Startups, Skills and Diversity

Sunday Morning in New York's financial district. I'm asking women how they would feel if their bridesmaid hired a party planner to organize their bachelorette.

Some women roll their eyes like I'm yet another guy practicing my pick up lines.

I'm part of a team that is validating business model assumptions in a 48 hour competition, the Lean Startup Machine. The event itself defies stereotypes. There are lots of women and blacks. People of all ages. Men join teams led by women, and the two winning teams have a woman.

We had started with Kristen's initial idea of party boxes - decorations, accessories, drinks, mixers and food delivered to your door. Our first round of surveys and interviews show men don't throw as many parties. It's women that stress about them - getting RSVPs, choosing themes. Even the playlist is more stressful than running around to buy supplies. The party box idea has a 100% probability of failure, so we "pivot" or change our business model.

The worst of those parties? Showers and bachelorettes. One woman tells me she has to organize one for the end of March. "That's only 3.5 months away" I point out. She gasps and turns red. Better yet, she's not the only one to bring up that issue: we found a problem people care about.

When we present our findings the women in the audience are nodding their heads, but we're no match for businesses that have managed to get more validation. The winners went through 5 or 6 pivots and gathered over 20 letters of intent.

"You guys did in 2 days what we do in 2 weeks" says a mentor. It's been an intense experience. We've learned better  interviewing skills and techniques for quickly verifying a business idea has merit.

Kristen already has 2 customers for the concierge bachelorette party planning. Follow Partyflyny on Twitter if you'd like to stay informed about what she does with it. Like all new businesses, odds are stacked against it, but at least it got a good start.

Finally, if you're interested in practicing startup skills, I recommend you sign up for the next LSM near you.


Usability for Illiterates

Can you guess what these signs, found near elevators, mean?

Getting in the wrong elevator, a friendly Korean explained I was in the odd-numbered elevator and I would have to go all the way down and switch elevators. Nothing in the elevator gave me a clue why pressing buttons had no effect whatsoever. No beep, no light, nothing.


Not one but two hostels were located in this Seoul high-rise, so hundreds of functionally illiterate people were confronted with these signs. Many were also sleep-deprived and jet-lagged.

"Don't Make Me Think" is a solid usability principle. I'll add a more specific one: "Don't assume literacy".

The signs on 1st floor elevators were slightly better:


Green is good colour to denote "go" like in traffic lights, and the numbers on the signs are different, letting you guess meaning. Crossed out numbers where it didn't stop could have helped.

Simpler would be to just have both elevators stop everywhere. No sign, no explanation. Just get in and press the button for your floor.

Something even an illiterate person can understand. Which I really appreciate when that person happens to be me.

Learning AI

Reading Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach (optional text book for ) to make sure I really understand A* before implementing it for

Three observations:

1 - The video lectures were a much better introduction to the material than the book alone.

2 - Having a "real" use case and implementing as you learn is a fantastic way to make sure I actually learn the material thoroughly

3 - I can't believe I went this long without learning this material.

FOB in Japan

I'm at my buddy's in Akasaka, Tokyo. Isaac's apartment is small without feeling cramped.

A woman was outside announcing something on loud speaker. No idea if it's a sale at some department store or an evacuation order. No one seems worried.

Even that temporary home-base is befuddling. The A/C control turned out to be hot water heater. Showers and toilets aren't like anything I've used before. Curtains don't want to stay up.

At the convenience store I bought food and drink at random because the cashier there couldn't speak a word of English. Salty tuna in rice balls would not have been my first choice. It was tasty.

Sushi last night was incredibly tasting. The highlight was the fish killed and served in under 2 minutes, gills still moving with cut filets served at its side.

Must go out some more and explore - and take picture. Maybe as these experiences percolate, I'll have less stereotypical observations to offer.

Leaving Recoset & new adventures

I am no longer working for Recoset, the company I co-founded almost 17 months ago. In talking with people, a few questions come back quite often:

Quit? Wasn't it your company?

 My co-founder, investors and employees also have equity or stock options. I'll remain a shareholder.

But wasn't it doing great?

Absolutely! Recoset is on a great trajectory, which is why it's safe for me to leave.

I'm happy with my contributions: finding an amazing co-founder and team, early customers and investors, overseeing a pivot to a much larger market and helping to recruit James, our new CEO.

That said, my skills won't be as useful at our upcoming stages of growth.

What now?

First, a couple months of long overdue travel. SF, Tokyo, Osaka, Seoul, Bangkok, Honolulu.  

A few people have offered interviews and contracts. There are plenty of new startup ideas I'd like to explore, ranging from chocolate manufacturing to finance. Travel will give me time to reflect on what I want to do next.

Naturally I've learned a lot. Like all the startup CEOs I've spoken to, I beat myself up for things I could have done better or faster. With practice I might get good at starting companies.

Before committing to any given course, though, it's vacation time.

To increase runway, spend more money

Potential hires sometimes ask how much runway we have left. We have 6 months of total runway, but need about 3 months to prove our assumptions and start showing real traction. This leaves us a 3 month "raising runway" for the series A.

The best way to get more raising runway is to prove faster, which we can sometimes do by spending more money. Our expenses are roughly $30,000 a month. If we get to validation a month earlier by spending $15,000, total runway is reduced by 2 weeks while raising runway increased by 2 weeks.

There are lots of opportunities to spend more money wisely. Whether hiring a consultant for a few hours or buying a dedicated machine to avoid re-architecting, the amounts can vary from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.

I hear a lot of people claim startups aren't "lean" if they spend a lot. The whole point is to learn as fast as possible on the smallest total budget.

How can startups destroy more jobs?

This whole job obsession misses the most important point of startups: creating a new economy.

A lot of recent articles can be boiled down to this simple logic:

  -Startups create more jobs
  -We need more jobs
  -Therefore, we need more startups

Like any other, the job creation ideology masks and simplifies reality. What we do is closer to creative destruction.

Lots of jobs should be destroyed. Call centers come to mind: many pay shit wages and offer no security. Lots of dreary clerical busy-work can be automated. Can you think of more?

New jobs aren't all created equal. Startups also create lots of jobs indirectly. I wouldn't mind being an engineer at Google, but I wouldn't trade that for being a crafter on Etsy. At least I assume they love what they do and have "flow"; certainly a luxury for most earning on working Amazon's Mechanical Turk for pennies per task.

300 years ago, some 98% of Europeans were farmers. Now it's <2%. The creative destruction of entrepreneurs recycled entire industries, giving rise to new jobs that have since been forgotten. Tinkers, coopers and blacksmiths have all but disappeared.

The web is only 20 years old and the information revolution is only getting started. If we do our job, the economy will be unrecognizable in 50 years. By then, our employment obsession - a bizarre relic of the industrial revolution - might be ready for the trash heap of history.