Version 4 and Migration To Tumblr

Tonight – fueled by lots of Thanksgiving turkey – I’ve finally completed the migration and uplift of my site to version 4. I’ll write a whole post about some of the thinking and reasoning around this new version but the biggest change is that I’ve (once again) moved my blog to Tumblr. This time around though – I think it’s there to stay. I’ve decided to consolidate it onto the new (old) blog that I had on Tumblr because previously, one of the biggest challenges I’ve had with Tumblr was the theme development and with version 4 – I’ve finally gotten round to creating a whole new integrated theme from the ground rather than just doing the quick hack job that I’ve been so prone to doing. So I think I’m pretty serious about it this time round :)

I’ll keep this blog active till and may migrate the old posts but for now, my site and all new posts will point to the new blog version.

Keep It Simple, Silly

“Needlessly Fucking Complicated”

Those was an anecdotal description that was overheard at the Money2020 convention this week around NFC payments. No matter where you sit on the spectrum of for or against NFC as the future of mobile payments, I think that statement totally captures what I see wrong with the industry today. For a technology that is meant to bring about disruption and ease of use for the customers (which it may) – it’s got an awful lot of middlemen on the backend which ironically, makes it an ecosystem ripe for future disruption. Silicon Valley is a cottage industry built on the simple premise of cutting out middlemen and finding the most efficient way from Point A to B yet here we have the mobile payments industry all willing to pour billions of dollars into what is a very fragile and complicated eco-system by adding more middlemen.

Let’s take the typical MNO-TSM model. I have a phone with a SIM card that someone brilliantly deduced could serve as a secure element. This brought along a whole new group of players in the form of the mobile operators who want a piece of the pie. Since we’re dealing with secure information, you then need some way of transmitting this information “over the air” onto said secure element. Enter the TSM providers to play that role. Suddenly, you have a typical 5 party model (merchant, cardmember, issuer, acquirer, network) almost double with the introduction of NFC. As my NYU Finance professor aptly explained, “It’s pies over people. You either get a bigger pie or less people, anything opposite and you’re making less money”. In this case – the pie is relatively staying the same but we’re introducing an awful lot of new people which means less pie for everybody. Nobody likes to get less pie.

Whether NFC becomes mainstream or dies the slow/quick death that PayPal predicts – the reality is that the current model is not sustainable for the long term. An ecosystem this complicated on the back-end is just an open invitation for disruption and by way of natural evolution – it will reform itself into a more efficient system. When that happens – we’ll stop debating about NFC or not because we’ll be too busy paying with our phones.

Democracy is Two Wolves and a Lamb Deciding What To Eat For Dinner

It’s become that time of year in the US again, where a partisan impasse has led to the ultimate theatre: a partial government shutdown.

Even as a non-American, I’ve not been immune to the effects of a government shutdown. Back in 1995 when Newt Gingrich decided (ill-fatedly) to lead a partial shutdown of the government, I was sweating it out waiting for my student visa because the embassies had stopped processing visas and I was due in NY for the start of the January NYU semester. It was not a pleasant experience and of course it’s probably ten times more unpleasant for the tens of thousands of government employees that have been put on furlough due to this shutdown not to mention the host of services locked out.

The reason I decided to write about this though is around the whole dysfunction that I’ve long observed with the concept of purist democracy that I see leak into the business world as well. Majority rules tend to be very noble in theory but tend to breakdown in reality and the current government shutdown just helps highlight that.

I know that it’s fairly controversial of me to say this, especially when we see in the world today what happens with autocratic leadership styles but I do think it’s important that there be a strong body of authority that is able to execute decisions and in some cases go against the majority to get things done. That’s leadership at the end of the day – taking the risks and hard decisions that no one else is willing to do. The problem is that if you look at the history of time, the problem with absolute authority is that it’s too inconsistent. You can have good leaders or you can have terrible leaders. YMMV.

Which is why we tend to lean towards more democratic systems where the majority rules and consultation is a must. This unfortunately presents a camel issue. I like to joke at the office that a camel is a horse designed by committee (and we build a whole lot of camels). I’ve never been a fan of design by committee. You either get people being too nice (and not publicly disagreeing with ANYTHING) or you get people that are too stubborn (and publicly disagreeing with EVERYTHING). What would have helped is a final authority that listened to these points of view but ultimately made those hard, unpopular decision.

So how do you get around the inconsistency of having an authoritarian leader who’s given more control? Similar to a corporate environment, where you have a board that can ultimately take action if things are getting too out of hand, having the ability to impeach or completely overrule in the more extreme cases can be held as a reserve but essentially the limited 4-year term of an elected politician should be the biggest hedge. Essentially – the American public would be saying, “for the next 4 years I’m going to trust you to improve this country and make all the hard decisions. I may not agree with some of it, but I would never second-guess”.

I think this kind of semi-democratic, semi-autocratic system would work much better than the useless carousel of “design by committee” and inertia that a pure democracy seems to bring about. Controversial I know, but it might just work.

Of Fuelbands and Bootcamps

Last year I got a Fuelband and have been wearing it quite regularly since. I have to admit it was more of an aesthetic purchase and I got it for two reasons: one – I wanted a thinner watch and I actually liked the idea of a Fuelband as a watch (although it can be a pain when travelling to change timezones and to constantly activate to check the time). The second reason is that at the time I was in a bit of an OCD mode on getting my weight down and I wanted to get a better sense of my caloric activity and the Fuelband seemed to be a good, user-friendly way of giving me a general sense – if not an exact science.

I know someone who worked on the Fuelband so I am not naive to the fact that despite their flashy ad campaign and claims of being “scientifically tested” with high-performance activities, the Fuelband is basically an accelerometer that is estimating your activity based on your movements. Which means that it can be highly inaccurate and frequently gamed if you so desire (which kind of defeats the purpose but hey, we all know what happens when we start tracking, the competitive streak gets going, etc.).

However I didn’t really get a sense of how inaccurate the Fuelband was until I signed up for Bootcamp.

While in London, I had gotten into quite a good zone in terms of my diet and exercise. My weight had finally come down to my target that I had been chasing for years, and I just felt generally good.

However, ever since I came back to Toronto – I’ve been heavily self-medicating on beer and barbecue while catching up on all the good Asian food I had been missing out on in London. My activity level has also dropped precipitously now that I’m driving again and I’m basically reduced to taking my bike for a ride once in a while.

No surprise, all of which has led me to gain 15 pounds (ouch). Deciding it was time to do something about it (of course right as summer ends), I decided to kick start my new phase of activity by signing up for bootcamp.

Mat is a trainer that I know in Toronto who also occasionally holds bootcamps that are focused on short, high intensity, burst workouts. Slow burn is not really in Mat’s dictionary. What it means is you’re usually ending the session on your knees and dry heaving. So with a three-week commitment, I showed up for my first session last week.

Needless to say, Mat’s sessions were just as punishing and knee buckling as I remember them to be. To the point I actually drove home with a throbbing headache due to all the sudden bloodrushes. As you can imagine, after such a brutal workout I was keen to see my Nike Fuel burn as I had my Fuelband on the whole time. With breathless (more due to lack of air) anticipation, I pressed the little black button.

Three red dots.

Pardon my French but WTF!

Nike was essentially telling me that I burn more “fuel” walking with my electric lawnmower than I do through an hour of constant, high intensity cardio workouts. Now I knew the accelerometer was never going to give an exact measure of my activity but I didn’t realize it was this off. It’s the sacrifice I suppose you make to get a nicer looking form for measurement without having to strap nodes all over your body.

I’m a big fan of quantified self and the current movement but it’s apparent we have a long way to go still to marry form and function before we get to a true state of quantified self. Meanwhile, I’ll still wear my Fuelband and track my progress because ultimately it’s still served its purpose: getting my ass in gear.

Let’s Replace “Don’t Be Afraid To Fail” With “Survive At All Costs”

(I originally posted this on Medium)

It starts out at a high level as a good idea, but just like best intentions, somewhere along the way it’s gets warped to hell.

I’m speaking specifically about the whole phrase, “don’t be afraid to fail”. It’s definitely a phrase that gets cited widely as one of the necessary ingredients in startup success but has made its way into the general mainstream. For any project, initiative or just about anything you do — you should not be afraid to fail.

On one hand, I do agree with this in the sense that it encourages boldness — which I like. On the other hand, I think the unwanted side-effect is that it also encourages a false safety net, that this notion of failing is okay — which I abhor. Removing the stigma of failure is okay, but not to the point of encouraging needless stupidity due to a false sense of security that no matter what happens — you’re still a winner.

It reminds me of an old King of the Hill episode where Hank gets involved with Bobby’s soccer team. At one point, Hank is incredulous when the coach whistles, “Tie-game! Everyone’s a winner!” just to make everyone feel good.

Nobody should fail. You should avoid failure at all cost. It’s painful, time-consuming and costly. The key thing is how you approach this failure-avoidance. Are you going to cower away in the corner, avoid all risk and be the bubble boy or are you going to avoid failure by being John fucking McClane and survive at all cost.

Somewhere along the line, the researchers and quants that analyzed the success stories of startups past have all pointed to the fact that the ultimately successful entrepreneurs are the ones that weren’t afraid to fail. Actually, from what I’ve seen, the ultimately successful entrepreneurs were the bloody cockroaches that refused to die no matter what setbacks they encountered. Failure had nothing to do with it. It wasn’t the fact that they approached their businesses with the idea that it was okay if they failed, it was the fact that they approached their businesses with the idea that they were going to outhustle, outsmart, and outwork everyone out there to make sure they lived to fight another day. That is what strikes me as a more common factor to success than a quaint notion that they had a mindset of “failure is ok”.

You might argue that I’m splitting hairs but there really is a big mindset difference between those that go about their business thinking, “well no matter what, it’s okay to fail and I got the learnings” to those that think, “I will survive at all costs and be resilient no matter what”.

So the next time you hear someone tell you, “don’t be afraid to fail”, politely correct him or her and say, “actually I don’t intend to fail because I intend to survive at all cost.”

Is Bootstrap Becoming Too Mainstream?

Let me preface by first saying I love Bootstrap. As a framework it’s awesome and as a responsive framework – it’s awesome with double chocolate sauce. When faced with the task of throwing up a simple website quickly with as little hassle as possible – Bootstrap helps immensely and can be a no-brainer.

So what’s my beef with the fact that everyone is using it?

With the success of Bootstrap, I’m seeing more and more websites start to look exactly the same. While Bootstrap does offer the flexibility to extend and build different styles – the core framework and hence the look and feel is very distinctive. The end result is when I land on a startup’s website, I usually don’t even have to view the sourcecode to confirm that they used Bootstrap.

Is that such a bad thing? Not in the fact that the general quality of these websites are good (Bootstrap took care of that) but they are starting to lose their self-identity. I’ve always been a proponent that a website should be more than just a minimum “must have” but an actual channel for them to really imprint their identity on potential customers and partners. The problem with looking like everyone else out there is you start to stand out less and are basically left where everyone all was 3-5 years ago – a basic website that looks just like everyone else – just a little prettier. Bootstrap should be the starting point not the end point. Just because you use Bootstrap, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t style it and imprint your personal brand. Alot of companies seem to completely miss this point and leave it as it is.

Bootstrap can also be a little hefty. Even minified you’re looking at 100kb for a CSS file. At over 4500 lines it really contradicts the basic CSS Spaceballs performance rule of Bring Only What You Need To Survive. For a simple website that really doesn’t matter but as you add your own styles or use plugins and extensions like fontawesome, you’re starting to really drag on performance. God forbid your business takes off and you need to actually use your website for something more than a simple marketing splash page.

Perhaps the problem isn’t Bootstrap but more the mindset I’m seeing even with general responsive design. People are still playing very close to the center with the tried and true “boxy” responsive designs that are starting to be ubiquitous. To break out of this ubiquity, we need to put in a little more effort, take a few more chances on our designs and make sure that we don’t forget that fundamentally, anything we build – even a simple website, is an extension of our brand and needs to be taken seriously as such. No matter how easy Bootstrap makes it.

Meetups – The Startup Bar Scene

Now that I’m back and settled in Toronto, I decided to try and get my network going again. The good news with Toronto is that while it’s probably not as big as San Fran, New York or even London – there’s enough going on in the digital space that it wasn’t too hard to get in touch with a few people and start getting a sense of the community. In fact, being smaller probably has its benefits. I regularly get “it’s a small world” moments as I chat with people.

This week I attended the HackerNest monthly meetup which seems to be one of the more popular and established meetups here. Not to mention some of the founders are from Malaysia (small world!). The turnout was very good considering it was a Monday night. The meetup is usually hosted around open office spaces within the community. In this case it was Playground, a digital agency. Unfortunately, cramming 250 people into a small space with no open windows and no access to the roof on a very hot summer night made for a bit of sweaty networking.

While I had no real agenda beyond wanting to meet up and extend my network a little, it was clear that there are alot of people that were attending who had agendas. From startup teams looking to hire, to engineers looking to be hired, to wantraprenuers – there was a quite a meat market vibe to it. Having gone to quite a few of these across a few cities now, I do tend to notice that people come to these things with a very aggressive expectation that they’re going to meet their future co-founder or investor which I feel tends to be a bit unrealistic and you should tread with caution if you do meet someone there who tries to come off as exactly that. There were a few occasions where I got a “hard sell”.

It’s almost akin to the bar scene and dating. While it does seem like many people probably find their future mate at a bar, in most situations you tend to succeed through the more old fashioned way, through your own network, introductions, work, school etc. and then slowly building it up from then. It’s not that different in the startup scene. Expecting to find a future co-founder at a meetup who you’ve never met before or have any type of connection to despite a shared desire to build stuff is probably not the best foundation to a strong long-term working relationship. Especially one where you’ll be expected to go right to the edge and back.

That’s not to say that these meetups aren’t of benefit. You do get new introductions and meet people you’d never cross paths with otherwise. Who knows, those initial seeds of awareness could lead to something quite productive. Just temper your expectations and take it for what it is. A chance to meet new people, chat over common interests and of course, drink free beer.

Strip It Down

It seems everyone’s got lean startup on the brain lately.

I find it very hard to come across a project of some kind that hasn’t got traces of Eric Ries’ fingerprints on it – at least in spirit. One particular focus that alot of project teams are honing on is the concept of minimum viable products or MVPs. No – this is actually not going to be a blog post on MVPs but actually something parallel that I feel gets overlooked – minimum viable teams.

While everyone is so focused on building out a lean prototype to get some validated learnings – they tend to be less focused on using a lean team to get it done. Now in a startup – MVTs are usually a default by circumstance. You and your co-founders tend to be the only members but as your business grows or god forbid you get into corporate projects- the team trying to build an MVP suddenly feels more like a cast of thousands. This also tends to be counter-productive to getting a lean prototype out the door. More people = more opinions. And you know what they say about opinions…

The reality is you don’t need a cast of thousands to get a lean prototype out. You need people that can just get shit out the door. It doesn’t have to be perfect and it doesn’t have to be elegant but it does have to work and get the job done. This means you probably just need 2-3 people max.

When it comes to minimum viable teams – skills count more than team size. David Weekly sums it up beautifully in his four archetypes: The Hacker, The Hustler, The Designer and The Operator.

I actually think for a true MVT – you only need 3 people: The Hacker, The Hustler and The Designer. Of course if you’re lucky you’ll have people that can cover multiple skill sets but each individual needs to have a primary focus on the three main areas of your lean product: the tech, the design and the sell-job.

The other thing I want to point out is that at this stage, a big mistake people make on building their MVT is they want to optimize immediately (even though they say they don’t). This means they go and search for skill and talent that fits a more mature product scenario. Take the Hacker for example. What you don’t necessarily need is a fully stacked dev that can build scalable systems with beautifully optimized code – yeah sure it’ll be nice to have but that talent is hard to find. What you really need is a guy or girl that can get shit shipped some way and somehow. Optimizing comes later. I don’t care if he or she built the system to bung everything into a single array and the code is totally inefficient – as long as it works – who cares at this stage?

So if you want to start on building your minimum viable product – make sure you have your minimum viable team.

#Hustle

I was having coffee earlier this week with a CEO of a startup who had been part of a Techstars Boston cohort. His story on how he got into Techstars was quite heart-warming and just a great example of the never-say-die mentality of a startup CEO.

Applications for the cohort had already finished and he had flown down to Boston to make his pitch. He met with the MD and while they had a good discussion the MD’s response was, “I’m sorry but applications have already closed”.

Now in 9/10 cases I know many people would just take that as the reality of the situation and try and move on. In this case, he almost did that.

Dejected he took the elevator down and started chatting with the mentor that had helped make him the introduction.

“You know,” he said, “I’m really bummed. I really want this.”

Her response?

“If you want it – then go and get it.”

With that, he immediately turned around and pressed the “up” button on the elevator.

Once upstairs he marched into the MD’s office (as she was putting on her coat to leave) and said, “I just want you to know – I really want this and I’m coming in first thing tomorrow morning again to speak to you about it.”

The MD just replied, “Ok. Let’s chat tomorrow.”

Nine interviews later with all the partners – he got into Techstars.

#Hustle.