Reading and Writing Technology

Two skills have repeatedly served me well throughout school and startups: reading and writing.

While this may seem obvious at first, I think too many people take these skills for granted. The high tolerance of mediocre writing, and a growing reading deficit among college students in particular, is a dangerous signal if we wish to have a truly competent and educated workforce. Writing and reading well takes consistent effort with feedback. Thus, I’m always excited when I see people building tools to help make people read and write better.

Luckily, I’ve discovered three impressive tools in the past few months:

  • 750 Words
    • Write 750 words every day, unfiltered and unedited. Just get the words out of your head and onto the screen.
  • Hemingway
    • Useful for instantly identifying common grammar mistakes. It’s like having an english teacher peaking right over your shoulder.
  • Spritz
    • Just as sprinting is to running, spritz is to reading. Read and retain more on the go.
 

After using these tools you will notice that they are all simple and immediately useful. Common hindrances in technology products such as on-off switches,  complicated user-interfaces, instruction manuals, etc. are not found with any of these. Instead they all follow the 0123 design architecture. Again, any user can derive value from these products immediately.

Of course the heavyweights in terms of new reading and writing technology include the Amazon Kindle, tablets, and audio books. These innovations alone have helped to expand the minds of millions of people, while also helping us retain vast digital libraries. But I think it’s important to note that we are lucky to see even more reading and writing tools developed on the Internet, and they are allowing us to practice our literacy skills in ways that we could’ve only dreamed of a decade ago.

28

02 2014

Email Responsiveness

One of the more important yet subtle lessons I’ve learned through my entrepreneurial experiences is the importance of email responsiveness. I’ve found that many successful founders share the common trait of insanely fast email response.

Specifically, I mean that if you have a request for a trusted founder friend with this trait, they nearly always get back to you within hours, sometimes within minutes. They are often able to achieve this because their responses are clear and concise. When they send their response, a decision has been made, or work has been delegated. For every email request beyond trusted friends, this is obviously not possible on all occasions. But for the majority of email requests from close friends, I’ve noticed they respond clearly and concisely within an hour.

Less determined and indecisive folks seem to respond more casually, perhaps forgetting altogether. If a severely delayed response does arrive, it often contains a verbose apology or additional thoughts that make the task at hand unnecessarily complicated.

Sam Altman recently wrote about “Super Successful Companies” and ended with this note:

*They move fast. They make quick decisions on everything.  They respond to emails quickly.  This is one of the most striking differences between great and mediocre founders.  Great founders are execution machines.

The essence is right there in that last line: Great founders are execution machines.

An easy example is the Rap Genius team. Mahbod responded to my cold email in the “RapGenius Growth Hack Exposed” saga within 5 minutes. This was not an anomaly, the Rap Genius team gets things done and their growth proves it.

This means you need to equip yourself with a smartphone.

18

01 2014

RapGenius Growth Hack Exposed

Yesterday RapGenius posted the following announcement on their Facebook page:

Screen Shot 2013-12-23 at 3.20.43 PM

As a contributor to various blogs and an endearing fan of RapGenius, I took a special interest in this opportunity. So, I emailed Mahbod for more details:

Screen Shot 2013-12-23 at 3.28.09 PM

Mahbod quickly responded:

Screen Shot 2013-12-23 at 3.29.13 PM

What you see here is the beginning of a potential growth hack for RapGenius. To understand this growth hack, you must be aware of the business of RapGenius, and why Bieber is important to their growth.

The Business of RapGenius

RapGenius makes its business off music lyrics. Millions of people search the lyrics to their favorite songs daily. RapGenius wants to be the first result that people click on when people are searching for any lyric.

Their business depends on their search engine ranking position (SERP’s) on Google. Hyperlinks connect the web and determine SERP’s. Thus, the most powerful weapon RapGenius can deploy is a series of powerful hyperlinks. You can see in Mahbod’s email that he is asking for hyperlinks from high-page rank sites (personal blogs) with anchor text that mentions tracks from Bieber’s most recent album.

Furthermore, the 80-20 rule applied to RapGenius’s business indicates that 80% of their traffic comes from only a select 20% of their lyrics database. According to Alexa.com, “Get Lucky” and “Holy Grail” were the top traffic drivers to RapGenius for most of 2013. However, music is highly cyclical, and the traffic from previous winners will eventually fade. Looking forward into 2014, it’s only logical that RapGenius would hope for Bieber’s new songs to refer them enormous traffic.

Why Bieber Is Important to the Growth of RapGenius

Justin Bieber just released his new album “Journals” last night; Beliebers will be searching for the lyrics to his new tracks repeatedly in the upcoming months. To demonstrate the magnitude of the Beliebers, check out this graphic: Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus were the most searched musicians in 2013, but Bieber is consistently the most searched person over time.

Screen Shot 2013-12-23 at 3.51.14 PM

High SERP’s for Bieber are the top prize for RapGenius, assuming they want to continue to dramatically increase their traffic.

Summary

  • RapGenius wants to grow quickly.
  • In order to grow quickly, they need to rank well on Google searches for Justin Bieber’s new songs.
  • In order to rank well, they need backlinks with anchor text that specifically mention Bieber’s songs.
  • They are reaching out to their friends asking for backlinks in exchange for a tweet.

 

It’s surprising to me that RapGenius, a company with $15 million in financing, would openly execute such a frugal strategy for their link-building efforts. There are many consulting firms and savvy internet marketers that specialize in this work. We’ll see what Google decides for their efforts.

Update 12/23: Just added these links. Let’s see what happens to the SERP’s…

1. Justin Bieber – Heartbreaker Lyrics
2. Justin Bieber – All That Matters Lyrics
3. Justin Bieber – Hold Tight Lyrics
4. Justin Bieber – Recovery Lyrics
5. Justin Bieber – Bad Day Lyrics
6. Justin Bieber – All Bad Lyrics
7. Justin Bieber – PYD Lyrics
8. Justin Bieber – Roller Coaster Lyrics
9. Justin Bieber – Change Me Lyrics
10. Justin Bieber – Confident Lyrics
11. Justin Bieber – Memphis Lyrics
12. Justin Bieber – One Life Lyrics
13. Justin Bieber – What’s Hatnin’ Lyrics
14. Justin Bieber – Backpack Lyrics
15. Justin Bieber – Swap it Out Lyrics
Justin Bieber – Journals Tracklist Lyrics

Update 12/24: Removed the links.

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23

12 2013

The Window Seat

Every time you find yourself physically boxed in, take at least a moment to consider the perspective of the window seat. Whether I’ve been sitting in a small cafe in Aix-en-Provence, France, or gliding on final approach into Newark airport, I’ve come to discover a lot about the world by simply looking out of windows. Windows provide an opening to the world that surrounds us, and we certainly pay the price along the way.

Consider for a moment: the most expensive amenity in any New York City apartment is the ability to clearly see Central Park, or that having a window in your cabin on a cruise-ship may double the cost of your stay. People are stimulated by visual senses, and there are often fewer window opportunities than people. It’s for the same reasons why the “corner office” is so coveted. Therefore, it’s natural for something as simple as a window to demand high economic power.

Beyond economic opportunity, windows provide stimulation to entertain even the most restless minds; man made creations such as the television and the web browser provide easy examples. The naming of the “Windows” operating system by Microsoft testified to the power of a window, and it’s name proved it’s worth by becoming the most popular software in the world. Regardless of natural and man-made creations seen through windows, there are incredible things to be seen all around you, as long as you put in effort to look. Here are some of my favorite examples:

From an airplane:

  • Lake Michigan
  • Staring off into space (literally) miles above the dark deserts of Nevada
  • Identifying your home amidst endless suburbia
  • Summer fireworks
  • The fiery red low-angle sun of December, reflected across fields of white snow
  • Farms (the physical manifestation of The Homestead Act)
  • Farms of windmills
  • The Rockies

 

From a car:

  • Seeing your house through the rear view window when leaving home
  • Straight roads on a rural highway
  • The waffle house sign
  • Rare license plates
  • Long empty roads
  • Hairpin turns of the Amalfi coast, or the French Riviera
  • The mega windshield-wipers of a London city bus

 

From a house, apartment, or building:

  • The mailman
  • An epic cityscape, such as New York, Miami, or San Francisco
  • The ocean
  • A lightning storm
  • The traffic flow of Astor Place in New York City, from the window seat in St. Mark’s pizza at St. Marks/3rd ave.

 

On most occasions these examples provide a gut feeling that wouldn’t be possible without simple awareness and observation. So, next time you have the chance, take the window seat, you might be surprised with what you see.

18

12 2013

Anagnorisis and Peripeteia

Mike Rowe was the host of “Dirty Jobs”, a show on the Discovery Channel for many years. I was recently watching his TED talk about the big ideas and life lessons he learned from doing manual, skilled, and dirty work. There is one particular moment in his story that has stuck with me; he recalls a lesson from his classics professor in college:

OK, I’m still in “Poetics,” in Aristotle, and I’m thinking — out of nowhere, two terms come crashing into my head that I haven’t heard since my classics professor in college drilled them there. And they are anagnorisis and peripeteia. Anagnorisis and peripeteia. Anagnorisis is the Greek word for discovery. Literally, the transition from ignorance to knowledge is anagnorisis. It’s what our network does; it’s what “Dirty Jobs” is. And I’m up to my neck in anagnorises every single day. Great. The other word, peripeteia, that’s the moment in the great tragedies, you know — Euripides and Sophocles — the moment where Oedipus has his moment, where he suddenly realizes that hot chick he’s been sleeping with and having babies with is his mother. OK. That’s peripety or peripeteia.

I’ve been fascinated with the thought of inflection points for at least a couple of years, but I had always been waiting to learn how to define these moments beyond the vanilla term “discovery”. I learned about a similar word through the documentary Life In A Day two years ago, “Mamihlapinatapai”, which is a look shared by two people with each wishing that the other will initiate something that both desire but which neither one wants to start. However, this word is limited to in-person inflection points in the physical world.

As you can tell, the word anagnorisis self-describes the realization that I had while listening to Mike Rowe, which makes it even more ironic and incredible. It’s a moment of clarity and change in our intuition. We can never tell when these moments will occur, but when they do happen we are able derive greater significance from our world. On the flip side, peripeteia happens nearly daily. Perhaps it’s the feeling that you won’t make it through the green traffic light, or that you don’t have enough time to make something work.

And peripetia reveals itself again, right now, when I realize that I should write a grandiose summation statement. Res ipsa loquitur.

16

11 2013

Systems Thinking

Recently I have been reading a lot about systems thinking and how it serves as a critical viewpoint for anyone involved in planning the future. By thinking about systems as a whole, you can begin to see how specific things influence one another. The example that startled me is the electric car.

I have been a long proponent of Tesla cars and their incredible progress in the race to build a desirable electric car, but now I have myself asking more questions. The introduction of better electric cars only means that more people will continue to rely on cars. More cars will increase urban sprawl and defer interest in sustainable transportation systems such as trains or busses. Urban sprawl has been linked as a serious impediment for upward mobility. And furthermore, drivers of electric cars will pay no gas tax, an important funding mechanism for upkeep of roads and other public infrastructure.

Thus, you can see that in a transportation system composed of electric cars, the cascading effect of negative externalities may outweigh the benefits of a supposed savior to the CO2 emissions problem. I am not suggesting that the electric car by itself is unworthy of attention; cars such as the Tesla Model S are indeed engineering marvels. I am suggesting that we must be more careful when applauding these innovations as they may not actually help move us towards greater good when thinking about systems as a whole.

11

10 2013

Peer Groups Continued

When I first wrote about “Peer Groups” last winter, I had meant to include this great article by Marina Keegan, “The Opposite of Loneliness“.

Many people have questioned me on what brought me back to Wake Forest, and I was not confident in my answer for a long time. Maybe it’s because we really don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness. I knew it had something to do with people, but I couldn’t get it exactly right because I also felt that the people I met through Y Combinator and the Thiel Fellowship are many of the people I respect and admire the most.

I re-read this article recently, and I think it succinctly describes why I am in school right now. She describes the atmosphere at Yale as the following:

It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. When the check is paid and you stay at the table. When it’s four a.m. and no one goes to bed. That night with the guitar. That night we can’t remember. That time we did, we went, we saw, we laughed, we felt. The hats.

This is the essence of a collegial experience. Many people often correlate college with studying for tests, paying a lot of money, solving structured problems, sports teams, societies, clubs, reading, etc. And I believe this line of thought is partially a fallacy.

A college can indeed be an educational institution with goals of teaching and expanding human knowledge, but it can also be “a group of professional people with particular aims, duties, and privileges”[1]. Such as the electoral college, or the American College of Surgeons.

I like the residential college experience, and I think you will find that most people do. It’s for the same reasons why people feel secure at big companies once they graduate from “college”.

When I was living in California and New York, my sense of being was constantly bombarded with feelings of insecurity. There were no group texts, serendipitous lunch meetings, familiar faces on a daily run, or a friend to share a joke with at the gym. I have found that this insecure feeling is naturally what happens when you are working alone in a place where there is no daily reminder of shared responsibility and goals.

So, while I do agree that many of the requirements, excessive cost, and arbitrary assignments do waste time and resources, I think a collegial experience is absolutely necessary. This is why nearly every four-year college requires freshman to live on campus. If experiments such as the Thiel Fellowship or higher-education alternatives are going to thrive, they will need to offer a collegial experience.

14

09 2013

How To Predict Anything

I was recently watching a TED talk by David Wolpert, a neuroscientist, who does an excellent job of explaining how the brain works. His main idea is that the brain exists solely to direct movements, whether it be your vocal chords for speech or hand movements to signal hello and goodbye.

He makes a strong point that our movements are predicted beliefs based on sensory input (new data) and prior knowledge (memory). Here is one of his key slides: (Click to enlarge.)

Screen Shot 2013-07-29 at 11.33.40 PM

This is a classic Bayes prediction model. Here we can see that the tennis player is moving herself and her racket to the point where all of the data intersects. Her prior training tells her that the ball will likely bounce somewhere towards the right out-line. And then the sensory input, seeing the ball move through space, gives her the information she needs to predict exactly where and when the ball will bounce.

This prediction model is repeated literally thousands of times each day as you make every little movement. Prior knowledge accompanied with sensory input allow us to make smart predictions in any scenario.

For example, with Glider or email spam filters, predictions are based on a primary corpus of data (memory) compared against new text (sensory input) from each email. Over time the classifier becomes incredibly accurate as the memory increases.

Now let’s try expanding this line of thought to even more broad applications in daily life. Think about a government official trying to formulate a new education policy… It would be helpful to have learned the prior history of education policy as well as recent information such as a declining graduation rate that makes action critical right now.

If you’re interested in this topic you can learn a lot more in depth here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naive_Bayes_classifier

Machine Learning Cheat Sheet

02

08 2013

Radicals

We do not yet have a safe place in our world for radicals that wish for the good of humanity. Unfortunately recent news reports show that the latest radical to grab worldwide headlines, Edward Snowden, has no safe place to live peacefully. This is now nearly two months after he fled Honolulu, and then most recently Hong Kong a month ago. The effects of acting on heretic beliefs in ancient and modern society have not changed. Radicals have always been imprisoned extensively or killed.

Galileo claimed that the earth revolves around the sun. Jesus Christ declared himself as the messiah. And Martin Luther King Jr. peacefully protested for the civil rights of blacks.

Edward Snowden demonstrates that the pattern goes unchanged.

What should we make of this Snowden case? I think it’s too early to fully understand the effects of extensive worldwide government surveillance and data tracking. But I do think we can see what it’s like to be a modern day creative extremist in pursuit of justice: Stuck inside an airport with no legitimate citizenship and most of all, a highly desired target prosecution.

MLK wrote in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. [Site of Jesus' crucifixion.] We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

It is my hope that Edward Snowden is an extremist for truth and goodness as well.

21

07 2013

How Google Killed My Product

Glider is an email filtering service inside Gmail. We filter bacn emails away from your inbox, so that you can focus on the emails between real people that matter most.

I left Wake Forest to pursue my Thiel Fellowship in January 2012. After a dusk-to-dawn raging Avicii party in Manhattan on New Years Eve, I was on one of the first flights to California on January 1st 2012. I knew exactly two people in California.

During early January 2012 I was prompted to install Sanebox on my Gmail account because my team was exploring the possibility of buidling an email product. Quickly after installing Sanebox, the clutter in my inbox had been mostly whisked away to a new label in Gmail, and I was immediately seeing productivity gains. I was amazed. I saw the future of email right in that moment. I knew I wanted to pursue this email filtering route because the value of the product was both immediate and on-going. And I knew I could build a better product than both Sanebox and Google’s Priority Inbox.

The problem with email filtering pre-Glider was that most services filtered emails based on priority or importance. Predicting emails that are important is a never ending adjustment task because everyone has different and changing ideas for what is important. Thus, a blackbox filter is often inaccurate and creates untrustworthy feelings. But we can filter on context and find better success in both organization and accuracy of emails filtered.

So, I set out to build Glider as the first Gmail-based bacn filtering service. Glider divides bacn into two contexts, Newsletters and Notifications. The remaining emails are likely from real people and remain in the inbox.

First we built a new web interface with the intention of having our users do their email at our site, www.glider.io. We didn’t retain any users because people are simply entrenched in their old ways; most people don’t want to leave their existing setup. At this point my founding team left the company and I left Mountain View for New York City. I decided to move Glider not because Silicon Valley is a bad place for startups, but instead because I had few close friends in California. In hindsight I would only suggest that an 18-year old move to the Bay Area if they arrange for a healthy living environment ahead of time.

Over the next eight months I recruited a new team and developed the Gmail product with a developer, designer, and a marketing partner. We released the app on Lifehacker on January 7th, and our first users all reported great reviews. A handful of the initial Lifehacker cohort even decided to pay for Glider! Man, that was a great moment. Seeing paying users who were not my close friends is a sure sign that you have created value. With a conversion rate of about 1.5% from free-trial-to paid users, I knew this number is about standard for new SaaS apps, and I was confident with moving the product forward.

Our user acquisition strategy consisted mainly of writing about “bacn“, an unfamiliar term, and sharing the information with the media. Journalists love sharing a term with their readers before it hits mainstream. So, we published a series of blog posts about bacn as the evolution of SPAM, and eventually we were picked up by BBC News.

The cycle was proving to be fairly simple… Tweak the product a bit, improve certain features, then write a new article for the press.

Then things quickly changed, beginning with the Google I/O conference in mid-May. We were nearing the 150th day of the year, about half-way through our second 100 days. So, by this point we were planning to release both a new product update and a host of articles for the press. But alas, Google announces “schemas and actions in the inbox“…These actions in the inbox are indeed great for Gmail, but we could tell something else was lingering in the air as rumors circled in the blogosphere.

Finally, boom, on May 29th the Google team announced their new inbox. A wise man once said “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”, but this update did not feel like a compliment at all. This update is nearly the exact vision we had for Glider going forward… Tabbed navigation of separate inboxes that are filtered by email context. In hindsight it was an easy choice for Google; these filters will make your life better.

Google effectively “burned our boats” by offering a similar service for free. It is the ultimate (and painful) price to pay for platform dependence.

It may be worth noting that the first contractor I worked with on Glider went on to become a product manager at Google last fall. However, I don’t have information that he worked on Gmail.

So, what does that mean for Glider? Does the product sail into the sunset? I am proud of Glider and the work I’ve done.

I could arrange for an acqu-hire and pretend like going to work at another company is great success. But I am going to go to college instead. I will leave the Glider opportunity open to any person that finds it interesting. The market for Outlook business users remains the largest yet. Need even more validation that an Outlook market exists? Xobni was acquired by Yahoo yesterday for $60 million.

And advice, please, for others looking to jump into startup life?

  • Gain validation for the problem/solution with early adopters as quick as you can by building on a platform like Gmail, but then move as quickly as you can to where business users spend their time and money. (Outlook)
  • Never lose sight of simplicity. It’s easy to get caught up in a product design full of extraneous features.
  • More to be written later on this blog.

04

07 2013