I’ve had a really incredible past few days, and I’m eager to share the few things I’ve learned. I’m very lucky to live in the (arguably) best city in the world – New York – where I (definitely) find myself in the midst of great things happening on a regular basis. A few days ago, I got the opportunity to see Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of reddit, give a great presentation in support of his new book Without Their Permission. Alexis (who hates being called “Alex”) was an early Y Combinator grad and went on to do a number of awesome ventures, including being a Y Combinator Ambassador in the East. So, when after the presentation I not only got to chat with him one-on-one during the book signing, but also got to go out to drink with Alexis an a number of other audience members, I was overjoyed. Alexis is a nicest, down-to-earth, just-nerdy-enough-to-be-awesome guy and the thought of doing whiskey shots with him was as memorable as it was educational (who ever thought “whiskey” and “educational” would be in the same sentence?) Alexis has a truly contagious sense of enthusiasm and encouragement, and I definitely recommend his book. Even better, fellow Binghamton-ians (what do people actually call us?) – he’s scheduled to speak in Binghamton in February, and I see no reason for you not to be there.
As if my week weren’t already awesome enough, during the book signing I started chatting with Joseph, Alexis’s former classmate and current colleague-turned-book-tour-manager, who mentioned he also does community management for Pebble Watch. For those of you who don’t know, Pebble is a Y Combinator-funded hardware startup that is also known as the greatest Kickstarter success story ever, raising a whopping $10.2 million on a $100,000 target. In a way, Pebble is a hero company of mine specifically due of their pioneering of wearable electronics. So, when Joseph offered to join him, Eric (the founder of Pebble,) and a few friends in Williamsburg the following night, I was absolutely blown away.
We got together at a beer hall in Williamsburg, and I was surprised to see that only a few people came, given that the location and time were posted on Twitter, and Pebble has a lot of fans. We drank delicious German beer and shared sausages and latkes together around a small table, and sure enough there was Eric Migicovsky, the brilliant mastermind of Pebble of whom Paul Graham of Y Combinator said “If I had to pick someone who will be the next Steve Jobs, it would be Eric.” Needless to say, I was both elated and nervous as hell. I’m normally pretty confident in chatting people up, but found myself at a loss for words throughout the night. We were joined by a pair of guys from Points Signs who spent the night chatting about the specifics of hardware. To be perfectly blunt, I felt like a complete idiot around these brilliant people, but if I had learned anything this week it was this: it’s okay. It’s okay not to know. In fact, as Alexis told me, having to learn massive new amounts of information is how you know you’re doing something right.
Despite feeling,, let’s say… humbled, I kept my ears perked up and absorbed everything I could. Eric was talking about the possible future directions for Pebble as well as his views on the product and other trends, and it was great to see his mind at work. I had a great conversation with Joseph about community management and possible future ventures. Most importantly, realizing just how little I know has made me more eager than ever to learn. I was able to share some concepts with Eric, but I wish I had a prototype or at least a Photoshop mockup to show him. The more I meet entrepreneurs at all the different stages and learn their stories, the more I realize that with the tools we have at our disposal, almost anything is truly possible. More than that, age is no longer relevant. While the older generation often worries about entrepreneurship being a young man’s game, a lot of recent graduates, like myself, and kept back by our self-perception of inexperience. What did I really learn in college? Should I maybe work first? Given how many stories of 22-year-olds starting, heading and sometimes cashing out on successful, profitable ventures, the answer seems to be a resounding no. You can work in the meanwhile – bills need to be paid – but it’s never too early to start. Entrepreneurship is all about learning.
So, I got up today, and I’m proud to say that for the third or fourth day in a row, I worked for the majority of the day. I want to make things happen – I want to hold a physical product in my hand, and now I know that it’s okay to feel completely clueless. It’s the willingness to learn that counts.
A few days ago, I spent a day midtown NYC trying to find the kind of leather I want to use in my product. I have zero experience with leather, so this was a fun and somewhat stressful learning experience. Actually, that’s not completely true – it wasn’t my first time working with leather. I had my first crush on a girl in fifth grade, and she invited me to a leatherworking workshop. I, having read nothing but medieval romance novels at the time, obliged. Sadly, even after the class, she did not return my affections. But, I guess it wasn’t not my first experience with leather, then. Here are some things I learned in my recent day out:
1. Learn all you can about the material beforehand. I did some research before going out, and had a rough idea of the sorts of leather and fabric I’d be looking at. My research proved extremely useful, but also strikingly lacking. I got lucky, and the salespeople at some of the shops took the time to teach me. However, this was certainly above and beyond their job. Unlike a regular store where a salesperson can spend twenty minutes telling you why a particular watch is amazing, highly specialized material shops are by definition frequented by artisans and professionals. In short, you’re expected to know what you’re talking about, and it’s nobody’s job to teach you. In fact, the last shop I visited demonstrated this. The saleslady, although nice, became increasingly annoyed with me as I asked basic questions. Normally I’d be frustrated, but in truth, I should have been more prepared. At some point, I remarked that a particular cowhide “felt cool to the fingers,” and in a heavy Russian accent she smirked that “everything feels cool” and walked away.
In short, you’re expected to know what you’re talking about, and it’s nobody’s job to teach you.
My initial thinking was that I could only learn so much at home, and would really get a feel for things out in the shops. This may be true for some of you and maybe for some shops, but in general, do your research. I could have learned more. I could have read a book on leatherworking, spent more time researching, and prepared better.
2. Be confident in what you’re building. I’ve pitched my business to lots of friends, family, and others at networking events, but this was the first time I’ve ever gone out into the world to work with people that have no particular interest in the product. I had to sell with confidence. And – I somewhat expected this sooner or later – somewhere between the leather shops and the many stores I visited that sell similar products, I stopped and had my first real bout of self-doubt: “what am I even doing?” I know next to nothing about the product I’m working on (but I’m learning a million things,) I’m not sure if I can see myself staying with the product for many years, and more importantly, I’m just not sure if I can picture my success. These thoughts are common among entrepreneurs, and I was expecting for doubts to creep in as my initial enthusiasm waned (it hasn’t!) But, when you’re trying to sell – or in this case, buy – you can’t afford for that to happen. Your personal bout of insecurity will need to wait till you get home. Or at least back to the car.
Have your pitch ready. Know what you’re building, and screw anybody that doesn’t love it. Your ultimate judge is the end consumer – you’re trying to satisfy him (or her!) and if your microprocessor salesperson thinks that the robot you’re building is the cooki-est thing since Easy Cheese spray, then he can go to hell, as long as he can offer you a decent price on the electronics. And finally – you’re a business; act like it. Exaggerate and fill in corners as necessary. Sometimes you need to embody where you’re going to get there. Wait, I’m actually going to insist you click on that last link – it’s okay if you skipped the first couple. Biz Stone’s story is way more interesting than mine at this point. So, go out there and sell! Coffee’s for closers only.
3. Forget the established way and learn, learn, learn. Steve Wozniak of Apple famously remarked: ” All the best things that I did at Apple came from (a) not having money and (b) not having done it before, ever. Every single thing that we came out with that was really great, I’d never once done that thing in my life.” So, while you should absolutely follow #1 and do as much research as you can, don’t let how things are dictate what your product will be. You’re an entrepreneur – by definition, you’re making something new. If you follow step 1 correctly, you should be knowledgeable about the many available tools, but that’s only the starting line. Now, how can you do things differently, better?
All the best things that I did at Apple came from (a) not having money and (b) not having done it before, ever.
~ Steve Wozniak
I got the following advice from this brilliant book, which I can’t recommend enough: find a thread that’s common sense to a product, and question why that is so. “Building should have distinct walls and a roof.” Well, should they? Frank Gehry wasn’t ready to just accept that. If you see a material and think to yourself, hey, this would look awesome if my product were made of that – follow that thought, no matter how ridiculous it seems! It doesn’t mean you should just make it that way, but thinking outside of the proverbial box will help you find exciting new ideas. Although making TV remotes from hard jelly might not make the cut, questioning why 99% of remotes are rigid, plastic, and rectangular may just get you thinking in a good direction. Another useful technique is to look at how things are done in other fields and try to integrate – but we’ll save that thought for a later post.
All that aside, perhaps the most important advice is the unspoken #4: just go out and do it. Get out of the building. Even if you’re completely unprepared and neglect my previous thoughts completely, you’ll be worlds away from the dreamers that steam in their ideas for decades and never actually get anything done. What about you, fellow entrepreneurs? What experience have you have in sourcing and selecting materials for your product?
Short and simple: I want to hold a product in my hands and know I’ve created it. Perhaps that’s what is motivating me towards hardware and away from websites. I don’t have a background in design or engineering, but I have spent most of my life around people who create: musicians, composers, artists, and people who calculate: mathematicians, analysts, other entrepreneurs, and financiers. The idea of working for a company I don’t believe in doesn’t just bother me – it terrifies me, and I have a natural urge to make new things.
My main motivation for working used to be money, but now I’m much more driven by the desire to innovate, contribute, and participate. Working on Explorchestra (the orchestra I co-founded in college) and with BizSaves (as startup I interned with) were the best and most productive experiences of my life. We’d get together in small, tight-knit teams, and spend hours upon hours brainstorming, designing, planning, arguing, and ultimately bringing new ideas to life. Then, we’d go out into the wide world and visit places to fundraise; we’d cold-call, email, and research. The coolest and most terrifying thing about the process of creating something new is that it requires a radically different mindset. Getting the spark is the easy part: once you start paying attention to inefficiencies and needs, problems and solutions start popping up everywhere. The hard part comes next: now what? Unlike most experiences I’ve had thus far, nobody is asking concrete questions. In college, I’d be given problem sets with expected answers. At a job, I would be responsible for some small step of a financial production line: calculate the bottom line, create projections for next quarter, call 42 clients. Here, however, nobody at all is telling me what to do.
So, what do we have? Me at the starting line with a head full of ideas to solve a problem I’ve selected, and somewhere far off, a finished product. Along the way, vague benchmarks: a viable prototype, a business plan, a crowdsourcing campaign, manufacturing specs, and so on. In reality, all of this translates to me at my empty desk staring at a computer screen, unsure where to even begin. I always read about entrepreneurs working ridiculous hours, but my question as of now is: what the heck are you working on? Like the product I’m creating, I know the answer is there: everything. Sometime, I’m just overwhelmed with where to even begin. Self-discipline is another issue: I need to set concrete working hours and work them. I think that’ll be a great way to get on track.
I’m planning on keeping you updated throughout the process so that we can both learn from it if I’m fortunate enough to succeed. Whatever difficulties come my way, however, I know that when I read about the many aspects of product creation, from design to marketing to manufacturing to sales, I am inspired to follow. Without any guidelines, the words of the brilliant Jack Sparrow come to mind: “The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can’t do.” Let’s see what I’m capable of.
Tomorrow, I start work at the Maimonides Hospital. I’m working 8 – 6 PM, possibly to seven on Thursday, and I’m going to be moving about clinics throughout the coming weeks. Tomorrow, just for a day, I’m in pediatric oncology. Damn. For someone not accustomed or drawn to hospitals (is anyone?) this is a rough start. But, I just hope I can do my job. I really need the money, and this is a fantastic gig to have in the meanwhile, although it doesn’t do much to advance my career in the traditional sense. The idea is to save up some money to be able to work on my electronics bags business, release my album (my best friend Manar is pushing me, fortunately,) which is halfway done, and just be able to take a girl out once in a while. Moreover – and I know I’ll be hating myself in two weeks for saying this – but I need the routine. I’ve been roaming free for months, and it’s killing my productivity. Counterintuitive as it might be, exchanging a large portion of my day for money is going to force me to the kind of focus I desperately need.
Note to self: order new business cards for networking, not my music website (www.maxscoring.com)
I deactivated and blocked Facebook about four or five days ago. I keep coming back by nature, and everytime a huge “You should be working!” screen pops up, courtesy of the “No Procrastination” Chrome extension. I have no particular reason to stay off, aside from it being a giant time waster at the moment, and the fact that I get nothing positive from it. More than that, however, the fact that I keep coming back makes me want to see just how long I can keep away. I didn’t have a timeline in mind when I started, but now I’m eager to break the subtle addiction we all develop. Let’s see how long I can keep that going. The one major downside is my inability to keep up my music page; that’s frustrating. In lieu, I’ll gladly share a piece I just wrote with you guys right here:
Another note to self: I’m going to try and make it out to the beach a lot more this summer.