Expensive Press vs. Valuable Feedback: My HackerNews Experience

Entrepreneurs spend an enormous amount of time trying to get publicity.  The perception here is that more media attention from popular blogs, websites, and print magazines will result in more eyes on your product, which will turn into more users, which will turn into more money.

One of the most popular ways to get covered these key outlets is to take part in a some kind of marquee startup contest.  For Candid, it was LAUNCH Festival.  For me, it was a a great experience that paid off in many ways beyond eyeballs on the product.  But for this post I want to highlight something I think was arguably even more beneficial and a whole lot less ‘expensive’ than any startup pitch competitions.  Not expensive in terms of cash (many of these events are free), but in terms of time it takes to prepare, to apply, to be coached, and the real opportunity cost of taking your eyes off the product.

That is getting real engaged, educated, and opinionated feedback on the product early.  I was able to do this via a thread on HackerNews.  

I decided to post Candid to HackerNews the day after LAUNCH was over.  I did it while sitting on my sofa.  I didn’t have to fill out an application, pitch to someone online, or go to any training sessions.  I simple sat with a glass a bourbon, typed in the words “My Side Project: Rank Your Tech Company Based On Culture” and clicked “Submit.”

I went about my evening.

But then, I noticed something remarkable.  I noticed 50-80 users on the site every minute for the next 3 hours.  But more importantly than traffic was the feedback. Users started leaving comments.  I replied. I got more comments.  Some comments hurt.  Some were nice.  But ALL of the comments helped shape the product.

This was free.  It was easy.  It actually made Candid better.

The team took the comments and went to work that weekend.  We added more information on privacy and we added a way to browse companies already on Candid. 

Here is how the HackerNews spike compared to LAUNCH festival.  Pretty incredible?  But again, it wasn’t just the traffic – it was the feedback loop.

Image

I think this is a great lesson for many startups who dump so much time and energy into getting blog posts and media attention as opposed to going out and asking for real feedback on the product….how would you rather spend your time?

Where Candid came from and LAUNCH 2014

The idea for Candid was really hatched out over a series of “beer meetings” with the newly unemployed Mavizon team in September of 2012.  At that time, none of us were ready emotionally or financially to start another startup – so we all took real jobs and set the plans on the shelf. I decided to build Candid after my move to the San Francisco Bay Area.

On stage.
On stage.

We had originally called the product “StaffSpoke” and it was to be a simple tool for current employees to give clear and concise feedback to employers, and have that feedback viewable to everyone.  We felt this needed to happen as Quora and HackerNews posts about company culture just weren’t very useful due to the sour grapes, and non-employee comments.

I took a little bit of cash (like a really, really, really tiny amount of cash) and engaged Jet A Studio who had helped us out at Mavizon.  From Sept 13 – January 14 we worked together (me wireframing, writing copy and requirements) and hacked together the very simple company scoring site.  We also landed on the name “Candid” as opposed to the not-so-romantic “StaffSpoke.”

I decided to treat the entire project like a massive experiment.  Not just in bootstrapping, but also in product design.  I used survey monkey to do a little discovery, I used HackerNews and Quora threads to do market validation, and I repeatedly sent out the janky, half working version of the web app to friends and family for testing.

Then I jumped off the cliff:  I applied to LAUNCH Festival 2014.   As these stories often go, I was floored when we got an interview and were ultimately accepted to launch Candid on one of the biggest startup stages.

To be honest, I had no idea what I had signed up for.  I knew LAUNCH had unbelievable alumni like DropBox, mint.com, and Yammer.  But I didn’t realize i’d have an audience of nearly 9,000 people over the course of 3 days, or that I would be rigorously coached on the presentation of Candid.

This was all free training for me, and I loved almost every minute of it.

I was first coached on how to make a 5 minute presentation really memorable by telling a story. Next, I had a four hour rehearsal at Sequioa Capital’s office in front of investors, and other presenting companies.  Then came dress rehearsal, and finally my big presentation:

I lucked out with my judging group on the day of.  They included Don Dodge (Google), Joyce Kim (Freestyle Capital), Jay Levy (Zelkova Ventures), Adeo Ressi (The Founders Institute) and Vivek Wadhwa (Singularity).  The judges had some critical feedback, but seeing as Candid is one massive experiement, it was definitely welcomed and appreciated.

Most importantly, I got a small boost in traffic to the site for launch day, and had a few angels show some real interest in the product – Now the real work begins!

Becoming a Lyft Driver and Unboxing

Although my day job in San Francisco consists of many meetings, trips, and other expenditures of time we’ve dubbed ‘work’, I found myself wanting to learn more during my time in the Bay Area.  I thought it would be great to dive in head first and use some of the technologies and organizations available to those who live in the bay area that are not yet available elsewhere.  

My specific interest to Lyft stems from the idea covered at Singularity University that before artificial intelligence in robots is advanced enough to perform everyday tasks, “the crowd” will take the place.  Essentially ‘The Crowd’ so often mentioned in terms of Crowdsourcing, Crowdfunded, etc, is the surrogate for AI.  No other place is this so prominent than in last mile transportation.  Lyft essentially uses everyday people who own four door cars as drivers and equipment to run a pseudo- taxi company.  Lyft is an iPhone app that connects people who need rides with people willing to give them.  Its not hard to see that when self-driving cars come online in 2016-2020, the human driver will no longer be required in such a business model.

I applied to become a Lyft driver with the notion that while my wife is on call for the next four months at the General Hospital, I would have the occasional evening and weekend where I could take on a second ‘job.’  The purpose is not to make money (although it is a perk) but more to research such a fascinating startup.

After applying (via a few clicks from Facebook), I was quickly contacted by a Lyft employee who gave me pseudo-phone interview.  That must have gone well, because I was immedietly invited to open up the app on my phone an finish the application process.   This consisted of snapping a photo of my ID, my car, and my insurance card, and I was done.  I waited a few days to pass the background check and the 3 year driving history check.  Once this was completed, I was emailed videos to watch, and once complete was invited to take a test drive with my “Lyft Mentor.”  After a 20 minute in person, in-car interview and driving ‘exam’ I was checked off on and received a phone call the next day to welcome me as a driver and get my mailing address for my welcome package.

I was already floored at the service level and speed to on-ramp a new driver.  Like clockwork, I was followed up with, reminded (by text and email) where I was in the process and how to get to the next step.  It was borderline creepy how ‘easy’ it felt to become a driver, but this is the real beauty in the sophistication of the app.

Not to disappoint, I received my welcome package only one day later direct to my house.  I’ll continue on below with specifics and photos, but I can’t over-embellish how incredible the unboxing experience was for me.  Having been through Alpha and Beta programming with Mavizon – I felt I had a decent taste for what good and bad unboxing looks like.  Apple is the king of unboxing in consumer electronics of course, but new technologies require a little extra “umph” for people to get it.  Lyft’s case is even more important as the unboxing is really for people who have not spent a dime with Lyft, but instead will be offering their services to the company at a 80/20 rev share.  Its really important for drivers to get the culture from day one.

Here’s the unboxing:

Box
This is the box as it arrived at my door.
Open Box
Open the box up, excitement ensues. The wrapper on the pink mustache reads something to the affect “attach the stash and you’re ready to go!”

 

The ‘stache in all its glory. Such an iconic thing for Lyft….

 

Amazing paperwork – friendly but informative. Printed on some hella-nice paper too.
The text read with just the right amount of whimsy and information.

 

image_2
Lyft outfits all drivers with a iphone dock and multiple chargers and auxiliary cords. The chargers aren’t just for drivers – passenger are encourage to play DJ and charge their phones….

 

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Now to the streets!

 

 

The Quantum Entrepreneur

Recently, I had lunch with an entrepreneur friend of mine in San Francisco.  He had worked for several BIG companies before helping start a little company that recently sold to a bigger cloud storage company.  As we talked, we jumped from topic to topic – and not all in tech.  One minute we shared ideas on organic farming, then we were on robotics, next thing we know we’ve got a laptop open flipping through slides for a small web app i’ve been working on.

Then it donned me:  anyone looking from the outside in would think we were startup wankers.  The types of people who talk talk talk but never actually do anything.

The truth is though this friend of mine (like most of the folks I meet with in the Bay Area) has, is, and will continue to actually DO things.  I like to think that at least I can admit when I have to many ideas and not enough action.  Therefore, we can’t be wankers can we?  You know startup wankers when you see them.  Sometimes called Wantrepreneaurs.  These are the guys who talk about their “stealth mode” startup that is raising money.  They go to a lot of mixers.  They do many trade shows.  They are usually running “lean” and don’t actually have any engineers involved.  They have gorgeous business cards.   Its scary.

I think a better word for the people who actually are capable of delivering on at least a portion of what they talk about is the “Quantum Entrepreneur.”  Hear me out:

_qubit_vs_bit

I’m no quantum computing expert (or any kind of computer expert for that matter).  But the basic idea behind quantum computing is that instead of thinking in 0s or 1s, a quantum computer uses bits that are either, or, both- etc.  This is the difference between a normal computer bit (a 1 or a 0) and a Quantum bit (any combination plus more and sometimes all).

This is essentially how the quantum entrepreneur thinks.  A standard person would tell you that you either have to be an employee or a manager.  You either have to be a corporate guy or a startup guy.  You have to choose between design and engineering.  You have to decide if you are a farmer or a founder.  In reality this is not true.  Our linear minds try to force us to believe it to be but its not.  The Quantum Entrepreneur, like a quantum computer, can rapidly switch circuits.  So fast a standard thinker may write them off as all talk – but be careful, because somewhere in the rapid transitions from farming to technology, to services, to robots, to apps lies something beautiful.

All of this switching topics quickly marches down idea paths that branch off in many directions.  The faster an entrepreneur can choose the best path, or backtrack on the trail to take another, the better.  It just so happens that a quantum approach may actually be the best.  Perhaps its ok to be a few things to a few people.  To bet on a few races at once.  Quantum thinking may not be for everyone, but for many of the meetings I have day to day, I think its the only way to stay sane.

 

Altruism is Currency (Singularity Part 2)

In this second post about Singularity University, I thought it would b nice to lay down some very important facts that frame most of the learning that happens there.  First, the fact that in order to be an entrepreneur you have to be an optimist.

Too often in this world we are convinced by the media, our news feeds, and our surrounding chatter that the world is inherently “bad.”  We read about disease, disasters, and technologies that will destroy all privacy and ruin our lives.  It is true today that there is still darkness in the world, diseases that are not cured, unpredicted disasters, and technology that seems invasive.  It is also true that today global problems pale in comparison to the same problems just 20 or so years ago.  Take for example, the fact that today you only have a .03% chance of dying a “violent” death.  This is down from over 15% chance in the early 20th century.

So why do we still feel unsafe, stressed, and worried about the world we live in?  Meet your Amygdala.  The Amygdala is a pesky part of our brains that made it possible for us to evolve.  This is the part of our brain that is a “hot circuit” for fear.  The same thing that makes us jump when frightened, and allows our bodies to react ultra fast to danger.  Millions of years ago, that danger would be to out run, or out hide a predator.  Today, modern media has exploited this piece of human anatomy as a hot circuit that we biologically can not ignore.  We can’t help but be engaged to “bad” news.  Its the same reason we find entertainment in a horror film.  The problem comes when we overlay this biological fact with the advanced, media-rich world we live in today.  Twitter, Facebook, push notifications on our iDevices, and advertising make it impossible to turn our amygdala off.

amygdala

Understanding this, we can step back and realize these world problems that are so “insurmountable” are not so impossible after all.  In fact, EVERY problem we know today can be solved with a simple formula:   Technology + Capital + People .  In some cases we don’t even need all three.

Maybe we shouldn’t identify our biggest problems today as ‘problems’ at all.  They are the biggest opportunities of all.  The faster we can execute on these opportunities, the better the whole human race will be.  Of course, we’ll find something to do with that amygdala, more bad news is certain to flood our society – but this shouldn’t stop us from moving forward today.

One big question I had when listening to the SU debunk myth after myth about the world’s grand challenges (hunger, water, energy), was ‘what will we do when we live in a world with so few problems, there is not enough work to keep everyone busy solving them?’  It’s not such a crazy thought.  Yes, we will inevitably create new problems by solving others, but surely the trend is a downward one.  It was at this point Neil Jacobstein shared a profound thought: Altruism Is Currency.

I won’t pretend I didn’t check wikipedia to be sure I knew what Altruism means:  Its the “principle or practice of concern for the welfare of others.”  Let that sink in for a second.  In other words, because nothing in this world is impossible, it means that we can begin to spend our time practicing altruism: solving problems for others. As the human race continues to grow through technology, the tools we create along the way can be used to solve the problems of our neighbors.

This turns out to be an incredible way to calm the amygdala.  By giving to others, our brains create more Oxytocin – the chemical that helps to counteract the amygdala.  This is the same chemical created when we laugh or love.   This is perhaps the strongest argument that we solve problems exponentially with technology, because as one problem is solved, we are physically compelled to help others with the technology – speeding up the solutions to the world’s problems.

I’ll stop here for this post, and continue with more SU thoughts in a 3rd post.  For now, I’ll end with a quote that is brought to mind as we realize just how quickly some of the world’s problems can be solved:

Impossible is Nothing

 

SU Part 1 – An Introduction to Singularity

Singularity-University

“The future is here, it is just unevenly distributed”

 

I first learned about Singularity University while reading “Abundance” by Peter Diamandis earlier this year.  As I read, my brain felt like it was on fire.  The companies described in the book were not only super-fascinating, they were solving big problems.  Moreover, the ideas behind “Abundance” were positive ones.  They focused on what good could from technology and how despite what is typically covered in the media, the world we live in today is hundreds of times better than any previous generation by every account.  I knew I wanted to learn more and as it turns out, Diamandis along with Ray Kurzweil had created a program in Silicon Valley for this specific purpose.

My first involvement with the program was when I was invited to the SU campus at Moffett Field – a magical place that had the feel of NASA’s days gone by mixed with a  private college charm. Stepping into the repurposed Air Force buildings, I got an immediate glimpse into the future.  Drones being hacked on, 3d printers humming, young, obviously intelligent folks jumping on stage for a two minute pitch then sharing a beer with classmates in the warm Mountain View evenings. I had the pleasure of speaking to the Singularity GSP class several times over the summer, and found myself looking forward to every visit I got to make to the campus.  It wasn’t long before I knew I needed to attend.

SU Classroom

Luckily, I found out they offer a 7 day intensive “Executive Program” that brings business leaders and innovators from around the globe to be educated in subjects that relate to “affecting the rising billion.”  I immediately applied and was thrilled when I learned I was accepted.

The program started with Diamandis himself on stage in a hotel ballroom (unfortunately this October EP class was a transient program due to the government shutdown closing Moffett Field) sharing slide after slide of exponential charts and graphs, and explaining how the SU experience is about shifting the lens with which we view technology.  His enthusiasm was contagious, if not a little grandiose.

Courtesy of Singularity University.
Courtesy of Singularity University.

My biggest take away from day one?  The caliber of my classmates.  During introductions, dinner, and networking hour I was floored to learn about all of the interesting backgrounds.  CEOs, CTOs, and Founders of some of the worlds largest companies.  Real estate developers from Silicon Valley  and retired bankers looking to start their new projects.  Successful entrepreneurs who had recently sold companies and were ready to have another go at it… I couldn’t help but feel out of place…

This was a common thread among all of the presenters as well:  super-credible speakers, talking about scientific or industry facts, with an overlay of predictions and advice for the future.  A very nice mix of then, now, and future fed to the class in an actionable way.  I was hooked after the first two days, and figured I would finally check my cynicisms for the week to see just how enlightening the experience could be.

The first thing that had to be accepted was that we live in an “exponential universe” but that it is human nature to think in a linear way.  Science has proven the exponential part to be true.  Moore’s Law is the simplest form of this – the idea that computers will be capable of processing twice as much data at half the cost every two years.  Example after example is made of how this changes the world time and again.  The fact that companies are disrupted faster today than they were a hundred years ago is tangible proof that we are on an accelerating timeline for advancements in technology, and those not capable of realizing the exponential world will quickly be left behind.

A simple example of linear thinking vs. exponential thinking it illustrated here:  Notice a linear mindset means consistently overestimating only to be disappointed in the early days of a new technology, then underestimating once the technology actually takes off on the exponential trajectory.

Linear vs. Exponential

With my new exponential hat on – I was prepared for one incredible week of learning, thinking, and networking with some of the smartest people I’ve ever met….

 

Why Kentuckiana Matters

This is a post I posted on my company’s blog over at BlueSky Network.

Midwest Matter

As Louisville prepares itself for what is shaping up to be an incredible gathering of thought leaders, entrepreneurs, do-gooders, makers, and culture mavens from September 21 – September 30,  it seems appropriate to step back and smell the roses that many community members planted several years ago.  Incredible programs including Idea FestivalMakerFairVillage Capital/Venture Well finaleNuLu FestStartup WeekendIdea Mornings are all happening in the same week. What’s more, is many of the leaders behind the events are more than happy to work together and figure out ways for the programs to complement each other– A tell tale sign that an ecosystem is thriving.

The excitement extends beyond one week in September too –  Velocity recently capped its successful inaugural class of startups,iHub and PTY Coffee  are bustling daily, and  XLerate Health is in the thick of their program.  By some standards, Louisville might just be ready to plant its flag as a fantastic, mid-west leading, budding ecosystem for startups.

But Kentuckiana has far more to offer the world than an good place to do a ‘startup’. As recently mentioned by several folks around town,  we don’t want to be the next Silicon Valley.  This is true- and we don’t want to be like every other mid-size city across the US do we?  Pounding our chests about cost of living.  Complaining about “brain drain”.  Let’s take the high road:

What if we focused on our real, innate, time-proven strengths instead?  Let’s focus on how our region could support real, scalable, impactful businesses in addition to supporting the startups.  As Stephen Reiley said at a recent dinner at his home “Louisville is small enough to care, but big enough to matter.”   He was speaking to Kentucky’s unique position to solve some of the world’s most ominous agriculture and food economy problems.  Afterall, the commonwealth has the greatest number of small shareholder farms in the US- many of which are sitting unfarmed.  But I think this statement can, should, and will ring true outside of ag and food.  I believe our region can make a great impact in what I call  the new widget economy.  ’Widgets’ could be super-high tech hardware electronics or simple items that just need ‘built’ – watches, plastics, games, even clothing.  Building widgets is easier than ever thanks to companies like Arduino, MakerBot, and KickStarter.  Building a business based on widgets is a bit harder. Luckily, that’s precisely what the midwest is good at.  We have two huge regional strengths that stand out among many others:

First the easy one:  Logistics.  Amazon, Zappos, GILT, Cafepress have decided to call Kentuckiana home for obvious reasons.  But these are behemoths that came for tax advantages on top of the relative location to UPS and FedEx.  But there’s a whole new class of  companies that need this same strength.  Enter:  The Hardware Revolution. 

The second major strength of the region, and a major value add to growing widget companies:  access to customers.  Real customers.  No other city in the country is within a 2.5 hour drive or 2.5 hour flight from such a large percentage of the United States population. This was so profound to me, I made the handy visual aid at the top of this post.  The reason I make the distinction of real customers is the fact that there are a lot of people in San Francisco.  A lot of tech savvy people.  This is both a blessing and a curse.  It is a blessing because having open-minded consumers makes it easier to take a wild chance on new products.  The curse is that some things that stick on the west coast will never make it in the “real” world.  More than a few VCs I’ve met with out here concur.  Customer validation (thanks to the Lean-Startup methodology) is hot right now and Kentuckiana has customers.  Real customers.

If Kentuckiana (yes, Indiana is important here) can focus on goals beyond software apps, and early stage funding – we might see just how bright the regions future could be.  Its easier than ever for a hardware widget company to sell devices.  Money is on the coasts.  Acceleration is on the coast – Fine.  But what about manufacturing?  Not iPhone-volume manufacturing.  But what if you had 10,000 units to build?  No chinese CM is going to touch this.  And you can’t build that many devices in your San Francisco office.  Vegas seems to have caught a whiff of this opportunity with their recent announcement of 25,000 square foot facility for hardware startups to manufacture their goods.  There is no reason why Kentuckiana couldn’t capitalize on the changing tide of manufacturing.  Its not all blue-collar labor either.  Louisville’s culture makes it a perfect choice for companies to set up their second office next to manufacturing.  Southern Indiana offers some of the ripest space and labor for manufacturing, not to mention a great culture scene of its own – sometimes even referred to as the “Brooklyn of Louisville.”

The entire picture for Louisville and Southern Indiana looks bright.  Software startups get a lot of the attention sure… But lets not miss the forest through the trees – or bluegrass.

About the author: Madison Hamman is a Project Manager for BlueSky, transplanted from Louisville to San Francisco to focus on new trends  for BlueSky that could benefit the Kentuckiana region.  Prior to BlueSky, he helped start Mavizon, a Louisville-based connected car startup.

A year in review September 2012- September 2013

The roller coaster of 2012-2013 has not disappointed.

I have decided to start blogging again for my own sake. More of a journal really. While I was at Mavizon, the team all encouraged it – they said it would help get thoughts together, and help me share thoughts with everyone at the same time. During that time, I did it to appease them and to help our Google juice in some small way. But after leaving Mavizon, I realized how much value it added. It wasn’t until recently I realized all of those posts had been deleted…thoughts, reflections, mind-clearing gibberish lost forever. For the first time in a long time, I was reminded that we only really miss things when they are gone.

So i’ve decided to do this for my future self’s sake. I know it won’t be frequent or fresh by any stretch of the imagination, but hopefully if I come back to this in a year some of my more tangible milestones will be recorded.

This first post will be dedicated to a quick timeline of what has happened in the past year:

Early September 2012: After a rocky 3 months of preparing to raise a Series A round of capital for Mavizon, I realize there are unforeseen and un-reconciable differences in vision within the founding members (myself included). I decide to step out of the organization into the great unknown.

Late September 2012: I got bored a week into my ‘off’ time. I buy a 1977 VW Westy and begin a light restoration.

October 2012: I think I’ve cleared my mind enough to start looking for what is next in my career. Jen, Woo, Jordan and I bounce ideas around weekly. The old Mavizon team meets regularly for coffee at Quills in Louisville.

Late October 2012: I send out first load of applications, focused on product management gigs. I go to San Francisco (where my search is focused) and I interview at a few small tech companies.  I finish the first wave of work on the bus.

November 2012: Phone screen. Work on bus. Phone screen. Jen and I try to start a near-shore development operation in Costa Rica dubbed “FoundersScout”.

December 2012:  Another trip to San Francisco, more interviews, and my lovely wife, An interviews at UCSF for dental residency. I accept an offer at a mid-size ‘software’ company in Louisville in the healthcare space. Jen and I scrap Costa Rica dev plans, as we both accept offers at the same company.

January 2013: I realize I don’t care about the broken healthcare system. An is matched at UCSF. Reality of a move to San Francisco sets in. Send more applications westward.

February 2013: More interviews. At this point, I realize how valuable my mentors back at Samtec and BlueSky were. I’m asked if I would consider a role at BlueSky or Samtec. I of course would. But we’re moving to San Francisco…

March 2013: Moving plans are beginning. Staying focused on work, and thinking about what is next- Start a new company in SF?  Continue to apply at companies?  Wait until we get there?

April 2013: I find out at some point in here that BlueSky Network would be interested in having some kind of foot soldier on the ground in San Francisco.

May 2013: I officially accept an offer as a Project Manager at BlueSky, a lone wolf position scouting new opportunities and areas of focus for the organization that invests in some pretty great stuff.  We take a trip to San Francisco to find our new home.

June 2013: We load up are car, throw the two dogs in the back and head West.

June, July, August: Some of the most exciting, fulfilling, interesting work I have ever done.