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!