The Sphinx in a Startup

sphinx-entrance

Whatever it may otherwise lack, a Startup is blessed with an abundance of unknowns. What is the product? Who is the customer? What is the value proposition? How will you sell? At what price point? The utterly simple yet immensely vexing answer to all these questions is “We don’t know fully”. Of course I jest, but only a little. This is the Sphinx posing its riddles.

In a startup, everything and nothing is open for exploration. Sounds like one of those contradictory Zen statements but believe me there is nothing remotely calm or enlightening about this state.

When friends or ex-colleagues try to comprehend our proposition, there is always a glint of sympathy in their eyes. I almost hear them thinking, “How misguided could you get?”, “Can’t you focus on key features?”, “Where is your execution plan?”, “Are you making money?”, “I did a MVP last weekend, what takes you so much time?” and so on.

Or when arguing about evolving the product in a specific direction with my team, I always feel the tension. Features change, evolve, mutate like a precocious two year old’s imagination. What was to be a journey to India, is possibly leading us to an entirely different continent, while making us feel lost in a wide sea of unknowns.

How do I deal with it? Well, the unknown to me is always a possibility. Something to be unwrapped and explored. As my Guru Sri Aurobindo, says in an aphorism:

The sense of impossibility is the beginning of all possibilities.

To confront impossibility is to stand firm in front of the Sphinx posing its riddles. You stand and answer its questions. The more it questions, the deeper you dig and answer. If you give up, the Sphinx wins.

Whether its rewriting a feature you removed few weeks back. Or venturing into a technical area you know very little about. Or doing a pre-sales call. Or dealing with a hundred less than ideal situations at work and elsewhere. That is the Sphinx presenting itself to you.

The Sphinx is not a statue posing its impossibility on a ocean of sand far far away. The Sphinx is a customized version of impossibility created just for you. To everyone else the riddle is plain, simple and they might think you naive, perhaps even that you are stupid. It could be true too. But this is your impossibility. Your personal Tour De France. Your Everest. This is Xerxes confronting you with his Persian might.

The Sphinx demands answers. The unknown demands exploration. Tenacity is what you must live and breathe. To wake up and greet your unknowns. To welcome them one by one. To dissect and get into and get around them. To do everything but giving up.

And then you might hear one day, as I did earlier today, “This has promise”, in reference to our product. There is still long way to go but hey, even the imaginary sound of seagulls is music to my ears now.

Doing a Startup? Here is one way to maintain focus

Am sure this is familiar to anyone in startup mode. Endless possibilities, danger of losing focus at every turn and no sight of a home. Homer, poet of Ancient Greece, shows how Odysseus, the hero of Odyssey, maintains his focus.

Situation

Odysseus is trying to get home. His immediate problem is to navigate along with his men beyond the Sirens, maidens of beauty and heart wrenching songs. Those who heard the Sirens abandoned prudence and rushed to rocky coasts.

Solution?

Ulysses_and_the_Sirens_by_H.J._Draper

Odysseus has his team’s ears blocked with beeswax, preventing them from hearing the Siren’s song. A song of unbearable longing that lures sailors, only to dash their ships to doom on treacherous seas. Odysseus is curious to hear the song, but is pragmatic enough not to trust himself, hence has himself tied to the ship’s mast. So the team is not distracted and he is tied to his purpose, literally in this case.

Thus, the team row their way past the Sirens. Odysseus survives the Siren’s call to doom by being firm in his commitment and a little foresight.

So, if you are working on your startup, be open to possibilities, both benign and malicious. But commit yourself to a schedule, a plan or your original vision. Do not heed every call to new opportunities and change course. Trust your intuition and keep moving. Beware unbelievably nice possibilities. And keep yourselves focussed on execution.

Makes sense?

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What did we do with such focus? CollabLayer is what we did. A cloud-based collaboration tool that enables collaborative content consumption, discussions in context and rapid discovery of insight. If your work involves reviewing, sharing and discussing digital content with a team, you should really check it out. Free during beta and you can always take your data back. Learn about motivations behind CollabLayer. Or head here to Signup.

Conflict is Fuel for Creativity

scream and shout

But why do you hate them?“, said the slightly exasperated friend.

My reply, paraphrased, was “Hate is too strong a word, I need a psychological crutch for motivation. Even an imaginary conflict is useful. Just as we did for our previous product when our competitor had to die!

Conflict has a bad reputation. Much like anger it is painted in a negative shade.

But there is a constructive way to view the situation, especially if you are a fledgling startup.

At the heart of all progress and creativity is a small kernel that sees the world differently.

A better way to do work, a better way to watch movies and so on. This different world view might not be what entrenched incumbents want.

But that is how it always is. Incumbents want nothing to change. Remember incumbents are invariably ex-dreamers who got comfortable, who latch on to the present than reaching out for the future.

As a side note, it is best to assess oneself, especially if you have a history of having pushed yourself in the past. Are you still reaching out or are you grasping for what you can get now? Are you part of the future being born or a past holding onto what is left?

To progress one has to intimately feel that a better way is possible, the existing scenario should just be unacceptable.

What you choose to be in conflict with is dependent on what you wish to accomplish. It could be how you feel about any social condition, about how people listen to music, or how people read e-books.

What matters is that you feel the conflict and help push the scenario forward.

If you feel nothing or love the present dearly then I wish you bold and grand conflicts that inspire action!

Conflict is fuel for creativity. Embrace it.

Creative Commons License Mindaugas Danys via Compfight

Digg and Conditions that Make Failure Acceptable

Digg is dead. Digg’s failure was a chance for bloggers to speculate about Digg itself and what makes startups fail and rise up.

There were the usual condescending views on what happened to Digg. See picture below.

Failure of Digg

In case you did not get the joke, here is the actual cover published many years ago.

Failure of Digg, Original Cover

There were positive takes too, for example here is one from Sarah Lacy:

The lesson from Digg is crucial as Silicon Valley’s ecosystem has made it easier and easier to start a company. It’s that a great product is necessary but not nearly enough. Building a real company is harder, and it takes execution and leadership.

And Sarah ends the article with this:

There will be haters on this post. And that’s fine. But the people who write checks in the Valley have respect for what Digg built, whether the founders fell short or not. Smart people will always want to back these guys– as Mike Maples said on Ask a VC last week– and people like Arrington and me will root for them again.

Context of Failure

In my understanding there is a specific context in which the sentiment “failure is acceptable” occurs. This context is driven by three factors.

First, the economic drivers of society have changed from being manufacturing oriented to one driven by information and software. Software products are not typically capital intensive, besides Moore’s Law ensures more CPU power being available for less cost. So software companies are born, grow and mature at a much faster rate than those that manufacture things.

Second, most major economies are globalized, coupled with spread of internet and internet based services makes an unimaginable amount of competition possible. The key here is that location is not an impediment to build and sell software. As long as connectivity exists, any service can theoretically be served anywhere. Theoretically because there are laws around what can be sold from and to in each nation. But in principle location is not a hard barrier for digital services.

Third, increasing complexity of societies driven by change in demographics of nations, the migration from rural areas into cities, availability of cheap communication devices, affordable internet connectivity and other factors drive an inordinate rate of change and new perspectives that leave little room for certainty.

Consequence

With the above three factors influencing our context, it is easy to work out why investors and entrepreneurs take the stance that “failure is acceptable“. Basically very few have any certainty on what product or service will succeed in the marketplace. A product that succeeds in the US, does not even start in Brazil or India or China. There are no clear answers.

The option to not failing seems to be to sit tight, which certainly is no option for dreamers and builders. Besides in software related services the life-span of vetting a product is quite short. Unlike manufacturing a car where it takes a few years to build one and then test to see if it succeeds, a prototype software product can be done in as few as handful of weeks to get feedback from potential customers.

So a couple of years spent building a software product that has failed is no big deal, the experience of having executed idea still remains valuable. These lessons learnt from failure and the endurance built up in execution can be reused. The VCs and entrepreneurs have thought through these dynamics, leading to insight that failure does not kill and one can always try again.

Bottom line, execution builds competency regardless of outcome.

Is it just a fashion?

I also think, this is no ephemeral trend..this is a deeper perspective of what makes work essential to us as humans. Beyond its ability to put food on the table, work infuses meaning to many of us and without that ability to leave markers around many would be unhappy. But here I digress into philosophical territory and will have to stop I guess! What do you think? What makes failure acceptable, at least in the technology industry?

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Sparrow Acquisition and Mobile App Pricing Models

Sparrow

Sparrow, the much loved email client for iOS has been acquihired by Google. Congrats to the Sparrow team. Bad news is there will be no enhancements to the Sparrow app itself. The team will work on other projects at Google.

Sparrow Acquihire Reactions

Reactions from the internet ranged from how Google might have wanted to get Sparrow’s design skill to lend a hand on a Gmail client perhaps, or wanted Sparrow like app for Android and so on.

The reaction that I liked was from Nilay Patel, he talks about how Apple should support In-App subscription pricing models for apps.

An app developer can only charge a one time price BEFORE the user has experienced the app. This price must be low enough not to scare away users, yet high enough to pay for the operations of the business. In the productivity app space, we are seeing more of the former, not the later. (a) I only paid $9.99 for Sparrow years ago and yet it has added a lot of value to my life.

Subscription pricing for apps is an important point and am surprised its not getting much support from iOS developer community.

Popular Mobile App Pricing Models

One-time payment is the second most popular mobile app pricing model. Free is obviously the first approach. The monetization strategy for free apps are i)in-app purchases for additional features ii) Advertisement supported iii) Monetize through a primary app, on say PC or elsewhere, and subsidize mobile app.

Of course am not accounting for apps that are supported by factors other than revenue. Social media apps fall under this bucket, they use our collective attention to determine our interests and use these signals to serve advertisements etc.

Why subscription pricing for mobile apps?

Most pre-iOS mobile platforms were quite lame to build professional apps on. The iOS platform and then Android, and perhaps Windows Phone, changed all that. It is possible to write games on these platforms, leave alone business apps. Most functionality like email clients, games or simple productivity tools, requires minimal server infrastructure to keep running. So its possible to build a decent mobile product by adopting an one-time pricing model for these apps. Start with 0.99 cents to whatever $$ you can charge and be done with it. Assuming the app did sufficient numbers, developers can sustain themselves and perhaps even be profitable.

Some Problems Need Processing Power!

But the one-time pricing model does not always work. Especially if there is a server component that supports the mobile app functionality, and server components are not cheap to build, monitor and maintain. Why bother with a server at all? Well, if you are doing any significant feature that involves large data processing, it has to be done on the server rather than a mobile client. Without a server component you are limited by the kind of problems you can solve. Let me reiterate

This is not about pricing models but about the class of problems you can go after sustainably.

This would be no big deal if the iPad and its Android clones had not been around. With tablets you could do much more but the pricing model constraints are a serious roadblock. AppStore pricing restrictions are artificial constraints on the tablet ecosystem.

Options for Subscription Pricing

And if you want to focus on a purely mobile app then you have few options i) Charge heavily one time, and hope you do enough volumes ii) Adopt in-app purchases for new features, might not fly because of first point, which Nilay has pointed out too iii) iii) Adopt in-app advertising, might not work for non-consumer apps because of volumes iv) Or hope you get VC funding to subsidize the whole thing and look for exit via an acquisition!

Obviously none of the above options are desirable.

Web + Mobile Combo

Before you say anything, I know a web + mobile app combination will let you out of this conundrum, since pricing model on the web-end of the equation can be controlled. Issue here is your development costs just shot up. There are two apps to design, build, test, deploy and maintain for! Let us not even get into whether the product would be relevant on a non-mobile scenario.

With subscription pricing enabled for apps, Apple can truly realize its vision of a post-PC world. Right now, developers need to straddle PC and Post-PC worlds!

Why do I care?

Why am I getting all worked up about Sparrow and in-app pricing models? Well, for CollabLayer, the first product being developed by my startup Tataatsu, we have struggled with this question a lot. While CollabLayer will be on all platforms eventually, we could have gone to market with an iPad app first. But pricing model restrictions force us to build the web-app too, which of course delays everything.

Apple, help us realize your, and our, vision of  a Post-PC world, enable in-app subscription pricing!

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Nest Gets Engineering and Marketing Right

Nest-thermostat

Nest is a thermostat. A thermostat is not usually worth talking about. Nest though is worth talking about and many have in the past.

Engineering or Marketing

There are products that are engineered well but the messaging falls flat. Some products get the marketing right but engineering fails to measure up. But there are times when engineering and the messaging surrounding it come together in perfect harmony. In such rare moments, the engineer and creative person can be content at what they have accomplished.

Nest’s latest advertisement does justice to the engineering behind it. Watch it first.

Reminds me of another product messaging.

Thinking Time

Instead of listing down how both examples resonate with me, am going to try something different.

First. Which other unsexy and green utility like Nest has better marketing?

Second. How would you introduce an iconic device like the Apple iPhone that might change how people communicate?

Fire away in the comments or drop me a note..details in the contact page. I shall post my views in comments mid next week.

6 Examples Why Not All Gamification is Bad

Gamification has a bad aura surrounding it. One thinks of Gamification as being best done by Zynga and its evil time-devouring demon called FarmVille. But a recent crop(just mentioning FarmVille has infected me!) of apps have affirmed this belief that not all Gamification is bad.

What is Gamification?

Before we dig in, here is Wikipedia’s definition of Gamification

Gamification is the use of game design techniques[1], game thinking and game mechanics to enhance non-game contexts.

Good definition but I think we could add a little more color. Before I reveal what it is, let me share details of a few apps that have influenced my thinking.

Zite

Zite is a online magazine that lets you subscribe to news on specific topics you select. Zite is like a smart sister to the pretty Flipboard. Zite absolutely shines when it comes to the quality of articles it recommends. It does that by taking feedback on the article you read. It tackles the “how to get feedback” by asking three questions i) Do you want to see more from same site/author? ii) Did you like this post? iii) Do you want to see more articles on the topics like this article?. Between these three questions it captures a nice overview of how a user feels about the content. I did not take this mechanism seriously for a while but once I started giving it the feedback, I found quality of new articles become really really good. To summarize, Zite uses Gamification to improve quality of article recommendations.

Newsle

Newsle is a new breed of recommendation system. It does one thing, to show news articles about people you care about. It picks the list of people from your social graph and also provides means to add ad-hoc names. Imagine you could keep track of your friends, competitors to see if they get mentioned on any news articles. Newsle deserves a bigger post because they use entity recognition algorithm to solve a practical problem(how do I see news about people I care about?) cleanly. Newsle takes feedback from you on whether the person entity it has recognized in an article is the same person you care about. So, Newsle uses Gamification to improve its people recognition algorithm.

Cargobot

Cargobot is an ingenious game designed to teach programming principles. You instruct a robot to move in certain predefined set of ways to accomplish task of moving cargo boxes. I found this an absolute delight to play and even got my kid interested in instructing the robot to do things. This could a nice first step before getting kids onto bigger stuff like Lego’s Mindstorms. You play a game but the side effect is to learn programming principles. Clever use of a Gamification to teach programming.

Lift

Lift, an iOS app, is yet to be released. From the reviews I have seen its helps accomplish changes to your habits by having a virtual group of friends to motivate you. Simple app and am sure there are many like it. I really like how Lift, and similar apps, use Gamification of social interactions to influence old behavior or acquire new ones.

Contactually

Contactually is CRM for your email. It takes your email contacts and helps manage each relationship by reminding you to stay in touch with people. The reason it finds a place here is in how it make you categorize your contacts. Getting your contacts grouped by what they mean to you is a chore. But Contactually makes it into a game by asking you to bucket contacts. I found ‘bucketing’ to be more palatable than just calling it categorizing contacts. The feature would have remained they same in function and UX if it had been called categorization. Contactually have tweaked your perception of categorizing to make it more enjoyable.

ReWire

ReWire is an app to help build attention/concentration skills. Disclosure – this is a game my firm did the development for. Essentially what it does is to take a conventional audio or video signal and interrupts it and looks for action from you on whether you have recognized the interruption or not. Deceptively simple mechanics but it produces a zoned in state where your senses are tuned in. This is almost like a regular game but what makes ReWire different is that it tries to focus exclusively on the negative spaces and not the actual audio or video signal that is going on in the app. It helps you to stay mentally at one place without being distracted. Exactly the state you need to be in to solve hard problems or do meditation or any activity that needs concentration. Again good example, I think, of Gamification to improve concentration.

Summary

In all these examples the key element was to influence the user to take an action. Whether it was by making an activity into a game, or by game-like rewards for taking a specific action. This is conventionally called interaction design but I feel some of these examples go much beyond that. So here is my definition:

Gamification is the process of engineering or eliciting a certain behavior. Gamification uses a combination of interaction design techniques and understanding of human psychology to accomplish its goals.

What do you think? Does my definition capture what Gamification means to you? What other apps do you know do this better? Let me know in the comments.

ReWire, Weak-ties and Serendipity

Rewire

ReWire is an app to help train your attention/concentration skills. ReWire is the first product that my startup developed and it is out on the AppStore. I say developed because the idea and spirit was the brainchild of Mike Redmer, we only played a technical role. Anyway, the topic of this post is how this partnership between Mike and I came to be. And you should check out ReWire, it’s an awesome app which is sort of obvious given its pedigree..well you surely don’t expect objectivity from me on this 🙂

ReWire Day Zero

It was many months ago, I was lazily reading through some blog post and monitoring twitter. The question occupying my thoughts were around which idea to focus on in the startup I had launched. It was the typical problem of plenty, when you could choose anything to work on what do you choose? Of course the standard questions around technical feasibility, resource availability, monetization concerns were all there but still its a tricky question to answer.

Given the set of people I follow on twitter there was the usual mixture of technology, spirituality and hindu nationalism related tweets that were flying past. In case you did not know, I follow a lot of Buddhist practitioners on twitter. Like thirsty men who drink from every available stream, I too dig into every path to see if there is an insight or technique that will refine the animal within.

Weak-ties

As tweets were whizzing past I noticed a tweet that said, and I paraphrase, “Looking for iOS devs to help build a meditation app“. That held my attention immediately but the tweet was from nobody I knew. It was a retweet by Vince Horn. Vince, if you do not know, runs the Buddhist Geeks podcast, of which I have been a fan for long because of the sincerity and insight with which he conducts himself and the show.

Serendipity

I could not resist, and replied to the tweeter saying our fledgling startup could lend a hand. Of course I also told him we have built products before but not on iOS and not within our startup itself. There were tons of unknowns between Mike and our firm. The funding situation, the scope of work involved, our relative inexperience on iOS platform and more. But we barged our way through based on trust and common spiritual interests. Staring with a simple proof of concept we did several iterations to get to a mature beta. As mentioned at the top of this post, the app is ReWire and it got approved by Apple early in the day today.

It is an amazing feeling to see this little app go live. It is such insignificant thing in the larger scheme of things but very important to me and Mike because of the way it came about and how we have grown as people by learning from and trusting each other.

Looking back

I think this is a good example of serendipity enabled by weak-ties. You don’t think so? Well, imagine I have to be a technology person(to have the courage to think I could build it on my own if I can’t hire an iOS developer), I need to have the freedom to work on what I want(which essentially means a startup or some free time if working full-time elsewhere), I need to have interest in spirituality and follow Vince Horn’s Buddhist Geeks podcast and I had to watch the twitter feed at that exact moment in time. Damn..that is near impossible right! Yet, here we are.

I can’t help but be reminded of this quote by Steve Jobs.

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.

Credits

So Mike, if you are reading this..awesome work and thanks for trusting us with ReWire. You have a unique vision on how technology can help contemplative practices, so keep plugging away!  And to my wife and family who give me support to even attempt this, a big thanks.

Finally to those few who answered my call, “who will come with me, who will walk with me“, you have my gratitude. And yes, we are taking this baby places.

[Note: Our primary product is still in development. We can’t wait to show you what it does. We believe it will simplify how people collaborate with each other and help catalyze serendipity, just as I described in this post. Subscribe to this blog or register your email at Tataatsu to hear more on our progress.]

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How does it feel to run a startup?

Running a startup feels like mystery

Warning! If your heart and mind are immune to poetry, and its ability to communicate complex ideas and feeling, please stop reading and come back later!

Silence yourself, really..whatever it is you are doing now, just let it all go. Done? Okay, here is a little poem that gives a hint of how it feels to launch a startup and create a product. As I said, if you have never felt poetry hit your heart, this might not work. Anyway, pay attention and read it now.

How to build an Owl

Decide you must.

Develop deep respect

for feather, bone, claw.

Place your trembling thumb

where the heart will be:

for one hundred hours watch

so you will know

where to put the first feather.

Stay awake forever.

When the bird takes shape

gently pry open its beak

and whisper into it: mouse.

Let it go.

That gentlemen is how it is. There is indeed a science and reasoning behind everything but a large part of it feels like a mystery. You could have been an Oracle in a temple of Delphi trying to figure out what the spirits are trying to say!

If there is just one aspect I have to highlight as most terrifying, then it would be figuring out what to build. That single question is like every imaginary evil figure come together just to mess with you. You think that is easy? Ah, I thought the same too. Let me clarify. This is like the Mule, Zombies, Satan, Voldemort and..and Sauron coming together..they all shake hands just to mess with you..exclusively. That said, it is an amazing ride and sure beats playing politics and putting up with mediocrity.

Credits: Poem by Kathleen Lynch, discovered via Jack Cheng.Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Johan J.Ingles-Le Nobel via Compfight