Rolling Rocks

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Startups, tech, & other items of interest.

August 7, 2014 at 11:03am
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Great companies... →

You build something and it’s like, what can I build on top of that and what can I build on top of that and what can I build on top of that. Great companies, I think, are the ones that see what they’ve built and can build on top of it and iterate their product.

- Pinterest Co-founder

June 27, 2014 at 10:28am
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An Appreciation for the Details

After finishing The Boys in the Boat last night it was fitting that this tweet appeared in my Timehop this morning:

@andrewparker re. your Chabon & Sweethome posts: one of my favorite things is talking to passionate people about their very narrow hobbies.

The Boys in the Boat tells the story of the University of Washington’s eight-man crew’s path to the Berlin Olympics. Woven throughout this tale are the stories of the 1930s — the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the rise of Hitler in Germany.

The book’s author, Daniel James Brown, left academia to write narrative nonfiction full-time, with the goal of bringing compelling historical events to life. I love this genre and Brown has written a superb book.

One of the threads in the book follows the story of George Pocock, a builder of racing shells. A memorable passage details Pocock’s transition from using Spanish cedar to western red cedar for his shells. Pocock makes the change only after studying, among other things, the red cedar’s cell structure, density, and chemical composition.

Having made the decision to use the wood, Pocock travels throughout the Pacific Northwest, visiting sawmills, searching for the best cedar. From the book, “He found just what he wanted in the misty woods surrounding Lake Cowichan on Vancouver Island.”

What an inspiring thought! Pocock had such a deep love for his work and so valued his craft that he went to extreme effort to source the right wood. It didn’t matter if the differences were marginal in reality, to Pocock the differences between great and best were profound.

Passion can’t be faked and it’s best revealed in how someone appreciates the details. And it's this passion for the details that's so infectious when talking to someone about what they love.

March 19, 2014 at 11:26am
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Network participants and organizational value

I’ve found the discussion of providing a share of an organization’s upside to network participants fascinating. 

A quick recap: 

Assuming the following scenario, I have a number of questions that I’d love insight on.

A company for knowledge sharing across a network wants to implement some form of mechanism that will enable users who create value to participate in the organization’s upside. 

The concept of a mutual company or co-op presents legal, funding, and other challenges

A completely decentralized company may not make sense in the earliest years as some central governance and control can help as the network scales. 

One possible solution that’s appealing is to start with a centralized company that creates a fixed amount of currency, call it Wikicoin. Instead of mining the currency, the organization distributes Wikicoin to network participants as they contribute to the network (creating content, curating, etc.). Governance is determined based on share of Wikicoin ownership and so overtime, as the network scales, governance and oversight becomes increasingly distributed. Perhaps in parallel the organization can move down a path toward being a fully decentralized application as predetermined milestones are crossed.

Questions based on this scenario:

(A) Assuming that in the short term the only use of Wikicoin is to trade it via exchanges, what does this mean from a regulatory perspective? Is Wikicoin simply a proxy for shares in the organization?

(B) Since Wikicoin isn’t associated in the short term with transactions that have monetary value (such as buying and selling storage on a decentralized storage service with Boxcoin) the transaction costs of using an existing protocol become problematic. Are there solutions to this that don’t require investments into infrastructure such as wallets and exchanges?

(C) If the organization raises investment to help build the network, does it do it via a sale of currency or via ownership in the organization? If via ownership in the organization, what’s the end game that creates the liquidity and return?

I’ve posted this to USV.com, any insight or comments you have can be shared there.

January 28, 2014 at 9:51am
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Simple Product Experiences →

Michael Galpert, writing about Jelly, but commenting broadly on product experiences:

The simplicity of the UX ends up making people question the utility or even the need for yet another app in our life. The UI on these systems often times are too basic and people are initially shocked by the experience.

Simplicity in experience is often misunderstood as simplistic in value. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Great products come from people who have the empathy required to reduce an experience to its core while still providing value. This is especially true on mobile.

Evan Williams shared his philosophy for building great product and it came down to 'removing extra steps from common activities:'

[The internet] is simply an engine of convenience. Those who can tune that engine well — who solve basic human problems with greater speed and simplicity than those who came before — will profit immensely. Those who lose sight of basic human needs — who want to give people the next great idea — will have problems.

The best products provide as simple of an experience as possible while still supporting a core human behavior. To paraphrase Einstein: make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.

January 16, 2014 at 4:16pm
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Our Generation's Greatest Challenge →

The Economist highlights what I believe is our generation’s greatest challenge: 

Over the past 30 years the digital revolution has displaced many of the mid-skill jobs that underpinned 20th-century middle-class life.

We’re only at the start of this change and as The Economist points out, if the “analysis is halfway correct, the social effects will be huge.”

As I wrote last May, overall I am optimistic about the future but there are going to be significant negatives that come with the advances. It’s important that we address the problems while nurturing the progress.

The Economist puts forward two ways for governments to support their citizens in the years ahead. The first is education. However, the paper points out that a dramatic change in education is needed, from rote-learning to creativity and critical thinking. The second is through some form of minimum income support.

Changing these systems in any developed nation will require incredible political will. At a time when partisanship makes it difficult for government to enact even minor reform and political leaders appear most interested in governing for electability, it’s hard to believe that changes of this nature can be done without a sizable negative event. Let’s hope that’s not the case.

September 23, 2013 at 12:09pm
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Record and Revisit

Assumptions are formed. Data is collected. Insights are found. 

Assumptions are evolved. Data is collected. Insights are focused. Repeat.

This has historically been my approach to working through complex problems. In the past year I’ve started revisiting all data previously collected with the new assumptions and insights in mind. The results have been surprisingly positive. Often this effort reveals something new from the old data.

The key is to record all data collected — interviews, articles, metrics, etc. — and then to revisit it all once new insights are formed. It’s not rocket science, but it does require discipline.

September 9, 2013 at 10:24am
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A Faster Horse →

Samsung’s smartwatch is going to be part of a superb case study in a few years. Whatever inputs Samsung used to design the product, it’s hard to imagine that they thought about it through the Jobs-to-be-Done lens.

What job is a customer hiring the Samsung watch to do? I can’t think of a compelling one. From my understanding, Samsung’s smartwatch is an expensive way to extend your existing smartphone’s features. It offers an unfocused set of experiences, some which may offer value (displaying your phone’s notifications) but some which are downright bizarre (enabling you to make calls through your watch).

It appears that Samsung’s thinking behind the consumer’s experience is simplistic and shallow. This failure will become startling clear when we experience the first wrist-based wearable that gains market acceptance.

September 5, 2013 at 10:58am
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Wool: Two Thoughts on Storytelling

I’m working my way through the omnibus edition of Wool, a series of short stories. I don’t want to provide a review of the stories, but I will say that I’d recommend these to most anyone. Instead, I want to share two thoughts on storytelling that have been in my mind while reading this superb book.

The joy of an incomplete story.

In recent years I’ve loved stories that go deep, providing a depth in plot and character development unmatched by other offerings (example: Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth). I had forgotten the joy of a superbly told story that purposefully leaves large gaps. In Wool, the characters have nuance and depth, the world is finely crafted but major aspects of both are only hinted at. The imagination is spoiled in a situation like this as it’s left to fill in the blanks.

The story of the future of publishing.

Wool started out as a short story by Hugh Howey, independently published via Amazon’s system. Based on the initial story’s popularity, Howey continued to write entries and the series has 9 stories published across 2 years. The first story is available for $0.00 (!) on Amazon and yet Howey reports that most of his months are ‘six figure months.’ He’s retained the online rights but has sold the print-only rights to Simon & Schuster, the film rights to 20th Century Fox, and there’s a comic book adaptation scheduled for release. It’s awesome to see an artist simultaneously retain control over their work while capturing the bulk of the financial upside.

September 4, 2013 at 4:42pm
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Temptation of Growth →

From Forbes, a piece on Path, a service described as ‘intimate,’ ‘safe,’ ‘private’:

But intimacy and virality don’t mix. In June 2012 Path had 3 million members. Path was at a crossroads–it was scale or fail. Last December Morin and cofounder Dustin Mierau made the decision to lower Path’s guardrails. 

It’s easy to appreciate why Path sacrificed their core experience of intimacy to chase growth, the temptation is significant. But what a cost it came at.

August 29, 2013 at 8:29am
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Photos as Memory Markers →

Dustin Curtis: 

For years, I’ve taken photos as memory markers. Whenever I want to remember a moment, place, or feeling, I pull out my phone and snap a photo of whatever I’m currently looking at. There’s no art involved, and I don’t try to make the photos look good; I just try to make sure there is enough information in the frame to give a good understanding of the exact moment I’m trying to record…

The photos have formed a profound and very high resolution timeline of my life. They are my story…

Since 2007, for similar reasons, I’ve done what Dustin describes above. These photos include significant milestones along with the mundane moments of my life (random example). 

I’ve used a number of different services over the years, but like Dustin I settled on Posterous until they were shut down. I used Posterous because of the simplicity in posting. It was as close to frictionless as possible.

There was a major issue with Posterous: it was public. There’s something too personal and risky about exposing our intimate and unfiltered experiences publicly. It’s why we fall back to success theater and it’s why our sharing changes as our network grows.

Ultimately I overcame my concern with Posterous’ lack of privacy, relying on the vastness of the internet to find privacy through obscurity.

This meant that I couldn’t share a photo from the site with anyone. Sharing one photo meant sharing the entire stream.

And so, for a period of time, when I wanted to share photos of this sort with my wife, we relied on a private Tumblr site. We’d login, post a photo, and the other person would login to see the update. It was delightful to see glimpses of each other’s lives like this.

The feeling that came from being able to ‘look in’ on the day-to-day bits of my wife’s life was so profound that to this day I wish I had a way to see into the lives of family and close friends with the same fidelity.

Why hasn’t this happened? Back to Dustin:

When mobile photo sharing was first becoming popular a couple of years ago, I thought the winning app would facilitate the sharing of photos like these, as memory markers, not as symbols of artistic expression. If you want to share a moment with someone else, using a photo is still the highest resolution way of doing it; you can get so much information from a quick glance at a picture. Unfortunately, I was wrong. Instagram handily crushed the competition by focusing on filters that take boring photos of moments and turns them into beautiful, rarely-posted forms of artistic expression.

Instagram happened first for a number of reasons. The growth opportunities afforded to an open network, the velocity of content in an asymmetric follow model, the lower perceived risk in sharing expression vs experience, … all combined to create Instagram’s explosive growth ahead of photo services focused on sharing experiences and moments.

Because Instagram went first doesn’t preclude other services from finding success today. Macro trends — such as the mass adoption of smartphones, the continued evolution of the type of photos we take, and even the broad use of Instagram — suggest that now is a better time for a service focused on sharing raw experiences to emerge. Given the value I’ve experienced from even duct tape solutions to this problem, I’m excited about what’s to come.