Saturday, January 25, 2014

Day 19 - Capsule & FullScreen

Well what a last day for meetings!  Today we met with our last two meetings and despite having heard from a large amount of tech companies over the past month, the things that we heard today were still very informative and helpful.  The first company that we talked to was called Capsule who did photo collection and sharing for weddings and we talked with their co-founder and CEO Cyrus.  One thing that Cyrus talked to us about that we had heard a lot about was being able to pivot the focus of a company when needed.  He told us that company leaders (and especially founders who are probably more emotionally attached to the company) need to be aware of the fact that they may need to pivot the companies direction away from what it was originally intended for and towards a possibly more profitable market or product.  In the case of Capsule, we learned that the service was originally intended for use for a wide range of occasions such as trips and parties.  However, when the company learned that their product was almost exclusively being used for weddings, Cyrus pivoted the company towards marketing and developing the product mainly for the use in weddings.  Although being able to pivot when necessary is something that any good startup or established business should be able to do, we have also learned that founders and leaders of companies should also be able to stick with their dream in the face adversity.  When a product or company is being funded by a handful of different investors, there is naturally going to be multiple different directions that investors and other people think that the product/company should go.  We have heard from a handful of founders that it is important to keep true to your vision if you know it is the right one for your company or product.  This is in contradiction to the equal number of times when we have heard the importance of pivoting when necessary.  So the question in my mind (that I haven’t heard the answer to and haven’t come up with one myself) is how does a CEO or founder of a company know when to pivot the direction of a company?  My guess it would probably come down to intuition.

Our next meeting was with a company called FullScreen who does content management and monetization for content creators on Youtube among many other services.  One service that FullScreen provided that I found particularly interesting from a marketing stand point was called “Gorilla Campaigns” in which essentially advertisers gave their product to Youtubers who would make videos about the product and include a quick plug for the product at the end of their video.    This use of Youtubers to directly market products to potential customer is brilliant in a couple ways.  Firstly, it’s a highly targeted message in that the content creators knows their audience extremely well and thus is able to deliver a message that is guaranteed to reach and speak to the audience.   The second advantage is that the audience trusts the content creator that they’re watching, so when they receive this message they know that it’s not coming from some business that doesn’t know who they are but rather a person that they trust.  These two aspects of the Gorilla Campaigns gives this sort of advertising a huge edge over traditional methods, something that FullScreen confirmed with the statistical success of this service.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Day 18 - Coloft

                Today we had our one and only meeting (our first of three in LA) for the day with a business called Coloft which provided a collaborative work space specifically for technology startups in the Santa Monica area.  We met with their co-founder Avesta Rasouli who was an experienced and serial entrepreneur who had a lot of tidbits of wisdom to share with us concerning his experience with both successful and failed startups. 

                One thing that I found interesting that Avesta talked about was his idea of how to market and sell a product or idea.  He said rather than sell the product, sell the “why” of the product.  For instance in the case of his Coloft business, he said rather than telling people that his company had the best chairs and the fastest internet he told people that his place would be filled with likeminded people who could collaborate and help each other with their respective startups.  This strategy reminded me of something that I read in my “Crossing the Chasm” book when the author talked about giving elevator pitches and marketing high-tech products.  Moore (the author) said that a crucial role in marketing a product to the early market is to sell the reason why a consumer or business should buy the product, and that marketing should heavily tie into this reason to purchase.  This confirms what Avesta talked about when he told us to “communicate the why” of the product rather than the product itself.

                Another piece of wisdom that Avesta shared that correlated with my “Crossing the Chasm” book was that relationships with consumers is crucial in establishing an early customer base.  Avesta communicated this idea to us by telling us some of the things he did to get Coloft off the ground in the first couple of months.  He told us stories of how he would let people have meetings or get-togethers in the space for free, or went to conferences and talked with his potential clients, all to build a relationship with them.  According to him, these relationships were important in the continued growth and stability of Coloft.  Moore talked about the same importance of relationships when trying to market and sell to the early adopter or visionary phase of the technology adoption life cycle.  He explains that to this group of buyers, a relationship is key when trying to sell your product and that without healthy relationships the company is likely to go no farther and potentially fail.  Now although these two people (Avesta and Moore) are talking about selling two different products (a workplace for Avesta and high-tech products in Moore’s case), they are both similar and thus applicable to each other in that they are both selling disruptive products, or products that if consumed or used would change the way the consumer goes about their life.  Therefore I see that the lessons learned from both the book and Avesta’s talk are related and that relationships are in fact highly important in marketing and selling a product early on in its life cycle.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Day 16 - Sportvision & Fenwick and West

     Today we had two interesting meetings with two very different companies that both touched on something that has been a common topic of discussion and explanation on our trip.  Our first meeting was with a company called Sportvision who does virtual reality for sports broadcasting and is best known for doing the yellow “first and ten line” on all professional and most college football games.  Sportvision surprised me in a couple of ways.  Firstly, I didn’t really think about not only all of the computer and programming work that goes into doing some of these services (for instance using cameras and computers to detect and track baseballs and players) but also the math and physics that some of Sportvisions services require.  Take for example some of the information that is displayed during a baseball games.  Not only does Sportvision track a baseballs position and speed, but from this data they have also found an algorithm to determine the spin on the ball using its speed and trajectory.  Never before had I thought about all of these intense calculations and work that went into some seemingly simple data displayed on an info graphic during a sports game.

                One thing that our contact at Sportvision Mike talked about that tied into our second meeting of the day was the idea of intellectual property and patents and specifically the roles of these things concerning the use of contractors.  In an environment that is competitive and crowded as the software industry, intellectual property and patents become extremely critical to maintaining an edge.  So when contractors are involved in developing this IP, it could become extremely difficult and frustrating when you move onto a new company and project but might not be able to use the knowledge or ideas you developed previously. 

                Our second and final meeting of the day was with the law firm Fenwick and West where we met with a team of patent litigation lawyers who explained to us the ins and outs of patents, filing them, and defending or attacking them in court.  The main thing that I got out of this meeting was that patents and the patent system (as far as the software industry goes) is incredibly flawed.  Firstly they explained a group of people called “patent trolls” who collect seemingly old and useless patents en masse and then use them to sue large companies over incredibly loose infringements (for example one of these groups sued twitter for a patent concerning two-way radios for truckers under the grounds that their patent included the idea for social media) in hopes that the large companies will settle rather than pay millions in legal fees.  There is seemingly no way out of these legal battles for the companies who are being sued as they either have to settle or go to court and even possibly lose due to the loose and broad nature of some of these patents, which is also the second flaw in the patent system.  Because the system allows for some patents to get approved that are incredibly broad and vague, companies are able to sue each other and waste large amounts of time and money and intellectual power over fighting each other rather than focusing on collaboration which could help both parties involved.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Day 12 - Google

Today we had the opportunity to tour the facilities of the internet giant that is Google and it definitely held up to expectations.  Before going to the Google-plex I envisioned a place full of food, slides, toys, and anything you would ever need to actually live on the campus if you needed, and that is exactly what we saw.  The perks given to Google employees were seemingly endless.  Free laptops, employee discounts at stores such as Apple, free (amazing and delicious) food, free travel and expenses for work, long maternity and paternity leave period, and electric cars that employees can check out were among countless other perks.  In fact there were so many perks for employees that our host, tour guide, and former Luther grad Charles who works in the equivalent of Googles internal technology help desk told us that there is a site for employees to keep track of all the perks that they receive.  At first glance it seemed like Google was supplying so many amenities to its employees either because it could or in order to attract talent.  While the latter is true it is more of a necessity than I originally thought in that a large number of tech companies here on the west coast provide a similar amount and diversity of benefits as Google does.  So, in order to compete, Google is almost forced to provide the perks that it does.  Another reason for the plethora of benefits that I learned about was that it allows employees to practically live on the campus.  If you can get unlimited food, transportation, haircuts, nap rooms, sports, laundry, work out facilities, and practically anything else you may need, why would you ever leave the work place?  In fact, when we asked Charles if this was actually plausible to essentially live at the Google-plex, he said that he only went back to his apartment to sleep at night and in the morning he came right to Google for breakfast than work.  In this sense, Google has done a great job of melding people’s home lives into work.

One thing that surprised me about Google was how they seemed to be at the cutting edge of technology rather than following it.  Now granted big companies have more money to fund new and exciting and possibly not profitable projects, we had both seen and heard that bigger companies are less likely to use new and less proven technologies such as the Go programming language or WebRTC as they are risky to institute and use in consumer products.  However after talking with employees at Google, they denied this saying that they are in fact encouraged to use these new and blossoming technologies to help spur creativity and production.  Along these same lines, employees are encouraged to take what they call 10% time, or 10% of their paid working hours to work on a personal (or cross-functional) project.  This once again shows how, contrary to my prior belief, Google really does value creativity and pushing boundaries in order to keep its competitive edge.


Thursday, January 16, 2014

Day 11 - Hummer Winblad VC

 We had a couple of meetings today, our first of which was with a venture capital firm called Hummer Winblad Venture Capital where we met with their cofounder Ann Winblad.  She walked us through what her company did, what she did for the company, and some of her insights on the technology industry.  One thing in particular that Ann said that made me think was her idea of how programs and code will be written in the future.  Ann was of the opinion that someday in the near future code will not be so much written as it will be assembled from fragments and components hosted on various websites.  I would agree with her in the sense that this is happening more and more with websites like Github readily available to distribute helpful segments of code, and also with the rapid pace of software innovation code assembly rather than writing will become more important. However, I do have a couple of problems with her statements.  Firstly, one of the companies that her VC firm has backed is one of these code segment hosting sites so she is probably a bit biased in telling us that this is where the market is going because that is where her money is.  Secondly if Ann is correct and only 10% of code is written rather than assembled I feel like A, a lot of people have to be writing code given the ever changing nature of programming languages and algorithms, and B, we are going to lose a lot of creativity and innovation if she is correct.  If no one is writing their own code than less and less people will be thinking about how to solve problem their problems and about how they can solve them in even better ways.  However I do agree that code segments will be used more and more as time goes on.

Another thing that Ann talked about that got me thinking and also tied into some things that I had been thinking about before was when she talked about the abundance of ideas and innovations happening right now.  As she said it, there has only been one other time in history when this many different fields of technology (mobile, social, cloud, and big data) had been developing as rapidly as they are now.  This reminded me of the seemingly over abundance of talent that there is in the world to fuel this innovation, however Ann assured us that there was still a need for programmers and developers to help push these technologies on.  Still, it’s a bit daunting to think about the sheer number and difficulty of some of the problems that today’s programmers are taking on.

Our second and last meeting of the day was with a serial entrepreneur and all around inspiring guy named Phillip.  Phillip had started and sold multiple startup companies, worked in various roles in the schooling system, and had also worked for NASA for some time.  The greatest thing that I took away from that meeting was how important passion is in a career and deciding what to do with your life.  Even though I didn’t understand the majority of things that he was talking about, the way Phillip talked about his endeavors made me interested in them and made me realize how important his passion was.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Day 10 - Bizo, Moovweb, Financial Planning

Today was one of our busiest and most diverse days yet as far as meetings go as we met with three different companies here in San Francisco.  Our first meeting of the day was with a company called Bizo who does business to business internet marketing.  We met with a large group of their development team and one of the things that they talked about that intrigued me was something they said when talking about their interview process and what they look for in a candidate.  They said that although they do look to make sure their interviewees have a basic set of technical skills (in this case programming skills) what they are most looking for is not "do you know it" but "can you learn it" and they said that one of the biggest places that they find this is in a candidates cover letter.  In fact, one of the employees even went as far to say that aside from checking a few technical skills on the resume he said that he could care less about it and relied almost exclusively on the cover letter.  Now although I believe that there is more importance to a resume than checking a few skills, I had never really thought about how important a cover letter can be in communicating an applicant’s passion, interests, and even personality, all which (as I am learning more and more out here on the west coast) are very important in determining the necessary job-person fit.

The next company we met with was a semi-established startup called Moovweb who did mobile web development.  Our meeting with Moovweb was a lunch meeting on the wharf so we got to sit in the warm sun, enjoy some lunch, and have a fairly low key yet informative chat with some of their front-end developers.  One thing that we talked about that got me thinking was about how many talented people (as far as computer science and development goes) live and work here on the west coast.  It’s a little daunting to think about, considering that I am going to be entering the job force and potentially competing with these people but at the same time this abundance of talent has a positive side effect for me.  Because there are so many people that are talented programmers and CS majors I have really been thinking about what makes me different from those masses and how I can distinguish myself to potential employers and to myself.  Now I haven’t landed on anything concrete yet but I think it’s going to involve leveraging my combination of CS and Management, my time in Sweden, and my desire to always do better and learn more.

Our last meeting of the day was with a financial planner named Sara who had some good advice about career paths in general.  She told us her story about how she graduated with an English degree, worked at MPR, then moved to a big financial institution and then finally settled into her own financial advising firm.  Her talk reminded me more than anything that one shouldn’t get fixed that you will end up in one and only one career path or job.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Day 9 - Pintrest & Strava

     Today again was a busy day in that we met with two companies, Pintrest a company of moderate size who is growing expansively, and a startup of about 80 employees called Strava which provides a sort of social network for athletes.  Our first meeting of the day was with Pintrest where we met with two data engineers Dan and John.  These two talked about their career paths, their roles at Pintrest, and about Pintrest in general.  One thing that Dan and John talked about that I found interesting was what they felt set Pintrest apart.  When initially asked neither could come up with a concrete answer (aside from saying what it was not) one of the two landed on the idea that Pintrest was a positive social network whereas services such as Facebook and Twitter could be and often are places of negativity.  He explained this by saying in places such as Facebook and Twitter people can get involved in all sorts of arguments or fights, but Pintrest is a place for (as corny as it sounds) hopes and dreams.  Now granted I am not a Pintrest user but I have seen people use it and I would agree that it seems to be a place where people go to dream about how they want their life to be and in some cases find ways to make these dreams reality.  Another thing that I found interesting about Pintrest that we as a group had talked about was valuing a business that is "pre-profit" and is seemingly yet to have a plan to make profit.  Now Pintrest does have a plan for revenue but it still amazes me that businesses that don't and aren't able to make a profit are able to get so much funding based off the possibility of making a profit at some unknown point in the future.  Most often I feel that the answer becomes "throw in some ads" but it would be interesting to see an alternative method to making money for this kind of business.
     The second company we visited, Strava the social network for athletes, we were able to meet with the President, former CEO, and founder Michael.  One thing that stood out to me was when he talked about was his opinion on going to business school or getting your MBA if you wanted to do your own startup. Before hearing his opinion, I had always thought that getting your MBA was only helpful in that allowed you more job opportunities and a greater skill set.  However Michael pointed out that a lot of a persons good ideas, drive, and connections come after being in an undergrad program.  Plus, after receiving your MBA you will probably have lots of debt after leaving school and there will probably be job offers that are willing to give you substantial money to pay off that debt which would be a tempting offer away from creating your own startup