Week 7 & 8: Reflections

All great things come to an end, and so has my crazy summer with MiCo and Duke SIP.

MiCo has been a brilliant experience and has taught me some of the fundamental mechanisms of a successful start-up. The company has been a pioneer in the data capture process and has lived through a series of battles with competition since its inception in 1999. There are some crucial takeaways from the way this company has been able to hold its position midst thick competition and the technological washouts.

1. Keep innovating, but don’t innovate for innovation’s sake. Try to create value for your customer.

2. Your customer doesn’t know much. Do not try to push out things just because they are anticipated, the consumer population is almost always fickle minded and can easily jump from one solution to another.

3. Product value comes first, revenue follows. Do not let revenue be the starting point for all your goals, this hits hard on the mentality of your employees and also your creative value.

4. If you cannot market it enough, don’t stop, find people who can do it for you. Be sure that your product marketing components trigger the right thoughts in your customers’ heads.

5. Your start-up team is your family. These are the guys who thought exactly the same way you did, wanted to do the exact stuff you did and came with you believing in the same idea as you. They will be the best judge for your ideas, try to keep them with you for as long as you can.

And finally, for new ideas and ways to grow your business, do not run in search of out-of-the-box ideas, but try to find solutions to problems around you. Role-play your customer everyday.

Here are some pics from the fun send-off party my office staff gave me! 🙂IMG_0225[1] IMG_0224[1] IMG_0223[1]

 

 

 

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Facebook costs $300/month

On Wednesday, July 10th, I put in a request to Facebook to delete my account. I had thought about doing this for a few months but inertia and my dependence on a few paid apps registered with my Facebook account kept me from doing it. This Svbtle blog post by Owen Williams provided the ignition and I finally closed my Facebook-registered Spotify account.
I gave a week’s notice to my friends (and more so myself) and at the end of which time I quietly pressed the delete button.
The reason I wanted to do this was that I had found myself passively browsing Facebook every 10-15 minutes, just scrolling and looking at what my friends were up to. Some of these people I hadn’t seen for years, others I had met only once, a small fraction were close friends and most were acquaintances. Very early on I had started categorized Facebook friends into categories – *limited, restricted, family, duke, school* etc. Several people were blocked from my news feed and yet with several hundred friends my newsfeed was a mess of activity.
I’d check for Facebook notifications and messages, as soon as I woke up, while standing at the bus stop, sitting in the bus, at the library, during classes, in the middle of awkward conversations, while tackling particularly difficult tasks, during inconvenient moments and when I caught myself being the only one *not* smiling at my phone (no one wants to be the only person whose metaphorical door is not being beaten down by friends trying to get in touch) and at the end of long study and work sessions. Often I’d leave Facebook opened in a tab as I worked. I would glance up at the tab every now and then to check/hope for the parenthesized ticker to appear. I started using Rescue Time to measure the time I spent on various sites on my MacBook. In the month of July I spend a total of 14 hours browsing Facebook on my laptop. This does not include the time spent on Facebook on my phone or tablet. I added another 4 hours to estimate that time. That brings the grand total of time spent on Facebook to 18 hours. That’s almost half a workweek.
Opportunity cost of Facebook at $15/hour: 15*18 = $290.
So essentially in the last few months my opportunity cost of using Facebook had been roughly $300.
I decided that I was overpaying for the privilege of Facebook. As of this morning, I was *Facebook-free* for 15 days and other than the random itch to look someone up after meeting them or check up on a friend or two, it’s absence did not bother me much. I enjoyed life as a self-styled recluse.
Two hours ago however, I wanted to get in touch with a particular friend – one with a Facebook account and zero online presence beside it – a recluse in his own way. I did not have his email address or phone number and the only way I could get in touch with him was if I went onto Facebook and messaged him and so begrudgingly I signed in for the first time in over 2 weeks.
I must confess that when I gave up on Facebook and made my pompous declaration, I had no intentions of returning. Though now not as attached, I think I’ll stay on a little longer.

ruzuku/life update

Howdy!

I apologize for not posting earlier, I thought I would have more to speak about by posting later in the week. It seems crazy, but my summer with Duke SIP is winding down rather soon..which means school which means goodbye to sleep. Eeeek!

I have started working on my final ruzuku presentation, leading to a good amount of introspection on my part. I like the start-up environment. With my remaining time before going out into the real world (oh no!) I plan on meeting more people and learning more about what life at a startup is really about. As I’ll expand on later, I’m really thankful for this opportunity and the many people I’ve met. I don’t think I’ll stick with marketing or the social media aspect as I have done this summer, though. To be honest, it’s work that’s not incredibly fulfilling and I think slowly learning technical skills is the path I would like to pursue. It’s going to be hard as shit, but the fact that I have three years till I am out of college really means I can’t make excuses about moving in a direction like this.

Much of this desire stems from the observations and conversations I’ve had this summer. My brother has encouraged me for a few years, but this summer was a huge reinforcement. For an example, my Comp Sci TA is interning at Goldman Sachs this summer learning learning propriety software..Talking to many other upperclassmen and graduates, I have continued to hear the same thing “I wish I had learned programming earlier.”

Earlier today I met with Taylor Mingos, CEO and founder of Shoeboxed, in his Durham office (which had a ping pong table and was pretty sweet). He explained that he had 15 programmers, many of whom didn’t go to college, and others who had never taken a CS class. When I asked him about non-tech guys, he told me “We hold them to a much higher bar” simply due to the supply of marketing people as opposed to developer/designers. Also, he spoke about the many internships they offer, noting that they don’t hire based off a single language, but instead a solid working knowledge of just one language (the more the better though!). He also spoke about the importance of networking, which could help with things like employees and funding in the future.

That concludes my mini-rant about where I hope to go in the future…At ruzuku, I’ve been looking into the thousands of customer support requests the company has received over the past year. It has taken a long amount of time to categorize them, and I would literally never expect there to be so many customer support requests. I will try to analyze patterns and see what we really need to improve in our platform.

All for now, see ya!

Getting to know when and where to apply brakes

This week has been pretty exciting. I met Mr.Bala the Chief Technology Officer of Ampere Vehicles, a leading electric vehicle manufacturer in India. I got an opportunity to present my Hybrid conversion kit idea to him and also gained very useful insights on the Electric and Hybrid vehicle market in India.

From his experience he said that there would be 3 major issues with Hybrid retrofit kits in India.

1.Cost– Electric scooter sales in India has suffered quite a bit because of the customers’ resistance  to pay for new technology and give it a try. (Ampere are only able to sell 10000 scooters a year). So if it’s a Hybrid electric retrofit kit it is going to be very hard to pursue enough people to use it.

2. Approval from Government organizations –  ARAI (Automotive Research Association of India) is the government body that is responsible for evaluation and approval of automotive  equipments and ancillaries. Any new automotive product that is launched in India needs to undergo their homologation process, pass their safety tests and get certified. Earlier when Ampere vehicles developed a similar retrofit kit they had a great difficulty in dealing with ARAI to get the approvals. ARAI does not have a properly structured system in place to certify Hybrid and electric vehicles as of now. They also questioned many safety aspects of the retrofit kit. Mr.Bala tells “It is a big headache to deal with them to get the certification done. At that point, being a startup, we could not afford to waste too much time on this issue. So we just thought we will only manufacture electric scooters and not retrofit kits”

3. Maintenance – When you launch a product like a retrofit kit, it is mainly something for the “after warranty market”. You need to be very careful of not causing any damage to vehicle by installing a retrofit kit. The customers will not let go of you once the sale is done. You need to have a service network and arrange all the required logistics. To prove that right, just when he was telling me this, he received a customer complaint call saying that his electric bike was only giving him a 45km range as against the promised 60 km published on the vehicle manualJ.  He also added that when a Hybrid retrofit kit is installed, you need service technicians who can deal with both engine issues as well as electric motor issues. This might increase the operation costs.

One of the engineering issues is insufficient traction if the electric motor is installed in the front wheel because most of the vehicle weight is concentrated on the rear portion of the vehicle. To resolve the camber angle of the front fork in the scooter frame needs to be changed so that the weight distribution is shifted a little towards the front wheel.  Even though there are ways to work around this technical problem, the above 3 commercial issues would be very difficult to resolve at the moment.

Mr.Bala says though the Indian government has launched schemes to promote green vehicle technology, but getting access to those funds is not straightforward and would need some reference from political parties or bigger corporate .

I also got to know that the electric vehicle industry around the world is struggling and Tesla motors are the only electric vehicle manufacturer that make significant profits. But even their profits are not from selling vehicles but majorly by licensing patents to Mercedes and Toyota.

So from my discussions with a leading electric scooter manufacturer I have concluded that in India you have to have enough proof of the value of your product – proof that some people, and enough of them, will use it, before investing a lot on marketing and Intellectual property rights. You need to be sure you have a business model where you can make money, sustainably.

Guides for product videos

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Many of us used to see some startups experience huge traffic increase by a simple but viral video, and hoped they could do the same thing. Unfortunately soon they found out that doing a viral video was not as easy as what they thought. I tried all different kinds of approaches to making a great video and now I’m sharing my experiences here and I categorise these approaches based on the budget.
 
Budget $0 – $200
In this category, you basically are looking at making a viral video by yourself, the key factor is the creativity. I tried to make one using iPhone iMove app for a couple’s app whose target is young college couples or married couples. Since the target was so clear, we shoot a few clips that delivers some typical life scene that couples encounter everyday. With an iPhone camera, you can’t have a high expectation on the video quality but you do want to emphasise on if your video could resonate with your customers. I suggest personal developers who has a passion to create stories or has a low budget to try this and you will find it incredibly fun!
 
Budget $200 – $1,000
With this budget, you are looking at some individual freelancers to help you with the videos, mostly animation intros due to the limit of the budget. The video makers who accepts this budget may not be the top ones unless you are really lucky to meet some professionals who wants to earn some fast cash, which is the situation that rarely happens. So I went to the freelancer.com to find good individual video makers. However one of the problems in this price range when you use freelencer.com is there are always way too many freelancers who are not very good bidding for your project and you have to waste a lot of time in reviewing their portfolios. Thus, in order to create a natal filter to clear out these disqualified video makers, a few tips for making a good introductions for your project.
 
  • Be clear about what form of video you are looking for, 2D animation or 3D?
  • Do you want them to write the scripts for you? or you will provide it.
  • Do you have sample video that’s similar to what you want? post the link.
  • How long is the video ideally? 
  • What kind of portfolios/sample videos you want them to provide?
With these restrictions, you will find much better freelancers bidding at your project. However, there may be another circumstance happen: you will find very few bids since your budget isn’t sufficient to match your restrictions. 
 
Budget $1,000 – $12,000 
With this budget, you will find more talented professionals who make quality videos for you, not necessarily animations, maybe they will help you shooting real scene will actors as well, depending on the budget you provide. Where to find these people? it’s not easy since lots of times they don’t do this on a full time basis, meaning they don’t spend much money on advertising their skillets or services. 
 
Other than freelancer.com, you could go to some famous VC firm website who provides startup services for their own startup portfolio such as Google Ventures, where you will find their design team or video service team, try your luck to contact them through LinkedIn, it does work sometimes. 
 
Budget $12,000 – $100,000
With this budget, congratulations, you are halfway to a viral video! I strongly recommend this company called: Sandwich Video, they made so many awesome videos for startups such as Airbnb, Ebay, Summly and Couple. Personally I like their video style very much! I don’t need to elaborate too much for this budget range since the service providers would give you better idea about how to make a great video. 
 
Budget Above $100,000
You may not be able to see many startup product video that costs more than $100,000. The difference between this category and the previous one is “who is the actor in the video?”, a very funny story I heard from my friend in South Korea, one of the most popular app for couples, Between, spent about $300,000 on their promotional video during their angel round. Most of the cost goes to the pocket of the actors in the short intro video, some Korea drama star and a reputable movie director. I guess though this move didn’t make their investors very happy, they do attract lots of traffics during that time in South Korea. 

Summer Update

So… this one has been a long time coming. Here’s a look at what I’ve been up to this summer and what’s coming next.

Hello, San Francisco!

This summer, I’m participating in the Duke-sponsored Summer Innovation Program. It’s the same program I did last summer in Durham, except this time, I’m in San Francisco. I’ve been here for about a month and a half now.

Speaking generally, SF feels like a more chill version of New York. There are plenty of successful people and plenty of things to do, but there’s not that stereotypical “rushed” feeling that people tend to associate with large cities. It’s easy to start a conversation with a stranger, and I’ve already met a ton of interesting and friendly people.

This is the place to be for technological people. It is not uncommon to overhear people on the street talking about iPhone application mockups, the pros and cons of using jQuery over vanilla javascript, or the differences between compiled and interpreted languages (in fact those are all actual examples of conversations I overheard). Walking through the streets of San Francisco is like walking through a physical manifestation of the internet, with famed tech companies everywhere you look. And that’s good for a lot of reasons: I feel like I fit in here, it’ll be easier to find technical cofounders or early employees, and there’s plenty of jobs for programmers if I ever find myself in a financial pinch.

The only downside I’ve found is that the cost of living here is high, sometimes absurdly so. Luckily there are enough sources of funding (like the program I’m in now) to afford basic needs. Though this is no place to raise a family, as a 20-year-old bachelor, I can get by fine for now.

Where I Live

I’m rooming with two friends, Fabio and Soroush (the same friends that were with me during my trip to New York last year). We share a tiny one bedroom apartment in the Mission District, which is known for great food, cool murals, and (compared to other areas) cheap-ish living. The cheapness comes from the fact that it’s not the nicest place to live. The streets reek of the second smell of San Francisco and there’s a lot of homeless people wandering around. Still, it doesn’t feel dangerous, and the great food and night scene make it a decent place to live for people my age.

Where I Work

Every morning we take a BART to our offices in RocketSpace, a medium-sized shared workspace in downtown SF. There are about 130 startups here. Most are later stage, with at least some funding, and only about half have their founders working here. Some larger companies use RocketSpace as a satellite office. I’ve made a few friends around the office and everyone seems talented and friendly.

We work what might seem like ridiculous hours: 11am to midnight every weekday. As you can imagine, we’re pretty much beat by the end of the week, which is why we take weekends off– focusing 100% on doing something fun and forgetting about our work for a while.

What I’m Working On

CrowdCourse is abandoned but not forgotten (I may pick it back up again some day). I used the lessons I learned during my previous venture to help drive my decisions about what I wanted to do next. The idea I decided on is something I’m really happy about. The value proposition is clear. I sell to businesses instead of consumers. That means I’ll be generating revenue directly from my customers instead of bothering with annoying (and often user-alienating) indirect profit models like advertisements, selling private data, etc. The problem is really technically challenging, but I’ve realized I’d much rather have a product that leans toward being difficult to build than one which is difficult to sell. This is something I can really stand behind.

My latest project is called Turnout. We provide automatic targeting and segmentation for ecommerce sites. Or put another way, we increase conversions and sales by always presenting visitors with relevant, personalized content. After about two months of development, we recently opened up a private beta for a handful of customers. I’m really excited about the project and the underlying problem both challenges and fascinates me. I get to work with some of the latest and greatest technologies including Redis and the Go Programming Language. It really doesn’t feel like work to me, and I’m the happiest I’ve been in a long time.

I’m currently working on the project alone, and I singlehandedly built the prototype. However I am looking for at least one partner (and as I mentioned earlier, this area is a great place to look).

What’s Coming Next

The future is hard to predict, but I’m optimistic. Within a week I’ll have my first paying customers, which is a huge milestone for me personally. I will be returning to school in the fall, where I will continue to work on Turnout while simultaneously doing classwork. By the end of my senior year at Duke, my hope is to have a refined product and enough customers to self-sustain the company and cover my personal expenses (housing, food, transport). If I can’t get the traction I need, I’ll either pivot or start a new project from scratch. Either way I’ll be back here in San Francisco next summer.

Tying up my projects

This past week has seen me come to the end of my “Nemisis” project. With a lot of pressure to create collateral that will get potential leads to visit the website, my boss asked me to collect data on the marketing collateral of all the software INC 5000 companies. Considering some have over 400 pieces of marketing collateral, you can imagine that this was not the easiest or most exciting task to  complete. However, it is now done and I am on to some exciting new projects. I just hope that the data I collected unveils some effective proprietary information.

 

My main focus is now on completing the company dashboards on a online service called Klipfolio. For aspiring entrepreneurs who will base most of their information in the cloud, this product is invaluable. Taking data from almost any online repository, it will turn it into automatically updating charts, graphs and other useful views. Most of my work involves creating SOQL queries (The salesforce query language) that will communicate data to Klipfolio. One benefit of getting access to core data is getting to understand the health of the company at a level that only the CEO and CFO can manage. This has proved eye-opening and really made me aware of how difficult a business model the whole SaaS B2B industry can be. Additionally, I have also learned how important it is to have very strict data entry rules to ensure that the information will be accurate in the future.

Outside of work and training for Rugby, I get to sneak in a couple of hours of reading and documentary watching a week. The most interesting thing I watched this week was Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview (Its on Netflix). Beyond demonstrating his superior intellect, he made a very astute analysis of the collapse of Xerox. He believed that Xerox became focused on sales & marketing as product development was unnecessary in a monopoly environment, eventually leading to a saturation of sales & marketing people embedded within the companies hierarchy. This lead to a general lethargy to innovate and adapt. (Xerox was the first company to create a network of computers, yet did not realize the enormity of this discovery)

 

Anyways, I hope everyone else is doing well and enjoying their experiences. I have been compiling a list of interesting links that I will soon send out to the group. Some are more SaaS based and some are more general, but I think all of them are essential reading.