While I am sure most people are going to think that the title of this post is cliche, I want to point out that that is not the case at all.
A few years ago people started talking about mobile social networks and I thought that was a really interesting, but way off in time idea. I was really wrong. I hate being wrong so consider this my effort to correct myself publicly.
The biggest evidence of this that I have seen in a public setting is the mobile social network Waze. Waze is a really interesting, if not addictive mobile social network built around maps. The service allows you to interact with other drivers in real time using really neat features that helps everyone in the network to get where they are going safely, economically and without delays that could not be anticipated. There are local groups and interest groups around what you want to do.
I don’t think that Waze is the end all be all by any means. For starters, the app aspires to be a bit more of a Tom Tom style driver GPS app than I am personally interested in using. Driving directions are nice, but the developers of it have not found a happy place between computer voice based driving directions and incoming calls, music, news, or podcasts. There is a ton of room for innovation here. For example, when you are listening to your favorite music site online and initiate a skype call the volume on the music site is automatically muted. Search via Waze is still severely lacking.
Fortunately there are a ton of options out there that ensure that there will be others to follow Waze. Did I mention that it is right about the time that Apple buy Waze? They seem like a great alternative to Google Maps. You could take a look at Bing (I don’t know anyone who uses it) or MapQuest (dead to me because it just sucks), or maybe something else. I would love to hear about other alternatives to Google Maps. As a developer bootstrapping a startup, I
really don’t like can’t stand Google Maps. Once you get past the really tiny API limits on Google Maps you are looking at $800+ to stay in the game. I can’t imagine what Apple is paying for the Google Maps partnership via the iPhone, but it has to be an absurd amount of money.
What would really make my day is a service like Google Maps that had a more generous API and that did not suck. One effort moving in the right direction is OpenStreetMap. The service is open and currently powers MapQuest. You can get at an instance of it via MapQuest, but the service is unacceptably slow when compared to Google Maps via API. I’m hoping to get around to standing up an OpenStreetMaps server based service to see what is possible. Even with this, there is a lot of room for improvement. The Knight Foundation announced a grant of $575,000 to Development Seed and MapBox which should help improve OpenStreetMap quite a bit. I look forward to following their progress.
Over the last few years I have seen some great efforts concentrated around mobile social networks and map oriented startups. I would love to hear about more startups and efforts in this space. Drop me a line if you are working on one or interested in working on one.
Since the beginning of the Social Matchbox event series I have heard a lot of stories from founders and hiring teams. Finding funding is always a good bet, but that is a problem that is usually self inflicted (e.g. founders looking to raise money with little more than a company concept as opposed to anything that resembles a scalable business). Hiring developers has been the issue that dominated pain point discussions as a constant as long as I can remember. With Ruby on Rails and framework based development utilizing Rails, JQuery, Django, Symfony, Zend, Spring, etc. the problem became much less severe and people have learned to be lean and agile in a way that allows them to get out of the weeds.
I’m talking as much from personal experience here as I am from conversational threads with founders and I want to point this out. So much of the conversation about how and why things are the way they are is because people go out with a problem looking for victims. I’m more of the kind of person who just sits back and listens, then starts asking questions as the patterns start to emerge. This is why today’s post is bubbling up to the top of the Social Matchbox.
Over the last six months or so I have been recruiting and interviewing designers for mobile and web teams. This task used to be pretty easy, but that took a big change with the introduction of Apple Retina Displays. I’ll point out that while there is a lot of conversation about responsive design, the real meat on the bones of this discussion centers around resolution. Designing for Retina displays is something that mainstream computer manufacturers and cell phone makers would probably rather not have us think to much about. Take a trip to a local geek supply store like Micro Center or Best Buy and you will see what I mean. Most laptops are stuck at sub 1080p resolution. Monitors usually max out at 1080p. As someone who uses and prefers WUXGA resolution, at least until now, I’m a bit frustrated every time I want to go buy something and I am forced to do my shopping nearly 100% online. Don’t even get me started about how bad the computers are. Ok, let me just point out that in 2012 a shopper should not have to do an online search while in a store to determine if the computer they are looking at has a dual core processor and a 4 cell battery that may not last two hours. A better analogy might be trying to find a copy of the New York times at the diner on the town square.
So how does this relate to design? Simple: most designers are chasing the median, not the edges where innovation is taking place. This is partly due to the fact that the jobs in most places like DC are concerned with the median. The Washington area plays host to a ton of organizations that are pushing content to their users using websites. It is completely acceptable to simply port websites over to mobile devices using responsive design techniques. Responsive design is great. I am a fan and as soon as I get the time to do it or the extra revenue to hire someone to do it I will make all of my websites including this one responsive. The problem is when you are not simply looking to port web content over to mobile.
The future of consumer application development isn’t web x.0 and it isn’t mobile x.0, it is simply xyz x.0 when you get right down to it. This isn’t rocket science, it is just the way things are headed. You could be building an app for the web and mobile and the next generation of wrist watch or glasses within a few months. My geek friends are already working on apps for all of the above. Get ready.
With the stage set this way founders are going to have to spend extra time and energy seeking out designers who are thinking beyond the browser and the mobile device, not just about how to route content from one to the other. There is a real shortage of these people in the Washington area. There are a lot more of them in the bay area and in LA, but that doesn’t mean they are not here. People will start working on projects that include cross-platform design gradually and as they do I predict that these designers are going to be on par with developers as the hot commodity in the startup and software community.
This is a great opportunity for designers looking to get ahead and to differentiate themselves.
Is your mobile, web or software startup company looking for exceptional programmers, designers, marketers, etc. right now but can’t find them?
We have some good news. Since September 2011, Social Matchbox has been accepting profiles and resumes from the leading professionals who track developments in the startup space and who attend startup events that we have hosted.
There are people from just about everywhere around the US, but for your best bet is on finding people here in the Washington, DC area and out in California.
If your team would like to gain access to the service just drop us a line and we’ll help you get plugged into this growing resource. Please note that this database is only being made available to mobile, web and software startups.
In the mean time, anyone can post a job as long and as long as it is something of interest to our community we’ll share it.
If you happen to be looking for a job the be sure to click the job seeker’s button at the top of the site today and get noticed by the top startup companies on both the East and West Coast.
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I have a lot of discussions with startups as an adviser, blogger, event organizer for an event that has launched some amazingly successful startups (and some that were amazing flops too). I recently had a chat that was a part of a growing series of chats about launching, raising money, and at what point does development take a back seat to customer acquisition and product validation. The lean agile startup bug bit me too. Simultaneously, I have been trying to think of something to write about on a blog that has been running in some form or another for a long time. I don’t want to do startup write-ups, that isn’t my thing. Add to the fact that I haven’t had much time to write lately because, as many of you know, I have been through the same valley of despair on the road to the prosperity and pleasure (some of you may know where I’m going with this by the clue here) over the last three years. So, today I want to write about learning to trust your at least trusting the gut of your trusty swiss army knife adviser’s gut.
Let’s get right down to it. I’ve spent the last three years straddling the fence between building a startup that I thought I would raise seed or angel funding for and building a profitable company that has been my day job for the last five years. The first company was profitable on day one and has been that way ever sense. Some days I think about how it would be if I gave up the first business and completely focused my time and energy on the second. Man, what a world of difference that would be. I want to do that, but every time I look at a term sheet or talk to an investor who simply doesn’t get it – not even a little – my heart sinks in my chest and I back away from the deal. Or the investor backs away from the deal. Or both. I’m not the ideal startup guy to invest in. I didn’t go to HBS or Wharton or Stanford business school, or drop out of the computer science program at Harvard or Stanford in order to pursue my startup in my early 20′s. I had some friends that dropped out and some got lucky while others are still working day jobs for someone else. I managed to figure things out sufficiently that I could quit my day job and live the life that I want. I also got lucky and married the girl of my dreams. But enough about me. I’m writing this post because I feel that there startup founders and hopeless romantics have something in common that they need to get over.
So, as the gambler would say, you have to know when to hold ‘em, fold ‘em and to go all in. I’ll leave the know when to run part to co-founders, investors, and employees of founders who might give them reason to do so and use a more modern analogy from the game of Texas Hold ‘Em (all in). The problem with Hopeless Romantics is that they are in love with their startup idea so much that they want to spend all of their time, energy, and resources on developing the product into something that is absolutely perfect. This is the kind of person that Steve Wozniak was, but the kind of person that Steve Jobs only found himself in to the extent that the people he brought into his startup allowed him to be. As I read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs this becomes more clear. I had read iWoz about Steve Wozniak previously. If it had been up to Steve Wozniak, the Apple computer would have been given away to people at meetup groups until someone at HP or IBM or some other company realized its potential and mass marketed it. Steve Jobs focused on the sell it, mass market it, and go all in part. This is a very important point.
Too many startup founders think of their startup idea like the Winchester House or like South of the Border. The problem with these founders, and all of us are these founders sometimes, is that you have to finish what you are doing sufficiently some day. If not then you will never get a customer. If you can’t do it then that’s it, game over, stick a fork in it you are done.
I feel like there is a lot of talk about Lean Agile Startups. People talk about this concept so much that I wonder if there is anyone anywhere who has not heard about this model. The funny thing about talk is that it often goes in one ear and out the other. In many cases people just seem to create their own Steve Jobs style reality distortion field for themselves. They think that because they are somehow inspired that they will be able to accomplish great things in spite of their attempts to defy the odds. The reality is that things just don’t work that way.
The biggest lesson from the Lean Agile statup discussions is to start with something small that works and then get validation on that fast. Then evolve. The problem that most founders have is that they are into their 19th evolution before they even seek their first user, much less any validation. Ok, I’m exaggerating a bit (in some cases). The point isn’t that there is some magic out there for getting it right.
This is where advisers come into play. As a founder who has often looked out for a mentor or adviser who was a swiss army knife worth of insights, advice and a fat wallet to go along with it I just want to point out that when you go looking for advice you absolutely must listen to it and take it when you get it from someone that you are taking the time to sit down with. If not then move on to the next person, but by all means do yourself the favor of taking someone else’s advice sometime. If you can’t do this then you should probably not be in the business of starting a business in the first place because advice from your advisers will be a lot easier to take than advice from your customers who came to you, not the other way around.
On to the next topic.
When A Founder Should Hold ‘Em, Fold ‘Em and To Go All In. Startup founders like to go all in as soon as they have an idea. They get it on the napkin and then it is time for a PowerPoint (or Prezi if you are trendy) and a trip to sand hill road. That may have worked some number of years back, but it isn’t a viable option now. Hold on to your idea and get past go at least once before you push your chips into the middle of the table. The time to go all in will come, but it is after you have some degree of validation. I’m not going to cover the subject of when to fold them beyond saying that if you don’t know where the money is going to be coming from and you don’t have a consulting gig or something that allows you to work on your schedule while paying the bills after three months then you should fold the startup or get a job or at least get a job. This is part of the problem mentioned above. You can’t hold on to your idea waiting for the perfect hand to be dealt to you every time. Sometimes you will not ever get a good hand or things will just not go your way. Expect that and know when to walk away. Beyond that, you should be able to get to the part of the Lean Agile startup approach where you have people who are willing to use your product and ideally pay to use your product. If you get there, that is when you know you are on the right track. You might say that that is your cue to stay in the startup game.
The bottom line here is that you need to be thinking about taking some risks, placing some bets on your risks, and being ready for when the right moment comes to take things to the next level. Be smart and don’t lose sight of this and by all means, learn to walk before you try to run.
AccelerateBaltimore, a Baltimore, MD based startup accelerator program that awarded $25k in convertible debt notes to a small group of startups recently, showcased program graduates on July 25th. I had planned on making it out to the event but despite my scheduling jujitsu capabilities making it to the event was just not in the cards. I wish now that I had because according to Social Matchbox regular, Adetola Adewodu, who has been singing the praises of several of the startups in the program gave me the play by play later and it sounded like a great event.
According to a press release by Baltimore’s Emerging Technology Center (ETC), the following companies were part of the launch:
- Unbound Concepts: A proprietary machine learning algorithm designed to read text and “level” books by reading level
- Hooopla: A mobile app that facilitates the process of organizing social activities among friends (think groupon meets evite) and allowing merchants to offer group discounts.
- NoBadGift.com: A crowd sourced web application for both personal and charitable gifts
- Flying Pig Digital: A website and mobile app for exploring/sharing news by providing a game-like experience with real rewards.
The program requires participating companies to remain in Baltimore for at least five years, but when I asked Chris Moyer about this back in December he told me that there are ways around this – the program wants these companies to be successful, not to limit their potential completely. When he and I caught about about the program he also told me that AccelerateBaltimore was targeting top universities up and down the east coast. I decided not to do a write-up about the program at the time he and I spoke because their term sheet was not finalized. They ultimately posted the AccelerateBaltimore term sheet here in case you want to check it out.
Overall, the concepts being pursued by these startups and others that we have encountered coming out of Baltimore have been a level or two more interesting than many of the startups seem to be emanating from DC and Northern Virginia. While this is not always the case, it is definitely notable that startups coming from Baltimore tend to be slightly more brainy and more technologically sophisticated. This could bode well for the Baltimore startup scene as it continues to reach for the stars.
We look forward to seeing more startups from the Baltimore-Washington tech corridor as they hit the scene. Several recent Social Matchbox startups from this community included Replyz, SortIQ, and Tap Metrics (acquired by Millennial Media).
If you are applying for jobs and don’t know the name of the person who is the hiring manager then you are spending too much time applying for jobs and not enough time researching the companies that you are applying for jobs at. Over the last few days I have pored over hundreds of applications for job openings. I am baffled by one application in which someone applied for a job at a company that has <10 people, a company without an HR Manager by the way, but still used “Dear HR Manager” as the opening in their cover letter. This is outrageous. Cover letters are a complete total waste of your time if you are not going to bother to write something original. Two to three sentences that are concise and direct without a “Dear anyone” is better than a 500 word blob of something for everyone. Save yourself and the people reading your cover letters the time. Even more important is that you should take the time to figure out who is on the team you want to work on or the hiring manager of that team. When you find out, then you can do some personalizing. You might even point out a hobby that you share with them. With all of the social media options available today there is absolutely no excuse for not taking the time. Ok maybe if you are applying for a job at the DMV. Seriously. And take the time to write someone a note – find them on LinkedIn or Facebook or even Twitter. It is hard to find some people, but it is even harder pounding your head into the brick wall that doesn’t give back to you that is represented by most job boards and online classified listing systems. Think of the classifieds list as a starting point for your research, not as the doorway in.