Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Founders At Work

For my Birthday I got Jessica Livingston's "Founders At Work: Stories of Startups' Early Days". It was an enjoyable book and over the past two weeks I quickly went through it. The book is broken up into thirty-two different interviews with company founders. Most of the stories are about web companies, but there are a few hardware stories mixed in.

Covering so many different companies and individuals one coundn't help but compare them. You have companies like Apple that started with the brains behind it to make a really fantastic product and on the flip side you have Yahoo which looks like it was pure dumb luck. Yahoo was the biggest surprise for me. Started as a way to keep track of links for a dissertation the founders spent the first eight months manually entering in urls people would send them, sometimes eight hours a day the book says. They were in the right place at the right time and that was it. I found it extremely hard to read very deeply into any advice given from companies like Yahoo or HotOrNot which (another random luck story). But to match there are plenty of stories of companies who put in several years of hard work and it paid off. Luck is always a factor in a startup, sometimes it is tiny and sometimes it is a metric ton dragging you forward whether you know it or not.

The story of TiVo mentioned another company called ReplayTV which is no longer around. ReplayTV was TiVo's big competition when they were first growing. All of the stories in the book are mostly successful in the end (the company might have died, but the founder got to cash out). Discussing ReplayTV made me take note of the fact that there was no stories of failed companies. This is probably due to the fact that there are plenty of good stories without having to discuss failures and it is easier to sell a book about companies people have heard of, but no doubt the companies that failed had plenty of good lessons that they learned the hard way.

One story that resinated with me was the story of FireFox. While I lived through looking back I hadn't realized just how much they had going for them at the time. I.E. development team had been discontinued, Netscape only 5% of the users and a horrible interface and no change in sight. Out comes this little Firefox... Comparing that to Arora. Between new versions of I.E. that Microsoft is pushing, new versions of FireFox, Safari and then Chrome comes out. I am glad that I didn't try to really push Arora and kept it as just a QtWebKit browser that utilizes what Qt has to offer.

The book has a large quantity of material and at times I felt a few stories were just repeating earlier ones, but it was a fun read, I picked up a few things and while it doesn't get into a lot of technical detail there are lessons that you can pickup from the book such as: You will probably need to change your startup idea, it will be stressful, and patience and persistence pays off.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Hay Maze

A week before Holloween Jen and I walked to Parlee's farm, a local farm just a few miles away where they had setup a seven acre hay maze. Going through a life size maze is one of those things I always wanted to do as a kid so when we discovered one nearby we went over on the next sunny weekend to try it out.

Walking through the maze took us almost an hour to get through. Even though the hay was only about four feet tall (at the highest) I couldn't see very far and wasn't able to follow were the trail went with my eyes because the hay would blend together. There are two bridges in the second half of the maze that you get to walk on top of and look out over the maze. Amusingly though when you got to the bridge and looked out you really couldn't solve the maze just by looking because the after twenty feet or so it is all just meshes together and you can't tell where the paths are.

This was very nice as I feared that I would just stand still look at the maze and then walk the correct path. This meant that I got to enjoy solving the maze with only the paths I have walked (I wasn't even really sure of the dimensions of the farm/hay fields). When you are solving randomly generated mazes on paper as a kid the only real rule was 'always take a right and you can't go wrong'. But with a life size hay maze you get all sorts of social clues that I quickly started to notice.

In a random maze generated by a computer one of the paths from the very first junction could lead you to the exit. When it is maze number 8 of 500 in a book that is ok, but for a hay maze that makes it not very fun. They want you to have fun and this knowledge can be exploited. Fun is spending a while in the maze, getting to go over each bridge and not wasting too much time on the wrong path. This particular maze was subdivided into sub sections. Each section was its own little maze with one correct path out to the next section. This way if you are lucky on one of the smaller mazes you might not be so lucky on the next (thus having more fun) and you can't spent too much time going the wrong way. Of course once you realize this you can exploit it by taking paths that would lead to where you think the next area would be and knowing you are going the right way if you have not reached a dead end in a while.

Another thing I noticed was that the creators of the maze made several sections that were designed for a human. In one junction that you enter you have four paths in front of you, but if you turn around you will find another path just to the right of where you entered the junction. Visually hidden from the entrance this path and separate from the other four it was clearly the correct path because it would be fun to discover it after walking down one of the wrong paths and returning.

Lastly given that there are people in the maze not only can you see them exploring areas ahead of you and behind you, but you can hear their joy and anguish. This quickly provides hints about what to do in the future. From how big a section is to which side has the right/wrong path. At times I couldn't help but laugh at the family who was stuck in the section behind us and the kids found dead end after dead end.

I went to the maze not really sure what I would expect. I thought it would be similar to every randomly created maze I have dealt with, but found something different and much more interesting. While actually getting through the maze was fun everything else about the maze was much more exhilarating. From ponding how one might make (and exploit) a "fun maze", being outside, people watching, and having fun with Jen made it a very memorable experience. If you ever get the opportunity to go through a life size maze I very much recommend it.

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