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Archive for the ‘work’ Category

“Hi, My Name is Bob, and I’m a Hardware Addict”

Posted by rbpasker on August 19, 2007

I am addicted to hardware. Not gadgets, per se, although I have too many of those collecting dust, too. I mean that I love working on hardware projects.My first exposure to hardware was in my teens, during the 70’s home hobbyist years that launched the PC industry, when I read read and re-read magazines such as Byte, Kilobaud, and Creative Computing. But I soon realized I had no talent for building stuff, having failed at basic skills such as soldering, breadboarding, and socketing ICs (I’m sure I kept more than one EEPROM manufacturer in business from all the pins I bent).

Career-wise, I also started working on hardware projects early, contributing to a VMS device driver for the DV11 Communications Multiplexer (34 meg pdf) in ’83. Since then, I’ve written embedded software for a number of hardware projects, including the Opcode Studio 4, the TribeLink8, and the Sun HSI/S, and I’ve been involved in a number of hardware and embedded systems software companies, including Azul Systems, Rapid Logic, db4o, and Tervela.

Over the past few years, I have been elated to see the resurgence in homegrown hardware, evidence by the success of Maker Faire, Make Magazine, and Make Blog. But even those projects require handicrafting skills I don’t possess.

Last week, however, I may have finally found the solution to my quest to design and develop my own hardware devices. I attended happy hour at the Bug Lab‘s first Bug+Bar, the first of many buzz-building geek fests presaging the launch of Bug Lab’s new product.Bug Lab's What you see in the picture (thanks Make) is the “bug” (bottom), a camera “module,” and an accelerometer “module” (top). The Bug itself is an approximately 4″x 2″ ARM-based system running Linux and Java that lies at the heart of Bug Lab’s vision. These two Modules are among the first of the Bug’s peripherals, which plug into one of the four Bug sockets. The hardware vision, at least, is to build one’s own portable devices, without requiring any more hardware skills than someone like me possesses. Support is planned for USB and other device interfaces. I believe they are are also going to provide the specifications for the modules themselves, so that you hardware developers can build your own.

Beyond the Mr. Potato Head-style hardware is an software suite based completely on GPL’d software, and the developer’s kit will come with source code for the entire Bug and Module stack. Applications can be written in Java, and there will be Java library support for all of the Modules, so you can control the devices from your embedded application without writing drivers.

From a tooling perspective, there is Eclipse support, and the ability to run and debug on your own machine, before loading your app on the Bug. The big difficulty with developing for embedded systems is the workflow, and I hope Bug Labs will pay a lot of attention to end-to-end developer productivity.

I heard a lot of tastier details, but I’m going to leave those for the official launch. My 30-year quest to build my own stuff may finally be coming to a happy ending. I can’t wait to get my spastic little digits on one of these devices.

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A New Chapter

Posted by rbpasker on August 18, 2007

Congrats to my friend and colleague Dave Rowley, who is taking over engineering and product management at Kiptronic. I found out what a talented manager, technologist, and product guy he is when he worked for me at Kenamea, running client engineering. He then moved up to VP Engineering, took over product management, and eventually left to join SNOCAP, a music licensing management service provider.Through legal, regulatory, and economic pressure, the entrenched music industry makes it nearly impossible for music startups to turn a profit, even as consumers flock to sites like last.fm and anywhere.fm.Luckily, the ad insertion business has a brighter future, as the supply of ads continues to outstrip places to put them.Good luck, Dave!

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How Much Capital should we Raise?

Posted by rbpasker on August 17, 2007

Raising capital for a startup is a difficult process. How to do it well is probably one of the most frequently asked questions. Even the most prolific CEO will only raise money 10 or 15 times in a career, while professional investors (AKA VCs), on the other side of the table, do it every day, all day, and work in an office full of people who also do it all day, ever day, so its no wonder founders and CEOs are always looking for good advice.

There have been numerous treatments of this topic, but I would like to focus on one blog entry by Don Dodge (albeit on a different topic, which I’ll cover separately), because he makes a number of very good points that are worth exploring further.

1. “the key is to have several VCs or investors competing for the deal”

This is indeed a key point, and not just because it provides a better bidding situation for the company. There are a many tactics used by VCs to bump competing VCs from a deal, and fund raisers need to have two or more horses in the race, right down to the wire. One tactic is to provide a very favorable term sheet “subject to due diligence” early in the process and get the CEO to drop other VCs. Then, after the lengthy due diligence process, the VC says “the company is not as far as we thought it was”, and proposes new, onerous terms, such a lower valuation or a full ratchet. If you don’t have other VCs in the wings, you might have to either take the deal or restart discussions.

2. “Companies fail because they run out of cash…they usually don’t fail when they have too much cash in the bank.”

Every startup starts out with no money, until someone puts money in. That money can come on day one from the founders, from angels, from VCs, or from a spin-off. Nevertheless, the money gets invested throughout the life of the company because investors believe in the company vision or because they agree to the risk/reward. Once existing or new investors lose faith in the company (for whatever reason, see #3 below), the money dries up and the company eventually either turns a profit, gets sold, or runs out of cash. Undercommit and overdeliver on your (mutually agreed upon) milestones, and you’ll keep the investors happy, and you won’t run out of cash.

3. “How much money should I take? … My simple answer is a little more than you need to reach the next milestone.

What should that “next milestone” be? As you are talking to potential investors, listen very carefully to those who turn you down (if they have the guts to do so at all), because often times they will implicitly tell you what milestones you need to reach in order to get back in the door at the valuation you are proposing. I call these “fundable milestones.”

Some of the most common milestones are: product maturity (beta, production, some set of features), revenue/spending/hiring targets, CPC/CPM/CPA, uniques/adoption rates, or marquee customers. These targets could also be expressed as a rate, e.g., “50% increase in uniques per quarter.”

So the answer to “how much money?” is, then, more than enough to achieve the milestones that will get you back in the investor’s door at a valuation that you are willing to accept. Give yourself some buffer (3-6 months of operations, depending on how close to the edge you’re willing to go), but don’t raise much more. You don’t want to be running out of cash with your next fundable milestone still ahead.

 

Posted in startups, work | 2 Comments »

Facebook for the Enterprise

Posted by rbpasker on August 17, 2007

The internet is full of surprises. Just when everyone thought MySpace was the killer personal social networking platform and LinkedIn was the killer business social networking platform, along comes Facebook, and we realize that its still a horse race.

We saw this happen the web app space when Cold Fusion eventually gave way to WebLogic (eventually giving way to other J2EE platforms; CF now runs as a J2EE plug-in), and search “giant” Alta Vista was run over by Google. Now, it seems, J2EE and Google are perceived as being vulnerable to LAMP/P/R and lightweight Java frameworks such as Spring, and to semantic web startups like Powerset, respectively.

I’m not going to jump on the Facebook versus MySpace war, since that has been covered extensively, but I do want to point out one glaring difference: Facebook has a development platform and MySpace doesn’t. Ever since my first infrastructure software project, I’ve relied on plug-ins to permit customers to extend the platform. On VAX/VMS, it was hard, but in Java it was pretty easy. When making a decision about which kind of product to use, smart, creative people pick extensible products because such products are a canvas that they can paint and interact with, rather than just a painting to be hung on the wall. Plugins are found in all sorts of products now, such as Adium, Eclipse, WordPress, etc.

What does this have to do with Facebook for the enterprise? Well, Jive Software’s Clearspace, which bills itself as an Enterprise 2.0 collaboration product, can also be thought of as an enterprise social networking platform that allows employees to get to know each other, share data, and collaborate through the use of wikis, blogs, instant messaging, and file sharing. Jive recently launched its developer program to provide a marketplace of plugins for developers and customers, and they are now holding a plug-in contest with a $5,000 cash first prize. The advent of plugins for Clearspace means that they are poised to provide Facebook-like extensible functionality inside the firewall, no doubt over the objections of their more static competitors.

(NB: I am an advisor to Jive Software)

Posted in startups, work | 1 Comment »

For Want of a Nail

Posted by rbpasker on August 15, 2007

One of my favorite books in the world is David Hackett Fischer’s Historians’ Fallacies : Toward a Logic of Historical Thought because it brings the rigor of logic to the study of history. Today I get to take Fischer for a tour of the computer room and show him the errors of his ways.

Under the heading Reductive Fallacies, Fischer writes:

fischer.png

In the computer room, however, broken nails are responsible for lost battles all the time.

In 1985, I was working at the Bank of New York on their government securities clearance system, which failed when a signed 16-bit index overflowed from +32,767 to -37,768, and started overwriting memory. BoNY had to take out a $32 billion overnight loan from the Federal Reserve, and pledge the bank itself as collateral. (Although I was not involved in the application which had the bug, I spent the night in the computer room with the folks who were because I had responsibility for the underlying TP monitor software.)

A few days ago, Los Angeles International Airport was shut down because of the failure of a failed U.S. Customers computer system. Was it a terrorist? A hacker? Nope, it was a failed LAN card. It took 9 hours to fix, and stranded 17,000 travelers.

On the battlefield, there is a tremendous amount of redundancy: troops, ammo, tanks, etc. One guy falls, and there are 5 more to take his place, and the reductive argument doesn’t work.

In the computer room, however, there are lots of nails, the failure of any of which is sufficient to cause catastrophic failure.

As computer professionals, we have a responsibility to build redundancy into our systems.

Posted in flying, work | 1 Comment »

Peerflix CTO Jumps Ship For Pre-launch TravelMuse

Posted by rbpasker on August 14, 2007

Congrats to Azure-funded TravelMuse! It was a pleasure interviewing such an outstanding candidate!

Peerflix CTO Jumps Ship For Pre-launch TravelMuse

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Bad VC JuJu. Or Why we need TheFunded.com

Posted by rbpasker on August 14, 2007

A friend of mine, let’s call him “Bill,” whose company I have been advising informally, is building a new website which has not yet launched. He and I and a bunch of friends went to the recent NY Tech Meetup. A guy approached us, introduced himself as a VC, and asked what we were working on. It was a good opportunity for me to listen to my friend pitch, so I listened as he explained what they’re doing. The VC listened intently, and asked a bunch of smart questions.

Bill’s company is also thinking about raising some cash, but he didn’t follow the “ABC rule”: always be closing, and try to get the VC’s contact info or a meeting. Bill and I talked about it afterwards, and I told him I would try to hook him up. When I ran into the VC again, I approached him about meeting Bill and company, but he said he wanted something in writing first so he could go over it with his partners, and then would contact us if there was any interest.

The next day, a company that competes directly will Bill’s company announced a multi-million dollar investment with the very same VC we met .

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Choosing Advisors

Posted by rbpasker on August 10, 2007

In a previous post, I covered the advisor role, so lets take a look at finding advisors for your own startup.

As I mentioned, advisors often act as mentors, so the first thing to do is make a list of people you already know who would make good professional mentors. For most people, former bosses and professors seem to make the top of the list, since they already know you, both the good parts and the bad. My friend and colleague, Bill Donner, has played this role for me for 25 years, and a couple of years ago I was honored to become an advisor to his startup. The benefit to having a former boss or professor as an advisor is that they know you well, and will usually give you candid advice, even when others are more circumspect. Mentors are among the easiest advisors to recruit, since you already have a relationship with them.

The second step is to go through your contacts and list the people you know who have been successful entrepreneurs or work in a leadership capacity in a larger company. These people know your industry, have been through many of the same things you are about to go through, have lots of contacts, and carry some weight in the industry. Recruiting advisors from this group is more difficult, as these people are either too busy or possibly retired.

The last category are industry experts in your field. Think about the (technical or business) problems that you are trying to solve in your startup, then figure out who the thought leaders are. Add them to your list. You’ll often find industry expert advisory boards at companies that require very specialized knowledge, such as medical device companies and security companies. You’ll also find industry advisory boards in companies that are building technology for highly regulated or bureaucratic industries, such as military, finance, government, power and health care. In these fields, having advisors who are well connected is crucial. Industry experts are notoriously difficult to recruit because they are always in demand, and if you don’t already know them, you’ll first have to establish a relationship with them.

Now that you have your list, go around to all the rest of the people who are involved with your company: board members, angels, investors, and employees, and even friends and colleagues. Go through the same discovery process with them, adding their mentors, entrepreneurs and experts they know to your list.

You now have to remove a few groups of people from the list: potential customers, acquirers, and angel investors.

You have to remove potential customers because their being on your advisory board could call into question their objectivity when you are ready to sell to that company. Say you are trying to sell to a bank, and your colleague happens to lead a team which could make good use of your product. You recruit your colleague as an advisor to your company. When the time comes to sell to that bank, your friend would probably have to sit out the negotiations, because he has a conflict of interest. Its better to keep your customer friends on the other side of the table, if you think you might be selling to them. After they become a customer, you can always add them to your advisory board.

You probably also have to remove from the list those who work at potential acquiring companies because their company might already be working on something competitive, or they are talking to your competitors. Having a potential acquirer as an advisor could also create a conflict of interest, or worse, hurt your company’s prospects by leaking confidential information. Whether they stay on your list is a judgment call based the level of trust you have with them.

Lastly, you need to remove potential investors, but not completely! I once said to Marc Hedlund “investors were the only people in a company who would give you money and then work for you, instead of the other way around.” So move your angel investors from the advisor list to your investor list. No reason to have them as an advisor if they will pay you instead of the other way around!

Now categorize your list into groups, such as: sales/marketing experts, operations experts, technology experts, etc., based on your company’s needs and goals. Then prioritize your list in two ways: those who are easy to reach and recruit, and those who will be the most help, keeping in mind the list of things you might need done, as I described in my previous post. This grouped, prioritized list should give you a pretty good idea of how to compose your advisory board.

Next up: recruiting advisors.

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The Limits of Efficiency

Posted by rbpasker on August 9, 2007

In The Limits of Efficiency, Jimmy Guterman hits on the key mechanism I use to “get things done”:

take every incoming demand and immediately determine whether you need to do it, defer it, delegate it, or delete it

Over the years, I’ve tried to-do lists, sticky notes, “todo” email folders, etc. But it turned out that the list just got too long, and many things would just never get done. They’d languish for days, weeks, even months.

So now, I just decide immediately which things I am actually doing to do, and do them now, like today or tomorrow. If I decide I have going to do it but I can’t do it immediately, then I’ll put it my iCal to-do list. Otherwise I will politely decline.

I’ve also limited my to-do list a handful of items, and beyond that, I start deleting things I’ll never get to.

The one side benefit to this method is that I think it makes me more responsive to people who ask me to do stuff, as I can usually report success within a day or two. It also means I rarely say “oh, sorry, I’ve been to busy to get to it,” which is a sure way to piss people off.

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Google’s Unintegrated Blogging Tools

Posted by rbpasker on August 8, 2007

So, I’m trying to use Google Reader, Google Docs, and Blogger to read, write, and publish blogs. Unfortunately, these three systems are not well integrated.

When I’m reading an article in Reader that I want to comment on, I would like to be able to go directly into Docs with the referred article blockquoted, and have my completed post go right into my own blog.

What is currently stopping my from doing this is that Reader doesn’t have a blogging interface. It allows me to share and email a blog entry, but not blog about it.

I have the Blog This! scriptlet installed, but in order to use it from Reader, I first have to click on the article’s title to open the entry in a new window, and even then Blog This! only takes me into a pop-up, not into Docs. Also, when I’m in the Blogger post manager screen, clicking “edit” on a draft blog takes me into the crappy little Blogger editor, not into Docs.

What the Google folks need to do is pay attention to the blogger’s workflow in order to construct a seamless experience for their blogging platform.

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