Technology

Why Startups Die

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

Startups die due to a variety of causes. Over the course of the last three years, I’ve watched many of my friends pour their hearts and souls into companies that, for one reason or another, just fizzled out of existence.

In 2007, Paul Graham gave a variety of causes for startup death in How Not To Die. He wrote:

When startups die, the official cause of death is always either running out of money or a critical founder bailing. Often the two occur simultaneously. But I think the underlying cause is usually that they’ve become demoralized. You rarely hear of a startup that’s working around the clock doing deals and pumping out new features, and dies because they can’t pay their bills and their ISP unplugs their server.

The other major thing Graham advises startups not to do: “other things”. Namely:

[D]on’t go to graduate school, and don’t start other projects. Distraction is fatal to startups. Going to (or back to) school is a huge predictor of death because in addition to the distraction it gives you something to say you’re doing. If you’re only doing a startup, then if the startup fails, you fail.

In early 2011, I wrote a post, Startups: Not for the faint of heart, that discussed Parse.ly’s survival through a one-year bootstrapping period after Dreamit Ventures Philly ’09. Since then, I’ve witnessed yet more startup deaths, and especially extended “troughs of sorrow”.

As a result, I’ve had a kind of mild survivor guilt, and have started to look for patterns in causes in the deaths I have witnessed.

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Reporting is not enough

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012

A great article came out today in INMA entitled, “Industry metrics: Is it time to say goodbye to the pageview?”.

In it, the authors write:

Reporting is sufficient for showing whether or not we had a good month, but not insightful enough to tell us what we were doing right, where we went wrong, and what we might replicate and discard to perform better in the next reporting period.

Relying exclusively on the pageview — an important and dominant metric in online media — leads to some startling conclusions.

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Information fanaticism

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

On finding alternative sources of news in the pre-web era (this quote comes from ~1992):

The information is there, but it’s there to a fanatic, you know, somebody wants to spend a substantial part of their time and energy exploring it and comparing today’s lies with yesterday’s leaks and so on. That’s a research job and it just simply doesn’t make sense to ask the general population to dedicate themselves to this task on every issue.

[…]

Very few people are going to have the time or the energy or the commitment to carry out the constant battle that’s required to get outside of MacNeil/Lehrer or Dan Rather or somebody like that. The easy thing to do, you know — you come home from work, you’re tired, you’ve had a busy day, you’re not going to spend the evening carrying on a research project, so you turn on the tube and say, “it’s probably right”, or you look at the headlines in the paper, and then you watch the sports or something.

That’s basically the way the system of indoctrination works. Sure, the other stuff is there, but you’re going to have to work to find it.

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The End of PowerPoint

Saturday, September 22nd, 2012

Edward Tufte is the father of modern information visualization. If you don’t know who he is, you probably should, and you can get up to speed by reading this profile in Washington Monthly, The Information Sage.

Last year, I attended one of Tufte’s one-day courses in NYC. I even showed him an early, prototype version of Parse.ly Dash. His feedback — even if it came quickly in 5 minutes — was helpful in understanding how to move the product forward.

I thought, when attending his presentation, that my main takeaways would be in the field I associated with him, namely, information visualization. But actually, my main takeaways were about communication, teaching, and journalism.

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Fully distributed teams: in lists

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

Things fully distributed teams need:

  • real-time chat
  • hosted code repos and code review
  • async updates
  • email groups
  • basic project management
  • bug / issue tracking
  • customer support tools
  • easy way to share files
  • standard way to collaborate on documents and drawings
  • personal task lists
  • personal equipment budgets
  • wiki
  • team calendar
  • webcams (caution: use sparingly)

Things fully distributed teams are happy to live without:

  • constant interruptions
  • long commutes
  • “brainstorming sessions”
  • all-hands meetings
  • equipment fragmentation
  • slow, shared internet
  • 9-to-5
  • “that guy”

Things fully distributed teams do miss out on:

  • face time
  • a good, group laugh
  • after-work beers
  • office serendipity

My old backpack

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

Ten years ago today, I bought myself a birthday present. It was a Brenthaven Backpack.

At the tender age of 18, I coveted few things. But among the web designers and programmers whose blogs I read regularly and whom I looked up to, this backpack was the ultimate in durability and functionality.

It featured a padded, hardened laptop sleeve that could sustain even a dead drop from ten or fifteen feet. It had padded, adjustable shoulder straps. It was made from a seemingly indestructible material. It had hidden pockets everywhere.

At the time, I didn’t have a laptop — just a desktop computer. It ran Windows and Linux, and I used it mostly for web design and Macromedia Flash programming. Adobe hadn’t bought Macromedia yet.

Notebook computers were generally clunky and underpowered devices — not meant for doing “real work”. But my Dad purchased me a used MacBook Titanium from a friend of his — and I knew this was a true luxury.

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Progress Tiers: Epic, Story, Task, Step

Saturday, August 25th, 2012

I realize that for about 10 years now, I’ve been doing project-oriented work — generally, writing software with working software taking shape over the course of months and even years.

I have developed a theory of “progress tiers” in how this work is optimally managed.

Epics are high-level themes of functionality that manifests in software. For example, “E-mail Notifications”. This is too vague to express a specific user feature, but does express an area of strategic importance to the product. For example, it may be that the product is used primarily via the web, that it lacks engagement from some users, and that all users of the system are also active e-mail users. Therefore, it makes sense that the application would generate some e-mail notifications — but, it’s not yet clear which ones are the right ones, how they should look, how frequently they should arrive, etc.

Understanding the priority of Epics helps the team understand its product roadmap and vision, and the strategic context for the functionality they deliver.

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Cloud GNU: where are you?

Saturday, August 18th, 2012

This continues an article I wrote nearly three years ago, Common Criticisms of Linux, parsed and analyzed.

In the three years since I wrote that original piece, Linux has grown — albeit slowly — in desktop usage. After nearly 2 years of no growth (2008-2010, lingering around 1% of market), in 2011 Linux saw a significant uptick in desktop adoption (+64% from May 2011 to January 2012). However, Linux’s desktop share still about 1/5 of the share of Apple OS X and 1/50 the share of Microsoft Windows. This despite the fact that Linux continues to dominate Microsoft in the server market.

The proprietary software industry may be filled with vaporware, mediocre software, and heavyweight kludges, but there is certainly also a lot of good stuff that keeps users coming back.

However, I believe the 2011/2012 up-tick in Linux desktop usage reflects a different trend: the increasingly commoditized role that desktop operating systems (and by extension, desktop software) play in an omni-connected world of cloud software.

Why doesn’t Linux run software application X or Y?

For end users, the above was a core complaint for many years (approx. 2000-2009) when evaluating Linux. However, this complaint has faded in the last two years. Let’s reflect on the most common and useful pieces of software on desktop operating systems these days:

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The Debian Manifesto

Thursday, August 16th, 2012

The Debian design process is open to ensure that the system is of the highest quality and that it reflects the needs of the user community. By involving others with a wide range of abilities and backgrounds, Debian is able to be developed in a modular fashion. Its components are of high quality because those with expertise in a certain area are given the opportunity to construct or maintain the individual components of Debian involving that area. Involving others also ensures that valuable suggestions for improvement can be incorporated into the distribution during its development; thus, a distribution is created based on the needs and wants of the users rather than the needs and wants of the constructor. It is very difficult for one individual or small group to anticipate these needs and wants in advance without direct input from others.

This amazing quote from 1994 (!!!) actually models the way I think about software engineering at Parse.ly.

A nice piece of nostalgia on Debian’s 19th birthday.

See also: A Brief History of Debian, The Debian Policy Manual, & The Debian Developers Map.

Digg’ing your own grave

Friday, July 13th, 2012

Reddit is a pretty amazing site.

An early “social news” startup, its founders sold it to a large media company in 2006, and rather than what usually happens in that case — the site shutting down or being subsumed by another property — it continued to grow healthily. Now, it’s probably a top-50 web property, and one of the top-10 drivers of traffic to news sites online (according to our own data at Parse.ly).

Digg, on the other hand, is the “also-ran” in this space. Rather than staying fervently focused on its community, it went through a series of redesigns that resulted in traffic attrition and, as recently reported, a final collapse, where Digg was sold for scrap parts to Betaworks.

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