Sunday, December 1, 2013

1 Year After Microsoft

I still remember the funny feeling I had in my stomach as I drove home from work on November 30, 2012. It was my last day at Microsoft after working there for nearly 5 years.

Today is my 1-year anniversary of life after Microsoft. I left the company with the intent of becoming an entrepreneur, but had the fortune of landing at Madrona two weeks later. Both of these transitions weren't without concern at the time, though I remain exceptionally pleased with both decisions.

It's been an incredible year. Some experiences have been pretty much as-expected and others have come as a surprise. These are some of my observations and experiences one year after Microsoft.

(UPDATE: Be sure to check out links to other people's experiences at the end)

Life Outside the "Mothership"
  • While at Microsoft, I tried to actively engage in the broader Seattle community and thought that I was doing a good job building a diverse network. This made it all the more shocking when I realized shortly after leaving how heavily weighted my network was with Microsoft contacts. I love my friends and colleagues from Microsoft, but having a network that's concentrated on a single company and one that creates generic solutions rather than vertical-specific ones is a huge weakness when it comes to entrepreneurship. I suspect that it's also a weakness in business and career growth in general, but don't have as much evidence of this.
  • Concern about no longer having access to resources was unfounded. Microsoft provides vast resources to employees for both work and personal purposes, but living without those has been inconsequential.
  • I do miss the compensation. I took a massive pay cut when I left, but I believe more than ever that "compensation is the price a company pays for making you put up with bull$". I continue to live very comfortably. More importantly, I've found that I'm much happier than before, providing some validation to the non-linear relationship between financial compensation and happiness.
  • I tend to thrive in uncertainty, but I have to admit that there are occasions when the certainty of the Microsoft environment sounds nice.
  • External perceptions of Microsoftees are different from internal ones. Inside Microsoft, there's a sense of being among the smartest people in the world (which isn't unfounded - many brilliant people work there) and that the skills developed working there are a thing of pride. Outside Microsoft, perception increasingly looks like the kind of respect you have for dinosaurs. Many skills and accomplishments are irrelevant or limited in scope when looking outside Microsoft's bubble. In terms of false perceptions, I continue to hear disparaging remarks about how people at Microsoft work 9-5. I can't think of a single Microsoftee I've met, past or present, who works 9-5. 10-12 hour days, 6 days per week is more typical from my experience.
  • All companies have their issues. Sit around the cafeterias at Microsoft and you're bound to hear a good percentage of conversations complaining about something or other related to the company. However, over the past year I've had lunch with people from at least 50 different tech companies and every company, big or small, has its issues. What's really important for individuals is to take a holistic view and identify what's tolerable and what's a deal-breaker.

Personal Development
  • When I was at Microsoft, I didn't get much time to learn non-proprietary technologies. During nights and weekends any work I did was for a company project or learning internal technologies to support work I was doing. Since leaving, I've been able to invest in learning open source technologies, applicable across the dev stack (my prior focus had always been backend). I've also been learning about UX design and expanding my knowledge on the business side. All this comes with the day-to-day work I do as well as from flexibility that allows me to explore outside of work as well.
  • While at Microsoft, I also got caught up in some of the group-think that garnered overconfidence in my skills. I've since gained a clearer picture of both my strengths and weaknesses, including areas both technical and non-technical. There are fewer unknown unknowns and I'm hopeful that I'll have the opportunity to work with some of the amazing people I've met in the past year who have complimentary skill sets.
  • My network has exploded in the past year. This has been partly due to my work and partly due to intentional effort made after realizing how limited my network was. This has led to many benefits, not the least of which is new friends.
  • Over the last year, I've been in a good situation to evaluate what's important to me in a more objective manner than I have in the past. This has resulted in increasing confidence in what I want to do with my life.

I still think Microsoft is a great company, though it has its share of challenges. I can't say with confidence that I'd want to work there again, though I don't regret the time I spent there and I'm also not sure I'd want to work at any large company. Joining Seattle's startup ecosystem was absolutely the right decision for me and every morning I wake up excited about work.

I intentionally cut out some topics I'd like to share, such as what working at Madrona has been like, because I quickly found that I was writing about them at length and that they merit their own posts, so more on that later.

To my many fellow ex-Microsoftees who left around the same time last year (many of whom I've had the pleasure of meeting), happy anniversary!

UPDATE: Stories from others

Here's a great 1-year post from an ex-Amazonian. I had similar plans when leaving Microsoft and have had similar experiences since leaving! Evan Jacobs of ReadWriteHack: My Most Productive Year

Here's a post from a friend who left Microsoft this year to become an entrepreneur. It includes some good reflection on the inner thoughts one has right before making a move like this. Avilay Parikh: Why I left Microsoft

Here's a post from an entrepreneur I recently met who, like my friend above, left Microsoft this year. Othmane Rahmouni: Goodbye Microsoft, Hello Startup World.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Most Powerful Tool You'll Ever Use

The most powerful tool you'll ever use is storytelling. If you get that, skip the rest of this post.

Wikipedia defines storytelling as "the conveying of events in words, and images, often by improvisation or embellishment."

Storytelling is a phenomenon that transcends cultural divides. In fact, "humans [inherently] think in narrative structures and most often remember facts in story form." Have you ever noticed how often and how naturally we use analogies and anecdotes to explain complex concepts? Or how people binge-watch their favorite TV shows?

The problem with the Wikipedia article is that it only describes what storytelling is and not what it does. Stories are used for a variety of purposes. They entertain. They inform. They create bonds. They can be applied for the purposes of good or evil, but they always have purpose and are most effective when carefully crafted to achieve that purpose.

Stories are incredibly powerful. Every startup that's been funded received funding because of stories. Funding is the result of the story the entrepreneurs tell (the one used to influence others) and the story the investors construct for themselves (the one that forms the basis of their belief). An investor who's willing to commit a lot of money at a high risk of loss believes a series of events that hasn't yet happened is going to happen, resulting in a happy ending.

Stories have remarkable effects on the course of world-history. In 2008, Barack Obama was elected as president of the United States based on a powerful story that millions of Americans believed in; the idea that the American dream still exists and that no matter who we are, we can achieve it. Neither the story, nor the success of the campaign, were accidental.

When we interact with others, all the complexities of transmitting information between humans emerge. We constantly need to influence others. We need to convince them to join our team, we need to convince them to use (and pay for) our products/services, we need to convince them to partner with us.

The best way to convince them? Telling them a compelling story; one they want to (and can credibly) believe in.

Compelling stories are intentional and carefully crafted. Think of storytelling as an art that;s enhanced by science. Art, or instinct, places constraints on a world of infinite dimension, making it conceptually manageable. Art "solves" the blank canvas. Once we have an idea of what we want to paint, we can leverage science to optimize the layout, colors, etc. for maximum effect.

When we take control of our story and design it to deliver information in a convincing and compelling way, we win the hearts and minds of our audience. It's a big step toward achieving our grand vision.

Of course, this doesn't mean telling a compelling story is easy or that success is guaranteed. It takes a lot of work. However, considering it's power, the most incredible thing about storytelling is that it's a learned skill. It's a supernatural power that doesn't emerge from supernatural circumstances like radioactive spiders.

If you want to accomplish great things, start by learning to craft and tell great stories.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

How to Add a Dial to Your Arduino Project

This post is for hardware hackers interested in adding dials to their projects. It discusses what we learned about rotary encoders and provides info about how to add one to your Arduino project.

For the original prototype, we used thumbwheel potentiometers (pots for short) as the dials for the radio. While these components worked well for the hackathon, they have a few limitations:
  • They have limited range
  • The mechanics of the component and Arduino limit precision
  • They are generally unattractive
Because the experience of using the device is extremely important to us, we place a lot of value on this element being (1) flexible, (2) pleasurable to use, and (2) attractive. While there are numerous types of pots, including ones that can rotate up to two full turns and allow a knob to be attached, a component called a rotary encoder performs better on each of the metrics that are important to us. Since I hadn't previously heard of a rotary encoder, I started out blindly searching Google using queries like "unlimited turn dial" (which I find humorous in retrospect). Eventually, I discovered the rotary encoder and pieced together what we'd need to experiment with them.

The first thing to note about rotary encoders is that they come in numerous different styles. While browsing the options at my favorite supplier, Digi-Key, it took me a while to figure out what all the features meant (actually, I didn't fully understand until I received my first order of encoders). Looking at an example encoder, some noteworthy characteristics include:
  • Encoder Type: The method with which the encoder determines rotation. The example encoder is mechanical, which is a good choice for basic projects.
  • Output Type: How rotation is encoded in the output. The example encoder uses quadrature, which means the output is represented by out-of-phase waves.
  • Pulses per Revolution: The number of times the output changes per full revolution of the dial. The example encoder will cycle through the output phases 12 times per full turn of the dial.
  • Actuator Type: This contains the diameter of the encoder's dial and the style of shaft. This information will help determine which knobs will fit.
  • Detent: Whether the dial "clicks" or rotates smoothly as you turn it.
  • Built in Switch: Some rotary encoders have a built-in switch that is triggered by pressing down on the shaft.
  • Mounting Type: This indicates how you mount the component onto your device. The example includes "PCB Through Hole", which means it has legs that allow you to lock it into place on the PCB, and "Panel", which mean that it has threaded metal at the bottom of the shaft that allows it to be locked into place on a device using a nut (see the example component).
  • In addition to the above, I'd also recommend looking at the part's datasheet to see the length-wise parameters of the shaft to make sure it fits the dimensions you're looking for and that any knobs you intend to use will fit properly.
To try the encoder out, I wanted to plug it into a solderless breadboard. However, I found that the PCB mounting legs prevented it from fitting. To deal with this, I drilled two small holes in the breadboard and the encoder snapped into place:

With the encoder set up on the breadboard, I was ready to create an Arduino project. I started by writing the following for Arduino UNO R3:
// For Arduino UNO, only pins 2 & 3 work for interrupts
int _encoderDialPin1 = 2;
int _encoderDialPin2 = 3;

volatile int _changeInTicks = 0;

// Don't need to be volatile since only accessed from single interrupt handler
int _lastBit1 = 0;
int _lastBit2 = 0;

void setup() {
  Serial.begin (9600);

  pinMode(_encoderDialPin1, INPUT); 
  pinMode(_encoderDialPin2, INPUT);

  // Turn on pullup resistor
  digitalWrite(_encoderDialPin1, HIGH);
  digitalWrite(_encoderDialPin2, HIGH);
  attachInterrupt(0, handleEncoderChange, CHANGE); 
  attachInterrupt(1, handleEncoderChange, CHANGE);

void loop() {
  int changeInTicks = 0;
    changeInTicks = _changeInTicks;
    _changeInTicks = 0;
  if (changeInTicks != 0) {

void handleEncoderChange() {
  int bit1 = digitalRead(_encoderDialPin1);
  int bit2 = digitalRead(_encoderDialPin2);

  int code = (_lastBit1 << 3) | (_lastBit2 << 2) | (bit1 << 1) | bit2;
  if (code == 0b0001 || code == 0b0111 || code == 0b1110 || code == 0b1000) {
  } else if (code == 0b1011 || code == 0b1101 || code == 0b0100 || code == 0b0010) {
  } else {
    // For this case, the direction of the turn is indeterminate
  _lastBit1 = bit1;
  _lastBit2 = bit2;
This code warrants some explanation. Two things are key to understanding what's going on. The first is that we are using interrupts to signal that the dial on the encoder is turning. The second is how we interpret the output of the encoder.

To create interrupts, we are using Arduino's attachInterrupt function. Different versions of Arduino work differently with this function. For the UNO, which the above code was written for, only pins 2 and 3 can be used for interrupts. The first parameter to attachInterrupt says which of these are used, meaning a value of 0 maps to pin 2 and a value of 1 maps to pin 3. The second parameter is the function to execute on the interrupt. The third parameter is when to trigger the interrupt. Here, we are asking for an interrupt to be triggered whenever the value of one of the pins changes.

Because we can't be certain about when a context switch might occur, we turn off interrupts before accessing _changeInTicks in our main loop. Before calling an interrupt handler, Arduino disables interrupts, so we don't need to do this in the handler, handleEncoderChange. What this gives us is that when the signal to pin 2 or 3 changes, handleEncoderChange is called.

When handleEncoderChange is called, we determine the rotation of the dial on the rotary encoder. Because the encoder we're using uses quadrature as it's output encoding, the signals to the pin will repeatedly iterate through the following pattern as the dial rotates to the right. When rotated to the left, it will go in reverse.

step 1step 2step 3step 4repeat...

The logic in handleEncoderChange observes the sequence of values read from the encoder to determine whether the dial is being rotated forward or backward. For several sequences, like 0011, we can't tell which direction the encoder was turning, because it is possible to generate them by rotating the dial in either direction. In testing the example encoder, I occasionally observed such values, which is why we purposely ignore them in the code. At this point, it's worth noting that writing to the serial line (e.g. using Serial.print) in an interrupt handler doesn't always work properly. When I tried doing this, I found that Arduino's serial monitor would occasionally hang.

With this simple program ready to go, we can hook the encoder up to the Arduino.

Encoders are designed to allow a knob to be attached. As mentioned earlier, when looking for a knob, you'll want to make sure it fits the encoder. For this example, we'll use this knob. When selecting a knob, make sure the specs for "shaft size" and "height" match the corresponding values for the shaft of the encoder. To get the precise dimensions, look at the part's datasheet.

It's not obvious from most pictures of knobs, but they typically come with a screw on the side that tightens down to lock onto the shaft of the encoder.

Attaching the knob to the encoder, gives us a nice dial for our project.

One last thing to cover here is the push-button feature of the example encoder. The following code, which can be combined with the previous code, turns on an LED when the encoder shaft is pushed down.
int _encoderBtnPin = 4;
int _ledPin = 13;

// Don't need to be volatile since only accessed from single interrupt handler
int _lastBit1 = 0;
int _lastBit2 = 0;

void setup() {
  Serial.begin (9600);

  pinMode(_ledPin, OUTPUT);
  digitalWrite(_encoderBtnPin, HIGH);
  digitalWrite(_ledPin, LOW);

void loop() {
  int decompressed = digitalRead(_encoderBtnPin);
  if (decompressed) {
    digitalWrite(_ledPin, LOW);
  } else {
    digitalWrite(_ledPin, HIGH);
Now, we can connect the encoder button to the Arduino.

I've learned quite a bit of new things about encoders, knobs, and Arduino in figuring all this out. I hope sharing it helps accelerate your learning! Feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions.

Friday, September 6, 2013

10 Lessons From 10 Startup Weekends

If you know me or have read anything from my blog, it's probably abundantly obvious that I love hackathons and am particularly fond of Startup Weekend. Well, on August 18, I wrapped up my 10th Startup Weekend. I have a bunch of half-written blog posts sitting with reflections on my experiences and learning from these various events. However, with the tenth, I thought it would be fun to pick one thing I've learned from each event and do a kitschy 10-things post. There's nothing really novel here, but I think those who have been to Startup Weekend will be able to relate and hopefully those who haven't will be convinced to attend.

1. January 2012, "Rise of the Designer" Theme, Seattle, WA

What's the right size for a team? This was the first time I had ever attended Startup Weekend and the biggest lesson from this event was that a bigger team doesn't necessarily produce better results. The team I joined at this event ended up with 14 members and a leader who, while a great guy, was not ready to manage the challenges that arise when 14 people meeting for the first time and spend 54 hours in a high-pressure environment trying to deliver on a novel vision. The more people on a team, the more opinions there are, meaning the more prepared and willing the leader needs to be to manage it all. The team had some strong personalities that resulted in a lot of unproductive argument. Naturally, team size isn't an issue in isolation. Team productivity is the net of all the unique personalities that comprise it, the structure placed around its operation, and numerous environmental factors. It's important to choose teammates based on criteria that matter to you. Personally, I prioritize people I'd enjoy working with, who are aligned in what they want to achieve, and who have complimentary skills. I look for leadership that is willing to make unpopular decisions and follow through. It's not always comfortable, but it's often required to get things done on a tight timeline.

2. April 2012, "Government" Theme, Seattle, WA

Are you asking the right questions? After my first Startup Weekend experience, I was determined to (1) be part of a moderately-sized team and (2) play a leadership role. Before the initial idea pitches, I canvased the room to gather support for the idea I wanted to work on. Fortunately, things worked out. My idea was selected and I had the opportunity to lead a team. In bringing the team together, I was intentional about keeping it at no more than 6 people with a balanced set of skills. With a solid team in place, I focused my attention on putting customer development to practice. On the upside, I learned a lot about interviewing potential customers. On the downside, I spent way too much time putting together a survey. But I did learn a lot about how to tailor survey questions to produce meaningful data while avoiding inadvertent manipulation of the respondent's responses. The key is to ask behavior-based questions that are indicative of users' pre-existing behaviors. Making sure questions solicit objective responses ensures that we gather facts rather than supposition and speculation. If we must ask a subjective question, it helps to be aware of psychological influences like anchoring, etc. A great book on the topic of psychological influences is Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

3. May 2012, General Event, Seattle, WA

What's a mentor? At this event, I was again in charge of a survey to collect customer data. However, what I learned this go-around was far different from what I learned at the prior event. To gauge whether the survey content would help achieve our goals, I ran it by several event mentors. Each time I spoke with a mentor, the feedback was essentially to rewrite the entire survey. So after each conversation, I would go back and spent over an hour hour carefully crafting a revision. When I got the same feedback a fourth time, I realized I was spinning in circles and that the information I wanted to capture was pretty well covered by the original rendition of the survey. This was the first time I had experienced "mentor whiplash". When getting feedback from mentors, it's important to remember that mentors are there to give guidance, not instruction (it's good for mentors to remember this too!). We shouldn't necessarily spin on our heels just because someone we deem as credible suggests that we're going down a wrong path. Usually, better decisions come from seeking out feedback from relevant individuals, internalizing their feedback, and making our own decisions.

4. July 2012, "Women's Edition" Theme, Seattle, WA

Have you ever walked in a room and been the only woman/man/adult/child/foreigner/student/whatever? If you haven't, it's an experience I'd recommend. The Women's Edition of Startup Weekend inverted the typical male-to-female participant ratio to encourage and inspire women, who are typically less well-represented at hackathons. For this event, the balance of participant gender was set at about 85% women and 15% men. Although I have long believed in the importance of supporting and being inclusive of minority groups, I don't know that I've ever had an experience that made me more acutely aware of being on the other side of the table. It's one thing to put yourself in that position by choice, for example through intentional selection of friends. It's something else completely when being a minority is entirely outside your control. I still remember the feeling of walking into the room where things were kicking off and instantly being struck by uncertainty, self-awareness, self-doubt, and a wave of other emotions. This was an eye-opening experience that has helped me to empathize with what minorities go through on a daily basis. It's up to everyone to choose how they address diversity and minorities, but at a minimum, I think it's important for everyone to be cognizant of what others experience.

5. September 2012, General Event, Seattle, WA

What do you do when things look dire? I attended this event with a close friend and while we didn't have a particular idea we wanted to work on, we knew we wanted to work together. Most of the ideas that were selected either weren't that appealing to us or ended up with teams to which we didn't think we'd add net value. One of the ideas that was chosen ended up without any team members aside from the person who pitched it. We found the idea somewhat interesting, so we decided to form a small, three-person team. We felt that this team size was an opportunity to get a more realistic experience of what it's like to be a co-founder. Like real founders, we certainly experienced plenty of ups and downs throughout the weekend (of course, all in a safe, low-stakes, low-risk, time-boxed environment). There were multiple times when we'd asked ourselves why we even bothered continuing with the weekend. We even hit one of these troughs around 5 hours before final presentations. But we pushed through, despite the tight deadline and the continual need to tweak or scrap the business model as we got feedback from potential customers. During the final presentation Q&A, one of the judges literally, word-for-word, told us we were "full of shit". But compared to what we'd been through the rest of the weekend, the words didn't phase us for a moment. It was actually great feedback... how can a tiny team possibly deliver on a big vision? Then again, we had persistence on our side.

6. November 2012, General Event, Kirkland, WA

What do you want to achieve? Having worked on a lot of serious projects at previous events, I was eager to work on something (1) fun and (2) hardware-related at this event. I pitched "SlapBot", a robot that slaps you when you send annoying or mundane tweets and Facebook posts. This quickly became ZapBot, which would give an electric jolt instead of a slap. Although the idea didn't get enough votes to officially become a project, there was interest from two other participants, so we formed a 3-person rogue team. The initial intent was purely to be a joke and to have fun, but the novelty of the gadget and the positive response from people we showed shifted the tone of our conversations toward evaluating the concept as a serious business. Unfortunately, this resulted in a final pitch was neither funny nor compelling as a business opportunity. It's important to know your objective, then tailor your actions and train your focus on achieving it. Understand the experience you need to be delivering and deliver on it. Be wary of shiny distractions. I later completely revised the pitch to focus on the humorous side of the concept and presented again in a different context. The second time around, the result was exactly what I had hoped for - lots of laughter and delighted conversation.

7. November 2012, General Event, Seattle, WA

When was the last time you let your hair down? After building a silly device like ZapBot, I was ready to get back to business. I had an idea I thought would be interesting and that might have a business behind it. But then someone jokingly pitched "Cartar", a keytar for jamming in the car. I was hooked. Try as I might, I couldn't get the person who pitched the idea to work on it. So, I did what any good entrepreneur would do. I stole the idea (with his permission) and formed another rogue team. From the first night, the team started dreaming up what the final presentation would look like. We wanted it to be an experience rather than a presentation - something people would remember. I also wanted our team to have a blast working on the project. Keeping those goals front-of-mind through the weekend, both were achieved in spades. I knew it was a success when one of my teammates, who had been to numerous Startup Weekends in the past, told me that this one was the most fun he'd ever had. I knew we'd delivered on the presentation (1) when Rich Barton, a special guest, looked up from his phone to watch our presentation, and (2) when the audience gave us a roaring ovation, the longest I've yet seen at a Startup Weekend. I wouldn't say there was a great business case for the product, but I will say with confidence that we truly captured the potential of what the Startup Weekend experience can be. And all because we focused on having a great time.

8. January 2013, Special University of Washington Event, Seattle, WA

What is a leader and what do they do? At this event, I joined a team comprised entirely of students, non of whom had been to a Startup Weekend before or had any industry or entrepreneurial experience. To be clear, there's a lot of potential for mischaracterization in that statement. These students were incredible. I've met professional programmers who can't program as well as the budding engineers who were on this team. I've also met business people who get locked up in over-analysis instead of making things happen, the way the other members of this team did. But experience is experience and that was the one thing they were lacking. It was clear very early on that this was leading to some decisions that would take the team down an unproductive path. At that point, it would have been easy to have stepped in and forcefully grabbed the reins to pull things in a different direction. However, this was one case in which it was especially important not to see anyone on the team discouraged. So instead of being direct, I tried encouraging discussion and helped guide conversations down a reasoned path, advocating the collection of data where knowledge gaps existed. This approach worked well as the team didn't hit the bumps and pitfalls first-time Startup Weekenders usually go through. More importantly, everyone left with a solid experience under their belts and eager to participate again in the future.

9. April 2013, General Event, Portland, OR

What are the rules about rules? Once again, I went rogue. I knew I wanted to work on something hardware related, but the idea I pitched didn't get picked and neither did the one other hardware project I was interested in (there were a total of three hardware ideas pitched). At this point, I'd had some experience going rogue before, so this time I had a pretty good idea of what I was doing. After it was obvious that my idea and the other one I was interested in weren't going to get enough votes to be selected, I grabbed the other person and we recruited two more people with complementary skills. The event organizers were surprised when we registered our team with an idea that hadn't been officially selected, but nothing really forbade this. With warnings of risk and votes of no-confidence, we proceeded with the usual paces, identifying and validating a promising market opportunity, building a solid prototype, and bringing it together with a strong presentation. This might have happened if we had gone along with what we were "supposed" to do, but we were all really glad we took the route we did. Given the choice of betting on luck or betting on myself, I'd choose myself. Rules are designed as constraints, but they're uni-dimensional in a multi-dimensional world. Shifting one's view opens up new possibilities that aren't immediately obvious.

10. August 2013, General Event, Seattle, WA

How much does team composition really matter? Many of the most important lessons I've learned at the various Startup Weekends I've participated in have to do with team (it just so happens that the most important lessons I've learn as a Startup Weekend organizer have also been team-related). At the most recent Startup Weekend I participated in, I had the great fortune of connected with someone who's skills complemented my own in an it's-too-good-to-be-true kind of way. As we talked about our areas of interest and backgrounds, lightening struck, followed by immediate clarity. There was no doubt that we were the basis of an ideal team to work on one of the projects we had in mind. While other participants weren't particularly interested in working on the idea, we convinced two talented friends of mine, who were actually simultaneously event organizers, to join the team. The result was an incredibly productive weekend that ran like clockwork. Everyone pretty much knew exactly what to do and got right to it. I think we were all pretty amazed with what we were able to accomplish in such a short timespan, but in retrospect it made sense. We were set up for success from the outset by forming a well-balanced team.

It's been a long journey since my first Startup Weekend, but looking back, I couldn't be more pleased with the amazing friends I've made, the knowledge I've gained, and the seriously cool stuff I've helped build. Startup Weekend doesn't begin to compare to actually founding and running a startup, but there's no question that the experiences it's offered will be a major contributor to any success I'm fortunate enough to have.

There are a ton of people to thank for all these incredible experiences, but the list would go on forever. You know who you are - thank you all for teaching me so much!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

It Has Never Been a Better Time To Be An Entrepreneur

I get many opportunities to talk with pre-entrepreneurs who are at various stages of exploration, from "I saw the Facebook movie" to "my side project is generating revenue". Something that comes up frequently in these conversations is "why entrepreneurship?" This is a very broad topic with myriad reasons behind it, and each answer is unique to the individual. However, I recently noticed that regardless of who I'm speaking with, one consistency across conversations has been commentary on why it has never been a better time to be an entrepreneur. I'm not the first person to say this and it would be a terribly depressing indication of the state of entrepreneurship if I were the last. Whatever the case, the key areas I tend to elucidate on include entrepreneurial education, startup accelerators, modern technology, channels to consumers, availability of funding, startup hubs and supportive communities, and social acceptance. Below is a brief outline of how these play into this being the best time in history to be an entrepreneur.

Over the past 10-15 years, our understanding of what goes into starting a successful business has rapidly expanded. Although our collective knowledge about this topic has emerged through several decades of academic research and practical experience, it was largely Steve Blank's 2005 book, Four Steps to the Epiphany, that opened the concepts up to the masses. His teaching led to the Lean Startup movement, which was propelled by anecdotal publications like The Lean Startup, Running Lean, and many others that followed. With the momentous spread of his teaching, Steve Blank later cleaned up the presentation of his material in The Startup Owner's Manual, which is essentially the text book on how to build a startup. All of this activity resulted in a strong base of easily-accessible knowledge on how to start and build a successful company. This is not to say that the Lean approach, which has largely been the focus of the past 8 years, is the only way to create a startup, or even the right way, but that we have made tremendous progress in the codification and sharing of information on this topic.

In conjunction with the development of knowledge around entrepreneurship, educational institutions have created curricula that is better suited for training entrepreneurs. Stanford, in particular, has been a leader in redefining how entrepreneurship is taught at universities. We have also seen the emergence of fantastic new programs like SWNext, which was enabled by Startup Weekend's unique position in the market and collaboration with amazing local facilitators around the world.

It probably goes without saying, but we have also accumulated a wealth of online resources, many of which are freely available to anyone with Internet access. There are numerous websites and blogs dedicated to educating entrepreneurs in areas as diverse as law, finance, technology, customer acquisition, and nearly any other topic one could ask for. Stanford has even started offering courses in entrepreneurship and related topics online and other academic institutions have followed suit. The vehicles for these online offerings are usually online education platforms such as Udemy and Coursera, which also host a multitude of other courses in entrepreneurship and technology.

With many thanks to Paul Graham, a fairly stable format for offering entrepreneurial training and startup acceleration has taken shape over the last 8 years. A more hands-on and rigorous complement to other educational resources, the 3-month bootcamp model he pioneered has become the de facto standard. Today, Paul's own YCombinator remains a top program along with TechStars, AngelPad, and 500 Startups. Many believe that for entrepreneurs, these programs are far superior to traditional MBA programs, particularly in light of the time required, the financial burden, and the lack of practical work involved in traditional programs. There is even a diversity of technology-, vertical-, and market-specific accelerators in most regions of the United States as well as internationally, but since many of these are newer, it remains to be seen how successful they are. In the meantime, I haven't met anyone who has regretted the experience of going through the fore-mentioned programs, so I feel like they're a pretty solid bet.

Modern Technology
Anyone up to speed on modern software practices is likely to be familiar with the availability of modern tools and will agree that it's unbelievably easy to quickly get a live web service up and running. Services like those offered by Heroku, AppFog, and AppHarbor extricate us from the nuisance of purchasing and deploying hardware, configuring infrastructure, complex deployment processes, etc. Now, we can simply code up our control logic on a framework like Ruby on Rails or Code Igniter, add a rich presentation layer using Bootstrap, and deploy via Git, all while collaborating and preserving the codebase using Github.

Don't know how to code? It doesn't matter anymore. There are a million services out there that don't require any experience writing software. You can create a sign-up page using Launch Rock, a store front using Shopify, and pretty much anything else you can think of. One limitation that stands out is the creation of mobile apps due to app store policies, but mobile web is unrestricted, so it's easy enough to create a mobile-optimized website instead of a native app.

For those more technically inclined, the world of open source has grown at an explosive rate, thanks to public code hosting services like Github and CodePlex. It's easy to nab code for nearly any flavor of indexing, caching, load balancing, data processing, and so much more. There is some unbelievable stuff freely available because developers want to share their work and allow others to benefit from it. There's an API for almost everything from payment processing to mobile backend as a service. Most of these services have a free offering for minimal levels of consumption.

Don't get me wrong - the solid engineering required to build a robust product takes great skill. But there are so many tools available that most of us can get much farther, much faster, and with much less domain-specific knowledge than ever before.

And let's not forget about physical products, which have largely been back-of-mind since the tech boom in the 90's. Just like web services, physical products are getting easier to create as well. For $25, you can buy a pocket-sized Linux server (Raspberry Pi) or easy-to-program microcontroller (Arduino). You can create physical objects in hours or even minutes using 3D printers like those sold by MakerBot. Too expensive? Head over to one of the many local shared spaces opening up like Seattle's MakerHaus. What these machines are capable of vastly reshapes the limits of our creativity.

Channels to Consumers
What difference do all these technological innovations make if we can't reach consumers? The whole world is familiar with social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and others that make it easier to build a following and distribute content. We also have channels like eBay and to get our products in front of existing, active consumers. For our web services and apps, we have app stores on every mobile platform and at least one store for browser extensions, Google's Chrome Web Store. To access new customers, we can get substantial reach using Google's Ad Words or Facebook Advertising. The best part about modern online advertising is that every platform I'm aware of allows us to target specific user profiles so we get our message in front of the particular audience we're targeting.

Aside from marketing and sales, these tools can be used to validate our ideas against our target customer segments. When we put out an ad and no one clicks through, or no one converts into a paying customer, there's a good chance something was broken about our business model, whether the customer segment we were targeting, the value prop we were offering, or something else.

The ability to reach people for the purpose of market validation is worth elaborating on. There are a plethora of tools like Mechanical Turk, aytm, and Google Consumer Surveys that help you get copious amounts of feedback more quickly and at a lower price point than traditional means. Of course, it's also good to jump on services like LinkedIn and WhitePages to drum up direct leads. We don't want to get lost in the technological wonderland that surrounds us and forget the importance of sending email, making phone calls, and hitting the streets for in-person conversations with customers.

Availability of Funding
Immense change has occurred in the past few years around financing for startups. Naturally, angels, angel groups, and VC firms are still around, but we've also seen the rise of super angels. Likewise, alternative sources of funding are available such as the revenue-based loans offered by Lighter Capital and crowd-funding platforms like Kickstarter. Just like there are new ways to reach consumers, there are new ways to reach investors. Angel List facilitates entrepreneurs' abilities to connect with angel investors to raise financing.

A new development worth keeping an eye on is the passing of the JOBS act last year. While we're still waiting for the act to be implemented by government, numerous companies like Fundable aren't waiting. You can put your startup's profile on their platform today. We can expect many anticipated and unanticipated challenges in this area, but I am eager to see how it shakes up the world of entrepreneurship over the next two years and beyond.

Startup Hubs and Supportive Communities
Startup hubs are growing organically in nearly every major city in the world. Most of these hubs have champions who are deliberately driving the growth of the tech and startup communities within them. Outside of Silicon Valley, cities like Seattle, New York, Boston, Austin, Colorado, and Chicago have thriving communities of entrepreneurs and the resources needed to support them. Each of these cities has accelerator programs, great universities producing tech and talent, and extensive availability startup-oriented services.

I can't speak in depth about other startup communities, but Seattle's is extremely supportive. Community members want you to win and most are willing to lend a hand in one way or another to see that you get there. While there is competition among the companies here, the general consensus is that success in our community is a benefit to all of us.

Social Acceptance
Entrepreneurship may not have been widely accepted as a productive career path prior to the 90's and it may have had some bad stigma after the eruption of the Internet bubble in the early 2000's, but from day-to-day conversations I'm having today, I'm finding that people living completely outside the startup orb have some familiarity with and appreciation of entrepreneurship and those pursuing it. Of course, most people don't understand the mindset of an entrepreneur or what an entrepreneur goes through to build their business, but fortunately, our supportive startup communities help us to cope with the emotional challenges of entrepreneurship.

So, What Are You Waiting For?
Hopefully this has provided some valuable food for thought. For those who are on the edge of exploring entrepreneurship, I strongly encourage further exploration. Talk with friends working at startups, try going to Startup Weekend, or get involved in the startup community in some other way. If you're ready to take it a step further, go work for a startup. And if you've done your homework, have the right risk profile, and are ready for an amazing roller coaster ride, go for it! It's never been a better time to be an entrepreneur.

Friday, February 22, 2013

How Customer Development Landed Me at a Top VC Firm

For the last 8 years of my life, I've been immersed in the design and implementation of large-scale distributed systems and data processing pipelines. In December of last year, I began working for the top VC firm in the Northwest, Madrona Venture Group, where I help our portfolio companies with their technical hiring needs. Yeah... I went from engineer to recruiter and what's more surprising is that customer development is what got me here. Nearly everyone I talk to asks me how I ended up at Madrona, so here's the story of how customer development landed me at a top VC firm.

I first came to Seattle at the beginning of 2008 to work on an incubation project at Microsoft that would later become Windows Azure. After about 2.5 years on the project, it became clear that the trajectory of relevant skills I was acquiring had started to taper and that my experiences on the team were no longer driving me toward my long-term, entrepreneurial goals. It was time for a change and while the decision to leave a high-performing team wasn't an easy one, it was a good one.

My next stop was another incubation project in Xbox Live, where I would be exposed to new challenges and greater scope of responsibility. Even though we were running at 100 miles per hour, I forced myself to make time outside of work to supplement my personal development. I was constantly volunteering in the local startup community and reading as much material as my attention span would permit. Toward the middle of 2011, conversations about Lean Startup were becoming increasingly pervasive and The Four Steps to the Epiphany and The Lean Startup quickly found their way onto my reading list. These books and the surrounding conversations led to a personal epiphany that, in a very short time, changed the way I view and approach the world.

As 2012 rolled around, I began finding ways to practice the concepts I had been reading and discussing. Startup Weekend was one of my first practical immersions into the world of customer development and immediately became a habit. Since weekend hackathons are limited in scope, I also signed up for an online course on entrepreneurship taught by Stanford's Dr. Chuck Eesley. From February through June, I worked my way through the course with an amazing group of local classmates. After invalidating numerous ideas, one of my classmates and I decided to re-hash the discussion of why we wanted to build a startup. Among other things, two key drivers stood out: the ability to carefully craft a culture we were excited about and proud of, and to build a team we loved working with. From this, we began exploring the possibility of using these concepts as the seed for an idea rather than limiting them to being principles upon which we'd built the business.

With some thought, we identified the problem of bad hires as something we wanted to solve. Since we both have a passion for startups, we initially defined our target customers as hiring managers at high-tech software startups. While hiring mistakes were viewed as a problem by some of the people we spoke to, it wasn't generally viewed as a major concern. Instead, our conversations consistently and inevitably would turn into conversations about how companies couldn't get enough high-quality software engineers into their hiring pipelines. It was easy to recognize that this was a much sharper pain point than what we had started out with, so we decided to change course, likewise redefining our customers as recruiters of senior engineers at fortune 500 software companies.

At this point, we decided to participate in the local session of SWNext, which was headed by Andy Sack. With Andy's candid feedback and the support of our cohort, we slammed on the gas. In fact, by the third week, we were interviewing recruiters so aggressively that a director of recruiting at one of the companies told me to stop talking to his company's recruiters. While I was shaken by this reaction (our goal was to make their lives better, after all), I wasn't deterred and we continued sourcing interviews from other companies.

At about this time, I started to wonder whether VC firms centralized recruiting to provide their portfolio companies with some of the advantages of scale that large companies have. To find out, I reached out to someone from Madrona with whom I had become well acquainted over the past year to ask. Within a week, I was on the phone with my soon-to-be-manager, Robin Andrulevich. As we dug into the challenges she faces in her work, she mentioned that Madrona was considering opening a new role to help the companies with their technical talent needs. This piqued my interest and I quickly asked if we could have another conversation about it.

By this time, I had become fairly knowledgeable about recruiting, thanks to all the interviews I had done. Further, I had been experimenting with many of the tactics the recruiters had been sharing and had actually gotten fairly good at finding information about people. These factors were an important part of why Madrona was willing to take a risk on someone who hadn't done this type of work in the past.

Although it has been only two months since I joined, I can confidently say that Madrona is an exceptional firm, as are its companies. I really love the work I do and find it extremely gratifying to be helping amazing entrepreneurs grow their businesses. Robin and I get a lot of heart-warming, appreciative feedback from them and we get a lot of thanks from the engineers we connect since we genuinely care about their interests and do what's right for them. And the best thing about all this is that none it feels like "work" - it's a passion that lets me wake up every morning excited about the day ahead. With the knowledge, skills, and connections you make through customer development, it's pretty incredible where it can take you.

FYI, if you're interested in what Madrona's companies are working on, we just started a technical mailing list where we'll be sending a quarterly email with technical developments, invites to exclusive events, free swag, new investments, etc. You can sign up here: If you're interested in working at a startup, you can contact me directly at