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How To Buy A Bicycle

2013/09/02 Leave a comment

“Hey Nick! I hear you know a few things about bikes, and I’d like to get my own and start riding. Where do I even begin?”

Garrett checking out some bikes

I get this question a lot, and even spent a Startup Weekend working on an app to help people with it. It turns out, quite a few people rode a bike as a kid, and 10 or 20 years later, want to ride a bike again. But unlike buying a car, for which we have endless auto company commercials to educate us and sites like AutoTrader to help us sort through the thousands of listings, the process of buying a bicycle is not well-understood by most adults. Someday, we might get to finishing that project, but in the meantime, here are a few steps to get you started:

1. Envision yourself riding your future bike.

Where will you be riding? Who will you be with? What will you be wearing (ie work clothes or workout clothes)? How long will your rides be? Why will you be riding (commuting to work, recreation, racing, etc)? For bonus points, find stock photos or videos of other people doing the type of cycling you’d like to do.

2. Go to a local bike shop to look around and go for some test rides

I’m personally a fan of Pedal Power in Lexington. They’ll likely ask you to describe your answer to question #1. Bike shop people are super-knowledgeable about bikes (sometimes too knowledgeable), but they’re good at helping people find a quality ride. They don’t make most of their margins off bike sales, so turn off your salesperson aversion and just trust their advice. Please don’t showroom them. Their goal is to get you on a bike that’s a great fit for you, which helps build a relationship with you so you’ll come back for maintenance, accessories, etc. And yes, you will need to go back for those things.

3. Realize that a good, new starter bike will cost you $400-$800.

The things for sale at Walmart (and even Dick’s Sporting Goods) are “bicycle-shaped objects”. They cost less (up front) because they’re of a significantly lower quality, but will require maintenance sooner, and that maintenance will be more expensive in the long run. Another plus with a quality bike-store bike is that it will hold its value longer if you decide to sell it later.

4. Used bikes are great!

If you can’t find a new bike you like in your price range, high-quality used bikes are a solid choice. There are some hit-or-miss options on Craigslist, but Lexington (like many other communities) has The Broke Spoke community bike shop. They sell used bikes for usually less than $200, and the volunteer staff is super-helpful. The money earned from selling used bikes aides the shop in its mission to serve bicyclists who couldn’t otherwise afford bikes, parts, repairs, or training.

5. Accessorize.

Helmet is the only thing here that is a must, while all the others can be helpful depending on your answer to question 1. I usually budget an extra $100-200 for an assortment of the following:

  • helmet ($40)
  • bike lock ($30)
  • front and rear lights ($30)
  • water bottles ($10)
  • cycling shorts & jersey ($70)
  • fenders ($40)
  • cargo rack ($30) – to carry stuff on your bike
  • bike rack ($50) – to carry your bike on your car
  • “clipless” shoes and pedals ($120)

*Alternative option: BikesDirect – This is a good option for some people, but I only recommend it to people who know exactly what they’re looking for and have a restricted budget. Prices are low because the bikes are “off-brand”, factory-direct, and not well-adjusted to you, the rider. From my experience, most of the components (mechanical parts) on the bikes are of decent quality, and are much more maintainable than the aforementioned “bicycle-shaped objects”. Most bike purists won’t be happy that I included this, but for the sake of completeness, I don’t think I can leave it out.

I hope that helps, and if you have any other questions, just let me know!

-Nick

On the importance of asking questions

2013/05/27 1 comment

After a few years of being an entrepreneur, I’ve learned that all business relies on the same simple principle: sell something for more than it costs you to produce. Along this line, I may have distilled the pair of necessary activities that any entrepreneur must master: know what you want, and ask for it.

Last year, I had the privilege of attending a special session of the Alltech Symposium, geared toward entrepreneurs. During this session, Jim Host and Pearse Lyons (two members of the Kentucky Entrepreneur Hall of Fame) shared the journeys that led them to launch and grow their successful companies (Host Communications and Alltech, respectively). During his talk, Dr. Lyons dropped a nugget of wisdom that resonated with me. “Ask questions.” Dr. Lyons recounted a story from his youth, about being the kid who always asked questions. He annoyed his parents by always asking, “Why?” He questioned the establishment, in asking his boarding school administrators if he and his classmates could clean up after the school’s bingo nights. While it was nice to score some Be Good Points, what he really wanted was to collect the leftover beverage cans and bottles, knowing that he could recycle them and pocket the deposits. Even on his first sale of feed products (which would become the basis for Alltech), he wasn’t afraid to ask his customer (who had almost backed out on the purchase) if he would like to double his order! From his talk, it seems like much of Dr. Lyons’ success has come from the simple fact that he was willing to ask for what he wanted.

So, if there is value in this skill (asking the right question, of the right person, at the right time), what are we doing to ensure that our children are developing this skill? Based on my experience…not enough. With the increased emphasis on standardized testing, we’re pushing kids to get better at answering questions, but not at formulating their own questions. This seemingly small shift actually requires a major change. Asking good questions requires creativity, a skill that we’ve not yet gotten good at measuring. I will concede that iit take a lot more effort than measuring whether the correct answer was provided for a given question. In the story The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a society is seeking the answer to “the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything“. They pose this challenge to the a powerful computer, Deep Thought, which after 7.5 million years of computation, (spoiler alert) spits out the answer “42”. While living on in geek infamy, the number 42 is mostly useless without knowing the question to which it is an answer. When prompted for the question, Deep Thought is not powerful enough to render it, but proposes that a more powerful computer, called “Earth”, be constructed to resolve the Ultimate Question.

While my friend Luke Murray was guest blogging for Virgin.com, he wrote a post about how Sir Richard Branson wasn’t afraid to ask big. The result: he bought an entire island for less than 1/10th of the listed price…just because he asked the owner if he would accept a smaller sum. While the process of learning “question-asking” may seem without precedent, there is actually an excellent structure provided by one of the greatest inventions of human history: The Scientific Method. This method provides a framework for formulating questions based on what someone wants to know. And while most people are terrible at asking questions, it is a skill that can be learned. Yet, knowing how to ask questions does not mean that the process of asking is easy. As musician Amanda Palmer points out, “Asking makes you vulnerable.”

How can you do this in your own life? My friend Evan became frustrated when a vendor was supposed to send him some printed graphics but was running late. As a result, he didn’t want to pay the shipping fees for their product. Rather than just being mad, complaining to friends, or posting bad reviews about the company, he asked the vendor a question: “Will you give me free shipping?” Surprising to Evan, their answer was yes. I am still early in my journey as an entrepreneur, but the times that I have succeeded when: I knew what I wanted, and asked for it.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Just listen to Steve Jobs.

Why “Startup Communities” is Even Bigger Than I Realized

2012/11/03 3 comments

After spending a few days hanging out with Brad Feld, I’ve come to the conclusion that Startup Communities is not simply a book targeted at the minority of the population who currently identify themselves as entrepreneurs. What Brad is working on is actually much bigger. My conclusion stems from the idea that he left ringing in my head following his visit to Kentucky: “Every city was once a startup.”

Book cover of Startup Communities by Brad Feld

Buy this book.

I spent most of this morning researching the history of the founding of my city, Lexington, Kentucky. As Brad discussed his thoughts about startup communities, he kept referring to the “natural resources” present in a community. In the early days of the geographic area that would come to be known as Kentucky, a few people made the conscious choice to settle here. While their decision was not fully informed (they did not yet have TripAdvisor to review all the possible places to settle on the North American continent), they did the best they could with the available information in the late 1700s. They actively chose the Bluegrass region for its fertile soil, access to fresh water, and moderate climate. For a startup agrarian community, these are key ingredients. For a startup technology community, the key ingredients are much less geophysical. They’re human. As codified in Brad’s book, these ingredients include leadership by entrepreneurs, a long-term growth perspective, an inclusive culture, and events that engage and connect all members of the community.

I spent most of last evening discussing the fertile nature of Lexington with my friends over drinks. We’ve come to realize that our city has an abundance of untapped human potential: a core of stable employers, a continuous influx of smart people, and a sufficient mix of risk-taking individuals. It’s also a really enjoyable place to live, with good food, plenty of shopping, modern electricity/water/internet infrastructure, a swath of housing options, and a variety of entertainment choices. Yesterday, as we partook in some of the excellent nightlife offerings, it might have been apropos that we began our evening in Henry Clay’s Public House. Prior to becoming a statesman on the national scale, Henry Clay was not only a successful lawyer, but also an agricultural entrepreneur. Next, we moved to Lexington Beer Works, a recent addition to Lexington’s bar scene, with a host of specialty and craft brews. It’s no accident that this location has become one of the staple hangouts for the tech and entrepreneur crowd. Among its group of founders are veterans of Lexmark, the city’s largest technology company. To conclude our evening, we grabbed a snack from Dogs for Cats, a sidewalk vendor so-named for selling specialty hot dogs to the local populace of UK Wildcat fans. We paid for this food through Square, closing the loop on our tech-startup-community-time-warp of an evening.

Brad Feld has an assertion that “we can create startup communities anywhere”. There are two ways to read into this. One perspective is that we can create communities of startups (ie local groupings of early-stage technology companies). The other is to redefine how we view the general concept of “community”, through the innovation-centric lens of startups. Our communities, whether they’re local or virtual, official or informal, are forever imperfect and constantly changing. Yet, a core piece of human nature is an affinity for other human beings. We join together as sports teams, volunteer groups, and book clubs. We can’t help but form communities. But what if we more consciously formed our communities? The innovation frameworks used by startups are applicable far beyond the creation of technology companies. What if governments a/b tested as effectively as Google? What if schools iterated as quickly as Skype? Essentially, startup methods enable human organizations to take advantage of biologically-inspired innovation processes. And biology is pretty good at innovation.

Brad Feld speaking at Awesome Inc in Lexington Kentucky

Brad discussing Startup Communities at Awesome Inc

Thus, my take-away from Brad’s visit is two-fold. On the surface, he provided excellent suggestions for building our community of technology company people (and reinforcement for some of the things we’re already doing well). Yet, perhaps more importantly, he reminded me that what we’re doing is much bigger. While companies focus on creating tangible products and delivering valuable services, the true end result is a more abstract thing known as a better life. The identities of some of the greatest innovators are often tied to their products, but the lasting impact that they have had is actually through the communities and lifestyles they created. Even in the case of Steve Jobs, it could be argued that, “Jobs’s greatest creation isn’t any Apple product. It is Apple itself.” John Gruber’s statement about Jobs includes a note about self-similar fractal design, a math reference that I’m sure Brad would enjoy. This distinction is important, so I’ll be explicit: the way we build our products, should be the way we build our companies, should be the way we build our cities, should be the way we build our world. Perhaps the Boulder startup community’s greatest creation isn’t Storage Technology Corporation ($4.1B acquisition), or TechStars (top accelerator program), but Boulder itself. By turning Boulder’s lessons into a book, Brad has articulated a new way for creating and re-creating our cities. That’s big.

If you’d like to experience the vision for Lexington that my co-founders and I share, I invite you to visit us at Awesome Inc. It’s our 6000-square-foot prototype of the future of this city.

Life TODO List: Teaching a Class

2012/08/03 1 comment

This week, I got to check off an item on my life to-do list. That feels pretty good.

I’ve always wanted to teach a class. A few weeks ago, following conversations with people in the Awesome Inc community, I decided to create a class called “Programming For Absolute Beginners”. This class offers an introduction to software development based on an excellent (and free) resource called Learn Python The Hard Way. We only announced the class internally (to our Tenants, Team Alpha, and the Experience teams at Awesome Inc) but still had 12 people sign up within 3 days. I was pretty surprised with the response; I thought it would be a struggle to find half that many people. And, following the first and second sessions of the 5.5 week course, both the students (and I) seem to be enjoying the process.

There are two reasons that I’m so excited that this course is able to take place:

I get joy in empowering other people.  Education is one great way to empower people. “The more you know,” right? I’ve actually approached the class as more of a facilitator than a teacher. With the varying skill levels of the “students” in the class, and the ability for anyone to move through the material at their own pace, everyone in the group has the ability to serve as a teacher. So, at a meta level, I’m not only teaching a group of people how to be programmers, but also teaching them how to programming teachers. In fact, based on how quickly several of the students took on the role of peer-teacher, I didn’t really have to “teach” them how to do this. I just gave them the opportunity to use their skills. And while this might be bad for my job security as a teacher, it’s great for expanding our ability to help more people. And if that means that more people like Therese, who wrote her first program ever last night, will feel this empowerment, then our time invested is totally worth it.

The world needs more makers. For a generation or so, the title of “skilled workers” has gotten a bad rap. It has become viewed as a subpar status, denoting people who have chosen non-university educational paths, or pursued non-white collar careers. The thing about most white collar jobs, however, is that they operate at a level of abstraction beyond actual productive work. If white collar workers stopped working, we’d lose the ability to account, litigate, and manage. If blue collar workers stopped working, no new stuff would come into existence. There would be no food, no clothes, no cars, and no music on the radio. Herein lies the magic of programming: it’s a white collar job (read: prestigious, well-paid), yet it’s also a blue collar job (programmers actually make things). At this particular point in history, our ability to solve many of the world’s problems is only inhibited by our ability to understand those problems, and our ability to turn the solution into working software. Hunger, energy, peace, communication, drugs, poverty. In solving any of these problems, the lowest-hanging fruit can be addressed through appropriate computer software. So, by helping a few more people become developers, we’re doing a small part to make the world a better place.

A final note on this is how easy it was to go from discussing the idea for a class, to deciding to do it, to starting it. This all happened within 2 weeks. The two major factors that made this so easy:

  1. Availability of course material. Thanks, Zed! (also, thanks in advance to iTunes U, Udacity, Coursera, and even Wikipedia)
  2. The power of the Awesome Inc community. I didn’t have to search for a physical space to host the class, or struggle to market to a critical mass of potential attendees.

Based on our initial results, we’ll be offering more of these courses in the future. If there’s anything you’d like to learn (or teach), leave me a note in the comments!

What I learned in San Antonio

2012/06/10 Leave a comment

Last week, I had the privilege to participate in Commerce Lexington’s annual Leadership Visit to San Antonio, TX. Since 1974, our local chamber of commerce has been organizing these trips that bring together business, government, academic, and community leaders to travel to another city. The “visit” aspect (versus just a group meeting somewhere in Lexington) serves two purposes:

  1. Find inspiration from other cities that are doing cool things
  2. Bring Lexington’s leaders together in a new environment, free from the distractions of home

The Leadership Visits have been the nexus for some of Lexington’s great assets, including Thursday Night Live which was inspired by a visit to Greenville, SC. On this visit, one of the highlights of San Antonio was the River Walk, now a major tourist attraction and downtown focal point, but once just a trickling stream. What not many people know is that there is a similar stream that flows under Lexington. On this trip, we learned that the Town Branch Creek is perhaps more voluminous than the creek that feeds the San Antonio River. The difference is, San Antonio chose to design a beautiful, open waterway. In Lexington, we conveniently diverted our creek through a buried pipe. For a city often described as “conservative”, the notion of unearthing a buried stream and manufacturing a downtown river is nothing short of audacious. But, looking at Lexington’s history, you may be surprised to learn that we have a penchant for progressive public-private partnerships. I hope we take a gamble on this.

With all the focus on the river, another key aspect of our host city was underemphasized: young leaders are critical in shaping the city of San Antonio. In our trip program, all participants under the age of 40 were denoted as “Emerging Leaders”. I commented to my friends before the trip In San Antonio, “If Mark Zuckerberg, age 28, lived in Lexington, would he be considered emerged yet?” I did notice a difference in San Antonio. People in that age range are just called LEADERS. However, that designation was objectively earned. They didn’t wait for a 40th birthday party to receive permission to lead at the forefront of their city. They just went out and made it happen. The two examples with whom I’m most familiar are:

  • Julian Castro
    • Mayor of San Antonio (7th largest city in the USA)
    • Age 37 (Mayor since 2009, age 34)
  • Lanham Napier
    • CEO of Rackspace (>$1B annual revenue)
    • Age 41 (CEO since 2006, age 35)

There are a few notable similarities about these two leaders. First, both are from Texas. They didn’t have to be sold on why they should live there. Both have graduate degrees from Harvard (Castro in Law, Napier in Business). This doesn’t make them inherently better leaders (heck, they even let me into HBS), but it does guarantee that they know what world-class means, and demonstrate that they aren’t scared to chase after it. Also, they are in terminal positions. They can’t move any higher up within their organizations, so the only way to achieve greater things is to drag the whole organization up with you. This differs from some of Lexington’s young leaders who are not in terminal, but transient leadership positions. The best basketball player in Lexington will leave for the NBA. Even within the world of sports, San Antonio’s professional basketball team, the Spurs, provide a terminal post, and one that is noted for its world-class leadership transitions.

I have a friend who works with Steve Westly, an advocate of rotating involvement in the 3 major sectors of society: business, government, and academia (I’d argue that religion fits in there as well). Looking at those three sectors, who are some of our young, already-emerged leaders within terminal organizations here in Lexington? I’ll offer a few (list is far from exhaustive, and is based totally on my familiarity):

Last year, I wrote about the departure of many of Lexington’s leaders. With the World Equestrian Games and other recent successes, I was worried that Lexington would go downhill following their departure. Now, I look at this in a different light. Perhaps these departing leaders had one last bit of insight: the most effective action they could take was to hand off the torch to a new generation. And while earlier I perceived the under-40 designation as a form of ageism, it’s in fact a testament to the associated wisdom of Lexington’s leaders. Those who recognize this gap are doing something about it. The reason that I, and many of the other young professionals, were able to attend this trip was through the generous private donations that provided Emerging Leader scholarships. Far from excluding, Lexington’s current crop of leaders is actively including their younger peers. But, as the saying (rather apropos in equine land) goes, “You can lead a horse to water…”

Dear leaders of my generation: the torch is now in our hands. It’s our calling to make Lexington a world-class awesome city. Let’s roll.

The Myth of Bike Lanes

2012/04/08 7 comments
bike lane

Bike Lane in downtown Lexington

Bike lanes are not for cyclists. Bike lanes are for motorists.*

I realized this following a discussion about shared-use roadways (ie the majority of non-Interstate highways and roads in America). I have quite a few friends who don’t understand my choice to ride a bike on the road, partly because the see it as a choice. Where I live, it’s often not a choice, it’s the law. With the exception of bicycle police, cyclists are not allowed to ride on sidewalks. That’s why they’re called sideWALKs, they’re meant for pedestrians. Thus, when I ride my bike on the road, I’m riding it where I’m supposed to be riding it. And, by law, I have the same privilege (yes, “privilege”, not “right”) to operate my human-powered vehicle on the road as those who choose to operate motorized vehicles.

When I’m riding my bike, I view myself as a person who happens to be on a bike. When I’m driving my car, I view myself as a person, who happens to be in a car. Between those two states, I view my life, my sense of urgency, and the importance of my travel to be equal. And I view the lives, deadlines, and importance of everyone around me, in cars, on busses, on bikes, and on foot to be equal.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this is the currently prevailing viewpoint.

When talking with friends who are motorists, but not cyclists, they consider their trips in cars to be more important than the simultaneous trips taken by cyclists. One argument is that cycling is multi-functional: while some cyclists are in the act of commuting, others are on their bikes for the purpose of exercise. And in this argument, commuting is considered to be more important than exercising.** While I disagree with that particular assertion, a more relevant disagreement is that the associated assumption that all trips in cars are for the singly important purpose of getting to work. Do these motorists hold the same disdain for fellow motorists transporting themselves in search of entertainment? Likely, yes. It wouldn’t surprise me if they also became upset when their potentially fluid rides are stalled by farm implements, and then show up to the ever-important work and eat a few corn chips, never making the connection.

I would assert that there are 3 reasons for which the journey of a particular vehicle on the road would be more important that that of other vehicles. First, emergency vehicles. There’s a reason they get flashing lights, and permission to blow through stop signs: they are operating in potentially life-or-death situations. Second, commercial vehicles (particularly, tractor-trailers). Think of something that you use in your daily life. Vacuum cleaner. iPhone. Banana. Socks. To quote a friend, “Almost everything you use in a day was on a truck at some point.” Often, those trucks are not just carrying Timmy’s stuff, or Susie’s stuff, but hundreds of people’s stuff. That’s important. Finally, buses. Sorry dude-in-a-Porshe, those 20 people on the city bus may not seem as stylish as you, but I’d like for you to convince me that their twenty lives have less collective influence on their world than your one. As you may have noticed, the importance I assigned here was not due not to some personified needs of the vehicle, but to the needs of the people that the vehicle was serving.

But maybe it’s not their fault. Maybe their frustration is misdirected at non-conforming cyclists, when in fact the true source of their frustration is an incorrect assumption about the predictability of our transportation system. I am guilty of this as well. When I am trying to drive from my house to a destination that is 30 miles away (separated mostly by rural highways), I mistakenly expect that this journey will take me only 30 minutes. But I am wrong. There are all sorts of factors, like stoplights, detours, accidents, and…traffic that can make my trip unpredictable. In fact, this unpredictability is the norm, although I tend to fool myself into thinking that it is the exception.

Which brings me to traffic. Traffic moves according to what I like to call the slowest common denominator (SCD). In my definition, this means that the slowest vehicles in a traffic flow determine the average speed of the traffic flow. This defies the assumption that aggressive, fast drivers are in control of the road. I have yet to see one of these vehicles successfully push traffic forward, bulldozer-style. Yet, I’ve been caught behind many an meandering, elderly motorist who has taken complete control of the rate of traffic on a two-lane road.

And this is where Bike Lanes come in. Bike Lanes are not for the benefit of cyclists. Bike Lanes are for the benefit of motorists. If sharing the road with cars were not a factor, a cyclist presented with the choice of riding in the normal lane or in the bike lane would be unlikely to choose the inferior, shoulder-esque mini-pathway. They would choose the main lane! The reason that bike lanes matter is because of cars. Bike lanes make it so that automotive traffic can continue with minimal impediment from cyclists. That’s right, bike lanes are a means of making it more fair for motorists, who wish to travel at a rate faster than the SCD of a bicycle. So, from someone who, whether I’m hypermiling or riding a bike, is often the SCD, you’re welcome 😉

* To avoid any unnecessary personal banter, I’d like to clarify that I distinguish the difference between a cyclist and motorist as the present (thus, temporary) selection of mode of transportation. Personally, there are different occasions on which I choose to be a cyclist, motorist, pedestrian, and transit rider. Regardless of this choice, I retain my own unique identity, not one assigned to me by my mode of transport. Sure, there are differentiating personality characteristics that people choose to associate with their preferred form of transportation, but we’re all just a flat tire away from being united as pedestrians 🙂

** I understand the economically-minded intent of the argument that commuting (to work) is more valuable to society than exercising. Yet, with the disproportionately high costs of healthcare, especially the reactive medicine needed to compensate for generally sedentary lives in America, I think I could make a case that the economically logical choice is that we all exercise for 30 minutes in the morning, and show up late for work.

How I know that Kentucky is going to win

2012/03/22 Leave a comment

Sorry to disappoint, but this post isn’t about basketball. It’s about something bigger: life.

My perspective is that of an entrepreneur, so my bellwether is the startup scene. But I’d argue that it’s a pretty good bellwether. At our core, we entrepreneurs are people who want to make the world a better place. We recognize problems, and instead of idle bantering, we create solutions. And we’ll risk everything to turn our vision of a better world into a reality. When you put enough of these people in a community, these powerful forces for artistic/musical/philanthropic/commercial good, life in that community gets better.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending two discussions on the relationship between entrepreneurs and investors in Kentucky. The first event was run by the Lexington Venture Club, who hosted a group of women entrepreneurs and investors from Lexington and Louisville. The second was through the Louisville Digital Association, who hosted a group of entrepreneurs and investors from Louisville and Lexington. That’s right, people from Louisville and Lexington, traveling to each other’s cities, on a random weekday in the middle of March, and passionately discussing something that isn’t basketball. What they discussed is much more important. Very few people are directly affected by the outcome of a basketball game. Nearly everyone is affected by technology. Nearly everyone is affected by the economy. And startups have a massive effect on both.

How do I know that Kentucky is going to win? Because we want it. Because we’re working together to do it. And we won’t stop until we get it.

PS: Check out the commentary from others – Nick Huhn, Forge (Adam Fish), Venture Connectors (Greg Gorman)

Some thoughts on frozen toothpaste

2011/09/17 Leave a comment

What remains of my toothpaste, post-TSA
This is what remains of my toothpaste: 0.8 ounces. I started the day with a full-size (4.8 ounce) bottle of toothpaste, which exceeds the TSA’s limit of 3.4 ounces of liquid per container. The thought behind this regulation is that the possession of certain types of liquid in sufficient quantities can be used to make a bomb. While I am glad that someone is looking out for my wellbeing as an air traveler, a few of the security measures simply don’t make sense.
What if I froze my toothpaste? The TSA’s restriction is not on toothpaste, but on liquids. If I initiated a state change and turned my toothpaste into a solid, would it suddenly be permissible?

This doesn’t make sense.

Also, how effective are those full-body backscatter scanners? The thought is that these machines help TSA personnel quickly detect dangerous objects with increased sensitivity over other methods. I noticed the machines were only in about half the lines at the Denver Airport. Half the passengers are invasively scanned, while the rest simply pass through metal detectors.

What if someone with malicious intent simply chooses to bypass the more thorough scanner?

This doesn’t make sense.

These experiences remind me of an aspect of conversations I’ve had recently with entrepreneurs about their startups: it’s vital that your story makes sense. There are two pieces of this:
1. Actually have a logical story
2. Communicate your story clearly & concisely

In the case of the TSA, their story actually has a very simple logic (however flawed their “product” is under the surface): you want to feel safe, so our systems filter out dangerous stuff and make it safer for you to travel. ZipCar is also great: you don’t need a car, just the service of using a car when you need it. We make that process really easy, and while you pay us for that convenience, you still save money over owning or traditional car rental. Boom. Logical. Everybody wins.

Does your startup’s story make sense like this? Do you solve a human need in a clear, logical way? Or, like the toothpaste regulation, is it easy to poke holes in your logic? Mastering your story can certainly be an iterative process, but you should always be trending toward a simple, logical, easily understandable series of thoughts. This will make your conversations with users, customers, partners, and investors much more productive (and likely, more successful). And to accomplish this, your product team and marketing team (likely the same people in an early-stage startup) need to work together. As form follows function, it’s much easier to convince your audience that a hammer can do the job of driving nails than, say, convincing them that a feather could.

Lesson learned: nail your product, then tell a clear story about it.

Note 1: TSA liquid regulations http://www.tsa.gov/311/index.shtm

Note2: way to go, L3 Communications on selling those backscatter machines and apparently making loads of money by reducing people’s fears! Killer combination of powerful technology, and an even more powerful marketing campaign.

What matters to you most, and why?

2011/08/16 16 comments

The title of this post is also the first question posed to students applying to the Stanford Graduate School of Business. This question almost seems almost too personal for an MBA program, but then again, the GSB isn’t any ordinary MBA program. I was one of the lucky students who made it through that rigorous application process, and even survived 96% of my 2-year deferral period. But last week, I decided to decline Stanford’s offer of admission for the MBA class of 2013 in order to keep leading my startup company, AwesomeTouch. For those of you who I haven’t already talked with in person, I’d like to explain why.

If you’re looking for the short version, here it is:

  1. I discovered that I don’t need an MBA to run a company.
  2. I love what I’m doing right now, and who I’m working with.

OK, now for the longer version. If you don’t know the full story of why I was going to Stanford in the first place, I’ll start with a recap. I spent most of my life wanting to be an engineer, which led me to engineering school. While I was there, I lead a student team where we designed and raced solar-powered cars. While doing that, I realized that I just liked being around engineers, not necessarily being one. I had heard that combining an engineering degree with an MBA was a good way to do this, and my dad has an MBA, so I applied to the program at my university.

This was when my friend Luke told me that an MBA wasn’t really about the classes, it was about meeting people, and that staying at my alma mater wouldn’t get me that many new connections. He suggested I try some top-tier schools, like Harvard or Stanford. Since I hadn’t heard of any others (yeah, I was that naive), I applied to both. I’m really good at standardized tests (which would be a useless skill if our educational system wasn’t so messed up), so I rocked the GMAT. With a few awesome letters of recommendation from peers, bosses, and professors, I got into both. I visited Harvard, but ruled it out. Ivy League seemed too stuffy for me. So, Stanford, here I come.

But not so fast. Wanting some business context before I started the MBA program, I checked the little box on the application that said “2-year deferral”. This meant I was accepted as of May 2009, but I wouldn’t start the program until September of 2011. During those 2 years, I was expected to “work full-time to gain relevant experience.” I had heard about a thing called “entrepreneurship”, but didn’t know what it was. So, I asked Lee Todd, the president of my university and an engineer-turned-entrepreneur, and he suggested I check out the Kentucky Science and Technology Corporation. I spent my first 6 months as an intern doing due diligence for KSTC’s venture finance group. It was like candy for my brain. I got to meet a dozen new entrepreneurs every week, and spent my time researching the technology and market factors that they claimed would make their business successful. I was learning so much! But after a few months, I realized that I was sitting on the wrong side of the table. I didn’t want to watch entrepreneurs, I wanted to be one.

My same friend Luke who introduced me to Stanford’s MBA program also introduced me to his business incubator program, called Awesome Inc. Luke, my friend Brian, and a few others were entrepreneurs who liked helping other entrepreneurs get started. They recruited me to run this part of Awesome Inc they called Labs. It sounded really cool, but I didn’t really know what it was (and neither did they). Eventually, we found out that Labs could work as a conduit between the business world and the engineering school I had just graduated from. Lots of smart kids do amazing projects, but they get shoved in a drawer at the end of the semester. We started off by working with the senior design programs, and helping students to turn their projects into products. AwesomeTouch was our first success. It was actually born out of 3 projects, one of which was the mapping technology we use today. In the beginning, we had no idea whether it would survive or not. But for the past year, it has been a little flame that we just can’t snuff out. It keeps finding new fuel and growing larger.

Through this process, I realized that I didn’t need an MBA to start a company. It felt like it just kind of happened. Well, in reality, I had a lot of mentors. In the business world, mentors are like professors, except we don’t even pretend that we can repay them for all the value they provide to us. Some of my mentors were personal acquaintances, while others were just random startup veterans sharing their thoughts on their blogs. But all combined to deliver a very clear message: if you want to learn how to run a business, the best way to do so is to run a business.

Even with this well-supported conclusion, my heart was set on Stanford. If the picturesque campus hadn’t sold me at first glance, I would have been hooked by the location in the heart of Silicon Valley, the amazing peers I met during admit weekend, and the incredible allure for a competitive type-A like me to get to introduce myself as a graduate of the most selective MBA program in the world. However, after 2 years of planning my life around Stanford, I decided to walk away. But, most importantly, I wasn’t parting on some idle whim. I had found a more attractive direction, and this one had a shelf life.

In the spring, AwesomeTouch applied to a startup accelerator program called Betaspring. After a few rounds of interviews, and rejections from other programs, we got in. Huge honor, huge surprise. I had been reading for 2 years that these “startup bootcamps” were the new alternative to MBA programs for entrepreneurs. Here was my chance to have my cake and eat it too. I planned to attend Betaspring with our team, but use it to transition myself out and head for the MBA program at the end of the summer. The problem was, I fell in love. Our enterprise touchscreen software company became an indoor wayfinding company. This all of a sudden was Human Transportation, my passion (you can read about it here). After seeing that a startup accelerator program could deliver on its promise of awesome mentors (like Ben, Sean, Brad, Angus, Josh, Charlie, and Jonathan) as well as connections to investors and customers, I realized that I had found a shortcut to all the connections that I wanted to make through the MBA program. So, if my primary reasons to go to Stanford were (1) learn how to start a business and (2) make the connections necessary for it to be successful, then I no longer had a reason to go.

The first week of August, I began throwing this idea around with Brian. I had convinced him to be my replacement as CEO of AwesomeTouch, and the transition had already begun (per our website and LinkedIn profiles). I sought some advice from other entrepreneurs, admits and GSB alumni, and they suggested I try to defer one more year. In the early stage, startups are crazy. Maybe it would be more stable in a year. I emailed the GSB’s admissions staff to explain my story, and got a call back from Derrick Bolton, the admissions director. While Derrick is sometimes portrayed as the GSB’s gatekeeper, my experience lends to a different theory: he’s the designer. When going through the admissions process, I never felt like I was a faceless number, or a hacker trying to crack the code and break through the door. I felt like I was selected, like the missing piece of some unfinished puzzle. When Derrick called me, I asked about extending my deferral. Wisely, he suggested that I reflect not on when I wanted to go to business school, but if I really wanted to go. The extended deferral was not an option. I reflected some more, and concluded that for my prescribed reasons, it was no longer a logical decision. In spite of how amazing the opportunity was, I knew that I must I turn down my offer of admission to the GSB.

Since it prompted me to turn down Stanford, somewhere in here I should tell you about the crazy awesome stuff we’re doing with AwesomeTouch. Here’s the short of it: we’ve found a way make giant touchscreens affordable, so more places will have our maps, and you’ll never have to get lost inside an airport, hospital, shopping mall or college campus ever again. That’s pretty cool. But what’s more important is that we’ve found a scalable way to create maps for inside buildings. This may seem like a small step, but if you look at Google Maps, you’ll notice that for all the outdoor roads they’ve collected, they don’t have any maps of indoor hallways. We humans spend 80% of our time indoors, so there’s a lot that Google is missing. We’re calling this project BuildingLayer, and someday it’s going to power the world’s best indoor location-based services.

So, you might be wondering what my Stanford application essay claimed “matters to me most”. My answer was my family. They have been the only constant in my nomadic life, and are consistently a source of inspiration. Both my grandfathers are entrepreneurs, and I recently learned the full story of my grandfather Jim’s career choice. You see, he was a smart kid, too. He spent his whole live preparing to go to a prestigious engineering school. Just before he was to start, he realized that this degree path would train him to sit at a desk and make calculations all day long. He instead opted for the hands-on approach and became a plumber’s apprentice. I, too, have chosen the hands-on approach, and I’m excited to see where it takes the family we’ve formed at AwesomeTouch.

PS: If you’re in a similar situation (startup or b-school?), and need some additional reading, start with these:

Steve Blank – Entrepreneurial Finishing School
Vivek Wadhwa – Is an MBA a Plus or a Minus in the Startup World?
Charles Huang – The blue pill or red pill: Start-up life or an MBA?
Brian Scordato – Don’t be a hippo (be yourself)
And for kicks, help Mike Moradian decide if he should go to HBS or work on CampusBuddy

The Bike vs Car Debate continues

2010/09/01 Leave a comment

While I had heard about the debate that erupted in the comments of this article was rather heated, I am somewhat impressed at the generally logical discourse between those who favor motoring or cycling. There has definitely been some bantering back and forth, but there was a high frequency of open-minded comments that blamed neither (or both) the driver and cyclist involved in Monday’s collision.

A few great points were made:

  1. Riding bikes on sidewalks is generally a bad idea. See Ken’s thoughts.
  2. In a collision between bike and cyclist, no matter who is at fault, the cyclist will lose. #Physics
  3. Cyclists: your bike is a vehicle. Operating it demands the same responsibilities as for a car.
  4. Motorists: bicycles are vehicles. Treat them as such.

Still, my favorite comment is the one that follows:

dklane wrote on 08/30/2010 04:23:16 PM:

“As a person who has used cars, tractors, and bicycles on Lexington roads, I find it odd that people wait patiently when I drive a tractor at 12mph but act like race car drivers when I ride a bicycle on the same road at 24mph.”

When I look out at a street, my mind strips away all the vehicles, and all I see are people. Some strutting along the sidewalk. Some on two-wheelers with wind in their hair. Others enjoying a few minutes of steering-wheel karaoke. Yet we all have two things in common: a soul, and a layer of rubber insulating us from the omniscient road. Maybe if we removed the layers of insulation that divide us into vehicular factions, then we might see more clearly that we are all people. People with a destination worthy of the journey.

Categories: Bicycles, Transportation