Always New Mistakes

December 13, 2010

Beware of those who say they help entrepreneurs

Filed under: Conference, entrepreneur — Tags: , , , , — Alex Barrera @ 3:00 pm

I recently attended one of the most shameful events I’ve been to in a long time. Being and entrepreneur myself and collaborating in so many ways (Tetuan Valley, Okuri Ventures, Sandbox, Startup Digest) with other entrepreneurs around the world, I was excited to attend the opening of the MIT Enterprise Forum chapter in Spain. Nothing could have prepared me to the disastrous event I was about to attend. So many people share my views, but no one wants to write them down, so here there are:

I got to the event just in time, just to realize that something was extremely wrong, the president of the MIT Spanish chapter was reading the presentation speech. Having been to so many events and talks, I can tell you, that’s never a good sign. As it happens, it wasn’t, things got much worse as time went by. A round table of “experts” talking about how Spain should help entrepreneurs just made my day. The amount of incoherent ideas, half truths, PR bullshit and just plain ignorant talk was overwealming. I just have to feel sorry for one of the speakers which is a friend and by the look of his face you could see he was as shamed as we were.

Anyhow, one of they things I realized is how dangerous these people can be. There we were, a room packed with people, everyone listening. The problem was, except for our friend, none of the speakers had real entrepreneur experience. Maybe it’s me, being an engineer turns you into a meritocratic person by default, nevertheless, I’ve always thought that if you want to fix a something, first you need to know where the problem is. In my eyes, that was the biggest problem, none of them knew anything about where that laid. Now, it wouldn’t be a problem if these people were regular folks, but they weren’t. They were smart and powerful people. They run big VCs (or so they call themselves in Spain), entrepreneur programs, consulting firms, etc.

What baffled me was that they hadn’t a clue about entrepreneurship, startups or their suffering. Even among them, they couldn’t agree as to what was best for entrepreneurs. The amazing thing was that, from the amount of suits I counted in the room, the percentage of entrepreneurs attending the talk was below 1%. So, in the end, you had, a packed room of non entrepreneurs, listening to a bunch of people talking about a topic that they had absolutely no idea.

This is the thing, a banker that creates a startup competition thinks that gives him uber knowledge on their problems. Truth is, the banker never gets to talk with the entrepreneurs. Not the ones attending his program, not the ones elsewhere. An MBA person, with expertise in finance and buyout operations, that has being doing buyouts and M&A for large (> 100) corporations during the past 6 years thinks he knows entrepreneurs. But I wonder if he’s ever seen a startup with less than 3 people or even talks with entrepreneurs. I’m sorry but working with a corporation has absolutely nothing to do with bootstraping a company in the turmoil of a worldwide economic recession. A doctor working at a hospital has even less idea of what’s in an entrepreneur’s mind. Yes, he opened several new facilities within the hospital, but excuse me if that’s even remotely similar to trying to raise capital for a crazy risky idea. Then we have the typical VC profile. X years in a consulting firm doing private equity and M&A operations. Yes, you meet so many entrepreneurs doing that… and of course, regular VC has so many real interactions with entrepreneurs I just can’t imagine why I’m even writing this (for the record, there is sarcasm here). An finally, but not least, you have the MIT Enterprise Forum chairman. First of all, how can you even speak of funding in Spain when you’ve never started a company in Spain. It just amazes me how easy it is for him to repeat what others say with absolutely a complete ignorance of a countries specific problems. But most importantly, how is it possible that being an entrepreneurs himself, he allows this mummers farce to go on. Shame on him and shame on the MIT.

If MIT thinks that having such a sorry lot talk shit about how to help entrepreneurs, giving a talk with NO Q&A and call it “Forum” and most interestingly, stressing the importance of doing networking, but kicking everyone out to the street after the talk is done, then that’s the reason why most real entrepreneurs end up in California an desert Massachusets.

So, people, please, be critic, and be careful with those that preach that they are champions of the entrepreneur cause when in reality they’re far detached from their real day to day world.

Oh, by the way, I would link to their webpage but they’ve run out of quota: “This account has been suspended. Either the domain has been overused, or the reseller ran out of resources.”

December 5, 2010

Localization Wars: Facebook vs Foursquare

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , , , , , — Alex Barrera @ 7:17 pm

Some months ago, Facebook unveiled their location strategy aka Facebook Places. It comes as now surprise that the next move from them was getting into location. After buying Friendfeed, copying Twitter, it’s the turn of Foursquare and Gowalla.

Most of the discussion going around is centered around the struggle between Facebook and Foursquare. Even though Facebook has been saying they’ve been working with them, it’s crystal clear, the new announcement has hurt them in a really bad way.

So, the big question, will Facebook outflank Foursquare? I’m afraid the odds of Foursquare winning this battle are rather thin. The key driver in the location space is the user base of these systems. The more people checking in and leaving geotags the more useful the system becomes. In that aspect, Facebook just dwarfs Foursquare.

Not only that, but to use those systems you need a specific app. Problem is that most people already have the Facebook app, getting into Foursquare would mean going through the extra hassle of downloading and configuring a new app, while the Facebook app not only has a much larger audience, but it comes preconfigured in most new smartphones.

Now, what could Foursquare do to fight back? It’s clear they really need to differentiate themselves from Facebook. They need something that you can only get on Foursquare and not from Facebook. I’m not sure if that’s something they’re going to be capable of doing if Facebook plays their cards correctly. Any new feature that gets any traction can be easily replicated by Facebook. They only possible way is to make something so different from the Facebook genoma that they won’t be able to replicate it because it goes against the Facebook strategy.

For example, even though they tried to transform the news feed into the Twitter feed, the Twitter audience kept using Twitter. The main reason is in how different the follow/followers dynamics are from the friend/no friend dynamics of Facebook. That simple thing is what really prevents Facebook from collapsing Twitter. The thing is that Facebook can’t change the way the deal with social relations in an easy was because that would mean changing the core dynamics of the company. Something like that is what Foursquare should pull out of their sleeve if they want to stay alive.

Many people have been saying that what the location space needs is a shared geolocation database, maintained by several companies so that each company could focus on developing cool things on top of it. With Facebook on the loose, they’re saying that Facebook could become the maintainer of that database. The problem is that, while the original hypothesis made sense, the Facebook one is extremely dangerous. The first one assumed several guardians, the second one just one, Facebook. Needless to say that having Facebook control the whole location data is like handing the keys of your kingdom. Information and data is key here, even though it’s a tedious task, it’s critical to build features that allow you to differentiate from Facebook.

Let the geowars begin!! Any comments? Insights? Should have Foursquare planned for this attack before hand? What do you think?

Images: cnet, jamesnorquay.

May 24, 2010

Death to the rock star conferences

Filed under: Conference — Alex Barrera @ 12:39 am

I know, I know, a long time since I last wrote here ;) Well, been quite busy lately, but today I wanted to write about something I’ve been seeing lately. I usually attend multiple international and national congress throughout the year (LeWeb, SXSW, etc.) and one of the single most annoying trend in all of them is the lack of good speakers.

I’m not talking about the actual talk but what speakers say during those talks. Most of the times the one giving the talk is the most prominent person from that company, let it be the CEO, COO or PR spokesman. Problem with this is that, except in few rare cases, most of them already have a very mature and trained speech that bores everyone. They usually talk about something we don’t care or already know…

Which brings me to the point that, in many cases, it’s much richer to talk with the people who do the day-to-day work in those companies instead of the top executives. For example, I’ve experienced much cooler talks over dinner with Google engineers than what you usually get watching Marissa Mayer. The same is true for companies like Twitter, Facebook, etc.

In the end, those unknown persons are different from the usual PR stuff, much open to discussion and in most cases, they answer all your questions if they know them. Also, they talk to you about their projects, the next cool thing they’re building, or even the way they see the company in 5 years from now.

Other interesting persons are unknown startup guys. We always keep reverting to the usual rock stars. The reason to some extend is clear, they attract more public and that means more cash for the congress. Nevertheless, in some cases (more than I would like to remember) it’s because the organizers truly think these people are the best speakers they can find. What I’ve seen is that the nº4 or nº5 startups in a given niche are also as good or even more when it comes to give a talk. In my opinion it’s because they haven’t reached the bullshit PR level (I should talk about that sometime) yet so they speak freely about what they are doing, what problems they have (which they usually share with the top startup in their niche) and how are they trying to take the top spot.

In conclusion, I would love to start a new type of conference where we should bring unknown speakers to talk about cutting edge things. You will always have some rock star on board, the reason is that, some rock stars are REALLY good. People like Gary Vaynerchuk

from Wine Library TV or Toni Hsieh from Zappos come to my mind and are incredible speakers. Hope I could say the same from many others… This would be known as “the unknown conference” where you could feature like a 10% rock stars vs 90% “unknown” (unknown in the sense of not a rock star) speakers that would cut to the chase of what the audience is really wanting to hear.

Ah, just one final suggestion for this conference, round tables will be prohibited except if moderated by a crazy person that’s willing to ask really hard ball questions. Most round tables just suck big time… lets change that!

PS: Yes I do know the paradox I’m proposing here…

December 16, 2009

Why do we need things like LeWeb?

Filed under: entrepreneur — Tags: , — Alex Barrera @ 12:34 am

This post appeared verbatim as a guest post on the LeWeb blog.

Being an entrepreneur you soon learn that people like us are rare. It’s hard to find them among the usual population, specially cause we account for a very small percentage of it. Nevertheless, this percentage of entrepreneurs slightly varies from country to country. US for example has a very high percentage of entrepreneurs if you compare it with my home country Spain, who has close to none.

Because it’s hard to find us, we tend to move around a great deal, or at least we try. In the US though, this concept of moving around is something natural. Most Americans move at least 3 times among different cities and many professionals go back and forth between both coasts regularly. For most of them, this is something, not only natural, but essential. It’s something we, in Europe, aren’t used at all. Most Europeans only travel either during Holidays or for a business trip. Even in those cases, most of us bring our country culture with us. That is, there are still very real frontiers in peoples minds across Europe, even though from multiple angles (law, economy, etc.), Europe is finally one. Still, old habits die hard.

In my experience, most cases of cultural blindness are prompt from a lack of travelling. Even though most EU countries are very close (much closer than San Francisco from New York City for example), people see travelling there like an ordeal, like something close to an adventure.

So, why are things like LeWeb so important? Basically, LeWeb brings together not only Europeans, but plenty of other people from other countries like the US, China, Argentina, etc. During 2 days you can encounter with people from hundreds of different countries, people who share, in most cases, your same interests. But this is nothing new, international conferences have existed for ages. What it’s new for me is that now, thanks to plenty of social media tools, we are able to maintain those worldwide connections alive, even years after the conference took place. What I’m seeing is a convergence of entrepreneurs in Europe. I feel myself close to my European peers now, than what I felt 3 years ago.

Finally, the Internet is breaking the cultural barriers and history heritage that for so long has separated people in Europe. Finally, different cultures are working together to keep those links alive. Finally, we are starting to be one, and not many.

For all that, for that incredible experience, for enabling Europeans spread their love all over the world, thank you LeWeb, thank you Loic and Geraldine and thank you all, citizens of the world, that by coming together are enabling an incredible world flattening experience.

July 20, 2009

Scalability issues for dummies

Filed under: Business, Technology — Tags: , , , , , , — Alex Barrera @ 2:34 pm

Every once in a while I get people asking me what’s taking me so long to open my startup Inkzee to the public. They also ask me what exactly have I been doing as the web seems exactly the same. I normally answer that things aren’t easy, that it takes time, specially if you are alone, like I am. After a while I end up explaining my problems with scalability and that’s the point where people just can’t follow you. I’m going to explain here what are scalability problems and how deep the repercussions are for a small company.

Most web applications, like Inkzee, Facebook, Twitter, … are made of 2 parts. What we, the tech nerds, call frontend and backend. The frontend is the part of the application that’s exposed to the users, that is, the user interface (UI), the emails, the information that is shown. All that UI is a mix of different programming codes, let it be PHP, javascript, html, etc. The frontend is in charge of drawing the UI on the user’s screen and to display all the information the user is expecting from the application. But this information has to come from somewhere, well, that’s the backend.

concentro-rackable-data-center

The backend are all the programs and software applications that run behind the scenes and that are in charge of generating, maintaining and delivering the information the frontend displays to the user. The backend can be very homogeneous or very heterogeneous, but it’s normally comprised of 2 parts, the database (where the information and data is stored) and the software that deals with that database, does the data crunching and connects this to the frontend.

Now, some web applications have a barebone backend, very simple and light weighted. Normally some software that gets what the user inputs on the interface and stores it in the database and viceversa, retrieves it from database and shows it to the user. Other web applications have an extremely complex backend (i.e Twitter, Facebook, …). These not only manage the data retrieval, but have to do really complex operations with the data. Not only complex, but very expensive operations in terms of computational power. For example, each time a user uploads a picture to Facebook follows this path:

  • The picture is stored in a specific hard drive. The backend has to determine which hard drive corresponds to that user (yes, there are multiple hard drives and each one is assigned to a bunch of users so the load is distributed).
  • Once stored, the picture is sent to a processing queue where it will be turned into a thumbnail by an image processing software. This process is expensive as it has to analyze the picture and reduce it to a smaller representation if the image but still maintaining part of its quality.
  • After processing it, the backend stores the newly created thumbnail in the database and stores, both the picture and the thumbnail in an intermediate “database” in memory for faster access (cache). This is because it’s faster to retrieve data from memory than from a hard drive.

This is an approximation of what a picture does when you upload it to a social network. I’m pretty sure it goes through a lot more processes though. So, supposing 1% of a social network’s users are uploading pics at any single moment, imagine uploading ~20 photos per user, 2.5 million users at the same time (Facebook has around 250 million users currently). Trust me when I tell you, that’s a lot of data crunching.

The problem

The best user interfaces (frontend) are designed so that all that complexity that goes behind the scenes is never showed to the end user. The problem is that the frontend depends gravely on the backend. If the backend is slow, the frontend won’t be able to have the info the user is requesting or expecting and it will seem SLOW to the end user. Not only slow, but in many cases inefficient or just not available to use at all (meet the Twitter Fail whale :P).

whale

So, now, what will cause the backend to be slow? Ohhhhhh don’t get me started!! There are so many reasons why the backend might be slow or broken! But, most of them are triggered by growth. That is, as the web application is being used by more and more users, the backend will start to fall apart. That’s what, in the tech world is known as scalability problems. That is, the backend can’t scale at the same speed the users pour into the application. The problem is that it’s not only a problem of more users, but having users that interact more heavily with the site. For example you might have 100,000 active users but never had experience big scalability problems. Suddenly you release a feature that allows your users to share pictures more easily… BAM!! Your backend goes down in 10 minutes. Why!! Why?!! you might scream while you watch your servers go down in flames. After all you have the same amount of users, so what happened? Well, most probably your backend system that handles picture sharing was designed and tested only with few users. Now it chokes with the big deal.

scal_image06

The REAL problem

Once you have scalability problems, the next logical step is to find where the bottleneck is and why is it happening. This, which might seem very easy, isn’t at all. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. Big backends are normally screamVERY complex with many parts coded in different programming languages by different persons. Not only that, but sometimes problems arise in different parts of the backend. So after a couple of really stressful hours you find the bottlenecks and think of a solution to fix them. Ahh my friend, then you realize it’s not as easy to fix as you thought. First of all, you have no clue if the fixes your team has come up with are good enough. Why? Because you’re stepping into unexplored territory. Few persons have had to tackle a similar problem and even less people have dealt with your data and systems. So even if you find someone else with the same problem, the solution might be slightly different depending on what systems you use for your backend or which architecture you have. This is the point where you realize that developers aren’t engineers, but craftsmen and that fixing these problems isn’t exactly a science but black voodoo magic.

So, here you are, with a bunch of possible fixes to a problem but with no clue if they will really work or it will just be a patch that will need extra fixes in 2 weeks. Normally you try to benchmark the solutions, but that’s not an easy task, specially because you have no real load to test it against except in your production servers and no, you don’t want to fuck the productions servers more than they are.

Finally, after some black magic and some simple testes you cross your fingers and try the fix on the production servers. After several hours of monitoring the backend for new “leaks”, you scream of happiness as the patch seems to work. Then you start to realize that the patch won’t hold on forever and that you need some extreme solution to the problem.

You sit down with your tech team (our on your own as it’s my case :( ) and you start drafting a new solution. Suddenly you realize that the best fix implies changing the way your backend works. And by change I mean, you need to redevelop a big chunk of your backend to fix the problem. This implies a couple of things, you’ll need to invest a lot of time and resources, you’ll loose the stability your backend had (prior to the incident), you’ll walk into a new unexplored territory for your team and worst of all, you can’t just unplug your production servers and change the backend, you need to do it so both backends coexist for a while until you switch all of your servers from using the old one to the new one.

Now, the REAL problem is that this change, this new redesign grinds the whole company to a halt. All msntv-tech-teamresources, let it be people or money are invested in redesigning efforts so nothing new can be done. Most outsiders just don’t understand the depth of this change and will bash the company for not doing new things, for not releasing new features, for not fixing old bugs, etc. Not only that, investors will start to get anxious and will demand things to start moving. So, the outside world only sees that you’ve stalled, while the inside teams are suffering the pressure. Not only that, developers inside the company will get extremely frustrated by the pace of things. They won’t be able to add new features and even when fixing bugs they’ll need to fix them twice, one in the old backend, one in the new backend.

So, in the end, you realize the shit hit the fan and you got all of it. It’s hard, very hard to be there. If you haven’t experienced it you have no idea how hard it is. Not only as a developer but as a founder, CEO, or executive position you’ll feel the pain. You won’t be able to publicize your site cause more stress might accelerate the old backend problems, you can’t give users new features because you have no resources, you will try to explain the problem to investors but they won’t understand a clue of what you’re talking about… “backend what?”. Current customers will be pissed at you because the site is running slow and you are doing nothing to fix it. So, in the end, everything freezes until the new backend is in place.

How long does this takes? Depends. Depends on the size of the redesign, the size of the tech team, the skills of the team and specially, the skills of the management. During this phase, management must execute impeccably. Sadly, this is not the case in most places and so priorities are changed, mistakes are made and the redesign gets delayed over and over again.

It takes a very good leadership to make it through this period. Someone that knows where their priorities lie and that is able to foresee the future and the importance of the task ahead. Needless to say that such figure is lacking in most companies. That’s the reason it took so long for Twitter to pull their act together, to speed up Facebook, etc.

I am there, I am suffering the redesign phase (twice now). It’s hard, it’s lonely, it’s discouraging and frustrating, but it needs to be done. I just wrote this post so that outsiders can get a glimpse of what is it to be there and how it affects the whole company, not just the tech department. Scalability problems aren’t something you can discard as being ONLY technical, it’s roots might be technical but its effects will shake the whole company.

Let there be light :)

July 13, 2009

Anchoring an idea or product

Filed under: Business — Tags: , , , , — Alex Barrera @ 6:00 pm

I’m currently reading Crossing the Chasm (Geoffrey A. Moore). A friend recommended it to me when I told him I was struggling with the idea of selling services from my startup, Inkzee, to the enterprise. It’s an old book, (1991, revisited in 1999, old in terms of the tech scene), but the ideas and tips are surprisingly valid nowadays.

crossing_the_chasmOne of the key ideas for a successful “chasm crossing“, or selling an idea to the mainstream markets is to create a reference market to which your product/service can be compared on the heads of your clients. This principle is fairly easy to follow, but quite complex in nature. It taps into the way our brain works and it’s not the first time I’ve stepped onto it. Some months ago I finished reading another book, Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. It’s not an awesome book, but holds some very interesting insights into how humans react to different situations. One of the examples was about getting the correct pricing, or what the author calls the anchor price.

m_chasm_sf

Both ideas are rooted on the same principle. On the first case, the author suggests that when selling something innovative, that has no competition, the way to go is to create that competition. How do you create that competition? Easy, you introduce 2 new concepts, the alternative market and the alternative product. You need to position your product close to a well know market by the customer. For example, if you’re selling an online word editor, you could make yourself close to the market of desktop word processors, aka Microsoft Word, that will be your alternative market. It’s a market known by the customer, where they buy from and most importantly, they have an allocated budget to buy from it. By positioning next to that market, the client can make comparisons between your product and what they’re already using. In other words, you create an anchor they can use to compare you against. You set yourself into a preexisting category in the customers head. The problem is that you need to differentiate your product from that preexisting market. The way to do this is by referencing your alternative product, that is, a product or service that is similar to yours, and is market leader but in a different market niche. In this example, you could name something like Salesforce.com. So you end up with a punch line like, “our online word processor is like the salesforce word processor”. So, in conclusion, the idea is to create an anchor point and a differentiating value proposition.

Now, in Predictably Irrational they idea was very similar. Instead of focusing on a product sales proposition, tpredictably-irrationalhe domain was the pricing of a product. The example the author gave was the pricing of a subscription. An offer goes as follows, an annual subscription to The Economist (online access) costs $59. An annual subscription to The Economist (print) costs $125. Finally, an annual subscription (print and online access) costs $125. Which one would you choose? Chances are that the last one. Why is it like that? Truth is, that humans can’t value things without any reference. We always draw conclusions from comparisons. Our mind works under a cause/effect paradigm, that is, if the paper edition (lets symbolize the concept paper edition with the A symbol) costs $125 (B is the price), and online + paper (C) costs $125 (B as it’s the same price symbol as before) and online + paper (C) is better than only paper (A) then (here comes the effect) option C (paper + internet edition for $125) is the best one.

  1. A -> B
  2. C -> B
  3. C > A

As we see from the simple logic equations from above, without [3] we can’t choose between the first 2 options. We need something to compare against. In the prices example, we are creating an anchor price, $125, something we know the value of, the printed edition of a magazine (our alternative market). We then offer a new product, innovative, something we aren’t familiar with, the online access to a publication. By virtue of putting it next to the magazine realm (in this case by virtue of the same price) we create a connection between both propositions. The problem is that we need a 3rd cornerstone to allow humans to see the difference, to be able to choose. In this example we are using a quantitative approach to choose, 2 things are better than 1, specially if that 1 thing is part of the other offer.

Irrational

In the product example we use the product alternative to create a point of reference to which we compare the product to. In the former case the equation [3] isn’t as clear and powerful as in the subscription example, but plays the same role, a way to quantify and compare your product. For example, Microsoft Word (A) is part of the desktop publishing tools market (B), our product (C) is on a similar market (B). Salesforce.com (C’) is doing great and it’s similar than our product but in a different market niche (D). There fore, our product must be as good as Salesforce but in the market of desktop publishing.

  1. A -> B
  2. C -> B
  3. C’ ~= C (similar products)
  4. C’ best in D
  5. C > A

As you see, the train of thought is slightly more complex, but ends up with a similar conclusion. Granted that it’s not as straightforward as the pricing example and you need to probe both [3] and [4] to get the client to buy into your proposition, but it’s much easier to do that, than to try and sell it blindly.

Ahh, the beauties of neuromarketing ;)

July 6, 2009

Is the cloud the beginning of Skynet?

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , , , , — Alex Barrera @ 6:54 pm

I recently went to see the latest Terminator movie, Terminator Salvation. I have to say that I’ve always been a great fan of this movie, even though I don’t really believe in such a catastrophic future. Nevertheless, after watching the movie, which was pretty decent by the way (a little soft at the end though), I start thinking about how smart Skynet is depicted in any of the Terminator movies. I though, hey, if you could just nuke the datacenter where Skynet is, you would eliminate it. But then I started thinking about cloud computing.

terminator

For those unfamiliar with cloud computing (those familiar can skip this paragraph), it’s basically a new way of using computational resources (I’m oversimplifying the idea here though). Instead of buying or renting servers to deploy any web application, you rent computational power from a provider and pay by the hour. In a simple way, companies with spare computational capacity on their own servers, will rent you that time for you to use. There is no need to buy expensive hardware or maintain it. Instead you use the computational units the time you need them and as many as you need. That way you can take care of temporal spikes of usage in your applications by means of using more computational units and switching them off after the spike. The cool thing about it is that you don’t need to care about the underlying hardware you are using, nor the replication of your data. That is, the cloud system will maintain several copies of your data transparently so that if you loose data, you’ll still be able to recover it.

Cloud_Computing

So, back to Skynet. Most cloud computing systems are built so that they are extremely reliable, that is, if any of the servers that are used fails, the system will switch to a new server transparently. The end user won’t even notice the underlying hardware had a problem. The same happens for the data too. Those advances are part of a field known as high reliability and, although it’s not perfect, they are getting there. In a close future, few web applications will experience downtime because of faulty hardware or problems in the datacenter (like the recent lightning that struck an Amazon datacenter). That means that servers will be so extended that even if you nuked one of the cloud provider’s datacenter, systems won’t go down. Most probably a bunch of other datacenter all over the world will take over and you, as a user, wont notice anything.

Now, if you think about Skynet and strip out the AI, the backbone of it is just what cloud computing is trying to achieve right now. How many years more will we need to build a system that has not a single point of failure? Scary thoughts…

December 19, 2008

LeWeb and Paris

Filed under: entrepreneur — Tags: , , , , , , — Alex Barrera @ 1:24 pm

Last week I had the change to attend, for the first time, to LeWeb conference in Paris. LeWeb, organized by French entrepreneur Loïc Le Meur and his wife Geraldine, has become one of the most important Web conferences in Europe in past years.

This is the second time I attend a European conference, being FOWA @ London, the previous one and I have to confess that the feeling was different this time. When I went to FOWA I was impressed. There were some amazing keynotes and I got to know plenty of people. It really gave me a taste of what was out there in terms of tech startups. It actually put my feet on the ground and reset many of my expectations with my own tech startup.

LeWeb was quite different, the keynotes where stellar, even more that the ones at FOWA, nevertheless, my experience was distinct. A year has passed, I’ve met plenty of new friends, most of them working in tech startups and my own perception of the tech startup world is much more advanced now that my company is starting to operate with beta users. As a side note, it’s also true that once you are in this particular industry, you start to demystify many of the key players an so, talks that a while back seemed amazing to me, no longer have that effect.

So, this time, it wasn’t about getting a grasp of the market, but it was more about getting in contact with possible clients and partners. To that extend I succeeded in meeting very interesting persons and had an amazing time hanging with many European startups.

leweb081

The keynotes were different from the ones at FOWA. The ones at FOWA had, in general, a high degree of technical content. The ones at LeWeb where much more business oriented and some of them where very inspiring. All in all, I think I like the LeWeb formula the most. Being a tech geek as I am, there is a problem with tech keynotes. Working all day as a developer, you really don’t want to listen to more developers talking about the same stuff you do at work. On the other side, some of them that might seem like amazing talks, become CEOs and CTOs PR talks. I don’t really get it, if you are doing a tech talk, give it, but don’t put a cool title for your keynote and then talk about what your company does and how well are you growing.

In contrast, LeWeb had very refreshing talks that touched very dear subjects to me, inspiration, neuroscience and music. Funny enough the keynotes I liked the most were the ones that had nothing to do with technology or big tech companies. The most amazing presentations, in my humble opinion, were these ones (in no particular order):

  • David Weinberger
  • Itay Talgam, Conductor
  • Linda Avey, Co-Founder, 23AndMe, Inc.
  • Helen Fisher, Visiting Research Professor, Rutgers University
  • Paulo Coelho, Author
  • Introduction with Morten Lund – Chief Ideologist, Lund XY Global Ventures
  • Robin Good, New Media Innovator, Explorer, Independent Publisher,
Master New Media
  • Chris Anderson – Curator, TED
  • Joichi Ito, CEO, Creative Commons

I specially loved Chris Anderson’s talk which nearly got me crying. I also had the joy of talking with him for a few seconds after his talk (thank you Luis Rull for pushing me to approach him) and managed to give him my business card, which, of course, he won’t read. But anyway, it made me immensely happy to talk with him as it’s one of the persons I have a deep respect for. You can find most of the keynotes in ustream, so check some of them out, they are worth it.

Finally and as a side note, I had the impression the organization was, ironicaly, quite disorganized, which lead to a chain of problems which bugged everyone during the conference. You could reduce them to cold, lack of food and lack of Wifi. Three things which are indispensable in any conference and all of them failed the first day. I hope next year the organization pulls their act together and get those issues fixed as the rest of the conference was a blast.

I’ll be going to the Lift Conference in February 2009 with my friends from Sandbox Network, so if you plan to attend don’t hesitate on dropping me an email.

November 17, 2008

The curse of the short term vision

Filed under: entrepreneur — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , — Alex Barrera @ 8:40 pm

One of the biggest problems I’m encountering over an over again is the lack of vision of most people. Then I realized it’s not really a lack of vision, it’s just that people make decisions only based on short term information.

I’m sorry guys, but I believe that’s one of the worst curse our society suffers. The typical conversation goes like this: “Yeah, it’s a great idea/project/company but, how are you going to make money in 1 year?” or “ohh, yeah that’s a great idea, but it won’t work now, you need the next generation to do that”. Few things work on the short term and, of those that work, most of them are bad for some other reason. Just take a look at the recent financial meltdown, greed and short term vision brought all markets to their knees.

I guess it’s easier to take decisions based on the current state of affairs, you have fresh data and choices “seem” clearer. Nevertheless this is just an illusion, because data is fresh, the moment you take it into account it’s already outdated and worthless. Doing plans or strategies based only on current data is pretty myopic and dangerous as you don’t know if the next curve is right ahead of you. Not only you don’t know if the curve is ahead you, but even worse, you don’t even know what will you do if you reach it.

visionFor example, some days ago I was looking at a bunch of graphs from one of the biggest financial company in the world and I realized something. Most graphs and charts always show an exponential or linear growth rate of something. Paradoxically that stroke me as a lack of mid and long term vision. Expecting something to behave in the same way forever is just the simplest thing to do. Granted that no one knows exactly when things are going to flip, but anticipating things is a must if you want to survive. Those analysts just do the easiest thing, because growth has been positive in the past years, this will be the case for the next 10 years and if things start to go downhill we’ll just reissue a new report adjusting it. Is that vision or laziness? Is that what you pay an analyst for? Again, you can make mistakes, it’s normal you don’t know the exact date and time of when something important is going to happen, but you should at least expect downturns down the way.

rk662_future_jpgThere are plenty of examples of this behavior and I really suffer from it. Why is it so hard for people to think about the future and not just the present. Why do people, even if they grasp the value of something, keep reverting to the short term solution? Another example: “Oh, I want a house, I know mortgages are madness right now, but I really want the house so I’ll buy it, I know I can rent something and that would be the wisest thing to do, but I really need to own that home!”. Couple of months later we all know how things have ended…

I wonder how can we make people start thinking about things in the mid or long term. Anyone knows a secret formula for this? We should teach this mental gym at school. I think this is how things work now:

  1. Q: What would you do to solve this problem?
    A: solution 1
  2. Q: Will solution 1 work in the future? (More than 6 months)
    A: hmmm, how do you expect me to know that? Solution 1 works now doesn’t it? Then let’s stick to it.

And this is how they should work:

  1. Q: What would you do to solve this problem?
    A: solution 1
  2. Q: Will solution 1 work in the future? (More than 6 months)
    A1: hmmm, well I have no clue, I’ll research future patterns and then I’ll try to give an estimate guess.
    A2: hmmm, yes, analyzing all the data we have from current trends we can do an estimate guess that this solution will hold in the future.

An important point is that decisions have to be always reevaluated, specially if they are long term minded, as new information might change the way things look like, but thinking about not only what will happen now, but in a near future will, most probably, alleviate a lot of pain.

I’m sure many readers have experienced this in one way or another? Care to share?

Image credits: www.ashesandsnow.org, pe.elmstreet-online.com

October 4, 2008

6 things you shouldn’t do when pitching a VC

Filed under: entrepreneur — Tags: , , , , — Alex Barrera @ 2:02 pm

Very recently I had the change to listen to several pitches presentations and I understood many of the critics VCs and Angels say about them. When you’ve listen to 3 in a row you start to see a pattern. The following are a couple of lessons I learned by doing my own pitch and listening to the rest.

  1. Do NOT add a balance sheet and/or cashflow analysis slide if you haven’t been asked for. First of, the slide will probably be crowded with numbers which the VCs won’t have time to read. Secondly, balance sheets should be in the business plan so there is no need to show them in a 20min pitch. And finally, adding that information is just looking for problems. If by any chance you screw up your numbers (which you have a fat chance to) and a VC notices it you’ll won’t look good.
  2. Add the amount of investment you are looking for and from whom. This was my personal bad, I forgot to add a slide with the amount I needed to start my company and what type of investors I was looking for. Theoretically you wouldn’t need to add the type of investor as if you are pitching to one, you’ve already chosen, but in my case it was an heterogeneous jury so I got asked.
  3. Ugly presentation design does matter. A presentation pitch isn’t just some random slides where you show your business idea, it’s your brand. In the same way you carefully choose your cloths (or at least you should) when giving a presentation, you should carefully choose your slide design. Please, avoid using canned designs, when you listen to 10 presentations a day, trust me, you can tell when it’s canned. Avoid using ugly color combinations like blue background with yellow letters or standard MS Word titles (yeah, you know which ones I mean, the rainbow title!). And for god sakes, don’t use pixalated images.
  4. Answer the question. This might seem straightforward but what I saw is that most of the time, the CEO is so nervous that when asked a question they answer something completely different with no connection what so ever with what they had been asked. This makes you look bad, makes you look as if you didn’t listen or didn’t understand the question, or both.
  5. Don’t tell the story of your company. I’m sure you wrote it in the business plan, no need to add a slide about it. Investors want to hear the problem and the solution, not your fancy background which I’m sure it’s interesting, but not for a 20min pitch.
  6. Do NOT show fancy market size graphs. This is something Guy Kawasaki stresses and I agree with him. All presentations tend to have a slide with a graph from _insert_your_favorite_analyst_firm_here_ with the market size which, of course, is always huge and getting bigger. Simply, don’t. Throwing some numbers isn’t bad, but please, be original and avoid the “the market is huge and growing” song. And do yourself a favor and avoid any mention to the infamous “” if you don’t have detailed information to back it up.


I have to say I learned a lot by watching a couple of pitches and I now understand why VCs say what
they say. Most presentations are identical, same structure, same market charts, same texts. Be original and listen carefully to VC questions and suggestion, it will help you get better with your
presentations, at least it worked for me.

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