All posts by “jed

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Startups want *operators* – what about Special Forces?

First thread:  I try to go out of my way to help current and recent military members to transition to civilian jobs and careers.  I remember how tough it can be to translate the very rich experiences I had in the Navy to something that most employers could understand.  And it’s usually tougher the longer you stay in the military.

Second thread:  What I see pretty much each day at Techstars is the value that startups place in execution.  The people who can consistently get things done and fight their way through difficult situations are hugely valued.  They can get far more done per dollar and thus have a greater chance to both survive and thrive given each incremental investment dollar.

These two threads collided for me today.

Special Forces?

I’ve gotten to know a few different special forces operators in my time during and after the military.  My boss for about a year was a Navy SEAL that went on to command a Navy SEAL team.  They’re both tremendous individuals, but also strangely normal people, too.

Today I met a Special Forces operator, with over ten years in the SAS.  (Equivalent to Delta Force, SEAL Team Six, etc.)  He’s a really smart and accomplished individual, who for years has done nothing but operate.  He’s gone on virtually no notice to countries where he and a team would be required to evaluate current situations, make plans, and execute those plans, often under tight time pressure and imperfect information.  And in places where if you screw up, you (and others) could die.

This person is also interested in branching out from the traditional security/policy/government roles that recent military retirees often fall into.  (This is a bit unusual, but I think very highly for him in proactively thinking and researching how to make the switch.)

I think this particular person is a specific example of a broader idea.  Special forces operators regularly “retire” from the military in their 20s, 30s, and 40s with incredible expertise, but often little commercial experience.  So while the guy I talked to today could probably easily step into a COO role and has the operational expertise to warrant the role, his lack of direct business experience means that he wouldn’t ever be reviewed.  It feels like the world of startups is missing out on a category of potential key employees, that could radically improve their chances for survival, because they can’t translate individuals’ military experience into something startups understand.

(Side notes: Techstars operates Patriot Boot Camp for US military and military veterans, and I think highly of the program.  We’ve also invested in at least one company that was founded by a Navy SEAL: FitDeck, founded by Phil Black, which went through the Nike+ Accelerator, powered by Techstars.)

My questions

Broadly – How can/should startups think about hiring people with non-traditional operations expertise?  Would startups be willing to hire special forces operators?  Would they be willing to take someone on for a 3-6 month trial to evaluate their operations ability?  What would it take for startups to seriously consider special forces operators on a regular basis?

Specifically – What roles should a person like this consider?  What are the job titles he should be on the lookout for?  Should he go get an MBA and use that to help transition?

 

I would love to hear your thoughts.

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Product design courses & Kickstarter

I love Kickstarter.  In fact, I’ve had to develop a few new habits around Kickstarter because otherwise I end up purchasing a whole ton of stuff that’s really interesting, but that I don’t actually need.

Recently I was thinking about design courses that most universities offer (at least in engineering departments) in students’ senior years.  It’s been a few years since I completed my degree, but I remember there were always at least a few design projects that were really interesting.  One friend built an automated bartender; punch in a code corresponding to a drink, and a series of windshield washer fluid motors would pump the right amount of ingredients into a glass to mix your drink.  (You still had to add ice and do any shaking/stirring required.)

What I would love to see is universities encouraging students to try to scale these projects by getting them funded on Kickstarter.  Just going through the process of trying to scale a one-off project to something more, and the marketing skills involved in that, would be hugely valuable to most engineering students.  If the projects actually got funded, it would mean students would learn lessons an order of magnitude more valuable… in actually engineering and creating and fulfilling products at scale.

I’ll admit that this doesn’t work for everyone… the space system design course I took as an aerospace engineering senior is not well suited to Kickstarter… to say the least!  But there are a lot of students that would learn so much more by taking their academic designs and testing them in the market.  If universities aren’t trying to encourage this today, they’re doing a disservice to their students.

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Serial (podcast) – who(ithink)dunit

If you haven’t heard the hype already, the “Serial” podcast that spun off from “This American Life” this fall has become ridiculously popular.  With the final episode of the season airing this week I thought I’d post a few thoughts about what I think happened.

Background

The Serial podcast team is essentially re-investigating a murder from 1999 in Baltimore.  A young Korean girl goes missing after school one day, and her body buried a month later.  While there’s no physical evidence, an anonymous call kicks the police off on a thread that leads to the girl’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed.  He’s convicted largely on the testimony of an acquaintance/friend named Jay, who also led the police to the location of the girl’s car (which had also been missing since the day she disappeared).

Needless to say, there’s a lot more to the case… that’s why there’s been over 10 hours of a podcast to listen to!  But it’s the biggest brush strokes.

My thoughts

There are a few major points that I think are true:

1) It’s 100% clear that Jay was involved in the murder somehow.  (He did plead guilty to “accessory after the fact” in return for testifying against Adnan.)  After all, the only physical clue that ties any of the people involved to the crime was Jay leading police to the victim’s car.  The open question is exactly how much was Jay involved?

The crazy thing about Jay’s testimony was that it changed so substantially between his 1st and 2nd interviews, and his 2nd police interview and the actual trial.  Oh, and key pieces of it were essentially impossible.  (Key events could not have happened like he said they did.)  I understand that in real crime details don’t always wrap up neatly with a bow, but when major details don’t match key events and testimony, that’s a problem.

2) The case should not have been prosecuted.  The evidence was incredibly weak to begin with, and I have to believe some of the lawyers and detectives that the Serial team consulted with, who universally said that there wasn’t enough to make a case.  Adnan’s lawyer wasn’t particularly good however, and was disbarred within about a year of Adnan’s trial.  I have to believe with better counsel the case was easily beatable.

3) I don’t believe that Adnan had a strong motive to kill the victim.  Yes, they had been dating and intimate, but they both seemed fine and had moved on since.  Neither of them seemed hung up on the other, and I just can’t figure out the motive for Adnan to commit anything like a murder.  The police really played up the stereotyped conservative Muslim attitudes toward dishonour, but these were just high school kids living in a far more real/modern America than their parents would have liked to believe.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be anyone else that had a motive to kill the victim.  Jay (who was involved somehow) didn’t seem to have one, and there didn’t seem to be anyone else who could have.  This strikes me as the biggest missing piece of the puzzle.

So….

I don’t think Adnan committed the murder.  But there’s nothing pointing to a) any evidence that he didn’t do it, or b) any evidence that someone else did it.  So unfortunately I think he’s going to be stuck in prison.

It’ll be interesting where the Serial team finishes this podcast… I strongly suspect they’re going to come down like I did.  The balance of evidence should say Adnan did not commit the crime, there’s no evidence to date of anyone else doing it, but since Adnan has already been convicted there’s really nothing anyone can do.  The bar is set so high for appeals that the status quo prevails.

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Trending on Product Hunt during YC’s Demo Day – the Seed-DB experience

I had a bit of a weird experience on August 19th this year.

And the circle of self-promotion closed, as Seed-DB was promoted on Product Hunt, driving people to see the YC listing on Seed-DB, which showed users that YC’s class had Product Hunt in it.

What does this mean for stats?  Well, let’s go to Google Analytics.  Here are the hourly pageview stats for the week on either side of trending on Product Hunt:

Analytics hourlyAug

I think the first spike came after initially trending on Product Hunt, and the second spike came after the Product Hunt daily e-mail was sent.  How does this compare to Seed-DB’s traffic across the year?  Well, it was by far the biggest spike:

Analytics dailyYear

And here are the stats from the “referral” acquisition channel for a week on either side of August 19th.  Product Hunt drove over 2000 people to Seed-DB:

Sources Aug

Since then…

Product Hunt has grown massively since then, and would now probably drive an order of magnitude more traffic for the top trending products.  For me, August 19th was a bit of a surreal day but was pleased about the coincidence in the timing.

I was recently going over the statistics, and Seed-DB has grown virtually every metric by 30-40% compared to 2013.  While I could look at that in startup terms and say “meh”, because I don’t do any marketing of the site I’m pleased that more and more people are finding it and finding it useful.  I’m going to be adding a few key features in the coming months, so please stay tuned!