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late last year, i was minding my own business at a cafe. beer in hand, deep in code, oblivious to the world around me. when all of a sudden, my neighbour starts reading over my shoulder in a kind of “watchya up to” kind of way. he can tell i’m a dev; of course, he has his own group of guys just like me, coding away solutions for him at a whim. he’s going on about the various half-baked solutions his team has worked on, and i’m barely managing to keep up my side of polite conversation, poorly disguising my disdain for his understanding of modern software development. he’s an advertiser you see. a marketer. a businessman.

"the problem" he tells me, is that "you guys are trying to save the world", but not him. "i’m just trying to make a living", he said.

it got me thinking about my own process. like most developers with a morbid curiosity in the startup scene, i like to dabble, and get particularly interested in any idea that solves my day-to-day dilemmas. whereas this guy - this advertiser - was completely focused on finding and evaluating potential revenue streams. of course - unlike me - testing out his theories wasn’t free.

his strategy was simple. pay for advertising on country-specific traffic siphoned off certain porn sites to an instructional dating video. those who watched the entire 30m clip (crazy, right?) were led to a credit card form, allowing them to order the video series for 69.95.

it was a smoke test.

after filling out the order form, hopeful gents were told that the product didn’t yet exist, but thanks anyway. so, he burns a few potential customers, but after making his $200 bet back after 3 conversions, he knows he has a viable market on his hand, and voila, a worthy investment.

it made me wonder what i would do if i couldn’t code. how would i gain the conviction to gamble my hard earned cash on the possibility of more in the future? if i had to pay some third party for the prototype i required - what would a real MVP be? one that was cheap enough to not be a huge financial risk to me, but would openly and honestly put my business model to the test. the more i thought, the more apparent it became that i needed to quote myself for my own time.

say i want to create a tool to highlight the influencers around me, and sell it on the app store. i might estimate 25 hours for a basic iOS app, and 12 hours writing a service for it. giving myself a discount, i’m looking around $3700 to build a basic prototype. let’s say i throw in $250 of facebook advertising. all up, i’m looking at around a $4000 bet on whether or not my app has promise. would i pay 4k to get someone else to do it for me? how much do i need to make to prove my hypothesis? what can i cut to get the costs down to something more palatable?

in the end, this whole interaction with the advertiser got me thinking more about the need for us developers to think holistically. with more and more vc money ending up as our salaries, it’s a great time to be an engineer. yet by the same token, it’s all too easy to fall into complacence and presume that because we’re in such high demand, our skills are the sum total of what’s needed to build a great business.

in many ways, this is why adam and i created the brainstorming event, tilt. we were conscious of taking the emphasis away from hacking - which everyone seems obsessed about these days - and creating an environment where people combine the myriad of skills required to run a successful company. they conceive, collaborate, pitch, pivot and refine. they convince the investors - and themselves - of their businesses viability before they’ve committed themselves to any code. sure, ideas are a dime a dozen, but the people who put them together, the connections they form, the strategies they discuss and the skills they rely on during the creation process, aren’t.

no one underestimates the value of engineering - least of all me. but on its own, engineering will only ever be a means to an end. sure, you can create a product with every conceivable feature a user could want, but what does it matter if no one even wants to use it?

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Zucotti park at 10am, Nov 15. #ows

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Six years ago, I would have relished the day when browser plugins finally died.

Back then, I was a happy-go-lucky web developer who fought vehemently against anything that interfered with the browser. Sure, I loved the concept of write once work everywhere, but I’d be damned if I was going to code in some shoddy timeline. Besides, at the time SEO within plugins was non-existent and browser integration was a long way from perfect. To top it off were the reams of stubborn clients insisting that Flash was the future of the internet.

Then I found Flex. Developed by Macromedia (prior to the Adobe acquisition) for the Flash platform, Flex is (was?) a framework for writing rich applications. Just like a former anti-drug advocate on his first bender, I was enthralled by the freedom I’d discovered.

It was early 2007 and I was living in Japan at the time, designing a CMS in some weird PHP/ASP.NET perversion I’d conceived. I took a spin in Flex Builder and was floored. Finally, I could write for Flash in a way that made sense, and the future seemed bright for rich internet applications (RIAs as they were affectionately called).

I dived in head first. Like most, I worked hard learning the SDK, the tools, attending conferences, making connections and honing my skill set. As engineers swelled the ranks of designers and developers the bar was lifted - Java essentials began porting across to Flash. Unit testing, IOC frameworks and automated builds became the staples of our enterprise toolkits. The expertise didn’t come cheap though - the same engineers brought their criticism with them and exposed more than a few cracks in our beloved framework.

As Chrome started to take browser market share in 2009, Google demonstrated with their V8 engine that Javascript was a force to be reckoned with. Gmail and Facebook took advantage of the fact, and the little Flash they employed was typically used for video. Smartphones were taking off, and as iOS was still refusing to render plugins, penetrating the mobile market became a cumbersome affair. Unless you were putting together a serious enterprise application, it was clear you’d benefit from sticking with the browser stack for portability and integration. Unfortunately for those of us already drinking the Kool-Aid the decision wasn’t as clear cut. We were more than a little shell-shocked from the browser wars.

Then came the clincher. In April 2010, Steve Jobs publicly denounced Flash and signalled the beginning of the end. At the time I was disappointed, and the community livid. In retrospect I suspect Jobs knew what he was about. The true portability that both Adobe and Microsoft were banking on couldn’t survive the newly saturated device market.

By the Adobe MAX conference in October of 2010 it was clear something was up. The momentum behind Flex and the Flash Player was beginning to wane and HTML5 had taken its place. Microsoft went a step further at their PDC conference and effectively relegated Silverlight to the deadpool. Adobe was holding on, engaging in partnerships with questionable vendors that have since been quietly swept under the rug. Desperation is contagious after all.

One year later, and MAX saw Flash assigned to the domain of gaming and hobbyists. I wanted to hold out some hope, but the cynic in me was basking in vindication. To their credit, the Adobe employees I queried while sympathetic to my concerns, genuinely defended the longevity of the platform. The ones that still work there are clinging to that belief. They’re good people, I hope their faith is validated.

Yesterday Adobe told Flex developers to target HTML5 for long-term enterprise applications. In one stroke, they both ensured we would cease promoting Flash to our clients and condemned our expertise to a bleak future maintaining legacy software. Expect to see more Delphi and COBOL analogies in the months to come.

In truth, hope is not entirely lost for Flex. Some of the most brilliant developers in the Flash world are working on the Spoon project to open up the Flex SDK. With a bit of luck, Spoon will become the framework that Flex should have been. However, in the near-term, both Spoon and Flex still live within the proprietary Flash Platform and I’m not the only one who’s had their trust in Adobe sorely tested. Twitter has been afire of late with furious disbelief from Flash’s biggest advocates who’ve stood by helplessly as their investments tanked.

And yet, I can’t help but feel the serendipity in all of this. It’s true that the HTML5 feature set (encompassing Javascript, CSS3 and HTML5) is still very much a subset of Flash, and that innovation suffers under mass governance. But then again, we’ll be standing on much less volatile ground. And I think that’s something we can all appreciate.

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Been to a startup event lately? Ever noticed those overeager techies flocking to famous bloggers, entrepreneurs and VCs like seagulls to trawlers? 

Michael Arrington continually goes on about how little he likes being approached, and he’s not alone. Think about how much crap all of us deal with on a daily basis. Who has better chance of scoring your hard-earned dollar? The dishevelled guy jiggling his coin cup in your face or that girl playing her heart out on a fiddle? 

Developers get it worse; the guys who hound us wear suits and fake smiles. (Would you mind signing my NDA?).

Heard of the Game? (no, not that one). Meeting and greeting people of status is akin to a cold approach of a potential mate well out of your league. Both have power; both have something you want. You’re not going to get their attention by showering praise all over them. Flattery is only effective when they hold you in high esteem - otherwise it’s just noise, or worse, anathema.

Create a lasting impression. First, establish worth in the eyes of your target. The Game advocates peacocking to garner attention. I think dressing outlandishly will do you more damage than good in this industry. But who knows, if you’re brilliant you’ll be dubbed an eccentric (failing that, a fool). If you must, why not bring along a prop instead of donning your cowboy hat? I find a skateboard useful as it doubles as transportation.   

Establishing worth often means having previously proved yourself. Generally creating a hit service, investing successfully in a Zynga clone or uncovering the next Rails framework will do it. Some believe their charm, charisma and intellect alone will win over any prospect, and will try the cold approach regardless. In my experience, few in the tech world can confidently back this up, but hey, if you’re cocky enough to try, you might just pull it off. There’s only one bullet in that gun, so make sure you’ve got a game plan before you go charging up to PG brandishing the words and music to Ode de Lisp.

If you don’t want to fire that shot prematurely, and balk at the prospect of forgoing endless hours of Battle Net working on the next Chat Roulette, you might want to lower the bar a touch. Instead of hitting up the big names, look for those hidden gems - the discerning talent. People like you.  

They might not have the brand, but still have something to offer. Anything from their intellect, connections, charm, charisma or even a wild creative streak. Something that separates them from the swathes of pretenders out there. You’ll still have to impress yourself on them, but lacking fame-jade, they’re much more approachable. Like a 6 compared to a 10. 

Having a social network of contacts is like being the faux celebrity at the party - everybody seems to know you. Your target will at least be mildly curious to begin with, who the social butterfly is. 

When building said network, it’s important to choose worthy connections. Trim the fat. Don’t be outwardly hostile (unless that’s your gimmick), but aim for quality over quantity. Let’s face it, everyone judges each other, and the quality of your associates is just another metric. Besides, your future connections would be less than impressed to discover that you friend anything and everything.  

Choose wisely, and your respected contacts will treat you as one of their own. Fawners can sniff out rising stars with a precision that would impress Hannibal Lector. They will soon see you as one of the chosen, and will feed off the spurn you send them. As you make the transition, you’ll begin to develop a commonality with your target and with any luck you can meet as equals, rather than as lowly fan to shining star. 

Get real. Yeah, you’re right. The real targets in this industry are harder to crack than that. To become their peer, you need more than just your own groupies (think Ron Conway would be impressed meeting one of the lads from Gossip Girls?) You need to meet them as equals in the realm of popular success. And guess where that brings us back to? Might want to consider deactivating that Steam account in the short term. 

So, next time you see your hero in the flesh, don’t bother introducing yourself. Simply saunter over, clasp their ears and go the full French. At least they’ll be sure to remember you.

Disclaimer: I come from a country with an unfortunate habit. Opinions here may be skewed as a result. 

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I remember being an activist. Nearly ten years gone and yet I remember it to the day.

circa 2002

I remember the campfires, the drumming circles, the beautiful women and filthy rags. I remember night-long jams and hands bloody from overuse. I remember sitting in action-planning meetings, discussing the day’s agenda, and the tasks ahead. I remember scrubbing off grafitti from the university walls cause some dipshit anarchists thought the venue that was hosting us represented the ‘establishment’. I remember vehemently arguing against another volunteer who defended their autonomy. I remember an aimless street protest being led by the loudest activist at the time - I remember the rush, the excitement, the ‘fuck them all’ attitude. I remember evangelising the benefits of cycling over the toxicity of cars to anyone who’d listen. I remember camping in forests slated for logging, alongside the bulldozers and chainsaws. I remember singing songs all night along the razor-wire fence in a vigil for the refugees out in the desert, living in that detention centre. I remember hating the government, hating the man who was making me hate my country. I remember my friends and my allies - seemingly united in our global causes.

But most of all, I remember the tribes that we belonged to. Besides the obvious exemplars, most of us were a blending of them - the greenies, the hippies, the socialists and the anarchists.

The greenies were the pragmatists. They were university students in all - college kids - who had the smarts and were driven to use them for the greater good. They were organised. Every meeting had an agendas. Action items. Delegation. Shit got done.

Hippies were my favourite. A wondering musician myself, they represented everything beautiful in the world. Gorgeous women with long flowing hair and dresses to match - bare-chested men in large billowing pants. Dirty smiles and bare feet. Leave your intellectualism at the gate - this was an expression of love and tolerance, not a debating match.

If the greenies were the realists, the socialists were the idealists. If there was anything they hated more than capitalism, I’d not seen it. When I think of them, one in particular always comes to mind. The intensity in his eyes and singularity of his beliefs always epitomised their cause to me. It wasn’t a political movement - it was unadulterated hatred of inequality.

Oh the anarchists - how they hated the world. They couldn’t be more at odds with the greenies and yet somehow they’d find themselves sharing the same dinner table. The socialists may have lacked sound reasoning - but at least they had an agenda. The anarchists lived to express their contempt for anything representing structure. How they even managed to communicate effectively amongst themselves amazed me.

What brought us together? The war. The environment. The government. The refugees.

What kept us there? The camaraderie. And, the numbers. Always the numbers.

We proudly denounced mainstream media, and yet constantly coveted their coverage. We were like a teenager shaming our parents and yet hoping to impress them with our passion at the same time. Protests were about gaining momentum, at whatever cost.

It was the quest for ever increasing numbers that finally turned me from the path. It’s one thing to want publicity to swell your ranks, it’s another to let it overtake your primary goals. My passion was no match for my loathing of misrepresentation. One fool with a megaphone was all it took. It was lowest common denominator meets loudest voice. Planned meetings quickly dissolved into street chaos - our intelligence faltering as we were led astray by whoever seemed to have the most conviction at the time.

I’d find myself in a crowd of seemingly intelligent people as they respectfully accepted a lashing from a single-minded minority, and realising there was no place for my criticism. I couldn’t say a thing without risking group ostracisation - and that stunk too much of cultism for me.

So I moved on. Sure I still played music and hung out, but I lost my drive to protest. I decided the best I could do was to influence those around me with the values I held on to, and determined to argue with reason - not emotion.

Now i live in New York, and each day I walk past the Occupy Wall Street protesters at Zuccotti park, and each day I find myself smiling. Oh yes, they are a motley crew. Clearly they lack consolidation and any real agenda for change. But hell, you have to admire their stoicism. They’re dancing and singing as the weather slowly deteriorates into a cold soggy mess. And you know what? They’re smiling.

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The last few tech events I’ve been to recently have left me feeling more than a little disappointed. YCNYC was a let down and while IgniteNYC leveraged their hip 5-minute-20-slide gimmick, it was still a we-talk-you-listen event. The ‘networking’ portions were token at best and really need a good shot in the arm. It’s time we moved on from our hashtag crutches.

Typical interaction at these events remind me of the high school crowds in hackers and painters. You’ve got your popular kids - the founders, the VCs - on the A table, the upcoming stars on B, the groupies and hanger-ons (you know who you are) fluttering amongst the crowd, and the newbies and outliers milling about, easy targets for those desperate suits eager to convince anyone who’ll listen of their self importance.

What I’d like to see is an event that engages the audience for a change, puts all attendees on a even keel, and gives them the chance to step up and demonstrate their talents.

Did you see PG’s public office hours at Disrupt NYC? It rethought the basic event format and provided a rare insight into a fascinating process; you could almost see his mind ticking away. Some of my best memories from pouncer were the brainstorming sessions I had with my co-founder. I learn more about someone watching them thinking up creative solutions on the spot that I do above all the names they drop and a thorough analysis of their twitter ratio.

So, how do you foster relationships between like-minding individuals who share a thirst for solving problems and technology?


Solution

A competition where the partipants form groups and demonstrate their ability to brainstorm around a particular business idea over the course of an evening. Sound familiar? Yeah - it’s like a startup weekend, minus the weekend commitment.

Participation

Attendees can choose to participate or not. Make groups on the fly - allow them to form organically. Perhaps have key interest areas to group them in - would be interesting to see how a PR team dealt with the problem vs a pure dev team. Incentivise the teams - maybe bring in a celebrity or two. Alexis would make an apt MC don’t you think? (what do you say @kn0thing? Busy one evening?)

Structure

You could structure it a bit like trivia night at a bar. Give groups some seed idea, a whiteboard, some sketch paper and a space to themselves. They can decide what to focus on - strategy, branding, marketing, advertising, business plan, tech stack, user engagement, social media, financing, etc. During the competition span, questions surrounding the product are asked. These need to be dealt with as part of the overall strategy. The goal is to keep the pressure on the teams and see how they pivot their product to deal with the needs of the business.

At the end of an established time frame, one of the judging panel will go to each team and do a brief recorded interview with them. The team will be allowed to do a 30s pitch, followed by a Q&A with the interviewer.

Following a brief recess, the footage will be played in succession to the entire audience and the judging panel. The video format prevents teams copying from earlier entries and allows each team member to participate in the presentation of their product.

Judging criteria

Some criteria for the judging might include:

  • The quality and variety of the pitch.
  • Collaboration, number of members involved.
  • Depth of thinking around solution.
  • Originality.
  • Breadth of questions covered.

Prizes

The winners come on stage, are introduced and announced individually. The team votes for 1-3 representatives who will become judges at the following event. Preferably augment judging panel with a well-known entrepreneur or VC.

An example

The actual business idea to brainstorm doesn’t have to be original - in fact it may help to use something that’s hot in the market - it may even bring in new angles to an existing domain.

Here’s an example:

0:00 Goal: Create a lifestyle device to monitor health

0:20 User: Can I have it on 24hrs a day? What about in the water?

0:40 VC: How are you going to monetize it?

1:00 PR: Website or mobile?

1:20 Angel: Where will you launch first? Why?

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YCNYC: A lost opportunity

This was a recent entry on my thoughts how to improve the recent YCombinator event in New York.