Sunday, December 29, 2013

How to Send New Years Notes

With the New Year on our doorstep I'm thinking back to many of my important contacts that I've fallen out of touch with simply because there was never a pressing reason to reach out.

So, I'm making the time now to reconnect with these people to hear what they’re up to and share my own updates  And, just in case you haven’t gotten around to sending out Christmas Cards (or emails), here’s the process I use to send holiday update emails for the New Year.

The Template 

As with any communication the goal is to maximize your signal to noise ratio.  Make it short and relevant.  I generally like to include a greeting, one cue about a common thread we talked about last time, and an update:
Hi [name]

It's been a while since we caught up! How has [their job/project/hobby] been? I just wanted to shoot you a quick note to wish you a Happy New Year! 
 While this can be done with mail merge and excel, I've started to use Contastic exclusively to automate this process:

1.     See who you’ve fallen out of touch with

Contastic scans your gmail to figure out who you haven't exchanged emails with recently.  Next to each of your contacts we'll show you how any days it's been since your last contact.  A good rule of thumb is to stay in touch every 30-90 days.

2. Prepare your NYE template

In the Contastic template builder you can write an email in your own voice while inserting dynamic content that will customize the email using your contact's LinkedIn information.  The goal here is to make a personal email with the least amount of redundant effort.

3. Send!

Once you hit 'email' we'll pre-fill a template with custom content tailored to your contact and send the whole package to gmail or your mail client of choice (Outlook, Thunderbird, etc.).  You can edit and send it from there!  We bcc our mailbot (he's harmless we promise) on the messages so we can learn which content you liked best for you!


This is the perfect opportunity to revisit folks you’ve fallen far out of touch with (on Contastic this would be your 90+ bucket).   I’ve also had some friends combine Contastic with Boomerang to schedule their messages to go out on New Years Day.  I hope this helps you stay in touch in the new year!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

How to Validate Your Product Idea

The default answer is yes.  Ask anyone about your idea - that's what most will say. Yes is free.  Yes may even earn them some brownie points.  Yes is easy.  Yes is worthless and not to be trusted.

No is expensive.  It risks insulting someone’s life’s work and ruining a relationship.  Very few will invest a No in you when they can cash in a Yes.

So, how do you figure out if your idea is a good one - and worth building?  These are the three steps we use at Contastic to make users invest with us – this is the real meaningful yes:

Emails (Attention) 

The first step to validating any venture is the landing page.  Mock it up to look exactly like it will after you product is launched.  However instead of a payment form you’ll have a signup form for people to ‘pay’ with their emails.  This is giving you permission to message them about you product.  It signals that they have a problem and your product at least looks like their solution.  Also, when you do launch, you’ll have a set of beta users ready to go. Shoot for 100 – it’s a nice round number that generally extends beyond your close circle of friends.  This is an investment of their attention.

Users (Time)

After gathering an email list of interested users create a quick and dirty prototype. This should be the bare minimum where it is useful to users.  Note that this does not at all mean easy to use, polished, or pretty.  As soon as it can add value in anyway to your users – launch it to your list.  Then, watch to see if people use it regularly.  You can learn a ton about how people are using it, and their regular engagement will be a sign that you’ve hit the mark.  They are now investing their time.

Customer (Cash)

Cash is king – and in this exercise it’s no different.  There is nothing harder than getting a customer to open up their wallet and part with some hard earned cash.  Use the existing landing page from step 1 and convert the email collection to a payment form.  Now that you’ll getting some dollars in the door – congratulations – your idea is now validated!

To be sure, this is not where the validation ends, the Customer Development Process leverages a similarly progressive framework to validate all areas of your business form acquisition to retention.  If you have any other tips and tricks for validating your product ideas let me know in the comments below.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

3 Lessons We Can All Learn From Being the New Kid in School

When Kevin and I came together to build PeopleNotes we were driven by a need that had been brewing since our childhoods.  We both moved around a lot - 16 schools between the two of us - and we were always the new kids in school.  This taught us to work hard for, and subsequently treasure our personal relationships.

As our professional careers developed we’ve seen how others can struggle to learn those same skills as they move in to a new city or career.  This inspired us to build what we learned as new kids into an app that would help everyone make friends and build better relationships:

#1 End missed connections

How many times have you had an amazing conversation at a professional event or conference and then forgotten to get some contact information to stay in touch?  I can’t imagine how much better my life would be if I always managed to follow up.  The biggest reason we included the people search features for PeopleNotes was to make sure that you could look up anyone you talked to on the spot without fumbling with business cards or a clumsy CRM system.   Our goal was to make a mobile tool that made entering a new contact as easy as searching Google.

#2 Make people feel cared for

Even with the best intentions we all forget important details about our contacts all the time.   That's a surefire way to torpedo a relationship. Conversely, there is nothing that makes another feel as cared for as remembering the little details - like a recent vacation or favorite food.  We built the QuickNotes feature of PeopleNotes to help anyone jot down the important details of every conversation to make sure they don’t forget anything about their important relationships ever again.
Review information and news before a meeting.  Take notes during and after.

#3 Empower people to choose their relationships

So many relationships rely on serendipity – who you work with, live near, or share friends with - to maintain their social network.  However, relying on fate to choose your relationships often can leave out some amazing connections.   We created the ReConnect function in PeopleNotes to allow you to pick and choose who you want to be reminded to stay in touch with.  This forces you to deliberately make the choice of who your most important contacts are, and helps you remember to keep in touch.

We spent the last five months building PeopleNotes to become the app that helps everyone put these three lessons into practice and build better relationships.  

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Salesforce in a Nuthsell from Dreamforce 2013

Having just spent the day at Dreamforce I was struck by the incredible breadth of the offerings at Salesforce.  And, for the life of me I couldn’t find a single document to help me keep them straight.  So, with some help form @halesalesforce (thanks Will!) I’ve built out this quick and dirty diagram for those of you still at Dreamforce to navigate all of the new offerings:
The major theme of the company this year is integration.  In the past Salesforce has focused on storage in the Cloud.  Now they have the data, and need to integrate it into a cohesive system.  Every customer I talked to underlined this as the primary pain and the vast majority of partners at the Dreamforce expo were focused on this.  So, it seems this is the era of integration.

This begs to question – what’s next?  My money is on intelligence.  Once we have all of an organization’s data in one place – we can now (finally!) analyze it.  Sales needs to become smarter by harnessing machine learning, statistic, and NLP to translate the tribal knowledge of top salespeople to an entire organization.   Imagine a world where every sales rep can follow best practices powered by data. I’m looking forward to seeing some smart sales solutions at Dreamforce 2014!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Case for Being Pig Headed

One of my dad's favorite analogies comes from breakfast.  In the classic plate of bacon and eggs the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.

When applied to entrepreneurship I think about the interplay between investors and entrepreneurs.  Investors have money at stake - usually in the single digit percentages of their net equity.  Entrepreneurs on the other hand are betting it all - all of their time, all of their energy, and often all of their money.

So, I've always been surprised that entrepreneurs evaluate the viability of their company by the input they receive from investors.  The chickens, often with comparatively little at stake, evaluate opportunities and give advice from the perspective of the involved...not the committed.

Entrepreneurs should instead focus on themselves - the committed. Are you all in?  Does every piece of evidence point to this venture being worth the next 1-2 years of your life?  Are customers willing to bet the farm on you?

Be brave.  Be pig-headed.  And stop listening to those chickens.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Customer development interview template

I've spent the last week interviewing customers.  It is incredibly challenging to unearth the core motivations of a potential customer base.  Luckily I stumbled across the where Justin Wilcox lays out his basic template:

Ground Rules:
No pitching
Ask about past and present
Do not ask about future.  Would you/will you questions will result in unreliable data (nobody can project that well).

  1. Tell me a story about the last time you...
  2. What was hardest?
  3. Why was that hard?
  4. How do you solve it now?
  5. Why is that not awesome?
Take note of any feelings/emotions
Ask why 5 times for each question
Repeat the cycle 3 times

This system has already produced some great insights for Contastic and I hope I can do the same for you all!  Let me know how you're using this in the comments below.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Rethinking Customer Development

I'm a huge fan of Steve Blank his theory of Customer Development.  I've found his writing always inspirational and insightful.  However, has been a little to dense for me to use as a clear roadmap.  Many in the Lean Startup movement point to the Business Model Canvas as a cure - which, try as I might, I've never been able to actually follow in a real live business.

The issue was that each of these pieces is part of a flow - not a discrete map.  So, here at Contastic we started using a variant that models the business as a process rather than as a map:

This covers same essential areas as the Business Model, but slightly re-arranged to fit the process of validating a startup.  Generally, each stage from left-to-right is dependent on the next and should be evaluated in that order.  At each milestone the company should seek to find a path through.  I like to have at least two stages written out to look at: general themes, and then specific actions/sources to test:

While by no means complete, this model serves as a basic roadmap of our plan.  We also often use  third level for tactical tests to confirm items in level 2 (ie acquire 20 customer per day at Dreamforce).  As they are confirmed the fact bubbles up to the next level.  As we develop the company we continually edit this knowing that the dependencies flow from left to right and then top to bottom.  

Hope this helps you all bring a strong evidence-based approach to your ventures.  We're continually evolving this model, so if you have any ideas for improvements or cases where it fails let me know in the comments below!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Seven Deadly Startup Sins

I've been working full time on Contastic ( for about three months now fully immersed in the valley culture.  It's amazing to be in a place with so many resources, but each opportunity is also a distraction.  Time is your most precious commodity - if it's not invested wisely, your company will die.  In the spirit of helping founders make better choices here are the seven deadly startup sins to avoid:

1 - Building too many things

It's hard enough to build one feature well.  If you attempt anything more than that you will dilute your resources and will end up with a basket of mediocre features that nobody cares about.  Approach scoping from the prospective of a 10 second demo - only build what can be demoed in 10 seconds or less.  This is all the time you'll get from a customer or investor.  Spend your time making one amazing magical feature that can wow anyone in 10 seconds.

2 - Getting feedback from non-customers

The first thing people do when building a company is to ask the people around them.  This is lazy and leads to bad information that will lead you down the wrong path.  Focus on customers - people willing to pay for your product at some point.  Ignore all other input.

3 - Building features customers won't pay for

When I started using lean methodologies I quickly found myself drowning in divergent customer feedback.  When asked 'what would you use?', customers will ask for everything under the sun.   The real question is 'what would make you pay (more) for this product'?  If adding a feature doesn't change their willingness to pay drop it.   Only build what changes willingness to pay for a large segment of your customers.

4 - Following advice

Almost all advice is well intentioned, but bad.  Nobody knows your business like you do.  Ask people for their stories, their experience, and their opinion within their scope of expertise.  Do not ask for or listen to anything else.  The worst advice comes from experts outside their field of expertise.  It sounds deceptively credible, but will lead you down the wrong path.

5 - Telling customers what they need

Coming from a sales background I'm naturally inclined to get to 'yes'.  While good sales, this drive is a terrible way to gather data.  When interviewing customers adopt the socratic method - ask questions and avoid making any declarative statements all together.

6 - Not asking for the introduction

Every good conversation you have should send with an ask for introductions to others.  At any stage if you have one person that likes you, your idea, or your product, use them to find similarly minded people.  Birds of a feather flock together, so one fan can usually lead you to more.

7 - Not having a plan

Engineers are often guilty of the 'build first ask questions later' mentality.  Building is the most expensive way to validate an idea.  Create a step-by-step plan which ends with coding - require a high barrier of proof before building anything other than mockups.  We use the rule of 10 - 10 customers must say yes before we move on.  In this model we'll talk to at least 30 customers before coding.  Here's what we follow:

Customer Development Pipeline

Note: after the first couple interviews we lump the first three steps together.  Just be careful to ask them in order so you don't influence the user's perception of the problem with your solution.  Also, drop customers from your funnel if their needs start to diverge from the pack.  You don't need to make everyone happy - just 10.

Monday, June 17, 2013

HBS Retrospective

graduationAfter three long (stuffed startup in between the first and second) years I’ve finally graduated from HBS.  Looking back, it was an unquestionably amazing experience in all of the most unexpected ways.

I originally came to business school for three primary reasons

  • Credibility – HBS is one of the best name-brand degrees out there.
  • Financial Toolkit – I was working on a company with good exit potential and wanted to understand just how to value it (google failed me!)
  • Professional Contacts – I wanted to meet likeminded people and tap into great new professional opportunities.

As it turns out the only thing I really got from the experience that I expected was the financial toolkit.  I learned a TON about how acquisitions are valued in theory (discounted cashflow) as well as reality (market comps and asset values).  However, as an HBS grad I found I had less credibility than when I was a Microsoftie and never ended up leveraging the relationships I developed at HBS for professional reasons (less than 2% of HBS goes into entrepreneurship).

What I did leave the school with were the following:

  • Community – This was the most valuable and surprising to me.  The cohort I came to know and love in both years was truly amazing.  Not only were they the accomplished and ambitious young professionals I expected, but they were incredibly kind hearted and fun loving human beings.  I know that I’ll forever be a part of the the best social club in the world.
  • Nothing to prove – Up to this point I’d always felt like I had to prove myself to society.  Be it by garnering recognition or financial rewards – there was always another rung to climb.  HBS does provide a cloak of accomplishment (you went there?  must be doing something right) universally recognized.  Now I can settle down and do what feels right to me – not society.
  • No Fear – Getting the degree means you never have to worry about money again.  As far as I know nobody with an HBS MBA has struggled to find a job that pays enough to cover basic needs.  It’s a meal card for the rest of my life.  This frees up the rest of my time and risk appetite to do only what I love with no fear.  One of my favorite professors (Shikhar Ghosh) is fond of saying his students have around 2500 weeks to live.  Use them wisely.   

In short, I came to HBS to improve my career and they ended up setting the foundation for the rest of my life.  The last three years will easily be the most transformational in my life, and yet I couldn’t be more excited about the decades to (hopefully) come!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

How to Discover the Perfect Product Design

As an engineering my first instinct is to code first and ask questions later.  At best this results in a product I love, but nobody else cares about.  At worst, it can tie up an entire development team coding product iterations for ages.  So, how can we build the right product the first time around? 

Customer Development.

This is a completely customer centric approach to design pioneered by Steve Blank (who has built several successful companies with it himself).   The basic idea is to start by understanding the customer and then to create a product that suits their needs.  This is the opposite of many traditional companies that build products fist and then test market adoption afterwards.

The fundamental reason this works is that for many products you can test market adoption without a product. 

From my experience 80%+ of a product is in the design – and can be validated with a high fidelity mockup – which is a tenth of the cost of a prototype.  This means you’re getting 80% of the value at 10% of the price.   And, even is money is no object, it will increase you ability to iterate by 10x.

So practically speaking – how does this work?  Here is my simplified 7 step process:

1 - Start with a Thesis and a Mockup

Spent a day (or less) identifying the customer (ie salespeople) and designing the product they want (a mobile notes platform).

2-Make a List

In Excel make a list with the following columns: first name, last name, email, title, company, notes.  Then fill this sheet with as many names of potential customers as you can find.  Great sources for customers are:

  • Your personal/professional network
  • 2nd degree connections (ask your friends/colleagues if they know potential customers)
  • Alumni networks
  • Linkedin – just search around and send polite messages to relevant folks.
  • Local professional groups.  Most industries have some manner of in person meetings. Just look on google, meetups, blogs to find these.
  • Contact people via twitter/their blog/their personal/company website.

3-Send out Emails

Send the people on the list a short and polite email.  Example:

Hi Mr. Smith,

I’m working on a mobile product for sales people and found your name on Linkedin.  Your experience at ACompany looked very relevant to my project.  Do you have 15 minutes to talk in the next few days? 



4-Conduct Interviews

Sent a lot of those emails out.  Expect less than half to respond.  For the folks that do set up time to talk in person or over the phone have a script ready.  The conversation can flow naturally, but you want to carefully ask questions that start very broadly and then become narrower.  The goal here is to learn as much as possible about the customer without influencing their perspective with your ideas. Example:

  1. What do you do?
  2. Can you walk me through a typical day for you?
  3. How many in person meetings do you have per week on average?
  4. How do you record notes during these meetings?
  5. How do you use those notes before the next meeting?
  6. Would you use a mobile notes platform?
  7. Would you use this mobile notes platform (show your mockup)?

*Note: surveys DO NOT COUNT.  You need to have a 1:1 conversation with a customer to truly understand every aspect of his or her life possible.  Surveys presume you know all possible answers before they are offered.  You probably don’t.

5-Followup with Iterations

The greatest reward you can give these potential customer for your time is the satisfaction of seeing the impact of their ideas and feedback. Be thankful (and always send a follow-up note).  Also, keep in touch to let them know about subsequently iterations of the product and to continue getting their feedback on your designs.

6- Sell!

Eventually, through many iterations your product should get to the point where customers are excited and ready to buy.  This is the point where begin to build!  Then, when it’s all done you can sell it to a ready and eager customer base waiting to buy!

7-Groom Evangelists

The last, (but not least) step is to followup with customers using your product and improve their experiences.  If they are ecstatic about your product encourage and provide a channel for them to reach other customers (through their own social media networks, a company blog, whitepapers etc).

That’s it!  If you follow these simple seven steps you will avoid the engineer’s folly of building a great product that nobody wants!  As Steve Blank is fond of saying “Get out of the building and talk to customer!”.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Finding Founders Post @ HIPPO Reads



There’s a new Hippo on the block in high quality content.  After being introduced to Hippo Reads by founder Anna Redmond I’ve really enjoyed learning through their curated content. 

In each ‘curation’ an industry expert leads you through a rich array of secondary content in an essay format.  With topics ranging from Healthcare to Justice the breadth of content and voice of the curators make Hippo Reads a great digital escape where readers can explore a new topic in just a few minutes.

If you want to read more check out their most recent piece on Entrepreneurship (by yours truly): Finding Founders.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Super Simple (aka Ghetto) A/B Testing

Looking to test a couple variants of your landing page?  Sure there are a bunch of great tools out there, but that takes time/effort to find, register, and install on your site. 

If you’re just at the point (like I am) where you want an easy free way to test landing pages quickly.  This little PHP A/B tester is the simplest way to compare two versions of a webpage.  Here’s how it works:

  1. Save on your php enabled web server as something like test.php
  2. A user will go to
  3. test.php will randomly pick one of two webpages to send them to (ideally a form/google survey where you can collect output)
  4. test.php will record where the user was sent in data.txt
  5. At the conclusion of the test you can easy grab the resulting text file (in this case called data.txt).  Count the number of visits and compared to the number of conversions to get your rate.  The higher number wins!

Code below.  Happy Testing!


$filename = 'data.txt';
$somecontent = "Placeholder";

//this will pick randomly spit out 0 or 1
$path = mt_rand(0,1);

// Let's make sure the file exists and is writable first.
if (is_writable($filename)) {

    // In our example we're opening $filename in append mode.
    // The file pointer is at the bottom of the file hence
    // that's where $somecontent will go when we fwrite() it.
    if (!$handle = fopen($filename, 'a')) {
         echo "Cannot open file ($filename)";

/*for the purpose of this test we’re just sending folks to or  Replace those URLs with desired content */

        //Write $somecontent to our opened file.
        if (fwrite($handle, "Google") === FALSE) {
             echo "Cannot write to file ($filename)";
        if (fwrite($handle, "Microsoft") === FALSE) {
            echo "Cannot write to file ($filename)";
echo "Success, wrote ($somecontent) to file ($filename)";


} else {
    echo "The file $filename is not writable";

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

How to Hire Great Developers

A recent conversation highlighted the challenge of hiring great developers.  It’s a tough market – demand for technical talent is exploding and the supply isn’t increasing to compensation.  As the talent war heats up prices increase, and even finding talent is hard since nobody good is every looking (they’re choosing between offers). 

Really, this boils down to a sales process.  There’s prospecting (find the people you want) and closing (convincing them to join you!).  While by no means the end-all in recruiting, here are some tactical tips and tactics that have helped me:


  • Friends – by far the best resource is friends and friends of friends.  Ask around the people who already know and like you to see if they have someone in their network they can connect you with.  If it’s a good fit everyone wins!
  • Presentations – there are a ton of opportunities to give presentations at local meetups and events.  This is a great way to get in front of a bunch of people and get them excited about your company  (which you should be doing anyways!)  The best networking will happen when people come up to you afterwards – talk about qualified leads!
  • Online Press – there are a multitude of online press organizations out there.  You should be active pursuing coverage in all of them.  Especially the locally targeted tech ones will be actively read by developers.  If you make a good enough pitch this will bring the most motivated team members through the door.
  • LinkedIn – last but not least!  Look around on LinkedIn for the talent.  See if you're connected, if not it’s worth buying the contact options.  People are usually quite responsive if you make a respectful pitch.


  • Portfolio – what has this developer done? One the job and on the side are both important.  Have the skills you need been demonstrated?  If not I wouldn’t make the hire. 
  • References – this should be obvious, but is often missed.  Ask past employers, colleagues, and just anyone you can about the person.  Will they be a good fit for your team culture?  Will they stick around?   How can you motivate them?


  • Have the whole team sell them.  Through in person meetings, 1:1s and group emails – make sure they feel desired by the entire team – not just a hiring manager.
  • Make a great offer.  People in general and technical people in particular are usually 1x or 10x.  The best are worth 10x more than average.  So take compensation off the table.  Make them an offer they can’t refuse (say 2x).  It’s worth it.
  • Sell the mission.  Most developers make more than enough money (and have for their entire careers).  They are good because they are smart and seek interesting problems and fun products far above anything else.  Talk about your past wins and future ambitions.  Show them how their work will change the world.
  • Learn to code.  Nothing is worse than a non-technical person trying to close a technical one.  It just doesn’t work well.  Even if you know a little it will help build the trust that you, to some extent, appreciate their talent.

Friday, March 15, 2013

How Powerful Are You?

At startups we often eschew the notion of politics and power. However, it is an inescapable reality of living as the social creatures we are. As I set on a class on exactly this topic: Power and Influence the professor highlighted the best yardstick for power I’ve heard to date:

Who comes to me for advice?

This metric is particularly effective because it neatly captures both dimensions of trust – Competence and Character.  In order to trust someone’s advice you need to believe in their competence (they will provide you with good data) and their character (they have your best interests at heard.  One without the other (ill intentioned intelligence or well intentioned ignorance) is misleading at best.image

Take a couple minutes to map our who trusts you. By these metrics what does your network look like?  How powerful are you?  And, most importantly, how do the people in your circle of trust map to your needs in the relationship (top) row of the Framework for Happiness?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A Framework for Happiness

The greatest enemy of happiness and fulfillment is minutia.  It’s all too easy to drown in the trivialities of life and lose sight of the light that is our true aspirations. In a prior post on Time Management highlighted the importance of having clear priorities in order to apply your time efficiency (importance>urgency).  Since they I’ve had many discussions about just how to go about establishing these priorities.   Over time this has evolved into a very simple one page framework:


This is designed to be filled from the bottom up – with each layer building on the one before it. 

  • Ethics - At the core is ethical boundaries.  What are things that you need to always or never do?
  • Motivations - Then think about your motivations and their result (your legacy).  What do you want to look back on at the end of your life?
  • Activities – What do you want to spend your time doing in service of your motivations and bounded by your ethics?
  • Relationships – What are your most important relationships that you need to nurture? What relationships do you need to develop to support your activities?


A book I’ve found invaluable in thinking about all of these areas is True North by Bill George.  A staple at HBS’s Authentic Leadership Development class.  The book includes interviews with a large number of the greatest leaders of our society and tells their stories in a series of vignettes. 


While by no means a complete roadmap to the rest of your life, this simple framework can serve as an invaluable compass.  When I have some time to myself I’ll think about my priorities in life and fill out the boxes.  Then I keep the framework on my wall and look at it every today to ensure that I’m spending my time on the most important things in my life. Not the most urgent minutia of the day.  That’s happiness.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Less Noise More Signal: Training your Brain


Let’s face it.  We’re all addicts. 

The brain naturally desires the path of least resistance  From YouTube binges to Facebook obsessions our inner Id is always trying to take the easy way out.  It’s the mental equivalent of eating cotton candy all day long.

All the digital activities the mind gravitates toward tend to utilize a minor percentage of your processing power.  The more time you spend engaged in this type of activity the more your brain becomes accustomed to operating at this low level.  The more you engage in passive activities the harder it is to snap back to doing more active mentally challenging tasks.

It’s not a respite – it’s a relapse.

The mind operate off of a baseline and resists any deviation for the better. Each time you indulge in the guilty pleasure you train your brain to get lazier.  However, over time, it’s also possible to train your brain to gravitate to be active and seek out stimulation. 

Furthermore, from my experience (admitted backed by no science)the minor use of brainpower is the most pernicious state of being.  You don’t progress (learn/grow/build) and you don’t rest (recover/reenergize).  It’s a no mans land of passive decline.

So what’s the answer? Clean living! Remove the passive engagement portion of your life.  Train your brain to work or rest.  Not muddle in between.  You’ll find you get more done, feel less stressed, and will increase mental acuity.


Some tools to help you on your way:

image BlockSi  - A pretty good parental control toolset.  Block your most addictive sites (youtube/hulu/netflix etc).  It’s not bullet proof (since you’ll know the password), but having to go in and un-block something or open a new browser type will help break a habitual activity (alt-tabbing to FB/favorites).

imageRescueTime – A great desktop app that tracks all activity on your computer.  It provides analytics that let you know where you spend your time.  This is your answer to ‘where did the day go?’.  Also – it will help you align your intended priorities with daily activity (how much time do you spend on email vs eclipse/powerpoint/excel?)

Dubious?  Try it for a week.  It will be hard to stick to it 7 days straight, but at the end you’ll be amazed at how quiet the voice of temptation has become.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Boston Founders–Hadapt

The next stop on our tour of the Boston Founder ecosystem brings us to the Central Square offices of Hadapt where Co-Founder and CEO Justin Borgman sat down with us.  Their mission to build a SQL layer on top of Hadoop.  This was the first real enterprise startup I’ve had a chance to visit. 

I was quite tickled to see the evolution of big data since I was doing ETL and OLAP at Microsoft 7 years ago.  At this point the concern isn’t as much for what data can be processed – it’s all about how easy it is to access.  The easier it is the more people can use it. 

Hadapt is building the layer that will enable Hadoop to plug into the world of SQL – which enables all of the analytics tools built for a past generation to interact with the bleeding edge in parallel storage.

The Justin’s story was really a great and repeatable one.  At Yale in the hopes of getting a VC job he joined the tech-transfer office (they commercialize technology – every major university has one).  After looking at a few projects – he found the work of Dr. Daniel Abadi who was working on a new adaptive analytical platforms. 

Seeing the potential for this technology Justin worked with Dr. Abadi to build out a small team in New Haven.  After raising a around Hadapt’s talent needs moved them up to Boston where they are to this day.  While a seemingly straightforward story, Justin had plenty of wisdom to share:

  • Hire Great  people – In half a glance you can see the rockstar quality in the company’s board.  Justin clearly took the time to seek out and recruit the very best.  He also noted that it’s hard, but critical to be ruthless about building, maintaining, and protecting a great team.
  • Find mentors – It’s highly unlikely that you’ll be able to survive the learning curve on your own.  Finding a great mentor with CEO experience is the best way to give yourself a fighting chance to grow into the role.
  • Pitch to both coasts.  At worst the West can provide higher valuation deals you can shop in the East.  Competitive pressure is always good.
  • The first sale is key – Hadapt closed a Fortune 50 company very early in their lifecycle. And this was done through classic sales (whitepaper download –> call –> meetings) and took about 6 months.  This sale combined with a superstar board of advisors gave investors the confidence to bet big on Hadapt early on.
  • Be where the talent is.  Hiring in Boston is generally hard, but it has a disproportionate number of data folks.  Also, Hadapt has a Polish subsidiary that employs many of the talented graduates known by the Polish PHDs that worked for Dr. Abadi.
  • Enterprise is slower, more strategic, but less of a gamble.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Boston Founders–Crashlytics

Crashlytics Twitter Acquisition

Following the acquisition of Crashlytics by Twitter we sat down with co-founder Jeff Seibert to learn about their journey. 

Crashlytics wasn’t Jeff’s first time at bat.  Out of Stanford he started Increo – a document collaboration and sharing product. This idea started from the simple need for online document collaboration tools and evolved into an incredibly robust online document display technology that was acquired by

After leaving Jeff started Crashlytics in order to manage the massive and poorly structured crash reporting data generated by mobile apps when they crash.  He built on his professional experience as a developer to create a polished developer tool that all mobile devs need, but which nobody had the time to dedicate to fully solving.

What really struck me was the degree of care and production that went  into everything this company did.  From their website (shown below compared to the FB iOS SDK landing  page) to the slides Jeff showed us – every visible element of the technology demonstrated a true artisanal care:


Surprisingly, Crashlytics was built completely counter to the MVP methodologies.  Jeff candidly stated that they did very little testing.  The team relied on their personal experience as developers and personal taste to product a high quality product.  The stated purpose was to avoid design by committee – which often can lead to mediocre products (that nobody hates, but also that nobody loves).

Jeff was also kind enough to capture 5 tactical tips that every startup hopeful show keep in mind:

  1. Incorporate feedback before seeking funding

    • Investors are a great source of information.  Use them to learn and make your product better BEFORE asking them for money.  Ideally, by the time you hit them up for an investment they already love you.
  2. Balance Team

    • Engineers thing that if you build it users will come.  This magic doesn’t happen – there are just too many products in a super crowded technology market place.  Make sure you hire the people you need to make distribution happen.  For most startups today the go to market or customer  needs issues are the key uncertainty – not the product. 
  3. Time Your Fundraising

    • There are two types of investors – Vision Investors and Momentum Investors.  The former invests in a market/problem and a team.  Their hope is your good is big and you are smart enough to get there.  The latter invest in numbers – # users, growth, run-rate etc.  Pitching a prototype wins you neither of these investors.  Vision Investors just need a team and a deck.  So just pitch that.  Momentum investors need users and traction.  Which leads me to:
  4. Investors don’t dots they fund curves:

    • image
    • A curve is defined by three points.  Investors want to see your inflection at three different points while evaluating an opportunity.  I mapped this to the timing question.  Personally,  my goal is to  now have a meeting at the vision stage, prototype stage, and traction stage.  However, Jeff also mentioned that you can do this with less (Pitch to a vision investor with a mockup, customer requests, and prototype).  The caveat here is that Jeff is a proven entity – if you’re a first time founder you’ll probably need more.
    • Take investors out of the office.  Make your pitch in a casual environment (coffee-shop etc.).  And make it a real human interaction (where they are inclined to say yes)– not a pitch (where they are inclined to say no). 
  5. Maximize First Time Experience

    • This was a huge and really unique part of Crashlytics.  They essentially worked quietly for a long time on a great product and then released it.  There was no big  public beta or hopes that they’d fix issues in V2.  They made a big bet, polished every element to the nth degree and launched.  This resulted in a HUGE splash and customer WOW experience that drove the majority of their positive PR  (and acquisition). 

This visit to Crashlytics was easily one of the most surprising experiences I’ve had in Boston.  I was expecting a classic developer-driven lab that rolled out simple no-frills developer tools (Android I’m looking at you!). 

Instead, we found the Apple Computers approach to SDKs (no surprise Jeff worked there).  Simple, slick, and beautiful tools to give the cubicle warriors the same great experience in the office that they’ve gotten used to in their personal consumer lives.