Sunday, December 31, 2006

Resolutions

Dear reader, have a fantastic 2007!

For me, 2006 was a good year. I finished school and got a huge amount of stuff done.

My resolutions for 2007: I need to exercise more – when skipping on the gym, yoga, and other sports for weeks, happiness significantly degrades. Also, I need to focus: Instead of trying to a gazillion things at once, I should put the emphasis on work and maybe one other side project at a time. At Google, I'd like to get stuff launched.

See you next year!

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Why Startups Don't Condense in Europe

(This post is based on a discussion at BarCampZurich back in October. The opinions expressed here are mine, not those of my employer or other attendees.)

When you ask a random but well-informed person, the only European startup he or she will name is Skype, but when you ask about the US, plenty come to mind: Google, Yahoo, eBay, Youtube, and many more. What's the reason for this disparity?

Many have written about this before, including Paul Graham, Xavier Comtesse, David Heinemeier Hanson, and David Hornik and I doubt that my thoughts on this are unique.

Still, here's my take on why there aren't many more European web startups:

1. Lack of Role Models. Even revolutionaries need role models. The fact that others have hit it big before makes startups look like a much more reasonable option. For Europe, there's the aforementioned Skype. In the US, there dozens of very successful entrepreneurs and companies to look up to.

For recent graduates such as myself, going to a big, established company seems like the smartest option. The traditional way of slowly climbing the ladder at a big company is hardwired in our brains.

2. Lack of Venture Capital. While you can start a business with two guys in a garage and a few of thousand Euros, you may at some point need money to grow and hire employees. This is where Silicon Valley's ecosystem of venture capital comes in. We don't have that here in Europe: Here, good VCs who are willing and able to take risks and give valuable advice seem few and far between.

3. Lack of Ambition. When Larry and Sergey started Google, they had global domination in mind. After all, organizing the world's information and making it universally accessible and useful seems like an ambitious goal.

In contrast, Many European startups often grow to a comfortable size of 10 to 20 people, and then stop. It's fun to work with your dozen best friends and enjoy a family-like atmosphere: If you grow any bigger, some of the fun melts away. While you can change the world with just a dozen people, I doubt that the 'next Google' will have just twenty or so employees, or grow organically from an existing small business. Europeans need to aim higher.

4. Attack of the Clones. Many web startups here are rip-offs of existing US companies with established business models. Alando may have started started it all: This Berlin-based company, started by the Samwer brothers in 1998, cloned eBay's functionality and UI in every detail. They sold it to eBay for $43 million after just 6 months, showing that you can win big by simply copying. For today's examples, look at Sevenload, Yigg.de, or Aimido. A little more creativity wouldn't hurt: The potentio upside of doing something truly original is much larger.

5. Fragmented Markets. The US has a single, relatively homogenous market of 300 million people. Almost everyone speaks English, payment systems are the same everywhere, addresses share the same format, and laws are very similar in all states.

The European Union has a total of almost 500 million people. It is a huge, largely deregulated, but heterogeneous market. This makes it unattractive to web startups: For every language and possibly every culture, you'll need a localized version of your product. You could start with one of the three biggest countries, but you'd still need to localize much sooner.

So what? There are many things that Europe is getting right. We have smart people, good universities, and attractive cities. It's easier for qualified people to get a visa in Switzerland than in the US, it's still possible to IPO without too much overhead, and tax rates are quite nice if you incorporate in the right country.

All Europe needs is a few rebels with great tech skills, original ideas, and good connections to VCs. People who fit this profile will ignore all the difficulties and just go for it.

--

Thanks to Nicolas Berg, Douwe Osinga, Christophe Dessimoz, Alexandru Balut, Philippe Schoen, Keno Albrecht, Florian Walpen, David McCreery, and Corsin Camichel for attending and participating in the discussion.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Happy Holidays!

This just in: Apparently, it's that that time of the year and I once again forgot to write cards. (Well, actually, I did send out a few some weeks ago, promising myself to write more.)


Anyways, Merry Christmas / Happy Holidays! (Whichever you prefer.) Sorry you didn't get a card. Have a fantastic New Year!

A Month of Google Zurich

I re-joined Google a little more than a month ago. My friends have been asking me how it is. Obviously, I can't say about what I actually work on, can't talk about the Endoxon deal and also won't be able to disclose the Master Plan. But I can say a couple of things.

Above all, I love the team I work with. There's my friend Douwe, best known for inventing Google Trends. He has about two multi-billion-dollar ideas per week. We should hire an intern just to follow him around and write up all the stuff he comes up with. My manager, Oliver, won the best-PhD-thesis-award in Germany before he joined. Jonas, my super-friendly co-worker, has churned out a cool demo of what we're building. Then there's our charming Austrian product manager Chris, whom we should really get to work less. Our intern Alex should also get an award for his achievements: He produces tons of code, but is hauntingly quiet. When he does point out something, it's usually some tiny detail we forgot about but would have cost us days of debugging later on. Last week, he returned to his native Eastern Europe to get his degree, but our recruiters 'convinced' him to return afterwards.

When US companies put engineering offices in Europe, it's usually the dull work that they're concerned with: Localize this, translate that. Google's EMEA Engineering HQ in Zurich is different. I'm happy to report that we work on really crazy, brave, and fun things. You don't need to be in Silicon Valley to do that.

The most popular pastime at the office is foosball: I really need to get some mad skillz.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Music Tastes

My taste in music is a bit odd. Back before I switched to buying all my music on iTunes, I bought a large share of my CDs in the US, which gave me a heavy dose of Americana. Here in Europe, radio stations are either stuck in either in the mid-90s, play classical music all day, or focus on techno tracks. The result is that the music I listen to seems too avant-garde for fellow Europeans, and evokes only contempt in North America. That won't stop me from handing out recommendations, though.

I've been listening to a lot of electronic pop at work. Most probably know Postal Service from their music's plentiful appearances in TV commercials. Similar in style, but less well-known: Electric President. Their music is beautifully crafted, with lots of attention to detail, and slightly melancholic. Electric President is much like the Canadian band Broken Social Scene: You listen to the album once and feel a bit uncomfortable. By the third listen, you'll notice all the tiny details and nooks and fall in love with them.

I discovered Nizlopi at a Jamie Cullum concert in Freiburg, Germany, where they were the support act. In some ways, they were better than the main show: It's just two guys, a bass, and a guitar, singing sad songs about girls. The band itself is named after a Hungarian girl whom the vocalist had a crush on in school. Meeting a Hungarian girl and falling in love with her, only to be disappointed soon after seems to be a common mantrap: I've heard this story too many times. In this case, it at least resulted in good music.

Europeans will yawn at this, but I quite like Jan Delay, the German hip-hop superstar of the year. Energetic, funny, German hip-hop from Hamburg. He seems to be much-loved in his hometown: When I visited Hamburg earlier in the year, this album seemed to playing everywhere.

Attentive readers will have noticed the Amazon links I planted in this post, but rest assured that this is just an experiment. I'd guess that most readers have switched to iTunes anyways: Apparently, after just 5 years, Apple has already captured more than 3% of the US music market: Quite a feat.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Hardcore Yoga

I first started going to yoga classes at Google in Mountain View. The classes were perfect: There was soft music in the background. The beautiful and charming yoga teacher – she had, if I remember correctly, a Berkeley Ph.D. in physics – always told cute little stories at the beginning of each class.

Far away from California sunshine, I have faced harsh Swiss yoga reality for the last 2.5 years. The classes at ETH seem very disciplined. No soft background music. A focus on energy-sapping positions. An instructor who thinks that the "Yoga + Meditation" class I've been going means 80 minutes of downward-facing dog and 10 minutes of breathing exercises. My wicked mind turns these classes into a competition: "Oh, I'll show her!", which contradicts the original purpose of going there to relax.

I'll need to find a better class or good gym. From a quick search, the yoga places in Zurich seem either sketchy or ridiculously expensive. Any suggestions?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Toys

Zurich is so much more fun when you're earning money. It's an expensive city. So far, food and entertainment have been my largest budget items. With food taken care of – courtesy Larry and Sergey – my disposable income seems comfortable. Modern life constantly reminds us of all the niceties out there: Plasma TVs, whirlpools, designer furniture, luxury weekend trips, and fancy restaurants all seem within reach.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that every Swiss Franc I spend will impact my future choices: Once you get used to a certain standard of living, it's hard to go back. Being a poor grad student already seems unappealing, and going back to the ascetic experience of startup is hard to endure with the monthly insurance payments on that fancy sports car. That's why I had my future flatmate and fellow Googler Markus promise to watch over my lifestyle spending.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Ribcap

Last weekend, I went to Zurich's Museum für Gestaltung to see this year's winning entries in the Swiss Federal Design Prize. The 18 winners each get either 20000 CHF or a free studio spot in either New York or London.


One of the winning teams – and my favorite entry of all – were Lisa and Tom, who designed the Ribcap: Head protection gear that doesn't look and feel like a bulky helmet but like a standard cap. It contains materials by D3O which are soft when worn, but instantly turn solid upon impact.

From the Ribcap site, it looks like these a worn mainly by snowboarders and skiers. Can I replace my bike helmet with a Ripcap? If yes, I want one now!