Friday, October 22, 2010


(cross posted to )

Engineers are not great product designers. There - I said it.

Programmers are conditioned that way, but most people tend to over-do designs. We grow up with choice and believe more choices make our lives better. That's not usually the case. Things that are simple to use are easier for people to understand and use, easier to explain, easier to sell. This doesn't mean they're simple - think of the iPhone's one button. There are a couple of others hidden away, but there's just one button you use to get its attention, go back to start, navigate.

Programmers are conditioned to over-complicate things because that's what they see when they start writing code. Programmers use components called API to write their applications. API make up the basic capabilities of the system they write the application for. Think for example of the ability to put a pixel on the screen, to draw a line, to make a sound. They all make themselves available through API (application programming interfaceS). The thing with API is that they are usually built to support a lot of things the programmer might want to do. For example do you want the line to be smooth, or jagged. Should it have round edges, or pointy ones, or maybe arrow-heads? Is it a dashed-line? what dash pattern would you like?

So much choice!

To show you how the thinking goes, let's "design" a website to tell people about the weather. What would we need?

We want the user to tell us where they are. They can use a zip code, or an address, or point on the map, right? Whatever is more convenient for them.

Then we want to show them the weather today. That means the temperature and the chance of rain or snow.

Now uncle Bob has rheumatism and he feels it in his bones when the humidity is high. Let's add humidity so the rest of the family can check up on him.

Our temperature is in farenheit, but we've got some foreign friends that came to the US and still think in Celsius, so let's give them the option to see the temperature on that weird scale.

And auntie Jane wants to know the hour-by-hour forecast so that she can know what clothes to pack for her trip to the store.

And cousin Jim wants to know what tomorrow's going to be like, so let's give him the option to see the forecast tomorrow and for the rest of the week.

Tada! We've described the swiss army knife of weather applications, something that's all things to everyone. Difficult to use, difficult to explain, and just how would you tell users why you're different than

Now let's look at a minimalistic design for a weather app. Let's say we don't want to serve the entire world, but rather find a core set of users that will really really like our service, and will be able to explain it easily to their friends.

The folks at Thoughtbot have done just that - . The service was put together by Thoughtbot, a ruby-on-rails shop, to showcase simplicity. The service does one thing and one thing only - it sends you an email in the morning if (and only if) you need to take an umbrella with you today. It's extremely focused - it serves those people (like me) who need to know if it's going to rain on them or not, so that they can grab the umbrella on their way out the door. It won't serve aunt Jane or cousin Jim, but it will cause fans like me to use it and tell people about it.

So what do you need to do to use it? enter your email, your zip code, and the time of day you want to get the email. That's it. No options, no selections, no different views. It either works for you or it doesn't - it's that simple. And most developers will not be able to design something like this.

Would you?

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Land of Dreamers

My partner Yael and I have a notebook with ideas for new products, services and other things that could become startups.

To understand this statement and why it makes me shudder, I need to tell you a story first.

The Fall

We've just launched Our original startup idea for auntieChef, the food-from-people-that-care-to-you-marketplace is not panning out. It doesn't really matter why (ask me if you really want the whole story) but we've decided it's not the right way to solve the healthy / better food at home problem.

After spending a few weeks agonizing about how to solve it in other ways, how to kickstart the business in more innovative ways (at some point we were talking about becoming a virtual restaurant to an office building - don't ask), we've finally hit on a direction that might work.

Excited, we went home for the weekend (meaning two of us stayed in NY, the third went home to Boston) and reconvened on Monday. A few hours of a very downer conversation ended up with our Bostonian partner deciding that he doesn't want to continue.

We spent a couple of weeks recovering from this, and working through our idea to see how we would build it. We ended up deciding that no, we don't really think we can make it happen.

So now we had a startup, two founders and no idea.

The thing is, there are two types of people: execution people and idea people.

And both of us are execution people.

Yin and Yang

The execution people take an idea, latch on to it and move forward, going around obstacles, changing parameters to solve problems that come up.

I'll call them executioners. (yes - I know what it means, but the point is - move forward, slay problems, get it done).

Idea people are better at the random, out-of-the-blue idea.

I'll call them dreamers.

Executioners will say: The user has a problem with the login page? no problem - we'll move things around, simplify, they'll only have to provide a password and we'll figure out the username, etc.

Dreamers will say: The user has a problem with the login page? Let's have them call in instead of logging in. Let's do an anonymous service. Let's sell raw ingredients and have the people cook their own food, so we don't need to know who they are. Let's leave the food outside so people can come pick it up without telling us who they are.

Both are critical to the team, but their jobs are very different.

What's also interesting is that if you put a dreamer and an executioner together on a team, their roles will get even more polarized. Dreamers will provide the wilder ideas, executioners will censor, narrow down, focus the ideas.

One of the ways to recognize dreamers is that they have a notebook full of ideas.

Notebooks Notebooks Everywhere

In one of those startup meetings that lots of startup people go to in order to network, hear what others are doing and provide criticism worded in the form of polite feedback, we met Liam. Liam, a very nice guy, heard that we're in flux and offered to share an idea with us.

What evolved over a series of meetings was one of the most bizarre, entertaining, flabbergasting, and all-around blog-material-generating set of conversations I've had in a long time.

Liam had an idea that sounded very interesting and seemed to have potential. Since all startups are about building a company that will last and change the world, and not remotely about the most relevant exit in the form of an IPO or a sale, let's call this idea The Magic Money Factory(TM) (no illegal money counterfeiting implied).

After a couple of days of thinking about The Magic Money Factory(TM) we decided that we're interested in pursuing this a bit more. We set up a meeting with Liam and asked him what he had in mind for us to move forward.

He outlined that because he's bringing in the idea, and has a lot of relevant connections, he wants 40% of the company (we get the rest) and he wants to be vested immediately, like an investor. For the non-startupers of you, this means that while we'll have to work through a few years to earn our full share, he owns his immediately, even if he doesn't do anything else from now on.

Let's analyze this a bit:

- An idea is important. In fact, an idea is a critical piece of starting a company. It's like the grain of sand that gets embedded in an oyster, and starts the pearl creation process. On the other hand, most startups end up with a different product than what they started doing, because once you start talking to customers, working through issues, etc. you'll find that you might have identified a problem, but your solution is wrong, or even that the way you described the problem is wrong. A bit of internet search will show that ideas are valued as 1-5% of the company, the rest is execution. After all, a pearl is not a grain of sand, and the iPod is not an "easy-to-use MP3 player".

- The connections Liam was bringing to help The Magic Money Factory(TM) were, to stretch the allegory a bit, not money people, but cotton people. (US money is printed on a cotton / linen combination). So yes - they had some relevance, but were not really the people we needed.

We tried to explain that between the two of us, we have a lot of experience in management, releasing products, marketing and executive exposure, but to no avail. Liam said that this idea is much better than a lot of other ones, and that he should know.

He's got a notebook full of ideas at home.

Leggo my Ego

He made it clear that this conversation was about business, not about ego.

A few minutes later he said "The reason I'm asking for 40% of the company is so that you show me that you believe enough in the idea that 10% here or there won't matter to you."

"Doesn't that work both ways?", we asked.

"Yes", said Liam, "but it's important for me to own 40%".

I'd like to point out that some ego is being harmed in the making of this blog entry.

The Piss has Gone to His Head

And so we went home and sent a polite refusal email saying that we can't accept those terms.

A few days later we got a message asking to meet again, to see if we can reach some agreement.

After some chitchat (as I said - Liam is a very nice person), we got down to business. The new offer was a 33% split each way. There was also a commitment to work with us on this project throughout, and a provision that if Liam leaves or stops working full time on this, his control stake would drop (though not his part of the money).

Once more we were treated to how this idea is better than most:

First of all, it's not an idea, it's a "concept". Liam's definition is that apparently while everyone has ideas, this is a thought-out idea. And concepts are worth more. oh yes.

Second, this idea, sorry, this concept, is like an autobot: it's a car AND a robot. It can transform. It can start as a business making money, THEN become a startup getting funding. It's the swiss-army-knife of concepts. The elusive unicorn of concepts. It's a UniConcept(TM).

(remember - he has a notebook full of ideas at home. He can tell!)

The thing is, to catch a UniConcept(TM), you need a virgin startupper, commonly known as The Fool(TM).

Then we tried to understand why a person who pretty much professes to work less on the project deserves to own 33% of it. Once you start working on a startup idea, you've got no time for anything else. You focus on it, make tweaks, do everything needed to make it work.

Liam promised he will work with us full time on this idea.

I should probably explain a bit about Liam. This is how he presented his life story to us:

- He finished his BA from a good school, then thought about what to do with his life.
- He then started his masters in two fields, but didn't finish.
- Then he was accepted to a very prestigious economics PhD program, which he didn't finish.
- Then he started a company with a partner but they had a falling out and they, well, didn't finish.
- And he's been working on a different idea for the past two years which, to be fair, he never quite started.

So Liam doesn't seem to have the staying power. We could pretty much predict that after a few months he'll drift along to the next idea. He acknowledged this, but said he'll commit to showing up at the office. I can already foresee the annual performance review conversation: "But I'm in the office 9-5 every day!"

He then said the thing that killed the deal for us: even if he only commits 30% of his time to the project, his contribution is going to be as powerful and meaningful as our full time.

So there - a guy with no credentials is absolutely certain that he's better than us. Isn't that nice?

Did you wonder what the "Piss has gone to his head" title meant? It's a literal translation of a Hebrew expression that means that someone is swollen-headed, has grown too big for his breeches, is self-important. I like the piss metaphor better - it explains the actual physical process that happens when you're too important to take a piss.

As for me, I'll have a problem working with people who have notebooks full of ideas. It seems like those ideas rarely get translated to reality.

The Liam Strikes Back

There were a few other Liamism jewels sprinkled throughout the conversations. For example, he said he could probably get Ben Bernanke to be on the advisory board. You don't get it? He's sort of the head of the competition for Magic Money(TM). Oh never mind. You just don't get it.

"I can prove that this concept works very easily", he said. "All I have to do is grow a potato in a glass of water in my kitchen". We weren't quite sure how that would prove the point, so he explained: "it's almost like growing cotton, which is the first step to making Magic Money, sort of."

We had one final call with him, since he wanted to hear our counter-offer before we close the negotiations. To be fair, he was trying to be creative and come up with other ways of structuring the deal to get us on board, except we had our best offer defined and would not budge.

"I'm disappointed you weren't more creative. For me.", said Liam.

The Notebook

And so we went back to the drawing board, thinking up ideas for startups. No - not concepts. We're not smart enough for that.

What surprised us was that in a few short days of, admittedly intense, brainstorming, we came up with quite a number of ideas. It seems that if the dreamers are not on the team anymore, the executioners can actually come up with ideas. Maybe it's all the quiet that's causing us to speak up and fill the void.

We started writing them down in a notebook.

But it scares me. I'm not sure I can work with us anymore now that we have a notebook.


P.S. The name Liam is obviously not his real name. Liam = Living In A Movie

Technorati claim code: DUTHC9SNVRAD

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Re-Coining a Term

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Re-Coining a term

We found the the holy grail! We were walking down one of the aisles of the show and there it stood:

It's the perfect gift. It makes for an excellent story. It even leads itself to a picture and a puzzle.

Can you guess what it is?

1000 Foodies, but only Food Court Chow

As part of our continuing education into the food business, the auntieChef team went to our first professional conference. I've been to a a number of conferences in the past, both as an attendant and as a booth worker. All of these conferences were technical in nature, whether for electronics or software. This one was different. The International Restaurant & Foodservice Show of New York had the same format of rows upon rows of booths with companies showing their wares, but in this case the wares were food. And you got to sample their ice cream, mango liquor or fried squid.

The show is the place where companies showcase their food, machinery or other services for the restaurant business. For example, if you were looking for commercial quantities of Soy or Green tea or specialty Wasabi or silverware for your restaurant or prize Wisconsin Cheese or Organic Pork or prime beef or chef's knives or flat bread or even a company to do the interior decoration for you, that's the place to find them. They were all there, and you got to sample the Wasabi or Fortune cookie. But not the interior designer.

And the only food to buy was in the Javitz Center's food court. Kind of ironic, that.

And walking down one of these isles is where we found the holy grail, the can that generated a few days of gratuitous jokes, the can that will re-coin a phrase, the little can that could!

Any guesses so far?

Hint - the back of the can has a green star that looks like a quality seal. Looking closely you find that it was approved by one of the US veterans associations!

Recruiting Chefs

Last week we visited the French Culinary Institute's career fair. The school runs intensive accredited cooking classes of 6-9 months, specializing in either French cooking, Italian cooking or Pastries. A couple of weeks back we did a tour of their classrooms and kitchens (4-5 separate ones) and were very impressed. The career fair is where students and alums of the school come to meet restaurant owners and HR reps from restaurant chains who are looking for cooks for their kitchens.

I couldn't help but contrast this fair with the the ones I was used to in technical schools:

First, this is a culinary school. The school has a restaurant (L'Ecole), that lets the students try out a real restaurant setting. They work in the kitchen while a professional staff mans and womans) the front of the restaurant. As recruiters in the fair, we were invited to a free lunch. All I can say is - exquisite. French food done well.

Then, there was a distinct power structure to the fair that's not as visible in tech fairs. In a technology fair, you'd go up to a recruiter, take a seat (or you'd both stand if there aren't any seats) and talk to them about what you want to do, while the recuiter will tell you about the company.

Here, all of us recruiters sat down around the room, while students and graduates circulated and gave their resumes to the interviewers. There was a clear distinction between the sitting-down employers and the supplicant students standing trembling before them. We were surprised to see that we were the only people (at least in the room we were in) that would stand up to talk to the students.

We were also the odd-company out since we weren't really recruiting anyone. We were there to tell them about our site and encourage them to check it out and sign up.

The students we talked to were fascinating. There's no fixed age, since it's not a typical post-high-school college. For many of the chefs it's a second or even third career. We've met the guy who cooked since he was little, the woman who was an actress, then an administrative assistant and is now a chef, and the ex-MBA come consultant that decided cubicle life is not for him.

If you're in town, check out the restaurant, L'Ecole.

To Re-coin that term

And now, back to our restaurant show discovery: Introducing, drum-roll please, Canned Bread.

Yes bread.

This Japanese company has found a way to can bread. It stays "fresh" for 3 or so months and comes in a number of flavors.
They are looking for ways to market it, and their posters had such awesome suggestions as "for survival", "for long hiking trips" and "great as a giveaway at shows". We took one. As you can see - it was a great giveaway at the show :)

So remember - it's "The best thing since Canned bread"

And Please...

Fill out our survey and pass on the word:

Monday, February 08, 2010

The Skepticism of Rats

(Cross-posted to )

Here's an exercise in creativity. How would you start the following sentence?
"..., as rats are very skeptical of new things."

Yes, it's a real sentence I came across. Seriously. Stop for a second and think about it. What would be a good opening for it? Here are some of mine:

  • Don't try confidence games on rats, as rats are very skeptical of new things.
  • The newest fashion is wasted on rats, as rats are very skeptical of new things.
  • Rats haven't moved from myspace to facebook, as rats are very skeptical of new things.

If you've got good ideas, add them as comments to this post.

I'm taking the New York City online Food Protection Course, a course that all supervisors in restaurants and food establishments must take. This is not a backup career choice. It's a way to understand food safety better, and get a feel for what our Aunties (the internal nickname for sellers on auntieChef) have to go through.

Imagine my surprise as in the middle of this dry material about the proper way to wash dishes (you're all doing it wrong) and why that lasagna in the fridge must not be placed under the thawing chicken for tomorrow's dinner I suddenly come face to face with the very skeptical rat comment on the food safety course:

"Do not set up traps for several days to allow rats to become acclimated with the traps, as rats are very skeptical of new things."

This is so much more than rats just plain avoiding new things.

Imagine you're a rat, snooping around, minding your own business when suddenly, there's this new thing you didn't see before? You immediately rush to your friends to have a debate about it:

- Rodney, you there?
- Yep George. What's up?
- There's this new thing up there. Not sure what it is. Waddaya think?
- Hmm. New thing? What new thing?
- This thing, Rodney. This square thing with other thingies on top of it.
- Hmm. I'm not sure George. I know! We'll send Kenneth to check it out. He's gullible. He'll try anything.
- Hey Kenneth! Kenneth! Come over here a sec, we've got something for you to try. It's really cool.
- What is it Rodney?
- See that thing over there? It's a new Rat game. Go ahead - try it out. Jump on it a few times. Food will come out.
- Cool! Let me take a running leap and j...
- Well George, now we know. Stay away from it. I knew not to trust these new things.

Or maybe it means rats don't like change?

- Hey George, we're planning tonight's run. Your path is through there, as always. Just go around that new thing there.
- But we've always run that part straight, Rodney. It's the way we've always done it. Why should we change now? If it ain't broke and all that.
- Well George, would you believe it's because the competition is coming out with a new business model that will cause our sales to drop? No? Ok - just run it the way we've always done it.
- Hey Rodney, it's not a probl...

Well, off to the next chapter in the course where I'll find out which diseases can kill me when I eat at restaurants.

Don't forget to comment on this post, as rats are very skeptical of new things.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Land of the Cooks

New Beginnings

I'm on a life-changing trip. One of my managers once told me that when reorganizations happen, you have to look at two things:
  • Is your manager still the same?
  • Is your job still the same?
If none of these changed, you probably won't feel the impact. If only one of these changed, you have a base to build from, but if both changed, you have to pay attention.

After 12 years at Sun, where I've gained most of my professional experience, I've decided it was time for, as Monty Python put it, Something Completely Different (SCD).

And so to make sure there's never a dull moment, I've changed my job, my boss and the place I live in.

SCD I - A Tale of Two Yaels

I am now living in New York City, the Big Apple, Gotham, the City that Never Sleeps...

Over the years, I've moved to progressively larger and slightly more expensive apartment, starting with the 5-people-in-a-dorm-room I had during my army service. That all changed when I moved from Israel to the US, got an apartment with one room less but 4 times the rent.

New York did that to me again - one room less, 25% more rent. Amazing!

The apartment hunting was very educational. I focused on Manhattan's upper east side for a location. The first set of apartments, let's call them "discount apartments", had what you might call character. For example, one of them had a bedroom connected through the living room. Both were about the size of my couch. The agent insisted that two
couples lived in that apartment. I can only assume some sort of open relationship. I can't imagine going to get a glass of water in the middle of the night and having to check if there's a sock on your own door and you can't leave.

I found another apartment for rent posted on a sign outside a building. Calling the number on the sign I asked if I can move in a month later. The agent said "by now, it shouldn't be a problem". A small warning light went off in my head, but still - a cheap, 2 room apartment. Worth checking, right?

We met the super (short for superintendent) later that evening and he walked us up a flight of stairs. "We" is me and my local expert, YaelG, who probably hates the public mention and won't speak to me for a week, but thank you for all the help! We walked up a couple of flights of stairs. Some of these steps noticeably sagged under me as I climbed.
A small warning light went off in my head, but still - a cheap, 2 room apartment. Worth checking, right?

We then followed the super to the apartment at the end of the hallway. I was getting a slightly claustrophobic feeling that the walls were closing in on me, and indeed by the time we reached the door, my shoulders were touching both sides of the hallway at once.
A small warning light went off in my head, but still - a cheap, 2 room apartment. Worth checking, right?

The door on the right had a sign on it and the super explained that they just evicted the tenant there since she had a pet and that's not allowed. Really? The pet was the problem?
A small warning light went off in my head, but still - a cheap, 2 room apartment. Worth checking, right?

We went into the apartment on the left. The super explained that he can't turn on the lights since the previous tenant (also evicted) didn't pay her electric bill. An emergency firework beacon goes off in my head. No light this time - there's no electricity.

The apartment was big enough for me to take a step from wall to wall. Surprisingly, the shower was bigger than the kitchen (and please remember that bigger is a relative term).

We thanked the super and emergency-evacuated ourselves out of there.

Another type of apartment is the managed property one, where a company owns he building and rents out apartments. The places are cleaner, well maintained, have a doorman and elevator, and obviously higher rent. They also have a whole bunch of rules for who can rent. For example:
- No registered sex-offenders (ok - that's good)
- No criminal record (that's great)
- Salary must be 50x the rent.

wait what?

Let's do the math. At, say, $2500/mo that comes up to $125,000/yr salary. Oh - you're staring a new company? No salary yet? No problem - all you have to show is that you have 5x that number in the bank. A quick check with my trusty calculator shows that if I had $625,000 in the bank, I might not be starting a new company.

I did eventually manage to find an apartment I liked though. And so I packed up most of my worldly belonging with the extremely helpful hand of YaelW (a different Yael, who will probably call to tell me how people saw her name in my blog and will probably also tweet about it). Thank you Yael!

So here I am. I know exactly 2 people in this city. Hopefully that will change soon.

The other big change is that I've started a company with two of my friends. Our goal is to enable small-time prepared food producers to reach customers who are looking for healthier, homier food but don't have time to cook. You can check us out on It's a marketplace for homestyle food. If you cook - you can open up a "kitchen" on our site. If you're looking for a different kind of cooking than restaurant food or frozen TV dinners, you can go there and search for whatever strikes your fancy. We are currently looking for cooks, especially cooks in the Boston area. If you know any - please please send them our way. You can even do the referral through out site, in which case we'll donate some funds to charity. For details - check out out referral program.

Why auntie? Because everyone has that aunt (or Uncle - we're an equal opportunity referrer to your childhood) or a friend of the family that used to cook that good food you remember so well. Don't you want to find that again?

This is a completely new operation for me. I've moved from working on Java environments for embedded devices, to a consumer-facing web application. There's a lot of drinking through the fire hose going on!

The kind of discussions we're having are also very different than what I was used to at Sun. For example - there's the great squiggly rift of '09 where we eventually decided to have straight lines for the boxes on the site. Or the session where we discussed the market of fresh-off-the-boat engineers craving food like mom's, or if we should focus marketing on menopausal women (we're not!!!). But I had to learn what Spanx is and what their branding strategy is. Don't ask.

We also had a lot of discussions about what our tagline should be. A good tagline is important - gets people to remember you, refer friends, etc. The one we all liked was "making food personal again". A quick google search showed that is wasn't being used by anyone else, but some similar slogans are being used. For example, what's your take on "making menstruation personal again"? It doesn't really speak to me.

And then thre's Pot. No - not the medical kind. I'd like you to meet Pot. He's a resident of auntieChef land and it took us a while to figure out what he should be. Anything from a fork to an auntie to a spatula was considered. And when we talked about femininity vs. masculinity, Swaroop (one of the partners) coined the phrase that will forever go down in auntieChef history: "Just throw a wig on it".

Pot is the creation of the incredibly talented Melissa Raimondi.

So to sum this up - I'm having tons of fun, learning lots of new things, AND if you know any cooks, send them our way.

Creativity beyond the Wall

One of the known methods for generating new ideas is to start generating a list, then when you think you've hit a wall and don't have any more, keep going. At a certain point, your brain finds avenues you haven't explored and a lot of your more creative ideas will come then.

Here at auntieChef (I so wanted to sound like a documentary) we have to test our site. There are 2 main platforms (windows, mac) and too many browsers (Firefox, IE, Safari, Chrome, Opera) each with a different set of versions. So before each 'release' we have to make sure the core functionality works and that we didn't break the UI too badly.

This implies opening kitchens on the site and populating them with fake dishes. Now you try doing that day after day and eventually you hit that wall of creativity. To give you an example of some of the kitchens we now have on our testing site:
- Eran's Lemonade Stand
- Swaroop's Frozen Food Emporium
- BlahBlahBlah kitchen
- Delete this kitchen
- The fisherman's refuge
- A to the C

Not to mention cooks that were influenced by their father in a little village by the Jordan river, or their mother in The Shire, etc. The dishes get more exotic, from pink lemonade (made from Prigat) to "An Arm and a Leg" actually referring to the price.

And in case any of my former QA team is reading this, I'd like to proudly state that we have a continuous integration server running on a 5 minute cycle with 71% code coverage (and climbing!).

Our company right now looks like the picture of the sprout at the top of the page. Hopefully, the future looks more like this. I wish everyone a year of happiness and growth!