Four Typical Post-Product Mistakes

You’ve built a great product. You’ve got a couple customers (okay, most of them are friends and/or free), a small but passionate team, and a product that demos well. Now you just need to turn it into a company!

MISTAKE: Waiting for resources

There’s always a good reason why that next step is elusive. You might be holding out for an investment round so you can really launch a big marketing campaign. Or hire that slick salesperson. Or become premium sponsors at that big conference that your key customers are going to. But you don’t have the money; so hey, what can you do?

ANSWER: Time to get creative!

The truth is you are always going to feel resource constrained. Even when your company is worth a hundred billion dollars! So you need to learn to hustle around these apparent barriers. Remember: necessity is the mother of invention. By being scrappy you’ll be forced to focus your time and attention on the handful of things that are going to make the biggest difference. I’ve often seen startups after raising a big round spend huge amounts of time and money on things unlikely to improve the state of the company, like fancy launch parties.

Let’s say there’s a conference you’re sure it would make a huge difference for your company but you can’t afford the flight+hotel+registration. Can you go to TaskRabbit or Craigslist and spend $50 on someone local who can print out a bunch of flyers for you? Can you have them drop off unofficial welcome bags for guests at the hotels used by the conference? Can you submit a talk and get the conference to sponsor your flight?

A good entrepreneur always moves the company forward, no matter how challenging things seem. But keep in mind — just because you hustle doesn’t mean you should cut ethical corners; making up fake reviews for your site to make it feel more vibrant could lead to major trust issues; but having a bunch of friends review products with you is fine.

MISTAKE: Over-technical product

Your super-smart engineers made sure that every possible field and flag in the database was exposed in the customer interface. They have some cool analytics packages and are using d3 to make pretty visualizations of the data’s trend lines. Every time you show it off you dazzle people! This product is really sophisticated.

Weirdly enough, you’re having trouble actually closing sales of this super-sophisticated service. Prospects are impressed but you just can’t seem to figure out what’s holding them back from signing up.

ANSWER: Compassion

You built a product targeted at small businesses but designed for engineers and data analysts. Do you really think a tie shop owner is going to have the time or training to slog through forty pages of numbers and acronyms to better understand where he should open his next store?

Think about the outcome that the end user wants and make it clear how your product or service will get them that. Make sure that everything your product does is focused on making sure they meet that success. This usually looks like showing less information, not more, and abstracting the controls to your database into actions that your customers understand.

Try sitting down with a new potential client who has never seen your software before and, without giving them any direction or coaching, have them complete a set of tasks. you’ll be really astonished and humbled to see all of those flourishes you put in just confuse and confound regular folks who haven’t spent months staring at these screens. Make sure you build what’s right for them.

MISTAKE: Selling on cost

You’re confident that you have an amazing product to bring to the market; the existing dominant player has a really crappy offering that costs four times more than what you’re planning on charging. Surely you will dominate this market given that your product is not only way better, it’s way cheaper?

ANSWER: Sell on value

If you’re selling on cost, you’re focused on how little money your customer will need to pay for your service/product and not how much value you’re going to be providing them. It’s much more inspiring for a business to be thinking about how much more money they could be making instead of how much less money they’ll be spending. Focus on making your customer more successful. If you can prove you’re growing their business you can capture a lot more of the value you’re providing them. If you’re just a cost center, you’re a commodity that’s part of a race to zero — some other startup will just undersell YOU next year. Don’t be a tool — be a partner to your customers.

This often can make sales easier as well — if you can make your sale a zero-risk proposition by only charging proportional to the new value you’re bringing the business, the customer has nothing to lose by trying your solution out.

MISTAKE: Rapid early expansion.

You’ve closed a few dozen customers in one market — while you’re only just beginning, you’re really excited by the idea of rolling this offering out to many more places and applications to prove how large your potential is and maximize your growth. You’re sure that this expansion will help trigger investor interest and will help you recruit too.

ANSWER: Nail it then scale it.

If your strategy isn’t working at scale yet for one geography or industry, expansion is not your best next move. Find a niche that you can completely dominate — by focusing on one set of people to serve it will keep you honest about what’s working and not and will help you iterate the fastest. (It should go without saying that wherever that geography is, that’s where you should be, too!) It will probably take you a number of failures and adjustments to really tune your model for your initial market. Once you’ve rocked a model and have near-saturated a market, it’s time to look at rolling it out in different geographies.

I know you want to prove that your idea is enormous, but if you try to “boil the ocean” before you have traction anywhere, you’re not going to get anywhere. Focus will pay you dividends.

David Weekly is a product manager at Facebook and is an award-winning startup mentor. He founded Mexican.VC, the first Silicon-Valley seed fund for Mexican tech companies (acquired by 500 Startups) and Drone.VC, the first drone fund. He enjoys helping build tech communities around the world and is is the founding Director of Hacker Dojo, the world’s largest non-profit hackerspace. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or AngelList.

HDMI 2.0, 4K@60fps, and UHD Content

Current display technology, using HDMI 1.4, can only do 4K at 30fps. This has rather limited the adoption of 4K screens since there has been no way to get high frame rate content all the way to the display – and of course there’s no way to do 4K in 3D. (This is beside a point that there’s precious little source 4K content and the solutions from e.g. Sony have been whimperingly pathetic, effectively equivalent to attaching a large USB stick full of preloaded movies to your $10,000 television.)

HDMI 2.0 changes this, doubling the cable bandwidth from 10gbps to 18gbps (!) over the same cables, allowing for 4K at a full 60fps, which will from a technology perspective unlock the full potential of 4K as a medium, though there are still real content availability issues. We’ll see the first HDMI 2.0 TVs and projectors come out this year – Yamaha already has some relatively inexpensive (~$300+) receivers that incorporate 2.0 set to come out in a few months. This should give a gentle prod to content licensing for 4K and would hopefully imply a Chromecast/Roku/AppleTV trio capable of 60fps 4K by the end of the year. Sadly, this final technology push to enable 4K appears to have come too late for the major consoles, which have now locked and loaded with HDMI 1.4 and a fixed 1080p cap. But there could be a surprise here yet – Sony is selling 1.4 4K TVs with a promise of a field upgrade to 2.0 later this year, which implies a possibility of the PS4 getting a field upgrade to 2.0 as a nice present. (Though 4K games on the PS4 are unlikely.)

The South Koreans have been on a tear with HiDPI displays, pushing the price point of 4K displays down from many thousands to a few hundred dollars. (These displays often connect via DisplayPort only; DisplayPort 1.2 offers 18gbps as well.) Combine that with OS/X 10.9.3’s support for 4K 60fps (using a 30fps desktop monitor is really weird/awkward) and there will finally be a sensible 4K work environment by the end of the quarter. I predict a huge wave of 27″ & 30″ HiDPI monitor purchases by workplaces to improve productivity as workers can finally fit more information onto a panel without compromising on cost, quality, or framerate. (My hunch is that productivity drops off around 30″ or so as you actually start having a serious issue with non-FOV information; I experienced this when I had a pair of 30″ monitors and would sometimes “miss” incoming messages because they were showing up too far away for me to see them! I ended up downsizing.)

So I think this year we’ll finally cross the hump around adoption of 4K, but there’s still this big hole around content. The first to market with a great HDMI 2.0 solution with gigE+802.11ac 3×3, hardware H.265 support, a solid local cache to help w/buffering, and lots of licensed content (partnership w/Netflix & YouTube?) will probably do quite well.

Life@FB: Last Day of Bootcamp

9am, Facebook Headquarters: Cafe 18. My laptop is open next to a plate of kiwi and mango. It’s Friday and my last day of “bootcamp” at Facebook. Every person in the engineering organization – VP to fresh-outta-college – has to go through four to six weeks of fixing real bugs from all kinds of nooks and crannies of the product. I’d never done any Android programming at all but yesterday I had to figure out how to add a new feature to what might be the world’s most popular Android application. I was up until 1am getting it put together and then submitted my code for review. So I’m a little groggy.

Tomorrow morning I embark to Seoul where I’ll shortly be on stage in front of a few hundred developers explaining how to make their games more social. First, I’ll need to understand what the heck I’m talking about (eep). They really do throw you into the deep end here. Afterwards, I’m headed to Hong Kong, Taipei, and Manila to meet up with developers there. It’ll be very quick travel – I’m literally spending 20 hours in Manila, including sleep, but due to some lucky help from folks like Michelle Santos I’ll have a pretty packed itinerary to make best use of the time. And I’m packing some Ambien to catch some sleep on the plane.

I’m excited and terrified and perhaps feel a little out of my league but maybe that’s just right. Here goes.

Science and Religion

How do people come to believe a thing? They can believe a thing because of reason, or take something on faith.

The realm of reason is systems of falsifiable facts, which is to say facts that can be shown to be true or false with certain levels of accuracy. Any person (or system!) that can reason and observe outcomes can come to agreement about a system of beliefs resting upon tested and falsifiable facts. One cannot have wars over the value of pi; the facts will speak for themselves.

Things taken on faith by definition cannot be proven. Critically, this means that they cannot be disproven. A foolish, if typical, defense of religion rests on this lack of disprovability, treating it as a strength and not a weakness. While it’s true that one cannot prove that God does not exist, there is an infinite set of absurd beliefs that also cannot be disproven; for example, that the world was created six seconds ago exactly as it is now with, of course, your memory of the past being invented by a metaphysical entity. If one were to believe all things that were non-disprovable, they would find many would contradict each other – and without a system for proving or disproving which beliefs to hold and which to discard, they’d have to hold all of these impossibly conflicting beliefs at the same time, or discard an arbitrary set of them.

Since articles of faith are not arrived at by reason, the path to emotional or spiritual belief differs from person to person and consequently is difficult to transfer via discourse or objective demonstration. Non-disprovable beliefs cannot be constructively argued — while acknowledging that history clearly demonstrates that the futility of the matter has not kept people from attempting to argue religion.

Emotional beliefs often transfer with passion – when we see someone deeply enthralled with an idea, that excitement can become infectious. Likewise, when someone who we admire believes certain things we tend to want to think like they think and believe what they believe regardless of rational inspection of their beliefs. This is why the role of the charismatic preacher is so often important to a fast-growing religion and also why parental indoctrination is so critical for these beliefs.

Much of this is an understandable shortcut; it would be impossibly exhausting to personally verify all of the facts that one believes, so there are some areas in which we have to rely on the reason of others. The degree to which I can share a system of reasoning with another is the degree to which I can trust a commonality of judgement and expectation. This commonality is the basis for systems of trade and standardization. I contrast the value of a house sold to me that a shaman insisted the gods would protect from collapse with a house sold to me inspected by a licensed civil engineer. It is possible that the shaman is right and that there are gods actually defending my house from harm, but unless I share the same set of beliefs it is difficult for me to accept…and impossible for me to verify.

It is difficult to measure the forward progress or development of religious beliefs. While we can certainly observe changes and schisms in movements, there is no clear bar by which we can say that these changes constitute improvements. Indeed, it is a very common thing for a longstanding religious movement to attempt to “return to its roots” and explicitly revert to an earlier belief system. It would be hard to argue clearly for or against such a reversion without a metric.

In contrast, falsifiable ideas can through experiment be observed to be true or false with varying degrees of certainty. Once a result is examined and agreed upon, future experiments strive for additional precision of certainty or to test new ideas. This allows for the intergenerational accumulation of a body of knowledge of ideas along with data from experiments that variously illustrate their truth. Every generation can then know more than the last.

Not infrequently, as we improve our precision of measurement, we discover that an idea that was thought to be verified is actually not entirely correct – it was merely sufficiently correct to be observed as such by a less precise experiment. Hence the value in re-running old experiments when new equipment or techniques can allow the experiment to be run with greater precision. This answers why scientists may dig into an experiment with such relish where they are expecting to observe a certain value (with greater precision) even when a few years ago an experiment to measure said value succeeded (with lower precision).

Skepticism is bred in the public when they observe as a consequence of the above that scientists seem to believe one thing (when an experiment is conducted that appears to show that a thing is true when observed at a certain level of accuracy) and then later not (when a further experiment measuring at greater detail observes a subtly but importantly different result). Without taking into account that the precision of the data measured is increasing, it can feel like scientists are vacillating, in the very same ways that religious movements can vacillate. This doesn’t look like progress.

But the difference is that models are discarded principally because they have been falsified; the falsified model will not be returned to later. It was discarded for a better model that, in turn, may be discarded but only when a superior model in turn arrives. As a species, our understanding of the universe advances and each generation is made more knowledgeable, powerful, and aware.

This process may never end because we know that measurement with perfect precision is an unattainable goal. Consequently every generation can only hope for superior precision to the last in testing our ideas. There are also not a finite number of ideas to be verified.

But what is the origin of these falsifiable ideas? How do we know what to test, and how? Some of these beliefs can be axiomatically built one upon the other, but many are arrived at through intuition, randomness, and/or accident. This means that half of science – the generation of hypotheses – is not itself arrived at through scientific process itself. It is held accountable to logic while not stemming from it.

Logic, therefore, is the course by which we may direct the spirit’s passions towards progress. With only reason, we would be able to observe and test but never discover new ways to observe or ideas to test. With only emotion, we would have many conflicting ideas and no way to advance. With both, in balance, we can continue to develop our species with new, better models of how the world works.

How To Handle Recruiter Calls

Unsolicited calls from a tech recruiter are one of the banes of existence of a technologist with a LinkedIn and/or GitHub profile that has been anything close to meaningfully filled out. Or a startup founder. Both sides get hammered with calls. And emails. All. The. Time. If you haven’t been on the receiving side of these, it may be difficult to explain why these calls are so infuriating. After all, isn’t it nice to hear that someone thinks you’re employable or on the other side that someone has smart people who might be interested in working for you?

The thing is, most recruiters do not come from the field for which they are recruiting. They don’t know whether or not you are a good fit for a given job because they don’t know what a high-concurrency Erlang WebSocket specialist is. So they try and find those words on people’s resumes, even resumes that say “please don’t contact me” and they plow right ahead on and call if they find them. Why? Contingency recruiters will typically earn 20% or more of a placed engineer’s first year salary as their commission. So for, say, a $100k mid-level engineer, they would get paid a $20,000 earn-out!

These economics make them unstoppable: If they do 200 phone calls of half an hour each to find one engineering candidate willing to work with them and 200 phone calls of half an hour each to find one company willing to place that engineer, they are still earning $100/hour, less a dollar or two for their phone bill. Like spammers, recruiters are not charged money for wasting other people’s time, like those 199 engineers and 199 companies who were not a good fit. The possibility that you might be interested is just too tempting. So they call. And call. And call.

It’s not atypical for a good engineer in a hot area – perhaps a senior iOS developer in Silicon Valley – to get several phone calls and emails a day. I’ve seen recruiters try calling with blocked numbers or from local area codes. And when they connect, the quality of the calls is, by definition, pretty terrible. A contract recruiter can’t name the company they’re hiring for, lest you just apply directly and circumvent the recruiter. So they’ll wax on with vague aphorisms like “The Next Facebook”, “totally on fire right now”, and other equally meaningless terms without telling you about what the company is or does.

On the employer side, it’s no better, with recruiters assuring you that they have an engineer who is “very experienced, great stuff” who is “very excited to work with your company” while providing no validatable details, lest you reach out to the candidate yourself directly. This is akin to playing telephone between two Russian speakers via someone who does not speak Russian. Neither party can meaningfully vet the other through a recruiter who does not understand the work the company performs nor what the candidate actually does for a living.

Now, while I am not a lawyer – and this doesn’t constitute legal advice – in recruiters’  reckless pursuit of placement, they may overlook the law. They make unsolicited commercial calls placed to individuals’ mobile phones in likely violation of federal law. Many don’t check the Federal Do Not Call registry, a further and separate violation of federal law. If they don’t respect requests to be removed from their call lists, as many fail to do, it is yet another violation of law.

So what can you do about this?

  • Make a note of the time and date of the recruiter’s phone call. Make sure you record their caller ID and write down any information concerning their firm’s name and the caller’s name. During every call, clearly communicate that you would like to be removed from the recruiter’s call list. Keep a record somewhere, like Google Docs.
  • If you’re not already, join the Do Not Call Registry. If you are already in DNCR, any telemarketing call you receive can be reported to the federal registry as a violation.
  • Additionally, whether or not you are on the Do Not Call list, any unsolicited commercial call to your mobile device may be reported to the FCC electronically.
  • If you want to get really aggressive, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 allows you to sue for up to $1,500 per violation, which you could file for in small claims court. There are some fun stories of people finding success in this approach.

There are good guides out there, like How to Sue Telemarketers in Small Claims Court. Be bold! If only a small fraction of recipients of unwanted recruiter calls “strike back”, it will make it substantially less economically desirable for recruiters to mass-call without checking Do-Not-Call lists.

If you’re less of the lawsuit-wielding type but still want to do the world some good, instead of filing claims against the unwanted recruiter, you can point them at places like the Hacker Dojo‘s page explaining the right way to find awesome developer talent. These sponsorships have been critical in helping us build the world’s largest non-profit hackerspace. (You should come by! We’re open 24/7!)

Epilogue: Lest I be perceived as hating on a whole industry uniformly, there are some good recruiters out there who have a good understanding of the market for which they are hiring and know how to not harass potential recruits or businesses. These recruiters will often work in a full-time position at a company for a period of time to help them spool up a team. They reach out through social networks with carefully researched individually-specific messages showing thoughtfulness and an understanding of a match between the candidate and the company. These people are great, and they convert really well. Treasure them.

Discuss on Hacker News and season to taste.