The Sphero BB-8 Origin Story

Back in 2010, Toby, Nader and I went into Techstars.  In the Techstars bunker we took our seats next to two young guys who had a crazy look in their eyes.  These two guys, Ian and Adam, were hard core robotics and mobile engineers and we liked them immediately.

The old Techstars bunker

The problem was that they didn’t really have a good idea for their company.  After a few weeks of discussing what to do with mentors, they decided to make smart hotel room keys.  Keys that could be controlled by your smart phone.  It was a huge market and seemed destined to be a successful company.  There was one issue with their plan: they totally weren’t into it.  One of their mentors asked them “What do you guys do in your spare time?”  They replied that they played games.  He responded, “why don’t you do that instead?”  And thus the robotic ball, the original Sphero, was born.

An old Gearbox t-shirt

Five years later the balls are better, faster and in more styles (check out Ollie, he’s awesome).  They just yesterday released the coolest version yet, the Droid BB-8 that will be featured in the upcoming Star Wars film.

These two guys went from nothing in the basement in Boulder to producing with Disney the coolest toy in the world. A huge congratulations to them. Well done!

The More Open Your Network, The More Successful You’ll Be

I just read this article by Michael Simmons and it was really interesting.  It states that that simply being in an open network instead of a closed one is the best predictor of career success.

The idea is that people in open networks have unique challenges and perspectives.  Because these curious folk are part of multiple groups, they have unique relationships, experiences, and knowledge that other people in their groups don’t.  These views lead to more and better opportunities. 

 The chart for this is:

 

It also interesting to see how this played out with Steve Jobs. He always advocated for diversity of experiences. In a Wired interview in 1995, he said: 

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.
It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.
Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences.
So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.

I love this position. The experiencing of different industries, different cultures and different perspectives is a great goal to have. 

Achieving Massive Growth (Qloud story 11 of 14)

This is post #11 about the Qloud experience.  The previous post was about about the launch of Qloud.  You can read that here

Once we launched, we grew extremely fast. I have to say that being part of a company that is blowing up is really really fun. Everyone is constantly happy. As a product person, this is what you work for and when it happens, it feels great.

We did some things that were shady and other things were legit and very smart. Some things we did:

  1. We wouldn’t let you use the application unless you invited 25 friends. We had a nice UI that let you quickly select 25 faces and then it would open. While extremely annoying, it worked really well.
  2. We integrated deeply into the new feed. We knew all of our users play history, including from iTunes and we’d launch really interesting news feed items to friends that read, “Of all the songs played last week by your friends, here are the 3 not in your library. Click here to play.” This is great music discovery, right in your news feed.
  3. We started understanding and using the link sharing networks. Lots of other apps were selling the ability to recommend users download other apps. You could buy space there and buy installs. We experimented a lot with all of them.  Some were pretty cheap and effective.  Interestingly, Steve Case really dug into this too. For someone with his success, we was not afraid to get into the weeds. I also give a lot of credit to our lawyer and BD guy here, Jim Delorenzo (now head of Sports at Amazon), for this success as he really figured it out.

I give Noah R-S (now Chief Product Officer at DailyMail) a lot of credit for hacking Facebook. He understood it at a level that probably only a few dozen in the world did.

We also started exploring a business model

Our growth was so fast that we’d get lots of calls from record labels and lawyers asking to shut us down. They saw the streams happening on Qloud and wanted it to stop. It took them a while to realize that we had co-opted YouTube for the streams.

I Love Luxe

Parking in San Francisco is a pain and I always dreaded visiting some of my friends as i knew i’d be circling for a long long time.

The Luxe team

That is, until i met Luxe.  They are an on-demand valet service.  About 10 minutes before you arrive somewhere, you open the app and drop a pin at where you’re going.  They will then have someone meet you there who will then take your car and park it for you in one of their lots.  The valets cruise around on little foot scooters which they put into your trunk when they take your car.

Also, you can have them bring your car to a different spot than where you dropped it off.  So, on a friday night if I meet my friend at his house and then we walk to dinner and then take a Lyft/Uber to a movie/show somewhere, i can then have my car delivered to me once we’re all done so I can drive home.

The price is what makes it doable.  It’s $5 an hour or $15 daily max. It’s less than most garages in the city but with more convenience.

They also have a $300 monthly unlimited use rate which is also cool if you want to use it for work or if you don’t have a parking spot at home.  I somehow doubt that it’s that profitable, or profitable at all as a business, but if VC’s want to fund my convenience, i’ll take them up on that offer.

Note: they just switched all of the employees to be W2 workers.  Interesting.

Qloud and Facebook’s Platform (9 of 14)

This is post #9 about the Qloud experience.  The previous post was about about how we used YouTube as a music engine. Read that post here

The year is 2007 and we’re building as fast as we can our new music service.  It’s going to be a full-powered music streaming service on top of a collaborative music search engine and it’s going to be sweet.

Before we launched I went out to lunch with Sean Parker (known by many of you as Justin Timberlake in the movie The Social Network).  At the time he had left Facebook and was about a year into his new VC gig at Founders Fund.  We sat down to lunch and the subject immediately turned to our upcoming launch. He asked, “Hey, do you know about Facebook’s platform?”  I didn’t and he went to explain it to me.  Basically FB needed a way to expand and what better way than have companies build their product in to Facebook.  While the 3rd party companies would provide the development, Facebook would allow you to message and add their users as your users.  It sounded cool.

I went back to the team and explained this upcoming launch.  I got in touch with Dave Morin (yep, the Path founder used to be head of Facebook platform) and he gave us access to the platform.  Our plan was to build a subset of our service on Facebook and gain some early users.  Then, when we launched our new website we could make a claim that says, “We already have 10,000 users on Facebook.”

It did not go that way at all.

Launching on Facebook right when the Platform was launching was probably one of the best things we did. Because it was new, it had a bunch of early adopters.  It also had a bunch of loopholes that allowed us to market and message millions of users.  If you remember getting a ton of requests to join some stupid game, that was the platform.  We used to do things like “You can’t install our app unless you invite 30 friends.” and people did it.

Of course Facebook wasn’t happy about this, but we weren’t going to stop.  Kudos goes to our colleague Noah who really figured out how to growth hack the crap out of it.

Lessons learned: at both Kapost and Qloud, we grew because we attached ourselves to a tidal wave in the industry. In Qloud it was the Facebook platform and Kapost it was Content Marketing.  Facebook eventually would shut down the platform but not until much later.  Heck, even Zynga used it to become a billion dollar company leveraging Facebook’s platform. Sometimes the bright and shiny new thing in the industry is worth going after.


The next post is about the actual launch. Check that out here.

Please Put Your Dock on the Side

One of my little pet peeves is how people use their dock on their Mac. 

Here’s my logic. What do you do most on your computer?  You read web pages from top to bottom.  Because of this, your page is maximized from top to bottom and you spend most of your time scrolling.  There is usually extra space to the sides of the page. 

Why then, do you take up extra space on the bottom of the page with a dock?  You are constrained vertically but have surplus horizontally.  It makes so much sense for you to have your dock on the left or the right. 

If you have it on the bottom and set to hide that solves most of the problem, but because you scroll so much up and down, you can hit your dock by accident a bit.  But it works.   

My rant for the day. 

So Long, AOL

Verizon is buying AOL for 4.4B.  It could be about ad-tech. It could be about mobile. It could be about content.  I’m not sure why it’s happening and i’m pretty sure that it’s not going to work out well for Verizon. But, more than anything to me, the sale feels like an epilogue to part of internet history.

AOL is specail to me.  It was my first job out of college. I had a great boss and I learned a ton. I met some amazing people, many of them have become good friends that i still talk with today. I also learned all the reasons why working at a big company sucks and it drove me to want to work at smaller, more nimble companies.
I also think that the AOL / Time Warner merger is a misunderstood story.  Let me defend it for a second.

Continue reading So Long, AOL

Marketplaces have the best business model

I’ve been hearing frequently that the best business model you can have is to be a marketplace.  I heard it on this podcast from a16z “The Marketplace Rules” and again today when i read the HBS article called “What Airbnb, Uber, and Alibaba Have in Common

The article states that there are 4 types of businesses in the world: 

  • Asset Builders: These companies build, develop, and lease physical assets to make, market, distribute, and sell physical things. Examples include Ford, Wal-Mart, and FedEx.
  • Service Providers: These companies hire employees who provide services to customers or produce billable hours for which they charge. Examples include United Healthcare, Accenture, and JP Morgan.
  • Technology Creators: These companies develop and sell intellectual property such as software, analytics, pharmaceuticals, and biotechnology. Examples include Microsoft, Oracle, and Amgen.
  • Network Orchestrators. These companies create a network of peers in which the participants interact and share in the value creation. They may sell products or services, build relationships, share advice, give reviews, collaborate, co-create and more. Examples include eBay, Red Hat, and Visa, Uber, Tripadvisor, and Alibaba.

And of those four, the Network Orchestrators are rewarded the most in the market: 

Because they actually generate better business numbers:

 

It makes sense as these businesses can scale faster and more efficiently than any traditional business.  I’m always a bit amazed that eBay isn’t more recognized as the leader and pioneer in this category.  What they did 15 years ago is what many of the marketplaces are trying to replicate today.  Kudos to them. 

That’s it.  Just wanted to share the article…

Kapost Funding and Video

Yesterday, Kapost announced that it closed another $10 million dollars, some of it from Salesforce.  Salesforce is the arguably the biggest and most badass B2B company on the planet so to get an investment and endorsement from them is huge.

This is a great accomplishment for the team.  It’s never easy raising money and this round took around 4 months to put together (maybe more)

Also, Megan over at Techstars shot a video of us in the office and just pushed it out.  Here it is: 

Music Technology in 2007 and Our Use of YouTube (8 of 14)

This is post #8 about the Qloud experience.  The previous post was about about running out of money and pivoting.  

The year is 2007 and Toby and I have a great idea to build a comprehensive music service.  There were no web streaming services at the time.  Some of the players were:

  • eMusic – a service for indie artists where you could download mp3’s. 
  • PressPlay – a Sony sponsored music service that has only 2 labels and also required a download
  • Rhapsody – a pretty good  service that required a player download and costs $20 a month

We started building the service and went around to all the music labels and providers we could find to license the actual tracks so we could serve up the songs to our users.  Turns out that’s not easily done in 2007.  To get music you have to strike individual deals with each individual label.  Those deals require time (which we didn’t have) and money for upfront payments (which we didn’t have).  Hmmm.

Luckily we figured out a nice loophole.  Google bought YouTube in 2006.  Right before that acquisition YouTube gave equity to the music labels.  In exchange for this equity, they struck a deal that forbid the labels from suing YouTube for 2-3 years (I’m not sure of the length).  This was a little-known fact, but it was true.  

It is also true that almost every music track in existence is available on YouTube.  This was pre-Vevo.  So, we decided that our backend streaming service will actually be powered by YouTube.  Nobody had every tried this, but it allowed us to (a) serve all our music for free; (b) be legal; (c) embed our music right into a browser without asking uses to download a player. 

We did one other smart thing. Turns out there are many many videos for each song. Some are correct and some aren’t. We didn’t have time to go through millions of tracks, so we build into the service the ability for users to mark which YouTube video is correct for that track.  They could play up to 10 different videos and vote for their favorite.  By default, we play the video with the most votes.  This tuned out to work really well.  Once we launched our users would spend hours voting on videos and helping us curate our library. 

We build the service in 4-5 months.  Now we just needed to launch.  Read about how that went in the next post…