All posts filed under “Geeking out

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Knyttan: the newest, coolest, “printing” company

One of the companies in the current Techstars London batch just launched their website yesterday, Knyttan.  They’ve got some of the most interesting/unique technology I’ve seen in a while: they turn current industrial knitwear looms as 3-D printers for knitwear.  The founding team includes three graduates from the Royal College of Art, and they’re full of passion and knowledge of knitwear.  When it comes to disrupting an industry… they’re about to do it.

Current state of affairs

Knyttan is currently focused on classic knitwear: sweaters/jumpers and scarves.  Today’s technology is literally archaic; the current code/protocol is 30-40 years old, and can be directly traced to punchcards!  To create a sweater, a designer has to communicate the design/dimensions as best they can to a factory that has the loom manufacturer’s software to create the punchcard-code necessary to knit the sweater.  These are then sent back to the designer in a series of back-and-forths until the designer gives their okay for manufacture.  And when you’re a designer in the US/Europe dealing with a factory in China/Southeast Asia, this is a long, painful process.

For manufacturers, they also have significant constraints in what they can do.  To knit a particular design of jumper, the different colours of yarn have to be on very different specific spools on the machine.  And once a machine is set up to knit, it is time-consuming and costly to set it up to do something else.

Knyttan’s technology

What Knyttan can do with these existing industrial looms is incredible.  They have essentially re-created the entire stack of code necessary for these looms to run.  Instead of having to use complex software provided by the loom manufacturers, Knyttan has created a web interface that anyone can use.  For people with knitwear factories, they can use Knyttan to turn their looms into general-purpose knitwear printers.  It doesn’t matter what spool each colour of yarn is on, Knyttan can adjust.  A loom can knit a sweater, and then a scarf, and then something else entirely without any costly change-over time.

For the first time, a designer can have complete control of the design/manufacture process.  And for the first time, a manufacturer can radically improve productivity of their existing machines.

The two BIG effects

1- Democratization of design.  Right now knitwear design is a pain in the ass, because designers don’t have the full set of tools necessary to go from what’s in their head to the actual creation of the item… manufacturers have to be part of the process.  Knyttan allows any designer to create something they’d like to have/wear, and print/knit it out right away.  This is transformational in the industry, particularly for designers that want to do more with knitwear, but don’t because of the pain involved.

2- Radical change in supply chain.  The design cycle to design/develop knitwear is extremely long, potentially weeks/months as samples are sent between western designers and overseas manufacturers.  Knyttan upends this process… designers can get back a prototype of their design in a matter of minutes to hours.  But perhaps more importantly Knyttan disrupts the supply chain by making it far easier to create knitwear in smaller batches that can be manufactured on demand.  Instead of being forced to make an order months ahead of time, either getting stuck with excess inventory (or having demand for product that can’t be filled), designers can order stock when they get low.

How you can check Knyttan out

If you’re in London, go check out their shop!  You can buy some of their existing stock designs, or even design and print yourself an item in-store!  (Literally, they have a loom in the store where they can create items immediately.)  It’s in Somerset House, and you can find information here: https://knyttan.com/find-us/

If you’re not in London, you can design and create a sweater/jumper or scarf today, and have Knyttan deliver it straight to you.  They just launched their site yesterday, so check it out here: https://knyttan.com

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The super-magic productivity button in the new Google Inbox

One of the most consistent email productivity tips is that you should ignore e-mail, turn it off, and only check it at specific times during the day.  (Otherwise you just become a trained monkey, chained to your inbox.)  But how do you do that?

For someone that does a lot of actual work via e-mail, turning it off completely or not looking at it isn’t an option.  And while there are extensions that can “pause” new e-mails coming into your inbox (or at least you seeing them), I haven’t seen any that worked well or that I trusted.

But there is a simple, super-magic productivity button in the new Google Inbox that does exactly that, the “pinned” toggle.  So when you switch this:

Unpinned

to this:

Pinned

Suddenly the only e-mails you see are the ones that you have selected as action items.  Any new e-mail to your inbox is hidden, because you haven’t “pinned” it yet.  Each of your pinned e-mails can also have a short description of what the task is, in case the sender wasn’t as explicit as they should have been.  Slide that toggle, and you have your e-mail todo list laid out before you.  You can also add todo list items (reminders) directly that aren’t attached to any e-mail, but show up in the normal & pinned lists.

When I was at Google, I was a very early tester of a previous version of this new Inbox, absolutely loved it, and am so happy it finally got rolled out.  At least for me, e-mail is a todo list, and the new Google Inbox has these simple tools to both treat e-mail as a todo list and become MUCH in dealing with that list.  I just keep my e-mail in the “pinned” state for the vast majority of the day, making my way through the todos, and un-pinning/triaging only occasionally.

Sidebar

All of that said, I can’t wait for Spatch to launch.  Spatch is a Techstars London ’14 Spring company that’s re-thinking e-mail, and making structural changes to e-mail that can turn e-mail into a real productive tool.  (All while keeping it backward-compatible for e-mail users that don’t use Spatch.)  If you care about e-mail and productivity you owe it to yourself to also sign up for Spatch.

PS – If you’d like a Google Inbox invite, drop me your details in the comments below.  [UPDATE]: It only works for @gmail.com addresses right now, so please share that e-mail address.

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Seed-DB – Reflections on 2 years after launching

Two years ago today, on Wednesday, July 25th, 2012 I published a blog post that officially launched Seed-DB. I had been working at it since March 2012, and though it wasn’t 100% ready to launch I was able to push it out the door.

Since launch, Seed-DB has grown from >1300 companies to >4000 companies, from >100 accelerators to >200 accelerators, and from >$1billion to >$5billion in funding tracked.

What does that mean for Seed-DB today?  I just checked Google Analytics to check the stats.  In the last six months Seed-DB saw:

  • >34,000 user sessions from:
  • >20,000 different users
  • >118k pageviews
  • >5minutes spent per session
  • 59% of users were new

I’ve spent the last two years constantly adding more data, more features, talking to founders of companies and accelerators, and even a reporter or two. It’s been an interesting journey and I wanted to share some reflections on what I’ve learned.

#1: You CAN teach yourself to code in your spare time

Seed-DB was the first web application I had ever built. It was the first time I’d:

  • used Python for something other than a simple script
  • really used a DVCS (specifically Mercurial/Bitbucket)
  • installed/customized a Bootstrap theme
  • implemented jQuery plugins
  • and many more similar new tools…

While I had an engineering background, it was in aerospace/nuclear and even the projects I coded for my classes (in Matlab!) were over ten years in my past.  I had picked up an O’Reilly book on Python and had created a few Python scripts the previous year, but without a project I didn’t really learn very much.  By following example code, carefully reading error codes, reading more documentation and asking questions on StackOverflow, I learned everything I needed to build Seed-DB.

Creating something new from scratch is fun, and can keep you motivated despite mountains of problems.  As long as you’re willing to do the hard work, it is possible to teach yourself to code.  Think of something that you really want to create and just start building it.

#2: You CAN thread the needle

I just looked up and found that my very first commit to the Seed-DB codebase happened on March 27, 2012, so I built Seed-DB in my nights/weekends over the course of just four months.  And I didn’t think it was really ready to launch.  (I had to keep reminding myself of Reid Hoffman’s famous advice.)

But I was rushing to complete Seed-DB in time for some fairly big deadlines. I live in London and the London 2012 Olympics started on July 27th, so I committed to myself that I would launch Seed-DB before then. (My wife and I had family in town for it and tickets to a bunch of events… I HAD to launch before the Olympics started.)  Launching on the 25th was literally the last day I wanted to launch, so I just made it in time.

Just after seeing Jess Ennis, Mo Farah, and Greg Rutherford all win gold for Team GB!

Just after seeing Jess Ennis, Mo Farah, and Greg Rutherford all win gold for Team GB! (My wife is just a few weeks away from giving birth.)

Another more important deadline is that my daughter was due in early September.  I had a ton of travel for work between the end of the Olympics and her due date, so there wasn’t a realistic option to launch later.  (She arrived a couple weeks early, so this was an even wiser choice in hindsight!)

Me and my daughter (at a few months old)

Me and my daughter (at a few months old)

Needless to say, launching created a lot of new non-coding work: responding to entrepreneurs and program founders, congratulations and criticism, and fixing bugs.  But somehow the launch was the biggest needle to thread, and once that was done everything else does seem easier.

I learned that it IS possible to thread the needle between what may seem like impossible obstacles.

#3: You CAN do more than you think

In the course of a month, I launched Seed-DB, had an amazing time at the 2012 Olympics, traveled all over Central/Eastern Europe for work, and watched my daughter being born.  After launching Seed-DB, I was getting… quite a lot of feedback.

What I tried to do was commit to spending 30-60 minutes a day (often while my daughter was sleeping and my wife was napping) responding to queries, implementing small features, and making progress on bigger features (like the Seed-DB Investor Graph).  I found that was absolutely key: I didn’t have to complete a feature or fully respond to e-mail each day: I just needed to make a little progress each day.

#4: Building useful things brings you opportunities

People respect people that build interesting things, particularly in the world of startups.  In my case, I started building Seed-DB out of frustration around a couple of job opportunities that had fallen through.  I realized that I needed to do much more work that I initially thought to drive my career to where I wanted it to go, and that I needed to build something.

By creating Seed-DB, I suddenly had lots of people approaching me… and interesting people that I wanted to know!  It led to lots of interesting job opportunities, too, and directly led to me getting hired by Techstars this summer.

One of the big principles at Techstars is to Give First.  At the time I built Seed-DB, I hated that founders were making important decisions based on anecdotal data and what programs the press chose to cover, instead of researching from data on a full directory of programs.  In hindsight I see that by building the site, I was doing my part to give first by giving entrepreneurs an honest, data-driven view into accelerators around the world.

Giving first generates goodwill; building something generates respect.  When I launched Seed-DB I had no idea how powerful these two forces were, but they have totally changed my career and life.

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Introducing Seed-DB: a database of seed accelerators and their companies

SeedDBlogo

I’m pleased to announce Seed-DB, a database of seed accelerators and the companies they have accelerated.  I originally started assembling this data in the summer of 2009 as part of the research paper I wrote for my MBA thesis at the University of Cambridge: “Copying Y Combinator: a framework for developing Seed Accelerator programs.”  Ever since, I’ve been keeping it up-to-date in a number of Google Spreadsheets.

Seed-DB puts all of the best information I have and puts it in a much more digestible format for easy viewing and comparison.  I have integrated Crunchbase data to get up-to-date information on funding rounds, number of employees, and more.  I believe that Seed-DB is the most useful and comprehensive resource on seed accelerators around the world.

Economic impact

One of the clear things that stands out to me is the economic impact of seed accelerators.  Even though the data is far from complete for some programs, these are some key statistics as they stand today:

  • >100 programs world-wide
  • >1300 companies have been accelerated
  • ~65 companies have already exited for an estimated $930million
  • >3000 jobs created
  • >$1billion in angel and venture capital funding raised
In particular, as the data becomes more complete I estimate that the number of jobs created could easily double.  And as the companies mature and have exit events for investors, the exit values will be much, much larger.  (Paul Graham has publicly stated that just the top 21 Y Combinator companies have a combined value approaching $5billion.)

Key disclaimers

Incomplete data

As hard as I’ve tried, the information on Seed-DB is NOT 100% complete.  There are three reasons for this:

  • Missing startups.  Some accelerators have made it very difficult to find lists of startups that have gone through their programs, so there are many startups missing in less visible programs.  Please contact me if you can provide me with any details.
  • Missing data in Crunchbase.  Many companies have not entered any information in Crunchbase.  That’s where I get details on funding and number of employees, so if you want this information to be accurate please update it there.  (If you run an accelerator, it would be ideal if you could encourage your startups to do this.)
  • Missing accelerators.  I believe I’ve tracked down all of the seed accelerators world-wide, but please let me know if I’ve missed some.  Note that I’m using a pretty strict definition of a seed accelerator.  I hope to eventually track other types of programs, too.

MVP

To use a buzzword, this is a minimum viable product.  Reid Hoffman has been quoted as saying “if you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”  Well, I’m at that point.  There’s a lot that I still want to do, some of user-visible projects and tasks are on the roadmap, but what’s launching today is the core of my vision.

Valuations

Please note that while exits are often publicized, the price paid for most companies is NOT public.  So for the vast majority of companies I’ve simply had to guess.  I’ve put a confidence level by each guess, with the highest-level confidence reserved for the cases where the price was public or widely reported.  These values do not come from any of the companies involved.

Final word

If you’ve made it this far, I’d ask you for three things.

  1. Sign up to my seed accelerators newsletter.  (It’s very low traffic, and I don’t share or sell e-mail addresses… ever.)
  2. Send me feedback.  I want to make this useful for startups interested in accelerators, people founding/running accelerators, and investors interested in companies from accelerators.
  3. If you’re interested in collaborating with me on the technical side of things, please get in touch.  I’m new to web applications, and could use an experienced partner.

Thanks for your attention!