Boston mobile startup weekend (Nov 12-14)

Startup weekendLast weekend, Doerte and I attended our first Startup Weekend in Boston. For those who are unfamiliar with Startup Weekend, it is a franchise-based event that takes place in various cities around the world to promote entrepreneurship across the globe. The event takes connects entrepreneurs with like-minded people germinate an idea over a weekend – so even if you have a day job you can still fully participate in this event.

I hope that this blog provides some insights and what to expect at Startup Weekend with my recount of the last Boston Mobile Startup Weekend, which took place from November 12th through 14th. Before we even talk about what happens at Startup Weekend, we have to ask ourselves why bother going to one? Here are some of my reasons:

  1. You got an idea, stop being a wannapreneur. Maybe you are still in a funk or are too afraid. Well, stop procrastinating, and  do something about it. Attend a Startup Weekend.
  2. Network and meet potential co-founders. You may be a non-techie with a tech idea or a developer who needs a business person. Guess what? You need to connect with people and get them join you in your venture. Sitting at home isn’t going to do it. Go spend a weekend with other passionate people and think about how you can change the world. And what better way to find and work with a potential co-founder under pressure during Startup Weekend.
  3. Build a product. What good is an idea if you can’t bring it to fruition? Build a prototype of what you or your team envisions.
  4. Form a business around it. You are not only launch a product but a business. Why should MBA students have all the fun. Analyze and figure out your target market, customer demand, industrial trends, competition, and go-to-market strategies. Many teams continue with their projects and even turn them to viable business after Startup Weekend ends.
  5. Awesome learning experience. The event provides you with opportunity of doing something new. You get to learn form your team mates about a new skill or idea. Execution is hard – making difficult decisions, working under constraints, and doing tradeoffs; but you learn by doing.
  6. Have fun. Need I say more.

Boston Mobile Startup Weekend Friday Night

Boston Mobile Startup Weekend Friday Night

Now that you know the why’s. How do you sign up for one? First, you need to stay tuned for future Startup Weekends in your area. To do that follow @startupweekend on Twitter, look out for announcements on the official Startup Weekend website, or start plugging into your local startup community and stay abreast of what’s happening in your area – perhaps the best place to start is to subscribe to the local edition of Startup Digest. Anyone (techie or non-techie) can register for an upcoming event in the local area. Even if an event is over subscribed, don’t get discouraged. Talk to the organizers, they can get you in especially if you are a developer or designer.

Doerte pitching at Boston Mobile Startup Weekend

Doerte pitching at Boston Mobile Startup Weekend

Startup Weekend kicks off on Friday evening with a series of keynote speeches by established local entrepreneurs to prep the participants up for the event. These speeches are terse so that activities on the first night can move along quickly. Immediately after the keynote speech, you can either pitch an idea of yours and form a team or join a team to pursue the idea.

Sometimes there may even be a workshop scheduled just before Startup Weekend officially begins. In our case, we had a developer’s workshop on developing for Android, iPhone, and Windows Phone 7 in the afternoon before the official start to assist developers get up to speed with the skills and technology in the mobile space. Don’t expect to pick up new skills in one afternoon with this pre-event workshop, it is just a crash course to get yourself set up for contributing at Startup Weekend.

Our team, tired but focused

Our team, tired but focused

On day 2 (Saturday), you go back to the hosting venue, meet and work with the new team to develop the idea as far as the team can go; often to the mock-up stage, some to working prototype stage, and a few even to production stage (one team published a WP7 app by Sunday night, this is rare but possible). The first few hours involves a lot of brainstorming in defining the scope of the product and the business model. By early-afternoon, most team would have determined the market viability of the product and devised go-to-market strategies as well as coming up with basic design of the prototype. My advice for people new to Startup Weekend is to think big and come up with a compelling but realistic business model. For product development, start small by developing a simple but functioning prototype, which by the way score your team points in the product development category, for Sunday night presentation.

Michael and I demoed our prototype at Boston Mobile Startup Weekend

Michael and I demoed our prototype at Boston Mobile Startup Weekend

On the third day (Sunday), you get the whole morning and afternoon to refine your product and slide deck before presenting your team (now a startup) in front of panel of judges, participants, and even press and investors. It’s really gratifying to see how much teams can accomplish in setting a foundation of a startup in a weekend. As for our team, we didn’t take home the bacon but it was fun and we are planning to pursue the idea. Also congratulations to Hitchery who won for their social game based on virtual hitchhiking.

If you still have questions about Startup Weekend? Check out the official FAQ from Startup Weekend, a great read for a first-timer to the event. The most important thing is to stay motivated, be a team player, and have fun during Startup Weekend. Needless to say, I had a blast last weekend.

Remember that Startup Weekend is just a start. The team, business model, and product you built at Startup Weekend can turn into something real and big. Do continue the project and relationships outside of Startup Weekend.

Credits: Hacker Chick for some of the pictures taken at Boston Mobile Startup Weekend

Reading materials for building a digital media startup

I often look to the Internet for inspiration and information for starting a company. Now that I am starting a software/web company, I find the online resource indispensable and relevant to my endeavor. So I have compiled a list of relevant online articles and blog posts that I read and have provided some value to me in starting and building a digital media startup. Here’s the list:

Entrepreneurship Wisdom and Advice


Strategy and Framework


Product Design

  • Minimum Viable Product (MVP) – Nivi, Venture Hacks (Recommended)
    Intro to minimum viable product, a strategy for a rapid development and release of a product or feature to help validate product and market assumptions. A follow-up to this post includes real world examples of MVP.
  • Minimum Desirable Product (MDP) – Andrew Chen (Recommended)
    One criticism of Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is that the framework helps answers questions about a startup from a business perspective. A variant of MVP, calls Minimum Desirable Product (MDP) looks at the startup from a usability and user perspective. Great read if you are committed to creating an insanely great product experience. Here’s a follow-up to the post (with slides included).
  • Design Tips for Startups – Thomas Petersen
    Great design tips for web startups.

Product Development and Management

Business Model

Sales and Marketing

Leadership, People, and Culture

Funding and Pitching

I also want to give a shout-out to Stanley Tang. While compiling this list, I constantly referred to his blog post: 256 Must-Read Content for All Tech Entrepreneurs. It’s a great resource.

The success of WP7 depends on developers

Windows Phone 7 (WP7) was officially introduced on Oct 13 and the devices are set to be released in the market on Nov 8. This blog captures my thoughts on WP7, in particular how software developers can strongly influence the success of the platform.

In a network-based market, the value of the WP7 platform is proportional to the number of other users who use the product. It is commonly known in the business of hardware/software that software sells hardware and vice versa. And through this consumption, the demand of one good becomes directly proportional to the demand of the other. Take the case of Micosoft-Intel PC market, the buyer typically purchase a PC primarily for Windows and the applications the operating system runs.

So software matters and a higher proportion of quality apps can attract more people to adopt the phone platform. As the installed base grows, more software developers begin to see a market potential for developing apps for the platform. As more developers enter the market, a wider variety of software is produced. This is the self-reinforcing cycle of the hardware/software market. However I don’t think the number of available apps available only is enough to drive mass adoption. At this writing there are about 250,000 apps available on the iPhone and 100,000 on the Android. WP7 has a lot of catch-up to do in order achieve the same number of app offerings – don’t forget that old Windows Mobile apps don’t even run on the new platform. Quantity alone is not the determinant of higher adoption, diversity and quality of software titles are important drivers too. It is imperative Microsoft must attract software developers to create apps for the platform. But building a thriving software developer ecosystem isn’t something new to Microsoft. Ballmer famously said in the past that Microsoft business is about developers, developers, developers (I still laugh whenever I watch this video). For WP7 to compete successfully, Microsoft needs to build a base of developers to build apps for the platform and initiate this self-reinforcing cycle. Are there any interest from developers so far? It’s hard to tell. Right now, iPhone and Android apps development are keeping most software and mobile app companies busy. It’s difficult for developers to develop for multiple platforms at once. There are already numerous solutions available in the market to address multi-mobile-platform development. I won’t be surprised if Adobe would release a developer tool to compile Flash apps to native WP7 apps.

The technology used to develop WP7 apps isn’t something new. WP7 apps can be built using Silverlight or XNA. Both technologies are already well established in the software development world. Silverlight is based on existing, mature .NET technology while XNA is used by game studios to develop DirectX hardware-accelerated games on XBox and PC. Microsoft should exploit its 3D development suite and existing network with software developers, software retailers, and content partners to develop new titles or port existing best sellers to WP7. While all these initial complementary assets may not have been the only factors influencing the two companies’ successes, they certainly helped the companies to overcome initial entry to market barriers.

I give Microsoft a lot of credit for revamping the Windows Mobile platform and redesigning the user interface. This is a gutsy move but I think it will pay off in the future. I haven’t played with the user interface, but it looks promising. And thank you for eliminating the corner Windows Start button. I quite like the utility of a task-oriented UI of WP7 as opposed to iPhone UI, which is app-oriented.

As a late entrant to the highly competitive smartphone market, Microsoft faces tough competition. Microsoft has strong complementary assets and products which put them in a good position to compete effectively in this market. While I don’t see Microsoft faltering, I don’t see the company emerging as the market leader in this market space anytime soon. But seriously, who knows how this market will play out. For me, I am adopting an (optimistic) wait-and-see stance on developing software for the platform and using a WP7 device.

Three20 is alive

Three20 I raised concerns about the general lack of direction and the confusing state of the Three20 framework with this blog post a week ago. After a long period of silence, it looks like Jeff Verkoeyen, one of the lead contributors of Three20, has spoken. He made this post on Three20 discussion group last night. He is back on the project after a hiatus and will be devoting personal time (10-15 hours/week) towards the Three20 project.

Some highlights of the post include:

  • Clean up the morass of websites that the Three20 project team maintains
  • Clean up the code and migrate to a modular model
  • Call for more content contributors and coders to help grow the project

Awesome, I have really gotten used to the Three20 programming model and API after 3 projects, and it’s good to know that the project is alive and going somewhere. All this is good news. Welcome back Jeff.

iPad as an eReader

Last week I made the big switch to eBook by purchasing and downloading several technical book titles from Amazon to the Kindle app on my iPad. I have always maintained that paper is still king when it comes to reading. Reading from a book is a lot easier on the eyes. And holding a book while reading and flipping through the pages of the book still feels a lot more natural to me.

The Benefits of eBooks

Nonetheless the top reason for jumping on the eBook bandwagon is that the digital book is constrained only by the physical and electrical limits of the device. Like the digital music revolution of the past when one’s entire music collection can be made digital and stored in an MP3 player, the eBook revolution is well under way. For someone who has gone through four international moves in the last three years, I can tell you that moving books across internationally boundaries is inconvenient and certainly not cheap because the books are so dense and heavy. So having virtually my entire library in a portable device is godsend. Contrary to conventional belief, an eBook isn’t locked into single device. Most eBook vendors allow an eBook to be downloaded to a limited of devices (or the devices on which the eBook reader application runs). The limit ranges from 1 to unlimited devices, depending on the license set by the book publisher. There is the flexibility of unregistering a device and adding a new one when the limit is reached. Because of this, most eBook reader has a syncing function for registering a device, downloading eBook content, and managing a set of bookmarks among all your devices. Another feature of eReaders that I find indispensable, especially for referencing electronic technical literature, is full-text search. This feature is instant gratification as I frequently use technical books as reference for my professional work.

Kindle for iPad vs iBooks

I have both the iBooks and Kindle apps installed on my iPad. In terms of user experience, I prefer iBooks to Kindle. The former has a smoother interface, and eBook content rendering/layout seems to better structured and formatted than that of Kindle. But Kindle has one huge advantage over iBooks: a larger, more diverse collection especially technical books. Also, eBooks purchased from Amazon can be read on a variety of devices through the Kindle application which is available on multiple platforms including desktop systems.

Market Fragmentation

Right now the eBook market is very fragmented. In general, eBooks are published in different formats and each eReader has its own store and proprietary format, which is not compatible with other eReaders. Wikipedia has an comprehensive comparison of the various eBook formats. Then there is pricing. In general, pricing for popular fiction and non-fiction bestsellers are fairly consistent between different online book stores. However availability and pricing for technical books vary considerably.

    MIT students can’t read and Harvard students can’t count

    Yesterday’s broadcast of Car Talk on WBUR caught my attention as I heard Cambridge, my fair city, being mentioned. Tom and Ray read off a listener-submitted anecdote about a funny incident of a student from a certain university in Cambridge. The story goes something like this:

    The listener was standing behind someone who apparently had more than a dozen items in a supermarket express checkout line in Cambridge. When the person in front arrived at the counter, the cashier then pointed to the sign “Express line: 10 items or fewer only. She then said: “You must be from MIT or Harvard,” the two big universities in town. The guy smiled and said: “Yeah, how do you know. The cashier said: “You must be from MIT because you can’t read or you must be from Harvard because you can’t count.”

    Credits: MIT Logo and Harvard Logo

    Concerns about Three20

    Yesterday, my company released VSS Food Guide, a vegetarian food guide in Singapore, to Apple iTunes. We are already planning for more app releases in the next few months. However, a technical question for our app development efforts remains: should we continue using Three20, the same framework used to develop Facebook for iPhone. I like the framework, especially its URL-based navigation for navigating a user from one view to another and for persisting an app view state. Because the state of each view is represented by an URL, the entire view state of the app is automatically persisted by saving the URLs of all views when the app exits. Other benefits of Three20 includes a large collection of visual controls, caching, and network utilities. I used Three20 extensively in the VSS Food Guide. The framework is very useful once you get used to the programming model.

    Despite all these advantages, I still contemplate using Three20 to develop future apps. The recent discussions in the Three20 forum board echo my concerns. The timing is quite uncanny. The thread expresses concerns over the lack of direction, a general lack of documentation, and fragmentation due to numerous forks of the source. The framework is cool but it can be quite confusing since it isn’t well maintained or documented, which is quite typical of any open-source project at this stage. The good news is that it looks like efforts are being made to steer the project back on course.

    MobyFab and our first app

    When I returned to the US after a three year hiatus in Asia, I started MobyFab, an small independent software vendor (ISV) and consulting company in Cambridge, MA. We started the company by creating two custom iPhone apps for our clients. But today our app VSS Food Guide, which we developed in close collaboration with the Vegetarian Society (Singapore), was approved by Apple and is now available on iTunes. This is a momentous event for us as VSS Food Guide is our first iPhone app we released on iTunes.
    MobyFab is already busy developing the next iPhone app, a virtual counter clicker utility app. I am performing “final polishing” and QA testing at the moment, and hope to submit the app for approval sometime next week. After the release of the new app, I will be returning back to developing custom apps for clients. MobyFab will be developing an location- and social media-based app for an early-stage startup in Cambridge.

    Startup Bootcamp 2010

    Startup Bootcamp Logo Today I attended Startup Bootcamp at my alma mater to listen to entrepreneurs talk about how they started their companies. And the student organizers have done an amazing job of organizing the event and bringing people together. Great job and thank you.
    Here are the videos covering the event. I took some notes during the event and here are some of the key take-aways:

    • Prototype early. From Mick Mountz, founder of Kiva Systems: “Focus on the product early on.” The first iteration of the product should be focused on getting a proof-of-concept. Don’t over engineer it (yet). There will be cycles of learning. Your product will be made bulletproof iteratively. Along the same line, Bill Clerico of WePay mentioned that you should not be raising money until you have some sort of prototype. I agree with Bill although this advice is more relevant to web or software startups where the product lifecycle is very short.
    • Customer validation or product feedback is important. Mick Mountz advise that entrepreneurs find 1-2 customers early in the process, especially those with the highest pain, to try the product and then invite them for feedback. And when you evaluate their feedback, as David Cancel said, you don’t want to be in the “middle.” What this means is that either your customer loves or hates your product. This way you know how to deliver a product that they will truly love. Ayr Muir of Clover Food Lab (they serve delicious organic vegetarian for $5 and under BTW) engages his customers by observing their behavior. When he sees someone who doesn’t finish his sandwich, he knows that there’s something wrong.
    • According to David Cancel, every entrepreneurs must ask him/herself this: does anyone care about your product? There are problems in the world, your products need to solve a problem and to make someone’s life easier. If you can’t get anyone to care about your product, the rest doesn’t matter.
    • Creating and maintaining the right culture at a startup is important. Look for good people to form a team. “‘A’ people recruit ‘A’ people. ‘B’ people hire ‘C’ people…” – George Bell, former CEO of Excite.
    • “Be prepared to throw away things” says James Lindenbaum, founder of Heroku. Hard work leads to understanding and clarity. The implementation (or code) is just a by-product. Don’t get too hung up on your product implementation. Startup is a learning process.
    • The ego of the founder(s) can lead to the failure of a startup – Bob Metcalfe, founder of 3COM.
    • You need to do a startup with a set of motivations. It’s a lot of hard work. You have to motivated and love what you are doing.
    • Alexis Ohanian, founder of Reddit, says: we need more entrepreneurs even if they are from overseas. The country needs talents to keep its economy competitive. Keep international students here to start companies. I couldn’t agree more.
    • Again, from David Cancel: stop reading Techcunch. It’s a distraction. Focus on delivering and pay attention to your customers to solve their pain points.

    Since I am doing a startup (more about this later), the talks were inspiring and insightful. I believe that there’s no archetypical process on how you start a company. Even some of the points that the speakers made contradict with each other. That’s why every startup story is different. This is fine. There are many paths to success. But one recurring theme from all these anecdotes I heard is that if you have an idea, you need to start it. If I have three things to say about startup, they will be: just do it, focus on the product, and find good people – cofounders, employees, mentors, and investors – who not only share but implement your vision. So to quote David Cancel on this: #JFDI – Twitter hashtag for just f*cking do it. And that’s the real take-away.

    Day 2 of my new blog site

    Twitter Icon (Wooden Theme) Day 2 of my new blog site. And I am excited once again about blogging and redesigning my website. I had some remorse after removing all past blog posts and starting from scratch. But I still think starting from a clean slate was a good decision. To keep track of the progress of this website, I start tracking the traffic on this website using Google Analytics. I also want to give a mention to the beautiful wooden-style icons that I downloaded and modified from Frank G. They look great with this theme. More icons are available from Flickr. I will make a few more modification to the website and then start blogging some more serious topics.