First Month as a Startup Founder

First Month as a Startup Founder

I've not had so much fun and felt so engaged in a very long time. One month ago I left the day job and jumped head first into my own startup. I launched Hippodex and stumbled through various gaffs this month. But oh boy I enjoyed it. All founders start by playing to their strengths. I built a top notch web site with all the modern things you'd expect an experienced engineer would think important.

Shortly after though, the real job started: I learn about my weaknesses. When I started Marketing I blew $50 on ads that didn't convert.

I made the same mistake all novices make with internet advertising: I sent clicks from my ads direct to the Hippodex home page. A few days ago I discovered what a massive blunder that was. The headline and copy in the ad talked about making money with your 3D Printer:

Does Your 3D Printer Print Money

Yet if you clicked on my original naive first attempt at a facebook ad, I'd send you to the home page. A confusing disconnect where I force you to try to pick up the thread and search for an answer the question. A question you probably have forgotten, and then you just wonder why am I here?

LESSON: Don't make them think. Don't make them work. Don't wake them up.

Make it easy. Have the ad land on a page that matches the copy. Continue the thought that brought them to the site. Show them that Hippodex helps them earn rent on their 3D Printer. Make it easy to add their 3D Printer to the site and convert their investment into cash flow. They want to reduce their total cost of ownership of their 3D Printer by becoming a 3D Printer for Hire.

So, changing the landing page worked. My recent conversions show that I learned this lesson. I fixed the biggest marketing mistake a novice like me will make. The new Hippodex landing page keeps that promise by eliminating the cognitive load and smoothing the way to adding their 3D Printer to the Hippodex database.

That's what being a founder is all about: learning new lessons and getting stronger with each one.

All things have a beginning, and this one's mine.

A year in review

A year in review

Late January 2013 I installed Rescue Time on all my laptops and over the course of the year I monitored the ways I used my time. Below you'll see the weekly bar chart of where my time went. Blue is good productive time, red not so much. If you consider yourself a highly productive person, this is how you can take it to the next level: measure everything and adapt.

  • 739 hours spent in a software editor (IDE)
  • 534 hours spent in meetings
  • 471 hours spent in email
  • 253 hours spent on Twitter, Hacker News, Blogs
  • 140 hours spent creating content (Blogging, Word, Power Point, GIMP)

In the middle of September you can see I got pretty serious about using my computer time better. But I fell off the wagon after Xmas and burned a lot of time organizing my music collection. New headphones.

Not much more commentary needed really. Do I regret the thirteen man weeks spent attending meetings? Perhaps, but over the course of the year I really dialed back on wasteful meetings and "missed" many of them. A dozen man weeks reading and composing email? That comes with being management and a decision maker. This communication load is pretty lean considering the environment.

So just half of my year was spent on administrivia. I thought it was higher than that; it felt like much more than half. I guess from my personal engineering perspective which only values making new things, I truly begrudge the time spent just talking about making new things.

I shouldn't beat myself up so much. The team performed quite well. We hit our marks this year and the fact of the matter is that this was no accident.

The one that hurts the most is seeing that I lost six man weeks to Twitter and Hacker News. Sure most of that time was after hours and weekends, but I don't think the value was there to justify such a commitment. So in September I shut it off, and invested that time in learning JavaScript, jQuery, Bootstrap, and other HTML5 items. Perhaps the time spent on Hacker News was marginally productive in that is did shape the way I view the software world, and for the better. I left the site once I started seeing the patterns of the discussions; the climb to the top of the Hacker News learning curve is steep, but it does plateau nicely. For me it's now an echo chamber where the next generation of entrepreneurs go to learn. I've moved to the next stage.

Degrees of Separation

Degrees of Separation

I feel tired from repeating this, but Mouse Hover and Mouse Over was deprecated in 2008. Five years later and if you are still designing with this interaction, you’re doing it wrong. Stop. Clean out your desk. Go home and rethink your life.

A lesson that continues to elude many HMI designers: Touch is King.

It all starts with the Mouse. Our legacy of computer interfaces and the people currently in HMI decision making positions solved the Mouse user interface so thoroughly that now all HMI designs look like mouse designs. And the worst offenders are Hover and Mouse Over. If you find yourself using that kit in the 21st century, stop. Just stop.

The mouse for the longest time felt like an intuitive interface control. You move a little hand sized object on your desk and the pointer on the screen updates to match the movement. We reduced the latency so that they two things appear to be in perfect synchronization and that made the learning curve small. As the learning curve shrinks, and the intuitiveness increases. People get it. Move your pointer by moving the mouse. So, we have something close to 30 years of the Mouse as the gold standard for the most intuitive HMI. It’s no wonder that all of our design schools, our ways of thinking, and our default software layouts are rooted by this Mouse legacy.

Then came Touch.

Many people don't fully understand why they love their iPhone. Some think it’s the apps, some think the build quality, some the industrial design. But Love is an emotion that comes from the direct connection to the device. A connection that only touch provides. We no longer have the mouse pointer as an avatar for ourselves within the computer, instead the computer and the person are directly connecting in the most sensual way. I touch it, it understands me. It’s Love.

It’s the removal of that last degree of separation that makes Touch the ultimate HMI.

I acquired my insight by building the best example of the worst HMI possible. The most evil and tortuous HMI design ever created is the On Screen Keyboard (OSK) being controlled by a 4 way infrared remote control. I spent weeks on a system like this. I studied OSK layouts to optimize for the fewest 4 way button presses. I wrote simulation software to empirically test new layouts. I simulated typing out the English dictionary, password rainbow tables, and other sample text likely to pass through the OSK. The goal was to make the OSK not suck and I failed. What I learned is that it is impossible to make the OSK not suck.

We've all done it, and we all hate it: typing in a long WIFI password into the "Smart TV" using only the remote control: first of all we have a blinking cursor in the text field. That is our first avatar. Then the OSK pops up and we have a focus highlight covering the character that would be sent to our first avatar if we press select on the remote. The focus highlight is the second avatar, and it controls the first. We control the second with only up/down/left/right. That’s two degrees of separation keeping our intentions away from the machine we want to control.

No one can ever love through a proxy, and the reason we hate onscreen keyboards on the TV is because it requires us to love through TWO proxies.

Let's look at that Mouse again. When you map hand movements to a pointer on the screen, you've added one degree of separation and the love for the machine is lost. It's like poking at your screen with a long stick.

Consider those touch interfaces again with the degrees of separation frame of reference: When nothing separates you from the machine you feel connected to it and that connection is pure and real. There are no proxy stand-ins. No avatars projected onto the machine. Just a direct connection between the human and the machine. It’s Love.

Dead Man Switch

Dead Man Switch

A morbid topic but still an important consideration: What happens to your digital assets when you die?

The Dead Man's Switch for software has not really appealed to me. The reason I hesitate to build one is I fear that it will go off before I die through some accident or neglect on my part. So, I operate without one... for now.

The critical problem that needs solving revolves around passwords. How should you pass on the keys to the digital kingdom when you yourself pass on? The simple form of a software dead man switch detects your death through a time delay based on system inactivity. When the timer goes off, your passwords transfer to the next of kin. I've worked in software long enough to know that this solution will have bugs and the false reporting of my death will result in unexpected password transfers...

Enter Team Password Manager. A nifty little bit of software that allows for group sharing of passwords. The existence of this tool makes me wonder why we need to wait for the unfortunate end to trigger the sharing of our secrets. If the legacy can be trusted to one individual upon your death, then if you choose wisely, you should be able to trust them with your secrets while you live.

A new idea worth exploring further: Sharing these secrets early could enable new modes of collaboration that our systems prohibit today.

Vapour Locked

Vapour Locked

A lesson: You can't cheat your way up a learning curve.

I bought a simple theme for a throw away website that turned into a fun side project. With new requirements coming in, and a complete and utter lack of understanding of how the theme works, I found myself stuck.

Two weeks later my struggle to avoid learning jquery and bootstrap have produced nothing of value. A heartfelt sigh, capitulation, and acceptance now has me climbing that slow ramp back into productivity. (jquery and bootstrap are properly good BTW) I'm more impressed with both as I dig in, and thus I'm forced to admit that my initial resistance has cost me two weeks. I could have jumped in enthusiastically, but instead I dug in with both heels and refused to budge... Hopefully this lesson wont be lost on me, and the next time I'm forced to explore new tech and I will do so with an open mind.

(I'm staring at you Coffee Script and only slight glancing at you Ruby)