 event would benefit those working with (or wanting to work with) FB's toolset/APIs for integrating with their platform.  While I am sure there is value in these conferences, I am more interested in conferences that are more general, focusing on a cluster of technologies that share some common thread, but may not be otherwise related.  A couple that come to mind are the OSCON put on by O'Reilly, that focuses on open source technologies and the ApacheCon that revolves around Apache technologies.  The topic list for the 2012 OSCON looks interesting and has some focus on things that are hot right now including "The Startup Stack" and a track on "Open Source on Mobile Devices".  In my opinion the most interesting things going on within Apache right now include all the tools related to handling the Big Data problem with Hadoop and the litany of supporting projects like Pig, Cassandra etc.

Big Company Conferences
These are pretty simple.  Are you an Apple fan boy...uh... I mean... hacker? See you at the WWDC.  Microsoft?  Maybe they'll do the BUILD conference again in 2012.  One BigCoConf that would be a bit more general is GoogleIO.  If I end up going to a BCC, it would likely be this one... not because I use many of Google's developer tools, but mainly for the atmosphere/networking opportunities.  While not perfect, Google just seems to have done a lot of things right in terms of developing a culture that is hacker friendly, plus they focus some on newer/interesting tech like HTML5 and mobile dev; not to mention the toys they've passed out in previous years have been cool at the time.

Trending Technologies
In terms of learning about an interesting technology that also is valuable, it is worth looking at tools/areas that are fairly new, but have the critical mass to and sufficient press to be trending upward.  A few that come to mind include Big Data solutions (Hadoop related tech), NoSQL databases (mongodb, couchbase, etc), and newer frameworks like node.js.  I've been seeing my own interest in document/JSON oriented data stores (NoSQL) ticking up over the past year and have been considering doing a deep dive on mongodb;  hitting the 10gen event in ATL could be a good fit with my goals here.

Conferences cost money.  They also have an opportunity cost for the time they require.  So we need to pick the ones that provide value by A) discussing interesting/valuable stuff and B) good networking opportunities.  Currently I am leaning toward OSCON and GoogleIO for my top two picks as well as strongly considering the MongoDB event in Atlanta.

I am sure that there are some conference ideas that I've missed here (Business of Software anyone?) What did I miss?  What hacker-friendly conferences do you want to attend in 2012?  Maybe I'll see you there!

 Join the discussion on Best Hacker Conferences in 2012 at Hacker News.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Bham Central Two Years Later

It was a fun experiment to see what could be accomplished in one week with creating Bham Central (a listing site targeted at Birmingham, AL).  I learned several things with launching this site in such a short time:

1) First and foremost, the feature set needed to be smaller.  While I was able to implement the features I outlined, the final product was fairly crude and buggy.  In particular the Events feature was difficult to use and did not work unless just the right data and formatting was used.  Without some validation and better usability work this feature should not have been released.

2) When building a site like this you initially need to focus on areas where content creation is easy.  It is difficult to get people to start listing houses and jobs when there is no traffic on a site.  So after releasing the "1.0 feature set", I eventually turned several sections of the site to focus on areas where I could easily create good content:  restaurants in Birmingham, AL and social events in Birmingham, AL.

3) Marketing is hard.  After building the site I became busy with my full-time job and was not able to devote much time to the site.  To try to keep the ball rolling I hired a summer intern to help with marketing in order to build traffic.  He did some good work and we eventually became a top listing for the Gian Marco's Italian restaurant here in Birmingham.  This page has been the major source of traffic for the site.

4) Building up a site requires consistent energy.  Because of some health trouble I had, all work on the site stopped in 2010.  I kept the site up and running, but didn't do anything with it.  Content was stagnant and there was no marketing being done.  This is bad.

Where are we now?  Now I am focusing on making sure the Restaurants and Events sections are done really well and trying to market the site more.  As these areas of the site mature I will then begin to add back features in order to realize the full vision of the the site.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Launching a Startup in One Week

In honor of the 3rd BarCampBirmingham this coming Saturday (May 2nd), I've decided to try to do something mildly interesting:

Build a web application in one week (M-F) and release it this Saturday at BCamp. So far I have written zero lines of code. I'll be outlining the feature set and begin development today (Monday, 4/27). I'll have one week to build the application and deploy it to a public server; then, at BCamp I'll discuss the experience.

The idea will be relatively simple, but significant enough to be useful. It is an application I've wanted to build for a while now, but just haven't done it (so talking about it at BCamp will be a good motivator!!).

The application will essentially be a community portal that will represent how newspapers should have responded to Craigslist years ago (for an example of what not to do see It will allow users within a metro area to buy and sell things like Clist (i.e. an online classified site), but will do so with a more of a community feel to it by including information on local events/reviews/information etc. In addition it will eventually have a modern user experience that includes a richer, more attractive interface than what is provided by Clist [1]. Version 1.0 will be targeted only at the Birmingham, AL market and will be relatively simple.

Given the compressed schedule, I will need to keep the feature set as compact as possible. I would like to implement the following features:

1) Basis support for users (registration, login, logout, change passwords, forgot password)
2) Support for selling houses (multiple pictures of house, detatiled descriptions, location)
3) Job listings
4) General Classifieds (single associated picture)
5) Events (garage sales, concerts, user group meetings etc.)

I'll keep you updated on my progress... and if you are in or around Birmingham, you can see for yourself the results at BARCAMP!!!

[1] Craigslist is a very popular site and provides a cool service. The developers of Clist appear to view its 1990's style web-interface to be a feature... no frills, no good-looks, just the raw features necessary to buy and sell. While I agree that simplicity is good (i.e. the Simplifying Software moniker!), I view the old-school design as a bug, not a feature.