Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Snowboarding

I'm in Switzerland for the Holidays. To combat my jet lag, I decided to spend the day outside (9 hours of time difference == you want to wake up at 6 pm and go to bed at 9 am). What better way to spend the day outside than to go snowboarding with my bro?



We went on the Rinderberg in the Gstaad ski region. After 4 days of snowboarding (spread across 3 countries and 5 years), I seem to finally have gotten a hang of it.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Xobni Preferred and the Holiday Homepage

A little more than a week ago, we started sending out hundreds of invites every day to people who had signed up for the Beta on our page some time ago.

Xobni outlook add-in for your inboxBut what if you didn't sign up and want to get the Xobni Beta now? If you want to help promote Xobni, you can sign up for Xobni Preferred and you'll get an invite within a day.

In other news, I love our new homepage! It's so beatiful, doesn't feature cliche girl with headset, and mentions "reindeer-fast search", Xobni's most popular feature.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Faster chips? Or better software?

Craig Mundie, Microsoft's Chief Research and Strategy Officer in today's New York Times article "Faster Chips are Leaving Programmers in their Dust":

In the future, Mr. Mundie said, parallel software will take on tasks that make the computer increasingly act as an intelligent personal assistant.

“My machine overnight could process my in-box, analyze which ones were probably the most important, but it could go a step further,” he said. “It could interpret some of them, it could look at whether I’ve ever corresponded with these people, it could determine the semantic context, it could draft three possible replies. And when I came in in the morning, it would say, hey, I looked at these messages, these are the ones you probably care about, you probably want to do this for these guys, and just click yes and I’ll finish the appointment.”

We have the processing power to do this today, and do it on-the-fly, not overnight. What we need is better email software, not faster chips.

Processing power will clearly remain a problem for some time to come, but Mundie's example is one where the problem lies with building those "smart assistants", not adding chip horsepower.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Xobnis Love Diet Dr. Pepper

Tuesday morning:



Wednesday morning:



Is this just a fad or a trend?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Crassness

Lots of famous entrepreneurs and scientists are known for almost blindingly tough feedback. "This is the stupidest idea I've ever heard," they say. One well-known Internet leader is known for canceling products just before launch because "sorting my socks by color is more important than releasing this." How arrogant.

I'm starting to wonder whether this is actually learned behavior.

First, they learned that smart people love honest feedback. Smart people want to improve; When faced with criticism, they work hard to make it right. Delivering feedback in a needlessly hard-hitting way makes them work even harder, thus producing better results. Which in turns makes our fearless leader more successful. And more arrogant.

Just my random thought of the day.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Pirate Lab

Ryan writes on the Xobni blog:

One morning after some deep meditation, the Xobni team woke up and realized that not everyone uses Xobni on the same Dell Inspirons and IBM ThinkPads that we all use. Matt’s head almost exploded from this realization. True story.

We knew that testing had to be done on the machines our users were actually using. This involves more than simply doing testing on virtual machines, which we have used since day 1. Instead we needed computers that have all the pre-configured bloatware, special packs of Microsoft Office, extra restore partitions, and all of the rest of that great stuff that slows down your computer to a crawl.




They also got an EZ-Bake oven. I'm confident that it, too, will improve Xobni's software quality on exotic configurations.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Definition of Inbox 2.0

A friend recently asked me to explain the buzzword "Inbox 2.0" he'd heard about. Here's the definition:

Inbox 2.0 == Using data in email archives to infer people's profiles, behaviors, social graph, and importance, and making this information visible in your email client.

Let's pick this definition apart:
  1. "Using data in your email archives": There are mountains of hidden data in your email archives, whether locally on your machine or on the server. Inbox 2.0 takes your gigabytes of past email, generates statistics, and applies machine learning and natural language processing techniques to find useful conclusions.

  2. "people's profiles": The information in your email paints an accurate picture of your contacts. You can extract their address, phone numbers, their job title, and interests.

  3. "behaviors": Your contacts' email stream allows Inbox 2.0 software to infer what time of day they're usually online, when it's best to send them email, and how soon to expect a reply.

  4. "social graph": It's easy to extract your social network and social graph by looking at who's Cc'ed on emails, who's mentioned, and how often they're included in conversations.

  5. "importance": More important contacts get more of their emails answered faster, and are mentioned in emails to other more often. Their social graph includes other important people.

  6. "and making this information visible in your email client": Users want this information as they're triaging and writing email, not as a standalone application. While the data can come from anywhere – local email archives or your trusty Exchange server - integration into the email client is key, whether it's a desktop client like Outlook, Entourage, Apple Mail, or Thunderbird, or a webmail client like Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, or Gmail.
The term Inbox 2.0 was originally defined in a New York Times article by Yahoo SVP Brad Garlinghouse, and has been discussed by Om Malik, Don Dodge, Deva Hazarika, and Kevin Delaney at the Wall Street Journal.

--

More posts on email:Also, academic email research is discussed in my thesis: Organizing Email. Happy emailing!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

WSJ: Email's Friendly Fire

Wall Street Journal, November 27, 2007, page B1 [link]:

Meanwhile, other start-ups like San Francisco's Xobni Corp., are trying to help people better organize and search the emails and personal-contact load they already have.

[...]

"These people are in pain," says Matt Brezina, the 26-year-old co-founder of Xobni, which has received $4.2 million in funding from venture capitalists. Xbni's product places a set of features on top of a custemer's email inbox, such as "profiles" of online contacts complete with photos, and quick links to set up appointments. The nin-person company says it has about 1000 globally testing the product - including salespeople, recruiters and marketing managers who use email frequently - and expects to release it broadly early next year."

Friday, November 23, 2007

Giants vs. Sprinters

This is a crosspost of an article I wrote for Swiss Entrepreneurship blog Synetgies.

Most revolutionary new technology products and Internet services come from a handful of large companies and small startups. What's the secret sauce?

Successful and profitable large companies such as Apple and Google invent and produce such products as the iPod, the iPhone, Google Maps, and Gmail. In contrast, startups have developed products and services such as Google Search (back when Google was a startup), Hotmail, PayPal, YouTube, Blogger, Facebook, and Twitter.

Users and the press rave about these products, and they have generated large valuations and profits. How does this kind of product innovation happen?

In this article, I'll contrast product development at large and small companies. I've experienced product development at Google (where I worked on Gmail and some unmentionable projects), Yahoo (where I interned at the end of the last bubble). I'm currently working on my startup, Xobni, where my role involves development as well as setting engineering and product priorities. We're a small team of 10 people and are building new ways to search and navigate your email. Thus, I've seen both ends of the spectrum.

Between the two extremes of small and large companies, there are a few common denominators:
  • Both types of companies start with good people who are smart, well-educated, and passionate.

  • They provide good tools: High-end workstations, great infrastructure, and good benefits. For example, Google will pay employees for health insurance, serve free food and drinks, coupons towards buying hybrids, gym memberships, and the like.

  • They set a culture that is centered on engineers. Engineering and is the scarce resource, as it hard to find excellent engineers who can create great products. Openly or covertly, PR, Marketing, Sales, and HR are seen as second-rate citizens. This is most clear at Google, where engineering is kept on the main campus, but HR and PR are located in "Siberia": office buildings so far away that employees have to use bikes and scooters to commute to meetings.

Most people think of "innovation" as "ideas". But there's no lack of good ideas. At Xobni, we have an internal Wiki page with hundreds of product ideas. At Google, there's the ideas mailing list on which you can find thousands of employee-submitted proposals for new features and new products. I'm sure that Microsoft has an equivalent tool. But anyone who has added to that Wiki, or written to the ideas list knows that they are the place that ideas go to die.

What really counts is execution: At large companies, the ideas that survive have a strong proponent who will get support for the idea, find colleagues to work on it with, defend it in meetings, and launch it to a public. This is what happened at Gmail: Paul Buchheit started working on a webmail client, found others to work with, defended it against VPs who said that an ad-supported model would never work, and managers who said that it is prone to extinction because of Microsoft's control of JavaScript. At startups you'll find the same process (but less meetings): Xobni's most popular feature is search, but it was two of us who took it from a feature added as an afterthought one of the core pieces of our functionality.

Yet, there are many differences. Technology giants and startups both have their own set of advantages that play in their favor when executing against ideas:

Large technology companies

  • Resources: As the name says, large companies have tons of people. Once management is convinced of the viability of a project, they can put people, infrastructure, and money to work to make the idea become reality. Giants move slowly, but once they do, the earth starts shaking.

  • Experienced management: In Silicon Valley, senior managers at large companies typically have startup experience. They started or joined small companies that got bought or went public. They know how to manage innovation and push interesting projects forward.

  • Instant credibility: When Apple, Google, Microsoft, or Yahoo launches a new product, the world listens. If a startup had released Google's phone SDK, there would not have been weeks of Google phone speculation in the press, weeks before launch. Consumers will feel safe buying new Apple products when they're launched, because they would know where to buy and what level of quality to expect. Startups have to build a really good product and build it from the start, build press relationships, and resort to guerilla marketing as needed.


Startups

  • Focus, clear priorities: You'll never see a company as focused on progress as a startup. At Xobni, the number one priority is to get high-quality software out the door. There's only this one project: There are no distractions, no talks to attend, no other projects for engineers to switch to. We're all sprinting towards a clear goal.

  • Aligned incentives: At startups, employees have significant amount of stock in the company, and their financial future is highly correlated with the success of the company. Thus, there is only one controlling variable: Their contribution to the product. If they can add or improve features, they will. On the other hand, large corporations attract resume stampers who are sometimes guided by self-interest: Their priority is to rise in the ranks, not contribute to overall success.

  • No lockstep development: Startups have small numbers of people working on small products. Large companies work on large products with lots of people. These people require coordination and planning. For example, I've heard that the feature sets of Microsoft's Office suite are planned out two releases in advance, with two years between each release. This means that a product manager on Word knows what features the product will have in 2011. If you're an engineer at Microsoft and have an idea, it may not get executed upon until four years from now! In addition, there's the burden of reverse compatibility: Every new feature must be compatible with versions of the software that are decades old.


In summary, we explored differences in how startups and large companies run innovation and product development. There are some commonalities - great people, focus on engineering, and good tools - but startups have large advantages because they are more focused and have no existing customers, products, and profit lines to look after.

--

If you liked this article, you will also like Career Advice for High Achievers.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Xobni Office, Thoughts on Startup Office Space

In mid-May this year, we moved from Adam's apartment into Xobni's now offices at Sutter and Kearney in downtown San Francisco. Xobni was 4 people. Starting Monday, we'll be 9.

Matt looked at dozens of offices. We looked at cheap places, expensive places, places in the Mission, Soma, downtown, and elsewhere. We had nicknames for our options - "Osgood", "Howard", "the dog place", and "the hot girl place" (a building populated by PR and advertising agencies). We went with "the Craigslist place", which was in fact one of the first we looked at. I think we chose well.



You're in a small startup and need to find office space for the team. What should you look for? I'm for inexpensive office space that works. No private offices, no prime office space, no pretentious architects or sixty story buildings.

Note that I won't be talking about how to find a broker, a lawyer, or negotiate with the landlord. Joel can tell you all you need to know about that.

Location, Location, Location

The first rule in real estate also applies to startup offices. You need to be in a great location. At Xobni, we have found that being in San Francisco is invaluable for hiring. Many promising candidates want to be in the city, not an office park in Silicon Valley. Some already live in the city and commute every day via car, Google shuttle, or CalTrain at the expense of 2 to 3 hours per day.

You want to be close to public transportation. The financial district and parts of SOMA are ideal because they're close to Bart, Muni, and the bus system. Parking is expensive but available. (We use the Sutter/Stockton garage.)

You also want to be close to the city center. We were two blocks away from the TechCrunch40 conference where we launched. Same for Web 2.0.

Here's the view from our window.


Eating and Drinking

We typically order in food for lunch and go out for dinner even though we have a fully stocked fridge and snack cabinet. You want to be in a place where this is possible without excessive travel; the hours after dinner are the most productive hours for writing code.

Our lunch options are quite extensive: burgers, salads, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, Hawaiian barbecue, crepes, burritos, pasta - you name it. Three of the four surrounding blocks seem to be dedicated to the purpose of feeding office workers. Dinner options are limited by the fact that everything in the financial district closes at 5 pm; you’ll find us at one of a handful of restaurants, Chipotle, the Westfield mall, or the Metreon.

We're also very happy to have a 24-hour 7-11 downstairs, and a Walgreens around the corner to cover our convenience shopping needs. When I need to step out for a bit, I usually grab a Naked juice downstairs and take a walk around the block. Being in the city is hard to beat.


Prime Office Space? Nope

When we were shopping for office space, we looked at a lot of fancy commercial real estate. But as a startup, you won't need fancy Class A space. Marble floors, and monumental glass-and-steel architecture won't make your startup more successful. Paul Graham says: "Professional means doing good work, not elevators and glass walls."

At Xobni, we went for office space with character. Our building was built in 1904, with all the charm of that era. It did come with one luxury, though: prewired Cat 5 Ethernet. The Scribd guys downstairs had to duct tape cable to the floor.


Layout

People have very strong opinions about what office space layouts should look like. Joel, for example, is a strong proponent of private offices. I think private offices are well-intentioned but go overboard.

You probably know that open layouts should be avoided. While everyone in the same room fosters communication, you'll find that you can't focus on complicated tasks because everyone interrupts everyone else all the time.

My experience with cubicles is slightly better. Google's building 41, where I spent all of my Mountain View time, is one big cubicle farm. While there are fewer interruptions, the noise level is still unbearable; cubicles don't filter sound well enough. I also found that Google's compression ratios are unwise. Productivity suffers when you squeeze together with 3 people in the space for 1 person.

We have rooms for 3-4 people each. This is about the size of an engineering subteam will have. Being around people who are all working on the same thing encourages communication about the right things, but keeps interruptions down. I put my 49ers cap and headphones on when I don’t want to be interrupted.



In addition to the offices, we have a central conference room for formal meetings. We also have a quiet nap room with a comfy couch. Taking naps at the workplace sounds unprofessional, but it does make everyone more productive. Adam, for some reason, seems to have missed the memo about the nap room.



There's also a "living room" with nice leather couches. We hold daily meetings with the entire team here. The huge plasma screen shows current bugs and work items, and stats about installs, beta signups, and plus support tickets.


Decoration and Furniture

We didn't get Class A space, but we did spend lots of time decorating our digs. We put opaque glass panes in a wall next to the living room to bring in more light. We painted our walls in Xobni colors, and put up blik wall decals. We recently gave everyone a $100 decoration budget for their personal workspaces. We have yet to see the results, but I'm sure at least one of the Xobnis will get something completely inappropriate.



You only have one back and if you spend a lot of time in a chair, it better be a nice one. That's why we spend money on Aerons, which we buy used from Craigslist. Everything else is Ikea. Everyone gets two desks (Mikael, $69.99) and drawers (Andy, $29.99). Two mikaels per person is a bit too large for our rooms, and we might need to move to a different desk setup when space starts running out.

Developers get three monitors, so some have remarked that our office looks like a Dell commercial. We need to call them up and renegotiate our deal on those LCDs.



I'm very happy with our office. We have room for about 9 more people, which should last for a while. The only item on my wishlist for the next office is a shower.

--

Thanks to Adam Smith for looking over an earlier draft of this.

If you liked this, you might enjoy: Photo Story: The Days Before the Xobni Launch.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Recent Interviews

Some recent Xobni interviews with yours truly:
Enjoy!

Monday, October 29, 2007

What We've Been Up To

I haven’t blogged about anything very substantial recently. Since we launched Xobni Insight in September, we’ve been very busy improving it. The responses have been phenomenal, but Xobni isn't perfect yet.



Here's what we've been working on:
  1. Improving performance: Inside Xobni Insight, there is a powerful data engine we call XobniCommon. In some ways, it’s Xobni’s secret sauce. The data you see in the sidebar comes from this component. When we launched a month ago, we hadn't fine-tuned all parts of our racecar. For example, we use a number of small in-memory indexes that allow us to quickly aggregate and filter information. But we weren’t using them in all places. For example, when you clicked on a person, it would take us seconds to load that profile. We’ve since reduced that time by a factor 100.
  2. Improving memory footprint: Our first version used about 2x as much memory as we are taking up now. Adam and Greg made tons of optimizations here, mostly around choosing the right memory structures that don’t waste space. While our memory footprint never was an issue for people with a normal amount of emails, things got uncomfortable if you had hundreds of thousands of them. They’s much better now.
  3. Unconventional configurations: There are about the same number of Windows configurations as there are Windows machines. While we had done considerable configuration testing on different computers before launch, we weren’t expecting to see so many outliers. To give you a feel for what Xobni must deal with, here are some of the variables: We support Windows 2000, XP, Vista, in both 32 and 64 bit, on Outlook 2003 and 2007. We’ve seen conflicting plugins, messed-up Outlook registry keys, graphics card drivers that wouldn’t let us draw gradients, code access security settings that wouldn’t let us run, and we’ve seen Outlook disable us without reason. We’ve investigated these issues and have been solving them.

This list also demonstrates the difference between desktop and server apps: On the server side, you have a known configuration, and can simply add more and faster machines with more memory. On the desktop, however, you’re dealing with all the restrictions of the average consumer box. But you're not paying for that expensive colo.

Where do we go here? For us developers, it's much more exciting to work on new stuff than to massage and fix old code. Thus, I’m very happy that every fixed bug brings us closer to working on new, exciting features.

Oh, and there's another thing we've been working on: Expanding the Xobni team. If you're an exceptional developer, visit our jobs page. Xobni wants you!

More on this on the Xobni blog:
Xobni - Gearing up for Success by Matt
Deep in the Trenches: Support at Xobni by Skyler

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Go Speed Racer Go

For Halloween, I'm Speed Racer. I'm taking this very seriously, and am attending all business meetings at Xobni in my costume. Below, me and Greg during our daily meeting.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Maui, Baby, Maui!

After the long marathon of launching Xobni's first product and working another month on making it stable and fast, the Xobni team decided to take a long weekend off and relax. What a good decision!

My brother Andrew is visiting from Switzerland so I decided to take the two of us to Maui for a few days in the Pacific sun.


Here are some pictures from the trip.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

MIT Technology Review: Xobni - A New Look for Outlook

Even more press coverage.

MIT Technology Review: Xobni - A New Look for Outlook

For more than a decade, the look and feel of e-mail inboxes has remained agonizingly static. Many of today's mail applications can predict the address a user is typing and show threads of conversations, and some are searchable by keyword, but none provide a truly innovative way to view e-mails.

Now, a startup based in San Francisco called Xobni ("inbox" spelled backwards) has released a test version of software that gives Outlook, at least, a completely different feel.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Xobni's Corporate-Approved Recruiting Video

Watch it now. And, if you like it, send it to all your friends!





Update 1: Official post: Growing Xobni
Update 2: Valleywag: Email startup takes on Filmmaking
Update 3: Abishek Tiwari Job Hunting with Videos: "Frankly this is a very unique way for companies to lure in the right talent. Most posts on any job sites are text based and inherently dry. Most of the time they are copied from other places. They almost never convey the culture and environment of the company. Few companies like Xobni and Google are starting to do better in this space to make sure that they attract like minded people."

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

More Xobni Coverage

Om Malik: Is Email The Ultimate Social Environment?
A $350 million buyout of Zimbra by Yahoo (YHOO), Thunderbird being spun out as an independent entity by Mozilla, and the impressive launch of San Francisco-based Xobni: Email, the most socialist of all web apps, is back on the front burner.

Fred Wilson on Xobni:
"It's safe to say that we're blown away ... for those of us stuck in email hell in Outlook, Xobni is showing a way out.

Ed Kohler:
"TechCrunch had tons of impressive companies present, but the one that really jumped off the page for me was Xobni. They have created a new email platform that creates significant value without asking anything more from users. That's a killer combination.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Xobni Launch Pics on Flickr

Here are my pictures from today's TechCrunch 40 launch.

Xobni Launch: Initial Press Coverage

Some initial press coverage on our launch:

VentureBeat: "Email company Xobni launches, may steal Techcrunch prize":

"It’s extremely useful and we’ll make a bet now it will win the show here, after the two-day competition between 40 companies finishes (we’ve yet to see half the companies, but it blows away the competition so far). We’ve downloaded it, and are playing with it, and find it truly impressive."


ZDNet: Xobni and Orgoo - Weird Names, Useful Applications (Dan Farber)
"It makes you wonder what Microsoft has been doing with billions in R&D."


Brian Alvey: TechCrunch 40 at Xobni

"The first presenter this morning was probably better than any of yesterday's. It's called Xobni, which is inbox spelled backwards. It extracts some great contact and relationship information from your email stream."


Valleywag: I'm too sexy for my install script.

Drwn News: Xobni, Wow
"I just tried the beta release of Xobni on my machine and it is so great. It actually makes me regret switching away from Outlook for 60% of my mail (Thunderbird is my main business app). MSFT should buy these guys immediately and release the damn thing as an Outlook patch, like they did with Lookoutsoft's search."

TechCrunch 40 Panel: Esther Dyson on Xobni

Our session has just ended. Loved the Mint presentation, I'll probably be using that. Orgoo also seems very useful. On to the panel:



Some funny quotes from the panel:

  • Esther Dyson: "My favorite company from the session? I'd pick Xobni. These are exactly the problems I have."

  • Guy Kawasaki: "If you spent 25k on that name, and I were an investor, I would shoot you."
    Adam: "But - it's inbox backwards! At least you'll never forget the name."


TechCrunch 40 Presentation

We just arrived at TechCrunch 40.



As I'm writing this, Matt (Xobni's Steve Jobs) is on the stage delivering the presentation.



Going really well so far! The audience is a bit sleepy.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Xobni Launching at TechCrunch40

It's my pleasure to announce that Xobni will be launching its first product at TechCrunch 2000 40 tomorrow, Tuesday Sept 18th. This is a huge step for us.



We'll be launching in the session starting 9 am Pacific time. I fully expect y'all to be at home F5-ing your browsers.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Wash and Fold

The last weeks have been extremely busy here at Xobni. A casual observer could easily reach the conclusion that we have gone insane.



My total of 7 hours of non-sleep free time in the last weeks have been spent on going to a girlie band concert (I had my reasons), and the gym. Being this crunched for time, I decided to do the make the deal: I went to the wash and fold.


Now I looove doing laundry. Not so much the washing, or the drying, but the fresh smell and the great feeling of being organized at the end. Turns out you get both at the wash and fold.

I love a solid service economy in which you can trade money for time. Big thanks to the guys at the Doo Wash! Those were $20 well spent.

Friday, September 07, 2007

More Press = Good Press

Our mystery investors revealed: Venture Beat Article.

"Xobni, the secretive email company, reveals big-name backers."

Also, read these comments on news.yc - good thoughts.

Monday, August 27, 2007

A Request for New Music

After listening to Elevator Love Letter for the 857th time, I decided it's high time for new music.

You can tell that I've been pretty busy by the fact that I haven't bought, downloaded or discovered any music in the last 3 months. Normally, my iPods' contents are periodically freshened with new stuff. I'm trying to improve. Help me! Suggest some bands / albums that you think I'd like.

You can use this cheatsheet of recent popular songs:

  • Stars: Elevator Love Letter. OMG, OMG, best song ever! So beautiful, so immediately applicable to everyday life situations.

  • Modest Mouse: Blame it on the Tetons. The official Xobni engineering song. Current iPod playcount: A ridiculously high 55. We listen to this all the time.

  • Jurassic 5: Jurass Finish First. iPod playcount: 45. I listen to this for the mom & pop soundbits at the end.

  • Samy Deluxe: Eppendorf. iPod playcount: 38. German ego rap.

  • Zero 7: Crosses. Lo-Fi music mixed up with José Gonzàles - music that reminds me of that Sony Bravia commercial that was filmed a few blocks from where I live.


What's good these days?

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Xobni Party Pictures

The Xobni Officewarming Party: Originally scheduled for May, but we kept delaying it until we ran out of excuses. Tons of people; lots of fun! We had dancing, catfights, real fights, and otherwise unromantic guys holding flowers under the Xobni sign.



Best startup party EV-ER!

Pictures are here (Flickr)

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Controlling Variable

The other day, something occurred to me walking back home from work: I once again have a controlling variable in my life.

Basically, my future is in large part controlled by one variable: How Xobni’s product works out. If it’s a hit, I’ll be rich, happy, and can go own that jet I’ve always wanted(*). If it’s not, I have maybe one more startup to try before I have to settle for a 9-5. Consequently, I now spend my days and nights trying to make the product great. It’s pretty intense.

For a while, there wasn’t really a controlling variable. In grad school, there was always a bunch of things to juggle. Back at Google, the outcome for me was controlled by factors beyond my control: Maybe some other project was working on the same thing. Or Larry Page wouldn’t have liked what we did and could have shut it down days before launching. Even if the project had succeeded spectacularly, a Founder’s Award wasn’t exactly within reach and the selection criteria were intransparent at best. Somehow, it was expected that you’d have to work pretty hard, but it was unclear how you could achieve a clear win.

Instead, what this situation reminds me of is my first year exams at ETH Zurich. As one of the Europe’s premier technical universities, they won’t just hand out degrees to anyone. But instead of having a US-style selection process with SATs and essays, ETH admits people based on having a high school diploma and taking a test. Then, we kick out 50% after the first year. At the end of the first year, you have the whole summer to study, and take exams at the end.

That summer after first year of ETH, I studied like a madman, 3 months straight. The goal was clear, the stakes were high, and having never taken exams like that before, I had no idea how it would turn out. After I passed with flying colors, I thought that I would never work that hard again in my life. I was wrong.

(*) Yes, I'm obviously kidding here.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Facebook: Email me Instead

Does this look familiar?



AN-NOYING! Why should you need to go to Facebook to read Matt's message?

Matt and Bryan (and to a smaller extent, yours truly) spent a weekend hacking up "Email me Instead", a Facebook application that lets people, well, email you instead.



Get it here.

Obviously, this isn't Xobni's long-awaited killer product. You'll have to wait just a little bit longer.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Xobni at CEAS

We'll be down in Mountain View for the Conference on Email and Anti-Spam on Thursday and Friday.

Want to chat about Xobni? Watch out for us in the black Xobni shirts! Or drop me a line if you want to meet up.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Tuning My Run

Three months ago, I picked up a pair of Nike+ shoes at the local Nike store. They’re yellow and they’re radical. I quickly proceeded to buy the iPod+Nike kit and a shiny new iPod nano. These Apple guys are such prom queens: They’re hot and they know it. They’ll make you jump through hoops: iPod+Nike on your perfectly fine old iPod? Exchangeable batteries for the insole accelerometer? Dream on, boy.



It didn’t take long to get over that you’ve-just-been-ripped-off feeling. This stuff really works. Now that I can measure of my runs, I run more often and for longer distances. My favorite feature? Holding down the center button to jump straight to the Stanton Warriors. Runner-up? When you’ve just run your best mile so far, they have sound clips of famous athletes to congratulate your achievements.

Want to battle? Mail me.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Timo's Podcasting Empire

I spent the last one-and-half weeks in Europe. "Europe? We have a perfectly good Europe at EPCOT Center. It's not good enough or something?" I forgot how modern this place looks. At least in some places. Quite a contrast to SF.

While in Munich, Germany, I visited my Timo and his fast-growing podcasting empire. Watch us talk about the iPhone in this vidcast (in German) and listen to us talking about Germany's copy-paste Web 2.0 innovation in this podcast (in German).

I also watched a great comedy about speed dating in Munich: Shoppen (German Trailer): The personalities of 16 Munich singles clash in encouters of 5 minutes each. That movie brought back many memories of dealing with German girls and their peculiarities. Highly recommended.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Airport Shop Economics

Stroll through Zurich Airport and you’ll notice that, as in many airports these days, a vast amount of high-class shopping awaits past security: Burberry, Chopard, Hermès, Armani, Gucci, Hugo Boss – they’re all there. If you want to spend $600 on a purse while waiting for your flight, you can.


The only things I’ve ever bought at airport shops are newspapers, magazines, food, drinks, coffee, and power plug adapters that I forgot to bring. I’ve seldom set my foot in one of the boutiques, much less bought something there. Almost everyone I know hasn’t either.

Consequently, it seems like a large percentage of airport floor space is wasted on shops that people don’t visit or buy goods from. Why are they still there?

Boutiques, in airports, as in downtown shopping areas, are high-margin, low-frequency businesses. Sure, they may not have as many visitors, but when someone buys that $600 purse, they’ve just paid for the entire morning’s rent and salary. The road to success is to charge a lot of money to a few people.

The reason why boutiques are omnipresent at airports is that they are especially well-frequented by people with lots of disposable income and a knack for lifestyle: The rich, the jeunesse dorée, executives, middle managers, consultants – these are people who can make that $600 impulse buy. For the other 80% of travelers, this floor space is wasted.


But there’s another reason for their presence: Airport managers love boutique shops. They pay the same rent as anyone else, but make the whole airport seem more upscale. The shops themselves are often beautifully designed and pleasing to the eyes of all travelers. Even if they never come inside.

Seven Things We Should Fix

It’s time to complain about the world’s imperfections.

7. Finding Parking: I’d rather have my car’s navigation system just tell my where the next parking spot is, instead of spending 20 minutes hunting for one.

6. Taxi Fleets: In Germany, your average taxi is a largish Mercedes. In the US, it’s a Crown Victoria. The city gas mileage for both is horrible. The incentives for cab operators to switch to hybrids are there: The cars cost the same, but the gas mileage is much better. Why aren’t we seeing faster adoption?

5. Different power plugs: Why does almost every country need to have a different type of power plug? Instead of carrying around an assortment of adapters, the countries of the world should sit together and agree on a global standard.

4. Power adapter bonanza: Why does each device need a different power adapter? If all electronics manufacturers sat down and agreed on a few common types, you’d never need to ask "does anyone else here own a Nokia"?

3. Power lines: Those huge masts are an ugly distraction in the landscape. Can't we dig holes and put it all underground?

2. Tickets: In the age of e-tickets, why do we still need physical tickets to concerts and public transportation?

1. Cash: Coins and bank notes? You have to carry them around and refill supplies when you run out. The fact that cash even exists creates opportunities for counterfeiting, money laundering, and other unwanted side-effects. We’re actually pretty far on this one, but some last rebel holdouts still refuse to take MasterCard or Visa.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Three Waves of People

When we make hiring decisions at Xobni, one of the things we look at is how well we think a candidate fits into our environment.

I’ve often found myself referring to candidates as first-, second- or third-wave. I believe I stole this categorization from Bob Cringley’s Accidental Empires.

  1. First-wave people want to create success from nothing. They are the entrepreneurs, the founders. They see an opportunity, create a product, and yearn for success.

  2. Second-wave people want to make something popular more successful. These are the people who take an established idea and scale it up to fulfill its promise.

  3. Third-wave people want to join a successful environment and preserve the status quo. These are the operators who make sure business run smoothly.


This is not a measure of smartness or competence – we’d find similar levels of IQ and education across these groups. Instead, it’s an estimate of their appetite for risk and their payoff expectations. Entrepreneurs have a higher hill to climb, but treasure awaits at the summit.

It’s important to hire the right kind of people at the right time: Google and Microsoft are sourcing from the second or third waves. As a startup that has yet to release its product, we want to hire from the first.

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Thanks to Adam Smith for discussions.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

NYC Profit Calculator

Here's a fascinating account of how businesses in New York - from cab driver to copy shop to the Museum of Modern Art - make money.

New York Magazine: The Profit Calculator

I feel like there are some lessons to be learned here. Cab drivers worry less about tips and more about your destination - if you take a ride out to Queens, they're losing money because they have to drive back through traffic. Yoga gurus sacrifice money for prestige. H&M pricing is essentially a variant of bait-and-switch, but with scarcely clad bikini models on billboards.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

A Dribble, then a River

Today seems to be the day of Google-bashing. Bob Cringley writes:
"Google is an amazing entrepreneurial petri dish. Yet at the same time, it is doomed to disappoint nearly every entrepreneurial type who works there. This is key: Google is sowing the seeds of its own eventual destruction. It can't help doing so.

[...]

With hundreds -- and soon thousands -- of Google employees vested and solvent, we'll shortly see a dribble, then a river, then a flood of former Google employees with time, money, and experience, and some of them will have the drive to realize the dreams of those thousands of ideas that were rejected by their former company.
"

Xobni is hiring.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Very much Alive

Worried blog readers have been sending about two or three emails every week. "Gabor, have you been abducted by aliens? Are you still alive?"

I’m quite alive indeed. I’ve been putting off writing that one big blog post that tells the story of the past months in all gory detail: Packing all my belonging into my Mom’s Renault Clio. The bureaucratic hurdles associated with moving. How things are going at the big X. Various thoughts about how to turn people and capital into fantastic products. And how being an entrepreneur feels like writing your own story instead of being an actor in someone else's play.

But then again, people don’t read long blog posts. Instead, I’ll repackage my thoughts into future, individual bite-sized blog entry pieces. Until then, here are some pictures of A Day at Xobni.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A Healthy Disregard for the Impossible

Two weeks ago, I quit my job at Google. Later this year, I will join Xobni ("inbox backwards") in San Francisco, California!

Why leave Google? It's a fantastic company: They have the smartest people, enlightened management, great projects and pamper employees to no end. But most importantly, they're one of the few companies that stick to their values: When they say "don’t be evil", they actually mean it. I can only recommend working there.

But what I really wanted to do after school is to do a startup.

When I visited Adam and Matt in August last year, I was impressed: They were also interested in email, they seemed wicked smart, and had all the right connections. But above all, they had a healthy disregard for the impossible. These guys are willing to do what it takes to succeed.

Back then, it was hard to lure me away from my Google offer, and they didn't succeed. Since then, the company, software, and goal have evolved and they've recently received significant VC funding (as the media found out today).

Matt and Adam don't take no for an answer. After another offer earlier this year, it took me quite a while to make up my mind and actually quit. Back at Google Zurich, I was working on an awesome project with great people. The office was growing fast. Google had just won another award for being the best place to work, ever. It didn’t seem like a smart, mainstream move at the time.

What pulled the trigger was reading Jessica Livingston's Founders at Work on a plane ride back from the States. If all of these guys had done it, so could I. Around the same time, I got an email from Paul Buchheit who wrote: "The great thing about a good startup is that even if it doesn't work out, you still end up learning a lot more and meeting more interesting people than you otherwise would." That's true: The learning curve will be much steeper at Xobni than at Google; my impact will be much larger. That's the kind of environment I enjoy.

As one of Xobni's earliest employees, I'll be heading up their engineering effort. We're looking for a few superstars. If you're one of them, let me know.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

BlogCampSwitzerland Roundup

I went to BlogCampSwitzerland today, a BarCamp-like unconference about blogs. It was really crowded! I guess I underestimated the number of Swiss bloggers who would show up at an event like this.

One interesting session was Bruno Giussani's talk about BondyBlog. During the French riots in the banlieues, a group of Swiss journalists went to one of these suburbs and blogged about the daily lives of people there. Eventually, they handed over the blog to some locals they trained in blogging. The blog has since become the voice of the 'other France'. A great story about the citizen media.

Bruno had a couple of interesting anecdotes about how the site came to be: One incident involved one of the banlieue kids asking Nicolas Sarkozy for his phone number and through outright brashness, getting it.

As at BarCampZurich, I once again tried to ignite a discussion, this time about the future of blogging technology. The slides I used as an intro for the brainstorm are here. Stephanie Booth has a great summary of the session. And yes, we spent a lot of time talking about Twitter, which for some reason has become insanely popular. (I've also chatted about it with the Bits und so guys.) Great discussions ensued. Some people felt that we missed an authoritative conclusion of where blogging is going to go, but you wouldn't really expect such a thing from a group discussion, would you?

Monday, March 19, 2007

A Weekend in Munich

I spend the weekend visiting my friend Fabian in Munich, Germany.

We revisit some of the places that I'd frequented when I was interning at Yahoo, 6 years ago, working my ass off. The building where Yahoo used to be looks derelict, and now sports a for-rent sign with spelling errors in the window.

We drop by Munich's "Pinakothek der Moderne" in a modern, completely white building. We make fun of Dan Flavin's light installations.

Off to a coffee shop named "San Francisco Coffee Company" where we meet Timo plus Nadine and her mysterious boyfriend. I break The News. The crowd is mildly shocked.

I get the feeling that my life is in upheaval, while everything around me is completely constant.

We go out later that night, searching for my friend's future "temporary girlfriend" (as suggested in the coffee shop - he's too picky to settle on any permanent one), but we only meet 35-year olds in a weird bar-slash-coffee-place with awesome music.

The next morning we have brunch at News Bar and walk around in the park. We head home and play Age of Empires against each other for hours.

I return on the direct train to Zurich. In the seats next to mine, a bunch of kids from the prestigious Salem private school talk about their lives in high society. And their life plans after graduation.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The World of Work in 2012

While this post mentions a number of Google products, the opinions expressed here are mine, not those of my employer! I do not work on any of the products mentioned in this article.

I believe that how we work and collaborate will fundamentally change over the next 5 years. This is no far-fetched vision, but pretty obvious stuff, and I'm even not the first to connect the dots and point it out. In the space of five years, most technically inclined consumers will see:
  • their lightweight communication and collaboration move almost entirely to the mobile phone,

  • most document editing and heavyweight collaboration move to the browser,

  • with just a few heavyweight applications remaining on the desktop.



Last weekend, I went to visit Lucerne, Switzerland, with friends. Among them was Fabian, who is a strong believer in using the cell phone solely for calling and sending text messages. He still owns a trusty old Nokia 6210 . We had no city map, and I had only a vague idea of the city's layout, so I whipped up Google Maps Mobile on my 6280 and searched for Lucerne. Fabian was hooked. (The only thing he's worried about now is data fees.)

Back in my student days, there used to be these group assignments: Each group had to come up with some form of document and hand it in. This is where the world split into nerds and normal people. The nerds used Latex files or HTML pages checked them into CVS. The normal people used Word documents that were mailed around and eventually unified into one by the last person. Today, the obvious choice is to put this into Google Documents.

These two examples illustrate how we'll see user behaviors change on cell phones, in browsers, and on the desktop.

The World of Cell Phones

There are many possible killer apps on cell phones:
  • maps, directions, traffic information, timetables,
  • shopping comparisons,
  • fact lookups on Wikipedia,
  • email

Some of these are already available, but are either unusable or usable only on a few devices, such as BlackBerries (CrackBerries?). This will change.

Have you seen the iPhone keynote? When I heard the announcement, I was a bit skeptical at first, since my current cell phone does almost everything theiPhone can do: It doesn't have WiFi access, but matches Apple's product on all other counts. But the iPhone's goal is not to introduce new functionality: Its goal is to make existing functionality usable. If you make something 10x more usable, 1000x more people will use it. But Nokia, Motorola, and Sony Ericsson aren't stupid - in a year or so, expect their phones to get significantly better, too.

In the next few years, the average cell phone user's device will have a great email client, a decent browser that displays the same version Internet as a desktop browser, and access to her online documents with lightweight editing. Some of this software won't come from the phone vendor.

In 2012, the most important part of your cell phone plan will be the price per transferred megabyte, not call minutes. You'll leave your house without a timetable printout, a clear idea of what gift you want to buy for your girlfriend, or even where the shop you want to visit is. You'll read all your email on your cell phone first, and only use a computer when the response needs to be more than a couple of lines.

But sometimes, you'll still need to sit down in front of a screen.

The World of Browsers

Let's say you're putting together your company's budget for 2013, or maybe you're writing a memo about how your car fleet should move entirely to hybrids. In 2012, you'll be working on this inside the browser.

Creating, editing, and revising documents are the prototypical activities of the office worker. Today, these documents are created in Word or Excel, after which they are emailed around to get feedback and iterate on the original draft.

The reason why Word and Excel are used is because of network effects: If you have the same software as everyone else, you can be sure the document will look the same as on the sender's machine. Most office users have also gotten used to the clumsiness of emailing around documents as just another aspect of drowning in email.

Even today, web office suites such as Google Documents or Microsoft's Office Live get rid of the need to sink thousands of dollars into desktop software. Documents look the same everywhere, and instead of emailing around revisions, all users can edit the same document at the same time, for free. In addition, you have access to these documents from every web browser anywhere in the world, instead of carrying a single copy of them on your laptop.

By 2012, these web applications will have evolved to a point where the default way of dealing with documents is by loading up the web app. But there are some applications that will remain on the desktop for a long time to come.

The World of the Desktop

Aaaah the power of the desktop. If you run applications right on the machine, you lose mobility, but you gain processing power, storage capacity, and the ability to build richUIs . That's why some applications will stay here: They require processing a lot data in real time, or need specialized user interfaces that cannot be replicated in the browser or the mobile phone. Examples are:
  • Programming
  • Desktop publishing
  • Audio/Video editing
  • Computer games

Let's take video editing, for example: If you're a video artist in 2012, you'll still be working with Gigabytes of data, and many work steps will still require huge amounts of processing power. It's unlikely that there will ever be enough bandwidth to handle all this data remotely. The same applies to anything from desktop publishing to computer games. Even five years down the road, you'll see these things happen on the desktop.

How to Get There

Plenty of things will have to happen before this becomes reality.

There are technical hurdles: For example, anyone who has worked with Java on Mobile Phones will happily attest that the UIs you can implement with the standard libraries aren't that compelling. On the browser side, there is also room for improvement. For example, making rich editing work right on both IE andFirefox is a nightmare. And then there's the offline problem, which I've written about before: No amount of technical innovation or investment will ensure 100% coverage of the planet. We need to build cell phone and web apps so they can deal with being offline.

Then there are the economic problems: For all this to work out, the price for data communication needs to drop very significantly. In countries where there's healthy competition between network operators, this will happen - all others will lag behind.

In addition, will users need to trust Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, et al enough to store their documents' data in their datacenters? Corporations in particular are very sensitive about security and privacy issues.

But the greatest hurdle is that non-technically inclined masses tend to stick with what they know, even if something better comes along. (People clinging to the old ways are hardly ever convinced later; they just die out.) If email in Outlook works, why switch? According to Bob Cringley, the masses only switch quickly if something is 10x as good - so these mobile and web apps will have to really kick ass!

So if my prediction doesn't become true, I have plenty of parties to blame. Still, I hope that this works out.

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Thanks to Douwe Osinga, Fabian Siegel, Bálint Miklós, Julia Ferraioli, and Keno Albrecht for their ideas and comments on initial drafts of this.