tag:areallybadidea.com,2013:/posts A really bad idea 2014-11-15T04:44:16Z tag:areallybadidea.com,2013:Post/552907 2012-03-26T03:12:00Z 2013-10-08T17:19:45Z Zynga + OMGPOP I keep hearing people say that the OMGPOP acquisition ($180mm + $30mm retention) doesn’t make sense or is a sign of bubble prices, or wondering why OMGPOP would sell so quickly after an immediate hit. Without writing a super in-depth post, here’s why I think that it’s a value accretive deal (and good for both parties):

  • First of all, Draw Something has a rumored 15 million Daily Active Users (DAU). That is a ton of active users; by contrast, Zynga’s Q4 earnings report placed it at an equal 15m DAU. With one purchase, Zynga doubled its mobile DAU. Mobile is clearly where casual gaming is going and this solidifies Zynga’s foothold for the future.
  • On OMGPOP’s side, there is no guarantee of a second hit after Draw Something. OMGPOP produced a ton of games before creating Draw Something for iPhone and there is no guarantee that they will ever recreate the phenomenon. The lifecycle of games is such that people get bored of them and go on to the next one. What Zynga and other mobile publishers have done successfully is learn how to move traffic around their networks to keep their DAU when the audience tires of games. If OMGPOP had remained independent and failed to produce another great game, they might lose all the DAU they’d built up from Draw Something.
  • OMGPOP as a company is 6 years old and had failed to achieve success before Draw Something - this is purely speculation but I imagine there was a fairly significant team fatigue and the team was jonesing for an exit.

Seems like a good deal for both parties: Zynga gains dominance in the more profitable mobile games market (compared with Facebook games), and OMGPOP reduces their risk significantly.

What do you think?

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tag:areallybadidea.com,2013:Post/552909 2012-03-22T21:30:00Z 2013-10-08T17:19:45Z I don't know how to do anything else.

"I don't know how to do anything else."

"Neither do I."

"I don't much want to."

"Neither do I."

This scene from Heat makes me think of startups. When you get started early, after a while you aren't really capable of holding down a real job, and you don't really want to either.

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tag:areallybadidea.com,2013:Post/552911 2011-11-16T01:14:51Z 2013-10-08T17:19:45Z Generation Make

In his New York Times opinion piece yesterday, William Deresiewicz calls the Millennial generation, those born roughly between the the end of the 70s and the mid-90s, a generation of salesmen. Emotionless, aspiring to be liked by all, because that is what will attract the most customers. “No anger, no edge, no ego.”

He got some things right. We have a distrust of large organizations. We don’t look down on people creating small businesses. But we’re not emotionless, that couldn’t be further from the truth. We have anger, which flares up to become the Arab Spring and OccupyWallStreet movements. We have ego, which I see in every entrepreneur who thinks their tech startup is the best thing since sliced bread. We have passion, and an intense drive to follow our passions through, immediately.

Our generation is autonomous. It is impatient. We refuse to pay our dues; if we start an entry level job then 6 months later we want to be running the department. We hop from job to job; the average tenure at any job for an American 25 to 34 is just 3 years. We think we can do anything we can imagine, whether it is rise to fame like Deadmau5 for our music or launch a new product on Kickstarter, and hate the idea that we should ever be beholden to someone else.

We do this because we have been abandoned by the institutions that should have embraced us. The past decade has shown us a massively inefficient government that has spent millions in foreign wars, incapacitated by partisan dogma. Politics are controlled by the old, people who don’t understand technology, a situation which seems immutable. Corporations have turned their backs on us: many of us came to age in the 2008 financial crisis, and even though we were promised that a college education was the key to a blessed life we couldn’t find a job post graduation.

So we’re making our own way and making our own jobs. We create our own tech startups, we’re making a living producing videos on Youtube. We’re starting our own non-profits instead of joining stagnant, bureaucratic NGOs. We’re growing and selling our own organic food. We don’t need your jobs, your advice, your instruction. Pretty soon we won’t need your music labels or publishing houses; we’ll be doing it ourselves on iTunes and Amazon. We don’t need you at all, except perhaps as a customer. 

We’re not salesmen, as Deresiewicz states. Selling is just one part of running a functional enterprise, and not the most important part at that. Our hero Steve Jobs knew that without a great product selling is useless, and that’s why he cared about the products above all else, and his showmanship around them was just a reflection of his passion. Before we’re ever selling anything, we have an idea for it, and that is where our love and emotion is revealed. Unlike previous generations, if we’re on the web or at a store and something we want doesn’t exist, our first thought is not "why?" but simply that maybe we should create it ourselves.

This isn’t the first time the Millennial generation has been criticized for what is perceived as shallowness, a lack of connection with others, or just a materialistic nature. David Fincher spent an entire 121 minutes trying to pillory Mark Zuckerberg with a made up fable, and all he did was inspire another generation of would-be entrepreneurs.

We are a generation of makers. A generation of creators. Maybe we don’t have the global idealism of the hippies. Our idealism is more individual: that every person should be able to live their own life, working on what they choose, creating what they choose. If you want to build a company to change the world, go for it. If you want to be an independent knife maker, what is stopping you?

We follow our passions. If we do it as a business, then we can create the ability to support ourselves doing what we love, and with some measure of security and autonomy that no institution is going to grant us. The Millenial path to self-actualization is the individual path, each man to create it for himself.

Is that selling out? We’re just doing what you regret not having the balls to do.

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tag:areallybadidea.com,2013:Post/552913 2011-11-01T19:27:00Z 2013-10-08T17:19:45Z Trouble Hiring? Create a Cult This article appeared on TechCrunch yesterday

Everyone knows there’s a war going on today in Silicon Valley: a war for talent. Startups are competing for a limited supply of engineering and product design labor, largely constrained by the failure of the US to invest in STEM education and a terribly restrictive immigration process for work visas. Meanwhile, big companies like Facebook and Google are paying out millions to either retain or rehire engineers through talent acquisitions.

This system is under even more pressure from seed funds (Sorry: I’m a part-time partner at Y Combinator, so I’m probably contributing to the problem). Not only do you have to worry about your engineers going to your competition, you have to worry about them getting seeded to run off and start their own company. It’s often hard to compete against the “grass is greener” dream of being a founder, especially when the theoretical upside of doing your own thing is nearly infinite and there are investors ready to write you a convertible note check today. No cap necessary!

If you want to attract and retain the best talent, you’re going to have to work hard at it. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned in the past couple months:

1) Have a vision

When our main product was Justin.tv, no one wanted to work at our company. Well, that’s a slight exaggeration, but few talented engineers said to themselves “Oh my god! My dream has always been to work at a general live video platform: you guys are the perfect fit!” We hired several talented people, but mostly because we were a YC company, had a few interesting technology scaling challenges and we seemed really cool.

When we launched TwitchTV, a community around broadcasting and watching video gaming, everything changed. We started to get a LOT more inbound candidates: it turns out the overlap between programmers and pro-gamers is pretty high. We had a new vision to bring competitive gaming to the masses, and there are many people out there who share that vision and want to be a part of making that world a reality. By communicating a vision that harnesses the passions of a certain group of people, we tapped into a talent pool we wouldn’t otherwise have had access too.

2) Be the only option

If you want a job as a programmer at a social media site, all you have to do is walk down the street in San Francisco waving your front-end engineer resume and you’ll be employed in 30 seconds. The competition to be the best social network, photo sharing platform, event discovery engine, or Facebook for X is fierce… and everyone is losing to Facebook.

I remember reading an Elon Musk interview where he claimed that if you were an engineer that wanted to innovate in rocketry or electric cars, there really wasn’t anywhere else to work but Space X or Tesla. Consequently, they attract the top engineering talent in those industries. For every industry, there are some set of talented people who are passionate about innovating and solving the difficult problems. If you’re the company that happens to be innovating and solving difficult problems, then you’re going to end up the the default “Best place to work in X.” My recommendation: pick an industry where that title will be possible to achieve.

3) Create a cult

The buzz over perks, salary and fancy benefits wears off. Every time you give someone a raise or new title, she feels good… for a week. Soon after, it settles in and becomes a new baseline, and worse still it becomes leverage for her to get a higher paying job somewhere else.

Instead, focus on providing an environment that builds community within your company. Often heard example: provide company lunches. It isn’t just efficient, but it increases opportunities for serendipitous discussion over meal times and employees will be more likely to become friends. The more friends at a company, the more enjoyable the job and the more you want to stay where you are.

My friend Matt Brezina’s company, Sincerely, creators of postcard sharing app Postagram, goes beyond that. The entire company takes week-long workcations in Mexico. They heavily recruit within social circles and when a candidate flies in for an interview they will put him up in an Airbnb in a neighborhood he would be likely to live, and the team will spend the weekend hanging out with him. By building a sense of family, you build lasting connections between your employees that will keep them motivated and around.

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Your talented team is the most vital part of any startup. The way to retain the best talent is by having a clear vision, working in an area where you’re the only company and creating a place where people connect with each other.

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tag:areallybadidea.com,2013:Post/552916 2011-10-06T02:00:00Z 2013-10-08T17:19:45Z Hack Your Culture This story appeared on TechCrunch on Saturday.

Behavior is a virus. We spread our behavior to those around us, whether passively or on purpose. Pop quiz: what factor most highly correlates with obesity? It isn't income, race, religion, or genetics. It turns out that the best indicator of obesity is your friend group: if you have overweight friends, you are more likely to be overweight yourself. This makes sense, because you develop your behavior set from interactions with those around you. If your friends are physically active and eat well, you'll have more opportunities to be physically active yourself, and spend more time over healthy meals. Alternatively, if your friends are living a real-life version of Super Size Me, you're likely on the express train to type II diabetes.

Given enough exposure to a behavior, that behavior will become normative. This is true for both positive and negative behaviors. One simple behavior I've seen spread through my own friend group is riding motorcycles. I first started riding a few years ago after two of my friends came by on their bikes (having wanted to start for years, but never having a catalyst until that moment). Fast forward four years and both my brothers, two roommates and many other friends are riding, with many more in various stages of taking the rider's test and joining the organ donor's club.

Over the past several years I've been surprised to learn that this is also the case for entrepreneurship. For most people, startups are a risky endeavor and something to be avoided. Many are hesitant to quit their secure jobs and try to start a company from scratch. From an expected value perspective, when factoring in some risk adversity attributable to basic human nature, they are correctly maximizing outcomes. However, for a growing group, I've noticed that startups are a normalized behavior, and that this generally spreads through personal connections.

My brother Daniel is the perfect example of this. When Daniel graduated from college in 2009, the economy was in a horrible recession, and it was extremely difficult for new grads to find jobs. Initially having very little interest in startups, he started doing sales and business development at Uservoice after finding no options in consulting and banking, where the few friends of his fortunate enough to find work were headed. After a couple years of being friends with founders and early employees of startups, hearing about startups everyday and rooming with startup founders, he made the jump himself and recruited a team to launch Appetizely.

An example of culture-hacking at scale is y Combinator. One of the reasons I think Y Combinator is so powerful is because it creates a new social norm, especially for those who come from outside Silicon Valley. When you start at YC, your friends and family think you’re crazy. By the end, you have another friend cohort: other YC entrepreneurs and alumni. These new friends will provide support and advice, but the most important thing that they give you is implicit assurance that you are not crazy.

The lesson here is that through some clever social engineering you can hack your own life to put yourself in the position to accomplish goals you don't even know how to begin. This is also also how ZeroCater started. Over three years ago I was interviewing candidates for a community manager postition at Justin.tv. One interviewee particularly stood out. Arram didn't have any experience or really any qualification; in fact, at the time he had been working as a security guard and had never been to college. But, unlike most of the other candidates, he had thought extensively about what he would do as the community manager and had written down his many ideas in preparation for our interview. He was also passionate about creating his own startup eventually, and his excitement was inspiring. We ended up hiring someone else who had more community management experience for the job, but I was so impressed with Arram's preparation that we hired him anyways to do random office projects.

One of Arram's minor responsibilities ended up being ordering meals for the company. It ended up being such a time saver for the team that one evening I suggested that he offer ordering as a service to a few other YC startups in the neighborhood. That was the last I thought about it, but a month later I was shocked when Arram came back to me and told me he was quitting to grow it as a startup. Two years later, and he's recruited a technical team, built out software to manage the entire workflow and serve companies like MTV, CBS and Verizon.

Arram didn't have the programming or product background that you would expect from someone who would later go on to raise over $1 million in venture capital for a technology startup. He got in the game by doing whatever it took to get into a startup and surrounded himself with startups, making it impossible for him to not think about startups. Just being in the community creates opportunities: how else would you come up with the idea for a food subscription service that solves a very specific company problem?

You can hack your own culture. Surround yourself with people who do what you want to do, and eventually you'll wake up to find yourself doing the same.

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tag:areallybadidea.com,2013:Post/552918 2011-07-21T15:48:00Z 2013-10-08T17:19:45Z Developers, developers, developers

Last week I had the good fortune to travel to Washington DC to participate in the launch of Our Time's Buy Young campaign, which encourages Americans to buy from companies started by founders under 30. It was a great opportunity to meet some entrepreneurs outside of tech, which I don't have an opportunity to do quite as often as I'd like (businesses outside of tech have interesting problems too!). 

I was heartened to see hear many founders in fashion, food and other industries say that programming skills are a foundational necessity for our country. Some even went so far as to say knowledge of programming languages should be required, like a foreign language! It is my belief that more and more of our jobs in the future will require some programming knowledge. The list of industries outside of tech where software projects are a growing and necessary corner stone is rapidly expanding: robotics, industrial processes, biotechnology, finance, the list goes on. In fact, almost every business today can benefit from the application of basic programming skills, whether you are A/B testing conversions for your jewelry company's online store or building smartphone integrations into the cars you manufacture. At my first job as an intern at a law firm almost a decade ago I ended up automating a lot of my trivial day to day tasks with some basic Excel macros (which was viewed by the rest of the firm as black magic).

At the same time, I got the distinct impression that there were some misconceptions in how non-programmers outside of San Francisco / Silicon Valley understood programming. Two things everyone should know about programming:

First, programmers are normal people. Yes, a large number of us are more interested in technology that the average person, and a visible few don't care about adhering in to social norms as strictly as most, but largely programmers have the same motivations and desires as others. There seemed to be the thought that programmers were generally uninterested in founding businesses or being involved outside of staring at a computer screen. This isn't true at all. Google and Facebook's founders prove the first. Further, there are many programmer / entrepreneurs who like to do other things, whether it is owning nightclubs or starting a clothing line.

Second, programming is just a skill. As it turns out, anyone can learn enough about programming to help her in her business. Just like some basic knowledge of math will let you as an entrepreneur figure out your margins and make an annual budget, some basic programming knowledge can help you automate parts of our business or change your online store. When I started my first startup, I was a Physics & Philosophy major and didn't really know anything about building a web application (or really the Internet in general), but I taught myself enough about Javascript and Rails to be useful. You don't have to be a genius to start programming -- I am proof of that.

So, I encourage you non-technical entrepreneurs out there to learn some basic programming, which I'm sure will come in handy for your business. Write a script to automate some of your boring work or figure out how to build a basic website. It's fun; the hardest part is getting started.

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tag:areallybadidea.com,2013:Post/552919 2011-07-01T23:24:00Z 2013-10-08T17:19:45Z Startups don't die, they commit suicide This post appeared on Techcrunch on Monday. I'm reposting it here for posterity's sake.

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Startups die in many ways, but in the past couple of years I’ve noticed that the most common cause of death is what I call “Startup Suicide”, a phenomenon in which a startup’s founders and its management kill the company while it’s still very much breathing.

Long before startups get to the point of delinquent electricity bills or serious payroll cuts, they implode. The people in them give up and move on to do other things, or they realize that startups are hard and can cause a massive amount of mental and physical exhaustion — or the founders get jobs at other companies, go back to school, or simply move out of the valley and disappear.

I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret: while building and iterating on Justin.tv (long before launching Socialcam), there were many times I came to the brink of packing it up and moving on from the company that bears my name. Shameful? Perhaps, but I know the same thoughts have occurred at times to my co-founders, who are still with the company to this day. The reasons? Take your pick: we need more traction, we need hockey-stick growth, we need more revenue, we need more buzz, we argue about management issues, we have diverging interests. In the past five years I have personally experienced all the startup failure cliches that exist.

But, every time the “suicide” specter reared its head, I turned away and stayed the course. And every time, I would be vindicated. Arguments were worked out, problems solved, revenue generated, traction gained, buzz created. So I’ve struggled on, and every day we’ve continued to win the most important battle for any company: existence. Even more, we’ve been able to grow all the metrics that matter: users, revenue, and team.

When startups commit suicide, often the root problem can be traced back to a lack of product traction — it’s rare to find people willingly quitting companies with exploding metrics. But one thing that many entrepreneurs don’t realize is that patience and iteration are critical in achieving product market fit. Overnight successes might happen fast, but they never actually happen overnight. Facebook lagged Myspace for a couple years before being crowned the top social network. Groupon had to iterate through being ThePoint. If the teams had given up after a single failure (or even many failures), they would never have created the massive companies that capture the public eye today.

My favorite example of persistence is Airbnb. I first met the founders, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, after SXSW 2008, where they had bumped into my co-founder, Michael Seibel. They had launched their site as a marketplace for temporary housing rentals during conferences twice already by that point: once for a design conference in SF, and then again at SXSW in Austin.

These were guys with very little knowledge of the tech industry, two designers who had a programmer working with them part time. Michael was advising them, and every couple of weeks they would come by the office to talk with him (while the rest of us alternated between watching casually, mildly annoyed that Mike wasn’t working, and actually trying to provide helpful advice). The one thing I remember vividly was the time when they first demoed their payment flow to us. It was built on top of Amazon payments, and was quite frankly atrocious and we told them as much (I think it required multiple redundant fields).

That summer, they launched a third time for the Democratic National Convention and achieved some traffic, which promptly went away soon after the conference was over. By fall, almost anyone could have justified throwing in the towel. They had tried to make the product work multiple times, had accumulated tens of thousands in personal credit card debt, and were literally printing cereal boxes to try to make money. Even their lead (and only) engineer had moved back to Boston. As a casual observer from the outside, they appeared isolated and discouraged.

But they didn’t give up. They kept at it. At the end of the year, they were accepted into YC, and immediately started trying to generate revenue and hit profitability. Two years later, Airbnb has a great product, a huge userbase, great revenue and is the the toast of the town in Silicon Valley. They are even a contender for the most valuable YC company created to date.

Persistence isn’t just key — it is everything. Getting in the ring is hard, but staying in the ring is even harder, especially when you feel beaten down, tired and alone. Successful entrepreneurs will readily tell you about the good times, their secrets to success, and even their mistakes (with a ready helping of how they overcame them), but they will rarely mention the times they were ready to throw in the towel and do something else. The truth is that everyone has those moments, and the guys you read about on the cover of Fortune were the ones that didn’t quit at them.

I can’t promise you will succeed if you stick with your startup. What I can promise is that if you give up, you won’t possibly succeed.

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tag:areallybadidea.com,2013:Post/552921 2011-07-01T01:13:00Z 2014-11-15T04:44:16Z Google Calendar redesign: It's goddamn terrible Normally my policy is not to shit on other people's products. I know how hard it is to take unsolicited negative feedback and how easy it is for some random douche on the Internet to give it. But I feel like I have a special place in my black heart for Google Calendar, so I'm going to break that rule and just lay it out. Here are before and after screenshots of my real calendar from today for comparison.

Old and usable:

New and terrible:

Google Calendar team, did you consider how people use calendars when you redesigned your product? The new design is terrible. Here is why:

  • Search button is a big blue button in the middle of your field of vision. I search on my calendar maybe once a week (I think that is being generous). It is visually distracting and one of only two colored elements on the page. Just because you're a search company doesn't mean that search should be emphasized at all costs. Search is not part of a normal calendar user's work flow.
  • You can now see much less of the My Calendar and Other Calendars boxes. We went from being able to see 10 items to about 3. For someone with multiple calendars, it went from being a usable guide at a glance to an unusable one. This might look fine on cinema display but on my 13" Macbook Air it does not.
  • You can't tell at a glance what fucking day it is. Before it was yellow. Now it is a shade of grey that is pretty close to white. What day it is is important, because you use that info to figure out what appointments you are going to have to show up for.
  • Previously, the blue frame around the calendar draws your attention to the most important part of any calendar app: the fucking calendar. The month box calendar, search, view selectors -- they are all much less important that seeing your appointments for the day/week.
  • Lastly, this might just be because I'm used to the old colors, but I think the white-on-dark-color appointments are much easier to read than the black-on-color appointments. Maybe I'm just being a grumpy asshole here.

Over on the Gmail blog it looks like those guys are about to commit a similar atrocity. Please don't make these changes mandatory for all calendar users. When I was working on our calendar startup Kiko, you brought us in, pumped us for info, and then released your own product and rolled up our early adopters. Despite all that, I eventually came around and switched over to Google Calendar because it worked decently well with Gmail. Now, you're about to pull the trigger of a gun that is pointed at your own head.

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tag:areallybadidea.com,2013:Post/552923 2011-05-04T16:00:00Z 2013-10-08T17:19:46Z Winning Attitude, Losing Attitude

I have a friend who has wanted to start a startup for years. Every time he comes up with an idea, he subsequently talks himself down: the market isn't big enough, the timing isn't right, he can't find a cofounder. The reasons are always different, and are always logical.

This is a loser's attitude, and unfortunately it is shared by millions. It is why our risk-adverse society systematically over-rewards those willing to take perceived risks. When you look for reasons not to do something, you will always find them.

I have another friend who came to the Bay Area with the dream of starting a startup. He had no college, no programming ability and no connections when he got here. He got a job serving ice cream, moved on to join a startup, then started his own company after two years. The company is now doing 2 million in annual revenue a year and a half later.

When you approach a challenge with the foundational belief that you can do it, you have a much different mindset than  when you approach it with the idea that it is impossible. In the former case you almost always figure out a way, in the latter case you almost never do.

Those with a winning attitude get started and figure out how to get things done. Those with a losing attitude worry about failure, and never get started.

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If you liked this post, follow me on Twitter and Facebook for more articles.

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tag:areallybadidea.com,2013:Post/552925 2011-05-02T16:00:00Z 2013-10-08T17:19:46Z Lead by Example One Fall day during my senior year at Yale, a friend called me on the phone. An acquaintance of his was having a calendar release party; would I like to come? The calendar was some sort of trashy imports calendar with riced out cars surrounded by girls in bikinis, who would naturally be in attendance at said party. Unfortunately, I couldn't make it; the party was in Seattle, and I was trapped at school in New Haven. So, I did what any entrepreneurial hard-headed kid would do, and resolved to create my own printed calendar, so I could have my own calendar release party.

Thus was born the first ever Men of Branford calendar. Branford was the residential college I was in at Yale. I figured I would honor her by creating a calendar of her finest residents, all nearly naked. I immediately started rounding up volunteers, and pretty quickly recruited a head photographer, someone to do make up, and secured a couple hundred dollars of funding from our college activity fund.

Only one problem remained: the models. For added hilarity, I'd decided to make the calendar feature primarily men. I'd recruited the best looking guys from the college (and some of my uglier friends) to star, but was having trouble getting them to agree to pose for provocative enough photos. I firmly believed that ridiculous, over the top photos would be the key to the calendar's success, so to me it was imperative that we convince those participating that taking photos that could potentially affect their careers for the rest of their lives would be well worth the risk.

I did the only thing I could think of. I went around and told every model that if they did the scene with rose petals on the pool table (or rubbed soap on themselves in the shower, etc) that I personally would do something far more embarrassing and scandalous. Everyone agreed to take the photos I had in mind for them, and after a few months of hard work the calendar was released. The release party was a smashing success.

The point of this inane story is that ultimately you can't ask people to do something unless you're willing to do it yourself. Early on in our company's life, the founders often worked longer to get to deadlines, were willing to do shittier work (testing, fixing problems on weekends, racking servers), and generally did whatever it took regardless of pride to make sure things were completed -- and this attitude spread to the rest of the team. When we were developing the first version of Socialcam, I tried to be in the office any time any of the team was, even though I wasn't the one programming the apps. Sometimes having others present working towards common cause is important for morale, and I couldn't ask the team to grind as hard as possible if I wasn't doing the same.

Would-be leaders: prove your worth and lead from the trenches.

Here's the photo I ended up taking for the calendar:

If you liked this post, follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

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tag:areallybadidea.com,2013:Post/552927 2011-04-19T03:44:15Z 2013-10-08T17:19:46Z Justin.tv long jump competition ]]> tag:areallybadidea.com,2013:Post/552929 2011-04-18T15:59:00Z 2013-10-08T17:19:46Z Apps I've been using this year I think the software we use informs how we think. It's important that you use awesome software that makes it easy to get what you want to do done and get out of your way. Here's what I've been using in 2011 so far:

Web apps

Quietwrite

I like Quietwrite because it is a dead simple web based text editor that leaves off a lot of the chrome. Emmett and I actually wrote something pretty similar we called Scratchtop a couple years ago, but didn't maintain it and let it expire. With Quietwrite, all you see is a field for your title, and one for your post's body -- as soon as you start typing the header disappears, leaving you to type in peace -- this is critical. I find that I write most of my writing in Quietwrite instead of Textmate (which doesn't sync to web, meaning that I can't finish up posts on other computers) or Google Docs (which is too heavy weight for writing which doesn't require a lot of formatting). Also, Quietwrite has a dead simple sign up process that allows you to start writing before even creating an account.

My one wish: right now the header fades when you start typing, only to reappear when you move the mouse. It should only reappear if you move your mouse to the top of the screen, where the header is, so that you aren't pulled out of the zone if you just want to select some text in your post.

 

 

Workflowy

Workflowy is a to do list that lets you get as many levels deep as you want. You can also zoom to different levels, effectively creating multiple to do lists embedded in one big mega list. This is cool - it is incrementally better than Gmail lists, which I was using before, because I can put everything I am thinking about into one big list (personal errands, Justin.tv projects, blog ideas) and easily get between all of those ideas. They even have an awesome export function to allow me to copy and paste those lists into emails (which I do often, to communicate a task list I'd previously brainstormed to a team mate).

My one wish: collaboration on subsections of your list with team mates. I want this because I want to be able to track other people's work if they are responsible for some of the tasks. This doesn't have to be a complicated tracking / ticketing system -- I like the simplicity of just having two states in Workflowy (not done and done).

 

PivotalTracker

We've been using PivotalTracker for about a year inside Justin.tv now. For those who haven't heard about it, PivotalTracker is a project management tool for software projects that let's you easily organize tasks around releases. Previously we had used Trac and later Fogbugz. PivotalTracker is best for my needs for one simple reason -- you can keep an ordered list (this feature is surprisingly absent from other similar software). Added benefits include the ability to easily create tickets from the main project view, and very simple at-a-glance tracking of the project (because there is only one main project view).

My one wish: keyboard shortcuts to create new tickets. It would let me enter things so much faster...

 

Google Docs

Of course, we use Google Docs for most of our documents at JTV. Lighter weight than any desktop software, easy to use from anywhere, and so much easier to search through documents than storing Word docs in a folder. Really needs no introduction from me...

My one wish: Why does Google Docs allow browser zoom if it is going to break the interface? Incredibly irritating as I keep accidentally pinching-to-zoom and as far as I can tell you can't disable this in OSX. That's not really Google's fault, but the effect is horrible as it takes forever to the browser (Chrome) to render the app at the new zoom level, and then you have adjust back and wait again. 

 

iPhone apps

Instagram

Love Instagram, a quirky app for sharing photos with vintage filter effects applied to them. However, I find that the killer feature here is that it allows me to share photos on both Facebook and Twitter faster than any other app. Filters were cool but have basically lost their appeal to me.

My one wish: Sharing to both a Facebook account and a Facebook Page at the same time (currently you can only do one or the other).

 

Beluga

The breakaway app of 2011 in my opinion. Beluga is amazing at organizing group activities, and it is incredibly viral. You can create a group (called a pod) and add people to it who on the app, or whom you just have a phone number for. Those people then will start getting any message sent to the group (by SMS if they don't have the app, push notification if they do). Beluga makes it incredibly simple to create a group with a bunch of friends and just see if anyone is interested in doing something (I use it to organize pretty much everything from company trips to poker nights). Beluga has literally changed how I plan and find out about social activities; I was actually sad that Facebook bought them last month -- I'm afraid that the acquisition will kill the innovation and active development on the Beluga app.

My one wish: when someone quits your pod it sends everyone in the group a message. When an activity is over, you get a ton of people quitting the group. The messages get annoying after a while.

 

Socialcam

Obviously you should take this with a grain of salt, as I work on it, but I really love using our new app Socialcam. Socialcam is great because it has changed the way my friends and I use video -- we take actually use it now. Pre-Socialcam, I only took a few videos, and when I wanted to share them I generally just queued it up on my iPhone and handed it to someone. Now, I find it is easier to just take a video and either put it on Twitter / Facebook or send it out via an email (a good tool for making parents feel loved when you are off in Hawaii I've recently discovered). Consequently, I've been taking a lot more video and am excited to share it with friends now, and also to have all this video in the future.

My one wish: I've actually got a lot of improvements I want to see in Socialcam, the first of which is much easier sharing. Don't worry, we're working on it :).

 

Hootsuite

I was trying to find client to post to both Twitter and Facebook and Emmett recommended Hootsuite to me (having actually never used it himself). I downloaded it and it was awesome: simple, allows posting to both, link shortening, and status scheduling. As I've been using social media a lot more recently, I've found Hootsuite to be critical in my efforts. Unfortunately, I have some sort of mental block in saying the name properly -- I always want to pronounce it "hoot-suit."

My one wish: Something went wrong when I tried to add multiple Twitter accounts. It was too much trouble to figure out what, but eventually I'd like to. 

---

Overall it seems that I generally use web apps for work related writing and organization, and mobile apps for media creation and social activities. I guess that makes sense, as I'm generally behind a computer when working, and on my phone (or at least with my phone) when I'm out and about.

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tag:areallybadidea.com,2013:Post/552932 2011-04-15T19:27:00Z 2013-10-08T17:19:46Z Management Lessons the Hard Way

A lifetime ago in a galaxy far, far away my cofounder Michael came to me and gave me an intervention. We had a problem, he said, employees were unhappy. People were getting burned out and there was an increasing rate of attrition. "What do you want from me?" I replied exasperated, as our conversation became heated. But he didn't have any answer, outside of seeing the symptoms of something deeply wrong.

As our most important conversations typically go, I eventually got over my wounded ego and realized that he had a key insight here. The things he mentioned were serious and indicative of a lack of leadership that was caused as much by the things we weren't doing as were doing. We had created the startup equivalent of Lord of the Flies, complete with new employees getting thrown into a foreign environment they are completely unequipped to survive in and then getting bashed in the head with a rock. We the founders had operated the company with little direct management for years, under the pretense that we were empowering employees by letting them work on things they wanted to do. In reality, we were often stepping back just enough to been seen out of the eye's periphery, often to jump in without warning when things weren't following unsaid directions. Anyone who has experienced this before knows that it is liable to make you a bit twitchy.

In the next month, Kevin, our COO, talked to everyone in the company and gathered feedback that might not have been directly shared with a founder. Here's the typical project workflow, version 1:

  1. Vague problem definition: "Create an automated test suite for the website" 
  2. Employee defines it in some way that we didn't actually have in mind: "Create an extensible, Selenium based framework for performing every action a user can on the site" 
  3.  Employee works on that for a while, sometimes months, without feedback: "I'm making great progress!" 
  4. Manager checks on progress, has a "wtf" moment: "Wait, I just wanted something that pinged five URLs and checked for 500s"
  5.  Massive micromanagement ensues: "OK, clearly you don't understand what we're doing; I'm going to have to take over"
  6.  Massive employee disenchantment: "WTF just happened?"

With a lot of help from our new VP of Engineering, Chintan, we created a plan for addressing our most egregious issues. Many of the lessons we learned could probably have been prevented had we picked up a management or communication book or two. But as always, the lessons you hold dearest to heart are the ones you've learned yourself the hard way.

 

Signs you might have a problem, and that the problem might be you:

  • Employees burn out after months. Team members work increasingly less on average as they spend more time at the company.
  • Lots of people seem to be implementing projects in ways that you didn't want, or that don't meet the goals you had in mind.
  • You feel like people aren't getting anything done, even though you employ lots of people, all of whom are smarter than you and just as hard working.

 

    How to not fuck up:

     

    Empowerment doesn't mean letting everyone do whatever the fuck they want

    If you listen to words and not the meaning, a lot of startup talk seems to say that you should just get a lot of smart people together and let them do whatever they want until something sticks, and that is a recipe for success in everything (product, team happiness). This is wrong. So wrong. Creative comes from constraints and direction. For us, the hard part of this was to actually define the problems / goals we were attacking and then ruthlessly refuse projects that didn't address these. Instead, we found it so much easier to just say yes whenever someone suggested something, but then let it die later through neglect, lack of interest, on purpose, or otherwise. This is a horrible idea, because it not only communicates an utter lack of focus but it is completely and utterly opposite of honest communication, and leads to people feeling betrayed, and rightly so. Instead, you should:

     

    Provide a problem and framework, let employee figure out the solution

    At the end of the day, smart people mostly aren't motivated by money or titles in the long term. Motivators like those are like buying new possessions; after the newness wears off, so does the appeal. Daniel Pink does a great job outlining what motivates people in this video: mastery, self-direction, and purpose. In a product engineering organization, those things fit together if you provide employees with an area they can be an expert and make local decisions in, but that also fits into a larger purpose or problem. Many of the problems that we've experienced stemmed were because we sacrificed one at the expense of others; for example, allowing people to pick projects (self-direction) that didn't fit into our company goals (purpose).

     

    People want to have input. Cheer up, this is a good thing; it means they actually give a shit.

    But how do you reconcile the fact that smart knowledge workers want to have self-direction, but ultimately you have to say no to things that don't fit address the company goals? Bewilderingly enough to the average entrepreneur, it turns out that people are ok with "no." Most smart members of a team want to have input, but don't need to make every decision themselves. For us, having regular brainstorming sessions where everyone could generate ideas for a product in a given area was a good pressure valve for contributions; those ideas were then taken and curated by our product managers into a cohesive product.

     

    Having a hierarchy isn't a bad thing. Having no idea who has the final say is a bad thing.

    Because you need to stay on target and only do projects that address your goals, it is important that there be a limited number of people who are responsible for setting those goals and are responsible for certain decisions. This was a hard thing for us to grasp; in the early days of the company, we made decisions based on consensus (translation: through massive intracompany arguments). Team members didn't know who was responsible for various product decisions, and often times this lead to inconsistency and paralyzed the engineering process. At the end of the day, the egalitarian spirit in us had trouble saying "Person X is in charge of product decisions, Person Y is who you should tell if you need to take time off." But, in the end, it saves a lot of mental processing for everyone once you add these types of rules, and ultimately decisions get made in a much more fair and transparent way.

     

    Don't micromanage. You're probably not nearly as smart as you think.

    If you founded a company that's big enough to have management problems, you probably think you're a full on genius by now. Yes, to the public you might appear humble (I might as well!), but your college buddies are probably pushing paper and ticking off days to retirement while you started something that is surviving based on your sheer effort and wits alone. You've probably also been making most of the decisions yourself up until this point. Thus, while you've heard you shouldn't do it, micromanaging the team is probably tempting.

    But don't do that. In your heart, you know it is wrong. You hired smart, creative people who don't want to just color by numbers. For me, when I objectively looked back at details I had micromanaged months later it was pretty clear I hadn't been making anything better. Instead, get rid of people you don't trust enough not to micromanage. If you look around and that's everyone, then the problem is probably with your control issues.

     

    Instead, provide regular and expected points where others (management, peers, etc) get to have input / oversight, and DON'T SKIP THEM

    At the same time you are stepping back from micromanaging, you can make sure you get an opportunity for oversight by making it part of the process to have check ins where you (or others) get to give input. For Justin.tv, this meant scheduling regular spec / architecture reviews before beginning projects and code reviews at natural milestones. It is critically important that these be consistent: consistency manages employee expectations and makes your process not arbitrary.

     

    Meet regularly not just to talk about code.

    Since I'd never worked at a real job before starting a startup, I didn't understand the purpose of basic management processes. I thought meeting regularly with employees 1-on-1 without a purpose grounded in a decision that must be made was a massive waste of time. It's not. Meeting regularly just to discuss how things are going, what team members feel like they are getting out of the job, feel out potential issues, and gather feedback can give you a chance to discover brewing issues before they become massive problems. Also, it gives people the opportunity to share their ideas and feedback in a consistent environment, and let them know you care about hearing their ideas.

     

    Let the team know your motivations.

    An employee who joined the team two years into the company's history doesn't have the same motivations as the founders. Team members who are implementing one part of a strategic vision don't necessarily see the whole picture (not because they couldn't, but probably because their jobs might not afford them all the information and time needed to consider it). One simple jewel of advice given to me by one of our senior software engineers, Joseph, was that if we shared our motivations as decision makers (e.g. "We're working on this project to generate revenue in the short term, instead of infrastructure improvements because we're trying to hit a short term revenue goal of X") it helped him get understand why he was working a project, and which aspects of a project to spend time thinking about improving. In previous eras, we had asked ourselves why employees weren't coming up with ideas that were in line with things we wanted to do. Turns out it was because we weren't explaining what we wanted to do. When we started doing so, it turns out most of our best ideas started coming from people who weren't the founders.

     

    Communicate assertively.

    A more general version of letting your motivations be known is just generally communicating assertively. When I first started managing people I was not explicit about expectations or deadlines. This was because I was scared about imposing my demands on others. Unfortunately, this leads to you being upset because things you took for granted (product questions, timelines, etc) weren't actually explicitly communicated and thus weren't followed. You can change this pattern by taking the time to communicate effectively. This is one of my favorite books on the subject of communication.

     

    Your job as a manager is to provide leverage for other team members, not do work yourself. 

    For me, there is a massive temptation to program things myself. I like programming. But once you become a manager you must resist this temptation.

    There are people whom I manage who can get programming tasks done 10x as quickly as I can. Efficient allocation of resources dictates that I should not be programming; if I can provide 10% more productivity by boosting said programmers output (say, by removing communication blocking time or better defining a spec) then I have already made back 100% of my time if I were to spend it programming myself. If I do this for everyone on the team we are all better off than had I just been programming. This is the comparative advantage that comes with specialization: management bandwidth is a product, even though it might not feel like it.

    ------

    I am clearly not a management savant. I like to think that I'm good with people, but I know I'm not amazing. I don't particularly love management, except as an instrumental tool to creating a cohesive, productive team that makes great products. Doing many of the things I've listed above, particularly remembering to do them consistently, has been difficult for me to adapt to. Often, I would forget what management tasks I was supposed to do and focus instead on something I shouldn't have been doing. In order to make sure to do things consistently, I found myself following the advice that I should create a checklist of things to do ("Is anyone blocked on anything?", "Do any meetings need to be scheduled?", etc); one for the beginning and one for the end of the day, and follow it religiously. It is still on some days a struggle.

    Writing this essay has been cathartic, because it is the truth. I owe a great debt of thanks to Chintan, who had the unpleasant job of dragging me kicking and screaming through the coals to becoming a decent team leader, which I resisted the entire way; my cofounders, who supported the plans we came up with and had faith I could figure some of these things out; and most importantly the employees who had to put up with our extremely poor management prior to many of the realizations we had as the company's leaders, pretty much all of whom forgave our faults. Without all of these people, I wouldn't have made progress becoming a better team leader. But vastly more importantly, without them I wouldn't have grown into the person I want to be.

    ]]>
    tag:areallybadidea.com,2013:Post/552934 2011-04-11T19:54:56Z 2013-10-08T17:19:46Z Epic quest to Haleakala ]]> tag:areallybadidea.com,2013:Post/552936 2011-04-06T09:16:18Z 2013-10-08T17:19:46Z Johnny Walker Challenge ]]> tag:areallybadidea.com,2013:Post/552937 2011-03-31T17:49:00Z 2013-10-08T17:19:46Z How to build a great mobile development team It doesn't take any massive insight to see that the mobile industry is heating up. Mobile gaming companies are getting acquired, mobile media sharing companies are taking down massive funding rounds. With the excitement, there has been a massive demand for talented engineers to write apps for iOS and Android, which are currently extremely under supplied in the market. Scrolling through my list of gtalk contacts, about 1/3 of them have referral links to their startups for "great mobile developers."

    Despite the difficulty hiring great mobile engineers, I feel confident saying that we have an amazing mobile team at JTV. We released our first app for iPhone exactly a year ago. Since then, our mobile apps have collectively been downloaded over 4 million times across Android and iPhone. Recently, we released Socialcam for Android and iPhone which were built on both platforms in just under 2 months from start to finish.

    How did we go from a company with no mobile experience to one with thriving mobile apps in just a year? At first, we gave a half-hearted try at recruiting mobile devs with experience. Unfortunately, we quickly learned that they were few and far between, and all working on their own projects! In the meanwhile, the mobile ecosystem was heating up and we desperately wanted to get into the space and plant a flag in mobile video. What in heaven's name were we to do?!

    We ended up taking the approach we have always taken at JTV to solve every problem: we hired or repurposed smart engineers to work on our mobile apps who didn't necessarily have a ton (read: any) experience. Our philosophy has always been to hire talented engineers with strong programming backgrounds and let them work on areas of the company they are interested in, regardless of domain experience. Subsequently, we grew our mobile teams to 2 iOS engineers, 1 Android engineer, and 1 mobile product designer. 

    Mobile development isn't rocket science. For the most part it isn't even computer science. What we discovered while building a web company is that web development isn't a dark art; talented programmers can figure it out easily. The same is true of mobile platforms. Find some smart hackers and start hacking.

    If you want to work on great mobile apps, we're hiring strong programmers at Socialcam to hack on iOS and Android (whether you have direct experience or not :D). Come be part of a small, talented team that moves extremely fast.

    ]]>
    tag:areallybadidea.com,2013:Post/552938 2011-03-21T16:00:00Z 2013-10-08T17:19:46Z What will Y Combinator look like in three years? On Hacker News today I saw a submission asking the community what Y Combinator will look like in three years. One point that was made in the comments was that there will likely be diminishing returns to founders who go through YC as there are more and more of them, as Paul Graham's time is a finite resource.

    While I think that individual attention from PG is a great, great benefit to startups, I disagree strongly that the YC model won't scale for this reason. YC has an extremely passionate community of alumni dedicated to helping one another and has already tapped some of those alumni to join YC either as a partner (Harj) or in other capacities (Alexis, Garry).

    In fact, when we were raising our first round for Justin.tv it wasn't only PG who helped us, but many of the other alumni at the time (Sam Altman, Trip Adler and others). While YC was extremely valuable and enabled us to get started, I would say that the advice of those alumni probably helped more than the advice from the YC partners around fundraising strategy, because many of them had very specifically applicable experience. Often times when it comes to operational questions from growing companies, the best advice comes from alumni who have just gone through that same problem themselves, and the number of successful alumni is growing at a rapid clip.

    At the same time, the YC brand continues to grow. I believe in the next year or two a YC company will see a $500mm - $1bn exit. In aggregate YC companies have raised over $100mm in capital (probably much more, I just haven't bothered to count). YC companies have created hundreds of jobs in the Bay Area and beyond.

    YC will be an economic force in the next decade specifically because it does scale. Whatever happens to the tech economy at large, whether bubbles burst or capital continues to flow into early stage, YC companies will continue to be founded, survive like cockroaches, become ramen profitable and grow. If the bottom falls out of internet advertising, founders will come with models built to monetize consumers and enterprise directly (as happened with YC companies in 2008). YC can't be stopped, because software and the web are becoming part of every business.

    -------

    If you thought this post was at all worthwhile, pay my ego back by following me on Twitter.

    Congrats to all who got a YC application in yesterday!

    ]]>
    tag:areallybadidea.com,2013:Post/552939 2011-03-20T02:44:55Z 2013-10-08T17:19:46Z Watching March Madness ]]> tag:areallybadidea.com,2013:Post/552940 2011-03-10T19:02:00Z 2013-10-08T17:19:46Z Airbnb, Hipmunk and Socialcam Launch SXSW Challenge: Win a Private Island Trip We're giving away a trip to a private island for SXSW! Check out this awesome infographic created by Alexis at Hipmunk for info about the contest (CORRECTION: Created by amazing designer Shaun Sanders!).

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    tag:areallybadidea.com,2013:Post/552941 2011-03-10T16:28:00Z 2013-10-08T17:19:46Z The Drive

    Once, when I was young, I told my mother that when I grew up I wanted a stable, easy 9-to-5 job. Throughout my childhood my parents were always working: showing clients property on nights, fixing up houses we owned to rent on weekends. I was tired of being dragged along to paint houses on Saturday afternoons, and I told her as much. Why couldn't she just have a normal job like I would one day, without the long hours, instability, and constant crush?

    "Oh, Justin," she said, "Life is a struggle, whether you have a normal job or not. The low points make the highs sweeter."

    Over time I've achieved enough of my goals to know that making more money, having a bigger website, or becoming more popular won't make me any happier. Yesterday, I saw an Atlantic article about the "super rich"; respondents to a survey of households with greater than $10m in assets on average said they wouldn't feel secure until they had 25% more wealth. I'm smart enough to know that succeeding more won't make substantial improvements to my day-to-day fulfillment.

    In fact, I am already very happy. I am blessed with amazing lifelong friends and two brothers I would do anything for. I get to work with extremely intelligent and motivated people and run a company founded with my best friends. I love the work I get to do with technology and I feel like I have enough money that I can do almost anything I practically want to do right now (perhaps I have limited spending ambitions, believe me, I am far from rich!). 

    Why isn't that enough? Why continue to press on hard even though I know it is vanishingly unlikely that it will improve my baseline at this point?

    In Heat, the greatest crime movie of all time, my favorite line occurs when the gang is planning their biggest heist yet. The group's leader says that they'll each have to independently agree to do it because the cops have been watching them and it is higher risk than previous jobs. He then advises Michael (played by Tom Sizemore) to be smart and walk away, as he already has a lot of money saved up. Michael replies, "For me, the action is the juice. I'm in."

    I was born to be a starter, and that's what I expect I'll do in the future, whether the past is filled with successes or failures. Startups are marathons, but sometimes they have sprints in them -- I'm not scared of sprints. I love the grind, and the rush of winning. We do work smarter, even though that is not the part of the story I told yesterday. I'll continue to give everything I can to get the room excited whether it is for a video game tournament, live reality show, or a simple mobile video sharing app.

    It might be more of a compulsion than should be glamorized.

    -----

    Thanks, Daniel, for making me write something I've been thinking about for a while.

    ]]>
    tag:areallybadidea.com,2013:Post/552908 2011-03-09T23:18:00Z 2013-10-08T17:19:45Z LAUNCH "Shipping a 1.0 product isn’t going to kill you, but it will try."

    -- Rands

     

    It's pushing 1am. I haven't been this tired in a long time, and I'm not even the one doing the hard work. Patience is wearing thin on all fronts; it's hard work to remain positive in the face of impending doom. If I have to record another 30 second test video on my iPhone again...

    I get back from a trip to New Zealand on January 11th and try to hit the ground running. The week between Christmas and New Year is officially Justin.tv holiday, and a few people took some time off before or after. So, when I return to the office, it is the first time we had the entire Socialcam team completely assembled. We want to launch in time for SXSW, exactly two months away. Surely that is enough time for our team to get out an Android app, an iPhone app and a simple website.

    Eric and Guillaume take time to design various API's the right way. Rob iterates the design, and iterates again. We build infrastructure. One month goes by. We review where we are at. I start to worry.

    One month to go. Factoring App Store approval process, even at its most lenient, we have to submit in three weeks. We also want to get a beta out to users and prove our Minimum Viable Product is actually viable. I sit down with the iPhone team, Zach and Ammon, and we have a come-to-Jesus conversation on how we can possibly get this done. The team commits to working as hard as it takes, and they do indeed. 12 hour days, six or seven days a week. Sometimes far beyond the point where it is still productive. 

    I'm not even programming; all I'm doing is trying to make sure that everyone on the team experiences no roadblocks and figure out how we can possibly move faster. It still takes time, though, and I'm spending 90% of my waking hours and 100% of my mental energy at the office. In the most cliche startup moment of all, my girlfriend leaves me the day after Valentine's Day; I guess I saw that coming for a few weeks.

    The first build we ship internally is a week late, and crashes every ten seconds. Interface elements jump around randomly, taunting us. A week and a half to go.

    Rhys (the entirety of the Android team) is ahead on implementing the design, but then we dive into video playback. Oh, the default playback mechanisms on Android won't give us the smooth experience we want. Rewrite. Despair. Wait. It works. Rhys looks like he's going to die from exhaustion.

    Things start looking good in the app the few days before we have to submit it for approval. We've sent out a beta, gotten feedback and found bugs, iterated. It's coming together; we even get through our wish list of features that we were deathly afraid we'd have to cut. It's the night before submission and we've gathered a bunch of testers who are banging away at the app. Dozens of issues get discovered and patched in real time with the team sitting in a circle; tester, developer, tester, developer.

    Our plan is to submit at 1pm on Friday. We go home around 12:30am Friday morning (or was it 1:30am?) with only six outstanding issues to go, four of them with known solutions. The next day 1:00 comes and goes, vanishing into the distant past as the number of issues balloons to fill all available space. 2, 3, 4, 5, and it is finally 6 o'clock and we are ready to submit a build.

    We submit the binary and email out to our expanded beta list. 30 minutes and half a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue later we check our emails and realize that we broke signing up for new users in the latest build. Fixed, resubmitted, emailed all beta users, back to drinking. 15 hours later we realized that we broke discarding videos. Fixed, resubmitted, emailed all beta users, back to drinking.

    Android still has a week to go -- no approval process on the Android Marketplace. This week we cut our list down of what we want to accomplish to almost entirely core video improvements. We blow through them.

    Socialcam launched Monday. It's been almost four years since we did a 1.0 product sprint, and it relieves me to realize I still have the drive to do it. We burned the candle at both ends for two months to get you the app; it was constructed by a team that is passionate about unlocking your videos from your phone. I hope you all like it.

    ]]>
    tag:areallybadidea.com,2013:Post/552910 2011-03-01T17:30:00Z 2013-10-08T17:19:45Z Inside the Y Combinator office Paul showed us the YC office where interviews are conducted. He even gave us a mock interview. We took Socialcam video of it. Luckily, they decided to fund us! The application deadline for the next cycle of YC is March 20; you should apply here.

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    tag:areallybadidea.com,2013:Post/552912 2011-02-28T01:13:00Z 2013-10-08T17:19:45Z Drop out. Or don't. I'm conflicted on the debate on whether or not young Americans should go to college. Recently it seems a lot of people have come out to claim that many college-age Americans would be better off just not going (Peter Thiel, Seth Prebasch). Others claim that we're in an education bubble or provide alternative suggestions for what you might do if you forgo a college education.

    My college story. In high school I worked hard to build up a perfect college resume. I got good grades, did lots of activities, and I even sent an experiment into space! When I applied to college, I applied only to the top ten and fortunately, after a few scares, I got into Yale at the last possible moment (off the wait list in July!).

    As many alumni often say, getting in is the hardest part about attending an Ivy League school. I'm not saying I didn't work hard, but I definitely worked less and less each subsequent year. In my final year I was taking classes two days a week for only two hours a day (most of them intros, perversely). Keep in mind that I was a full time student without a job at one of the best universities in the country. Instead of studying, I spent my time:

    • Drinking and socializing
    • Playing video games
    • Working on a calendar website

    Today, I am a technology entrepreneur running a middle stage startup. It is pretty debatable whether that constitutes success, but I'm proud of my accomplishments and feel like I'm leading a productive life, so that's probably what counts in the end. When thinking about the great college debate, I'm often inclined to think about how college affected this outcome:

    What it didn't do:

    • It didn't teach me any skills relevant to anything I'm doing now. I learned nothing about programming, web development, design, product management, project management, general management, basic accounting, corporate strategy, business communication, or really anything useful. I was a Physics and Philosophy major, but from conversations with other friends (science majors who went on to med school, or econ majors who went to hedge funds, etc) no one seemed to learn anything useful to their later careers. Most of the foundation in communication, writing, and quantitative reasoning I developed in middle school and high school, and not in college.
    • It didn't prepare me mentally for startups. College was really an exercise in credentialing within a rigidly defined system, and didn't prepare me to think outside-the-box, live the consequences of my own actions, or really exist on my own in the real world at all.
    • It didn't improve my work ethic. While I am a hard worker, college definitely did nothing to improve my work ethic as I found I could get by on relatively little work.

    What it kind of did:

    • College kind of exposed me to entrepreneurship. We had some business plan competitions, but Yale didn't really have the technology entrepreneurship culture of MIT or Stanford. Later on after graduation I connected with other Yalies who were working on startups, but at the time examples were few and far between.

    What it did do:

    • Act as a pretty decent club for me to hang out while I waited until I was ready to be an adult. Unlike today's crop of eighteen year old entrepreneur wunderkin, I was in no way mature enough to operate a real business until I was of a post-college age. In the meantime, it was nice to have a comfortable place with food and smart people to hang out at.
    • Cause me to build relationships with people who would enable me to start my company. Two of my three cofounders were friends from college, and we definitely couldn't have gotten where we are without each other. I love you guys.

    So, all things said, I value my college experience greatly but can see massive inefficiencies in the current system. Currently American higher education is like a massive prisoner's dilemma backed up by societal expectations and cheap loans: if you don't go, you feel like you won't be able to get a job. On top of that, college is an amazing experience: who doesn't want to live around a ton of friends and hang out all day? But are we better off as a society forcing everyone to play this game? I doubt it.

    Opponents of the "you should drop out of college" advice generally argue that college opens doors and teach you about a broad range of things which make your life more fulfilling later. A surprising amount of vitriol has come out against specifically encouraging kids to drop out and start a startup, claiming that this will diminish a love of learning and erode middle class values.

    Here is a random collection of my thoughts, which probably should not be used to guide your own life choices if you know what is good for you:

    • College education is an oversubscribed resource. In general you should not invest in things that everyone else wants and are propped up by government subsidies.
    • For people for whom college genuinely does open doors (first generation college grads, lower income students), you should go. However, for a large majority of middle class plus kids, my observation is that it a college degree doesn't really open many doors that a few years in industry don't. This really applies to tech, where honestly people don't really give two shits about your degree if you are a good programmer or have experience on hot projects. 
    • For a lot of students, college is a vacation, and it is a bunch of bullshit if we pretend otherwise. If we want to have a subsidized four year holiday in the prime of our lives, then I'm seriously all for it, but let's call it what it is. 
    • If you expect to learn skills that will train you for a job, prepare to be disappointed going to a four year college. You aren't going to learn anything that is directly applicable to any job. 
    • You can meet a lot of interesting and useful people in college. Unfortunately, going straight to the working world might not lend itself to those opportunities as easily, at least, not with entirely people at the same life stage as you are, ready to make friends and learn new things. 
    • All of the above is highly dependent on where you go. Kyle, who I think by general consensus is the smartest cofounder of Justin.tv, dropped out MIT to found the company with us. Dropping out of MIT is like graduating from Yale.

    Reading over the above I realize this is a pretty rambling and useless piece of writing. You should probably go to someone else for advice. TLDR: College doesn't do anything to prepare you for entrepreneurship but is a great place to hang out and meet people.

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    tag:areallybadidea.com,2013:Post/552914 2011-02-21T18:00:00Z 2013-10-08T17:19:45Z Selling Kiko

    I told this story to some new people the other night, and in its retelling I realized that it might be more interesting than I thought. I've already chronicled getting funding for Kiko, the first ever AJAX web calendar, from Y Combinator, as well as how we ended up starting Justin.tv. What was left out was how transitioned out of the business. 

    When Emmett and I were winding down Kiko we thought a lot about what we could do with it. Eventually, we decided we would start a new company, but had to close Kiko, which had several angel investors including YC. We had a bit of cash left in the bank, but felt a great deal of responsibility to return as much money to the investors as possible.

    While brainstorming how to do this, I had the idea that we could cleanly liquidate our assets by selling everything on eBay. I wish that I could say the idea was original, but the previous year a site called Jux2 (which showed search results from both Microsoft and Yahoo) sold itself for $105,000. We figured if we could recover even $50,000 we'd be able to give the money back to the investors and walk away with a clean conscience.

    We set up a 10-day auction. In the description we included what you were getting (the domain name, source code, and user base -- which had around 70,000 signups but almost no actives), and what you weren't (Emmett and I as employees). We also offered to do a week of integration consulting for $3000 of travel expenses, at the buyer's option. We listed the whole thing for $49,999.99.

    We posted the auction on Reddit and, with the help of a few friends, got to the front page. Back then Reddit was much more like Hacker News in its focus on technology and startup related news. Pretty quickly the story was picked up by Techcrunch, John Batelle's blog, and some other tech related sites.

    The auction turned out to be a much bigger story than we'd expected. Apparently no one remembered Jux2's sale and we were credited with coming up with the idea -- something I'd taken pains to correct whenever anyone cared to ask. Pretty soon lots of people were writing to us to ask about the auction, more details about the technology behind Kiko, and other random questions. One person wrote us imploring us to open source the code instead of trying to make a few bucks off of it. To be honest, it's probably good for the OSS community that our unintelligible spaghetti code wasn't released into the wild. God forbid someone actually try to use it...

    After a few days of fielding questions we were wondering if we'd get a bid, but there wasn't much else we could think to do. But then we did! Our minimum, 50k! Emmett and I were excited and somewhat incredulous -- we had only half expected this to work and were doing it as a last ditch liquidation effort.

    Then, in what was probably the biggest web failure I've ever personally experienced, eBay cancelled our auction. I was notified by this fact when Jessica Livingston at YC emailed me asking if we had already sold it because the auction page was down. Digging into what had happened revealed that eBay's terms of service only allows for a single link to be included in the description, and we had included two: one to the domain proper and one to the API.

    This was unbelievable to me. First of all: multiple links, why is that so bad? Second: why wouldn't they just contact us and ask us to change it instead of wordlessly canceling the auction? Third: why wouldn't they just not allow you to create an auction with more than one link in the first place? You can do that in a single line of code! Having a $50,000 item cancelled was the worst possible thing eBay could possibly have done to us; we were convinced that we wouldn't be able to get our bidder back. 

    In the end reaching out to eBay through official and back channels did nothing. I ended up creating a new auction with a shorter length to attempt to mirror the original end date, then I contacted all the people who had been asking questions and blogs who had written about us and gave them the new link. We prayed for the best and decided to take a vacation to NYC that weekend to visit friends. The auction was set to end Saturday.

    We got the minimum bid back and breathed a sigh of relief. A couple days later it was the morning of the last day of the auction, and we were still at the same bid. The number of technical calls I'd been fielding had been heating up to several a day, and I still had some that morning, so I was up early watching the auction. Around 8 or 9 it jumped -- we were at 80!

    Exciting times. I think it was 90 degrees in New York that day. I was sitting in my underwear in some of my college friends' shitty East Village apartment, where four of them lived and three of us were crashing. Every few minutes I would click refresh on the eBay page hoping for a miracle while everybody else watched on amused. Emmett was at another friend's place in Brooklyn, so we weren't even watching the auction together.

    An hour left to go. It jumped to 100k. I ran out and yelled something unintelligible to my friends. A few minutes later it was 113. I was a genius. 150 with 15 minutes to go. I had just invented a new business model for web startups across the globe. 

    In the last 10 minutes it jumped over 100k to 258. I was on the phone with Emmett literally screaming. My friends were cheering. I felt like I'd won the Superbowl. I was a rock god.

    Final price: $258,100. Buyer: powerjoe1998, who turned out to be Elliot Noss, CEO of Tucows, with whom I'd had a few conversations. He called a few minutes later to congratulate us. That night I partied like it was my last night left to live.

    The Aftermath

    There were a few practical consequences to selling on eBay:

    • We should have had an actual contract attached to the auction. Tucows wanted a ton of warrants that we didn't want to provide, and the deal almost fell through after the fact because of it (and took a lot of lawyer-hours to negotiate). It also consumed a lot of my time.
    • Tucows bought Kiko to resell to ISPs (whom they already provided white label webmail services to). We went to Toronto to do the integration week with them. Toronto is a beautiful city.
    • If we'd wanted one, this would have been the best way to get a job ever. About 20 different people and companies reached out to us because they had heard about the auction. This included really big successful ones as well as many small startups.
    • We got to be in a bunch of press, which was probably the first time we got significant coverage for one of our projects. Lots of people wanted to write about the auction, including the Financial Times. I recall that I was obsessed with telling reporters that our next project would "change the way people think about the Internet" and trying to get that specific line in print (I was secretly referring to Justin.tv). Eventually I managed to.
    ]]>
    tag:areallybadidea.com,2013:Post/552915 2011-02-14T18:00:00Z 2013-10-08T17:19:45Z Karma

    When you help others, they often help you. Success in any field, especially in business, is about working with people.

    -- Keith Ferrazi, fellow Yalie and accomplished business book author

    Being in the startup community has a lot of positives: you get to work on exciting projects, reach massive scale rapidly, and collaborate with brilliant innovators. But my favorite part is Silicon Valley's "pay it forward" mentality. In tech startups, and especially among Y Combinator alumni, there is a culture of helping others. Founders often get asked for advice on fundraising, technology or strategy, and universally I have seen a culture of founders taking time out of their often busy schedules to help others with their businesses.

    I recently asked a friend of mine and fellow YC alum for help on some tactical questions that he had explicit in-depth experience in. He got back to us and made himself available immediately, and was extremely helpful over the next several months. At one meeting, he remembered and mentioned that in fact when he was applying to YC, he had contacted me out of the blue and asked for application advice (I told him to make a demo, etc), and that it seemed now he was in a position to help me in return.

    Almost every day the YC alums list gets an email asking for an introduction, a technology recommendation, or a place to work out of for a meeting. Every one of those emails gets an answer by someone, and that inspires me very much. I hope one day to have helped many more people than have helped me.

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    tag:areallybadidea.com,2013:Post/552917 2011-02-13T18:55:00Z 2013-10-08T17:19:45Z Why entrepreneurs should love rap music

    I love pop music. Most of all, I love rap music. And I'm not talking about backpack rappers like Common or Kanye West; I'm talking about rappers who rap about flagrantly commercializing their music, doing whatever it takes to make it (even if that includes robbing or selling drugs), and are disrespectful to just about everyone. Among my circle of over-educated, yuppie friends, this is viewed with something between a mild embarrassment and a strong distaste. But I'm tired of hearing about Ben Folds, Vampire Weekend or whatever hipster band you happen to be listening to right now. I'm a fan of 50 Cent and Rick Ross and I'm just going to come out and say it (and not just at parties or because it happens to be on the radio).

    Rap music is music for entrepreneurs. Other genres write about love (rock, r&b), unattainable love (indie), nothing at all (electronic / dance), or redneck issues (country). But only rap music is almost maniacal in its focus on success, the acquisition of money and subsequent dispensation of it. Like startups, rap might be one of America's last great meritocracies. In the rap world, like the startup world, rappers are rewarded based on a combination of hard work, skill, marketing, and timing. Almost all famous rappers came up from humble backgrounds (Notorious B.I.G, Tupac, Jay-Z, Eminem) but through the aforementioned achieved amazing commercial success.

    Here are three reasons I love rap music as an entrepreneur:

    • It's all about hard work. In songs like Girl (Paul Wall) or Light Up (Drake), rappers espouse "staying 25/8 on your grind" (it's better than 24/7!) and grinding for days on end. While this might not be sustainable or healthy, it's definitely motivational!
    • Rappers understand marketing. In Moment of Clarity, Jay-Z blatantly states he dumbed down his music to appeal to a broader audience. No artistic pretentions here, just iteration of a product to appeal to a mass market!
    • The rap game is all about timing and a little luck. Just like innovations in tech, rappers ride on big waves, generally around certain geographical areas or musical trends becoming popular. Being in the right place at the right time is important!

    Do you love rap as much as I do? If you work at a startup and love rap music for its hustle, give me some love.

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    tag:areallybadidea.com,2013:Post/552920 2011-02-13T02:25:00Z 2013-10-08T17:19:45Z Why starting Justin.tv was a really bad idea but I'm glad we did it anyway This post appeared on Techcrunch as a guest post earlier today. It might be the greatest day for my writing career yet!


    Right now I'm neck deep in product launch mode, putting the finishing touches on our new mobile video application - Socialcam. Of course, I’ve been here before...

    Years ago when we launched the Justin.tv show we had no idea what we were doing. This much was obvious to anyone who watched. Outsiders attribute far more strategic thought to us than we deserve: that we planned all along to start a live platform, and that the Justin.tv show itself was a way of promoting that platform. While this ended up happening, none of it had crossed our minds at the time.  

    Emmett Shear and I had been working on Kiko, the first Javascript web calendaring application in the Microsoft Outlook style. We prototyped the application in our final year at Yale, went on to raise money from Y Combinator, then continued working on it for over a year. 

    Boom. Google Calendar was released, absorbing most of our nascent user base and capturing most of the early adopter mindshare. But to be perfectly honest, Kiko would have failed regardless. We were too easily distracted and hadn't really thought through the strategic implications of owning a standalone calendaring property (hint: no one wants a calendar without email). A short time later we were burned out and spending most of our time playing Xbox with the Reddit guys in Davis Square - hardly a startup success story.

    Emmett and I started thinking about possible ways to get out of the calendar business. At the same time, I was startup fatigued. We had spent over a year paying ourselves nothing. Seed and angel investment market conditions were the polar opposite of what they are today, it had been a struggle to even raise a paltry $70k, and we had failed to build a product with real traction. I was starting to think about moving back to Seattle to try something new, maybe in a different industry.

    Still, we learned a ton and it was fun to be part of the early Y Combinator startup community (then largely in Boston). We became friends with Matt Brezina and Adam Smith (of Xobni), Trip Adler, Tikhon Bernstam and Jared Friedman (of Scribd), and many others. It’s amazing to see how many of those friendships persist today, and even more amazing how well many of those companies are doing. 

    Coming back from one particular YC dinner, Emmett and I were discussing strategic ideas for Kiko, and I remember telling Emmett an idea that popped into my head: what if you could hear an audio feed on the web of our discussion? Wouldn't that be interesting to other like-minded entrepreneurial types? We kept going, and eventually the idea morphed into a video feed. Then it became a live video feed. Then it became a continuous live video feed that followed someone around 24/7. Then it had chat, and a community built around watching this live show, which was now a new form of entertainment. I was hooked.

    I couldn't stop talking about the idea. I mentioned it at YC dinners and to other friends. I even came up with a perfect name for it: Justin.tv. On one trip to DC, I told my Dad and my college friend Michael Seibel what I was thinking. Eventually, in-between drinking sessions, we thought of a brilliant idea for divesting ourselves of Kiko, which is a story for another day. After that, Emmett and I were coming up with other startup ideas (I guess we got excited about staying in the industry after all). One particular favorite was the idea of a web app that would ingest your blog's RSS feed and then allow you to layout and print physical magazines from it. Excitedly, we drove one afternoon to Paul Graham's house to pitch it.

    We explained the idea to Paul and Robert Morris, who just happened to be at the house visiting. I vaguely recall there also being a "this will kill academic publishing" angle, although I can't figure out how that sensibly fits in now. Paul didn't particularly like the idea: he didn't think people would use it. "Well," he said, "what else do you have?"

    I said the only thing I could think of: "Justin.tv."

    Because it was something I was clearly passionate about, and because creating a new form of entertainment was clearly a big market (if you could invent one!), Paul was actually into it. Robert's addition to the conversation was "I'll fund that just to see you make a fool of yourself." Emmett and I walked out of there with a check for $50,000.

    Six months later, we'd recruited two other cofounders (Kyle Vogt, our hardware hacker, who we convinced to drop out of MIT on a temporary leave of absence, and Michael Seibel, my college friend from DC, who became our "producer"). We built a site with a video player and chat and two prototype cameras that captured, encoded and streamed live video over cell data networks, negotiated with a CDN to carry our live video traffic, and raised an additional couple hundred thousand dollars. Our plan? Launch the show and see what happens. 

    Now, for the sake of properly delivering my intended message, I will break out of narrative and just tell you why this was a bad idea:

    • We didn't have a plan. We loosely figured if the show became popular we could sell sponsorships or advertising, but we didn't have a plan to scale the number of shows, nor did we understand what our marginal costs on streaming, customer acquisition, or actually selling ads were.
    • We didn't understand the industry. We didn't know what kinds of content advertisers would pay for. We didn't have good insight into what kind of content people wanted to watch, either.
    • We relied on proprietary hardware that we were going to mass-produce ourselves. Smart angels told us to drop the hardware and figure out how to do it with commodity, but we wouldn't listen because we thought hardware would be easy (or at least, doable). Ironically, months after we were told this we switched to using a laptop.
    • We were trying to build a “hits” based business without any experience making hits. We knew a lot about websites, but little about content creation. Smart VCs (who took our calls because Paul referred us) told us as much: nobody really likes investing in hits based businesses, because it requires the continual generation of new hits to be successful (instead of, say, building a platform like Ebay or Google whose success is built on masses of regular users). 

    How did we get as far as we did?

    • We were passionate. We honestly believed we could create a new form of reality entertainment. Put to the side that we had no experience with creating video (or any kind of content), by God, we were going to make this work.
    • Early stage investing is often about the people, not the idea. Paul has said as much about what he looks for. As two-time YC founders he knew that we worked well together and even if we were working on something totally inane we were going to stick it out with the company and iterate until we found a business model. 
    • We sold the shit out of it. Everyone we knew was excited for Justin.tv. Why? Because our excitement was infectious. That's how we got Kyle to drop out of school. That's how we got Michael to quit his job and move across the country.

    Ultimately, the show failed. But all told, I'm thankful every day that things went the way they did. Why?

    We built a strong team. The four of us started, and the four of us all still have leadership roles in the company. Along the way we recruited the smartest engineers and best product designers we could find.

    We were willing to learn, and to pivot. After quickly realizing the initial show wasn't a sustainable model, we decided to go the platform route, and built the world's largest live video platform (both on the web and in our mobile apps, which have millions of downloads).

    It got us started. Some people wait until the stars are aligned before they jump in. Maybe that's the right move, but plenty of businesses get started with something that seems implausible, stupid, or not-a-real-business but pivot into something of value (think Groupon). If we hadn't started then, would we have later?

    Today, I'm more excited about Justin.tv than I've been at any time since we launched the initial platform. Why? We're taking everything we've gathered and learned over the past four and half years building the largest live video platform on the Web (17 million monthly unique visitors in Dec according to comScore’s MediaMetrix), and applying it to tackle a new generation of problems in mobile video. Our world class web and mobile engineering team, all of our product development knowledge, our substantial, scaled video infrastructure, and everything we've learned about building engineering teams has all been put to work on a new app that we think is going to change everything. 

    Our new app is called Socialcam. Check out the site for updates on our imminent launch.

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    tag:areallybadidea.com,2013:Post/552922 2011-02-02T23:44:00Z 2013-10-08T17:19:46Z What I learned from watching six hours of Starcraft This weekend I spent over six hours watching commentated Starcraft 2 replays while lying in bed. Luckily, since we do a lot in the gaming space at Justin.tv, all my time spent gets to count as "market research." As I approached my fifth hour, I realized a few things about the dynamics of the nascent esports industry:

    1. Money accrues to the distributors. Recently there was a debate on Team Liquid (the largest Starcraft community) about whether it was fair that casters (commentators who commentate and post replays to their Youtube or Blip channels) make much more than players. Casters generally make money through advertising, while players make money from winning tournament prize pools. Ethical dilemmas of fairness aside (considering that the players are creating the content), the reality is that casters are the in the distribution position with millions of subscribers on Youtube and control the audience (and therefore control which players get exposure).
    2. The real winners are the platforms (Youtube, Blip) to which the distributors are beholden for advertising dollars (which they take a hefty percentage of). Building a community for which you control all the distribution for creates a massive amount of lock in.

    This pattern is mirrored in many other industries, such as the music industry, where record labels control radio / media distribution and are much more powerful than the actual artists, or the clothing industry, where small designers are beholden to retail outlets and have to take terrible terms to get distribution. The takeaway? Being the distribution platform is a lot better than being a producer.

    Lastly, for Starcraft lovers in the Bay Area, get excited: we're doing Startupcraft 2 very soon. Details will be announced shortly.

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    tag:areallybadidea.com,2013:Post/552924 2011-01-31T06:36:00Z 2013-10-08T17:19:46Z Startup Advice Paradox Just read this post on Should you really be a startup entrepreneur? by Mark Suster on Techcrunch. The ironic thing about "Should I do a startup" advice is this: if it's a blog post that convinces you to not start a startup then you really shouldn't do it. If it's a blog post that convinces you that you should start a startup, then you also probably shouldn't do it. You should start your tech startup, lifestyle business, bar and grill, or whatever it is when you know it is the thing that you truly want to do, and nothing that anyone else says is going to make that otherwise. 

    Whenever I get asked for life direction advice, my advice is always the same: Do what you want to do. If you want to start a startup, then cool, dive in and godspeed. If you want a stable job and a calm, peaceful life, well that's got a lot of advantages too. Ultimately, you should look deep inside to figure out what drives you and makes you happiest, and pursue it relentlessly. Good luck.

    ------

    Check out our new project, Socialcam. In just one month we're going to revolutionize how you use video.

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    tag:areallybadidea.com,2013:Post/552926 2010-11-26T22:25:00Z 2013-10-08T17:19:46Z A really bad idea: recreating Fruit Ninja in real life If you love iPhone games you've probably experienced Fruit Ninja. It is a pretty simple game: slice fruit, avoid bombs. My brothers and I just tried recreating Fruit Ninja in real life by whipping out an old Samurai sword and going to town on some oranges. Watch what happens here:

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