Bumblebee Labs Blog http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com Official company blog for Bumblebee Labs Wed, 06 Dec 2017 07:13:43 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.7.9 The parable of the fisherman http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/?p=1369 http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/?p=1369#comments Wed, 23 Oct 2013 22:59:09 +0000 http://blog.figuringshitout.com/?p=1369 Related posts:
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A vacationing American businessman standing on the pier of a quaint coastal fishing village in southern Mexico watched as a small boat with just one young Mexican fisherman pulled into the dock. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. Enjoying the warmth of the early afternoon sun, the American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish.

“How long did it take you to catch them?” the American casually asked.

“Oh, a few hours,” the Mexican fisherman replied.

“Why don’t you stay out longer and catch more fish?” the American businessman then asked.

The Mexican warmly replied, “With this I have more than enough to support my family’s needs.”

The businessman then became serious, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”

Responding with a smile, the Mexican fisherman answered, “I sleep late, play with my children, watch ballgames, and take siesta with my wife. Sometimes in the evenings I take a stroll into the village to see my friends, play the guitar, sing a few songs…”

The American businessman impatiently interrupted, “Look, I have an MBA from Harvard, and I can help you to be more profitable. You can start by fishing several hours longer every day. You can then sell the extra fish you catch. With the extra money, you can buy a bigger boat. With the additional income that larger boat will bring, before long you can buy a second boat, then a third one, and so on, until you have an entire fleet of fishing boats.”

Proud of his own sharp thinking, he excitedly elaborated a grand scheme which could bring even bigger profits, “Then, instead of selling your catch to a middleman you’ll be able to sell your fish directly to the processor, or even open your own cannery. Eventually, you could control the product, processing and distribution. You could leave this tiny coastal village and move to Mexico City, or possibly even Los Angeles or New York City, where you could even further expand your enterprise.”

Having never thought of such things, the Mexican fisherman asked, “But how long will all this take?”

After a rapid mental calculation, the Harvard MBA pronounced, “Probably about 15-20 years, maybe less if you work really hard.”

“And then what, señor?” asked the fisherman.

“Why, that’s the best part!” answered the businessman with a laugh. “When the time is right, you would sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions.”

“Millions? Really? What would I do with it all?” asked the young fisherman in disbelief.

The businessman boasted, “Then you could happily retire with all the money you’ve made. You could move to a quaint coastal fishing village where you could sleep late, play with your grandchildren, watch ballgames, and take siesta with your wife. You could stroll to the village in the evenings where you could play the guitar and sing with your friends all you want.”

Sensing skepticism from the fisherman, the businessman moves onto the next boat and finds a more receptive fisherman. The two, sensing an obvious business opportunity, decide to go into business together. They raise a venture capital round and a year later, return to the pier outfitted with a dozen high tech fishing boats.

Immediately, the price of tuna at the pier drops threefold with increased supply, forcing the young Mexican fisherman to increase his hours at sea just to maintain his existing standard of living.

Shortly thereafter, all of the shallow water tuna have been caught and the young Mexican fisherman discovers his tiny boat is incapable of deep water fishing. Because of his limited savings, he does not have enough capital to invest in a deep water fishing boat and he is forced to sell his tiny fishing boat for pennies on the dollar as scrap because advances in technology have made it obsolete.

After discovering that there is limited demand for an employee whose only skills are watching ballgames, playing the guitar and taking siestas, the young Mexican fisherman finds his only option is to take a job working minimum wage on one of the businessman’s fishing vessels.

Several years later, the fisherman’s joints are shot through from the hard manual labor of operating on a commercial fishing vessel and an ill timed lift of a 150lb pallet of tuna finally causes his back to give way, causing permanent crippling. The fisherman discovers intensive lobbying from the businessman has weakened workplace protection rules and the fisherman is summarily let go with only a paltry settlement.

After years of expensive medical treatments and crippling bills, the fisherman is finally forced to sell his land, passed along to him from generation to generation, to a development conglomerate run by the businessman who is buying large tracts of the entire village.

Unbeknownst to the fisherman, the businessman has lobbied for the village to turn into a protected nature reserve, allowing for the rehabilitation of the environment and the restocking of fish in it’s pristine waters. The businessman painstakingly recreates the quaint, costal charm of the village he once visited, making it a paradise where the wealthy flock to when they want to retire into a life of easy indolence.

Finally, 15 – 20 years after the original conversation, the fisherman and his wife are found dead in a homeless shelter. Meanwhile, the businessman retires to the village having made two successive fortunes first in fisheries and then in real estate development. He spends his days sleeping late, playing with his grandchildren, watching high def ESPN ballgames on a 70″ TV, and taking siesta with his wife. He occasionally strolls down to the village in the evenings where he regales his fellow millionaires with the story of how he found an unexploited niche in the marketplace and then took full advantage of it to make the fortune that got him to the comfortable retirement he enjoys today.

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What is your water talent? http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/?p=1361 http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/?p=1361#comments Thu, 20 Jun 2013 09:20:22 +0000 http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/?p=1361 Related posts:
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There was this old parable of a master placing an empty box in front of a student and placing a few large rocks into the box. “Is it full?” asks the master, and the student replies “yes”. The master then pours in a bunch of gravel carefully around the rocks and asks “Is it full now?” and the student replies, more warily, “yes”. The master then pours sand to fill all the cracks and, before he can even ask, the student wearily interrupts him and goes “yes, yes, it’s still not full, get to the point”. Slightly perturbed, the master finally pours water into the box and grumpily exclaims that “there, now it’s full”. As the student starts to excitedly draw a breath to explain about electron orbitals and the free space in between atoms and the latest musings in quantum theory she is violently slapped in the face by the master. The reason a master is a master and the student is just a student is because a master can always recognize when a smart ass remark is coming along.

Viewing life through this hierarchy, a lot of wanna-be MBAs are going to try and tell you the lesson to draw from this is that the big rocks are the most important and if you fit them into your life first so that everything else can fit around them. This is the big rock view of the world and one most people I’ve met subconsciously subscribe to. When people meet me for the first time, I am asked about the rocks in my life. What is my job? Where did I go to school and what did I study? What is my relationship status and who do I know? After a while, after the big rocks are exhausted, people might dive into the gravel. What are my hobbies? What movies have I seen recently and what TV do I watch? What are some cool restaurants I’ve been to recently.

Instead, over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to understand a person is to understand their water. Water is what you do while doing something else. It’s what you’re thinking about when you have an idle 30 seconds to day dream. It’s things you’ve been doing ever since you were a kid that even you might not notice because it’s never occurred to you that anybody could ever not do that. Water is the entire invisible life you lead that is the essence of your being.

Whenever I meet someone that I want to get to know better, I try to find the answer to the question “what is your water talent?”. They might have had acrimonious parents and learned from a young age to be a master diplomat so that every social interaction involves them smoothing over the rough edges between various parties. They might be a ardent lexophile who experiences a frission of joy at the perfect word being deployed in a sentence. They might be an inveterate people watcher who loves nothing more than sit outside a busy cafe watching the world go by and who can hone in on first date conversation of any table near them at a restaurant. They might even minutely dissect the interaction of every bathroom they’ve ever been in.

Rocks, you pick, but water picks you. Your water is channeled by your temperament, your circumstances and your formative experiences and, as a result, remains uniquely yours, impossible to copy. Water is the reason why some people seem to so effortlessly achieve rarified greatness in a field while others gamely struggle, despite the same apparent rocks. Your water causes you to live and breath a practice, to go to bed thinking about it and to wake up still thinking about it. If you don’t have that water, you’re handicapped from the beginning.

Observing someone’s water talents is hard because water is mostly invisible. That’s why, when I meet someone, I most like to talk to them about their childhood. Childhood is where your personality first develops and formative experiences impinge upon your life. Were you an angry child or happy child? Anxious or carefree? A life of turmoil and change or stability and constancy? Did you discover your passion then or discover that you have no passions? It’s by charting your life from your childhood until now that I can start to see the pull of your water. Decisions made that another person would not have made. Opportunities that were opened up to you that others were not offered. Skills you happened to pick up extraordinarily well, extraordinarily quickly. All of these are hints of your water talents.

The water view of the world is diametrically opposed to the big rock view of the world. Big rocks give us the illusion that we have control over our lives and that we can chart our destiny. Water believes that our lives are channeled and we are guided along a path. Big rocks view us as a fungible resource, replaceable by someone else with similar big rocks. Water views each person as inimitable and unable to aggregated into abstract categories. Big rocks are modular and can be replaced piecewise to create a completely new configuration. Water is essential and and changes only slowly.

One of the side effects of switching to a water view of the world for me has been the complete elimination of jealously and envy. All around you are people with more money, hotter spouses, more friends, better smiles. If you believe all it takes for you to have what they have is replacing your big rock with their big rock then it’s easy to feel like you did not live up to your expectations and that you’re not having it all. But if you instead believe that, to have what they would require replacing your water with their water, it would mean having what they have would involve losing everything you have. Cast in this light, the things they have feel not as worth it.

So, as the student is still feeling the ringing in her ears and the burn on her cheek, the master asks, if you remove the rocks from the box, if you remove the gravel and remove the sand, what’s left? What is your water?

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How to be a designer in 10 years http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/?p=1359 http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/?p=1359#comments Thu, 20 Jun 2013 07:42:31 +0000 http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/?p=1359 Related posts:
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My friend, Karen Cheng, posted today about how to get a great design job in 6 months without going to design school. Reading that post reminded me of the tremendous amount of respect I have for Karen.What she doesn’t mention in her post is that she possesses a scary amount of focus and dedication to any cause she pursues and wins at life simply by working harder than anyone else. I don’t know if any of her advice is replicable because I don’t know anyone else who could accomplish what she did in 6 months. I don’t want to give anything away but this is not the last time you will see something truly impressive come from her…

But I was chatting with her online tonight and it had me thinking of how different our two paths into design were. My first inkling that there was a world of design came from serendipitously picking up The Design of Everyday Things at a used bookstore during my 3rd year of university (junior year of college for Yanks). There are a few books I’ve encountered in my life that change on a deep level the basic way I see the world and reading DOET was as if scales had fallen from my eyes. For the first time, I understood that built artifacts could be evaluated and come short in that evaluation. From that day on, every poor interaction I had pained me, every stupid decision made by the designer of a product had me gasping in disbelief at their obliviousness and lack of consideration. In short, I noticed.

Don Norman devotes, I think, half a chapter or so of his book to bathrooms and how the myriad of poorly thought out decisions hamper and stymie the user along every step of the way. One peculiar side-effect of this has been my ongoing and deep abiding fascination with bathrooms.  To me, bathrooms represent a playground of egregiously & aggressively bad UI. The basic bathroom works fine, it’s when you push beyond that where the bad things happen.

So for the last 10 years, I’ve performed a UX critique of every bathroom I’ve ever been in. I’ve seen the thousand different ways people have found to fuck up the basic bathroom. I’ve found taps which are impossible to guess how they turn on, basins that are guaranteed to splash the user, soap dispensers with 3 different decoy pseudo-buttons that people press fruitlessly every single time, even door handles that somehow manage to fail at the job of being door handles. My favorite bathrooms ever have been in upscale buildings that seem to have had their budget cut early in the process. My theory is that bathrooms are where architects sublimate their frustrations at being hampered at every turn by conservative clients and budget constraints by indulging in their wildest design fantasies. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not but I do know it’s been pretty good at guiding me to some of the best (worst) bathrooms I’ve ever seen.

10 years of critiquing bathrooms and microwaves, doors and chairs, signage and menus and every other artifact of the built environment has lead me to an interesting place. Unlike Karen, I draw like a 5 year old, I’m clumsy with photoshop and I still struggle with basic information architecture and flows. Karen after 6 months was almost certainly more employable than me after 10 years. But show me a product and I can dissect it out for you like a surgeon. I can slice and dice it on every axis and articulate where it’s gone wrong on a deep level. I can push deep and then push even deeper and discover the soul of a product and then take all of those jiggling, loose parts that I just destroyed and recast it into something that is more honest, that more better expresses the essence of what this product was meant to be. Of this skill, I am most sure of.

It’s been 10 years since I first picked up DOET and those 10 years have changed my life. 10 years of critiquing bathrooms has lead me to where I am today and 10 more years of critiquing bathrooms will lead me to being an even better designer in 2023. If you asked me how to become a designer in 6 months, I’d have very little useful feedback. Instead, ask me how to be a designer in 10 years and I can tell you my story.

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BayCHI Talk http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/?p=1351 http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/?p=1351#comments Thu, 10 May 2012 22:59:13 +0000 http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/?p=1351 Related posts:
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On November 9th of 2010, I gave a talk at BayCHI, summarizing some of my thinking around how to approach social experience design and focusing on how I applied those principles towards the design of Product Design Guild. Slides and an audio podcast are attached below:


Xianhang Zhang: Lessons from Social Software: From Facebook to Face to Face Design Guild


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Product Design Guild http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/?p=1322 http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/?p=1322#comments Wed, 25 Jan 2012 20:52:49 +0000 http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/?p=1322 No related posts. ]]>

The Brief:

Designers learn best by working with other designers. However, modern team sizes mean that virtually all startups can only afford to hire a single designer and an entire generation of designers is emerging that has never had that experience. I wanted to create an organization that would increase the proficiency and productivity of designers by providing them with a chance to do the kind of collaborative design work one might find in a studio based environment.

The Problem:

From the start, I wanted the Product Design Guild to be an organization that great designers would want to participate in. Great designers, by their very nature, are busy people so, as well intentioned as they may be, lower priority commitments inevitably get bumped. I thought that the only reliable way to convince busy people to come was if coming would save them time over not coming. That is, spending an hour designing at the Product Design Guild would be more productive than spending an hour designing alone.

The Solution:

The Product Design Guild holds meetings once every two weeks in the Bay Area and once every month in New York. Each meeting lasts for 6 hours on a weekend with lunch and space provided by a different sponsor every week. Each meeting starts with introductions consisting of:

  • Your name
  • Your project
  • What you’re really good at
  • What you need help with

After the introductions and lunch, meetings are left deliberately unstructured and members self-organize in order to work most effectively.

Membership to the Product Design Guild is open to experienced designers only and I personally vet every single application for the Bay Area. During the meetings, we have three rules:

  • You need to bring work
  • Be intensely helpful
  • People are trusting you, don’t be a dick

From the beginning, the Product Design Guild was deliberately structured to set itself apart from other meetups in a number of distinctive ways, all towards the aim of being a more productive space than solo design:

  • Effective design collaboration requires understanding and trust. By pre-vetting our members, any designer can start working with any other designer and know that their suggestions come from a place of expertise and experience. This allows for groups to form and disband fluidly and rapidly.
  • Our rules set up an expectation of helpfulness and productivity that affects the conversational tone. Because one of the shared requirements is that everyone has to bring work, conversations are started around the project.
  • Each meeting is 6 hours long which allows for designers to fully explore the depth and nuance of a design problem. The timeframe naturally affords in depth exploration.
  • Setting each meeting at a different company allows designers to be exposed to multiple design cultures.
  • During each meeting, I am constantly figuring out who should meet who, trying to maximize the utility of having lots of smart designers being in the same room as you.

These deliberate design decisions have resulted in the steady, high quality growth of Guild membership and transformative experiences for those who attend.

My contribution:

  • I founded the Product Design Guild
  • I run the meetings for the San Francisco Chapter, including finding sponsors for every meeting
  • I am responsible for all marketing & promotion.
  • I lead the creation of the South Bay and New York chapters by finding appropriate local leaders, mentoring & communicating the values of the guild and providing assistance and guidance
  • I vet all memberships for the Bay Area
  • I moderate the private Facebook Group

More reading:

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Apture http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/?p=1320 http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/?p=1320#comments Wed, 25 Jan 2012 20:52:24 +0000 http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/?p=1320 No related posts. ]]> The Brief:

Apture was a contextual search startup (now acquired by Google) that allowed users to gain in page, rich media search results through text highlighting. At the time, Apture was just about to release Apture Hotspots and was seeking new strategic directions for its product. I was brought on to provide strategic thinking about potential new avenues for Apture to explore.

The Problem:

Although Apture had great reach, it had to strike a delicate balance between providing utility when needed while also not being annoying when not needed. This tension meant that the designed interaction was so unobtrusive that engagement was low. Apture Hotspots was one new way of bringing the Apture experience to a broader range of people. What were some other ways to balance these two competing needs?

One of the ideas that I explored was in how best to surface ambient behavioral information from people that you cared about. For example, if you were reading about Cleopatra, would it be useful to know a friend had also been researching Cleopatra a few months ago? When & how would this be useful? What would the privacy norms around this be and what would be the best way to present this to the user?

The Solution:

In order to gain insight into these questions, I built Ambient-Wiki, a prototype to be used by internal Apture employees only. Ambient Wiki used a browser plugin to log every Wikipedia page that any Apture employee visited and broadcast this only a shared, ambient display in the office. Simple annotation features were also provided and annotated entries would make an entry extremely prominent on the display.

It was decided that Wikipedia entries were innocuous enough that privacy was not a major concern but interesting enough that they provided an insight into co-workers curiosity.


Over the 4 week period that AmbientWiki was running, we discovered that the threshold required to start a conversation was relatively high. However, people did enjoy the voyeuristic element and paid attention to what others were searching. AmbientWiki primarily sparked conversations when you saw someone else searching for something that you have knowledge of (rather than the other way around as we had thought). Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to integrate these findings into any solid product direction.

My Contribution:

  • I conducted several user studies on Apture’s existing product
  • I created animated interaction mockups of new interactions for new bottom bar and close window behaviors
  • I coded the AmbientWiki internal app, including a Chrome Extension, a Ruby on Rails backend and a HTML+CSS+JS frontend.
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Peel http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/?p=1318 http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/?p=1318#comments Wed, 25 Jan 2012 20:51:58 +0000 http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/?p=1318 Related posts:
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The Brief:

Modern smartphones are capable of replacing a myriad of single purpose hardware devices, including the remote control. To date, most smartphone remote apps presented a rather literal translation of a remote control interface onto a screen. At Peel, we instead believed that this was an opportunity to fundamentally rethink what a remote could be and to fully exploit the power of an internet connected smartphone. In particular, a smartphone remote could serve as a gateway into a shared social television experience.

The Problem:

Existing social television products were largely uncreative concepts and I didn’t believe they captured the true power of a compelling social experience. I was tasked with figuring out what social experiences peel should build to serve as a key differentiator in the remote control marketplace.

The Solution:

I designed several potential social experiences for Peel:

Peel Overlay: Peel Overlay is like a mobile Quora for television. It allows real time, question asking and polling of other users watching the same show and also integrates with data sources like imdb and Wikipedia to allow it to automatically answer questions like “What other shows have I seen this actor in before?”.

Peel Groups:

Different people will watch the same show for different purposes. Peel Groups allows people with a similar purpose to find each other, organize and engage in a shared experience around a show. Sports fans can use groups to bet on whether their team will score this field goal, jeopardy watchers can compete to see who can answer correctly the fastest, watchers of cheesy sci-fi can make fun of the same show together. Groups allows television watchers to convert from a solitary experience into a shared social experience.

Peel Recommends:

Peel Recommends provides an elegant and lightweight way of notifying friends about a show they should be watching right now. It optimizes the sharing process by remembering who you’re most likely to share with and what mode of sharing they prefer and reduces the friction of sharing a recommendation down to just 2 clicks.


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Announcing my new startup http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/?p=1313 http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/?p=1313#comments Wed, 30 Mar 2011 16:58:03 +0000 http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/announcing-my-new-startup/ Related posts:
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I dashed off a post yesterday entitled Disregard ideas, acquire assets which seems to have gotten an unexpected amount of positive reaction so I figure I would use this opportunity to formally talk about the new startup I'm working on.

In early January, I left my previous job to work on an idea that's been a burning passion of mine for quite sometime. The premise behind it is pretty simple:

  1. Our social relationships are some of the most important assets that we own
  2. We are horrendously inefficient at leveraging those assets

To point number 1, in the past week, I've helped someone navigate which neighbourhoods in Seattle to rent a house, helped a friend spec out a new machine for work, offered to introduce a bright young kid to a potential mentor, referred 3 separate marketing/PR to a promising startup, cooked brunch with 4 close friends, offered to cook dinner for a friend in town from the East Coast and spent 2 hours talking over the social experience design problems with the lead designer of one of the top 10 websites in the world. In return, this week has been of commensurate value with all of the offers of help that have been extended to me by my friends. My friends are like a secret superpower, they make me 10X more awesome.

To point number 2, while these points of contacts were enormously valuable, they were also largely arbitrary. They only really occurred during the points in time when two of us were physically co-located and were able to have genuine, productive conversation. What about the friends who, by whatever circumstance, I only get to see once every 3 months or less? When we do get together, our conversations are so valuable and productive I wish I could continue them once we part ways but it's always so frustratingly difficult to do so that those conversations eventually whimper and die. The web has the potential to turn our 10X superpower into a 100X superpower but the tool to do so is not there yet.This is not a new or original idea. I first had it almost two years ago when I found myself spending close to $3000 to travel to a conference just to be able to have those genuine, productive conversations. But it was only until recently that I finally had the assets to truly feel confident executing on this vision.

  • Asset #1: I've been thinking about the field of Social Experience Design for close to five years now. I'm pretty confident in saying there are, at most, a dozen people who have the depth of thinking at this point in being able to marry all the diverse disciplines of knowledge required to think through this issue (Social Interaction Design: Where are the most interesting uncharted waters in social software design? is a reasonably comprehensive list of everything I've been thinking about)
  • Asset #2: My go-to-market strategy is, I think, incredibly strong and relies on deploying assets I've carefully been cultivating for a while, chief among them is Product Design Guild. There aren't many companies who are able to meet with their customers for 6 solid hours once every two weeks like clockwork and I'm enormously excited about this as a potential asset.
  • Asset #3: The Product Design Guild has been an amazing testbed for many of my hypotheses and large parts of the product have been dramatically warped due to my experiences there. This is the ultimate lean startup, we built a following before we built a product.
  • Asset #4: I spent the formative years thinking about this in Seattle, outside of the Silicon Valley bubble and I think my unconventional thinking on this issue gives this a secret edge. While other people were going gaga over photo sharing and coupons, I was hanging out with academics and salesmen, watching how they navigate their social relationships.
  • Asset #5: My extraordinarily amazing CS educators who gave me an abiding love and appreciation of technology. I asked my friend Sutha Kamal to give me his notoriously tough engineering pre-screen test for Massive Health which rejects 20 candidates for every one it admits and I was, rather depressingly, able to pass it without too much undue effort. My first programming language was Haskell, I've built computer vision systems before, I can still rattle off the performance characteristics of close to two dozen algorithms and yell at you if you aren't using tries when you need to do fast string retrieval. I don't have the operational experience to be and engineer anymore but one thing that's clear is that, while this will be first and foremost a product company, deep in it's bones, it will also always be a technology company.

Which brings me to the one asset I don't have right now, an amazing technical co-founder. Let me be clear, this is not just a big vision, it's an enormous one. While the people I've been meeting in the past few weeks have been great, it's not yet been love at first sight because my standards for this are ridiculously high.

The person I am looking for is:

  • Obsessed over product. If you can't name me four products that frustrated you with their inadequate design that day, then you're not the right person, even if we're meeting at 9AM.
  • Passionate about doing something meaningful. If the choice is between working on this or being the CTO of Zynga and this is a hard choice, you're not the right person.
  • Excited by grand visions. We might try and fail and only achieve something great instead of something world changing but at least we fucking tried.
  • Gets shit DONE. nuff said.
  • Has the operational experience to solve the hard technical problems necessary to achieve truly great product vision. There are some startups that can be made purely with pluggable, off-the-shelf components. This is not one of them. While the MVP is currently deceptively simple, there's some deep technological challenges that need to be solved that are fundamental to this space.

If this sounds like you, email me at [email protected] and tell me a little bit about yourself. If this doesn't sound like you but it sounds like someone you know, introduce me and I'm willing to offer 2% equity as a referral bonus if that person becomes my co-founder. Human assets are important and they deserve to be rewarded as such.

edit: If you're neither of these people but you're intrigued and would like to know more, you can add in your email here: https://spreadsheets.google.com/…

Let's fucking do this thing!

Post on Quora

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Disregard ideas, acquire assets http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/?p=1310 http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/?p=1310#comments Tue, 29 Mar 2011 19:05:35 +0000 http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/disregard-ideas-acquire-assets/ Related posts:
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There's the romantic notion of two complete nobodies, coming up with the next great idea and forging off to change the world. While that does happen, I believe that it's not the optimal path towards controllable business success.

There's a ton of brilliant 22 year old kids these days all churning through the same bucket of rather trivial ideas for web startups. Games! Group Messaging! Coupons! The reason why is that when you're 22 and just out of school, there's only a limited scope of ideas that it's actually practical for you to execute on. What I've found though, is that the most exciting startup ideas are mostly not in this pool but are, instead, backed by a hidden asset.

When I talk about assets, cash is the least interesting of all of these. Instead, I'm talking about more intangible assets like skills, reputation, relationships, attention & fame. I'm of the strong opinion that the most reliable path towards startup success is to focus relentlessly on acquiring interesting assets and then execute on the startups that naturally fall out of them.

Stack Overflow is the perfect example of this. The software that runs Stack Overflow is actually relatively trivial and really could have been built by anyone at anytime. What made Stack Overflow possible were two hidden assets:

  1. Without an initial community of high quality users, Stack Overflow would have died. Joel Spolsky & Jeff Atwood ran, at the time, two of the most popular programming blogs in the world and were able to generate sufficient interest and attention to get SO over the initial cold start hump
  2. Without great software design SO would not have been able to retain users at the rate they did. Joel Spolsky & Jeff Atwood had both been thinking very deeply about the structure and organization of social software for a very long time and avoided a number of obvious mistakes in the fundamental foundations of the software. Here's a blog post from Joel in 2003, thinking about these issues: http://www.joelonsoftware.com/ar… and the Stack Overflow podcasts are a secret mine of excellent social experience design insight: http://blog.stackoverflow.com/ca…

Neither Joel or Jeff had any grand, overarching vision of starting Stack Overflow when they started blogging for the first time. Instead, they just diligently worked to each build this amazing asset. But by building this asset, they opened up a thousand new, good startup ideas that were unavailable to most other people in the world and all they needed to do was to pick the one most appealing to them and execute on it.

I talk to a lot of different early stage startups these days and, inevitably, the ones I'm most excited about are those with a hidden asset backing them. Joe Edelman who built one of the most sophisticated reputation systems in the world at Couchsurfing is now deploying that asset towards Groundcrew. Gabe Smedresman who ran real world social games at Yale is now deploying that asset towards Gatsby. Yishan Wong who is one of the one of the world experts at startup engineering management is now deploying that asset towards Sunfire Offices. Sutha Kamal who is one of the most relentless business development minds I've seen at work is now deploying that asset towards Massive Health.

Inevitably, the story was that these entrepreneurs focused on acquiring assets and they reached a point where they couldn't not do a startup with them. It became like walking through a field of low hanging fruit and wondering which ones they should pick.

I think the conventional startup narrative is mistaken in that it casts the world into those who are temperamentally suited towards only doing startups and everyone else in the world who can be regarded as a brighter species of sheep. Instead, practically every one of the entrepreneurs in that list has spent significant time being an employee, quietly building up assets that would later become valuable. Many of them were even reluctant to become entrepreneurs.

What I take away from this is that I would like for a new startup narrative to emerge. One that focuses on the less sexy aspects of building a startup which is the 10 years before you write the first piece of code. I'd like for people to start thinking of startups as less something you decide to do and more an opportunity that gets handed to you. I'd like for people to focus first on making real contributions to the world before feeling like the world owes them a startup success. It's things like this that are the key towards shifting the ecosystem into a more mature startup culture and most optimally deploy the scarce human capital that we have.

Disregard ideas, acquire assets.

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Visual Design is about more than making things look pretty http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/?p=1303 http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/?p=1303#comments Tue, 07 Dec 2010 01:23:58 +0000 http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/?p=1303 Related posts:
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To say “design is about making it look pretty” has finally become a faux pas within Silicon Valley. To utter it brands you as the worst kind of n00b. Instead, people have adapted to this shift by saying “Interaction Design is about making work well, Visual Design is about making it look good”. This seems to be the new status quo and it’s easy to mistakenly hold this impression if all you’ve ever worked with are bad Visual Designers. Good Visual Design is about clear and effective communication and it involves everything from understanding who you are communicating to, what message you want to communicate and then how to effectively deliver that message.

To demonstraJaco, over at the guestlist blog, has an excellent time lapse video of the design of the guestlist front page which, IMO, convincing demonstrates how visual design encompasses so much more than making things look pretty:

Timelapse of Homepage Design from Jaco Joubert on Vimeo.

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