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Highly recommended read – “The Martian”

I originally heard about “The Martianvia this tweet from Clay Bavor, a VP for Product at Google.  As he wrote:

If you’re an engineer, you must read The Martian.

If you’re into space, you must read The Martian.

If you’re an engineer AND into space…

That was intriguing enough to pick it up, and I’m so glad I did.  It was a brilliant read, and the story has stuck in my mind ever since.

The premise of the book is simple: a team of astronauts travel to Mars.  But they have an incident and need to leave quickly.  One of the crew looks like he died in the incident, and they are forced to leave without him.  Except he wasn’t dead, and he has to learn how to survive until he can be rescued.

For an engineer or anyone who enjoys some of the technical details of space travel and survival, this book is incredibly well researched and has just the right enough depth of detail to make it very realistic, but without going so far as to come across as a textbook.  But it doesn’t just focus on what people might assume would be the problem of survival on Mars (air, water), he also deals with the smaller but critical systems, too.

The story itself is a thriller… it has just as much or more momentum than a Baldacci / Lee Child / John Grisham novel.  The story takes place on Mars, on Earth, and in between with the crew members that left.  It’s very well crafted, and you literally never know what’s going to happen next.  The benefit of the setting of survival on Mars is that the writer was completely free to think up highly plausible scenarios that could kill any astronaut… and he does!

As it turns out, The Martian (the book) is being made into The Martian (the film), which started filming a month ago.  For the Interstellar fans amongst you, the film will star both Jessica Chastain and Matt Damon. 🙂  I can’t wait to see it next year.

Like Clay Bavor, I simply can’t recommend this book highly enough for anyone that enjoys space, engineering, technology, or thrillers.  Seriously… go buy it and start reading it today.  (Get it at Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk)

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Accelerators and the focus on Demo Day

If you check out seed accelerators for long enough, you’ll come across one relatively consistent criticism.  (Particularly for the lower quality programs, I have to say.)  That criticism is that accelerators focus way too much on Demo Day.  I believe that founders that say this don’t understand the real “why” behind the preparation.

I joined Techstars at the beginning of June this year, and in that time have seen the preparations for the Demo Days of the Techstars London 2014 batch of companies, as well as the first Barclays Accelerator batch of companies.  So I’ve already seen, up-close-and-personal, two cycles of companies spending time and getting ready to pitch at Demo Day.  And Demo Day is important: there are hundreds of angels and institutional investors there and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most companies.  They need to work hard to make the most of the opportunity.

But the subtle secret about preparing for Demo Day is that it’s not just about one 5-minute pitch, it’s a month of deep critical-thinking about how to communicate a product, a company, a market, a team, and an opportunity.  Sure, the direct output is that 5-minute pitch, but founders learn how to give a one-line description of what they do, an elevator pitch about their company, and how to talk about the company in ways that really resonate with a particular audience.  This process, and particularly the feedback from experienced entrepreneurs and mentors, is critical to founders.  (And while it involves the whole team, it should only be the day-to-day job of the CEO, leaving everyone else to continue working on the company.)

Let me give two examples from the Barclays program:

ClauseMatch – Evgeny from ClauseMatch was not a natural speaker, and his company (a platform for contract negotiation) is in the legal world, which tends to make peoples’ eyes glaze over.  And at times, he struggled to communicate how revolutionary their product is.  But he cracked it with a simple (and amusing) anecdote to start his Demo Day pitch.  He took the audience back to 1995, when Microsoft Word introduced “Track changes” and e-mail started to become widely introduced.  For the first time, instead of faxing manually annotated contracts back-and-forth, lawyers could e-mail Word files back and forth… it was a revolution.  Then he made a simple statement: after twenty years of internet and cloud technology development, lawyers are still working the exact same way.  It was a massive “a-ha” moment for the audience that grabbed their attention for the rest of his pitch.

GustPay – Werner from GustPay actually spent a bit of time at the start of his pitch talking about Disney… specifically about the NFC wristbands that Disney has developed for their theme parks.  He talked about the “magic” of the experience, in that the wristband becomes their ticket and their wallet and their room key, and everything they need for their stay.  Then he told the audience that Disney spent >$1billion in developing this technology, but GustPay provides the same experience for venues and events for just $1/wristband.  Again, it was an “a-ha” moment that got people to recognise what they did, and why it was important.

Being able to communicate your startup to a wide variety of audiences (investors, early adopters, sales prospects, press) takes a lot of hard work.  And while it may seem all that hard work is just in service of a 5-minute pitch, the real benefit is far, far beyond that.

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Frustration with a taxonomy for startups

tax·on·o·my – noun – the branch of science concerned with classification, especially of organisms; systematics

I’m frustrated with the current lack of any standard taxonomy for early stage startups.  Chalk it up to a little bit of obsessive/compulsive behaviour, the desire to better compare like-for-like amongst startups, my years of experience in industries where these taxonomies existed, and also trying to make better connections between the corporate partners and friends of Techstars to the Techstars portfolio companies.  Startups are messy and change ridiculously fast, so a taxonomy will never be as rigorous as what exists in the world of biology.  But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try!

Angellist probably has the best structure of markets that I’ve seen so far, but the way Angellist structures these markets behind the scenes is actually a fairly deep web of interconnected markets.  While that makes sense in that a graph represents how markets are related to each other, the way they’ve built the graph can make it difficult to analyse startups and markets more broadly.

Not only that, but I think startups are complex enough that there should really be multiple dimensions in building a taxonomy for them.  These are the dimensions I’ve been pondering recently:

  • Market (ie, FinTech, HealthTech, Advertising, Infrastructure, etc.)
    • This is where there needs to be multiple layers of “markets”
  • Revenue model (Advertising, commerce, subscription, etc.)
  • Platforms (desktop, mobile/iOS, mobile/Android, hardware)
  • Orientation (consumer, enterprise, marketplace)

Why am I posting this?  Frankly, I’d love any and all feedback.  I’d like to get to a point where there’s a taxonomy that helps people like me understand and directly compare and contrast startups that are doing similar things (in different markets), or different things (in similar markets), or any combination thereof.

If you’re interested in this project, or would like to help, please comment below or get in touch with me directly.

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Life with my “distraction-free” phone

Earlier this summer I read two posts by Jake Knapp (a design partner at Google Ventures) about his “distraction free” iPhone: how he started it, and what it felt like a year later.  In a nutshell, he found himself getting constantly distracted by his iPhone, and consciously made choices to take key applications off his phone: Safari, Email, Twitter, Instagram, etc.

I decided to try it for myself and my Nexus 5 Android phone.  I didn’t want to be that guy that always had his phone six inches from his face, even when out to dinner or playing with my daughter.  So these are (some of) the apps I deleted from my phone:

  • Chrome
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • Kindle
  • NYTimes
  • Google+
  • Facebook

All of these were apps that had a strong risk of the “infinity” effect, where once you get started you just get lost.  I had a particularly bad habit with opening tabs in Chrome (from Twitter, e-mail) that I then left open, always meaning to go back but never actually closing.

Apps I kept include: Calendar, Music, Maps, Camera, Photos, SMS, WhatsApp, Hangouts, USAA, Todo.txt, Voxer, Slack, Beeminder, Runkeeper, and a few others.  The one app where I chose differently from Jake and did keep was Gmail (and now Google Inbox).  E-mail in my job is just too important, and living several time zones away from the majority of the people I work with means that I can’t rely on just dealing with e-mail during the UK business day.

What I’ve learned

I’ve noticed a few things from this experiment.  First, I’ve started to see how critical a web browser is to a mobile phone experience.  Disabling Chrome means that a small number of apps (that aren’t well designed) just don’t work well, if at all.

Second, Google has made Google+ a key layer of infrastructure.  I can’t use the modern, built-in “Photos” app on my mobile because it requires the Google+ app to work. Instead, I use a previous version of the stock Android Gallery app to view my photos.

Third, it’s fascinating to watch human behaviour.  Pulling out a mobile phone, even when out with good friends, has become a reflex for (seemingly) everyone.  The number of times that a conversation over dinner goes down a thread where once person checks their phone (to look something up or Tweet something), and then a second person does, and the next thing I’m looking at a table of people that are all staring at their phones instead of interacting with each other.  I even find myself feeling like I should join in, but then realise I don’t have to stress out about it and can just enjoy the moment… even if no one is paying attention to me or each other! 🙂  I’ve become comfortable with momentary moments of boredom.

Fourth, you have a different relationship to a mobile phone when it’s purely a tool for messaging, navigation, health/fitness and not a tool for broad media consumption and broadcasting.  I liked feeling that I had a less “emotional” tie to my phone.

How I cheat

It’s not like I’m no longer using a web browser, or Twitter, or reading Kindle books, or checking Facebook.  But I decided that I would make my Nexus 7 tablet my “distraction” device.  I have all of those apps there, and so then I make a conscious decision to consume media and be distracted.

Also, when I’ve traveled to the US I’ve had to cheat and re-enable a bunch of apps.  I don’t want to have to buy and use two SIMs, one for my phone and one for my tablet, and I need to have a phone connection when I’m traveling.

Going forward?

I’m definitely going to continue this going forward.  I may re-enable Google+ just so that I can use the full functionality, and because I think I can resist any G+ distractions.  But I like constraining myself to use my mobile phone purely as a tool and not as a magic sinkhole of time.

 

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