Well, my search for a cofounder wasn’t going very well, so I decided to join the TechStars NYC class as a HackStar.
What does this mean?
HackStars are a group of a few people that help out the main companies with work throughout the program. Every week or so you choose to work with a different company and see if you can help them somehow.
Why am I doing this?
I think it’s an amazing opportunity to work with a lot of really smart and diverse people, to learn a whole lot about how the sausage is made and build long lasting relationships within the TechStars community.
That’s what I thought when I joined the program and now that I’m a few days in it, my expectations are blown away, it’s even cooler than I thought it would be and I think I can learn something from each and every one of the companies in this class. I’ve already been blown away by the internals of it all, the people that I will be working with, the other HackStars.
The cherry on top
And to top it all, the energy is simply amazing, it’s incredible to work next to so many talented and enthusiastic people, I find it incredibly contagious and it really energizes me.
It’s going to be a fun three months!
Due to popular requests, here’s the story of my past 8 months.
I left Google in July, to work with Radu on a yet-undetermined idea. I wasn’t very sure what I wanted to build at the time so the ideas behind the lean startup that my co-founder loved seemed good as a starting point.
The first idea
We first tried to solve dating. I don’t even remember if we had a name for this product.
We thought it would be cool if you could meet likeminded people around you. What if you felt like seeing a movie that all of your friends already saw? Going to see it with somebody that shares some of your interests sounds like a good idea.
After two months we realized that people don’t really do that and it’s not a real problem, so we dropped it.
The second idea
Back to the drawing board.
We realized from building the previous idea that it would be interesting if we’d have better mobile analytics.
It would be so cool for mobile app developers to learn how their app performs in different contexts, depending on what their users do and where they are. We looked at the competition. Flurry sucked and we didn’t like other analytics services either.
We talked with a few people, they said that Flurry was good enough for them. We ended up building an SDK to see if some advanced context information on your phone would be useful to apps.
Nobody cared, we moved on.
The third idea
We looked at local search, something I really cared about since I worked on Google Maps.
I was looking for a bar one night and I realized that photos from the place would have been much better than ratings and reviews in that case.
We’ve built in two months an app that was like Foodspotting, but for bars and coffee shops, with photos of how the places looked like.
We applied with it to YCombinator but got rejected, I suspect largely because they didn’t like our idea and ten minutes is a very short time to evaluate a team.
After talking with a few more people we realized we were missing what Foodspotting had: a passionate community of people that produce all this content.
The fourth and current idea
After six months and three failed ideas I realized that the lean startup methodology is not for me. I understand it rationally but it doesn’t match my personality.
I need to work on visions that I strongly believe in and I am passionate about, even if it’s a riskier way. And because Radu didn’t like this approach or the idea I wanted to work on, we parted ways.
I started working on PicSpree by myself. (if you install the app, don’t forget to rate it 5 stars. thanks!)
I care deeply about social and I am frustrated that even though my friends put a lot of data in my social network, I don’t have good tools to take advantage of that.
I want to build those tools, and I started with a better Facebook Photos app that will have added layers of meaning built on top of the large pile of photos that your friends uploaded.
A friend helped me for a while, but he realized that he wasn’t ready to do this. So now I’m back at square one, with a vision and a product I’ve built mostly myself, looking for a partner to join me in this vision and trying to get into TechStars to accelerate my company.
What’s the take away so far?
Startups are hard. Life kicks you when you’re down, sometimes repeatedly. You fail, you get up, try again, until you feel like you can’t do it anymore.
I made mistakes, for sure. I’m still learning. I still feel like I’m making progress and that I’m a better person every day. As long as I feel like that, I’ll keep doing this.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what the lean startup means and how does it relate to having a vision you believe in. I think I finally came up with an analogy that makes sense to me.
Building a company is like exploring a mayan jungle looking for the great treasure.
Climbing where the road takes you
The lean startup methodology says you should keep climbing the hills around you. You’re on a road to find something, anything.
You pivot around, change direction to where the wind takes you and you see promising trails. Ask enough users and they will eventually tell you what problems they have. Try something out and you’ll eventually learn more. Never go down a path until you’ve first sent some scouts, probed some theories, tested stuff.
You don’t understand your surroundings yet, but there are unsolved problems everywhere if you know how to look for them.
If you keep climbing hills you will eventually find something or eventually understand them well enough to make more decisions about where to go next.
Sometimes you get to success. Sometimes you don’t. Crossing the death valley is out of the question, can’t you see how many are dead there?
Believing you figured out the treasure map
For you, the world simply make sense. You feel you understand it well and because of that you know exactly where you want to go.
You are in fact so convinced that you can’t stop thinking and obsessing about it. You haven’t figured it all out and you don’t know exactly how you’ll get there, but you know where your true north is.
It might be obvious for you, but not so for anybody else.
You’re crazy, most people say. It’s too risky, you have no idea that it will even work, that’s just insane and risky. You don’t care, you know you can do it (and you also know you might be wrong).
We all explore differently
I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way. We all have our thoughts on how to do it and god knows there’s no shortage of advice.
Some like to pace their efforts and take it step by step, some just go all in and risk it on a crazy vision. You’re proven wrong, you fail, there are casualties, but all in all it’s fun to think about it this way.
And after all, whether you find your answer or not, nobody will take away from you the stories you have, the friendships, the dramas and the near-death experiences you’ve gone through!
I was talking to a friend recently about startups and about “working on things that matter”. I was trying to pitch him the idea of changing the world and how much I love doing what I am doing now.
Obviously not convinced, my friend asked me “have you considered doing this as part of a small already successful company”? They already have figured out the thing that matters and since they have traction you can make real impact. Why go through the motions of trying to figure it out by yourself, when you’re clearly not making an impact yet?
The question preoccupied me for a few days, until I found what I think is a good analogy.
Being the founder of a startup
Is like being a boxer fighting in the shittiest league. You fight it all yourself, you get punched in the face a lot, you lose a lot but you keep struggling. You have no money, no team, the competition is fierce and what most people tell you is that you’re not doing it right.
You maybe have a few friends that root for you, and a few others who’s car you borrow to go to the hospital when you break your jaw.
Joining a small startup that already has it figured out
Is like joining the team of a fighter in a professional league as the guy with the water bucket. You’re close to the action. You get in the ring in between rounds and you make a difference. You touch the fighter, you’re friends with him, you’re close to the spot light.
The crowd is cheering and you feel like you’re part of something important. When you win a fight you all drink together and it all feels fantastic.
But you’re not taking punches, and when the boxer is going to the hospital to get his eyebrow stitched, you go home to a warm bed. You’re safe. You’re close enough to know how it all works, but you tell yourself that only the naive few would try to do it themselves.
Joining a large company changing the world
Is like being a fan of a SuperBowl team.
You support them with all your heart. You laugh when they win and you cry when they lose. You’re clearly their number one fan and they would be nothing without you, or at least that’s what they say. You’re part of the team, you follow them around, you’re there for them, when they need you.
But most of the time you’re not even close to being on the field. You don’t know how the sausage is made, but they make it look pretty easy. You follow them closely enough that you bitch with your fan friends about what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong. You can’t change anything though, you’re still one of the fans.
At the end of the day…
I know the analogy is not perfect and there are exceptions, but you get the point. I don’t think there is a right answer. We all chose our path the way we see fit.
Some like to take punches, some like to be there to help and some just love to cheer.
So why do I chose to be that guy in the Nth league that just keeps getting punched in the face? It sounds stupid, but I think that if you don’t know already you probably wouldn’t understand.
It’s not glorious, it’s just hard. It’s painful, it’s probably a road to failure. But it’s a failure from which you learn so much, you grow so much, and you live so much, that I am not going to give up until I absolutely have to.
The way people go about building a company is very similar to how people go about finding love, or a date. Both in love and in startups there seem to be two categories of people (and all the grays in between).
At one extreme there are the iterators. They are people that learn the right pick up lines, the right jokes, the right things to wear and to say so that they get the person they are attracted to. They don’t mind not being themselves, the goal is clear and steps are made to reach that goal.
They iterate, learn and see what works. They fake it until they make it.
And then there are the believers. People who don’t mind being alone for a while and care most about finding whom they really are, what they really believe in and what they are really passionate about.
They keep working on finding their true passion, their own way, even though most people find them awkward dreamers.
Both are successful in their own ways. The iterators are the hustlers that will do anything to get where they want to go, and that makes them happy. The believers are the weirdos working on stuff that everybody else thinks is stupid, but they are happy because they are working on things that they truly care about.
And even if you are an iterator or a believer the real test comes when you have to deal with the realities of every day long relationships between you and your love, or between you and your company.
Compromises, trying to get better at things, learning, making efforts to keep everything together, going through happiness and disaster and emerging stronger, and most of all knowing that you’re doing the right thing.
For the past two weeks I’ve been working on my dev machine to set up a Rails frontend, with some background processing jobs, on top of a Mongo database. The frontend needs to accept and store uploaded files.
I am blown away by how easy it was to move this from my dev machine to production.
With Heroku for the Rails hosting and the background jobs, MongoHQ for the Mongo database and Amazon S3 for storing files, it took me exactly one day to get from having zero experience with setting this stuff up to having a working system.
I’m sure there are still things that I might not be doing right, but the point is that it took me a day to get from my development machine to a production quality environment that will probably easily scale if needed.
Exciting times to prototype ideas and put them up!
The YC team did not believe in our idea, and we failed to convince them that we were good enough to go through with it in the face of harsh competition.
I guess that’s that, we’re moving on.
Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, the key is to keep going.
Lawn table: $27.
Ikea nightstand: $15.
Having a standup desk: priceless.
Our application to YC was selected for the interviews! Woot!
We’re a strong team with a good idea and lots of determination. I just hope 10 minutes will be enough time for the YC partners to realize this too.
Yesterday I attended Startup School with an amazing speaker lineup. It’s not every day that you get to hear speak Mark Zuckerberg, Marc Anderssen, Matt Mullenweg or Max Levchin in the same day, only to name a few of the amazing speakers.
The speakers had some really memorable sound bytes
- “If I were starting now, I would have stayed in Boston. Valley is a little short-term focused.” – Mark Zuckerberg
- “The biggest risk is not taking any risk. The only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.” – Mark Zuckerberg
- “If you’re doing it right, you should be making errors equally on both sides of moving too slow and moving too fast.” – Mark Zuckerberg.
- “The best ideas come from people solving problems, not people trying to build startup ideas.” – Paul Graham
- “Design and user experience are the new intellectual property.” – Ron Conway
- “You need to be, or be sleeping with, someone who uses your software every day.” – Matt Mullenweg
- “I don’t mind being on the Titanic, but I want to be the one steering it.” – Matt Mullenweg
- “A classic engineering mistake and one I’ve made is confusing what is hard and what is valuable.” – Max Levchin
- “If you want to be Zuckerberg, the best you are ever going to do is 2nd place…nobody can be a better Mark Zuckerberg than Mark Zuckerberg.” – Ashton Kutcher
If you have some memorable quotes I missed, let me know.
Everybody has advice, and they mostly advice you to ignore it
Almost every speaker outlined how much each of the super successful entrepreneurs had no clue what they were doing. They just cared a lot about what they were doing, and they cared so much that they just pushed through everything until they made it happen.
That seems to somewhat contrast to today’s startup culture where founders seems to be feverishly learning how to do startups, advice and good practices seem to be all around us. We’re so flooded with stories from all sides that a lot of people forget the real goal.
Like happiness, startups are something that happens while you have other goals
If you focus on being happy as a goal in itself, you never will be.
Same thing seems to apply to startups too, if you want to build a startup for the sake of building a startup it seems like more often than not you’ll fail.
Most success stories are a result of pursuing a different goal – trying to solve a real problem of the founders, trying to change the world, passion for a particular thing that should exist.
The successful company comes only a side effect, a result, a means to an end where the end goal is the problem being solved.
You can watch the talks too
The recorded talks seem to be online here. At the very least you should watch Max Levchin’s talk if you don’t have time for any other.