Monthly Archives: June 2012

125 Pitches

I’ve been lucky enough to witness some pretty incredible sports moments in my life.  Austin River’s buzzer beater against UNC this past year, and Duke’s come from behind win at home against UNC, last year, are a couple of the most memorable ones.  However, last week, I was just as excited as I was during either of those two epic rivalry games…at a baseball game.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love baseball.  I’ve witnessed grand slams, homerun saving catches, bench-clearing brawls, and I’ve even caught a game ball before, but never have I felt the pure adrenaline and emotion at a baseball game that I experienced when Matt Cain tossed his 125 pitch on June 14th, 2012.

Cain’s final pitch of the night sealed the first perfect game in the San Francisco Giants’ fabled 129-year history and only the 22nd perfect game ever thrown in the history of the MLB.

The DSVIP group was lucky enough to pick this game, against the Houston Astros, as the one game we would go to as a group over the course of the summer.  Looking back at this decision, the odds are incredible that we witnessed a perfect game.  For two program participants, that evening’s game was their first baseball game ever.  I almost feel bad for those two since, odds are, they will never personally witness anything like that again.

Thursday night’s game was definitely incredible because of Matt Cain’s right arm, but one Duke alum made the night even more memorable.  Bill Schlough, the CIO of the Giants, came to chat with us after the game was over.  We were all incredibly excited because of what we had just witnessed and our excitement only grew when Bill brought out a World Series Championship ring for us all to drool over.  Bill didn’t stop there though.  He proceeded to take us down to the field, where he showed us some of the really cool technology AT&T Park has implemented over the past few years.  Leave it to one of Silicon Valley’s baseball teams to have the first entirely WiFi enabled venue in Major League Baseball.  In addition to WiFi connectivity, AT&T Park has the first automated camera system that tracks player movements to record fielding stats.  AT&T Park is completely cutting edge and Bill is doing a tremendous job.

As we left the park, we bumped into the President and CEO of the Giants, Laurence Baer.  He was even more elated than we were about the perfect game (if at all possible) and took the time to chat with us about our time in Silicon Valley.

All in all, definitely worth the long train ride home to Palo Alto later that night!

I apologize for the lack of updates on my startup but don’t worry, all is well!  Look to my next blog post for some exciting developments I’ve been working on.  I just figured that witnessing history required an entire blurb of its own.

-CRV

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Pride In and Outside Of My Work

This week I focused on improving what I already started. I want to learn so much this summer. If I was an expert at PHP, Photoshop, Excel, SQL, AdWords and Facebook Ads I’d be able to do so much more each day. If I was a pro at the command line, Ruby on Rails, R and Javascript I’d be pleased with my technical ability. But I must execute on what I already know and not worry as much about what I don’t know. My strengths are in communication and business development. When I spend more time executing on my strengths I leave work happier and less exhausted.

Jellyfish art has been featured in the New York Times and Wired. For Alex, the next frontier is luxury gift guides. I had fun looking at the strange luxuries featured in the most avant-garde gift guides and the classic luxuries featured in the tamest ones. I think Jellyfish Art would fit in a wide range of gift guides from GQ and ELLE Décor to Cool Hunting and Dwell. I customized the new community forum based on other forums for aquarium products. My next challenge is to lead the hordes of users from the Facebook page to the forum, which is easier to administer and better suited to answering customer service questions. I set up the new affiliate tracking software and contacted the old affiliates. I helped one affiliate create customized “pass-through” links for each of our products that he featured. I organized our keywords in a more sophisticated way and removed the underperforming ones based on quality score and search volume. Keywords are the foundation of any AdWords campaign. Though the process is tedious, I’m focused on getting them right before I try any other tactics. After reading a high level overview of keywords in the book Advanced Google AdWords I’m stuck on what would work best for Jellyfish Art. Many of the tips are better suited to multinational companies with vast product lines. Jellyfish Art sells only a few products to a niche group of customers. How many quality keywords can I really find?

Socially this week was filled with the old standbys: food and friends. On Friday Xiaoyang texted me to see what I was doing after work. He wanted me to meet him at the intersection of Kearny and Jackson in Chinatown. I had no idea what he was doing there. It turns out him and Jacob had a table at one of the most desirable Chinese restaurants in the neighborhood. Because we were so early we were one of the few patrons. I greatly enjoyed my duck and the conversation with Xiaoyang and Jacob. After we ate they had to run and I met a friend near Powell Station. She was hungry so I suggested we go to Tin, a Vietnamese restaurant in SoMa. It has great food, sophisticated décor and reasonable prices. I highly recommend it!

On Saturday I went to Dyke March, a women only march from Dolores Park to the Castro that occurs during Pride weekend. I considered dressing in a more alternative way for Dyke March but decided against it. Isn’t Pride about expressing yourself and feeling comfortable as you are? I confidently donned my cobalt maxi skirt and bright pink lipstick, representing the “femme” contingent of the Dyke March. My friend Roxana and her people were headed to a bar but since I’m under 21 I couldn’t join them. While waiting for someone else I ran into one of my friends from Oakland. We made plans to meet at the Bittersweet Café in Oakland next Saturday. I like Dyke March because it’s lo-fi and tight knit. I saw many memorable signs, people from every walk of life and even some queer celebrities! On Sunday I watched some of the Pride Parade. I saw floats from the Zen Center, the Zoo, The Red Cross and adoption, rodeo, labor organizing and anti-circumcision groups. The Pride celebration in SF is the largest in the world. The influx of LGBT couples was inspiring. 

Sun & Kool-Aid

It seems to me that there is something special about the consumer web entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, and it really revolves around the notion of social and interconnectivity.

I didn’t really believe in the social craze when I first dipped my toes in frigid Bay Area waters, but over the past few weeks, the notion that “social” is a movement as formidable as the .com boom itself has taken its sunbrella and set up camp in my consciousness while sipping on Kool-Aid.

Social makes solitary activities fun: Foodily makes cooking and sharing recipes fun, Linkedin-stalking makes job-hunting (read: webstalking classmates and colleagues) interesting, and reddit even makes random ranting and exclamations fun – it’s like having a friend to hear you out, except that friend will never get sick of you, since there are millions of them to rotate through the chair!

Perhaps this is it, and people don’t want to be so connected anymore, but perhaps also decidedly un-fun and solitary tasks can be done within a context of community interaction, and we’d all like doing the dishes?

The Kinds of People.

There are many types of people in the world. I had an encounter with two radically different ones in a short train ride from Bay Fair to Union City.

It all started with CSS. I was sitting on the Dublin/Pleasanton BART train fixing up my CSS code for my personal web portfolio. This usually never piques anyone’s interest back in New York or Durham, but in the Bay Area, a place where web developers, software engineers, hardware engineers and computer scientists flourish, more people can relate. I get off at Bay Fair stop to make the transfer, and the man who was sitting next to me gets off as well. He seemed to be in his 50’s and he was quite curious about what I was doing and struck up a conversation.

“So is that CSS you’re playing with? What are you writing it for? Work or school?

I replied that I was doing it for personal reasons, and told him that I was a freelance designer working on developing my programming skills and a website that displayed my work. He was shocked when I told him that I was a Duke student and even more surprised when I told him that I was majoring in both CS and Visual Arts.

“What the heck—excuse me for my language, but Duke?! What are you doing out here? Wow, you’re a rare kind, not many of the people I work with or have seen are hybrid designers and developers.”

As we got onto the Union City bound BART train, he revealed that he was a math major and a hardware developer. We engaged in an extremely mathematical and analytical conversation about computer science and it seemed to have sparked some sort of passion in the girl behind us, who was within earshot of everything we were saying.

“Yeah, and I have 5 iPods and iPads and computers and blah blah blah, whatever.” she said aloud, breaking our stream of thought. “I don’t mean to interrupt, but technology is ruining our lives.”

She looked us both in the eye.

 “You guys are talking about all your f—king computers. You know what? People who do all this techy stuff aren’t don’t sh-t, they’re sitting on their asses and they think they’re helping the world, but they aren’t. Go outside. Plant a f—king tree, for goodness sake.”

I was grinning, amused. The man appeared fairly flustered, appalled that there could be a young girl with such a radical opinion. She waved her hand at me,

“See what you were talking about, needing time for poetry and art and stuff, that’s beautiful. That’s what I want to hear.”

It seemed like she appreciated my explanation for switching out of the engineering curriculum and pursuing something that involved both the logical and creative world.

The man quickly realized that we couldn’t back out of the impending discussion of technology’s role in our lives and the ethical implications of certain technological advancements. He tried approaching it from the girl’s point of view.

“Yeah, with the genetic engineering of pigs and all that you can’t deny that some things aren’t doing this world any good.”

This grabbed the girl’s attention.

“Hold on, hold on. What’s happening? Genetic engineering? Genetic modifications? Guys, the best thing for this world is wilderness. We need diversity and the best way to do it is through nature. You can’t genetically create wilderness, you can’t genetically create anything, it’s not right, and it’s not pure. Think about that.”

Before I knew it, it was time to leave for my stop, and I was sad to leave such an intriguing mix of opinions and people. I bid them both a nice day proceeded to make my next transfer.

Pivot! Pivot! Pivot!

It’s seems that a pivot was imminent within our start up. Excited by the possibility of new directions, I looked forward to our brainstorming session. Man was I glad with what we came out with. After our brainstorming it seems this startup as been on a nonstop roller ride forward. As I work through several APIs and an innumerable amount of frustrations, our MVP is slowly taking shape.

In the end that is what I set as our end goal for the summer. At first It seemed like a very daunting task, but one thing that’s been emphasized a copious amount of time here is the idea of simplicity. I always seem to get caught up in little features that’l be great to implement in the future, but these thoughts always seem to clutter my idea of our MVP.

Fortunately, the act of stripping all these ideas always seem like a cleansing for me. I (quite cheesily) compare to cleaning my room. After removing all the unnecessary things, I’m left with a clean and efficient place. That’s how I see our MVP. Slowly it gets cluttered with all these possible features, but after the “cleanse”, the true essence of what we want to build shines.

The web hosting conundrum

Pictures this: You’re sitting in class one day and you’ve just had the next great idea. It’s so obvious you think, leading you to perform a quick Google search to see if someone else has beat you to it. After getting through page two of related Google results, you are satisfied that your bright idea isn’t out there. Suddenly oblivious to anything but your newfound path to the promise land, you spend the rest of class thinking about how this is going to make you millions of dollars and you completely miss the professor’s announcement that there will be a quiz next class.

Class finally ends and, as your classmates congregate in groups to find out who will let them copy the notes from the three classes they slept through last week, you hastily head out the door. You make the quick decision to skip your next class because, well, why bother listening to another boring lecture about Chaucer or quantum mechanics when you’re suddenly just a few days away from your first funding round?

As you’re hurrying back to your dorm, you call your girlfriend and tell her you can’t make dinner tonight. You then text your former roommate to ask him for the name of that computer science genius he’s always talking about. Ten minutes later you’ve got your co-founder and a bag of Taco Bell for your first full night of development. Neglecting all possible responsibilities and obligations, you and your new best friend spend the next two weeks translating your idea into code.

Fast forward two weeks: you are incredibly sick of Taco Bell and Red Bull, your grades are down ten points across the board, your girlfriend now has the prefix “ex” in front of her former title, and your parents are starting to wonder if you’re still alive. On the bright side, you and you and your co-founder have just wrote the final line of code on what is sure to be the greatest product ever released. There’s only one problem: your amazing product is localhosted, and the only two people who can use it are the two developers. You know you need web hosting to get it on the web, but there are hundreds (literally) of options, and you have no idea where to turn.

Is this starting to sound a little bit familiar? Let’s take some time to learn a little bit about the different deployment options available to you.

When it comes to deploying a product that utilizes databases and needs to be scalable (remember that you’re anticipating millions of users, and quickly), the top options are almost always considered to be Heroku and Amazon Web Services (AWS). However, AWS and Heroku offer somewhat different services to their customers.

Heroku offers Platform as a Service (PaaS), while AWS makes use of Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). The difference is that while AWS give you the components you need to build things on top of it, Heroku provides an environment that allows users to push code and basic configuration and get their application up and running quickly. The trade-off is that with Heroku you sacrifice power and flexibility in exchange for efficiency and time.

Why spend the day configuring the OS and installing software for AWS when you could simply type “git push” on Heroku, email the now live link to your mom, and then spend the afternoon watching your analytics charts? Well, if you need to store temporary files, run custom binaries, or compile from a source, Heroku won’t make this easy. If you don’t know what any of this is, you probably don’t need to do it. An additional consideration is whether you foresee the need for vertical scaling. Vertical scaling is essentially replacing all of your hardware with better harder, while horizontal scaling involves adding hardware to work in accordance with your existing setup. If you think that vertical scaling will be in your near future, you should go with AWS. However, as is the case for most startups, the horizontal scaling that Heroku makes available through the use of increased web and worker dynos as your demands increase (all you have to do is drag a slider) should be more than enough for your needs.

Perhaps the most important thing for your new company is money, since you probably don’t have very much of it (not yet, at least). Heroku charges $0.05 per dyno hour (about $36/month), while AWS receives $0.09 per hour for an AWS small instance (about $65/month). Each heroku dyno runs a single user-specified command and is allocated 512 MB of memory. This is roughly comparable to the capabilities of an AWS small instance. Perhaps the best thing about Heroku is that they provide each account holder with 720 free dyno hours and 5 free megabytes of shared database space each month, meaning that hosting your new product with relatively little traffic on Heroku probably won’t cost you a dime at first.

If you’re trying to get your product on the web as easily, quickly, and cost-effectively as possible, it probably makes sense to go with Heroku. If your idea is as good as you think it is and you’re in need of vertical scaling down the road, you can always make the switch to AWS. And, by that time, you shouldn’t have trouble paying your hosting bills.

The Bay

My head has still been spinning from all the cool things that have been happening in my own little startup zone and the cool stuff there is to do in the Bay area. After attending the legendary Giants game with Matt Cain and witnessing my first Pride Weekend just a few days ago, it’s safe to say I am enjoying my time in San Francisco.

Work has been engaging, and I have been learning quite a bit. It’s quite inspiring to see how much time and effort the team members spend on each project — which makes sense, given that the Pocket project is a huge part of their lives. From what I have experienced so far — from the lighthearted interactions between coworkers to the passionate discussions regarding the future of the company, I can genuinely see myself at some point in my life investing some time in a startup of my own, or joining an existing one. Despite my limited work experience, I can’t imagine there are that many more rewarding or educational careers you can engage in than entrepreneurship.

I have high expectations for the next few weeks, and know it will be rewarding.

Fear, Nihilism, and Entrepreneurship

Philosopreneurship Series 

Recent entrepreneurship literature has focused on the fear of committing to entrepreneurship—the fear of failure, solitude, unpredictability. (“The Struggle” by Ben Horowitz. Read here or here for more examples.)

I have a job offer at IBM Global Business Services in New York City—quality pay, consistent schedule, and an overall solid job. But last week I made the decision to stay in Silicon Valley to grind, not sleep, and struggle. To approach the fear head on.

Why?

I’ve been asked this question a lot recently, and I can finally explain it with a bit of help from my philosophy background and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Nihilism is a complex philosophical doctrine, but in basic terms it argues that life is without purpose. One path to this conclusion is through the perspective of time. In one hundred years it is extremely unlikely that any memory of you or your actions will exist. In one thousand years, even less likely. This contributed to Malcolm Gladwell’s statement that Steve Jobs will not be remembered in 50 years.

We are such small aspects on the universe in terms of both time and space that all of our actions will have minimal effects. This has led some to believe that life is not worth living, which Albert Camus ardently refuted in “The Rebel.”

So in choosing between a corporate gig at a 300,000-person company with structured time frames, hierarchies, and minimal influence versus a 2-person company with fear, anxiety, and the tiny chance to make a difference, the choice was simple.

I’d rather devote my life to the miniscule probability of making a small difference and accepting the fact that I’ll likely fail, than waking up each morning to follow directions.

With one attempt to be remembered by history, why not risk it all? The worst that could happen is that I fail and the sands of time wash away my endeavors—but is that outcome any different than the alternative?

Thus, entrepreneurship is the rational choice if one finds truth in nihilism’s tenets; fear of failure is a ridiculous concept if all is forgotten. With that conclusion, I’ll leave you with a quote from one of the 20th centuries’ lost philosophers:

            “Success is my only – – option, failure’s not”

                        -eminem

My Friday 5:00PM Promise

Execution was my goal for this week. I promised to put something out there (I didn’t promise what it would look like). So this week I learned HTML and CSS in order to build a landing page, and the beginning of the tivly dashboard. To see my attempts at web design, you can visit tivly.com.

Am I satisfied with the work? Not really. But I’m happy to make progress in developing technical skills considering that I learned HTML/CSS on Codeacademy (awesome site if you haven’t checked it out) this Monday, and put out a somewhat decent page by Friday. Never did I imagine that I’d be staring at hundreds of lines of code originating from my fingers—or getting a screen-tan. But these skills will vastly help my journey as an entrepreneur.

As I developed these skills, so has the vision for tivly crystalized. This is the path (at least for this week):

tivly is a web-based social discovery platform that integrates with your payment card. The web app is a clean dashboard that lists all the recent venues you’ve been to (restaurants, shopping, entertainment, etc). From the dashboard, you can select the venue, and with one-click recommend it to a friend through facebook, 4sq, twitter, or email. The “secret sauce” is that with the recommendation, comes a 10% discount loaded on your friends credit card. When she pays for her meal (or clothes, or movie ticket), the discount is automatically applied—no barcodes to scan, iPhone apps to bring up, or paper. But not only does she get the discount, but you get discounts, free stuff, and giveaways for recommending the venue. The result is a social discovery network that incentivizes you to share the best places with your friends, and your friends to check out new spots.

If you’re interested in the model and have questions about implementation or long-term plans, please reach out kevin@tivly.com.

——-

Promise for next week: Video for how tivly’s web-based application works.

The first step is starting

The most popular thing in the Dogpatch basement these days seems to be creating fake websites. Loosely derived from the concept of A/B testing, realistic looking landing pages with dead buttons seem to be the new goal. People seem to wonder: why spend time developing a functioning website that can attract real users when you can download a free trial of Photoshop, spend a few hours mocking up a landing page, and test for click rates?

This whole craze began after a recent talk from Jason Freedman. He told the group about how, in a period of a few days, he scrapped eight iterations of what ultimately turned out to be 42Floors before finally settling on their current iteration. In a matter of a few hours he would mock up a landing page (complete with dead buttons), attract some potential users, and calculate the bounce rate (the percentage of site users who leave the site before clicking to advance past the landing page). In a period of three hours, he would go from thinking he had the next great idea to determining that he had nothing.

By definition, A/B testing is a way to test possible changes in web page design against the current design and determine which one produces the most positive results. A/B testing is designed to take the guesswork out of website improvement and optimization, not to determine if a new great idea is a boom or bust before a real, functioning site is ever built.

Starting a startup is all about, well, starting. There are millions of people out there who think that they have a million dollar idea. Ideas are a dime a dozen, but people who can come together and execute great ideas are the people who can really make change happen. Entrepreneurs can’t be afraid to take risks, and they can’t be afraid of failure. Most importantly, they have to give themselves a chance to succeed. All a fake website gives a person is a way to avoid the possibility of having to admit failure; it’s hard to fail when you never try.

People may learn about a target market when they are busy building fake websites and charting bounce rates. And this target market may change when they don’t see what they want, meaning they haven’t really learned anything useful. If you really want to disrupt the market and catalyze change, you must believe in your idea and dedicate yourself to implementing your innovative vision. If you make the brave decision to “take the plunge” and begin to execute your vision, you may fail. Statistically speaking, you probably will fail. But in the process, you will afford yourself the opportunity to learn a great deal about developing a product. This is the kind of invaluable, hands-on knowledge that you can only learn by doing, and these are the kinds of lessons that will allow you to execute even better if you decide it’s time to pivot.

A fake website may be a way to test how a small group of people respond to a general idea, but it is highly unlikely that a person can accurately portray their vision on a mocked up landing page with fake buttons. Maybe people won’t like the idea at first (and only) glance because they think it will be difficult to use, but you have an innovative way to make it incredibly user-friendly that’s not being portrayed well. Or maybe the product won’t be of interest because a user has never heard of it, and because none of their friends are using it. On the flip side, maybe someone is intrigued because they believe this product will solve one of their biggest needs, but it turns out solving this specific need is not what you intended and perhaps not even feasible. These and many more questions can’t be answered until you make the effort to execute your vision.

The decision of a person to click or not click a dead button on a fake site after a gut reaction should not be the determining factor in beginning the process of development. An entrepreneur should learn about their target market, and then begin to start the startup. There are plenty of great ideas with no one with the abilities to execute them and bring a product to market. If you think you’ve got the next great idea, believe in your vision, build a team, and start executing. You may fail, but make a point of absorbing all of the lessons that are best learned by doing. But you may also succeed. I don’t know what will happen if you take the plunge and work to execute your vision, but I do know that you won’t succeed if you never start.