25 4 / 2013
Today, Facebook bought Parse, a turnkey backend solution builder for mobile applications. And it makes perfect sense.
See - Facebook has a mobile problem. The vast majority of Facebook’s revenue stream comes from advertising, and the rest from payments via games. The general consensus is that most people will access the internet via their phones by 2015. On our smartphones, there is no need to play games within Facebook’s ecosystem - they’re just standalone apps - so there goes that revenue stream for Facebook. Advertising gets slightly tricky for Facebook in the mobile market too: On our computers, Facebook is essentially “the web,” but on our phones, it’s just another app. As web usage shifts to mobile, Facebook becomes sort of screwed.
This trend is obvious if you look around the tech market. Google has a mobile OS (Android), gmail, a search engine, a social network, maps, and all sorts of other standalone products that tie you into Google’s ecosystem. Apple has iOS, the App Store, and a cloud service. Even Amazon has the Kindle, cloud infrastructure, the largest e-commerce engine, and a payments system.
And Facebook? There have been rumors about a Facebook phone for quite sometime now. I’m personally of the opinion that a Facebook phone service with VOIP from friend to friend could replace the telephone number as we know it, but it’s tough to gain market share traction in the mobile phone market (Windows phone anyone?). Since a standalone phone is a tough option, we see Facebook launching Facebook home, which offers many of the upsides of having your own mobile os without jumping full-steam ahead into the market.
Facebook’s position then, is a bit tenuous. Their purchase of Instagram is evidence of this plain and simple. A tiny startup was able to challenge Facebook’s unique value proposition (photos) enough that they had to be gobbled up for a huge price.
Therefore, Parse makes sense for Facebook. Look to see them push more and more into the mobile space in the future.
24 4 / 2013
23 4 / 2013
22 4 / 2013
"Many students today are still not thinking big enough, are not dreaming big enough and don’t truly believe they can build a company that has global impact. Too many students are opting for the safe, corporate route, even after Google, Facebook and Microsoft were all created while the founders were students."
21 4 / 2013
My friend Max Finder recently wrote a blog post titled “Everyone puts their pants on the same way.” You can find it here, but I’ll save you the effort: Max’s main point is that anyone, no matter how big, important, powerful, or famous, is a person just like you. Talk to them. Why not?
Max is a pretty cool character. He’s a TEDxMcGill alum like me, an associate at Inerjys, a fund for clean tech here in Montreal, and an advisor over at The Founder Project. Most importantly though, Max is the king of hustle. Whenever I Facebook-friend a cool new person I met in the startup scene in Montreal, we already have a mutual friend: Max. He knows everyone, and everyone knows him. Most likely this is because Max follows his own advice, and reaches out to anyone and everyone because hey, they’re human.
At Moral Fibers, we had a similar mantra. We phrased it as, “Anyone has 15 minutes for coffee.” While Max would argue that we should’ve been asking for a call instead, asking for a 15 minute coffee meeting worked for us. You might get a lower percentage of meetings (in which case, definitely follow up with an ask for a call), but when you meet with someone face to face, it’s personal. If you’re a hustler, your passion will be palpable. If you’re a great programmer, your expertise will be unmistakable. For me personally, I have a much tougher time translating my full personality and passion for my projects over the phone, but in person it’s normally infectious.
Here’s a list of some of the people we had the pleasure of meeting with, simply because we reached out:
- Yona Shtern, CEO of Beyond the Rack, the web’s fastest growing retailer
- Jeremy Reitman, CEO of Reitmans, a billion dollar publicly traded retail company in Montreal
- Helge Seetzen, CEO of TandemLaunch Technologies
- Regine Chassagne, lead vocalist for Grammy-winning band Arcade Fire
- John Robinson, US Economic Section Chief in Haiti
- Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners in Health and subject of Pulitzer Prize winning author Tracy Kidder’s book, Mountains Beyond Mountains
- Stephen Gross, co-founder of La Senza
- John Stokes, Venture Capitalist at Real Ventures
So if you’re worried about reaching out to some celebrity or business big shot regarding your venture, do it! The worst that could happen is they’ll say “no,” but they probably won’t, because everyone has 15 minutes for coffee.
21 4 / 2013
"Proactively delighting customers earns trust, which earns more business from those customers, even in new business arenas. Take a long-term view, and the interests of customers and shareholders align."
Jeff Bezos is an impressive dude.
18 4 / 2013
"Silicon Valley is WAAAY too infatuated with the ELEGANT IDEALISM of Entrepreneurship (or the GOLLUM GREED of making a shitload of CASH) , rather than the GRITTY REALITY of running a CRAPPY little startup business that will likely GO NOWHERE… which if you’ve ever been through it, is a tough, painful, low-probability motherfuck of an adventure, aka tragedy."
17 4 / 2013
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
- Lao Tzu
In the waning days of Moral Fibers, we were lucky to get a few meetings with some fantastic VC’s and angel investors as we tried to fill a Series A round to bolster our cash position. After hearing our pitch, one investor lambasted that our proposed retail play seriously failed to capitalize on our unique value proposition: the stories of our artists. He said e-commerce would be a much better avenue for telling those stories and growing our movement, and he agreed to meet with us 48-hours later to hear a new pitch focusing on such a play.
The idea we came up with was pretty stellar: Users on the site could browse art of their favorite artist, and after making a selection, could use a Photoshop-like web app to create their own clothing styles. Users would then enter their designs into monthly contests, and whichever designs got the most votes would go into production, earning cash for both the user and the original artist. We were to be a sort of Threadless-Toms mashup.
The only problem was that no one on our team had the ability to code such an app. After much discussion, my co-founder and I decided that being so young (20 and 19 at the time respectively), we would serve ourselves much better by going back to school and learning to code than to raise someone else’s money and spend it on talent. Ultimately, that choice was one of the larger factors in the decision to dissolve the company.
Almost exactly a year later, I’m finishing up my first semester of a CS minor at McGill (having already completed my major in Agricultural Economics), and writing my final programming assignments.
One such assignment I completed yesterday for my algorithms and data structures class was to build a web crawler in Java. Here’s what the program did:
- Starting from a root webpage, the crawler used a depth first search to parse the root page for outbound links, adding the links as nodes in a directed graph and to a stack (if they hadn’t been visited previously) to be examined later.
- The crawler then parsed the HTML content of the page and mapped it to a hashmap (think: dictionary with keys and values) in order to index the content of a small section of the internet by the pages the content appeared on. The hash map values were linked lists, so a word that appeared on multiple pages would appear as such.
- Then the crawler would pop the last element from the stack and conduct the above operations on it, until all the pages in the subsection of the internet I was looking at had been examined.
- Once all pages were examined, the program used a page rank algorithm to judge the quality of a referral from any given link, based on how many outbound links the page had.
- Ultimately, the crawler allowed end users to enter a search query and it would return the highest ranked webpage containing the content of their query.
Now - to any non-CS people out there, this may sound complicated, but it’s really not. The data structures implemented and the algorithms used are all things you can learn in an introduction to CS course. But, I’m still glad I got this far.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hour rule. The rule states that in order to become an expert on a given topic, you have to invest 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to the discipline. After 10,000 hours of programming, you might not be Bill Gates, John Carmack,or Linus Torvalds, but on the spectrum of being immobilized to being a marathon runner, you’ll definitely be in the distance runner category.
A year ago, I was getting tangled in nested divisions in a simple HTML page, and now I’m building simple web crawlers. I haven’t run coding marathons yet, but I’m certainly ambulatory.
13 4 / 2013
Yesterday evening I had a statistics assignment due at midnight. It consisted of four problems pertaining to non-parametric statistical analysis. By the time I got to the last question, my desire to complete the assignment was waning as fast as the sunlight remaining in the day.
Unfortunately for me, question 4 was the hardest question on the assignment. It dealt with a survey analyzing two types of nuclear cell bodies from a specific cell line captured at the same cell-cycle stage. In order to analyze which group had a higher median, the assignment called for a fairly simple large sample Mann-Whitney-Wilcoxon Test.
However, the assignment also called for downloading a CSV dataset and writing a line of R code to analyze said dataset, and this was far too arduous for me to do late on a Friday afternoon.
"I wonder if I can write this in Python," I thought.
So I opened up my text editor and began to code, and 90 lines later I had a fairly simple program. Here’s what it did:
- Opened a specified CSV file and parsed it into a list.
- Sorted the list, and appended east list item with its rank.
- Split the list into two new lists, by cell type.
- Summed the ranks of the list items in each group, and found the necessary test statistics for a Mann-Whitney-Wilcoxon Test.
- Ran the test, analyzed what hypotheses should be rejected or not rejected, and outputted the answer along with summary statistics.
Now, that process should have you saying two things: 1) “What a nerd,” and 2) “That doesn’t sound the least bit lazy at all.” And if you said that, you’d be batting .500.
I am, indeed, a nerd, and I’m proud of it. But in my nerdiness, I espouse a certain laziness inspired curiosity that leads me to find the simplest solution to tough problems. Or, in the case above, a laziness inspired difficult route to an easy problem, but one that leads to more learning.
Phillip Lenssen, author of Google Blogoscoped, argues that this type of laziness is a good thing in his article ”Why Good Programmers are Lazy and Dumb.” Lensenn argues that lazy programmers will write the best code because they’ll try to write the code that’s easiest to write, debug, and update, and the that’s the least repetitive.
Lenssen also goes on to say that good programmers are dumb programmers, because they start with the most basic questions. “Did you restart your browser?” or “Did you restart your computer?” or “Is your computer plugged in?” Ultimately, this is less dumb, and more of an eschewing of assumptions. Here’s a great example:
A policeman sees a truck driver clearly going the wrong way down a one way street, but does nothing to stop him. Why not?
Most of our minds immediately parse this puzzle and say, “Okay, a guy is driving a truck the wrong way down a one way street…” but we’d be wrong already. The answer to this puzzle is that the truck driver himself was walking down the street, and not the truck itself. By challenging even our most basic assumptions (or being “dumb” as Lensenn calls it), we ultimately reveal more knowledge.
So, I’m a dumb, lazy nerd, and that’s okay.
12 4 / 2013
"We must not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time" - T. S. Eliot
I like to think of my University career at McGill as split up into two parts: Part I and Part II, split in the middle by an 18th month run at startup glory. Indeed, the only thing similar about Part I and Part II is the fact that they both occur at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.
During Part I, I received poor grades and failed a few classes. Why? The fairly obvious reason is that I am not, in fact, Superman. During my freshman year I co-founded a non-profit and played a varsity sport. During my sophomore year, I founded a business and tried to combine a 40-hour work week with a full course load. I set conditions for academic failure as surely as a drunk engineer building a rocket out of bridge parts.
However, I’d like to believe there was another, underlying reason for my initial academic failure. I was lucky enough to have attended a Boston prep-school that sent a quarter of its graduating class to an Ivy League university. You’d think such an institution would condition its students for academic success, and in most cases, it did. I unfortunately took a different lesson from the place: By senior year, I could write a thesis paper 45 minutes before it was due and pull of an A-, and I could do this because I was smart. Therefore, my effort-to-reward ratio taught me I was therefore entitled to good grades.
When I got to McGill carrying that attitude, my GPA plummeted. “Screw this,” I said. “I’m smart, and obviously there’s a problem with the professors. They’re horrible.” I lost focus on school and put all my efforts into my side projects, like Moral Fibers.
About a year later, one of my advisors for Moral Fibers introduced the idea of “concrete metrics” to me. Concrete metrics are the data points that create real, tangible value for a startup. The ones we chose to focus on were:
- Unique web traffic
- E-mail list serv signups
In that vein, a concrete metric has to be formulaically linked to one thing: financial success. I could tell you on any given day that 15% of the people who signed up for our e-mail list serv would ultimately buy one of our products, or that 3.4% of our unique web traffic would convert a sale worth on average $67. Our goal of scalability then became an easy formula: If we pour x into a concrete metric, and we get >x out, then we simply pour more.
I became obsessed with this idea of creating value. Our previous goals - Facebook likes, Twitter followers, celebrity endorsements - became distractions in pursuit of concrete metrics that went up and to the right. Focusing on what mattered became easy, even if executing it was still hard as ever.
During part II at McGill, I was conditioned differently than before. From Moral Fibers, I learned that no one is entitled or owed any value, but value can be created through diligent hard work. Just like our scalability, my academic success was an easy formula: My grades were a function of my effort, not my intelligence. Once applied, my grades started skyrocketing.
In that sense, University grades are an excellent parable for concrete value creation. I’m almost glad I failed initially, else I might not have explored the world a little bit and returned to University looking at it in a completely new light.
11 4 / 2013
It’s officially been a year since Moral Fibers shut its doors. You might think the ending of a startup would be a traumatic experience, and in a sense, you’re right. To see something end that you literally brought into this world, nurtured and cared for day and night and spent countless weekends and holidays growing is quite a traumatic experience. It was also a blessing.
Moral Fibers was a fantastic learning experience, and a decision that I will never regret. My dad calls it my “experiential MBA,” and while I’m not sure if it looks as good as an actual MBA on my resume, it certainly helped me get a job already. Running a startup taught me a lot about business, and even more about myself as a person, and I’ll always cherish the lessons I learned from that stage in my life.
There was a day late last spring when my co-workers, Ben and Martin, were coming to Ste-Anne where I lived to meet with our new designer, Barbara. I was excited, because Ben would get to see my apartment for the first time. When we got there, we saw that my dog - awesome as he is - had broken out of his cage and sprinkled my couch stuffing around my apartment like a slobbery blizzard of white fluff. Ben saw this, the unwashed dishes, the laundry, and the general dissary, and said to me bluntly, “you need to take better care of yourself.”
It was a statement that made me look in the mirror. I was giving everything to Moral Fibers, and nothing to myself. I had unpaid bills, crumbling friendships, dark circles under my eyes, and a messy apartment and a messier life. Ben was right.
It was also about this time that I made a promise to a prominent VC in Montreal. We had met with him and his partners twice, and they were considering letting us into their accelerator program in the Fall. When Martin and I decided to dissolve Moral Fibers, I actually ran into this VC and had the chance to tell him about our decision in person. At this time, I made him a promise: “One of my mentors told me that when you get into a room with a VC, make sure to treat it as a once in a lifetime experience, because it is. Well, I hope he was wrong, because I promise to return to you in a few years, a better and more competent entrepreneur, and I’m going to knock your socks off.”
But most importantly, I’ve worked on fulfilling my promise to the VC by taking what Ben said to heart. Literally, I’ve changed the way I think. After dissolving Moral Fibers, I read the phrase “Your mind is software. Program it.” on someone’s Tumblr. Since then, I’ve actively worked on changing the way I think, forcing myself to appreciate the things I would normally take for granted, and to take happiness in the most everyday pleasures.
Every day I list 5 things that made me happy that day. Sometimes they’re as simple as, “a cute girl smiled at me on the street,” or “Van [who’s blind] ran after some birds in the park and didn’t bump into anything.” I also list 5 things that I’m thankful for, and while normally my family, my health, my friends, and being able to study at McGill make the top, sometimes other things sneak in there.
And you know what? I’m damn happy. I’m a much more competent entrepreneur at this point in my life than I was one year ago not because I can code or because I know some fancy management technique, but because I changed the paradigm of how I live my life.
I’m going to start blogging again in May, and I have a lot to say.
11 3 / 2012
Three weeks ago, my dog, Van, went blind. The surgery to remove his eyes happened only a few days after his first birthday.
He awoke on a Thursday morning with his left eye swollen shut. When it did open, the pupil was an eerie shade of bluish white. Since he had a nasty run-in with a pricker bush the day before, the vet suspected a minor corneal ulcer (read: scratch on the eye), and prescribed minor antibiotics. I was traveling for business that week, and so Van was staying with my parents. The next Friday, my mother awoke early in the morning to the sound of Van walking into the walls of her bedroom. His other eye had gone bluish white as well, and this time the Veterinary Optometrist diagnosed it as double Primary Glaucoma. Van’s optic nerves were crushed by the pressure in his eyes, his sight had gone completely in both eyes, and the doctor recommended surgery immediately to remove the eyes and to stop the pain.
The past three weeks then, haven’t been particularly pleasant. When you toss two midterms, three 55+ hour work weeks, a $400 breakdown on my car that’s already broken down twice in 2012, and getting broken up with on top of a newly blind puppy and an expensive surgery, you might think the past three weeks have been downright miserable.