Every entrepreneur should see this movie

In my work with startups and young entrepreneurs, one thing that I have noticed is tenacity is not always a valued skill or even well understood. I got to see a screening of a new movie produced by Penn and Teller (yes, those guys again) a few weeks ago and it got me thinking about this.

300px-Jan_Vermeer_van_Delft_014The movie is “Tim’s Vermeer” and documents the many years that Tim Jenison spent trying to learn to paint Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, an oil painting that sits in Buckingham Palace. Tim is an interesting guy: he has made tons of money in the tech biz, so he can afford to take these excursions into odd places and learn new skills.

Now, why would anyone want to spend years of his life to do this? We see Tim learn how to do basic oil painting c. 2010, then learn how Vermeer mixed his pigments using materials from the 1660′s when it was painted. But wait, there is more: Tim also constructs an optical device that he uses to reproduce the painting, and by constructs I mean he also learns how to grind and polish his own glass lenses using materials available from that era. He then puts together a replica of Vermeer’s studio, getting objects that appear in the painting, including wallpaper and floor tiles, as precisely as possible.

Along the way, he teaches himself Dutch, visits Delft where Vermeer worked, and gets an audience with the actual painting itself after convincing the British monarchy. Clearly, this is a guy who is driven.

You would think that watching someone go through all this is as exciting as, well, watching paint dry, but you would be wrong. Tim is tenacious beyond belief. It takes him years to complete his version of The Music Lesson, but when he does you can see that he has done a credible job. He takes the painting to David Hockney for vetting, who gives his approval.

Apart from being a very entertaining movie, why should entrepreneurs see it? Mainly because it shows what lengths Tim goes through to get to his ultimate goal, and how he is just a dog with a bone about it. I don’t think many people would have stuck with the project as long as he did. The movie offers a message of hope here, although highlighting how insanely difficult the challenge is. Startups need to hear this message often.

Second, because it shows, probably to a fault, how entrepreneurs have to create their infrastructure from scratch sometimes because they are breaking ground so new. Many of the firms that I mentor find this out the hard way, and get into a detour (as Tim did with his pigments, mirrors, and so forth) that consumes valuable time. Tim didn’t actually start the actual painting part of his project for many years, while he worked out the other details. Many startups have trouble with putting together their servers, or setting up the right cloud configurations, or understanding their data security models, or knowing how to setup payment processing. These details aren’t things that you necessarily know going into a project until you get into the weeds and see them first-hand.

Finally, it gives another lesson to startups: how to disassemble a project into more bite-sized chunks and tackle them one at a time until you can make some small victories with each task. Sometimes a startup can try to move on several fronts all at once, rather than managing a more sequential workflow.

Go see the movie if you can.

Welcome to the brave new world of crowdsourced authorship

As many of you know, I have published two computer trade books over the course of my career. One was with Marshall Rose (who I am indebted for teaching me how to write book-length manuscripts and is one of the best collaborators that I have ever worked with) and one solo. Neither did well for different reasons that were beyond my control, including the last book coming out a week after 9/11. Oh well.

But while both books were done with traditional Big Time Publishers, I probably won’t go that route again if I had another book in me. Over the past decade or so, self-publishing has become the model of choice for many authors. The economics are compelling: rather than get a dollar royalty from sales of a $25 book as a traditional publisher generally works, you get to spend a dollar to produce your book and get the rest in profit. Or so the rough numbers go.

Then came ebooks, and prices started going down, way down: a typical ebook now sells for a couple of bucks at best. The old saying about not making much money but making it up in volume come to mind.

But the publishing market is pivoting (as they say in startup speak) yet again, and this time it is combining with the crowdfunding market and morphing into something else entirely. The idea is that you promote your book idea on one of the crowd sites and get a few hundred of your friends and potential readers to pay up front for you to finish your project and get their very own copy, complete with tote bag or some other premium prize. The money they “donate” goes towards hopefully you finishing a beautiful book, raising awareness and buzz, and setting the scene for a big author splash. Or so the idea goes.

Seth Godin has written about this topic over the past year on a site that he runs in cooperation with Amazon. And he has also penned his wish list for what Kickstarter specifically should do to make it easier for authors.

dbl2But as I haven’t had the opportunity to go this route, I did the next best thing, asking a young, first-time author of an upcoming book and a project on Kickstarter that I was one of the backers. His name is Tony Brasunas and his book, set to launch on 12/12, is Double Happiness. While he might not have another book in him right now, he found the whole process to be worthwhile. “I spent several months preparing for the launch of my Kickstarter project, including doing things such as filming the video, thinking through the rewards structure, preparing the images and writing the copy for the project page.” None of these things were actual book writing, and if you look over it you as a new author (or even an old hand such as myself) might not have the necessary skills or inclination or even time to pull this off.

Brasunas raised more than he went to the well for, which is great, and a quarter of it will end up being used to fulfill his rewards for his 175 project backers. But what I found interesting talking to him is how he thinks about the process. Realize that his book is “a chapter of my life story, something that I have been working on for a decade, and I wasn’t sure that anyone would be interested. It was a wonderful surprise that I got as many backers as I did.”

His project “involved people that could be potentially interested in it. That feels like a collective and that collaboration was appealing to me. By doing this through a social platform, it added a nice piece to the whole project for me.” Again, you may just want to sit in a garret and write, so your reaction could differ. But he also found something out about his backers and his friends: “I would have guessed that people who were closest to me would have given more, while others who I haven’t talked to in years gave unexpectedly larger contributions.” That is intriguing. You would think that donations would directly relate to the distance to your immediate social network. He found that if knew three factors he could fairly accurately predict what someone was going to donate: “First, what they feel about your project, second their access to money, and finally their belief about money and whether it is abundant in their lives.”

Brasunas is using print on demand with CreateSpace and Lightning Source. Again, you’ll have to learn about these technologies and whether or not you have the skills to pull it all together.

But maybe not. There are new crowd sites that are geared towards book authors called Pubslush and Unbound. Both are trying to enter this space and connect the dots that Godin and my young friend had to do manually. There are sure to be dozens of these crowd-book platforms before long, such is the nature of this market segment. Pubslush charges less of a commission, has different funding restrictions, and directly connect to an author’s Amazon page. So far 40 books have been published. Unbound, which is based in the UK, has been around longer and has its own system and published about 60 books.

How this will all sort out I have no idea. But at least it is nice to have choices.

How Marshall Rose is building the home of the future

1If you are trying to have more of an autonomous home, you might be interested in taking a look at what Marshall Rose is doing lately. I am very fortunate to count Marshall as a friend. Marshall, for those of you who don’t know him, was the inventor of a series of protocols that form the backbone of much of today’s Internet. He is also the author of several books, including the now classic Internet Messaging that we co-wrote and features a forward from Penn Jillette.

His current project is called The Thing System. I spoke to him while he was in his home test lab where is building the home of the future. “My definition of success is to go to a zero remote control environment. I want to stop the madness of having a dozen different remote controls on the coffee table. Even though many of them have been replaced by smartphone apps, it still is silly.”

So he went about this task in his usual way, by inventing another protocol and then a management infrastructure that would handle as many of our Things as possible.

It is true that there are lots of folks who are trying to make homes more automated, and some of them are coming up with some pretty nifty devices. But what is at issue is that the Thing they do isn’t compatible with anyone else’s Thing. And once you create your device, whatever it might do, you can’t sell that by itself. You need iOS and Android apps, a cloud service so you can access the information, and some kind of analytics to spot your usage trends. “The cherry on the cake is all this has become a walled garden and one Thing doesn’t talk to any other. Plus, the economics have introduced a perverse set of incentives for the Thing makers.”

Let’s say you have a Nest thermostat, which looks like a pretty nifty device. And you buy a Netamo air sensor, which looks like another nifty device. Now you want the two to talk to each other, to note when maybe carbon dioxide levels start rising at particular times of the day, so you can turn on your blower to clear the air in your home. Right now there is no way to do that, because the two Things don’t talk the same language, or even operate on the same networks.

That’s where The Thing System comes into play. “We need an intermediary, what we call a Steward, to implement the communications among Things.” Think of this as a cross between Simple Network Management Protocol (which Marshall had a hand in creating) with a little dash of Web 2.0 and Javascript thrown in. “The job of the Steward is to discover your things. You never have to type in an IP address, it scans your network and knows what devices you have and figures out how to talk to them and has a rules engine for various actions.” Marshall and his colleagues are still working on perfecting these rules. On The Thing System website, you can see his progress and which devices he still has to integrate into the Steward (one of his workbenches is seen above).

Some Things are more vexing than others to integrate. Marshall mentioned a Kevo lock that doesn’t communicate via the Internet, just Bluetooth, which you can read about here. The Nest thermostat uses a motion sensor to determine when you are home and when you aren’t – which works well if you have kids running around your home, but doesn’t if you sit in your office at the other end of the house and type on your computer. “Wouldn’t it be great if the Nest knew that you were a few miles from home and your car told it to warm up your house? Or even better, a sensor that knows it is you about to walk in the door and unlock it for you because you are carrying a lot of stuff?” Yes, it would.

Certainly, smart homes aren’t anything new; people have been building them for years. Almost ten years ago, I visited John Patrick’s home in Connecticut where he put together some very smart systems from scratch, using the technology of the time. I spoke to him this week where he told me, “We are a long ways away from anything to anything connections.” Back when I saw his house, he had a Lansonic music streaming box, but since then he had upgraded to Sonos’ equipment and Perceptive Automation’s Indigo control software. Otherwise his basic infrastructure hasn’t changed and “still pretty leading edge,” he told me. “What is frustrating is all the big guys are at war, and no one box can stream all the available content.” He was intrigued by The Thing System, and wishes them lots of luck.

Meanwhile, you can put together many of the pieces that support The Thing System right now, including running the Steward on either your PC or a Raspberry Pi machine.  And maybe the Internet of Things will become a little more connected and useful along the way.

Through the Google Glass, Darkly

If you want to get a glimpse at what one possible future of our hyper-connected world might be, get yourself a copy of Dave Eggers’ latest book, The Circle. A dark dystopian drama that is rife with real insights about how things might be.

Eggers is one of my favorite authors. He began with his memoir, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” and has had a series of well written novels (and one non-fiction book about post-Katrina New Orleans) since then. In The Circle, we follow the protagonist, a young woman named Mae, as she begins a new job at a company that sounds awfully like a combination of Facebook, Google, and Twitter, with a soupcon of Apple thrown in.

The Circle is quite the utopian place to work. They have free meals three times a day prepared by A-list chefs, a free dorm room to sleep if you want to work late, and the requisite benefits that the real companies mentioned above offer their employees: free exercise classes, free transportation for commuters, free lectures from the leading intellectuals and entertainers from around the world, and free health care. Eggers claims that he never has visited Silicon Valley work places, but having been to several of them I would say that Eggers has gotten the lay of the land with perfect pitch. Remember, this is a novel.

Mae is in awe of working at The Circle, and quickly rises to the top of the company, entering the Inner Circle (ha). One of the more amusing parts of the book is as she gains familiarity with more of the corporate apps as part of her job; the IT department brings her additional screens to keep track of them. (This is not too far from actual practice that I have observed.) She becomes the poster child for a new real-time video streaming service offered by Google, I mean The Circle. The service involves her wearing a webcam around a lanyard: she is online, broadcasting nearly all of her waking hours, to the Internet. Not surprisingly, she becomes a broadcasting sensation, perhaps the ultimate in today’s reality TV.

The leaders of The Circle strive for total transparency and to capture all kinds of data in their storage pods. The Circle prevails upon several Congresspeople to wear their own cameras and make sure that they are the ultimate embodiment of sunshine laws. If you are streaming everything about you online, you can’t hide those backroom meetings where you get your lobbyist kickbacks and do your sneaky deals. (Or so the theory goes.) Mae goes further than just streaming her daily life: she ends up wearing bracelets that give her real-time status of how many people are watching her feed, along with biometric data so she can keep track of her own reactions as well. She becomes widely popular, with tens millions of viewers watching her more memorable moments. Take that, Kardashians!

I won’t tell you how the novel ends, but it is disturbing reading along, seeing how Eggers has taken what passes for normal these days (posting Tweets, “liking” various things on Facebook, and developing an online brand) and taking them to the next and not-so-ridiculous level. It is a sobering world that he posits, and one that I am not sure that I would want to live in.

Being ISTJ

Like many of you, over time I have been tested for the Myers-Briggs personality profile. I keep coming up ISTJ that stands for Introvert, Sensing, Thinking and Judging.

I find this test to be fascinating, and I guess get some small comfort from being pegged as an ISTJ. Several years ago, I was even so enthralled with the test that I wrote a piece for ServerWatch about how you can use the test and personas to manage your networks, based on the type of personalities you have working for you.

This week when I was at the Ford Trends event in Dearborn I got tested again, and again I came up as an ISTJ.  Ford was showing us how they apply personality types to their own research on who is more likely to buy what kind of car, and in the briefing that we had about the results were several different personas where we would find our matching profile. You can see the picture below:

calMy matching persona was named Cal, who was the owner of a F-250 Super Duty pickup. For those of you that don’t know this is a big truck. Cal’s 6.7 liter V8 turbo engine “makes him feel unstoppable” and he also owns a lot of tools. Now while there is no doubt that the profile of Cal by Ford is totally ISTJ, Cal isn’t anywhere near me. If you know me, you know that power tools and I don’t occupy the same space, unless they are someone else’s and even then I try to stay away from them as much as possible. But Cal is “the go-to guy who gets things done” and I would have to agree that is me to a (Model) T. And I liked the picture of Cal and his rugged good looks that they had included next to the profile.

Speaking of pickups, also at the Ford event was their concept Atlas truck that combined the best of LED-lit limo-style interior with other fancy features, such as auto-closing louvers on the wheels and front grill to give you a few extra MPG when you are going at fast MPH.

Whether or not I will buy a pickup truck in my future isn’t really the point. The packet of information that I got at the event was interesting: included were suggestions on how to enhance my decision-making based on my ISTJ’edness. Such as:

  • Realize that planning for success is as important as preparing for failure
  • Remember to evaluate a decision on its merits, rather than reject it based on fear of the unknown
  • Realize that conformity and agreement are better won than imposed

wozThere is a lot more that I have to say about the Ford event (including meeting Woz for the first time as you can see above), and I will be posting on Internet Evolution next week, so check back with me then to see what I learned at the event.

A new form of cheating on your partner

A few weeks ago, my wife and I were out to dinner and she dropped what I first thought was a bombshell. She told me that she was cheating on me when I was out of town. What was more alarming was that she told me she was doing this by herself. But it wasn’t what you might think and her behavior had nothing to do with our love life.

What she was talking about was this. She was watching by herself one of our favorite TV shows that we had recorded on our DVR. When I was out of town, she watched the show without me. Okay, I’ll admit that it took a few minutes before my heart rate returned to normal. But she isn’t the only one using the cheating term in that fashion.

nnnApparently, Netflix is too. In a survey last month, it found that 10% of couples who were in a committed relationship – meaning that they agreed to watch the same movies or shows together – cheated on each other. They even produced this charming video to illustrate their point of “watching ahead”:

Certainly, this is alarming and something that should be addressed by the moral leaders of our times. (Jimmy Kimmel has already weighed in.) Video streaming has enabled this entire culture of binge viewing: you start at episode n and keep watching several series one after another until you reach 3 am exhausted. I first got into this mode on a trip last year to Australia, when I found the entire first season of Homeland on the plane’s video system. The 12-hour flight was almost long enough to watch all 12 episodes. This certainly made the flight pass quicker.

But is your marriage healthy enough to stand up to your video streaming contract, let alone the other kinds? Are we going to see video streaming fidelity being written into pre-nups now? This is the new area that technology brings us in modern living. It is bad enough that we have to trust our partners not to view particular websites of questionable content (I won’t go into details, but I think you know what I mean). Now we have to worry about what other things that can pass for joint entertainment too.

In the Netflix ad, the female partner has obviously seen the movie that the couple is supposedly watching together for the first time, and faking her reactions to particular plot points before her male partner makes her come clean. I guess this shows that we have a lot more to worry about (female) fakery than we once thought. Life was so simple, back when we had to buy or rent the actual DVDs or go to the movie theater, or had to record to VHS tapes.

Like other kinds of potential cheating, you can avoid the eventual nastiness if you take the time to communicate with your partner about your rights and obligations. And whether you have enough Internet bandwidth when you are out of town too.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about what you and your partner are doing about this important social issue, and whether you too have watched ahead of your partner.

At the FIRST Robotics finals in St. Louis

We have been fortunate to have the world finals for the student competition FIRST Robotics here the last several years, and I always try to spend some time wandering around, talking to the kids and the adults. This year I got to volunteer for a day, which was wonderful, even though my task was fairly mundane.

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I spent some time talking to the folks from NASAtv who broadcast up to six different channels of programming during the event. These guys are amazing in how much they know about the various technologies to pull off broadcasting in harsh conditions. You might not think that having a TV truck in the middle of what usually is a football stadium is hard, but consider that they have to set up their own control room on what is usually the 35 yard line, and with a network topology shown above that has to be assembled in a matter of a few days. All of the competitions make use of wireless technology that is carefully tuned to ensure that each bot has a clear channel to its controllers and can only play on a particular field.

I took some pictures of the participants and their bots. One thing that I didn’t really grasp until this week was the wide range of equipment that the teams bring with them: the smaller kids in the Lego league mostly had fun decorating their pit stop areas, while the bigger bots (that can weigh more than 100 lbs.) bring in an entire machine shop as they have major surgery and last minute repairs to perform. Of course, there were fun costumes, hairdos, and other wild add-ons for the human participants.

Here is a Pinterest gallery of my photos. And here you can find a video that I shot two years ago.

Entrepreneurship on the high seas

Startups have a hard enough time getting started on dry land, but a wacky idea may just take hold to build a floating startup city off the coast of California. Called Blueseed.co, the idea is that non-Americans have trouble getting work visas and can’t come here to startup their ideas. So why not repurpose an old cruise ship and stock it with brainy and motivated folks who will live and work just outside the 12-mile coastal limit of US territory?

Blueseed’s plan is to anchor their new geek nation just off Half Moon Bay, and ferry folks back and forth on a regular schedule. So far they have thousands of people from half the world’s countries who have signed up saying they are interested.

It could work, but there is a lot to deal with before the notion can float their boat. To begin with, the 200-mile limit (rather than 12) may apply to such ventures, and the US government could say it is a tax haven or supporting criminal activities and take possession. That has some legal precedent. Or getting a reliable Internet connection that doesn’t have gobs of network latency might be an issue for all those entrepreneurs that are trying to build their next Big Data apps scooping up all the bandwidth-at-sea. Then there is the comfort factor and you may want to pack your pills when you head out. Having a cruise ship sitting idle on the high seas defeats their stabilizers, which only work when the propulsion system is operating. It is bad enough that you want to pull an all-nighter and then have to deal with mal de mer the next day. That could cut down on your productivity and crush that innovative spirit quickly.

Blueseed has raised some money from some interesting VCs that have been around the tech space for some time, but they are just getting started. They have some nice concept drawings (see above) of what life at sea would look like, and they remind me of an aquatic Paolo Soleri. The architect of Arcosanti in the Arizona desert is still alive, and credited with being one of the early visionaries of seasteading, as these efforts are called. There is a foundation with that name as well that has been making some noise and holding conferences.

I visited Arcosanti probably 30 years ago and it was a curiosity then. There were large-scale concrete structures that took their cues from sci-fi movie sets, and dedicated 20-somethings trying to live there full-time. Apparently, few want to live there now, and those large structures are still unfinished. I bought one of their wind chimes that they were selling, and that you can still find in hip gift shops. Here is an interesting interview with Soleri done a few years ago that explains more of his vision.

Does seasteading have a smooth sail ahead? Who knows. It is certainly an intriguing idea.

Getting started with crowdfunding

ksCrowdfunding has become one of the fastest-growing mechanisms for getting money to a wide variety of creative projects. There are dozens if not hundreds of different sites that vie for your attention to donate funds for new films, books by established authors such as Seth Godin, and interesting gee-gaws such as the Pebble Watch. Even a 89-year grandmother has raised several thousand dollars for her craft project.

One of the oldest sites for crowdfunding is Kickstarter. It has an all-or-nothing (or fixed) funding model: your project doesn’t get anything if you don’t raise the minimum required (which you set at the start). There are many other sites that let you keep what you raise under certain circumstances, such as Indiegogo. A third model is using a bounty, which is given to anyone who completes a project, such as BountySource, which works with many GitHub projects. These and other sites are strictly for donations, similar to what many of us do when we pledge to the local PBS station. Yes, that $4 tote bag isn’t really worth the $100 in donations, but we feel good supporting a cause and being in the know. “There is this cool kids club mentality, where you want to look cooler or more prescient in backing certain projects early,” says Debbie Weil, the CEO of Voxie Media. She helps book authors package and promote their works and has funded a number of Kickstarter projects, including Seth Godin’s Icarus Deception last summer “where I watched him raise thousands of dollars in a matter of minutes.” A computer game project on Kickstarter last spring raised a million bucks in a single day!

One reason may be your connection with your community. Kevin Savetz has funded projects on both Kickstarter and Indiegogo. He says, “some of the projects that I’ve backed, I chose simply because they’re based in my city of Portland, Oregon, and I’d like to support projects in my community. I think of funding certain projects as an investment in an idea, and I don’t expect every investment to pay off. But there is nothing more satisfying than seeing a friend successfully fund and then create their vision, too.”

But enough of Grandma’s crafts and Bluetooth watches. Here are a few items to spend some time thinking about before you dive in, either as a backer or to start your own project.

1. Do you have a great story to tell? Whether you are selling a movie concept, a new fangled watch, or a startup company, you still need to refine your pitch and explain your story to your (soon to be) adoring public. How compelling a case can you make?

Part of great storytelling is in creating the right kinds of collateral materials and that often means creating a great video to introduce potential backers to your project. Mark Binder, a book author who funded one of his book projects through Kickstarter, put some significant time into promoting his project. “We spent two weeks on the video, another two weeks preparing the page and another four weeks running the campaign.”

Or you can hire someone who does this for a living, like Abe Cajudo, a professional videographer who has worked on many Kickstarter and Indiegogo projects.  “A good video is essential. You have to know how to package your product or service and explain it visually. But you also have to do the marketing and the research, because money isn’t going to magically appear in your bank account.”

2. Do you have an established audience to pitch your project to? No site will create an audience unless you are pitching a new Veronica Mars show or have some existing brand recognition. “Most people get donations from people that they personally knew, such as someone that they went to college with and haven’t been in touch for several years,” says Todd Metheny, the CEO of Passer.by, a new crowdfunding site for movie projects that is just getting started and still in beta.

Cajudo says, “If you don’t have a fan base or a following, it will be hard to get your idea funded.” The projects that have done well on Kickstarter have come from folks with solid mailing lists or social networks. But Binder found out the hard way “that my existing fan base wasn’t very engaged. When my campaign started, people weren’t donating. They needed lots and lots and lots of prodding. About a third of the pledges came through Facebook. The rest were direct email. But we learned who they were and now have a few thousand dollars to promote our book when it is ready.”

3. If you are looking for donors, decide early on whether you want to run a fixed or a flexible campaign. Kickstarter only does fixed campaigns, while many of the alternatives can be more flexible. “On average, fixed campaigns raise more money. The fixed campaign adds a sense of urgency to the process that we believe is often very helpful,” says Metheny.

And then set up your premium or reward levels carefully, too. “Ask if your goals are attainable and if the premiums are interesting and the levels to receive them are appropriate,” says Weil.

4. Know your crowdfunding sites. Read their FAQs. Spend some time reviewing what other projects are active, and which ones have succeeded and failed to receive funding. And consider taking an online class. For example, Cajudo took a class with SkillShare to help learn about Kickstarter.

Weil cautions, “Kickstarter is very picky about which projects they accept, if you want to launch a line of clothing they aren’t interested, but they are if proceeds from your clothing is going to support starving children.” She also said “Kickstarter doesn’t make it easy to resolve logistical problems, or what happens when shipping costs more than you expected, or when you’ve got to coordinate a lot of different moving pieces for your project.”

To rectify these issues, you might want to consider another crowdfunding site that launched recently called Crowd Supply. They offer pre-order management, warehouse fulfillment and other ecommerce options. “We let the project creators focus on their designs instead of packing and shipping,” says Lou Doctor, the CEO and cofounder of the site.

5. Finally, be prepared in case something goes wrong. Projects get delayed, or donations overwhelm the managers, or people just don’t deliver. As the Boy Scouts say, be prepared.

I have more to say about dealing with delays and potential litigation with Kickstarter, see the story that I wrote for Slashdot here.