Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Harnu Live

Since we started Harnu, we've gone through a couple of pivots. The first was an early realization that we had no hope of growing Harnu if everything was one to one conversations off the bat. We still believe that empathy has the best chance of taking place in a one to one conversation, but that just can't be the starting point. The second has been a realization that people asynchronously asking questions to other nations is also unlikely to grow into anything meaningful. And so, we've started pivoting Harnu towards something called Harnu Live.

Harnu Live is about giving people the ability to create their own global conversations, invite their own audience, and decide if they want to open it up to a wider audience on Harnu. A good comparison might be Huff Post Live where they host discussions with experts. On Harnu, we're giving that power to the people themselves.

But you have to crawl before you walk and run etc. So, yesterday we hosted our first Harnu Live session ourselves, and what an amazing moment it was. Not sure what to expect, we invited a great student from Tripoli called Asem Mahmod to be our inaugural guest. Suffice to say, multiple global conversations happening simultaneously and hosted by people themselves is our path towards empathy and of course, growth. Without further commentary, here's the transcript (and yes, we need to make it easier to present these transcripts externally.) Baby steps ;-)

And if you read this far, here's a copy with just the text in case you want to cut and paste it:

Harnu Live Transcript with Asem Mahmod from Tripoli

November 27 2012

@asemmahmod, i want to ask what is the generally perceived idea of a successful person in your country? for example in india, the stereotype is like good job, kids, family and that's it. how's it it there?

I can't deny that we don't have stereotypes here, but not for a successful person. Everyone basically chases their dreams, no matter what they are @saifwilljones

I'll start. Asem - would love to know what the major sports are in Libya. Are there major leagues in the country? 
@brent Do you have any idea how Brazilians love football/soccer? Well, Libyans are completely in love with football. I'm actually not a fan of this sport, but everyone I know plays football all the time. At school, after school, and even before school! No exaggeration!

What is the music scene like in Libya? and what kind of music do you really love? 
Stefenymarie, music plays a huge role in our culture. Everybody loves our traditional Libyan music, and we play it every time. When we have weddings, when we celebrate the revolution's anniversary. And pretty much each time we want to have fun and dance. The only kind of music I like is pop. That's not traditional :)

Hi @asem, I have a question. Your parents and elders may remember what life in Libya was before Gaddafi, but you were born in that world so all you may have heard are stories about the old times. After last year's conflict and with Libya taking a new path, What was the impact on a 16 year old soon after the country's sudden change of direction? What kind of opportunities you now see that may have opened (or closed) to someone like you?
armando, great question! I feel so lucky and blessed after the revolution. It really opened a lot of opportunities to people like me. This change has affected me deeply. I have to say that I was desperate when Gaddafi was ruling the country. There's nothing to do. Young people were basically wasting time hanging out around the corners of streets. I can't respond to that in regards of politics, but in general, I believe that a bright future is waiting for our nation, and I'm very optimistic about that.

@asem: U may take this as your third question, How is the study structure there designed??? 
Like, More of the schools are from private sector or government sector??

Governmental free schools are more popular. Private schools are a little bit expensive. However, private schools have more efficient teachers than public ones. Is that what you asked about syedbarkat?

Hi, Asem-Are women encouraged to go to college and seek careers?
Brentsmom, yes they are. And that encouragement increased even more after the revolution. I have a sister who works and studies at the same time. Women are not forced to stay home or something like that.

Is education an important part of "success" in Libya?
Tamara, answering your question, I have to say no actually. Many many Libyans here have dropped out of school at a very young age and worked on developing a certain craft and now they are as successful as the educated.

What did the revolution mean to you, or do for you? Did it change your perspective or view(s) on life as a young man in Libya? 
Tamara, the revolution means a lot to most Libyans. This revolutions stopped a dictator from ruling a country for 42 years. After the revolution, I realized that I can take a part in building the new Libya, and I know I can make a difference, which was impossible under Gaddafi. However, I can't deny that there are Libyans who still support Gaddafi and his regime even though he's dead now.

What is the general feeling in Libya toward the United States?
I personally love the United States. All I know is that Libyans are looking forward to co-operating with the United States in building the country. And we're all excited about this since the US is probably the most civilized country in the world.

Cześć Asem! Jaki instrument muzyczny jest najbardziej popularny w Libii?
Andrzej, what musical instrument is most popular in Libya? Hmm.. Do you know what a goblet drum is? Well, that's it. We take it with us everywhere even when we go on picnics!
Asam, anytime I travel anywhere I like to try out local traditional food. Is there any specific food dish you love or that Libyans love? If so what would that be, I'm just wondering what that is in Libya. 
My favorite traditional food.. Well, I like "mbakbka", don't waste your time pronouncing this. It's basically pasta but in our own Libyan way. We love pasta here and I think the reason why is because we were colonized by Italians many years ago. There's also Bazeen which is popular also, but a bit difficult to make.

What are the most popular television shows in Libya?
Brent, that's a hard question. I don't want to generalize, but there's one show that is popular during Ramadan. It's called Bab Al-Hara. It's Syrian :)

@asem:This is a problem faced by me in India,So, I'm interested in this. What r people's perceptions about the friendship between Opposite sexes????
Syed, friendship with the opposite sex exists, but not publicly. It's just something we talk about with family. Unless they are a family, it's not common to see a boy and a girl walking in the middle of the street and talking. That's simply because of our religion which is Islam.

What do you do during Ramadan? Help us understand what that looks like!
Ramadan is a 29 to 30 day long month in which we fast from sunrise to sunset. No eating, no drinknig and no sexual relations or any kind of sinful speech and behavior. When the sun sets, the whole family gathers at one table, eats, prays, and have fun!

@Asem, If I want to go to Libya as a tourist, what are the top 2-3 places you would recommend?
You gotta visit the Old City in Tripoli. The first time I actually visited it was a few weeks ago and I'm still amazed!

Here's one from us Asem - What’s the economy like at the moment? What sort of opportunities are there for young people to get a job in Libya?
Oh. The economy means oil to me :) All I know is that oil production is increasing and it's even better than before the revolution now. I don't know about jobs in Libya, sorry!

@Asem, Do you have starbucks yet in Tripoli?? :)
armando, no :( and that sucks! They're actually not even thinking of opening a branch here after I contacted them.

Ok, if no more questions, we’d like to thank everyone once again for coming to our first Harnu Live. I think it's fair to say that for the Harnu team we’ve learned quite a lot on how to make the next ones even better, and really appreciate everyone’s willingness to try this out. If you have ideas for future Harnu Live sessions please let us know by sending a Private Message to the Harnu connection or emailing us at 

Special thanks to Asem for agreeing to be our first guest. Really appreciate the chance to learn even just a little about Libya. Thank you! By the way, you can always keep in touch with Asem by sending him a private message on Harnu. 

I appreciate this chance so much. I'm glad I taught people from all over the world a little bit on Libya, and that only happens on Härnu. Thank you everyone!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Why Startups Need a Narrative

The mobile web has given us the power to answer almost any question in real-time. However, forming an opinion is usually something that takes a bit longer than a quick Google or Siri search, particularly so if it's a complex topic.

Take for example the recent violence between Israel and Palestine. Who's to blame? What really happened this time? Why now? What's the history of this conflict? Is there any hope for a long-term peaceful solution? If you live in America, chances are you'll read a version of this conflict in mainstream media that strongly supports Israel with the narrative being that they are defending themselves against terrorists.

Against this backdrop, when we originally thought of Härnu, one of the canonical use cases we imagined was the scene of a teenager sitting at the Thanksgiving dinner table having to listen to that drunk uncle who has an opinion on everything, drone on about those arabs and muslims in less than friendly terms. In our fantasy world of Härnu, our teen pulled out her phone and rebutted her uncle's baseless assertions by recounting conversations she'd had with her Egyptian, Palestinian, and Pakistani friends she'd met on Härnu. Take that Fox News!

Fast forward a year and millions of Americans are sitting down to dinner where inevitably some of those tables will include that uncle and unfortunately for those teens (and for us), our ambition for Härnu remains unfulfilled. In the past year, we've formed a company, we've created a product, and we've built a community in more than 100 countries. However, we've also dealt with more than our fair share of setbacks as we've worked so hard to build momentum.

I've come to learn that what most people warn is in fact true - building a consumer-facing startup is unbelievably difficult. Indeed, if it wasn't for our steadfast belief in our vision for the world, it's quite possible we'd have given up long ago. 

So, on this Thanksgiving, despite the difficulties that we've faced so far and the many obstacles that lie ahead of us, I'm thankful that the Härnu narrative has persisted. Maybe next year, if we continue to work hard, we'll realize our ambition of American teens everywhere being able to chat with anyone around the world, gain a whole new world of perspective, and perhaps shut that uncle up once and for all.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Keep Calm and Carry On

Well, like most things, if I don't maintain a regular schedule, it just doesn't get done. And so it goes with this blog. I had resolved to jot down the lessons along the way. Sometimes though, the lessons are hard to comprehend. To do so requires a period of quiet reflection, and frankly, when you're driven by fear such as I am, any pause to reflect is a chance for my fears to catch up. So, I keep going - moving forward to maintain a sense of progress, regardless of whether that progress is real or imagined.

However, a real leader is not driven by fear. A real leader is driven by a sense of purpose. While people driven by fear can accomplish much in their life, their fear holds them back from accomplishing their true potential.

At Härnu, we've managed to gain members from more than 100 countries in a couple of months, we've radically improved the product, and we're ready to take the company to the next level. Right now, we're in the middle of sorting out proper roles among the founders and adjusting the cap table accordingly.

It's a stressful time but I'm sure glad we have a leader on our team who's taking on the role of CEO and has been there and done that. As for me? The answer is clear...

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Trouble With Social

When Seattle hip-hop duo, Common Market, penned Trouble Is, they defiantly asked "...this is hustle biz, what the trouble is?" While for them, the "...trouble is love don't want you," in social, the trouble is the hustle has been focused on all the wrong things. Paul Kedrosky said it best in a recent tweet and judging by the number of favorites and retweets, it obviously struck a chord.

Whether the payload is news, apps, games, or search results, the prevailing approach today is to mine someone's friends, apply some simplistic model that presupposes that we are like our friends, and call it good. While it's well established that similarity breeds connection, it's worth remembering that our homophily merely occurs at a higher rate than between dissimilar people. In other words, while our friends are similar to us in many ways, we all have outliers, and it's these outliers that social search has done a really poor job of addressing so far. This is true of not just friends but also interests.

The question though is how hard someone like Paul is willing to work for his content? Most techies believe that curation is the answer and the frustration expressed by Paul is solvable with more data and better algorithms. However, what they tend to discount is that curation is always going to be imperfect because no algorithm can anticipate my need without fail. Hypothetically, if such an algorithm were possible, would a tech company even implement it? If we found what we wanted 100% of the time on Google's first page of results, what would happen to their revenue? Could any increased CPC compensate for the loss of impressions on subsequent results pages? I doubt it. I believe Google's in the business of optimizing, but not too much. Speculation aside, the problem is that we're complex and sometimes unpredictable. Our needs are fluid and we push ourselves to discover the unknown. 

So, if curation nor search are the silver bullets, might social search be? Facebook would have the world believe that we are like our friends because that's the sandbox they currently have to play with and they need brands to believe that. Almost everyone else in the space is following them with their friend based recommendation engines. Bing, anyone? At Harnu, we're taking a different approach by trying to encourage new connections. Want to know what's going on in Syria right now? Talk to a Syrian. Get a local's perspective. I don't know about you, but my friends are not useful for this class of discovery. That's why we built Harnu. 

For us, while we may be taking a novel approach to social discovery, our uphill battle is going to be achieving scale for the foreseeable future. Facebook obviously has the scale. The question is whether they'll take a novel approach to social search or serve up the same old friend recommendations as everyone else. If they expand results to consider people that are not friends and let people connect with these strangers, then folks like Paul Kedrosky may get their wish as a massively long tail of people and content starts to come into play with the trade-off that Paul would have to do a some content sifting himself.

Most likely though, this would have the potential to alienate a lot of Facebook users unless they specifically opted in to that sort of feature. However, it'd also have the potential to dramatically expand Facebook's social graph. In my case, instead of the 460-something friends I have today, I'd set out to add at least one friend from every country in the world - something I'm able to do today on Harnu in the quest for perspective and knowledge that none of my friends is talking about.

As an example, on Harnu, I learned from someone in Belarus last week that it's now illegal there for anyone to gather information without accreditation. Crazy but true...

В последнее время дошло до того, что в стране запрещено незаконно собирать информацию. Только при аккредитации. Вам будет смешно, но это так.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Ask The Hard Questions Before Integrating

I love Etsy. That might sound strange coming from a guy who cringes every time he steps into a store, but I do. I love the site's aesthetic, I love the community they've empowered, and I love the brand they've created for themselves. What I don't love, however, was Harnu's integration with Etsy.

This statement has nothing to do with Etsy's technology or any other short-coming, and instead has everything to do with our not fully thinking through the implications of that integration.

When we launched Harnu in August, we had built a web app that showed Etsy products from around the world on the map. Anyone could then find products from around the world and start a discussion with people in the country of the product's origin. This followed the same format that we have done with news that enables you to seek a local's opinion, or with music that enables you to get a local's recommendations.

Upon completing the integration, our app was listed in the Etsy gallery - on the front page, actually.

What happened next should not have been a surprise, but we were pushing hard to just get Harnu launched, and although we were not crazy about the Etsy integration, we thought it was kind of cool, and would give our users another way to learn about the world. However, instead of our users discovering Etsy products, the opposite happened - the sellers on Etsy discovered our users. Upon launching the app, we were seeing quite a number of new user signups that were obviously Etsy shop names. Initially, we thought that'd be good so they could participate in the conversations around their products. Our opinion quickly soured though when the Etsy shop owners started creating posts that basically said, "Visit my shop!" with a link to their shop.

For any new service that's building a community and relies on user-generated content, it was a nightmare. We tried at first to just coach them that our users would find their products and to instead participate in the conversations about their country. The coaching didn't work though, and we continued to see these random posts advertising Etsy shops. Eventually, we shut the whole integration down, and de-listed our app from the Etsy gallery.

Contrast that experience with this week, where Harnu is now chock full of students and educators posting content, finding collaboration partners, sharing music, and discussing the world, and it's fair to say we've learned a lot in recent weeks.

I don't fault Etsy sellers at all. They have their own motivations which is to sell their products, and that I think is the key point when you're seeding a community.

Take a moment to ask yourself the right questions:

  • Who are you targeting and why? 
  • What are the use cases?
  • What are the actors' motivations? 

Not exhaustively examining these questions will almost certainly result in unintended consequences that could set your startup back. The list above is just an example. You of course need to ask a whole host of other things not least of which is acquisition strategy for that channel and monetization opportunities

As for us? We quickly recovered, and we're having a blast seeing people share their favorite sounds and genuinely expressing a sincere curiosity to learn more about each other's culture.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Press

Last week, Härnu received its first press exposure, and I'm happy to say that it was really favorable. In fact, the headline was:

Now, I should point out that the publication wasn't a giant like TechCrunch or one of the other respected blogs like PandoDaily, KernelMag, or even a traditional media source such as BBC's Click program. Instead, this article appeared in a tech blog called Ventureburn. Never heard of it? Well, if you were an entrepreneur in South Africa or any other emerging market in Africa, perhaps you would have!

So, how did we end up in a South African tech blog? Well, while favorable coverage in TechCrunch is probably every startup's dream, for us, at this moment, we're probably not ready for it yet for three main reasons:

  • MVP has yet to be attained - While we have a product out there that's gaining users, our key metrics indicate that we have yet to reach minimum viable product status - one that can sustain the community we're working so hard to build. We also simply know that there are obvious things we've yet to "hook up" to the core product. This has two potentially negative consequences if we approached a large media outlet and they actually decided to write about us; 1) A negative review - we're new, we're bootstrapped, and we're an unknown quantity. All of this points to us needing a really killer product to get anyone's attention and earn a positive review and 2) Churn - it does us little good to see a big spike in traffic from a big press piece only for that traffic to leave as quickly as it came because the product hasn't been dialed in yet.
  • Geographical imbalances - Being based in the U.S., most of our users are also from the U.S. right now. For Harnu to live up to its potential as a global conversation platform, we need people from all over the world participating and that needs to be true from Day 1. Unlike most other startups, we're not rolling out one micro-market at a time such as Seattle, San Francisco, New York, etc. So, for us a great piece in TechCrunch and a bunch of traffic concentrated in the U.S. may not be ideal until we have a critical mass of people around the world using Harnu.
  • We're not sexy - This is completely subjective, but our goal is cross-cultural discovery & communication. Most other startups in the space of connecting you with people you don't know are usually iPhone apps that want to tell you about interesting people around you for casual hookups or professional networking. Some call it elastic networking, ambient networking, or even contextual indicators. Either way, we're far off to the other end of the spectrum focusing on distal networking. Who's talking about that? So far, only us it seems :-)

Given that, our bias is to spend time developing relationships with great tech blogs from around the world, work hard to help produce content that's relevant to their publication (more on that in a moment), and revisit the big U.S. blogs / publications in the future when we're a bit further along.

So, if your strategy is to find global tech blogs, here's what I think I've learned:

  1. Research your target list - There are a number of posts about Middle East, Africa, Asia and other emerging market blogs and Quora is a good resource e.g.
  2. Don't send a form letter - these blogs are like you. They're scrappy, they have their own ambitions and motivations, and they're out to change the world in their own way. Take the time to read their content, know who writes for them, and understand their submission process. e.g.
  3. Know your goal - For us, we knew that Ventureburn wouldn't deliver thousands of users, but that wasn't our goal. Instead, it was simply to understand the process, and float a trial balloon as it were. We of course got lucky in that the reporter actually liked Harnu and decided to publish something favorable. We've since been able to use that article as a reference point when contacting potential partners which has been very valuable to us - something about Harnu that was written by an objective 3rd party.
Since then, we've seen an edited version of the original blog piece pop up on another site with the headline, "Is this the new Facebook?" I'm not sure there'll ever be another Facebook and that's not our goal anyway, but what's giving us cause for optimism is that real people are starting to use the service and talk about it in a mostly favorable way. We've got a long road ahead of us to deliver a product that repays the faith these early adopters have shown, but with a bit of luck we'll get there.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Random Acts of Kindness (#Call4Palestine)

I was going to write this post about a recent mis-step we made and tell you what we learned.

Instead though, I'd rather write about something much more important, and much more uplifting. That something is a trending topic on Twitter called #Call4Palestine. What's it all about? Well, at the end of Ramadan, there's a muslim holiday called Eid al-Fitr.

Being a random Scottish guy in Seattle, how do I know this? Well, someone from Indonesia told me about it on Härnu (see image to the left).

#Call4Palestine is simply an idea for people to randomly call numbers in Palestine and pass good wishes on to those on the other end during Eid al-Fitr:

"Happy Eid, next year in a free Palestine, from the river to the sea!" 

You can read more about the details here. There's also a Facebook page chronicling stories of people making the calls and the resultant conversations.

Well, not speaking Arabic, and fearful of offending anyone, I was a bit hesitant to actually call someone there. So, I did what any geek would do - I made a Soundcloud recording and then sent that message to Palestine via the map on Härnu for any and all Palestinians to discover it! Härnu will then auto-translate the text into Arabic if that's their preferred language. Of course, they're stuck with my Scottish brogue on the Soundcloud recording :-)

I have no idea if anyone from Palestine will hear it, but I really hope so, and it'd be great if more people here in the West would do this too. I'm not talking about politics or religion here - I'm talking about humanity.

A random act of kindness from a stranger goes a long way to restoring our faith in each other. So, go ahead, what are you waiting for?!

** Update **

Any doubt I had about what I was doing just evaporated with this awesome message from someone in Nablus, Palestine (which is a twin city of Dundee, Scotland by the way :-)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Ride Like Everyone is Trying to Kill You

Until we had kids, I used to get around on a motorbike - it was a lot cheaper & convenient than a car, although in Seattle, it was also a lot wetter :-) For a while, I had my dream ride - a Ducati Multistrada. It was an incredible machine and I absolutely loved that bike. However, as a motorbike rider, I followed two simple rules; 1) Never impair my senses by mixing alcohol and riding, and 2) Ride like everyone is trying to kill you.

Whether it was dumb luck or adherence to those two cardinal rules, I fortunately never had an accident. And so it goes with startups. We could get knocked off our metaphorical bike at any time by a wayward driver in a big SUV. More likely though, it's not a large competitor that'll kill us, it's that no-one gives a shit. At this stage, we have no competitors - we may as well not exist. My cardinal rule for this startup is that no-one cares - we're invisible and could get killed at any second.

When you're bootstrapping and you're a first time entrepreneur, you're flying under the radar. There are no celebrity launches, no tech press fawning over your insanely cool idea, no Twitterati re-tweeting your every brain fart acting like your the prophet incarnate, and no legion of third-party developers queuing up to partner with you. In fact, even people that have been friends with you forever just don't give a shit. That's not indicative of the value of your friendships. It's just a hard reality of life. Everyone's got their own stuff going on, and if your product isn't good enough, it's not going to break through the noise. Period. Even if it is good enough, it's not going to break through the noise of 90% of the people that encounter it for the first time.

So, you push your product out there and all the academic conversations you've had with your co-founders about your startup having the potential to change the world, get x million users, or being worth this that and the other have just had a cold dose of reality poured all over them. Now what? You start executing your user acquisition plan and it's not panning out like you had computed on your spreadsheet. Now what? You make tweaks to the product based on what limited data you have and maybe a few anecdotal conversations with respected friends that tried it out. Still the mythical hockey stick eludes you. Now what? You attend some startup incubator's talk on Mechanical Turk thinking that might be what'll get you there but that turns out to not be the silver bullet you seek either. Now what? I'll tell you what...

You grind it out.

Plain and simple. Don't bitch and whine about not being afforded the benefit of the doubt. You don't deserve it. Everything you've accomplished in your professional life until this point is in the past. Value you've created elsewhere is not transferable to the startup that you just helped hatch.

Fortunately for me, this is the game I know. Always been the underdog. My belief isn't unshakable but I know how to hustle and that's what we're doing.

You grind it out.

What does that even mean? Well, that means you get to know your target audience as well as you know your wife / husband / partner, and you do your damnedest to convince them that you've got something special. At this point, you can't fake it. You gotta believe that yourself. You email, you call, you Skype, you blog, you comment, you post, you tweet, you strike up a conversation with everyone you meet on the off chance that they might become a convert. That's what it takes.

My co-founder relayed a conversation he had with Andy Liu (he of BuddyTV fame) where Andy told him that at this stage of most consumer startups, there are three options available on the path to minimum viable community (his magical number is 10,000 users).

  1. You Quit - you didn't realize it'd be this tough and you doubt you can get there.
  2. You Panic - you didn't realize it'd be this tough and you try to build your way to 10K users by tweaking the product over and over and over without any sort of meaningful data to back up your bets.
  3. You Work - it's war. Hand-to-hand combat. You work all hours to get everybody you possibly can to try your product and to get them back on it. It takes asking the same people over and over and over again to give it a go. 
So, here we are. A week into the redesigned Härnu and the highlight of my day was talking to a blogger / journalist from Brazil on Skype and giving her a demo of Härnu. It was awesome and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Ride like everyone is trying to kill you and take the time to see the situation for what it is - even on your worst days, you're still riding a Ducati. Life ain't that bad...

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Foster the People

Last weekend, I spent time with an old friend who's the founder of a successful and growing primarily online specialty retailer with a smaller brick & mortar footprint.

After an evening of paddle-boarding around a peaceful bay in Puget Sound, we rustled up some dinner,  cracked open a bottle of plonk, and animated conversations ensued.

With the inevitable catching up on how everyone was doing out of the way, the topic turned to retail and specifically Amazon's recent foray into outdoor sports (the same space my friend works in). When asked if he was concerned about this development, my friend responded that, in his opinion, any retailer, whether they're online or offline, that hasn't gone to the trouble of building a community around their brand will die since there is no point of differentiation.

Rather than fret about Amazon's encroachment into his space, he's betting that they'll clean it up and at one end of the spectrum, you'll have Amazon - the online behemoth vending outdoor equipment, and at the other end of the spectrum you'll have companies like his that have spent years building a brand that's 100% focused on a community of action sports enthusiasts. Everyone else who sits in the middle - neither an absolute lowest-cost provider nor a brand that people care about will be gone.

I should point out that his assertion that people care about the experiential aspect of buying products does not come at the expense of eschewing the benefit of analytics. Rather, analytical prowess for any retailer is just table stakes these days. If you don't have that competency you don't exist. Simple as that.

What we both agree though is that unless you're Walmart or Amazon, your point of differentiation has to center around your customers or users. So many retailers these days are struggling because they want to compete on price, they want to compete on local assortment, they want to compete on analytics, etc. The list goes on and on. In the end, they lose on all fronts against more disciplined competitors.

Coming back to tech - the parallels are just as relevant for us as we build the Härnu brand. That algorithms will automate more of our lives is inevitable. Their utility in helping to remove friction is tremendous. However, while the chorus of geeks imagining a fully-automated world surrounded by contextually relevant data cues grows daily, I instead imagine something a bit more nuanced - a world where dispassionate algorithms give us what they've been programmed to think we want in some situations, and in other situations we'll seek out the messy, irrational, and fun experience of human-led interactions.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The War of Art

I spent much of last week skulking around Seattle area coffee shops intending to be productive, trying to be productive, willing myself to be productive but mostly failing. Our much anticipated (at least among us founders) new version of Härnu is inching closer to production and instead of unbridled excitement, I was mostly being consumed by fear. Specifically, fear of failure. That thing that I've allowed to hold me back for so long crept into my sphere of optimism and paralyzed my ability to think and work unhindered.

I found myself accepting defeat - that the next version will fail, that the idea is iffy, that entrenched incumbents offer a good enough alternative, that I'm not competent enough etc. The list goes on and on.

Talking to people about it didn't help. The natural reaction of loved ones is to help you find a solution - try this..., have you thought about..?, what about...? The self-pitying response from me was always that yes, I have thought of that and here's 10 reasons why that won't work.

Breaking out of these despondent episodes can be tough but I don't think they should be ignored entirely. Rather than roll over, I spent the time trying to get at the core of my angst, and asking myself what the alternatives are if indeed things don't go as we hope. The Lean Startup principles have an answer for all of this, but in among the dispassionate multi-variate A/B tests and subsequent pivots are imperfect, emotional, and sometimes irrational people that have laid it all on the line to build something of their own and find meaning.

Steven Pressfield wrote a book called the War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle for those trying to deal with what he calls the Resistance. We may be trying to build a company, but it has always been a product of our imagination, and its future depends on our creativity. For Pressfield, the answer to combatting the resistance is to do the work, and that's exactly what I intend to do.

So, here we are - another week, a new version rolling out to production very shortly, a set of plausible alternatives, AND a desk in a downtown Seattle office gratis courtesy of my next-door neighbor who's a co-founder of a successful startup and took pity on the old guy shooting for the moon.

No more morose coffee shop music to get me down - an all-night bug-bash awaits. It's time to dance ;-)

Sunday, July 15, 2012


As I was waiting for my wife to finish work on Friday, I sat on a plush sofa in her large office building's lobby. Below is my live tweeting of someone being let go by two HR people as I sat there.

This was the first time I'd live-tweeted anything but it did cause me to think how powerful it is when people are doing that in real-time around events that really matter. The unfiltered, stream of conscious text goes some way towards making us feel like we're experiencing the event - much more so than a carefully crafted newspaper article...

Tweets are in reverse chronological order, so start from the bottom.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Know Your Audience

As the team cranks hard on creating the next version of Härnu, I decided to spend my time researching the world of, well, world affairs bloggers. Specifically, I researched those that write for Global Voices since they're exactly the kind of people that we hope will give Härnu a whirl once we start featuring their content.

I thoroughly enjoyed researching who these people are, where they're from, what they write about, and what they do. Some of course stood out more than others, particularly a guy called Hossein Derakshan whom the Iranian authorities jailed for 19.5 years simply for writing about his country. I was ashamed I'd never heard of him until now and I'm asking myself why the world isn't doing more to fight for his release. I'm also asking myself what a regular person like me could do to help. If you have any ideas, do please let me know.

Aside from Hossein, there were also a number of bloggers that back in '05 or '06 were just getting their start on Global Voices and have since grown into full-fledged celebrities such as the wildly popular Saudi comedian Fahad Albutairi as well as notable CEOs such as Rashmi Sinha - founder of Slideshare, Ory Okolloh - founder of Ushahidi, and many other successful entrepreneurs. Make no mistake, these people are smart, articulate, connected, and highly successful in their chosen field of endeavor.

However, the pleasure in reading about them wasn't restricted to just celebs and entrepreneurs. Instead, it was the unexpected that caught my attention - a lovely YouTube video of a Hungarian band courtesy of a blogger called Marietta, the discovery of the word "homophily" courtesy of a blogger called Dan Wescott, and countless other great nuggets of life I'd never have found any other way.

So, who are these amazing people that are literally changing the world? Well, to start poking around that question, I compiled a list of 593 bloggers from the author section of the Global Voices site. I omitted those whose primary role seemed to be translators simply because I was most interested in the writers. I also probably missed a few here and there, so this crude analysis is by no means infallible. I then searched for their own personal blogs and Twitter accounts if they had them (and I was actually able to find them). All told, I spent about a lot more time than I'd planned on this little diversion but felt it was important to get more familiar with this community.

And here are some of the factoids I uncovered:

  • As near as I can tell, Global Voices has ~134 countries covered though it's a really long tail. What I mean by that is that there are 12 countries with 10 or more bloggers, 102 countries have 5 or less bloggers and fully 38 countries have just 1 blogger. 
  • Like most UGC sites, the Pareto Principle applies and then some. Of the ~76K posts, 56K of them come from just 20 bloggers. Said differently, 74% of the content comes from 3% of the bloggers. (Would be interesting to know if Global Voices themselves agrees / disagrees with that finding. Where there may be an issue is if a blogger has a dual role of author & translator and I've credited them for all of those posts...)
  • The authors have an average (median) of 8 posts published.
  • Their average (median) tenure on Global Voices defined as their last post minus their join date is basically 1 year (342 days if you care about details).
  • The average (median) post frequency is 24 days per post. In other words, they are blogging about once every 3.5 weeks on Global Voices. However a cursory glance of their own personal blogs suggest they write much more frequently than that.
  • Global Voices seems to be adding about 85 - 95 new bloggers each year.
  • So far in 2012, 217 different bloggers have posted on Global Voices - about 37% of all bloggers I researched.
  • Of 593 bloggers, I was able to find a personal blog for 61% of them which suggests I need to improve my Googling skills... 
  • Same thing re: Twitter - 65% of them have a Twitter account that I could find with an average (median) following of 993. 
  • Of those with a Twitter account, 10% have a follower count > 10,000.
  • The most followed blogger is a lady called Beth Kanter, with Fahad Albutairi in 2nd spot.

While the stats may be mildly interesting to some, what's most important is that the bloggers are passionate, they are writing, and their content is being read. My hope is that as we begin featuring their content on Härnu, they'll welcome the increased engagement from our users and our users will welcome the alternative perspectives from the bloggers.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Like the World, Not Just Walmart

Foreign news reporting is on the decline - that's no secret. As traditional media has struggled to adapt to the online world, the reaction has been largely to cut costs instead of innovating. For example, according to a recent AJR study 18 major U.S. newspapers and 2 chains have completely shut all their foreign news bureaus since 1998 – newspapers such as the Boston Globe and the Chicago Tribune are prime examples. Foreign news now accounts for less than 5% of all news found in a typical newspaper and this trend is not limited to American media - it's also happening in places such as the U.K. where foreign news reporting has declined by 40% over the past three decades.

Declining Interest in Foreign News
As foreign news reporting has declined, so too has American interest in foreign affairs. According to a recent Pew Center study, only 17% of Americans are following the economic crisis in Europe and only 12% are following events in Syria - about the same percentage that were following the John Edwards trial. This is compared to 2011, when 39% of Americans were following the situation in Egypt.

Massive Investment in Hyper-Local News
It'd be easy to say that foreign news has declined while local news has flourished, and indeed, a lot of investment has been made in that direction, but that too appears to be a fools errand as hyper-local display advertising has declined, likely attributable to more accountable alternatives like Groupon and LivingSocial as well as the ubiquitous Google AdWords and now Facebook advertising and a whole host of "so-lo-mo" apps and services targeting the hyper-local market.

Internet Growth and Citizen Reporting in Developing Nations
With no sign that traditional media is going to pull out of this death spiral anytime soon, it'll be left to citizens to fill that void. Sites like Global Voices have risen to the challenge of reporting on the world and that reporting is going to get a whole lot more amplified when 2B new Internet users join the connected society, all from developing countries in Africa, Asia, and S. America. At the moment, there is more online content about Germany than Africa and S. America combined! That is all about to change rapidly, especially when you understand the implication of high-speed cable being laid all over Africa.

New Age of Discovery
So, at a time when major Western nations such as the U.S. and the U.K. are becoming more insular, not by choice, but instead thanks to declining foreign news reporting and social networks that don't encourage us to seek out alternative perspectives beyond our friends, we have the rest of the world coming online and embarking on a new digital Age of Discovery - one that will be noted for enlightened bi-directional sharing, collaboration, and learning instead of the previous age of selfish nation-state exploitation. 

The question is, will Americans be an integral part of this new Age of Discovery, or will we be content to spend our time checking in to the local coffee shop, getting on the free wi-fi, checking our friends' latest status, and liking Walmart (as 17MM Americans apparently do)?

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Independence Day

For me, Independence Day fell on June 27, 2012. This is the day that I finally overcame a lifetime of self-doubt and walked away from the succor of someone else's paycheck. As Vice President of Business Development for a Seattle tech company I had a pretty comfortable life and I chose to trade all of that security for a chance to pursue starting my own company (with a few friends) - a process that I ought to have started 15 years ago.

Over the years, I've had tons of ideas - some reasonably plausible, others less so. In every instance though I've stopped short of actually pursuing them, satisfied instead with the vanity of people telling me that's a good idea. There comes a point though (some call it a middle-age crisis) where you ask yourself what you're all about. What are you actually teaching your kids? Are you really happy? Does your work reflect the values that are important to you? 

In truth, I've always asked myself those questions, but the seniority of the positions I held grew over time as did the paychecks and perks, and I got lazy. We got married, we had kids, we bought a house, etc. You can easily convince yourself that it's never the best timing to take a leap into the unknown. Over time, the frequency and amplitude with which I questioned myself lessened to the point where I was basically along for the ride in the near-inevitable corporate machinery of big company America. 

However, earlier this year, along came the catalyzing event that began the metamorphosis from indolent Microserf to fledgling entrepreneur. A trip to a dermatologist and a resultant cancer scare was all it took. Turns out it was nothing but it was all I needed to remind myself of the impermanence of my life. That my mother died of cancer aged 44 should have been enough, but as I said, I got lazy...

So, here I am sitting in a Starbucks on Day 1 of not having a paycheck for the first time in 15 years, trying to focus on the road ahead and ignoring the nagging, fearful self. Regardless of whether Härnu proves to be a hit or a bust, I'm committed to this state of independence that I eschewed for so long. I owe it to my kids to show them that life is something to be embraced with confidence, not survived in fear.

As for Härnu, all four founders are now full-time and there's nothing holding us back except ourselves. We're in the middle of a big redesign, we're rapidly building out our go-to-market plans, and learning as we go. 

If you're reading this post and you have aspirations of starting your own company, I won't pretend to have any advice for you. All I can say is that honesty with myself is where it begins for me. Every. Single. Day.

Good luck! 

p.s. If yesterday wasn't momentous enough, I became the Foursquare Mayor of the India Gate restaurant in Eastgate. What a way to end my Eastside commute!

Monday, June 4, 2012

More Camels

Right now, we're in the middle of a complete redesign of Härnu based on early feedback (both implicit and explicit) from our users. So, as the guy on point for bringing users, there's not a whole lot for me to do but plan assiduously and sit tight for the next iteration.

Having said that though, I've been dabbling in posting Twitter and Facebook updates on behalf of Härnu and what I've learned won't surprise anyone - photos are gold

A word on virality

Before I get into details, Facebook defines virality as "The percentage of people who have created a story from your page post out of the total number of unique number of people who have seen it." In other words, it's the number of people "Talking about this" divided by the "Reach" as defined by Facebook.

So, with that out the way, here's a quick rundown of what I've learned so far:

Photos Trump Text

One day recently, I posted a Facebook update about a mother using Härnu to find her adopted son's biological brother in Ethiopia. This was a use case we could never have imagined but it was one that we thought was incredible and were really pleased that our efforts could play a small part in helping. This post was all text.

The next day, I posted a quick Facebook update about Indonesian users now on Härnu. I included a stock photo of Bali to highlight my point.

We saw a virality score of 2.41% for the post about the mother and a 4.55% score for the post about Indonesian users. In other words, the post about Indonesian users was 1.9X more viral than the one about the mother looking for her adopted son's brother in Ethiopia.

Hypothesis #1: Posts with embedded links and / or photos are more viral than those without

Easy and obvious enough right? What came next though was a much better illustration of that point. One of our users from the Philippines whom I've been chatting with, sent me a picture of him and a camel (he's living in Saudi Arabia just now). He also told me that people eat camel meat there. In retrospect, not very surprising. Kind of like horse being on the menu in much of France right? I thought this was pretty interesting, so I posted this to our Härnu Facebook page (note I started with an attention grabbing question):

This post had a virality score of 12.1%. Our most successful one yet and 2.65X more viral than the post about Indonesia and 5X more viral than the one about the mother.

Hypothesis #2: Photos that are more personal and authentic are more interesting than stock photos

Hypothesis #3: Posts framed as questions are more viral than simple text updates

Note I'm using the term "hypothesis" here and not yet "conclusion" - we're still learning and a sample of one does not a trend make. That said, I followed up this last post about a camel with another one with a photo, posed as a question, and tried to piggyback on the Queen's Jubilee in England.

How viral was this one? The answer is not at all. Turns out no-one cares about the Queen, or at least, none of our users does.

Conclusion: While we have yet to achieve Konyesque virality, in the meantime, our winning formula appears to be MORE CAMELS ;-)

For the experts out there, what kind of content has worked best for you on Facebook & Twitter updates? What kind of virality scores do you typically see? Do you think it even matters?