The Real Problem

March 18, 2007

I was reading this post by del.icio.us founder Joshua Schacter about what to do and what not to do when starting a web company and this snippet really caught my attention:

Don’t look for problems you don’t have, because someone else who is passionate about it will solve it better than you can.

After reading this I realized that I spend a lot of my time trying to come up with problems to solve. I so desperately want to start a company that I compulsively brainstorm for ideas. Even after I’ve committed to spending the summer working for other startups and gaining experience before I take the reins, I can’t stop trying to come up with ideas.

Maybe now that someone else has said that such an approach is futile I’ll be able to stop. Hopefully. Sometimes I just wish there were a big problem in my life that I could solve. On the brightside, since I can’t come up with an idea, there must not be any big problems in my life! That’s not to say that there aren’t big problems worth solving out there, just that my worldview is extremely limited as a sophomore in college.

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O’Reilly is singing the praises of Grand Central, a new service that claims to give you a “one [phone] number, for life.” The gist of it is that you give them all of your phone numbers (cell, work, home, etc.) and when someone calls your Grand Central number it calls all of those other numbers so that you never miss a call. The service has some other neat features too, but I think it’s going to get annoying, here’s why: People have different numbers for a reason, and a good reason. One’s home number is generally for calls unrelated to work. What happens when all of your work calls starting ringing at home too? Annoyance. What happens when all of your home calls start ringing at work? More annoyance.

The system would be great if people lived in their own isolated worlds, but most people don’t. We live and work in environments with other people who either use the same phones or have to hear them ring. Do you want to be getting your wife’s phone calls at work or on your cell phone? Probably not. Your wife probably doesn’t either. Would my parents or dormmates really want to hear the phone ring every time my girlfriend calls my cell phone? I doubt it.

It’s kind of like information overload for email, but each message comes with a ring tone attached.

A Great Quote

March 8, 2007

“Passion knows no logic.” – Shaukat Shamim, speaking on the characteristics of succesful entrepreneurs. He prefaced this with a discussion of the statistical improbability of starting a succesful venture.

Oobleck

March 6, 2007

What if I told you I could stop bullets—even the armor piercing kind—with a mixture of cornstarch and water? You’d probably call me a lunatic, but it’s true…sort of.

Oobleck, was discovered a long time ago, but I only heard about it yesterday on Digg. Some of you may have heard the word before if you ever read Dr. Seuss (see the Wikipedia entry). Oobleck is actually a very interesting exercise in physics: it is a non-Newtonian fluid. In other words, it doesn’t act like water (a Newtonian liquid) particularly with respect to pressure.

Let’s take a pool as an example. If you jump feet-first into a pool, you will penetrate the surface because the pressure you’re body exerts on the surface of the water causes it to part. Duh, right? Well, if you jump feet-first into a pool of Oobleck, you’ll just bounce. This has the amazing implication that you can actually run across a pool of Oobleck. Don’t believe me? Watch the video below, it’s really quite impressive.

So how does this stuff work? Basically, when you mix cornstarch and water in the appropriate quantities and at the appropriate temperature, it forms a fluid that reacts to pressure in a unique way. In the absence of pressure, it basically acts just like water. When you apply enough pressure to it, though, it solidifies temporarily. It has to do with the crystalline structure changing under the pressure.

Naturally this has tremendous implications for the military. They are already developing and testing something similar that uses more advanced materials (I imagine cornstrach wouldn’t last too long—or smell very good, for that matter—on a desert tour). According to the article:

The liquid [inside the vests], polyethylene glycol, is non-toxic, and can withstand a wide range of temperatures. Hard, nano-particles of silica are the other components of STF. This combination of flowable and hard components results in a material with unusual properties.

“During normal handling, the STF is very deformable and flows like a liquid. However, once a bullet or frag hits the vest, it transitions to a rigid material, which prevents the projectile from penetrating the Soldier’s body,” said Dr. Eric Wetzel, a mechanical engineer from the Weapons and Materials Research Directorate who heads the project team.

STF’s has a variety of other implications as well, within and without the military. Wetzel mentions using it in soldier’s fatigues (which really need to be flexible, but can’t currently be protected), in bomb blankets to cover suspicious packages or unexploded ordinance, liquid armor could even be applied to jump boots to stiffen during impact and support the ankles. This leads to the fact that STFs can also be used in extreme sports. Daring skiiers and snowboarders would benefit tremendously from flexible body armor.

Unplug-it.

March 3, 2007

As part of Stanford’s inaugural Entrepreneurship Week, some friends and I participated in the Innovation Challenge. The goal of the competition was to create as much value (defined however we saw fit—monetary, social, entertainment) from a simple object in exactly one week. This was not to be theoretical value, the judges actually expected teams to raise money if they chose to pursue monetary value, for example.

This year’s object was a pack of 100 Post-it notes.

Our team (which was largely a group of students in MS&E 175: Creativity, Innovation, and Change) decided that trying to create monetary value would not only be difficult in one week, but that using the Post-its to create a combination of social and entertainment value would probably be our best bet at winning the competition.

Since green-tech and energy conservation are an increasingly hot topic on campus, we decided to walk that line. With the two statistics below in mind, we set out to create an entertaining/educationl/motivational video:

1. If all students set their computers to sleep when inactive, it would save Stanford over $500,000 per year.
2. Plugged-in appliances that are not on account for nearly 5% of electricity consumption at Stanford.

Our final submission was a short stop-motion video called “Unplug-it.” The message of the clip is that students can conserve a significant amount of energy (and money) by unplugging their appliances when not in use over extended periods of time. Obvioulsy it’s not realistic to expect people to unplug their dorm-room appliances while they’re in class so we encouraged students to take action over their spring breaks while they are out of the dorms for about a week. Doing so would save hundreds of thousands of dollars or more in electricity costs.

Over 90 teams registered at Stanford. 50 submitted projects and 29 were chosen as semi-finalists. Of those teams, nine were chosen as finalists and winners. As you may have guessed, our team got to finals and won. 🙂

We are now sentenced to lunch and Deathball with the Draper Fisher Jurvetson team. I’m really curious to know what Deathball is…no one seems to know.

At the most recent ETL session which was part of Stanford’s eWeek we had quite a few big-name speakers, including KR Sidhar, the CEO of Bloom Energy. This is the second time I’ve seen him speak at Stanford and I was just as impressed as I was the first time.

I like him because he is able to articulate some of the subtler points and often takes a pseudo-contrarian stance on issues; he sees things and is willing to say things that other people aren’t. For example, a high-profile issue during yesterday’s session was the global energy problem—both the climate crisis/global warming and the lack of access to clean energy (or energy at all) that plagues the bottom third of the world’s population.

The session’s format was supposed to be that of a dinner conversation, so analogies were flying left and right about apetizers and main courses. Most of the speakers agreed that in order to solve the energy problem we need to pass on our apetizers. We need to share the wealth, so to speak, with those in other countries who do not have access to clean energy. KR was last to speak, and what he said was basically that he would NOT choose to skip his apetizer. Instead, he would find a way to have his apetizer AND give those people without access to clean energy a way to get it. He emphasized that THAT is this generation’s challenge—to find a way to create sustainable energy for all.

Along the same lines, he cited a very interesting and consequential statistic: three months worth of the Sun’s total energy is more than all the energy we’ve ever used on Earth from all other sources combined. In other words, if we can somehow find a way to efficiently harness the Sun’s power, the global energy crisis will effectively be solved.

It makes me wish I was more invovled in the energy field these days. It seems like the energy crisis is presenting our generation with the kind of opportunities that the Internet gave Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs in the 90’s.

On a completely unrelated note, something else he said makes for a great soundbite:

“As an entrepreneur I’m not a Democrat or a Republican. I’m a capitalist.”

The Experience Problem

March 1, 2007

Over the course of this year as a Stanford sophomore, I have tried to start two companies. Needless to say things never got off the ground, otherwise I wouldn’t be blogging about it.

One of them never materialized simply because Vikram didn’t have enough time to work on the idea. It’s completely understandable; he’s a CS major at Stanford after all. Fortunately, by bootstrapping everything, we didn’t waste a lot of time or money and were able to avoid the pages-long business plan, the milestones, and everything else that “they” tell you to do when starting a company.

The second time around, our idea required technological expertise far beyond what Tim and I could handle. We needed a lot of funding for the idea, so we set out and wrote the business plan, made the PowerPoint presentation, built a relatively complex financial model, and created a teaser sheet we were both very proud of. One of our advisors—Taek Kwon—an EIR at Texas Pacific Group, liked it too, so we must have done something right.

I still believe our idea has a tremendous amount of potential, but after the meeting with Taek, I realized that we had less than a snowball’s chance in hell of getting the million or so dollars we needed just to build the website. The sheer amount of money wasn’t the problem—after all, VC’s seem to have turned the funding tap on full blast—the problem was that we were both inexperienced.

This follows from the post-.com-era mentality that investors should invest in teams, not ideas. We had the big idea, but I am humble enough to admit that we did not have a great team. Although our Board of Advisors was stellar, the founding team was not. Our Advisors included Taek, a former Director from Hotels.com, the Executive Director of Human Resources at General Motors, a First Vice President from Morgan Stanley, and last but not least an ex-nuclear physicst turned Flash studio owner. They were wise and experienced. We were just two 19 year olds stepping up to the plate for the first time in our lives (well, technically it was the second for me, but my first at-bat was a fence-building company, I’ll write about the lessons one can learn from building fences in the near future, hopefully).

In any case, I did not give up because I believed that two 19 year olds couldn’t raise the money or focus enough to succeed, I gave up because I believed that two 19 year olds without a background in technology couldn’t succeed. There are many cases where 19-year-olds have succeeded in flying color—Mark Zuckerberg with Facebook, Sam Altman with Loopt, Bill Gates with Microsoft, and the list goes on. The motivating factor was definitely there, although I reminded myself to never forget about all the 19-year-olds that failed that we haven’t heard about. Point is, those guys had the engineering background, whereas we couldn’t even build a prototype ourselves. We would have had to raise nearly $10,000 just to get that done. After the prototype, we would have had to raise an additional $500K or so to get a beta version of the website out.

To think that we could have done this without ever having done it before is slightly ridiculous in retrospect. But then there’s a part of me that keeps saying: “That’s what entrepreneurship is all about. Remember what Reid Hoffman said: you jump off the cliff and start building the plane on the way down.” Then I justify my decision by telling myself, “But you have to know HOW to build a plane first.” In other words, take risks, but make them calculated risks. So where does that leave us?

Well, first and foremost, I think I made the right decision in deciding not to pursue that venture for my sake and for Tim’s sake. Although we would have gained a lot of experience along the way even if we failed, I think we can both gain better experience in other ways. This brings up the classic chicken-and-egg problem: if you need experience to start a company, but you need to have started a company to have the experience, what on Earth are you supposed to do?

Well, my plan right now is to work for another startup. It’s not quite the same as founding your own company, but I’m hoping it will give me a good idea of how to go about running a startup. Tim’s argument against this was that working for one won’t teach you how to start one, it’ll just teach you how to work for one–how to work in a startup environment. I agree to a certain extent. I’m not going to learn how to write a good business plan, how to pitch to investors, and all that jazz, but is that what’s really important? Sure, it’s important, but it’s only a small part of starting a company.

I believe that if the idea is great and you have the requisite skills, you will be able to find someone out there to fund you, assuming you need funding (I’m not saying it will be easy—if the idea is good odds are most people will think it’s crazy and not want to fund you, but someone will). Once you have the funding, you get to the meat of the problem: growing the company into a profitable enterprise. That’s what takes skill. That’s where experience is crucial. That’s what I’m hoping to learn how to do by watching others and learning by example. I want to absorb their knowledge and their skills by being the inexperienced one in an environment of experienced entrepreneurs.

Once I’ve completed what you could call an “apprenticeship,” maybe I’ll hop back on the proverbial yellow brick road.