Random generated thoughts

Personal musings on Internet and Web technology, startups and life in general.

Tears in rain

12th September 13

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe… Founders on fire off the beaches of Mallorca. I watched glowsticks glitter in the dark near the Brandenburg Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.

Goodbye, HackFwd, and thanks for letting me be a part.

The one single element that determines the outcome of your startup

5th September 13

Luck.

What is Bitcoin?

9th April 13

With its value in US dollars reaching $200, Bitcoin has captured the attention and imagination of numerous people throughout the world, spreading from being a technological curiosity used for paying for geeky items and illegal substances to a phenomenon widely discussed even in mainstream media.

However, it seems to me that most of the coverage misses the point of what Bitcoin really is, mostly deceived by the terminology used since it was created. I’m not going to go into neither technical details not the ideas behind its creation, as others have done a much better job of it, but let me explain how I see it from a purely economical standpoint.

Although it’s usually touted as such, Bitcoin is not really a currency, although it has some of its properties — the main actually being the ability to transfer it electronically from one holder to another. But unlike currency its supply is limited — once the number of coins reach a predetermined figure it will not be possible to create (or “mine for”) more, and far before that the processing power required to mine new ones will be so large that the production rate will be zero for all practical purposes. This also means that its value can’t be inflated, as is the case with actual currencies.

This means that Bitcoin also have some properties of a resource or commodity, not unlike gold, water, arable land or something else that has been used, traded and killed for by humans for years and centuries. However, unlike most other resources (actually all that I can think of), Bitcoin a) can be infinitely divided and traded for other resources (or money) in any amount (a bar of gold can be divided down to the level of an atom; below that it’s not gold any more), and b) it has no intrinsic function it can perform which would make it keep some value if it loses its function as a measure of value: gold can be turned into jewellery and electronic parts, water can be drunk, oil can be burned and land can be worked or lived on.


In other words, Bitcoin is really an experiment, something new in the global economy perhaps for the first time since paper money was introduced. We’ll see how it will fare, will it succeed or fail, what it will turn into, and if it’s just the next step in the evolution of the economic instruments.

23rd February 12
The Trouble With Non-tech Cofounders

"I’ve seen the problem with non-tech founders a few times now, different people, different ages and backgrounds, with different levels of skill, but all with the same thing in common: having to rely on someone else to bring an idea from paper to screen. The most common mistake I think people like this make is to think that they know in advance what they need to get built, and once they’ve paid for that to be done, and a website has been delivered, that they then have a business."

Web First, Mobile Perhaps

1st February 12

This was originally a comment to the article titled Web Second, Mobile First on Mark Suster’s excellent blog Both Sides of the Table. While Mark has a consistently high level of quality in his articles I was, to be honest, a bit disappointed with this one. First of all, it states a number of observations that seem pretty obvious to me (and therefore, I believe, to most everyone), such as that a smartphone (or “mobile”) is increasingly the first computing device for many new users.

But more importantly, it’s continuing the false dichotomy of “mobile vs. Web”. Why it’s false? Simply because modern mobile devices — at least those with their own ecosystems — are perfectly able to display Web, and it’s becoming extremely easy to develop for both mobile and Web at the same time, with only a few more resources devoted to ensuring the cross-platform compatibility (which are necessary even if you develop only for “Web”, as you need to take into account different browsers and OSs: e.g. if you’re aiming at China, 77% of your visitors will use IE 8.0 and earlier).

If you’re strapped for resources, there is absolutely no need to develop a mobile app and have to depend on the whims of AppStore and other walled gardens out there — you can develop for the Web, and make your front-end switch the styles automatically according to the device it’s viewed on. You say that you love the new LinkedIn mobile app; but have you seen their mobile Web? It’s pretty much as functional as the mobile app, looks just as well, and has probably required only a bit more resources than the “traditional” Web app.

Essentially, in my opinion, a mobile app makes sense only if it requires no Internet connection to operate properly, so it’s perfect for games, fart jokes and similar use cases. For all the examples Mark mentioned in his article — Yelp, LinkedIn, Foursquare etc — ubiquitous Internet is a prerequisite, which means that there is no advantage over a mobile Web app. Actually, with the modern HTML5 features such as local storage, even a less than 100% reliable connection is not necessarily a problem, as some data can be stored locally and used when offline, syncing it back to the server when online.

So, instead of the “Mobile first, Web second” approach, I’d suggest a different strategy to most new startups: “Web (classic and mobile) first, mobile perhaps (if necessary)”.

A couple early 2012 trends

4th January 12

The new year has barely begun, and I have already started noticing a few tiny trends that might as well be signs of some greater shifts that will develop over the course of the year and beyond:

  • Non-programmers learning to code: There was a minor slew of tweets by non-programmers, stating that their New Year resolution is to learn to code, mainly using Codecademy. To be honest I am not surprised, as it seems that in the present job crunch and general downturn the demand for skilled coders is in ever rising demand. Even if you don’t aim to find employment as a programmer, knowing how to code is growing more and more useful for a number of smaller tasks in your daily life. I think that the main obstacle in their resolution will be when they realise that “coding” is not a single thing — there has never been more available languages, platforms and even targeted audiences when it comes to programming than today.
  • Getting back to work: This Joy of Tech cartoon is the latest and most visible example of something I’ve been noticing everywhere around me: people are getting back to work. Probably a combination of the ongoing depression and the optimism of the New Year is prompting people to turn away from looking for ways to entertain themselves and look for ways to create some value and have some fun doing it. Of course, this attitude has always been present in startups, but it’s spilling over to the general population.

The most important skill for software developers

20th November 11

Abstraction.

Of course Web development is broken

18th April 11

Because Web was never meant to be developed for.

Originally, Web was intended as a collection of resources — actually, a filesystem of sorts. But it grew out of proportions as it became popular since it allowed users to see color and pictures and animations on the Internet, which was up to that point either limited to plain text, or required some heavy-weight, non-standard applications to be installed on the client. Actually, the name used for the application used to access the Web — a browser — tells a lot about how it was intended to use: to “browse” the resources, not to execute them. Could you imagine what desktop development would look like if you were limited to using just some sort of file viewer to program for it?

Each Web application is, actually, two completely unrelated Web applications. One is executed on the host and is preparing the data for the Web server to serve; but there is another, which is running in each of the users’ browsers, only connected to the former one by asymmetric pairs of requests and responses. Even if it consists only of HTML (and CSS), it still has code being interpreted and evaluated on the client; ajax apps only emphasize this.

So it’s not Web development that is broken; in fact, it is a miracle what has been created by the developers to work around the fundamental limitations of the platform, which was never meant to be one.

(This was originally a comment on a posting on Hacker News, linking to an article titled Web development is just broken.)

Opening the valve

10th April 11

For quite some time I’ve been a strong opponent of the notion that we are in a new dotcom bubble. While there has indeed been a significant raise in the starup investments and valuations, my position has been based on the facts that this time the things are a bit different: there is only a handful of companies getting seemingly insane valuations, and none of them are available to the public market.

However, today I have ran into a few articles discussing the plans of the SEC to loosen the rules that define who can invest in non-public companies and how. And if these plans become reality, I am willing to bet that this will very soon lead to a new tech bubble, which might pop even stronger then the Y2K one…

For one, startups are inherently risky, but the media is emphasizing the most successful ones, and the public perception is that one can make a fortune on the right ones, like the current media darling Facebook. So when the gates are opened and the public is allowed to invest there will be a rush, which will create a bubble effect we have all seen ten years ago. But this time it will be even worse, as the private companies are not required to have as many disclosures and reports as the public ones, so it will be almost impossible to have the right information. It is safe to predict the it will end up with a lot of small investors blowing up their savings on the gold rush of overblown valuations.

Second, one of the greatest effects of current rules is that most of the funds available to startups are the “smart money”, i.e. they come with experienced investors (VCs and angels) who add quite a lot of value besides the cash itself. Small-time investors mostly don’t have that added value, and the money is usually not enough, as we could have learned on the Diaspora's case. In fact, we will most likely have the least experienced founders seeking funding from the least savvy investors (as those with experience will by definition have better access to mentors and investors), and without the guidance they will be more likely to fail, taking their investors with them.

Third, even though there is a lot more money available today, there is still some kind of filtering process before the startups are funded. Hell, even Yuri Milner doesn’t throw his money blindly to anyone who knocks on his door — he has relegated the process to the Y Combinator team, who have so far proven that they can pick the best teams. But unsophisticated investors don’t have the skills to pick the wheat from the chaff; instead they have only one tool to help them decide: social proof. And as they mostly don’t have direct access to the experienced pundits, they need to use a proxy, which is the mass media; and we all know how accurate its reports on startup valuations are. So it comes down to only two kinds of companies they will shoose to invest into: either the booming behemoths everyone is talking about, like Facebook or Groupon; or, failing that, any small seed-stage startup dabbling in the field which is hot in the news these days, be it social media, mobile, geolocation or whatever.

And lastly, one of the worst situations a startup can find itself in is to have more money than it needs. (And I’m talking about investment money, not revenue; the latter is a good problem, and when you get there you’re not really a startup anymore.) This is something we have seen in late nineties, when the bubble was at its height, with money being blown on expensive cars, designer chairs and weekly parties. A startup thrives when it has just enough money to scrape it through, and overfunding makes it sluggish and drowsy.

So I believe that the last thing we need is making funding for startups easier, especially if that means involving a wide audience of unsophisticated investors. I’m still certain that we are not in a real bubble yet, but these new regulations will certainly mean opening a valve to the air tank which will blow it up. And this time it might be even worse than the last.

There are no ideas

1st March 11

Earlier today, while reading some comments on a post on Hacker News, I had a revelation: ideas, and in particular business or startup ideas, don’t exist. They are just a figment of our imaginations.

An eternal debate has been raging for decades, with those who believe that the business idea is the root of all innovation and progress in business and technology pitted against those who are saying that the idea, while mildly relevant, is completely secondary to its execution, which save a bad idea if done correctly, or spoil a good one if done badly.

But when you think of it — what are the makings of a successful business? There are numerous ways to analyse one, of course; but I’m sure we will all agree that we can isolate three general elements:

  1. The product is the actual thing that is being sold to the customers and is bringing revenue to the company. It doesn’t have to be an actual physical product — it may be a piece of software, a service, anything that gives enough value to someone’s life that this someone is willing to pay money for it.
  2. The way this product is actually produced — which could be called its quality or, if you wish, the execution — is another element, separate from the first one. We may have two functionally identical products, but one can easily be better than the other: will last long, will operate smoothly and without delays, etc.
  3. And the third element, which rounds up our little group, is the market: a more or less clearly defined group of customers which might share different qualities, but the most important one is that they are (at least in theory) interested in our product.

As we can see, there is no idea. So how is it that there are so many debates about something that doesn’t exist?

Actually, I lied a bit — there is something we might call “an idea”, lacking a better word, but it isn’t anything concrete or specific. Most generally, what most people call “an idea” is in reality a more or less vaguely defined combination of the above elements.

In other words, an idea is a concept of a certain product, executed in a certain way, for a certain market. For example, many countries have recently seen a slew of Groupon clones — i.e. the same product and the pretty much same execution as Groupon, only for different markets. Or, applications like The Daily are a known product (a publication) for an old market, only with a new execution (on the iPad).

It’s quite difficult to come up with a truly novel idea, i.e. something that innovates in all three areas. Luckily that isn’t necessary, since it is usually enough to differentiate in only one to gain a significant competitive edge. But often one isn’t enough — while the Groupon clones can work because their model is basically local, previous stabs at local Facebook clones have invariantly failed, since their differentiation — local language — was easily defeated by the original Facebook.