Shattering A Bullet Proof Glass

Since I was a little kid I was into making things. From my wooden toy truck that used ball-bearings for wheels, and my paper kite that I flew with my friends, to my bouncy ball made from rubber bands, were all made out of a fascination with making things and a necessity to improvise due to a lack of resources during the long fought Iran-Iraq war. When my dad brought home an IBM XT286, the physical toys turned into digital games and my target audience changed from myself to my friends with the discovery of QBasic.

Its funny how as we develop a sense of society, we start giving into its expectations. Soon I found myself at school, then university, and for the past five and a half years at a large corporation in Silicon Valley. My fascination with making things is still there, but social pressures in the valley turned the fascination into a need, and the satisfaction into a constant anxiety, and not for lack of trying. Finally I came to the realization that the only way to get back to making interesting things would be to leave the corporate world. However, that is easier said than done.

In the past five years I’ve sat in my cube and stared at a very thick bullet proof glass on the hundredth floor. On my side there is the corporate world with great pay, benefits, and a feeling of security, but lacking interesting projects or clear visibility of the impact I’m making. On the other side of the glass and a thousand feet down is a place where I can decide on what things I make or what I try to impact.

Three weeks ago, in a visit to the YC headquarters, I ran into an intriguing YC applicant who was there for the winter 2011 interviews. He was in his early thirties and had quit his high paying job to work on his iPhone app. In an attempt to build on my analogy of the bullet proof glass, he said:

“One day, when no one is looking, put on a parachute, take a sledge hammer, run and shatter the glass, and just jump. Once on your way down, open your parachute, and if it doesn’t open, in the moment of desperation you’ll be able to improvise much better.”

He continued to explain that he had done the same and had gone through some hard times, but everytime he had managed to find some short term way of making enough money to survive and get him to where he is today.

So today I shattered that glass, and am in a free fall. It feels quite good at first as free falls usually do. A feeling of excitement and fear. Lets just hope I don’t faint on my way down.

Social Pressures and Land of Opportunity

As I sit on the airplane returning from overseas, I ponder about life and what could make it more interesting and joyful. Everytime I return, it feels the same; I feel enlightened by the way of life abroad. Life just seems to make much more sense over there as it revolves around human contact, interactions, and wellbeing.

Once I land however, I’m faced with this other world, the so called “Land of Opportunity”. As I sit on CalTrain (Bay Area’s crappy public transit) I can over hear the same repeated conversations that Silicon Valley is famous for. The guy in front of me, an obese whose t-shirt humbly says “I’m right 97% of the time, who cares about the other 4%”, has just returned from a business trip in Hawaii. His once pale skin is hot red from the sun. He hands over a business card to the guy next to him, whom he had met many years ago in another conference and has accidentally run into on the train, and starts pitching his business to him. I didn’t quite follow what he did, but it was along the lines of “If you need balloons for your business, calls me and I’ll blow them up for you myself”. The conversation then moves onto calling everyone he had met on the trip “idiots” as he was the only one who knew what he was doing.

While in Italy last year, as I drove through the famous Chianti wine country, I met the owner of one of the largest vine yards in the area. He had a tiny little store, on a narrow stone paved street, simply enjoying the afternoon conversing with his friend. As we approached, he welcomed us in, and gave us a little taste of his wine and olive oils. Being used to receiving and inflicting the Silicon Valley type of social pressures, I quickly started asking him about his business and why he doesn’t expand and export his wine. He simply replied “non necessità”.

The land of opportunity is all about the opportunity. The social norm here is to turn everything into an opportunity to make money. The guy who has a little tomato farm and makes enough money to live comfortably with some money and lots of time left over, is pressured into making more tomatoes and speed up the process of growth. He now spends all of his time stressing over his farm and the output, with his tomatoes now tasteless.

It is quite evident abroad; a loaf of bread in the US has a list of 50 ingredients, 47 of which are preservatives and sweeteners. While any other oversea country I’ve been to has only 3, flour, water, and salt.

It might sound like an obvious thing to recognize and stop, but the social pressure is on and it’s hard to realize it while it’s happening. It takes two weeks to put me back into the “I must create a business” mood again.

More Work Means More Time

Twenty four hours never feel like enough time to measure one day. I always find myself with the excuse “If I had more time, I would do this, and would do that”. Well now I’m discovering that to be just an excuse.

It seems like there are just too many wasted hours in a day, and if you fill up half of those wasted hours, you’ll still have some time to do nothing and get those 8 hours of sleep as well.

Last week I spend more than 8 hours a day at work, played tennis, went to yoga, went to guitar class, caught up with over 4 TV series, watched the daily show every night, and still had lots of time left over to work on my new idea! and here I am finally writing a blog post after months.

It feels like the more I do, the more time I have.

They're Out to Steal Your Idea

Entrepreneurs are often afraid that their idea will be stolen if they tell anyone about it. They hope to prototype their idea before they tell anyone. I was very protective of my first idea, but the first person I shared the idea with was able to tell me about two competitors they had come across that I wasn’t aware of. The second person I told was able to connect me up with someone who was able to help me out with parts of the project.

Two startup failures later, I now know three important things about sharing your idea:

  1. It is very difficult to get others excited about your idea so much that they’d want to work on it. If you could, you’d be able to get great co-founders onboard.
  2. You have more to gain than to lose when you share your idea. People always have great feedback and information.
  3. When you come up with an idea, there are probably 10 others already working on it (Guy Kawasaki). So what, if one more starts working on it?

So don’t be afraid to tell your friends or people you meet about your idea, because chances are they are the key to your success.

Don’t forget to leave comments :)

To Quit or Not Quit

Often people ask me if they should quit their jobs. It’s a question every entrepreneur asks themselves as they start getting very passionate about their idea. It’s a tough question to answer and if you haven’t tried working on your idea parttime, then your answer might be: “I will work on my idea part time until I see some movement in the positive direction”, but you’ll soon realize that it’s much harder than you had thought. It’s hard to find the balance between your job, your idea, and rest. And it’s even harder to develop both your product and business.

The truth is, you won’t have the flexibility and the risk tolerance of someone who outright quits their job, but you won’t have the money to survive the development phase if you do. There is a parttime solution to this parttime dilemma and its a simple mathematical one.

If you were to quit your job tomorrow, you would go from a salary of x to a salary of zero. The key is you can find a developer in the east that would work for a salary of x/4 who is just as capable as you are, if not better, at development. So why not reduce your salary by 1/4 and just hire someone to work for you. You still have an income and you have increased your man-hours dramatically. You can concentrate on developing the business, while your hire can concentrate on development. I will cover outsourcing in a later post.

As always, comments are appreciated.

Getting Your Project Started

When the time comes to implement the basic features, I often open up my laptop with the intention of coding, but I intentionally distract myself with blogs and videos. Sometimes its hard to get motivated, and harder to get started, even when the passion is there. There are two solutions to getting your project up and running:

The easiest way is to outsource your project. If you can’t motivate yourself to do the coding, then motivate someone else using money.  This way there will be clear deadlines, you’ll have an idea of when to expect the completion of the work, and you’ll have time to concentrate on the business side of things. (Strategies for outsourcing will be covered in a future post)

The second way to get your project on the way is to create real deadlines (as oppose to artificial deadlines) for yourself. Nothing will motivate you more than if you had to demo your project to someone important in two weeks. While working on Veodeo, our clickable video project, we entered a competition at Stanford. We did more work in the two weeks leading up to the competition that the four months prior to that.

When it comes to entrepreneurship, there are always strategies you can apply to overcome your weaknesses.

Any other strategies you can think of? Please leave a comment.

Basic Functionality Is Still Too Much Functionality

One trap I always fall into when developing a product is trying to deliver a product rich with features. Most of the time I catch myself, and step back to the basic functionality that I suspect the user would expect, this is often referred to as the 80/20 rule:

“80% of your customers will use 20% of the features”.

The problem is that the basic functionality that the user expects is still far more than I can usually handle to develop when starting a new venture. The trick is to forget what you think the user would expect and just go with the core value add. So more like 90/10 rule.

Google Maps today released a feature to suggest alternate routes more than 4 years after its initial debut. Not taking into account all the other cool features they’ve released over the years, I would have assumed this to be a basic feature.

When developing our Clickable Video studio, we thought that it will be too much work for the user to make videos clickable manually using a simple interpolation algorithm. So we set out to develop a tracking feature: letting the user select an object only once, and the computer doing the rest. One year of development later, we lost focus and motivation, even though we ended up developing the feature.

Get your product out to the user as fast as possible and feed on the feedback as motivation.

Real Passion Doesn't Die

You always read and hear business entrepreneurs talking about passion. Even the wikipedia entry on entrepreneurship, characterizes an entrepreneur as someone who “promotes the vision with enthusiastic passion”. But its not always very clear what they mean about passion.

I spent the last year and a half, with a good friend of mine, working on an idea, namely clickable videos, that I was quite passionate about. However, after many iterations and thousands of assumptions later, the passion started to fade away, and today we put the idea to rest.

Watching a video of Gary Vaynerchuk today, talking about wine, I was absoloutly astonished by how he described the wines. He exudes so much passion as he describes the wine that makes me want to buy those wines and experience what he describes he is experiencing, and I don’t even know wines. This is the kind of passion that everyone refers to. It is really contagious and will spread to everyone around you. This kind of passion doesn’t die after two years.

A big lesson though from these one and a half years was that my passion didn’t die, it just got crushed under a huge pile of assumptions. So don’t make too many assumptions, just try what feels right in your gut and execute.