Automatic launched this week

Automatic_RGB_Vertical_Logo.d73eccede466

The startup that I’ve been part of for more than a year has launched this week : Automatic – Your Smart Driving Assistant. It’s a hardware device + mobile app + cloud combination that helps you save money by helping you drive in a more fuel-efficient way, monitor your car engine’s health, automatic call to local authorities/911 in case of a car crash, and will automatically remember where you parked your car (note that the product is currently USA-only).

Watch the video:

Now, go and pre-order it now at www.automatic.com.

So how did I get involved? A couple of years back when I was considering freelancing full-time, Thejo Kote got in touch with me and I got started with NextDrop for which he was one of the co-founders. After some time, I was looking for something more long-term, so I pinged Thejo and he welcomed me to join his new startup.

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Nostalgia in a startup vs. Anu Aunty book

In a long bus ride, I read How I braved Anu Aunty and made a million-dollar company and I loved the book. The stories in the book are especially familiar to those who have faced the ire of family and sometimes friends at wanting to do a startup.

Anu Aunty Book

In the midst of the book, there is a passionate explanation by Varun Agarwal of why his idea of alumni T-shirts and alumni hoodies are important to people:

… The strangest thing was that my long-forgotten cupboard kept yielding one memory after another. I ran into a lot of my stuff from school that had got lost in the decade gone by. I started thinking of all those wonderful days. And that is when it hit me. That is what Alma Mater was about! It was about bringing those good ol’ days back. It was about taking you down that memory lane that leads to the wonderful times of school and college.

 

… We didn’t have Facebook then but we did have ICQ. One line none of us from that ‘era’ can ever forget is ‘ASL (age/sex/location) please,’ when meeting someone new on ICQ.  We had atrociously funny-sounding email ids – therockrulez@hotmail.com, dude_am@indya.com and the like and even funnier names in the ‘chat rooms.’ You couldn’t Google but had to go to altavista.com or approach Mr Jeeves for any queries and clarifications.

 

You still had to call a girl on her landline and muster all the courage to ask for her. The only place you could hang out at was Wimpy’s or McD and one still stayed away from the solitary Coffee Day on Brigade Road. Galaxy was where all the movies played and one had to stand in a long queue to buy tickets for Mission Impossible 2.

 

TV still played The Wonder Years and The Crystal Maze and the world seemed far smarter minus the Saas-Bahu soaps and the reality shows.

 

You could still find the time to read a book in the evenings  and play cricket in your ‘gully’ on Sundays. ‘Canada Dry’ was the only source to get high and sweet, candy cigarettes were puffed at most of the times.

 

VSNL ensured porn still loaded one byte at a time and VCDs were all the rage. Hulk Hogan was perpetually rank one on all the ‘Trump Cards’ and Cameron Diaz from The Mask was in every puberty-hitting youngters’ dreams. The only operating system we knew of was Windows 98.

 

Anyone with a printer was treated with respect and the World Book Encyclopedia was the only source of information for projects. Hero Pen was the original Chinese nib was still preferred over the brash new ‘Pilot’ pen.

 

Azharuddin was still our captain and Jadeja and Robin Singh were our pinch hitters. Venkatesh Prasad was the only one with the balls to mess with the Pakis and we still lost all the test matches.

 

And I definitely cannot miss out wearing a ‘colour’ dress to school on your birthday and distributing Eclairs to everyone.

 

I could go on and on. but I guess you get the drift.

 

As I cleaned my room, I ran into my long forgotten collection of Tinkle. Gosh, how I used to love those comics.

 

I guess some of us might hate to admit it now but everyone of us have read a Tinkle at some point or the other in our childhood. Even though it would be really un-cool to talk about ‘Suppandi’ now, he was the coolest character we knew in junior school. Before there was cartoon network, before Swat Cats took over, there was Uncle Scrooge on Doordarshan and there was Tinkle.

 

… I guess Tinkle comics have long been forgotten but they will always remain with us in our memories and will always remind us of times when things were simpler, when Bangalore was greener, when one would get up at 7a.m. on Sundays to catch Talespin on DD, when Phantom cigarettes ruled and chakra was more than just wheels. When we wouldn’t worry about deadlines, meetings, Facebook and everything else that our lives have become today. We would only worry about when the next Tinkle comic would be out. Sadly, Uncle Pai, the creator of the series passed away recently. RIP Uncle Pai and thanks for the memories. We owe you way more than one.

 

So, you see, Alma Mater was not just about starting another company. It was about starting a whole new subculture. Of making you feel like you were in school or college again – that wonderfully delicious feeling.

Reading those words flooded my mind with wonderful memories – I could have written those words! I could relate to almost every single word – right from ICQ to funny-sounding email IDs to Wimpy’s to The Crystal Maze to gully cricket to candy cigarettes to Cameron Diaz in The Mask to Windows 98 to World Book to Venkatesh Prasad to Eclairs to Tinkle to Talespin. Phew!

Thank you, Varun Agrawal, for the nostalgia as well as a wonderfully written hilarious story on entrepreneurial struggle vs. Indian family culture. I especially love the way his bargaining skills with the auto rickshaw walla improved as he went further down his entrepreneurial journey!

Go read the book, it’s a perfect Sunday read.

Update: Based on the book’s recommendation, I watched Dead Poets Society, 1989 movie feat. Robin Williams as a teacher, and absolutely loved it – Carpe Diem!

Apps using simple tricks to simplify usage

I have been recently using the iXpenseIt iPhone app to track cash expenditures[1]. What’s interesting is it uses the “most used” / “most visited” feature (which you may be familiar with in Firefox or other software) to vastly speed up its usage for the individual using it.

Let’s take an example, this is my default “New Expense” screen:

IMG_0487

Notice the entries – default vendor is “Shop”, default category is “Household” and default subcategory is “Supplies.” (my preferences).

Let’s say I had gone out for a Saturday afternoon lunch and I want to quickly enter the food bill. I type ‘Re’ and it quickly shows the best auto-complete option from the list of vendors:

IMG_0488

When I tap the ‘Restaurant’ pop-over, a small neat thing happens – it shows me the frequent categories I used for this particular vendor:

IMG_0489

So I tap on the second option and voila, the correct category and subcategory is chosen. The funny thing is that this simple “most frequently used” gimmick is the sole reason that I’m still using this expense tracking app (after all these days of trying so many of them) because my time to add a new entry goes down 3-5x times over time!

IMG_0490

Another example  – consider my favorite note taking application Evernote – when I go to the ‘Add New Note’ option and the clock happens to be in the middle of a calendar event, the default title of the new note will be “Note from Event Name”:

IMG_0491

Why is this useful? Because that is the most likely thing I’ll be doing – adding a note from the event that I’m attending, and this speeds up the process of me writing the new note.

I wish more applications would do this, for example:

  • I’m currently in Pune where Airtel does not have a 3G circle permission, so I am told to switch to Idea network or Vodafone network to get 3G access, but the hitch is that there are areas where Idea network signal strength is low and I have to manually change the network back to Airtel which has full signal strength. I really wish my smartphone could remember which network I use in each of my frequented locations and automatically switch based on that.
  • I wish my Email application would show frequently emailed contacts when I click on “Mail this link” in my browser.  Apple has a new VIP feature in Mountain Lion but I just wish it could show my “top 5 most emailed contacts in the past month” immediately next to the “To” entry field that I could just click on! (I couldn’t figure out how to use the built-in Mac OS X Automator software to simulate this)

Similar to these examples, what customizations / simple statistics / information usage would you like to see in the apps that you frequently use?

 

[1] I don’t intend to use it for more than a few months, it’s just to get a handle on expenses when living in a new city.

Book Review : Start-up Nation (story of Israel)

I read the "Start-up Nation" book last week. This book was so engrossing that I read it within 2 days, keeping aside everything else.

After reading this book, I started seeing the patterns about Israel being high tech hotspot, for example consider just two pieces of news in the last 3-4 days: Apple buying Anobit, an Israeli company, for $500 million as well as building a research center in Israel and Cornell won the bid to build a university in New York city… in collaboration with Technion university of Israel.

What is important

This book taught me the importance and inter-play of:

  • Entrepreneurism
  • Venture capital
  • Being committed to own business and country at same time
  • When people are pushed for survival, only then do they show the zeal for entrepreneurism and trade – otherwise nation becomes lazy
  • Size of country does matter
  • Government policies
  • Immigration
  • Technology as future growth
  • Multiple fields learning
  • Defense Forces
  • Liberalization and freedom of speech

To highlight in a bit more detail, I have picked a few quotes and insights from each chapter:

0. Introduction

  • Story of Shimon Peres and Shai Agassi pitching Better Place to auto manufacturers – Better Place is re-thinking electric vehicles by making fuel stations swap out your battery with a charged one instead of pumping petrol or diesel into the car, highly ambitious, executed first in Israel, now in China, etc.

1. Persistence

  • Story of "Fraud Sciences" company pitching to Paypal to use their fraud detection service – Paypal ended up buying them so that the competition doesn’t get them – idea came from founders who were soldiers in the Israeli army hunting down terrorists – they found hunting frauds easier.
  • Chutzpah
  • Israeli attitude and informality flow also from a cultural tolerance for what some Israelis call "constructive failure" or "intelligent failures." Most local investors believe that without tolerating a large number of failures, it is impossible to achieve true innovation. In the Israeli military, there is a tendency to treat all performance – both successful and unsuccessful – in training and simulations, and sometimes even in battle, as value-neutral. So long as the risk was taken intelligently, and not recklessly, there is something to be learned.
  • Story of how Intel’s chip design vision changed purely because of doggedness of the Israeli Intel office to convince higher-ups and how that eventually saved the company

2. Battlefield Entrepreneurs

  • As usual in the Israeli military, the tactical innovation came from bottom up – from individual tank commanders and their officers. It probably never occurred to these soldiers that they should ask their higher-ups to solve the problem, or that they might not have the authority to act on their own. Nor did they see anything strange in their taking responsibility for inventing, adopting, and disseminating new tactics in real time, on the fly. Yet what these soldiers were doing was strange. If they had been working in a multinational company…
  • Company commander is also the lowest rank that must take responsibility for a territory. As Farhi puts it, "If a terrorist infiltrates that area, there’s a company commander whose name is on it. Tell me how many twenty-three-year-olds elsewhere in the world live with that kind of pressure… How many of their peers in their junior colleges have been tested in such a way? How do you train and mature a twenty-year-old to shoulder such responsibility?
  • In the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), there are even extremely unconventional ways to challenge senior officers. "I was in Israeli army units where we threw out the officers," Oren told us, "where people just got together and voted them out. I witnessed this twice personally. I actually liked the guy, but I was outvoted. They voted out a colonel." When we asked Oren in disbelief how this worked, he explained, "You go and say, ‘We don’t want you. You’re not good.’ I mean, everyone’s ona first-name basis… You go to the person above him and say, ‘That guy’s got to go.’… It’s much more performance-oriented than it is about rank.

3. The People of The Book

  • Almost every Israeli trekker in Bolivia is likely to come through El Lobo (restaurant), but not just to get food that tastes like it’s from home, to speak Hebrew, and to meet other Israelis. They know they will find something else there, something even more valuable: the Book. Though spoken of in singular, the Book is not one book but an amorphous and evolving collection of journals, dispersed throughout some of the most remote locations in the world. Each journal is a handwritten "Bible" of advice from one traveler to another. And while the Book is no longer exclusively Israeli, its authors and readers tend to be from Israel.
  • Israeli wanderlust is not only about seeing the world; its sources are deeper… there is another psychological factor at work – a reaction to the physical and diplomatic isolation. Until recently, Israelis could not travel to a single neighbouring country…
  • For the same reason, it was natural for Israelis to embrace the Internet, software, computer, and telecommunications arenas. In these industries, borders, distances, and shipping costs are practically irrelevant. As Israeli venture capitalist Orna Berry told us, "High-tech telecommunications became a national sport to help us defend against the claustrophobia that is life in a small country surrounded by enemies." … "Today, Israeli companies are firmly integrated into the economies of China, India, and Latin America. Because, as Orna Berry says, telecommunications became an early priority for Israel, every major telephone company in China relies on Israeli telecom equipment and software…

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Freelancing for Joshua Schachter


joshua schachter

The first person I started freelancing for is Joshua Schachter. Joshua is well known as the founder of del.icio.us, the bookmarking website which made “social filtering”, “tagging” (at the same time as Flickr) and “Web 2.0” common buzzwords.

I stumbled upon his tweet one day that he was looking for remote Python developers for his pet projects, I said “Hey, I’m interested” and next thing I know he is throwing ideas (and he has lots of ideas) and I’m furiously thinking about the fastest way to implement it. Over time, what interested me the most was not the idea itself but rather the evolution of the idea while iterating over prototypes and how Joshua creates this evolution. It has been fascinating to be a “fly on the wall” in this process.

The first project was ClueDB, a “tips and tricks” website, or a “lifehacker, by the people” as I like to call it. Built using MongoDB, Flask, my flask-boilerplate project, HTML5 Boilerplate, jQuery, jQueryUI, Twitter/OAuth integration, and Fabric. Standard stuff.

cluedb.com

Joshua started with a simple answers / tricks site and slowly hacked on features. For example, he said “let there be tags” but there was a twist. The tagging would not be done by the submitter of the clue him/herself but by other people visiting the site. “It would be less spammy this way” he said. Boy, was that an eye-opener to me on how a simple social “tweak” could make a big change to the content and hence the trustworthiness of a site.

The second aha moment for me was when he said “let there be votes” :

cluedb voting scheme

This was a very interesting scheme of voting where we ask for the direct action by the user and not a simple plus/minus counter which doesn’t say anything about the usefulness of a clue (as opposed to popularity).

Things were going along, and then Joshua said “let there be user profiles” and things were going along again.. and then Joshua said “let there be a page listing all the clues that the user has voted ‘Plan to try it’” and we created such a page. The beauty of this was that now there was a single page that a user can use as a bookmark, homepage or share it with friends – voila, viral and useful at the same time.

Similar aha moments was creating a link called “random clue you haven’t voted” which would encourage the user to both explore more content as well as encourage to vote at the same time, and so on.

The latest project is StackParts.com – a simple catalog of parts for a web stack so that developers can weigh in their options and discover new ones for their next webapp. Built using Tornado, Python, Fabric and YAML files as the NoSQL database ;-).

This project was again interesting for the use of tags to organize the projects and the relationships between them, which you can see in action when you visit any project page on stackparts.com.

stackparts.com

There was a good discussion on HN about StackParts and was featured on O’Reilly Radar, and if Wayne Seguin likes it, there must be some value in it.

(As an aside, the site is also a testament to my total lack of design skills.)

And all the while, Joshua is busy with his own startup!

In summary, it’s been a fascinating experience where Joshua is doing the product management and I’m doing the coding.

My two favorite lessons from this experience are:

“You can’t reason about products – great products are emotional.”

and:

joshua startupquote idea log

Freelancing

I’ve been a long-time reader of Ramit Sethi – I love his irreverent approach to money which has influenced me positively. About a year and a half ago, he launched the Earn1K program and I was immediately curious about it. Having failed to run a business once, I thought this was a great way to “hack my brain” to learn about business.

Eventually, I signed up for it. Of course, I have never mentioned this before to anybody other than a handful of friends because most people would balk that I paid so much for an online course and consider me an idiot. I guess I’m just not the latte saving kind of guy – I don’t earn a lot and I don’t spend a lot, but I do want to spend on the things that I really want. I’m mentioning this today because I have results to show from having gone through just half of the course.

A few months ago after I left my last job, most people expected me to jump into a startup again:


@vijayanands


@satpalparmar

Having the spent last 3 years in startup land, I learned a few things which have made me wary and weary of startups. It had gotten me to think of what it is that I was actually seeking.

It turns out to be simple – “I like coding. I like building interesting and meaningful projects. I like working with good people. I like getting paid well.” That’s it ;-). After all these years, I still love coding, so I kept thinking of ways to focus on just that and stay far away from the business and management side of things. “At least, let me indulge in coding till I have the enthusiasm for it” was my refrain. But how to achieve that?

That was when my lessons from Earn1K kicked in.

Today, my full-time freelancing is going better than I had anticipated a couple of months ago.

There was one more reason why freelancing seemed like a great option to me:

To be happy, your work must fulfill three universal psychological needs:

  1. Autonomy – control over how you fill your time.
  2. Competence – mastering unambiguously useful things
  3. Relatedness – feeling of connection to others

This was what I came across in Cal Newport’s blog whom I pay attention to.

As you can imagine, freelancing has given me an opportunity to further each of the above three points – I get to choose the projects I work on, I get to choose projects that improves my skills and I get to choose to work on projects that I want to be a part of. I am not bound by a company’s roadmap at all.

There are other pluses such as not having to commute, not having to take phone screens and face-to-face interviews, no meetings, not having to worry about sales and product roadmap (my clients take care of that), not having to worry about the competition (my clients take care of that), etc.

There are minuses, of course, such as not having a team to interact and learn from, not having the opportunity to meet wonderful colleagues, no paid holidays, and so on. Thankfully, Pomodoro and GTD help me stay focused and productive and the other minuses haven’t bitten me strongly yet.

At some arbitrary point in time in the future, I’ll do a personal review of how things stand, especially if I have a reasonably steady income. If all is well, then I’ll probably continue freelancing, otherwise there is always the option to jump back into a regular job. Until then, my new life experiment is in progress and so far, so good.

P.S. I’ll talk about my current projects in subsequent posts.


“The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.”

Nassim Taleb

Leaving Infibeam

Today is my last day at Infibeam.

I’m going to miss working in this environment because I learned a lot about ecommerce and online buying in India. For example, I was surprised to know how much sales go up during Diwali (in hindsight, not so surprising, of course) and was surprised at the amount of online buying that happens from Tier II cities. Then there was the learning on the huge amount of logistics that happens – the part where the customer visits the website and clicks on the Buy button is just 1% of the total stuff that happens behind-the-scenes.

I am also thankful to Ajay and Infibeam for getting me into the Rails wagon, I’m finally starting to see the light. Learning a new language and framework from scratch to delivering a full ecommerce platform in 4–5 months was a fascinating experience. And soon, anyone can set up their own online store on top of Infibeam’s infrastructure.

Infibeam has done many things right, has many things to improve, and rumors say they may face many challenges in the future. All in all, that’s a good thing. Infibeam launched at the right time and is helping to grow ecommerce in India, and it will continue to do so.

But alas, it’s time for me to move on. I can haz plans.


Listening to Stand Up by The Prodigy