Thursday, October 30, 2008

What's in a Cofounder?

I’m currently recruiting a cofounder for my new startup, and I'm in talks with a couple of people. The choice of cofounder is the most important decision I'll be making anytime soon, and I've thought a lot about what the ideal candidate would look like. Below is a list of criteria I came up with.

  1. Honest and open. It's important to work with people you can trust, especially under the pressure of a startup. I’d like to work with someone who is open about their feelings and intentions. A low-drama person who doesn't avoid confrontation if it leads to better decisions.

  2. Technical ability. Specifically, this is the ability to make sound technical decisions, and to implement a large part of the product in high-quality code. The controlling variable for the success of this startup depends on that we can launch and iterate a useful product quickly, and my cofounder needs to contribute to that in a major fashion. Ideally, my cofounder would have a degree in computer science, and work experience in an engineering-centric environment such as that of Google or Microsoft.

  3. Long-term commitment. I don't want to pull a build-and-flip, and the current environment has made that scenario very unlikely. I can imagine staying with this company for decades, and I expect that my cofounder make a multi-year commitment after some initial period. If after a month, we discover that it isn't working out, that's OK, but I want to avoid the drama of a cofounder bailing when the company is in full swing.

  4. Enthusiastic about email and messaging. I believe that this is a field full of billion-dollar problems. I would like to work with someone who shares my optimism.

In the beginning, a large majority of our time will be spent hacking, but we’ll both be spending 10-25% of our time on business stuff. In YCombinator style, I’d like to work out of an apartment. Living and working together is the most effective way to get a product out quickly. We could stay in San Francisco, but I might want to move somewhere around San Mateo, which is strategically situated close to investors and potential employees, and provides fewer distractions than the city.

It's in our best interest to understand each other's styles before we embark on this journey. I'd like to chat, hang out, and work with potential cofounders for four days to a week. That should give us enough time to see if we gel.

If you're interested, drop me a line. Please include your resume.

"Gabor hits Send" - New Name, New Focus

This blog has been successful beyond my expectations. There have been 215 posts, more than a quarter million visits, hundreds of comments, and an incredibly diverse readership: Students in Germany, consultants in Switzerland, entrepreneurs in the US, and IT workers in India all read this blog. Dear readers, for creating this success.

I'm refocusing my life around starting an email company, and it's only fitting to refocus this blog as well. Thus, I'm rebranding it: Say hello to "Gabor hits Send"!

Should you read this blog? If you fall into one of the groups below, the answer is yes.

1. Email Enthusiasts

My forte and passion is improving email and electronic communication. Email today is becoming a drag on productivity: Users are flooded with messages, and today's applications are not designed to cope with these volumes. You'll read a lot here about ideas, promising research, and new tools to improve the state of email.

2. (Future) Entrepreneurs

I'm an entrepreneur at heart. I've always wanted to start a great company, build products that delight users, and a workplace where people can be happy and productive. This isn't trivial and will take some time. I want to be an authentic voice that talks about the entrepreneurial experience. If you want to know what it's like to start a company and build great products, this is the blog for you. I hope I can provide valuable insight, even encouragement to follow your dreams.

Logistics

I intend to post once a week. Sometimes less, sometimes more.

My comments policy: I encourage you to post comments and share your views. Please write in English: My readers can't read Hungarian or German. I don't censor comments unless it's clearly advertising or spam, racist, pornographic or vulgar. I also reserve the right to delete stupid comments that demonstrate the person hasn't read the post.

Thanks for reading and subscribing. Hope you like it!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I'm Back. What's Next?

I'm back from my trip. This was the journey I’ve always wanted to make and it didn’t disappoint. As one journey ends, another begins: I've started working on my startup.

During my trip, I’ve done lots of thinking, and I’ll publish some of it here. In the coming weeks, I’ll write about:
  • How I want to refocus my blog,
  • the core philosophy of my new company,
  • the email problems I want to solve, and
  • what I’m looking for in a cofounder.
There’s no shortage of things to do – many small steps. As with the last journey, I’ll write about it here. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

World Tour: Australia

I'm driving up the East Coast of Australia, beach bumming away the last days of my world trip. Avis gave me the tiniest Hyundai Getz rental car, and after just a day of driving, I'm now able to manage the combined difficulties of driving on the left side and switching gears with my left hand. I've even stopped wiping the windshield every time I change lanes.


My mental image of Australia had been formed by Outback restaurants, and stories of Swiss friends spending months there after high school, as bumming away months in Australia before you join the military is a quintessential Swiss thing to do. Thus, I thought Australia would be a country of rough individualists, crisscrossing the Outback in their 4WD Range Rovers. I didn't know just how wrong this would be.

Instead of being some permutation of the US, Australia seems most like Western Europe with a huge backyard. Taxes are high, health care is free, education is cheap, workers have lots of vacation. Cities are well organized, and roads are well maintained. Thus, Sydney looks more like Hamburg than LA.


A friend at Google explained that while Americans celebrate fame and fortune, Australians lack respect for wealth, power and assorted pretensions - "tall poppy syndrome" (not tall puppy syndrome, see the comments).


A great example of this might be the Q1 Tower in Surfers Paradise. It is the tallest residential building in the world! Yet, the info brochure doesn't even name the architect, and there was indeed no star architect of the likes of Norman Foster, Santiago Calatrava, or I.M. Pei involved. Instead of praising the vision of the planners, the brochure talks about the labour of love of the hundreds of construction workers. The resulting building is no Chicago Spire, but still very pleasing to the eye. Oh, it also has fantastic views from the observation deck.



Other highlights so far: Fabulously pretty beaches. Wildlife World in Sydney, where they have kangaroos, koalas, and you can watch them feed the world's most dangerous snakes. Climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge was also quite an experience, although it took us hours to get geared up - I've climbed the alps with less safety equipment -, but the views were worth it.

Friday, October 17, 2008

"The Future of Email" Talk in Sydney

Yesterday, I gave a talk about my views on the future of email at CSIRO / Macquarie university in Sydney. Thanks to Andrew Lampert for the arranging and promoting the talk. Here's what it was about:

Mail clients haven't moved forward since the mid-1990s. Most applications have added superficial features, but the basics remained unchanged: Folders, lists of disconnected emails sorted by arrival time. Clients have no sense of priority, urgency, workflows, or connectedness. Their search features are simple and are sometimes painfully slow. Users today are bombarded with email and find popular email clients hard to use and inefficient.

How did we get here? How do we get out of it? This talk presents new ideas of improving the email experience for overloaded users.
I promised to put the slides online. Here they are (also on SlideShare).



I'd also like to thank the audience for the great discussion that ensued after the talk - I might post some of the best questions here at a later date.

A video of the talk is available on the CSIRO website here.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Good Time to Start a Company

Fabrice Grinda is one of my favorite entrepreneurs. He writes:
Aspiring Entrepreneurs: There is no better time to start a company!

The opportunity cost has decreased as many high paying jobs have disappeared and employment opportunities in general have lessened. If you have a job, companies will have less room to give generous bonuses and/or raises.

It’s going to be harder for entrepreneurs to raise money, but competitive pressures decrease dramatically in downturns giving you more chances to establish yourself as the leader in your field and more time to do so. [...]

If you have been thinking of creating a company, now is the time to make the plunge!
Paul Graham writes:
The economic situation is apparently so grim that some experts fear we may be in for a stretch as bad as the mid seventies.

When Microsoft and Apple were founded.

As those examples suggest, a recession may not be such a bad time to start a startup. I'm not claiming it's a particularly good time either. The truth is more boring: the state of the economy doesn't matter much either way.

People have been asking me what the downturn means for my plans. The answer is "little". I want to be very capital efficient, and if the investment climate is indeed as bad as the doomsters say, there will just be fewer of us, working more slowly on fewer features. The product might turn out even better.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

World Tour: Hong Kong

Hong Kong overwhelms the visitor with its great density, dramatic vistas of highrise buildings, and the busy harbor.


From Victoria Peak, you get a good grasp of what it looks like when you have 7 million people living in a small space like this: The highrises look almost a little too tall and skinny for their own good.


Beyond the upscale shopping in Central, the fake watch hawkers in Kowloon, and the crushing density of Mongkok, Hong Kong has many peculiarities.


Against all economic incentive, shops that sell similar goods are all clustered together: For example, in Wan Chai, there is a block of a dozen shops which all sell high-end kitchen goods. In Kowloon, there is a street with pet shops selling only birds. Normally, retailers would want to be as far from their competitors as possible, in order to create a local monopoly. Is this government regulation at play or do all the stores belong to the same owner?


One thing I hadn't realized is that Hong Kong's center is on an island: Before the subway (1980) and the cross-harbor tunnel (1972), the only way to get to the financial center of Hong Kong was by boat.


I always wondered why Britain gave back Hong Kong to China. Here's what the Rough Guide says: The reason, ironically, seems to be the influx of people escaping communism: In the 1960s, millions of people fed from China to Hong Kong. The government was forced to heavily populate the New Territories, leased from China for 99 years in 1898. Dozens of planned new towns sprung up in the territory they were supposed to eventually give back to China, and became an economic unit with Hong Kong. This made it impossible to separate the two without damage to the population. Thus, the British were forced to return the whole thing and Margaret Thatcher negotiated the current "two systems, one country" deal in 1985 which returned everything to China in 1997. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during that negotiation.


My stay here has been pretty memorable: It'll be hard to forget the tiny Internet cafe full of young Chinese girls chatting on webcam with Chinese boys, some of whom were topless. Lots of giggling all around. High tea at the Peninsula was quite an experience: As I was leaving, some celebrity was getting picked up by the hotel's very own fleet of Rolls Royce limousines. While it wasn't quite the peninsula, the first hotel I stayed in here was quite upscale and had dramatic views of the harbor. It was also quite expensive. Realizing that I had just blown a large part of my budget, I switched to a cheaper one. Only after I checked in did I notice that prices were quoted in hours, and the noise turned out to be pretty interesting as well.

It would be very interesting to live in Hong Kong for a little bit and there seems to be a steady stream of expats from all over the world. Maybe someday.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Questions about the Startup Economy

I've been watching the meltdown from afar, catching bits and pieces on CNN International and the newspapers (which here in Thailand are focused on an entirely different problem). Like Sequoia, the media is all doom and gloom, but what does it really mean for startups? I don't have the answers, just questions:
  1. Will there be venture capital? This time, dotcoms are not the cause, but Silicon Valley could come to a halt if investors are too spooked, or have no money to invest. There have been no IPOs lately, and the pace of acquisitions has slowed. Are VCs still thinking with a long enough horizon to invest in good ideas and teams? Do they have enough money from limited partners? I read somewhere that funds raised in the harsh times of 2001-2004 all had great performance. Let's hope limited partners remember that and will put money into 2008+.

  2. Will there be layoffs? Are we about to see Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo shed thousands of workers? I think we are. I still remember Jerry Yang and David Filo teary-eyed, announcing Yahoo's layoffs in 2001. For great startups, this makes things easier: While great people won't get fired, they will be more poachable if you can offer a solid, productive environment free of drama.

  3. Will enterprises still make IT investments? If not, any enterprise software startup is hosed.

  4. Will consumers still have money to spend? If not, see point 3.

  5. Will there be regional differences? In contrast to the US, European economies look surprisingly healthy, if you look at things like personal savings rates, foreign account deficits, and so on. This will make these markets much more interesting than before.

  6. Will big companies reduce R&D expenditures? If Microsoft et al slow investments in new initiatives, this will be a great opportunity for startups to pull ahead, and just get bought when the down cycle ends.

  7. What will be the effects of new regulation? Last time there was a problem, Congress introduced Sarbanes-Oxley, with the unintended effect of shutting down the ability to IPO. Almost certainly, there will be new legislation this time around - what consequences will it have?

  8. How long will this take? I'd be surprised if this took decades, but it's entirely possible that this situation will take years to resolve.

On the plus side, I'm very happy that this is playing out while I'm on vacation. Instead of being caught up in the vortex, I can adjust my new company's strategy once there is a bit more clarity about what's going on. Also, I'm relieved to not be working for anyone right now. Nothing is more paralyzing than the fear of getting laid off.

Let's hope for the best.

World Tour: Chiang Mai

I'm in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand (no riots here like in Bangkok). This is a place with lots of temples, but also plenty of activities. Here's me playing with a a five month old baby tiger(!):


Later, I rode this elephant around the jungle, and I'm not sure it had my best interest in mind, judging from the number of tree collisions.


I'd headed to Hong Kong tomorrow. I made the "mistake" of getting a room with a TV, so I've caught bits and pieces of the global economic meltdown. More on that later.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

World Tour: In the Land of Squeaky Clean

After almost a week on island beaches, I decided to make the short hop to Singapore to see a friend from ETH who's now working there.


I imagined Singapore to be squeaky-clean, if somewhat sterile and commercial, and it was. The places I went to were lined with malls selling fashion, jewelery, and other useless items. Kind of like what you'd find in an airport.


This has advantages as well: At 31°C/88°F and 100% humidity, walking around outside can be a pain. My aforementioned friend has thus mapped out his walk from work to home such that he maximizes the distance covered inside air conditioned malls. Judging from the architecture, Singapore had its brightest days in the 70s and 80s, when most of the skyline seems to have been built. There is some new construction, such as the casino they dubbed "integrated resort", but downtown lacks any adventures in architecture.


Singapore clearly wants to be all business, at the expense of fun: No chewing gum, no spitting, and no pornography. Alcohol is expensive, and restaurants seem to close at 10 pm. The Internet is censored I couldn't even access YC Hacker News.


On the plus side, the place in an oasis of wealth, cleanliness, and safety. People seem educated and cosmopolitan. As I was geting into a taxi heading back to the airport, I had the urge to negotiate the price - a Pawlowian reflex from weeks of India and Thailand. But then I realized I was in Singapore

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

World Tour: Ko Samui

I'm living in a little hut on the beach. This is what I see when I look out the window.


My days are spent reading, tanning, jetskiing, and scootering around the island.



Ko Samui is like paradise: In the part where I'm staying, there are only bungalows and small hotels, no big resorts and crowded beaches. I'm spending less here than on an average day in San Francisco. Things are very informal: Even the airport isn't some glass and steel monument, but looks roughly like 3000 Sand Hill Road with an airstrip attached.


I only wish is that I had planned to stay here longer. My mentor at Google used to say that she didn't understand why people take weekend trips when it really takes 2 weeks to be effective at vacation: one week to forget work and stress, and the next one to really relax.