Random Thoughts

Tech, words and musings from an Englishman in Seattle

Bringing Nothing To The Party

Paul Carr's wonderful tell-all book Bringing Nothing To The Party is now available as a free ebook.

You can read about the process about bringing it out as a free ebook at techcrunch, download it directly here, or read it online via Google Docs…

It's a great story about startup culture in the UK and the jounalist's involvement in it.

Taken directly from the Amazon editorial review:

Bringing Nothing To The Party, is the bizarre, hilarious and nauseatingly true story of a unique group of hard-partying high-achieving young entrepreneurs and one man's attempts to join them, whatever the cost.

As a journalist covering the first dot.com boom, Paul Carr spent his life meeting the world's most successful young Internet entrepreneurs. And in doing so he came to count many of them amongst his closest friends.

These friendships meant he was not only able to attend their press conferences and speak at their events, but also get invited to their ultra-exclusive networking events in London and New York, get drunk at their New Year parties in their luxury penthouse apartments and tag along when they threw impromptu parties at strip clubs after raising tens of millions of pounds in funding.

In 'Bringing Nothing to the Party', Paul uses his unparalleled (and totally uncensored) access to tell the real story of a unique group of hard-partying, high-achieving young entrepreneurs - and his attempts to join them, whatever the cost.

Recommended.

Findory Is No More

Greg Linden, founder, developer and writer calls it quits on Findory.

I've always liked the site, and visit it regularly. I also met Greg at a Gnomedex once and found him to be hyper-intelligent and fun to talk to.

It must be really hard to just “call it” after four years, even if it is the right decision. Hell, it was hard enough to call it on SwitchGear after eight months (which was also the right decision).

Findory.com launched on January 2, 2004. The website just passed its three year anniversary and, including the early work on the ideas behind Findory, Findory has been in my life for nearly four years.

In the last few months, I have been evaluating new directions for Findory. I asked colleagues I trust for their thoughts and pulled in two senior advisors (thanks, Bill and Dan).

Some good options came out of these discussions, but none lead down a path I am passionate about. I built Findory to follow a passion.

Thanks Greg, and good luck in whatever you do next.

The Cost Of Failure Just Got Cheaper

Amazon's new Elastic Compute Cloud service allows you to effectively instantiate servers in their compute cloud at a whim.

Do you need a server to try out that nifty new web service idea? Wham. It's there.

Need more servers to handle the increasing load? Wham. Wham. Wham. There they are.

Did your service not work out? No customers? Stupid idea? Poof. Poof. Poof. There go the servers.

With no setup or cancellation fees, just pay as you go, Amazon just made it really easy and cheap to try out new ideas and scale them. EC2 in conjunction with their storage solution S3 is an absolute winner.

If I was in the server hosting business, I'd be real worried right about now.

Congrats To Grouper!

A nice exit for Grouper and their investors. $65 Million is a nice chunk of change, especially as they only took $5.25 Million in funding. A textbook example of only taking the funding you need.

Another cool thing about the deal is that Nabila and I have friends that work there. Dave and Keith - dinner is on you next time!

What do you “DO”?

In a recent post by Hugh MacLeod, he links to an older post that I remember reading, but only now has it really sunk in.

Hugh talks about the The Kinetic Quality of advertising. I believe that what he's talking about translates directly over to the startup world.

The often asked question about a new startup is “Why?”. Why would I buy that? Why are you building it? What problem is it solving?

For us, SwitchGear is solving a personal pain. We need to work harder at communicating why we believe everyone else also shares that pain.

They just don't know it yet.

Our product needs to make our customers smarter.

Startups need to flip Hugh's explanation of the kinetic quality of marketing to customers around to the “why” of their product.

How is your product going to solve a pain point, and how are you going to get customers to come to you to be educated? Will they be smarter and more informed now that they've chosen your product?

Will they feel good about it?

More Networking Meetups

On Tuesday I had the pleasure of meeting up with a bunch of local entrepreneurs at nPost's monthly event. Thanks to Nathan for organizing it and Redfin for sponsoring it. Man, they seem to sponsor everything around here!

As well as meeting a bunch of cool people I also got to geek out with James Bullock about some programming language issues, including my particular vent on the lack of state as a first class primitive in languages. We chatted about a particular implementation of mine in a language I wrote while at Microsoft (that'll sadly never see the light of day) that supported thousands of threads and a state based model. I.e. perfect for world simulation (read: game).

Anyhow, this evening there's a meetup for Seattle startups at the public library put together by Chuck at Bill Monk.

Looking forward to it.

Seattle TechCrunch Party

This evening's entertainment was the TechCrunch Party in downtown Seattle. Nice venue, if a tad hot, and it was cool to see all the local entrepreneurial talent out in force.

I got to catch up with a few people I'd met at various NWEN events and chat to way too many Microsoft people. Is it just me, or did every other person seem to be from Microsoft? :-)

I also, finally, got to meet John Cook in person and thank him for the Stealth Startup of the Week post where he wrote about us.

But the star of the evening was probably the pizza.

I have never seen as much pizza before in my entire life. There must have been at least ten stacks of six boxes of pizza - 20" pizza - and it was constantly being refreshed…

Overall, very cool. The local startup community needs more events like this.

Unicode On OSX

I admit that the last time I did any active *nix development was over ten years ago, when Unicode was just a dream, but can anyone explain to me why Unicode development on OSX is such a cluster?

Joe and I were discussing strings today and the fact that as engineers we go to extreme lengths to avoid having anything to do with them.

Windows Unicode support just works and the APIs are very orthogonol, but in OSX it just seems to be all over the map Char256, UnicodeChar, blah di blah.

Oh and wchar_t is 4 bytes. What's up with that?

Basically we're looking for XML parsing support that is API compatible across all platforms and Unicode aware. Expat is our current foundation of choice, but it just doesn't work compiled for Unicode on OSX, buts runs perfectly on Windows.

Note that I'm not ragging on expat - it's a fine library and Joe has been talking to it's author, but apparently no one has tried to use it that way before.

Looks like we'll be making our first contribution to an Open Source project.

Anyhow, anyone got any rationale or pointers?

Looking For A Startup Job?

So over at SwitchGear we're working on some pretty cool technology and we'd love to hear from some seriously stellar engineers wanting a piece of the startup action.

We're looking for people with the ability to get deep with multithreaded code, high performance networking stacks, encryption tech and high availability software services,

The ability to go from kernel to UI is a definite plus, and as we're cross-platform from day one experience in any (or all) of Windows, OSX and Linux would be ultra-cool.

As we're bootstrapping the company, compensation will be “interestingly non-conventional” for a while.

The positions will be based at our office in Bellevue, WA.

So if you want to get in on the ground floor, drop me a line at steve@switchgearsoftware.com.

Being In Control

Back when I was at Microsoft, it was a pretty much a regular weekly occurrence that I'd have to massage my Exchange server mailbox as I'd blown through the pitifully small limits that the IT group had set for us.

Then, when we started the new company and I set up the email server I was really happy that I'd never again receive the annoying Exchange nag mail.

Except, of course, when I got it today from my own Exchange server.

Damn!

It looks like I hadn't actually nuked the default limits!

At least this time, I could connect to the server and blow the limit away… Well, I didn't exactly blow it completely away - I set it to a reasonable limit.

There's something to be said for be reminded about a little mailbox hygiene…

Windows Printer Sharing Woes

Not having a printer was driving us insane at the office, so Joe took a run to Costco and picked up a nice multi-function laser printer - the Brother MFC-8640D. It's pretty fast; the output is nice; the scanner and copy function work well.

Setup was also a breeze, we connected it via USB to the Windows Server 2003 machine and it printed fine after installing the drivers.

A sweet feature of Windows printing is that you can store the make available drivers for various OSs and the client will download the appropriate driver from the server when you connect the printer to it.

So we shared the printer out and the Windows XP clients worked perfectly, as did the Mac OSX clients.

Now for the kicker.

Our development machines are Windows XP 64bit. No for x64 driver came with the printer, and even though Brother's website states that they have native x64 support for the printer, I couldn't find it anywhere.

So for the first time in a very long while, I called the company's tech support line.

It has to be said, the guy I spoke to went to extreme lengths to resolve the issue, but at the end of the day, he admitted that they don't support x64 even though the website states that they do.

Then came the unbelievable thing.

Because my problem involved printer sharing, he couldn't help me any further.

Apparently Brother does not support printer sharing!

This is kinda funny as a bunch of their advertising says “…ideal for home or home office printer sharing…”

Isn't that probably the highest use scenario for their business customers?

Freaky.

Anyhow, after that unhelpful interlude I thought “what the hell, I'll just use the x32 driver.”

No such joy. Couldn't get Windows x64 to recognize it.

One thing the support guy did suggest was to tell Windows that the printer is actually a Brother HL730. That driver comes as a pack-in driver for Windows.

That didn't help much because at no point during the printer setup did I get the option to pretend that it was another type of printer - presumably because the server had told the client the exact ID of the printer.

Then I had a sneaky idea.

The PowerMac G5 server found the printer and was working fine, so I just shared it out again, this time from the Mac.

I pointed the Windows x64 client at the Mac and it found the printer - this time though, it asked me what type of printer it was, so I said “It's an HL30. Honest Guv!”

Printer installed.

How amusing is that! To print from my Windows x64 dev machine, the has to be routed via a Mac, which then sends it on to the Windows Server box and to the printer.

Maybe it would have been easier to have just hacked the x32 driver's installer inf…

Startup Data Management

Will Price's post Post-close on the value of getting your financial and projection processes in place is a great read.

I'd add that I think it's never too early to get a large part of this process up and running, and it's a lot easier to do right at the beginning when you don't have a lot of data to go back and find, re-enter, etc…

Progress…

So the phone lines and network cabling are in, so we did a run to Frys to pick up a gigabit switch, wireless router, a few five-port gigabit desk-side hubs and a UPS for the servers.

The monitors arrived a couple of days ago and the main Windows server will be arriving from Dell any day. The Windows box will be serving domain controller and exchange server duties, and we're adding a PowerMac G5 as a server for source control via Subversion, the Bugzilla bug database and the internal Wiki.

The Mac is already up and running in my house serving those duties and has been for a few months - it should simply be a matter of moving it.

The next thing will be development machines for the office. We'll probably build these ourselves - it'll be quicker and probably cheaper.

Oh, and the Ikea furniture all arrived yesterday - it was a “fun” afternoon putting all that together.

Anyhow, back to coding…

Connections

Sometimes it feels like I've stepped into an episode of James Burke's Connections.

When we started this adventure, our contacts we're minimal. We knew we had to start thinking about our investment strategy, legal representation, etc… but didn't really know where to start.

Then a few things happened.

I read about NWEN in a post by John Cook at the Seattle PI. After perusing their website I signed up for a few of their seminars. The seminars in themselves were very interesting and I learnt a bunch, but I also got some contacts and had some interesting chats. Introductions started.

And those introductions spawned others.

Then John wrote specifically about SwitchGear.

That post generated a lot of contact from the investment community and others.

Those contacts spawned meetings and introductions, including some fine corporate law firms who we met with to chat about having them represent us.

Even though we have to pick only one, these folks still introduced us to others, both potential investors and CEO's at other startups (some quite spectacularly well known!) who are willing to give us advice.

The classic quote goes “It's not what you know, but who you know.”

I agree to a point, but when we were starting out I was worried about “how do I get to know the people I need to know?”

The answer?

Have a great idea that is easy to communicate, compelling and be passionate about it.

Find one person to talk to, communicate well and get them on board. It goes exponential from there.

As a postscript, I believe that I owe John Cook a few beers in thanks by now :-)

SwitchGear Update

Yesterday we finally signed the lease on our office space. You can find a few pictures of the space over on Flickr.

Man, was that a protracted process.

Finding the space was only half the battle. Then it was lease negotiations…

We had the legal guy we were using to get the company's operating agreement set up to look over the lease. Don't skip this part - it was worth the money…

As the space was recently renovated, we got choice of carpet, colours, cabinets, a new kitchen, etc… It's also in a great location with plenty of parking and lots of natural, but not direct, sunlight. All in all, I think we did well.

On Tuesday, the phone lines come in and over the upcoming week the landlord is installing extra power outlets and our low-volt guy is coming in to install Cat5e cabling everywhere.

We're using Cat5e for the phone lines as well as for the network - don't skimp on this. It's only a few bucks extra and you never know what you might want to run over those lines.

Then on Friday the final city inspection happens and the process should be over.

So now we need some stuff to put in it and today Joe and I did the trip to Ikea.

It felt like buying stuff to kit out a new apartment! Desks, chairs, kitchen table, table for server stuff, bookcases and cups (I'll bring in my own teapot). Whee! It all arrives on Monday.

Hopefully by this time next week we'll be fully operational in the new office.

Not that a ton of progress hasn't been made in the meantime.

As far as technical stuff goes, the source tree, build system, bug database and internal wiki are all up and running. We're writing code and getting the full architectural underpinnings in place - stuff is actually running. Finding time for that in amongst the myriad of meetings has been interesting to say the least!

Also, I forgot to mention it when it happened, but we finally signed the LLC's operating agreement (more on that aspect in another post), accountants are engaged and most importantly we believe we've found a cool law firm to work with.

Why do I say most importantly? Well, other than the obvious need for good legal help, those guys come loaded with connections.

SwitchGear in the News

Thanks to John Cook over at the Seattle PI for a nice post on his venture blog

Stealth startup of the week

Two of the brains behind Microsoft's Flight Simulator game are taking flight with a new startup company called SwitchGear Software.

Steve Lacey and Joe Stacy -- who together spent 21 years in various roles at Microsoft -- formed the startup in January. They are still very much in the early stages of development -- trying to find office space in the Bellevue area (a process Lacey describes as “a pain”). They are also just beginning to meet with angel investors and venture capitalists.

Thanks John! Read the rest over on his blog.

Early Stage Investment Forum

A few weeks ago I joined the Northwest Entrepreneur Network, and so far the membership has been worth every penny.

Last week I attended their breakfast seminar “The Essentials of VC Financing for Emerging-Growth Companies” at the offices of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati high up in the Columbia Center.

The seminar was incredibly useful, and it certainly filled in a few gaps in my understanding of VC financing. Michelle Goldberg's talk on “Financing Strategies” provided a great insight into startup financing from the VC's point of few. Even though I follow the blogs of a large number of VCs, it was very useful to be able to hear the information directly and ask questions.

Anyhow, what about this Investment Forum?

As I write this, I'm sat in the Bell Harbor Convention Center in Seattle (the same convention center at which Gnomedex is taking place), waiting for the start of NWEN's seminar that promises to reveal the secrets of the Early Stage Investment Forum (EFIS) at the end of April.

NWEN describes ESIF as “The Source for What's Next”:

The seed of an idea and the skill of a start-up team. Add one perfect pitch, provide them with early-stage capital, then stand back and watch them grow.

That's that premise - and the promise - of the Northwest Entrepreneur Network's seventh annual Early-Stage Investment Forum (ESIF): to showcase the fresh ideas of an exceptional set of high-energy entrepreneurs for an audience of West Coast angel and venture capital investors.

…see 15 to 18 high-potential seed -- and early-stage companies --all in one buzz-filled day. These newest ventures in software, communications, e-commerce, retail, medical technology, or service are continuing the tradition of innovation that has put the Northwest on the world map. These are companies that deserve the spotlight - and truly are “the source for what's next.”

Sounds a bit like DEMO.

Anyhow, this evening's event promises to show us “how to do ESIF right.”

This seminar will provide an introduction to the Early-Stage Investment Forum (ESIF), which will be hosted by the Northwest Entrepreneur Network in April. We are featuring a panel of previous ESIF winners, all of whom are seasoned entrepreneurs. This is a rare opportunity to get an inside perspective on how to prepare yourself, how to pitch your idea, and how to make the contacts you will need to be a successful entrepreneur.

Looking around, there appears to be about one hundred people here - the entrepreneurial spirit is healthy here in Seattle…

Anyhow, the seminar is starting…

…and now it's over.

Good stuff that is relevant to any forum of this type, but a key thing that the panelists raised time and time again is the value of the coaching that the conference provides for the selected companies. They provide five or six highly skilled coaches that will help you hone your presentation and business plans.

Also, this year for the first time representatives of various other forums (such as the Alliance of Angels) will be present.

Overall, the panelists really valued their previous participation at ESIF.

I have a bunch of other notes - email me if you'd like a copy (it's a MindMap, but I can export to some other format if you'd like - just let me know).

And if you're an early stage investor looking for a software studio with some cool ideas, please drop me a line

Whoops!

Goal number one has got to be “don't screw up in your own field”.

CHICAGO - H&R Block, which provides tax advice to millions of Americans, made an embarrassing confession on Thursday. It goofed on its own taxes.

Read more…

Whoops!

[Thanks to Kevin Schofield for the link.]

SwitchGear has a logo

Finally, our startup SwitchGear Software has a logo!

SwitchGear

What do you think?

It was created by the fine folks over at LogoWorks. The process was simple and fast, with iteration performed completely online.

Next up, business cards…

Oh, we need an office address first…

Office Space

This afternoon Joe and I spent quite a considerable amount of time with a real estate agent looking at offices in the Redmond/Bellevue area.

It's been an interesting process figuring out the amount of space we need, the price we're willing to pay for it, and honing in on the sort of location.

I.e. we don't want to spend much, but we really don't want to be stuck in the middle of nowhere in some nondescript space.

I know that it shouldn't matter, but I believe that the location of the space and the local facilities (i.e. somewhere to buy coffee; grab a sandwich) should be within a short walking distance.

I think that's worth a little extra cash.

Anyhow, along the way we've also been picking up on the realities of commercial office space - the difference between full-service and how triple net space (NNN) can screw you up when that $15 per square foot space suddenly doesn't look so affordable anymore.

So it's looking like somewhere in the $20 range is looking favourite right now. We saw a very nice space in Redmond, very close to everything and with enough space to accommodate a few extra people.

As long as we can knock down a wall or two :-)

Speaking of which, the current online search space for offices really sucks. The only thing that comes close is OfficeSpace.com, and even that is not particularly useful.

Sounds like a really good opportunity for some Web 2.0 startup out there…

SwitchGear Software

Finally we have a name for the company and a destination for anyone that will try and hit the website.

SwitchGear Software.

Our place on the web is over at http://www.switchgearsoftware.com. There's not much there, but at least you can sign up for information when we're ready to go public.

Speaking of which - the phrase “stealth startup” has been bandied around a lot recently like it's a bad thing. I don't believe there's anything intrinsically wrong with the practice: we're a new company; we have a name so we need a website with contact information; we're not ready to discuss what we're up to.

Sounds like a good practice to me…

Anyhow, it's cool to finally have an identity (a logo is in the works), and we're busy planning, coding and looking for office space - anyone know any reasonably priced space in downtown Kirkland or Redmond? :-)

Top Quote #2

Interestingly, the second in my new “Top Quotes” series also comes from Guy Kawasaki

The best way to deal with lawyers is to simply say to them: “This is what I want to do. Now keep us out of jail as we do it.”

Sweet.

[Found in The Art of Partnering.]

Day Two Begins…

So the first day of the big new adventure is over and the second day begins.

Yesterday was mostly spent getting my main development PC up to date with tools, compilers, etc… rebuilding a laptop installation with the same and generally cleaning up a lot of loose ends.

Those of you that know me might know that I'm a big fan and proponent of the Getting Things Done workflow management system. Well, as with most people, I fell off the GTD band wagon somewhat with the upheaval over the past couple of weeks. Yesterday a lot of time was spent on a full review of my actions, results and projects, both digitally and physically.

My physical filing area is now clean and up-to-date and all inbox items and open loops are fully captured.

If you have no idea what I'm talking about, head over to David Allen's site and pick up his book, or search online for “GTD”.

As far as software goes for the GTD stuff, I use MindJet's MindManager in conjunction with Gyronix's ResultsManager plugin. Together they rock.

Anyhow, enough of that. I'm heading over to Joe's place for some brainstorming and planning.

Demo to global buzz in 24 hours

A bunch of people have asked me how we are planning on launching, getting buzz, doing PR, marketing, etc… when we're ready to tell the world what we're up to.

After all, I'm not a PR expert and they don't come cheap - what are we going to do?

Well, Don Dodge captures my standard response in the most perfect way.

I'm may not be a PR guy, but I do have a blog and I'm not afraid to use it. Oh, and knowing that Scoble and a few other guys might read my email should help too. I hope :-)

Don Dodge: The new way to launch your product or company.

Not a “one trick pony”

Note, these are just thoughts, not a reflection on “whatever the hell it is I'm up to…”

There's been a lot of talk online recently about VC 2.0 and I think I need to chime in with a few thought. These thoughts are based around the whole premise of current VC funding strategies (or rather as I see them, what do I know - I'm a noob).

Pretty much every startup these days seems to be a one trick pony - we've got a cool idea; name it; oh, and that's the name of our company also. Funding. Build. Sell.

What happened to actually building a company? You know, one that had a plan past product one. Or the flip.

Almost daily I see new buzz around startup X with product X, obviously hoping a business model and funding will come along.

Rarely do I see a “here's a cool product and a team with a plan for world domination”. Well, excluding Bungie, obviously. Oh, but Microsoft bought them.

And that's kinda where I'm going. Bungie had product[s]. Plural.

In the game development space, things work differently. It's more like an author/publisher model. The developer (maybe a startup) forms with some very creative and technically competent people, and they come up with an idea.

At this point I need to apologise to everyone in the gamedev space for over-simplifying everything.

Now where was I?

So they pitch their idea to a publisher and they get funding to build to product. They ship, everyone takes their cut and the developer gets royalties (the funding was the “advance” bit).

Assuming the developer was successful, everyone makes out like bandits and the developer in question grows their company, gets to not layoff all the people they hired to build the first product and moves on to the next one. Actually, they're crossing the arcs and starting up the new product as the old one is winding down - they're out looking for funding (a publisher agreement) for the next product concurrently with the first. Maybe they get to self-fund after the success of the first product.

My point? Where is this model in the non-game space?

Where is the funding for the product, as opposed to the company?

What the publisher in the non-game space brings to the table in testing resources, end-user tech support, distribution, etc… Very similar to the web 2.0 space and it alludes a lot to what Scoble is saying.

Key competencies of a new startup are probably technical. Amortize the other costs (tech support, marketing, server space, etc…) across them by being the “publisher”. Make gobs of cash from the product.

Of course, this isn't the “3/5/10 million or nothing” investment that VC 1.0 is looking for, but it does portend to another untapped opportunity.

Just my 2c. Oh, and if anyone wants to cut me a nice large check for my product-as-company, feel free.

Small denominations preferred ;-)

© 2001 to present, Steve Lacey.