Wrapping up an exciting quarter for FounderSoup

I’m really proud of our entire FounderSoup team, as we ran two of our flagship pitch events in the past 90 days.

Check out our website, as well as the following press coverage of our events:

January 2012 – TechCrunch and Stanford Daily.

March 2012 – Pensinsula Press & SFGate

Stay tuned for some more exciting news & upcoming events by “liking” our Facebook page at FounderSoup.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Parents, if you love your children…

Get 'em started early

Last week, I was having the typical modern Silicon Valley conversation about how ridiculously challenging it is to find technical talent.

We covered all the typical bullet points:  the best thing you could do is build those skills yourself, you’ll need to be willing to give up significant equity, you might want to offer free food, massages, and funsies at the office, etc.

One of my favorite entrepreneurs (Jason, who happens to be launching an education startup at FormativeLearning.com), piped up, laughing, and quipped…”well, what I did was start reading HTML for Babies to my 1-year-old daughter.”

“Are you joking?”

“No!  I’m not!”

“Awww…yeah!  That’s so awesome.”

And while I think this is hilarious, and I’m sorta kidding.  I’m also not kidding.  The thing is, HTML is no more complicated than math, or grammer…and we definitely teach THAT to our kids.

Most kids these days end up taking 4-8 years of foreign languages, and year-after-year of math classes, and oodles of literature and european history, etc.

But how many of our kids are given a basis, at an early age, for learning the technical skills that are so desperately coveted?   We are living in the midst of this crazy employment oxymoron…we live in a country where unemployment is extremely high, while at the same time, companies are tripping all over themselves to hire people who know how to program…

Job Postings: Web Design vs Geometry

Don’t believe me?  Check out the graph from Indeed.com, showing the trend in job postings over the past few years.  As a hint, the one that is huge and growing is “web design”, while practically no one gets a job because of their skills in “geometry”.

Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t learn geometry and I don’t mean to pick on this skill.  In fact, geometry is important to web design, as well as being a well-rounded individual.

But what I AM saying is that our children ought to be AT LEAST as skilled (and fluent) at software development technologies, like HTML, as they are at things like Geometry and Shakespeare.

So parents, if you really love your children, give them the gift of code this Christmas…and start them on a path toward fantastic job security…start them early…with books like HTML for Babies.  (A more serious look at the hot skillsets forthcoming…but HTML is a good place to start).

Yes, your children (along with everyone else) may think you are extremely strange (right now), but they will thank you in 2035 when they’re making plus salary…while coding up apps for your wall-mounted touch screen tablet television.

The Non-Technical Founder’s Nightmare

Can You Introduce Me?

When I decided to study Computer Science at Stanford, I anticipated many wonderful outcomes.  I knew I would be able to better support the companies I built (ie ContractorMarketingPros.com), understand new technology trends (ie opportunities in mobile), and build new prototypes (ie BeTheDuke.com).  The experience has exceeded my expectations…

But there’s one aspect of studying CS at Stanford that I never anticipated: the extent to which the tech community covets top engineering talent.

Go to nearly any event in Silicon Valley and you’ll hear one key theme repeated over and over again by entrepreneurs and investors:

“I’m looking for software developers…”

Cisco and Oracle are hiring engineers.  Google and Microsoft are hiring engineers.  Facebook and Zynga are hiring engineers.  Dropbox and Square are hiring engineers.  Pinterest and AirBnB are hiring engineers.  Your uncle is hiring engineers.  My uncle is hiring engineers.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, is hiring engineers.

The Request

Jockey seeks horse, promises plentiful oats & minimal whippings.

As one of the few MBAs who then went on to become a computer scientist, I get a LOT of requests that sound like this (these are all actual emails I’ve received):

  • “a friend of mine is creating software that IS very cool…But… he needs programmers. I told him that you might be a great resource”
  • “I’m going to revolutionize the ___ industry…do you know any good programmers who might be interested”
  • “do you know of any rockstar android developers who might be interested in part-time work? (longer term, we’re also looking for algorithm and AI engineers)… if yes, can you please fwd this to anyone you know who might be interested? thanks much!”
  • “I am working on a cool idea in the mobile ____ space. Do you have any iPhone programmers you would recommend?”
  • “Anyway, we are definitely still looking for developers…Let me know if you come across any rockstars interested in changing the world of _____.”
  • “Do you know any awesome Rails engineers that might consider joining an exciting _____ startup? Ideally 3-5 yrs experience for a Sr. Eng/VP, Eng role.”
  • “I am determined to launch this project on my own, but I have no development savvy at all. Do you have any advice for how I can find a programmer that would partner up on a project like this?”
How Not To Find Engineers

It gets much worse…(see Whartonite Seeks Code Monkey).

You…and everyone else…

The entrepreneur in me understands EXACTLY where these emails are coming from.  However, the frustrating thing about these emails is that I’d love to help out, but I can’t.  It’s not that these are unqualified people asking for help. On the contrary…these are requests coming in from some of the most fantastic people I know. These are entrepreneurs and investors who are successful, high character people. It’s a beating-and-a-half to say “um, sorry, I can’t really help you with that” every single time this happens.

But the truth of the matter is…if I forwarded even a small % of these emails onto my CS friends, then we wouldn’t be friends for very long. You see, talented Stanford engineers are so thoroughly bombarded with inbound requests like these, they almost become numb to the flirtations.

Everyone’s a gatekeeper…

In coordinating the FounderSoup events, I’ve spoken with a handful of Stanford CS professors to invite them to our events.  Their response, “I actually don’t know that many developers”.  To which I reply, “No, I’m asking if YOU want to come to the event…I’m encouraging my non-technical friends to learn CS and we’d love to have YOU there…it could be a good way to recruit new students.”   They typically perk up at this point, but nevertheless, their guard is up.  And that’s just the professors.

Want to really see what I’m talking about?  Try going to the CS career services folks.  Maybe say something like “hey, I’ve got this really cool program & I wanted to see if I could reach out to some of the CS students directly…”  Hah.  They’ll say something like “yeah, you and everyone else” and then repeat the phrase…”the best we can do for you is offer that you sponsor a booth at the career fair.”   Ohhh…the career fair.  That deserves another post of it’s own.  But in short, if you want to see a who’s who of the technology world, the CS career fair is where it’s at.

Heavily Fortified

So why does everyone in the system either have a fortress built up or deny even knowing any engineers (despite teaching hundreds of them every quarter)?  It’s not that they have bad intentions or anything like that…they, more than anyone, realize how overwhelming it is for these students to be recruited by seemingly every company in the valley.  Their students, who they “don’t know that many of” are so sought after that the professors, advisors, and everyone else within earshot of the ecosystem are bombarded with inbound requests, as well…and all serve as a form of gatekeeper, lest they burn their own bridges.

If I, the MS-MBA, am fatigued by requests to meet software engineers, imagine how tiresome it must be for their professors…or worse yet, the engineers themselves.

As a result, one of the unwritten rules within the CS community is that you don’t bother your friends with intros to “yet another startup looking for a developer”…you just don’t.

Do You Have Some Time To Grab A Coffee?

NO!  Every top notch CS student or engineer has an overwhelming array of opportunities…so much so that many top engineers avoid any spotlight that threatens to bring unwanted attention upon them: public LinkedIn profiles, attending entrepreneurial mixer events, or subscribing to the “blast” email lists.  One of my favorite engineers, a PhD in the CS program here, simply tells everyone he’s studying “marine biology” in order to avoid all the flirtation…

They certainly don’t want to “meet up for coffee” every with every “idea guy looking for a programmer”. In the much the same way that celebrities avoid the public, engineers are hiding from the bombardment of prospective startup opportunities.

After all, they’ve got 6 hours of coding still to do…tonight.  This weekend?  They’ll be cranking on code then, too.

So… 

What was my response to this? First of all, I started FounderSoup.com.  The goal of the organization is to invite all of my entrepreneurial friends (and their friends), both technical and non-technical to one event.  It’s efficient for everyone. We aim to make it a high-trust environment and have seen some awesome successes from the event.  So if you’re interested, join the signup list.

Second, I continued studying Computer Science.

Third, I’ve started encouraging every able-minded person to either (a) come to FounderSoup, or (b) study Computer Science.

Earn That Technical Co-Founder

Probably the best piece of advice I’ve heard along these lines came from Jason at HumbledMBA

“You don’t find a technical cofounder, you earn one.”

How do you do that?  Jason suggests several steps to achieving this…most important of which, IMO, is:  1. Learn to Code.  2. Build the front-end.   The key here is doing everything in your power to build trust, gain traction, show your talent & commitment to the project.

In a recent survey we conducted at FounderSoup, we found that even top engineers are mostly looking for other engineers, not MBAs.  But of those engineers who aren’t looking for MBAs…you know what they wanted?  Entrepreneurial decathletes.  In other words…if you aren’t an engineer and you want to earn a technical co-founder…then you’d better be darn good at everything else!

And you’ve got to win them over!

Often, it’s “how” you say it…

So how can you, the entrepreneur, find that special programmer?

Well, first of all, talking THAT WAY, you’ll never find what you want.

You’ve got to show that you respect their skills and know enough about their world to be a great partner.  You are not looking for a “programmer”. You are looking for an “engineer”, a “software developer”.

Instead of saying we are looking  “for an expert in PHP, Ruby-On-Rails, CSS AND Machine Learning”, or “a rockstar programmer to build our frontend and backend using xyz-string-of-non-complementary-languages.” I suggest you say something like “we are looking for can-do co-founders who have a strong foundation in software engineering and enjoy taking on new challenges”.

First Date

It’s Like Dating

When looking for someone to date, you certainly wouldn’t post on Facebook saying, “I’m looking for someone who cooks, fixes cars, loves children, likes to fornicate daily, and is going to make a ton of money.” That would be crazy and even the most socially foolish person wouldn’t do so.  Why? It’s obvious…that just doesn’t work!

So don’t be THAT entrepreneur! Don’t ask the world in your first meeting.  Don’t look for a programmer to build your app.  Recognize that these 21-year-olds are getting offers from the top businesses in whatever industry they are interested in.  Realize that you’re going to need to cough up real equity to attract them.  Know that your competition is offering them free food and foot massages.

So if you’re going to find that team-mate, you’d better not promise minimal whippings…get to know them, show them you are interested in them, let them see how awesome and trustworthy you are…and maybe that special relationship will develop.  But, for starters, know what to call them…they’re software engineers, not rockstar programmers.

Seems like a strange detail to emphasize, eh?  One thing we have learned in building this program is that these subtle touches are surprisingly fundamental to how prospective engineers feel about the way they may be treated in an organization.

This is the first part of a multi-part series on the subject…I’ll later cover things like how to build your engineering skills…but step 1 (for the newcomers to this world) is to recognize that there is a fortress you’re trying to enter and that it takes time and awareness to build the trust necessary to earn that technical co-founder.

Online Music Industry, You Spin Me Right ‘Round…

Update, Jan 2015: It’s all about YouTube, SoundCloud, iTunes, and Pandora for me now. TuneIn for radio.

Update, June 2013: It’s SoundCloud for me now. Longer tracks, huge selection, delightful user interface, straight from the artist. Turntable already fizzled out, even though I thought it would be awesome. 🙁

I guess because it required synchronous engagement between DJs and fans? Meanwhile, SoundCloud has found a nice way to make this engagement asynchronous, with the commenting features that fans can leave – directly in the tracks. Hype Machine is cool too. Great stuff, internet – continuing to make more music available more efficiently.

Originally posted, July 2011:


Radio Music Method
Radio Music Method

About a year ago, I wrote about what I called “The Great Music Discovery Trifecta” because I was loving how the evolution of consumer internet had made it so easy for me to find and portably own oodles of music that I love.  At the time, I was driving to work, capturing songs I liked with Shazam, putting through subsequent interviews in Grooveshark, and then purchasing the ones I wanted to continue listening to through iTunes.  It was glorious (and still is).

But since then, things just keep evolving.  Pandora’s gone public.  Last.fm has grown into a Wikipedia-like (in terms of depth and quality of information) resource about top rated music.  Spotify has come to the US.  Rexly.com has been birthed (Go Joel!).  And Turntable.fm has…well, not only become my daytime music radio source, but it has also captured my data nerd imagination.

You see…I stopped listening to the public radio (except when I have no other choice) for the same reason that most technically savvy folks have done the same…to me, radio music is noisy, inconsistent, and jammed with commercials.  The quality-to-nuisance ratio is just so low that it’s practically unbearable.  So when Pandora & ubiquitous iTunes hit the scene (and then my beloved trifecta), I completely ditched the “DJ curating my music” experience altogether.

…until Turntable.

As an internet innovation enthusiast and someone who likes to listen to music while I work…I’ve been absolutely fascinated with Turntable – not just because it’s a cool “gaze into the future” product (and it is)…but because of its DATA Set and what this means for me…and you.  As Turntable grows (in user #s) & its data becomes more widely available (through an API or the inevitable scraping & aggregation of room data)….it will be fabulous.  (kinda like Twitter circa 2008)

DJ Fans Data
DJs Feeling Crowd Reaction

Here’s my thinking (maybe my hardcore industry friends can inform me here)…seemingly for the first time ever, music pros will be able to get real-time data, in a huge way, about what genres, songs, and styles people love (like Pandora + iTunes on steroids + years of watching your Friday night crowd’s heads bob to what you’re spinning…)

Now, Turntable captures all of this through the simple, yet powerful “awesome/lame” button interaction that is a core part of the turntable experience.  We normally don’t think about it while using these buttons, but us users are providing real-time feedback and never-before-possible data…which will allow these DJs (in that room) as well as industry pros (with aggregated voting data) to learn quantitatively how the crowd responds to obvious questions, like “what are the most popular songs and styles”, but even more granular findings, such as how cread reaction is impacted by: (a) time of day (b) the previous few songs played (c) DJs reputation (d) user geography (e) user FB likes (remember, you join via Connect), etc.

Turntable has…what?  Tens of thousands (and growing) users voting on hundreds of thousands of songs every day??  Assuming it continues to scale, we are quickly encroaching on uncharted user feedback data that’s hithertofore unimaginable.

The crazy thing is that DJs are already learning more than they’ve ever learned before about the type of music people want to hear and when…and this will make thousands of amateur DJs a lot better, help quickly surface new DJs, and ultimately…I believe, drive another boom in music innovation.

I realize that there’s another argument entirely about the dramatic dropoff in CD sales and a shift towards concerts and big troubles for the record companies…and I’m not anywhere close to being an expert on those things.  Perhaps certain segments of the music industry will suffer, some forms of creation may be inhibited by this shift of power, etc.

But for me…a lover of technically enhanced music and someone who is willing to purchase the good stuff on iTunes in order to have it on my iPad…well, I’m just super excited about what the future holds in the form of music innovation, discovery, and optimizing toward user preferences in this statistically transparent & unprecedented way.  One example of this that I LOVE, and am not afraid to admit…are Mashups.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about with mashups, and you’re curious…do yourself a favor and find some music by any of the following mashup folks:  DJ Earworm, Kap Slap, Girl Talk, or anything having to do with Miike Snow.  These guys are creating a genre of music which is a truly fantastical blend of other music that brings hardcore beats to pop songs that everyone loves (think Enya + Tupac).

Boom In Music & Mashups
Boom In Music & Mashups

On one hand, this new platform hurts the old guard of music labels and other intermediaries who the artist previously needed in order to capture economic value…but, it will simultaneously drive a further democratization of music and an explosion of a class of amateur DJs.  This…tenfold? boom in the # of DJs will inevitably speed the evolution of music, prompting the emergence of new genres of music, help DJs to learn precisely how their users respond to the music, and to help content creators be able to iterate & improve at a faster rate than ever before.  So, we’ll probably spawn fewer U2s and Mozarts in this new world…but I believe this new distribution channel & real-time feedback mechanism is going to lead to a boom in the speed of music creation and the quality of music curation, speeding the emergence of upstarts into superstars, and ultimately meaning more quality and less noise in my passive music listening.  This was going to happen regardless…but I’m glad Turntable…and these other innovators…are giving us another big shove in that direction.

Do you agree that Turntable will help drive more innovation in music?  Are there other music pioneers I should know about?

Top Ecommerce Sites, Conversion Performance

Great chart, “Top 10 Online Retailers by Conversion Rate – October 2008” posted on www.marketingcharts.com, listing the sites with especially good sales conversion rates.

Matt (@tugglmatt) pointed this out and theorized a bit about why they exceeded the performance of the other gajillion websites out on the information superhighway.  He asked: “Top 10 web retailers by conv. rate. Is it traffic quality? site optimization? user intent? interesting chart…”

This got me wondering, so I checked out a sampling of three that I wasn’t intimately familiar with.  I suspect that conversion rates at a site like ‘OfficeDepot.com’ might partially be so strong because of their obvious brand leadership.  Along the same lines, I figured that a site from a company who was not the obvious industry leader might be more related to its layout and design quality…

ProFlowers.com
Blair.com
Roamans.com

I found ProFlowers.com (same company family as RedEnvelope.com and others) to be especially sharp and awesome.  Roaman’s is awesome too.  I find the actual product listings sub-pages to be more attractive than the index page on all 3 examples.

So here’s a quick hit list of my observations.  Clearly, this isn’t the whole story, but I noticed the following common threads:

First, they all have the obvious, clean layout, seo friendly text link navigation, nice buttons, sharp edges.

  • All have bright colors, either a pretty pastel or otherwise attractive coloring
  • Lot of white space, or clean space
  • All have trust signals clearly displayed…McAfee, plus Verisign or another
  • All have narrow page width, not 1000mpx, would fit horizontally on small-ish monitor
  • Product prices in red font
  • Large selection of relatively low cost products
  • Images’ prices displayed below the image, not to the side
  • Full secondary product pages always 4 columns wide, many rows tall,
  • Prices in red font in two of them
  • Attractive smiling women on index page of two
  • All have nav bar across top, not along side
  • All have a search box clearly displayed at the top
  • Order Status, Track My Order links at top of every one

So what do you all think?  What about these sites makes their per-visitor conversion so much higher?  Notice something in common among them that are unobvious?  Other examples of the finest sites you can think of?

Wow Wow! Stitcher.com – Pandora of news / talk radio

Works on IPhone. Big selection of customized audio news, on Iphone. No more chintzy local radio for me.

Its huge – he ability to listen to NPR, WSJ, and Top Rated Podcasts on your PC or IPhone – they have a huge list of categories that you can choose from – and their algorithm notices what you like and don’t like – delivering you better stuff the more you liten.

Amazing stuff – this will be my go-to source for news for the foreseeable future.  Go Stitcher.

Interesting thoughts from TC:

I have mixed feelings about Stitcher’s potential. While the desktop-based version of the website works as advertised, I have a hard time picturing many people sitting at their computers listening to recommended news articles and debates. This works well enough with music, but news content is much more involved – generally you need to pay more attention to what is being said, which probably isn’t how most people will want to spend their free time.

On the other hand, the iPhone version of the site has a chance to be a runaway success. The prospect of having my favorite blogs and podcasts streamed to my iPhone without ever having to sync up with a computer is very appealing. Right now the iPhone version of the site is clunky, mostly because of issues with iPhone’s integrated Quicktime player (though streaming over Edge works surprisingly well). But these problems should be short-lived, as Stitcher’s development team is hard at work on a native iPhone application which could see the service really start to shine this June, when Apple releases its sanctioned app store.

I totally agree.  While the PC version of this might be useful for some, the mobile version has the potential to be a game-changer.  I’m very impressed that they’re even reading top blogs aloud to provide this quality audio content to our phones.  I will definitely be using and paying attention to this company.

Stanford GSB Update – After 1st Quarter of MBA Program

Stanford has been amazing – the people are spectacular.  The access to local VCs has been great – and we’re already fully into recruiting & interviews for summer internships.  The campus itself is really pleasant – I get to bike to class each day, the weather is almost always sunny and fresh feeling.

I got a deepdive in Finance this past quarter, so I can now understand the WSJ when I read it.  I am about to dive into another quarter of classes, but this time, they will be almost exclusively quantitative (modeling, stats, microecon, mngrl accounting, and corporate finance).  Between the courseload and spending time with classmates, the school absorbs practically all of my time – my life is once again managed by an Outlook calendar that finds lunches regularly double and triple booked.  We call it ‘drinking from a firehose’.   It’s crazy to have so many interesting lectures, seminars, and activities to spend time with.

Anyways, I’m getting to spend time with a lot of high-achieving and well-meaning people who want to build companies (either Internet businesses or clean energy companies) – and those are the two things I’m most interested in.  All in all, it’s been every bit the experience I had hoped it would be.

Fortunately, Joan has been a great companion – getting to spend time with her helps keep me balanced and after Q2, everything is supposed to ease up a great deal – giving us more time to work on projects, meet people outside the school, etc.

Customized News Innovation, Feed Filtration, Relevance…

The problem many people face is that there are so many sources of information that we’re trying to keep track of, we’ve become buried. Information overload is a real problem for many web users, and one way to cope with it is to filter your RSS feeds so you only see what you want to see.  There are many ways to filter news feeds from your favorite sources, including passively by relying on meme trackers like Techmeme or social news services such as Google Reader’s shared items.

My biggest problem is that each of my feeds is a single, sequential series of posts that is organized by time, NOT by importance or relevance to me.  With a super-bright friend, I’ve been working on some interesting new ideas in feed filtration.  Imagine a website that had the most interesting and relevant information for YOU.  A sort of fully customized TechMeme…a YouMeme.

Poking around, I’ve found several interesting attempts at solving this challenge:

Feedhub.com –  learns from your behavior to suggest posts to you – so far, the user interface and service looks pretty sweet.  It gave me my own feed, based on my OPML, which I added to Google Reader, and it will look at my history and give me feeds back.  TBD.

** FeedZero.com –  It uses Bayesian filtering to present you with a list of filtered feed items – all you need to do is subscribe to a bunch of feeds, mark which ones you like and don’t like (similar to classifying items as spam or not spam in an email client) and it’ll learn your preferences.  It has just gone into testing so any feedback would be appreciated – http://www.feedzero.com.  I loaded up my OPML here and it does some interesting things.

The interface is sometimes clumsy in operation but clever in its layout.  Seems fairly effective at choosing stories I’ll like.  This bayesian method must be interesting.  So far, so good.  Despite the somewhat clumsy interface, the news it is filtering for me is good.  Great case in point, after only one day (yesterday) of reading posts and saying ‘yes / no’ to certain ones, it loaded up several articles.  The 3rd one, which impressed me the most, was a post about the sale of the domain name, solarenergy.com.  It knows I like domain names, it knows I like solar energy, and it spooled up THAT article, out of several hundred it could have shown me.  It’s also doing well on other themes too – it’s awesome enough to have this sort of service that I find myself reading MORE news overall, because of the consistently high relevance of the stories to ME.

There are a LOT of other services that are doing something in this sphere:  AidRSS, FeedRinse, FilterMyRSS, BlastFeed, etc, but for me, the two above look the most interesting.

TBD if the end result of all of this is (a) to build my own company that does this, or (b) that FeedZero or some other service is useful enough that it is unwise and unnecessary to dive in myself.