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What is an online startup incubator? To me, that is a very good question. Is it a filter for startups? Is it a program that guides startups? Is it mentors? Is it your cohort? Is it weekly deadlines? Is it connections to investors?
What is it?
I ask that as that question is the summary of my time working with the awesome Josh Schwartzman on nReduce. It is easy to say that an incubator is all of these things. But it is impossible for the importance of all of these attributes to be of equal value. And I have to say we tried recreating everyone of these aspects in a decentralize / online way, in search of that special combination that would start us on rapid growth curve.
We connected founders with a small network of other founders and had them post weekly video updates so they could get to know each other and create a community. We had crazy online demo days were 8 founders on live streaming video simultainously fielded question in realtime from twitter. We had blind ratings of startups by investors so that when investors passed on a company they could do so anonymously and therefore be able to give very harsh direct feedback. We had a mentor network. I mean man if you can think of it we built it
I would say the highlight of this whole experience is that Josh and I got on the road. We visited founders who were in our incubator in over a dozen cities everywhere from SF to NY to London to Berlin to Singapore (and a bunch of countries in between). The best part of it was that founders felt a connection with us and would tell us all of their ups and downs. Sometimes we could help them and other times all we could do was listen and buy beers.
To all the founders that have joined nReduce. It was my pleasure to server you in whatever way we did.
For learnings, I will let my future work speak to that.
I will leave you with my favorite memories of this experience.
Blog : The nReduce Blog
I really like working / hanging with other startup people and wanted to start some sort of group that was like the dinners of YC with out the funding process. I met Jonathan and he was thinking the same thing and so we decided to create it. The goal of the group will be to create something of value to the start up community and to test different hypothese on what that will be. I will include links to them as they go. To join the group visit our meet up page.
Meeting #2b Call – Out of 8 3 were on call.
Question : Will people get on the call?
Result : Out of 8 people on the call list, 3 answered. Now I was using an app called crowd chat which takes in a list of numbers and call them all at the same time and then creates a conférence call with all those who answer. It could be that a conference line where people call into / maybe are reminded by sms, would be best.
For the 3 on the call we all reported on our progress and got off the call in 10 minuts, it was a pretty successful call.
Meeting #2 Attendance 24 people
Question : Will people show up?
Result : Out of the 24, 9 people were returners. So that is an okay number but not killing it.
We also tested to see if people wanted to do a call the next week because there is a week between meetings. Out of my group of 8, all eight said yes and gave their contact numbers. So that is a good sign.
Meeting #1 Attendance 21 people
Question : Do start up founders want content or accountability?
Result : Accountability.
After Proven I wanted to get started on another project and was interested in the team productivity / employment space. So I started a project called WorkRoom.
The idea was to build a facebook app that allowed people to collaborate with their coworkers inside of facebook without having to be friends with them. This was based on the fact that with productivity apps the biggest problem is getting your coworkers to user them and actually go to the website. The insight to this was that everyone visits facebook at work. So instead of a boss fighting you to stop using facebook, allow people to work inside of facebook.
The version 1 of the app, allows people to create a team, then allows them to have a to do list and a communal messaging wall.
Here is the current version. You can try it out on Facebook
I did some user testing and then designed a second version that incorporated a time feed for activity. So that you could see who was working when, trying to recreate the knowledge you get from working next to someone at an office (who came in when, who when to lunch when, when did a person finish a task) in a user friendly manner.
What was interesting about Facebook as well, is that with most productivity software, you sign up with your work email address. But with this if you signed up with facebook, we would have your personal email address / identity. So this way if you left your company, you could bring your previous accomplishments / work history with you.
This type of data about the daily work habits of individuals would be very valuable information to sell to recruiters.
For launching it, I figured it would be best to appeal to the remote working crowd in SF coffee shops. I designed this mug to give people with a card in it to get them to sign up / start talking about WorkRoom.
I ended up moving on from the project as I was not interested in the productivity space and instead wanted to actually create a product people buy as opposed to improving the facilitation of an already existing process.
I still have a couple of these mugs…
Proven.com was the third iteration of a venture I co-founded in 2009. Beginning with the RedBeacon competitor Tictasks.com, to the LaborReady Competitor WorkerExpress, we finally decided to focus on local employment.
Our sales strategy with WorkerExpress was focused on reaching these small businesses which meant that we could easily transition into selling a full time hiring platform to our same customers. The rebranding was covered by Fortune.
After selling to construction we decided to broaden our business focus to encompass all local hiring, not just the blue colar hiring. With this we decided to rebrand and be called Proven.com to focus on providing candidates with proven skill sets.
We focused on San Francisco and selling to the restaurant industry.
I focused on graphic design and meeting with customers / selling.
With the new direction, we closed funding and opened our branchless staffing agency. There were many challenges that I worked on. What we had to do is remotely hire someone, then assure that person has the right skills for the job and that they show up and do good work and don’t get hurt.
It was a crash course in employment law, staffing operations and how to sell services in the construction industry.
We built an sms timecard system where workers text messaged us to clock in and out of a job. We then used cell tower triangulation to confirm that they were actually at the job site. After running this business for 8 months we learned that what determines growth in staffing is a companies sales strategy, and what sustains a blue collar or industrial staffing agency is the management of accounts receivable and workers compensation. We realized that none of our systems could be competitive on these factors.
But what we did well was provide an amazing online hiring experience. So we decided to focus on that.
Some of the concepts that we explored, was the verification of skill-sets (similarly to the union system)
We actually built some cool technology around geo locating of cellphones in our time and attendance monitoring system. Since we were no longer using it and had interested we spun it out as another business: MagicTimecard. Here is the design I created for that business.
Upon graduating from Stanford I wanted to keep working on my wealth creation project. So I started, I launched a bad site trying to help day laborers find work online. I quickly teamed up with my business partner, Pablo, and we started to work together. Our idea was to charge a lead generation fee for people to do small jobs. Here are initial prototypes of the site.
The idea was to focus on very specific tasks and make them easy to pay for.
We launched a basic wordpress site and spent hours at homedepot and stanford football games putting flyers on cars and trying to get a business going. Here is our first site.
What we learn from this is that home owners have a very low life time value as they only use services like this very infrequently. The people who used temporary labor frequently were contractors.
But contractors wanted the temp employee to be on someone else’s payroll. From this we discovered Labor Ready and the billion dollar blue collar staffing industry. So after 8 months of working on TicTasks, we changed the name to WorkerExpress and decided to build a branchless construction staffing agency.
For my second year at Stanford I focused on a one year design project. I decided to focus on systems of wealth creation. I decided to focus on working with day laborers. I partnered with the wonderful Day Worker Center of Mountain View. The above video is the first half of my final presentation which covers my second year of my masters.
Over the course of the year I developed a website that the day worker center could use to take work orders over the web.
I also implemented ways of getting feedback from the employers on how things went and how to improve the process.
My program every year has something called personal statements. It is a time when the graduating class spends two weeks to create something and then there is a big party where all the alumni are invited and the graduating students are introduced to the design community and they show their creations. I created an art piece that communicated the sanctity of the transaction.
I started with the idea of using light. So I rented a search light and started to play with it. When I draped cloth over it I saw that it made it explode with light. I then decided to use that to communicate my message.
I wrote a short book on my thoughts on how to design the future of education and I sold copies of that book for $.25 over the podium that I built. In the center of the podium was a search light and as the transaction took place both parties hands were submerged in light.
This is the book I sold copies of.
This is the alter after everyone had left.
And for some more small footage of what the design space was like :
We also produced a Yearbook. And managed to get up to some trouble…
For the summer between my first and second years at Stanford, I worked for d.light designs (a solar lantern company founded by Stanford grads) outside of New Delhi, India. The below picture was a fellow designer and I testing out a prototype we built for street vendors to have a light so they could sell produce at night.
The Delhi office opened the week before I arrived and I was charged with starting the India based design team. This meant setting up relationships with individuals to test prototypes with and many late nights in rural farms talking to mayors of villages and drinking a lot of chai.
My favorite part of this experience was getting to spend time with users.
The above video is an overview of my first year. The projector went out mid way through my presentation but if you skip ahead to 4:30 the presentation continues.
For my first at Stanford I did a variety of design projects. My most involved project was for IDE in the Design for Extreme Affordability class at the d.school. We worked on reducing the cost of a deep lift rope and washer pump. Our design changed the hand powered version into a petal powered version and reduced the price in half.
The below picture was of my design / art work that I completed durring the year. Clockwise from the top right : a sculpture I created in a week for our personal statements presentation, a pen in the design language of Maya Lin, a retractable bike seat cover I made out of fabric and cast materials, a stool that reflects me as a person.
Included in the first year, was all the work I did to get in. Besides the essays / letters of rec. you have to submit a portfolio. I spent about 3 months on mine. I made a case and embedded a dvd player in it and then authored a dvd that was me introducing you to different parts of my portfolio. So that the reviewer could plug it in and it would be like me guiding them through the narrative of my work.
Here is what it looked like and the opening experience.
In it, from left was 3 project summaries with documents of my entire process and result, the class journal from auditing a undergrad stanford product design class and then finally my idea log for the previous year (each page had a drawing of the product/service).
I drove my application down and delivered it with 15mins to spare. This is what my room looked like afterwards…
I then took a job in Ghana working in a fruit factory. Blue Skies employs thousands of people in Ghana. They take organic produce farmed in west Africa, cut it up and package it in little clear packages then put them in the cargo holds of passenger airlines and fly them to Europe. This means that within 48 hours of picking a pineapple from a small farm in Ghana, people in london are buying the fruit. I was in charge of the layout for the new factory. This meant I spent a lot of time watching people work and use machines. Then I design the orientation of the new factory to make the workflow easier. This included designing the factory layout.
We started with this..
And then working with the team to actually get the thing built / moved between shifts so that we didn’t have a break in production.
Oddly probably the largest impact I had in the project was the installation of windows between the different sections of the food processing process. Each stage of the process (Sorting the dirty fruit, washing fruit, cutting fruit, packaging fruit, storing / shipping packaged fruit) needs to be in separate rooms. And there is basically a conveyer belt leading from each room to the next. What I found was that to communicate people in one room would put their head through the holes in the walls for the conveyer belt to speak with people in the next room. I added windows to the design so each team to communicate with the people in the next room.
Also, I have to say, I love Ghana
After Berkeley I knew I wanted to create things that helped people. After taking design classes in preparation, I got an internship at a small wheel chair building factory in the Island of Mindinao, in the southern Philippines. The company was called Freedom Technologies and was funded by USAID and Handicapped International.
Durring my internship I designed the supportive seating system that this young boy is using and I shot the above user research documentary on how tricycle users. The supportive seating system is basically a chair that has no back legs and it sits in a regular wheel chair.
It allows local physical therapist to create a custom support system for children so that their contorsions are supported. The idea was to design a flat pack system that physical therapist could use to build a custom seating system with only a drill and a handsaw. This is important because much of the philippines if a series of small islands and so it is important for therapists to be able to deliver care at a distance from support staff.
Berkeley was an amazing experience. I was undeclared for as long as possible (senor year) and I took a variety of classes in everything from art to Buddhist film studies. I ended up majoring in physics because I really enjoyed being around really smart people and tackling hard problems. The above picture was my last physics homework assignment. We decided to complete it in a celebratory crayola fashion. It was a quantum mechanics class with John Clarke, who very well be a future nobel laureate and helped to develop the physics behind MRI’s.
While at Berkeley I had a variety of jobs including working for Honest Tea, being the President of my Co-Op and my favorite a science birthday clown at the Lawrence Hall of Sciences. The job basically entailed showing animals to 6 year olds for their birthday parties. The fat tailed gecko and the Chinchilla were the favoriet attractions.
I think my favorite experience at Berkeley was when I saw this flyer. I rallied my ultimate frisbee team to help search local dumpsters for materials to build our soapbox car. We ended up with the front half of a bike, a hand truck for carrying boxes and an office chair. I had to borrow a MIG welder and proceeded to trip the breaker of my Co-Op multiple times but we ended up with a 3 wheeled gravity powered gocart that blew the competition away.
The Drake High School Engineering Academy was a great entrance into learning how to build and design things. We would learn about a a concept in physics, they we would have a design challenge that required knowledge of the concept. Then we would use Autocad to design our solution, then build and test it.
While my plane didn’t fly that well, our human powered vehicle dominated the race against the other teams from our class (it had rack and pinion steering and was full suspension with 10″ of rear travel). If I come down with lung problems in my old age it will probably be because of the welding galvanized pipe to create this awesome creation.
While trying to learn to write well enough to get into college, I decided to write down my learning from running a small business as young person. With the help of my families publishing business this collection of writings became : Starting Young ($12.00 on Amazon)
I was lucky enough to have one of the authors who’s books I had read Bernard Kamoroff, Author of Small Time Operator, write the forward to the book.
My favorite part of this whole process was a series of invitations I received from grade schools to come and speak to students about what starting a business is like.
So when I was 11 I made some pickles with my grandmother. 3 months later everyone I gave them to loved them and for the next 8 years my nick name was the “Pickle Boy.” I went on to make 500 jars per summer and sell them at the San Anselmo Country Day Fair, as well as on the internet with the webpage I built in sophomore computer class.
I went on to get featured in local media, including my first TV interview.
I really liked the business. Pickles were very easy to grow and produce as a part time job. The plants fruit every 3-4 days over a 2 month period so I could work for the summer a couple of nights per week and make about 30 jars in 2-3 hours. With cost of materials being under a dollar and the retail price being $4 it meant I was making $20-$30 dollars per hour which wasn’t bad for a teenager.
The only down side is cucumbers need to be watered daily.