An Innovation Wrong Turn?

After attending a demo day event held by a local student incubator that I would compare to a business plan pitch competition mashed up with a science fair project presentation event, I have been thinking a lot about the growing innovation economy discussions.  Policymakers seem to be putting a very large amount of emphasis on creating innovators who are essentially just a flavor of entrepreneur.  On its face, the idea of creating more innovators is not a bad idea so why the headline: ‘An Innovation Wrong Turn?’ you ask?

Innovation for the sake of innovation is great for generating tax revenue and people with experience working on projects.  But that doesn’t really solve any major problems on its own.  You have to point people in a direction.

Case in point: look at all of the web 2.0 companies.  People created photo sharing apps, game apps, and advertising apps like crazy.  For the most part these apps completely ignored major problems like solving global warming, stopping the spread of diseases, and education.  Ok, some education technology products have come along in fairness but they don’t actually seem to do anything but re-direct monetization schemes from one company to another.  They change the tech stack behind educational workflows or content publication, but they don’t really address how people learn in more than marginal ways.

As a result, NASA is launching projects like the Orion space ship that was launched this past week is using a 12 year old computer system that is less powerful than my Mac Book Air today several years ago and rocket engines built by the Soviet Union back in the 1960’s.

Innovators at this past week’s event created healthier coffee and just add water shampoo, but is that really valuable or is it just another product to line store shelves and people’s pockets? So perhaps this is a huge opportunity.  Just imagine how different the world would be if we could focus more attention on real problems and major advances instead.

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Mobile Design and Web Design Template Collections

Here is a roundup of mobile design templates and wire frames that may be helpful.

Mockups To Go – A collection of mockups by device and product type.

MOObileFrames – A collection of mobile mockups and wireframes.

UX Porn – for UX Designers: wireframe templates and UI Design Patterns

Wireframe Showcase – a collection of wireframes.

I Heart Wireframes – A collection of wireframes with a companion group.

Web Without Words – A collection of popular websites converted into wire frames without text.


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When Will I Be Ready To Pitch My App To An Investor?

I do a deep dive when I start working on something new.  Right now I am working on a new mobile application so I am reading up on what the latest trends in mobile app design, development, marketing and funding deals are.  Today I noticed a question about whether or not an investor would prefer to see a “clear, well designed mockup…or…a partially functioning app prototype with a rough interface” and it seemed like a great topic to address here.  The ultimate question that the person asking the question was looking for an answer to was this:
When will I Be Ready To Pitch My App To An Investor?”

People always look at things without contextual lenses until they have gone through a few startup rounds and learned what to expect.  The question of mockup vs. rough prototype isn’t really the right question to ask.  More on that in a minute, but let’s take a look at the question’s other flaws first.

1. The question is too broad.  There is no definition of a mockup or a rough prototype.  I have seen some terribly crappy prototypes and some really amazing prototypes that people thought were crappy.  The same is true for wire frames/mockups.  If you are a developer or a technical founder who has some Photoshop skills then you are probably overestimating the quality of your work.  If this is you just get a designer and make sure they help you take the quality level up.  This isn’t going to get you funded, but it will help solidify your efforts.  You might also want to get a board of advisors together to help shape your early efforts and ideas in a direction that is fundable.

2.  The question is without essential details including both who the founding team members are (think background) and who the investors are (think FFF vs. Angel Group vs. Sophisticated Angel vs. VC).  An FFF investor or an Angel Group might be easily impressed if you show up with a well-designed mockup.  That doesn’t mean that they should be.  Some sophisticated investors can be really impressed by a great team with a terribly bad app or idea.  I have seen the latter happen repeatedly.  Companies that find themselves in Series D rounds chasing the product market fit that they assumed they would get based on the founders’ brilliant idea often start off this way.  Again, you might also want to get a board of advisors together to help shape your early efforts and ideas in a direction that is fundable.

3. There is no reason why you should be pitching a mockup to investors.  The minimum bar should be a functional prototype that is backed up by early customer research.  That is how things would have worked in the early ’90s, but today investors have an expectation that you have either a great team or a great app with product market fit that will be like a bottle rocket being lit (e.g. it will immediately shoot for the stars with a little funding).

If you read between the lines, this question is really getting at a different question:
How Much Will It Cost For Me To Build An MVP That An Investor Will Fund?”

It is important to be honest with yourself. You can take shortcuts, but why not take a little extra time to establish a product market fit.  When people talk about failing fast and failing often what they are really talking about is how to make sure that you don’t spend a year or years figuring out something that you should have known before you asked for funding. Funding is a commitment and an obligation.

Here are two articles that are part of my ‘How Much Will It Cost To Build An MVP‘ series that should help:
What Is An MVP?
Designing An MVP


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How Much Will It Cost To Build My Startup App MVP? Part 2 – Designing An App MVP

This week I am working through the process of designing a new mobile app and mapping out the app’s early product-market research strategy while working with another founder who is working to re-brand a mobile app that that is planning to launch in the next few months.  A while back I wrote an post titled ‘How Much Will It Cost To Build My Startup App MVP? Part 1 – What Is An MVP?’ and it is about time that I add the second installment so today I decided to write about the process of making decisions about tools, techniques, and code that I have used so far as I tackle designing an MVP app over the coming weeks. Whether you have been designing and building mobile apps for many years now or you are considering building your first mobile app I hope this will help you out.  I have learned a lot over the last week as I have looked at building a new mobile app for the first time since probably around 2009 when I was advising a pre-product mobile startup founder.

If you are not looking to design and build a mobile app MVP, I will cover designing and building a web app or software app MVP in a future installment in this series.

Platform Notes
My laptop of choice is a MacBook Air. I’m pointing this out for two reasons. First, I recently upgraded to OS X Yosemite and iOS 8.  There is a new feature called Handoff which allows users to open something on their laptop and mobile at the same time.  I can work on the same app   Second, Apple’s app ecosystem is better when it comes to designing a mobile app.  More on that later.  There are some great tools that I could use on a Windows or a Linux laptop too, but for this project the best tools do not exist for PC or Linux (e.g. one running Ubuntu).

When I start a new project I always ask the best people I know what they would do if they were in my position.  A few years ago someone might have told me to use Illustrator and Photoshop along with a wire framing tool like Balsamiq.  This time around I did some very rough wire framing using Balsamiq, but I have moved on from Photoshop because it isn’t really the best tool. I never tried out Illustrator, but it is a really powerful tool that could probably get the job done this time but it isn’t the best tool for the job.

 comes with a free trial and costs $79 (one time license purchase ocst).  I like Balsamiq because it has a lot of stock templates (wireframes that cover various existing product templates).  It also has customizable drag and drop elements like a smart phone and popular buttons which allows you to get your app idea worked out really fast.  You can export your work as a .PSD file and then open it in your design tool of choice.  I try to use it as paper and pen because I can just save my work to a project folder when my time is up and pick things up right where I left off.  You could do some of the more advanced things that you might want to do with Balsamiq since it is a powerful tool, but I prefer to just use it for quickly sketching out wire frames.  You could probably skip this one.  The reason you would use Balsamiq is often because you want to create something very low fidelity that you will be handing off to a designer.  If you are a developer or non-technical founder then Balsamiq is a good place to start. If you are a designer then Balsamiq is probably not for you.  Depending on how things go with Flinto (see below), I may just use it for mobile app prototyping going forward and skip Balsamiq.  Check back for an update.

Here is an iPhone app wire framing tutorial that captures the essence of how the tool works.

You can download Balsimq (Windows or Mac) here:

The next tool that I am using is called Sketch which is currently on version 3 and costs $99.  Sketch is an app that you can download from the Apple App Store.  There is a free trial so you can try it out before you buy it (get that via the product website HERE).  There are several compelling reasons for using Sketch instead of Photoshop or Pixelmator (a great Photoshop alternative for Mac users).  One of them is Sketch’s iOS Mirror feature which lets you preview your designs on your iOS devices while you work on them.  This feature is similar to OS X Yosemite’s Handoff feature that I mentioned earlier so you can probably achieve the same result using another design tool, but it might not be as smooth of an experience.  While this is mostly for look and feel, it is very helpful.  I will cover two apps that you can use for modeling user interactions and application flow so that you can create a functional prototype of your app.  There are some additional features that help you to design and scale your work to different smart phone sizes as well as different resolutions (ex: 5K).  Sketch is not for lego type design so if you are looking for pre-designed buttons and stock elements this is not the tool for you. It is also designed with design for iOS apps in mind which makes it a lot easier to get going quickly.  You will probably find it to be similar to Illustrator so if you are a designer then you may still prefer Illustrator.  This is really a tool for people who are working on mobile apps that are slightly more focused on user experience than on pixel perfection.  I am definitely in that camp. I will ask a designer to jump in for the pixel perfect level of detail.

Here is an iPhone app UI design tutorial that captures the essence of how the tool works:

You can buy Sketch in the App store or via their official site here:

Depending on how much time you have, you could also work out the user interaction design for your mobile app or just create a navigable functional prototype of your app.  A functional prototype means something that allows you to click on a button and navigate to the next page (this is a very narrow definition).  This includes animations and interactions that come to life through   I plan to spend some time working on the user interactions and potentially creating a functional prototype of my app idea.  There are two tools that I plan to experiment with here:

is an $8.34/mo SaaS based app (two months free with an annual plan) designed to help you create sophisticated animations and interactions.  The next tool that I will show you, Flinto, is similar.  You can use it to create all kinds of effects.  For example: You can create a scrolling effect just like you would get on a fully developed app, just without any code.

Here is a tutorial demonstrating Pixate being used whle designing a mobile app’s user interaction.

There is no download, just go to to sign up for a free trial of the app.


 is a tool similar to Pixate.  Flinto is $20/mo on a SaaS model and comes with a 30 day free trial.  It allows you import your .PSD file and start connecting things to achieve a a functional prototype really fast.  The way it works is this: you map a button to your design’s button then link the button to the next screen.  Like Pixate, you can model scrolling and other features without writing a single line of code.  I fell like Flinto is a bit easier to use and more intuitive.  Best of all, there is a feature that lets you send an SMS message to anyone’s mobile phone that has a link to click on from within the Flinto.  By clicking on the link that person (or you) can download a browser shortcut button for your prototype app that opens a web page version of your mobile app prototype.  This is really helpful if you want to quickly get a functional prototype in front of people.  Depending on how things go with Flinto, I may use it instead of Balsamiq for mobile app prototyping in the future.

There is no download, just go to to sign up for a free trial of the app.

OmniGraffle is a $99-199 downloadable design and mockup tool that is probably more of a blend of Illustrator or Sketch and Flinto, Pixate or Balsamiq.   There is a 14 day free trial. OmniGraffle has been around for a long time and is popular.  There are versions available for Mac and for the iPad.  You can use to create designs as well as functional prototypes.  This is a tool that is definitely worth checking out.

Here are a few prototyping apps that were not included in my original article, but that may be worth taking a look at.  Unless I note otherwise, these are not going to change my choice about which tools to use.

POP App (Prototyping on Paper)
This is an freemium app that you can purchase in Apple App store, in the Google Play Store, or in the Windows Store that is similar to Flinto.  It is worth pointing out that this is the first app that I have mentioned that is a native mobile app.  With POP App you can take a photo of a hand sketched wireframe and map navigation, create clickable buttons, etc.  It offers dropbox integration and is free for up to two team members.   It looks worth trying out.

Axure is a tool for creating prototypes of apps and websites that you can use on a Mac or a PC, but since the an individual user license ranges from $289-$589 for a single user I am going to pass.  It looks like a really powerful tool.  One feature includes HTML file generation which I means you could probably compare it to Illustrator and Dreamweaver from Adobe.

Fireworks is a mockup tool by Adobe available on a SaaS model.  I have not used it, but I know people who do and they like it.  More about Fireworks here.

Napkee – A tool for interactive mockups that is open source.  I have not used it, but it claims that it is a companion to Balsamiq.

Other Options? Google Docs was suggested by one person. I tend to avoid Google docs for something that needs to be of a high quality level because of some instability issues that I have encountered. It could be a great option instead of Balsamiq if you want to quickly sketch something up, but it lacks the elements that come built in with Balsamiq.  Tools like Visio Pro and creately were not considered since this article is focused around designing and building a functional prototype, not around how to map out a workflow of an app.  Those tools are better for enterprise apps.
Tools Recap
Sketch 3 or OmniGraffle – for the initial design of a mobile app (Recommended).
Pixate or Flinto or Balsamiq or Napkee or Mockingbird or OmniGraffle or Fireworks or Axure – for mobile user interaction design (Recommended).
POP App – for mobile/tablet centric prototyping efforts.
– for prototyping of mobile apps and websites.

Mockingbird – very similar to Balsamiq, but on a SaaS model for $9/mo.

Recommended Courses
Scott Klemmer’s Human Computer Interaction class (online, free via Coursera) is worth checking out.
I will try to add some additional material here.

Previous | Next (Coming Soon)
I am just getting started and will be getting help along the way so check back soon for updates. This is the second post in my series titled: ‘How Much Will It Cost To Build My MVP?‘  In my previous article I discussed what an MVP is and isn’t.  In the next few posts I will be talking about the strategy involved in early customer research and product-market fit testing.  I also plan to cover the web app and software (e.g. not web based) MVP models in more detail.

Need A Startup Lawyer?
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Need Help With Your MVP or With Finding Someone To Design or Build It?

If you are a startup company or software company that needs help with your MVP or with finding someone to build it or with other things related to your early stage startup then check out my startup packages page (HERE).  You can also Email Me ( or reach me using the Chat button in the lower right corner of the screen if I am online.  MOST OF THE TIME a free initial consultation that lasts around 30 minutes is enough to get someone on the right track, but if more help is needed I can provide it.


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Code Spin Cycles: The Social Dynamics of Programming

The title of this post: ‘Code Spin Cycles: The Social Dynamics of Programming’ is something of a fascination of mine with developer communities that spans three decades.  It fascinates me how closely social dynamics are tied to the adoption of programming languages.  Coders are both trendy and cultish.  And why not? We spend an incredible amount of time continuously learning, engaged in collegial problem solving and career building conversations (online and offline), and code is expressive.  I still credit Ruby on Rails as a community for getting me interested in coding again after being around the Microsoft and Java communities made it feel a bit too much like a factory job and not something creative and enjoyable.  I got interested in coding in the first place through coding games for my Atari as a kid so I guess my reasons are not the same as someone else’s reasons or paths.

Today I read a post by TJ Holowaychuk ((or TJ Fountain) I don’t know him or the full back story (which looks quite interesting and impressive)), but he is referred to as TJ Fountain via the Node.js site), the project lead for Node.js since January, talking about his decision to abandon (as his focus) Node.js and work on things that he is more passionate about (Go/Golang).  This has already created a few interesting discussions and will likely spur much more discourse.

Here is a quote from TJ: “Moral of the story, don’t get stuck in your own bubble! See what else is out there, you just might enjoy programming again. There are a lot of awesome solutions out there, my mistake was waiting too long to play around with them!”

I think that our pursuit of something more interesting, enjoyable, and fulfilling to us personally is a key aspect of being a developer and a builder in general.  We want to build something that we are excited about, not just something that needs to get done and that has support in the form of dollars.  It also brings out people in a way that other white collar pursuits usually don’t.  Zed Shaw comes to mind. He and I met at an event in Manhattan back around October 2007.

Here is a quote from Zed Shaw’s post titled “Rails is a Ghetto” a few years back: “I’ll add one more thing to the people reading this: I mean business when I say I’ll take anyone on who wants to fight me. You think you can take me, I’ll pay to rent a boxing ring and beat your fucking ass legally. Remember that I’ve studied enough martial arts to be deadly even though I’m old, and I don’t give a fuck if I kick your mother fucking ass or you kick mine. You don’t like what I’ve said, then write something in reply but fuck you if you think you’re gonna talk to me like you can hurt me.”

The rest of his 5,000 word rant post was at least as passionate and interesting.  So is other stuff he writes, like this.  You may also find this presentation he gave to be entertaining, he is a personality.  I did not know him well and have not run into him since, but there are people in the Rails community who were not so pleasant to him.  Rails has the cool kids people which is something the Microsoft and Java communities that I spent time around never had (at least not in my experiences).  Microsoft people were like the people in the movie Office Space.  The Ruby on Rails community, by contrast, has Rock Stars and hipster word matches.  My inspiration for this post was not personalities, but that is a factor.  I originally left programming because I worked in the place that the movie (Office Space) was based on in a VB shop and I hated it after I got an office mate who wasn’t that fun to work next to (he wasn’t a bad guy, I just hated sports talk radio at top volume daily and he was generally loud and hard to work next to).

So to re-focus, code spin cycles have gotten a lot more interesting in the last decade.  Ruby on Rails came along, then Node.js and client side MVC’s like Ember.js, Backbone.js and AngularJS.  Right now AngularJS is really hot.  Go/Golang is also hot, but in more of a Tsunami or invisible crescendo like way. Then there are things like Clojure and Scala, but that is farther out there for me. One of these days I will find the time to pursue both.

A founder friend often says that you should skate where the puck is going, not where the puck is today.  That is increasingly difficult with so many exciting things happening.


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Government Funding Resources For Sources Startups

A reader from New York emailed me a few days ago to ask me about non-equity based early funding resources that are available to startups.  The answer I gave him is that city, county and state government funding resources for startups are often overlooked by founders.  Most people are convinced that private sector investors are the only game in town and that accelerators like YCombinator and Tech Stars have a monopoly on building successful businesses.  The truth is that most accelerators and even VC’s are doing business development just like you will if you sell to businesses.  Governments do the same thing.  They all want something from you – for VC’s they want a business that they can control and sell for a 5-10X+ return (5X is not idea, but you would be surprised what conversations happen behind closed doors in some circles).  Government is looking to create jobs, increase tax revenue, and to fill real expensive empty real estate that the state is not collecting taxes on.

When I talk about government, I want to point out that I don’t mean that you should become a government contractor.  There are plenty of those and your state might be more familiar with that but that is something else entirely.

Let’s start with state government.  While every state does things slightly differently, most will have an economic development department (that works to attract, grow and retain business) and a quasi-governmental entity (that does private sector investing).  Some states will even have a third organization that acts as a venture capital fund.

In Maryland it works like this:
DBED (The Department of Business and Economic Development)
TEDCO (The Economic Development Corporation of Maryland
Maryland Venture Fund (under DBED)
<Insert County Economic Development Corporation> (e.g. Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation)

DBED has people who are called business development directors – they are like account managers for the state, much like what a company has.  Their job is to attract businesses to the state and try to help line up resources that are available in their business development sales territory with what is available at the federal, state, county or city level.  They usually work with people from TEDCO as well as the Maryland Venture Fund, not to mention county, city and federal people.

Each county has its own economic development corporation,  much like the state.  These will often have business development directors who function in a similar fashion to the ones from DBED.  They are looking out for their county.

Most cities are doing the same thing.  Some, like DC, will even give out grants up to $250k.

What all of these have in common is that they have charters.  You can usually find out what their charters require them to do by visiting their website.  Some of these can be really cryptic which is where spending some time getting to know a few business development directors that are assigned to your territory will be extremely helpful.  Some of these folks are well versed in software, but most are not so assume that you will need to adapt your message more than usual.  I had a conversation about internet startups with one who compared my SaaS startup to a website their 14 year old son had built for a friend’s company.  They really wanted me to be a Cybersecurity startup which was what they were working to attract.  The key is to know what they can do to help you as much as possible and to be really patient and not to give up easily.

One such product is the TEDCO Technology Commercialization Fund which is essentially a convertible debt note available to companies in Maryland incubators or that meet other criteria. These go up to $100k and the process is fast, sometimes within 60-90 days vs. 6+ months which is the norm for similar programs in other states.  It can be upsized to $250k later if you are in Baltimore city.

Federal resources are also available.  There are lots of grants.  Some these include the SBIR and STTR grant programs.  Your local university engineering school will have a department full of people who know all about these.  The state and county people you talk to should also know about these but may not be technically qualified to help you with getting them like the university folks will be.  Universities take full advantage of federal and state resources so they tend to be great places to start when you are looking to take advantage of these resources.

Just know that while some these resources are set up for consumer and business app companies, most of them are set up for things that have been legislated into priorities at the city, county, state and federal level.  Startup founders don’t have the same kind of lobbying efforts that biotech and government contracting firms have.

On my current startup I was able to get get close to $30k in no strings money.  I did not work these channels that much because I found out about most of them later in the game.  I got a small chunk of cash through a partnership between a University based incubator that was connected with the state resource pool.  I also got just over $24k through one company’s startup program.  Microsoft rejected my application for Bizspark, but signed me up for an endless firehose of spam.  I guess they didn’t like that I just wanted a free copy of MS Office for my business team.  A friend’s company got $10k for being a Rural startup as well as $100k for winning a startup business contest hosted by the state of Maryland.  There are plenty of easy to attain convertible debt options with 30-90 day turnaround times.  I also got an offer for a $50k no strings grant from a County as a prize in a competition, but I did not want to move my business to that county.

Other states:

It is easy to find this stuff:
For example, I searched for “New York Economic Development Corporation” and found theirs HERE.  One resource that they have is the New York City Entrepreneurial Fund.  To qualify you have to meet these pretty simple criteria:

  • the company must have its headquarters in New York City and be subject to corporate taxation as a resident of New York City;
  • the company’s most senior executive officer must work primarily in New York City;
  • the company must be a “technology” or “technology enabled company”;
  • the company must not engage in any illegal activity, or engage in the business of firearms, gambling, alcohol, tobacco, or other lines of businesses that would preclude procurement by the City of New York.

In Virginia the name is slightly different.  Theirs is called the “Virginia Economic Development Partnership” although it shows up in the same web search.  Virginia’s equivalent organization to TEDCO is CIT GAP Funds which does seed funding for companies ranging from $25-150k.  I have seen a lot of companies go incorporate in Virginia and then basically work from DC so it might be possible to work with a fund from an adjacent state provided you observe their requirements.


If you are in a particular state and have a question, send me a note and I will try to get you in touch with resources local to where you are. I am using Maryland, DC and Virginia as examples because these are fresh on my mind after having a conversation about this today.

For updates, check out my resource page for government funding resources for startups by state.


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Human Computer Interaction by Scott Klemmer

Over the past few months I have been engaged in binge MOOCing.  It started out because I found a really worthwhile course covering web application architecture for Ruby on Rails via Coursera, but I quickly realized that many of the courses were at least as interesting as the shows and movies available via streaming sites.  I will skip the process in the middle for the sake of this post, but I would like to point you to another great MOOC via Coursera.  The course, Human Computer Interaction by Scott Klemmer, covers topics including from the design process and prototyping and is really easy to follow.  It neatly fits into both my binge MOOC routine and the learn to code self study curriculum that I have been assembling as I reboot my personal professional focus.

If you are someone who is interested in starting a startup, working on a startup, writing code, or aspiring to learn to code then this is a course that you should definitely check out.  The course has already started, but it is not too late to watch the lectures.

I would also like to point out that this course is also a great pre-startup course for anyone who wants to design or build a minimum viable product (MVP) for their startup (hint: you should watch this course or take a similar one BEFORE you try to find or hire a programmer or designer to build your startup idea or app.  Scot does a great job of teaching you how to improve and accelerate your learning while minimizing the amount of time or cost associated with getting a your product right.  This is really important for first time founders and repeat founders as well.

Check it out here:
Human Computer Interaction by Scott Klemmer, Associate Professor, Computer Science, UC San Diego.

For other great courses that I have reviewed or added to my learn to code section, go HERE (or check the links at the top of this page).


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