Tag Archives: events

Failcon 2012 at the Julia Morgan Ballroom

Failcon SF 2012 – Notes

I dropped by Failcon today which is FailCon is advertised as a “one-day conference for technology entrepreneurs, investors, developers and designers to study their own and others’ failures and prepare for success.” It was the kind of conference that I normally would really enjoy. A small enough crowd that you’re not overwhelmed and a venue (Julia Morgan Ballroom in downtown San Francisco) that was downright clubby.

Unfortunately, there was quite a lot going on at work today so I was not able to devote as much attention the the talks as I would have liked. I missed the morning talks so I only have notes from a few talks, what follows are my notes.


There is no “single” point of failure

- We only get to the truth after the 5th “why?” – keep asking “why?” to get out of the weeds and uncover systemic and procedural failures.
- For example, it was not o-ring on Space Shuttle that failed, nor the representation of the data from the o-ring temperatures. If you keep asking “why?” you will start to find the process which led to failures to produce poor reports that hid early, non-catastrophic failures of the o-rings that would have raised a flag to prevent the catastrophic failure that caused the Shuttle disaster.

Complex truth loses to Simple Lies

- Simple stories are fun to tell but they also are lies that hide the more complex truth
- There is a narrative bias. The teller of the story shades the truth to augment their perspective.
- Titanic, Hindenburg, New Coke – these are not just trivial failures that can be summed up in a simple story. There are multiple perspectives that tell the full picture.

Our own egos get in our way

-Heroes are inspiring, yet stupid. To be heroic, you need to ignore common sense.
- There is little that can be learned from these inspirational heroes because they will not give you the full truth, the real lesson.

We tend to fight the last war, not the war we’re in.

- Our most recent victory (or defeat) colors the challenges before us.

Scott’s blog post on his talk.


- “In order to get to MVP, take what the founder thinks is a good first product and cut it in half. Then cut it in half, again.”
- “Lean startup is a methodology made for businesses going through times of extreme uncertainty. Not to be applied if you’re buying a franchise, or making Madden 2012.”
- In front of VCs, we play “success theater”: using vanity metrics to avoid the smell of failure. The unit of progress is learning, not number of users, not revenue.
- The most important thing to do is start. The start will always fall short of the vision. Don’t think, “I’m not wasting my time with seeds, I only want trees.”  Where do the tress come from? Seeds.


- design blindness, ideas that you come up with make sense to you but are not obvious to others
- in order to get others to understand, you need to get critique early and often.
- hard to do when you’re a designer because you want to wait until it’s done.
- if you wait until you’re done, you’ll be too emotionally invested and will resist objections.

Three stories about failure
Piano Fail
- You can’t learn the piano by reading a book about it. There is no “Piano for Dummies” book.
- To learn a craft, you must practice that craft. Learn by doing.
- Helps to find a tutor. Someone who can show you the way.

- Design something, show it to people, they don’t get it, you fix it, they still don’t get it. It’s a vicious cycle because with each turn, you lose the fresh perspective of people who have never used your product.
- Evolution of GChat on-screen instructions. Didn’t know to hit to send chat. Didn’t want to add [Send] button on a product that was embedded in Gmail. Confusion with pop-up advertisements. Whack-a-mole.
- Need to listen to people, look in their eyes to get to the bottom of the secondary fail.
- Sometimes a fix is just a very minor adjustment.
- Like the game of Battleship, even if you’re good, you’ll miss a lot. You only get better incrementally.
- People are a moving target. What works today will not work tomorrow. Design in the present.
- Just a few years ago, “Pull to Refresh” on iOS was not known even to Apple. It was developed by a third party. It’s expected now.

- Like running. It’s good to have a buddy to help show your stuff. No one wants to run alone in the rain.
- Schedule the user study ahead of time, it’s a forcing function.
- One day design sprint lowers expectations. No one expects perfection after a few hours. Best way to break out of a rut, to try out a new approach.

For more, check out this excellent series on designstaff.org on how to run a 5-day Design Sprint

HOW NOT TO MANAGE A PRODUCT – Mike Arsenault (@mikearsenault)

Grasshopper built a “Refer an entrepreneur” program to allow their users to share a discount. These refers converted at 22%, orders of magnitude over their other marketing efforts which were around 1.5%. Because these refers were so successful, it became the vision for a new type of product which became Spreadable, a customized “tell a friend” widget to put on your site to help your customers, “spread the word.”

- What happened? They blew thru $500k in 14 months and ended up having to shut down the site because of lack of interest.
- Mike shows a clip from their explainer video and then notes that the full video was 3 mins long, pointing out that most people lose interest after 60 seconds.
- 12 people joined to work on the project. Many were seasoned from the previous business which gave them (over)-confidence. Bigger Team does not equal Higher Velocity
- The new product was benchmarked against the metrics that made Grasshopper (7 years old, 40K customers) a success. There is no way a startup could measure up to an established business. Churn was too high, they didn’t talk to customers that were leaving. If they did, they would have learned the widget was not performing for those that managed to install it.
- The marketing channels that were successful for Grasshopper did not work for Spreadable. Lower search volume for organic search keywords for this product as well.
- Product required much more hand-holding than Grasshopper. Advertised to radio audience that was not technically proficient to install javascript.
- Wasted our Beta List. 2000 people on the list were not invited to get involved until after the launch. Beta people wanted to get involved early. Need to keep the list “warm” with regular updates.
- Didn’t charge on Day 1. It was in the market for 6 months for free. Putting a price on a product is a quick way to get feedback on the product’s usefulness. Price helps you measure. If people pay, feedback is more pointed.
- Too hung up on marketing, not on building the right product.

SOCIAL PROOF IS NOT PROOF – Michael Wolfe, Pipewise (@michaelrwolfe)

Lessons from ccLoop, finalist at TechCrunch NYC Disrupt

- Compelling team, great investors, Big Problem (enterprise inbox 2.0), Social Proof (press) = failed after 4 months
- Why?
- Basecamp, Yammer, Chatter, Sharepoint, MS Project – all useful and compelling but ultimately fail b/c they compete with the inbox. Michael surveyed the room on Basecamp and Yammer. Most everyone has heard or used these but very few have used them in the last 24 hours.

- Fail #1 – Team Fail.
CEO was in customer validation along with many other things. Need a dedicated Hustler. Every engineering team needs a hustler. Engineers just ask obvious questions. They validate the solution, not the problem. “Do you have an email overload problem?” is not a useful question. Validation is not “selling the product” – done right, customer validation is about making future customers pay you to build a product.

- Fail #2 – Product Fail.
Lots of Likes is not as a good as a handful of “loves” (even if that handful comes with some haters). Better to have passionate users.

- Fail #3 – Social Proof Fail.
The echo chamber for friends and family prior to launch reinforces bad decisions. Seek out fresh perspectives. Do not be swayed by the tech media.



Oulu Open Hack

I spent a couple days last week in Oulu (a city in Northern Finland) helping out on a hackfest. For more on the what, who and why, check out my previous post (Why we Hack). This post is to thank the sponsors and share how it went.

What always amazes me with these type of self-organizing events is the quality of the output. There were only four people volunteering in our spare time to put this together but we managed to pull it off. All the entries were good quality and I’m pretty sure everyone had fun.

Things kicked off with Kristian and I giving a brief overview of the ground rules and history of hack. We then stepped away to give the floor to Ivan Kuznetsov from HeiaHeia who came in on a night train from down south to join us and help get people inspired about their API. HeiaHeia is a cool concept. Kind of like a Foursquare for health where you check-in your workouts and receive praise (or jeers) from your friends.

Next, the UBI-Oulu guys showed us their platform which connects to 40+ interactive monitors around town. Each monitor has a bluetooth and gps sensor as well as a camera and they all talk to the UBI Platform which can read data from the web. With two huge projectors also running all night (nights are long during the Winter too) throwing images up on the side of the opera house in Oulu Harbor, you can let your imagination run wild on what you can build. If you think you have a good idea, I’d encourage you to submit it to their challenge by the end of November because the folks at UBI are granting 7000 – 10,000 EUR to the winning proposal.

Things hummed along and teams quickly settled into their groove. The one thing, in retrospect that I regret, is that we skipped over a round of introductions to get some cross team communication going. People did eventually chat with each other but, as a chatty American, I sometimes forget that it’s helpful to break the ice a bit to get things going.

The one highlight of the night (for me at least) was when I stepped outside to get some fresh air to wake me up a bit. I had an electronic key for the front door that I had been using all day but, unbeknown to me, this key no longer worked past midnight. All the people for whom I had a phone number had left so when I discovered that my key no longer worked, I tried to figure out what I could do. I tweeted using the #ouluopenhack hashtag to see if I could get the attention of anyone upstairs but, of course, they were all busy hacking.

So let me paint the picture. Oulu is North of Iceland, North of Fairbanks, Alaska, basically way the hell up there. In November it’s getting dark at around 3pm. By midnight, the time I’m standing there figuring out what I’m going to do, it’s pitch dark and very, very cold. It wasn’t quite life or death, I was dressed for the weather and I could have called a cab back to the hotel but I’m sure everyone upstairs would have been like, “What the hell happened to Kennedy?” so I resolved to figure out how to get back in but time was ticking.

Snow was on the ground but I luckily found one pebble and took at look up at the windows up on the second floor, the only ones lit, and and tried to imagine the room layout. I picked the one 2 feet x 2 feet window that I remember was next to a table with some guys working and threw the pebble, my single chance to get some attention. I lucked out and hit the window and two scruffy guys peered into the darkness to see me waving frantically and shortly afterwards padded down in their socks to pop open the door.

All the world’s technology at my disposal and I had to resort to communication technology made famous by Shakespere’s Romeo. Those that know what I’ve been working on at Nokia now know that my prototype now has a real-life use case!

I went back to playing with some Nokia APIs before moving on and fiddling around with the Twilio API to make a hack that, would allow someone to leave a message that would get transcribed by Google Voice and emailed to the Oulu Open Hack mailing list (just in case I got locked out again). I think I finally finished up and headed back to my hotel around 2am.

Prizes, we had three

One for the best app using Qt or QML, one for the best UBI hack, and the overall favorite by popular vote.

Alexander Savin won the Nokia C7 with a cool QML app which connected to HeiaHeia to visualize your workouts and automatically upload them to the service.

Ville Alatalo and Jyrki Laurila won the UBI hack prize with their 4squbi app that used the Foursquare API to show you tips from around each UBI screen and who was checked in nearby.

Jason Brower won the overall with his very ambitious hack which sensed the rhythm you shook your phone to a playing song and played it back to you via the phones vibration engine. The final application is so that people could share vibration-enhanced ringtones.

All the hacks along with videos are listed on the Oulu Open Hack wiki.

Shout Outs

Kristian Luoma (CasCard) managed to score a high-quality venue with free bandwidth and good lighting (and a zen rock garden to boot!) from the University of Oulu’s Center for Internet Excellence. I can’t think of a better place to host a hackfest and we all thank them for bearing with our 24-hours of streaming random tunes from our Spotify channel and the use of their staff kitchen refrigerator where we chilled our cans of energy drink.

Thanks go to Jyrki’s company Codemate who paid for the t-shirts and very professional badges and lanyards for everyone.

Also, thank you Forum Nokia for paying for the pizza and drinks (I’ll be sending you my receipts!) and tossing in a C7 phone as the prize for the best QML hack.

Ville did an amazing job on the designs for the shirts, website, and posters. I think in all Kristian, Jyrki, Ville, and I put no more than 10-15 hours total work towards organizing the hackfest but it was due to Ville’s artwork that we managed to look more professional than we actually were! Ville also captured the video on a hacked up N8 and spliced up all the demo videos and created a highlight reel below.

Why We Hack

Reposted (with modifications) from ouluopenhack where I’ll be tomorrow.

It all starts with an itch. Something that bugs you. It’s some kind of “pattern” that you identify. A manual task that you find yourself doing over and over again that you want to automate. Why is the color  printer always default to printing in black & white? How can I patch the OS on my phone so that it pauses the music player when the headphones slip out of the audio jack? Software engineers are inherently lazy and are always looking for ways to optimize the world around them, automate menial tasks. This itch is motivation to hack.

To back up, “hack” is not, what Hollywood tells you. It’s not about breaking into a mainframe to steal data or wreak havoc. No, the modern term for “hack” is the software equivalent of duct taping some things together to try out an idea. You know that site There, I Fixed It – it’s kind of like that but with software. Definitely not ready for prime time but it gets you thinking of what’s possible.

Why Oulu. Why November. Who’s behind this anyway?

This all started when I  joined Nokia and found myself in Helsinki posting to an internal mailing list about this thing called Hack Day that was a fun thing they did at Yahoo to let off steam and try out new ideas. Kristian Luoma bit and he and I worked together to put on the first, internal Nokia hack event in Oulu which we called a “Hackfest” in November of 2009.

A follow-up event was held in Helsinki the following year and then Kristian left Nokia to work at his start-up and I got busy with other projects. With the gentle nudge of Ville Alatalo, Jyrki Laurila and others from the original Hackfest in Oulu, the project was brought back and because 11-11-10 is a nice pattern falling conveniently on a Thursday, Ville, Jyrki, Kristian, and I set the date for the 2nd Annual Oulu Hackfest and got to work.

Slideshare presentation of previous Nokia Hackfests

In order to involve the greater Oulu community (why keep all the fun to ourselves?), we decided to open up the event to non-Nokia people for a greater exchange of ideas. While no one knows really what to expect at these events, like any good dinner party, we all look forward to making it come together as we go along and making sure everyone has fun. Who knows what ideas will be dreamed up and tried out? What problems will the group tackle? What is broken in our world? How can we make things better?

The fun starts on November 11th at 11am on the Center for Internet Excellence campus in Oulu and find out. If you just want to drop by at Noon for the final demo presentations, join us at Noon on November 12th. For all the details, follow the links at ouluopenhack.org. or tune into twitter at #ouluopenhack.

Social Discovery, Social Filtering, and other Web-Squared Shapes

It’s hard to wrap up a major conference, especially when you didn’t attend, but viewing things from a distance sometimes helps because only the loudest messages make it all the way over.

Before the conference even started, Fred Wilson threw out a one-liner that got people thinking. He called it the Golden Triangle.

The three current big megatrends in the web/tech sector are mobile, social, and real-time.

To Fred, the vectors between each of these points on his triangle represented the biggest opportunities over the next few years and where he, as a technology VC, was going to focus his attention.

Ross Mayfield, his line from the first Web 2.0 conference is still relevant, added Geo to Fred’s Triangle and posted his virtual napkin up on flickr.

ross mayfield web squared

The importance of Geo cannot be ignored as the most obvious (and easiest) way to add context to information which is being harvested and sent our way in increasingly alarming rates. We talk about a world in which there are 1 billion mobile devices. Imagine what happens when each of these gets a camera, gps, and bluetooth sensor and an IP connection to pull in real-time updates. Adds a new dimension to Right Here, Right Now.

So while HTML Page Indexers of yore were failing at finding us the best Chinese in Helsinki or plumber in London, Social Discovery became the new nectar. Facebook leads to FriendFeed leads to Twitter and now our capacity to consume and process has overloaded. Groups, Hashtags, Lists, Folders, call them what you will but this manual organization of streams is beginning to feel like e-mail folder management all over again. The Googles and Microsofts have added the Twitter firehose to their indexes but somehow I don’t see that as solving the problem unless they can filter on your social connections as well (rumor has it Google Profiles are about to play a much more important role Google Social Search is now live).

Which brings us to Social Filters.

Marshall Kirkpatrick has been following this topic for a long time. He bangs the Social Filter drum again in a post about Facebook’s News Feed redesign,

Someday social networking is going to be like the telephone. Today you can’t send messages from Facebook to people on MySpace or LinkedIn but that isn’t going to last forever. Just as you can call someone who uses T-Mobile from your Sprint phone, someday sharing and messaging between online social networks will be a given.

How will social networks retain users then? Why stick with Facebook when some smaller service offers a decentralized social networking service outside of Facebook’s control but still tied into your friends on Facebook and elsewhere?

These services will someday have to compete on user experience, when they no longer have your social connections locked-in. The service that does the best job filtering up the most important information you have coming your way will likely be the service you stick with. That’s going to be a key area of competition between social networks.

Yes, it’s no longer about who “owns” the social graph – it’s who provides the best services on top of a shared graph. Someone mentioned that Tim Berners Lee said at the conference that AOL was to WWW as Facebook is to distributed social networks. Just as we thought it silly that AOL wanted to put it’s famous wall around the internet, we may also look back in amazement thinking that anyone could have the audacity to think they could own the world’s social address book.

Some historical perspective from Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle in Web Squared: Web 2.0 Five Years On

There is a race on right now to own the social graph. But we must ask whether this service is so fundamental that it needs to be open to all.

It’s easy to forget that only 15 years ago, email was as fragmented as social networking is today, with hundreds of incompatible email systems joined by fragile and congested gateways. One of those systems – internet RFC 822 email – became the gold standard for interchange.

We expect to see similar standardization in key internet utilities and subsystems. Vendors who are competing with a winner-takes-all mindset would be advised to join together to enable systems built from the best-of-breed data subsystems of cooperating companies.

Bringing it all together you can almost hear the synapses of the global brain achieve self-awareness. Not only are we moving to a web of sensors feeding real-time data into the grid, we are annotating it by injecting bits of human commentary and behaviors across an increasingly distributed social graph.

A phone in one corner of the world sends off a snapshot which is immediately re-tweeted via the world’s largest telephone tree. More reasoned minds pick up the samples, turn it over and examine it and later conclude that no, the calculated mass of the balloon could in fact not hold a small boy aloft – rumor refuted! Lesson learned and the network becomes a little smarter, more skeptical, less knee-jerk adolescent. Sentient if you will.

The pieces are in place, the machines are warmed up. It was fun while it lasted but it’s time to put Failblog aside and see if we can move on to tackle bigger problems. O’Reilly and Battelle wrap up with their call to arms,

2009 marks a pivot point in the history of the Web. It’s time to leverage the true power of the platform we’ve built. The Web is no longer an industry unto itself – the Web is now the world.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Silicon Valley visits Helsinki

If you’re interested in the Social Web and are in Southern Finland at the end of September here are two events that are very much worth catching.

Chris Messina and Jyri Engeström will be in Helsinki first for an all day crash course on the social web which will run from the basics in the morning to more specifics around how to design for the social web with hands-on guidance. For anyone looking to get started, this is a great opportunity to get a jump start from two guys that are in the thick of it.

On October 1st and 2nd they will be giving talks as part of the Mindtrek conference in Tampere.

Big Mess of Wires

A hand-built, 8-bit CPU

A hand-built, 8-bit CPU

I’ll be taking my son to the Maker Faire for the third year in a row this weekend. It’s a great Father & Son festival where you see what happens when you throw together technology, imagination, dedication, and passion into a big pot and mix it up together.

On display will be Steve Chamberlin’s hand-built CPU which he built in 18 months using $1000 worth of parts and 1,200 pieces of wire hand-wrapped around gold wrap posts mounted to a board that he bought off of eBay. In the end, he re-created a large version of something the equivalent of the Apple II CPU. He nicknamed it, Big Mess of Wires. Full details on Steve’s blog.

I look forward to seeing Steve’s homebrewed CPU along with many other pet projects that are sure to inspire.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Web 2.0 Expo 2009

I knew this time would come. The talks about this thing called social media were great because they used to be in small groups, people passing around knowledge as if around a campfire. Now, in an attempt to codify this knowledge, package it for wider distribution, it’s become wooden – formulaic.

I like the fact that this year’s conference was themed, “The Power of Less” and at it least alluded to the fact that maybe it’s time to get back to simpler roots. Tara Hunt did a great job bringing that folksy delivery to the masses in her talk about Whuffie, her delivery is just as important as the message.  John Maeda’s talk riffed on that theme as well talking about the difference between MIT’s Media Lab and the hands-on artists at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Outside the conference there was a company passing out fliers on how to get 8,000 twitter followers without even trying, I’m not clear on the details but they sounded like Snake Oil salesmen. Just down the street was a guy sitting on a milk crate with an old typewriter on his knees. He was offering to type you up a personal poem on the spot. The Power of Less indeed.

“If your product ain’t real-time, you’re dead.” I think that was the gist of a sticker I saw last week. Basically long-form blogging and analysis are dead. Everyone is focused on the quick fix, easy access you get when you’re the first to hear about something and the first to react. Chartbeat is a real-time stats package that feeds right into the real-time web. I love the fact that you can set up parameters so you know when things are outside the norm but I don’t think I need to know exactly how many people are writing comments at any one time. Quitter has been around for a while but I wonder if I really want to know which tweets drove someone to stop following me.

Sometimes it’s better to have the fuzzy resolution of the non-realtime world. More letters, less tweets. A guy I know who runs a stationary store says that business is up.

It’s all about the pile on – jump onto a hot trend on Techmeme and ride the click-thru wave with the rest of them. There was no IRC backchannel this year – everyone was tweeting away their 140-character updates into the massive, public “in-crowd” of twitters. It’s not only about those in-the-know, there are now a subset of those that heard-it-first. Less about the original perspective, more about the twitch reaction. 

As pimping your product via Social Media goes mainstream, the kids that created this unique space are going to look for somewhre else to hang out. It’s looking like that place will be mobile but we’re going to have to wait a bit longer for all the pieces to fall into place. The iPhone taught everyone that it’s not so much the hardware but the application ecosystem that you build up around the device which drives utility. The Palm Pre will hopefully teach everyone that the phone can truely be a terminal to data stored in the cloud and that a small local cache of you cloud is all you need.

22994459I’m hopeful that the next couple of years will bring together that perfect storm of better/faster that tore down the walls between Compu Serve and AOL in the late-90s and got us the internet. Ubiquitous low-cost wireless bandwidth and app stores will do for us today what the 28.8 Supra modem and usenet did for us back then.

Until then, the image of everyone on BART either pecking away at their phone or turning it over and over again while they talk with someone will stick in my mind. I’ve never seen a technology so pervasive in someone’s life. Right now it’s drawing people away from the face-to-face conversation, the bluetooth headset indicates that anyone you’re talking to is secondary to the random caller on your cell. I’m hoping we can reverse that and make something that brings them back together.

The Startup Scene in Helsinki

Arctic Evening

Arctic Evening - March 2009

I was lucky my trip to Helsinki overlapped with a meeting of Arctic Startup, an occasional meeting of high-tech entreprenuers. The event was held in the Dubrovnik Lounge, a cozy event space in downtown Helsinki which had room for about 100.

It reminded me of other Web 2.0 events that I’ve been to outside of silicon valley in Tokyo and on the East Coast of the US. A gathering of the faithful who spend their days virtually tapped in to what is going on in the valley come together face-to-face to compare notes and talk about the latest news and gossip. Everyone wants to know how things are in the Valley and if it’s really like what they’ve read. The organizers do a great job of bringing everyone together and encouraging people to help each other out and share stories of what works connecting people.

The evening’s event centered around a panel discussion about the state of VC funding in Finland and I was suprised to learn how active the Finnish government is in helping get startups off the ground. It’s difficult for a nordic startup (there were visitors from Sweden and Estonia) to secure VC funding from overseas so their best bet is to use the University system to build a prototype and secure an grant from the “tekka” (I know I’m spelling this wrong) that has become more open to funding alternatives to the pure R&D projects they have traditionally funded.

I met with Indrek Vainu from Estonia who implored me to let people I know that there’s government grants available for businesses that establish themselves in Estonia. As long as you can bring $2M to the table, the Estonian government will match that amount as a grant, doubling your runway. The application process takes some time but it’s worth it. Indrek consults on helping with the application process so if you’re interested in getting in touch, let me know and I’ll put you in touch.

I also learned about the rather infamous case of Riot On, a mobile entertainment startup in early 2000 which famously swindled its investors and ended up giving startups a bad reputation that they’re still trying to overcome. There’s a great documentary about that crazy time and how it all went down. You can see the whole thing on Joost.

Open ID Design Summit – Links to coverage

For various reasons I was unable to attend the Open ID Design Summit. Thankfully, the talks were very well covered so it’s possible for anyone see what happened and the current state of discussions around what’s being called the “open stack”

Live-blogging the openid design summit – John McCrea from Plaxo did a great job of live-blogging the event. This is the best place to start because his post also embeds all the presentations. Thanks John!

OpenID user experience tackled – by Carsten Pötter links to PuffyPoodles.com, an example of an OpenID pop-up form which uses remote authentication using a Google ID.

Chris Messina just posted a bunch of video clips:

OpenID Design Workshop Introductions from Chris Messina on Vimeo.

More below the fold:

Continue reading