It is a cliché that you can only really learn from experience, but still people (me too) often forget about it. Any amount of practice will trump at least 10x (or even 100x) time spent on figuring out things in theory. The recent lessons in hardware development that make up this latest edition of Horrible Clarity (my behind-the-scenes notes on building Moonpunch).
Momentum is everything in a startup. If you have momentum, you can survive most other problems. If you do not have momentum, nothing except getting momentum will solve your problems.
I haven’t realized that so much time (more than half a year) has passed since the last hard look at what am I doing here, in the new-year edition of Horrible Clarity. It’s a cliche that time flies, but 33 weeks is just too much. High time to take another look and get back to regularly reviewing the project’s progress.
It doesn’t feel like that much time has passed, but it does feel like I’m quite a different person than even a few months ago. Accelerated learning and experience, it makes wonders. Let’s review what happened “before the break”, and that should offer some guidance what to do next!
It’s been a long gap since the last Horrible Clarity, aka. progress report, and it is high time to pick it up again. The turn of the year is a great way to force a look on the last year and also more concrete planning for the next. So here’s the last of the old / first of the new year progress reports of a hardware startup that can barely call itself as such.
I know it’s a cliche, but it was a very surprising year in many respects. Being completely honest, I missed pretty much all of the targets I had, though it’s more the matter of not having clear targets and milestones. This lack of clarity affects everything, and that made a big impression on this year.
I’m sitting in a late night cafe with a piece of cake (no more coffee) and crashing. Trying to put the two weeks since the last update into terms of a progress progress report for this monday tradition of “horrible clarity”, and also making sense of things in the same time. Here’s an illustration how does it feel:
Sometimes still need to work on my fundamentals, and these days online courses seem to offer some benefits. They are not as good as mentorship, but as close as they can get since they follow my own schedule, and have a much bigger reach than the people I personally know around here.
The Startup Class is still going on, and this week’s two lectures were quite impactful.
- Peter Thiel felt pretty much a waste of time – if you have done the assigned reading (otherwise it was decent). The reading was 3 of the chapters from his book, Zero to One. After the class I picked up the book, and finished by the weekend. I think it has a lot of gold nuggets that need to be dug out from the big pile of opinions and often strange conclusions. His ideas on monopolies and the destructive nature of competition is quite interesting and something I want to investigate more.
- Alex Schultz is the VP of Growth at Facebook. His speaking style couldn’t have been further from Thiel’s, very active, engaging, challenging, practical. After 5 minutes I was a fan. In the end, though, I’m not sure what have I came away with, except for great speaker example, because the topics were beyond my experience and reach in scale.
There’s also a Successful Negotiation class on Coursera by the University of Michigan. The lecturer made a good case how useful it will be, and the first week was interesting, albeit probably the most amount of videos I’ve seen in a course, 2.5 hours for a week; though I was watching in 1.5x speed, that a comfortable pace somehow with most of these courses. In the end, most areas discussed (large scale negotiations and the US legal system) are again beyond my experience and reach…
Anyway, entrepreneurship porn is strong with this one…
The much more focused way I’ve spent my time was getting on with the PCIeDuino electronics. I’ve been using Contextual Electronics’ Getting to Blinky video series to learn more of KiCad that I chose to use. It’s pretty good, I recommend it! After a few evenings of messing around I now have:
- refined schematics
- all components should have the correct footprint
- the outline of the mini-PCIe card
- the rat nest of components to place
Now comes the next hard part: the actual layout. This should be another few evening’s surge this week, and after that hopefully I can start asking the knowledgeable people what I can improve on.
I’ve been figuring out whether to crowdsource this board, and given a few conditions it does look like a good idea:
- Created & tested a working prototype
- Have 2 months when I can have time each & every day to take care of the campaign
- Have at least one more person who can help with the campaign (this is optional, but should tip the scale a lot)
If these are given, the next step is choosing how to actually do the campaign, e.g. what platform: HWTrek, Indiegogo, or something else? What target to set? What should be a good outcome and how to use the funds? (possibly external consulting, FCC certification, some other capital-intensive thing).
Working on the side I’d be very happy with finished PCB layout, a concrete crowdfunding plan, and re-analyzed fundamentals based on things learned recently.
One day goes after the next, and skipping on updates is not a good form, so here are some thoughts for this week related to Moonpunch, however small they might be…
This week’s notes
The Startup Class has started last week with their first videos, it was very highly anticipated by a lot of people. It’s focusing on creating hypergrowth Internet businesses, and it is not directly applicable to other styles (e.g. hardware startups), but there are some nuggets that I took home from the first two class:
- The CEO’s number 1 job to manage their own psychology
- Best predictor of success: every time the team has some progress to share
- Vision/mission oriented ideas are the best ones: easier to rally around for the team and outsiders too, keeps people more on the path and going
- Start at a very small segment and take all of it, grow from that – make something a small number of people love instead of something a lot of people like.
- Sales fixes everything – when things are bad, making deals happen is the best way to turn things around, for the team as well
There are other series with such online videos/talks/interviews with inspiring people: Foundation is similar to the Startup Class in its selection, while I really appreciate Khan Academy’s Interviews with Entrepreneurs because it gives space for lot of other people, from the CEO of a large fashion brand to a founder of a small business focusing on university chemistry sets. These videos give an amazingly wide range of inspiration and examples of dealing with “situations” in business.
Also, I find myself having more hardware related discussions, and having more opportunities. Whether it is people coming to me as a (somewhat connected) member of the Taiwanese hardware scene, or one who at least took some steps towards making hardware (even if not enough steps yet), or as a commentator on hardware, it feels interesting, though not yet deserved. I don’t mind the opening of doors which it means, though, and hope to make the most of them in the way they fit the vision.
And yes, all of these does not matter at all. :) It’s so easy to lose focus with shiny objects like these above, while the only thing I need to figure out how to make a darn 4-layer PCB in KiCAD that I can send to be printed…
If there was a theme for this week, it would be that one cannot have a breakthrough every week, got to make do with some learning. On the other hand, the lack of breakthroughs more often is a sign of not breaking enough things, and thus a symptom than a must.
This week’s update just follows the Moon Festival (or Mid-Autumn Festival) last week in Taiwan, when people get together for a BBQ and spend some time with friends and family. That’s the moon festival in a nutshell and in practice. Of course I like this festival for multiple reasons.
Probably the most amazing thing for me is realizing how much didn’t get done since the last update. On the PCIeDuino project I did the electronic schematics, the part that I actually knew how to do, but so far didn’t even start on the next step (the PCB layout) that I have almost no knowledge about. The enthusiasm took me all the way to the wall, and then dropped me off. I didn’t even realize that 3 weeks has passed… Indeed, enthusiasm is not enough, grit is the only currency here.
Been reading some articles about entrepreneurship porn – in a way this pieces can be part of it as well on the reader’s side. Just reading about things without actually taking any steps. They can be dangerous because they fire up the enthusiasm, but barely do anything for grit (which is pretty bad, see the previous point). That is, reading is dangerous, on the other hand, I believe writing it and having it read is part of the grit and progress and accountability. Two sides of the coin, the writer get more out of it than the reader. This is something to keep in mind!
Having said that, there are always pieces that are exceptions to the rule and add something unique to me even as a reader. James Altucher, for example, is probably responsible for a big part of the little grit I have built up so far. And he keeps adding to it. For others there are other muses.
From another reading this week a quote remained: “Don’t start a company with friends, but with people who you can become friends with.” This also reminds me that it might be a big folly trying to do it on my own and would need a trusted partner. Being very picky about it I haven’t found anyone and no-one found me yet. This might become important sooner rather than later.
My take was that writing a blog is very important (either for personal projects, or for a startup, for a company). Now I’ve re-evaluated that a bit, and would say instead: it’s important to write about the things that are important for you. The rest is probably better unwritten and spend the time on something else. In my experience the writings that convey the most interest and importance are the ones that will attract the opportunities. These are absolutely necessary. People will find you for things written weeks and months ago, and open up new doors. The things you’ve written just to have words down on the page and more content for a better Google ranking – that will just drown out the signal. (I know, I’ve been there).
And a reminder on the 1000th time: quite often there are microtasks that are very tempting to do instead of the important things (before sitting down writing this weekly report I for example finetuned the server’s PHP installation…). This is very hard habit to shed, but need to be mindful of it. That way they might be kept at bay.
For this week
I feel the most important is getting on with the hardware design, but this might be a folly as well. That’s the startup game, one can never be too sure whether he or she is on the right path, without feedback. Get that feedback, adjust, and carry on.
Contain entrepreneurship porn, startup events, accelerators, news, other distractions.
There are a couple of very useful opportunities pending (and I’m the bottleneck for a change), follow up on them and decide what to do. Either do or drop, but decide on it.
It has been 16 weeks, that is 112 days since my last check-in over here. The funny thing is that it is pretty much the same amount of time that it would take for me to go through the HAXLR8R hardware startup accelerator program… Not that I was doing that, though probably I should have. :)
These 16 weeks went by very quickly, and in all honestly fretting about the lack of progress made here. Not that nothing happened, but nothing that felt to be “enough” to be talking about.
Anyway, a recent read that shakes things up a bit is “Stop building a startup. Build a product.” The title says the gist of the story, and it does make quite a lot of sense. I’ve spent probably more time setting up this website with its blog, forum, wiki, and store than actually making something that could make use of those. If the lack of progress makes me rethink something, this article gave me some clear pointers where to start looking to make changes…
Incidentally, there was something I started to work on, that’s actually useful. Based on an inspirational from at work, I dreamed up a mini-PCIe card mounted Arduino clone. It has a delightful combination of “legacy” and “cutting edge”, that I see in quite a few “niche of a niche” products.
I’ve started sketching it out, figuring out the schematics, setting up a page for it on a hardware expert/crowdfunding site (this one is probably one that I could have skipped), and went to talk to people who might actually be interested in it: the Arduino forums and /r/arduino. The latter actually had a lot of useful feedback on using different hardware, use cases, requests, and some exclamation of delight that made me happy (even though I know that I cannot ever trust the “I’d been looking for this 4ever!” comments further than I can throw them). This feedback is basically a “first contact with customers” to some extent, and it’s actually a good thing that now I feel I need to re-think a lot of my design choices (not necessarily change, though) as a way of learning from real people.
This is not a science project, this is not aimed at laboratories, and might not help do physics, as my vision goes. But getting it done will certainly make me more experienced about hardware design, and since better hardware is one of my goals, this is the experience I need to seek out and make the most of.
I think these two main inspiration for this week just reinforces each other. Now let’s see where do they lead…
It’s again “Horrible Clarity” time, and this week a bit less of progress report, and a bit more reflection on thing I’ve learned and experienced recently. It’s interesting to be operating in an established, large company, many of the issues that I’ll need to solve in a startup coming to greet me much earlier than they would otherwise.
Being in a marketing position at the moment, we’ve been doing plenty of thinking how to talk about all the things that are important to us. The main message I took home, content strategy is hard. Everyone has a lot of content, but getting results from them (not superficial, but real results), is difficult. Maybe I should have paid more attention at the Content Strategy for Professionals online course. Since I don’t remember much, have to come up with my own solutions. Thinking about it, this would be a good time to employ things like the 5 Ws and one H: What, Why, When, Where, Who and How. Will give it a try and see whether it’ll make better content and clearer strategy.
Another thing that is obvious is but I had to experience it myself, is that selling is hard. Have an online store, quite a bit of traffic, social media feedback, and all these don’t turn into sales. Why? And how do I go about answering this question? That could make a lot of things so much more effective.
Had a chat about electronics with a friend, asking specific questions about how a circuit board I’m developing should be like. Incredible feedback, and I just had to stumble upon the right people. Being knowledgeable is not enough. A person’s attitude is what makes or breaks a partnership.
There’s never enough time, but should take time to catch up with things. Otherwise it’s really like an interest payment – will be buried under time-debt.
Continue on electronics development, and finish something up before all that discussion fades from my memory. Nothing holds that up, only me.
Will be attending a physics conference, the Hong Kong – Taiwan Cold Atom Forum. Must keep up, and want to keep up with the field. It’s also good to meet my potential target audience, and get some first hand feedback what people are up to.
Found more physics papers detailing open hardware for physics labs that I should check out in detail and summarize here. Some are precursor to the last paper, some are building on top of that.
Well, this is all for the moment. Everyone, have a good week ahead.
Again a few weeks has passed without my “weekly” report. In the meantime there was:
Can’t say things got less busy since Week 14, on the contrary. That makes this progress report even more important.
This week instead of doing a “past and upcoming week”, let’s have a more bird’s eye overview. The less fixed the destination the more important knowing why am I going the direction I’m going.
Putting into context
Taking a full time job during startup time is almost the biggest change I can imagine stopping short of abandoning a project. I don’t plan to abandon this one, fortunately.
The purpose is to build a better foundation, upon which Moonpunch can progress better in the future. This is not the same as “doing practice before the real thing”, but more along the lines of now I also know what are the traits, skills, and resources that I am missing. Looks like VIA can be a place where I can leverage what I’m good at, and also improve on what I’m not (yet):
- electronics skills: if my plan is to design and develop electronics, I’d better start doing them. Also, why not learn from people who do that for a living, and are very good at it. As opposed to the Chinese electronics houses that just churn out boards after boards, VIA is making stuff that is stable, that works, and stays for a long time. Exactly as it is needed in a lab
- teamwork: while I enjoy being solo founder, I did start to feel that a group can be more than the sum of the people. It’s both important to learn how to use the best the skills of those you have, and how to choose the people to work with in the first place.
- real international exposure: VIA is a global company, and I have no choice but to think globally too. Opportunities, challenges, cultures, all play a part and all different from limiting myself (unintentionally) to what’s in walking distance.
- make your own path: I’m fortunate enough to have considerable freedom in making choices how do I attack opportunities, and even how to choose what are opportunities (within limits, of course). Doing that with the resources of a large organization can be very eye opening.
A lot of my inspiration is from books I read (especially ones recommended by friends). The current influencer is The Black Swan, with the core message: all the changes in life come from single, rare, unpredictable, large impact events. The best strategy seems protecting from disastrous, large negative impact events, and expose myself to environments with more potential positive outcomes. Basically: have insurance and keep an eye out.
Of course this strategy is being tested right now. As for practical steps:
- create some electronics designs to learn the workflow
- re-evaluate which one of my device plans can be now more approachable to make
- find existing communities that share the vision of open science & open hardware, to collaborate with
And also, try have a good time. TGIM. ;)