Category Archives: Random Thoughts

We’re All Jerks Sometimes.

Wow its been a while since I’ve last posted.  Have had a lot to write about and not much time to actually do it.  Tonight won’t be a long post either, as I still have some foursquare work to crank on.

Quick story: Went to Washington Square Park to eat lunch today and road my bike over- standard two minute ride.  While sitting on the grass a news reporter (I believe from the NY Post) came over and asked me a few questions about the DOT’s new “Don’t be a Jerk” campaign, complete with billboards and PSA’s attempting to teach cyclists how not be.. well, JERKS.  The campaign begs the question, are cyclists really jerks?  There is obviously no clear cut answer.  Yes, some cyclists are jerks; running red lights, biking against traffic, or riding on the sidewalks with no regard for anything else around them except things bigger than themselves, ie. cars, busses, trucks, and cabs.  Cab drivers fall into a whole separate category of drivers, just like NY vs NJ drivers, but thats a whole different argument saved for another day.  The point is that some cyclists are deliberately jerks, some are entirely law abiding, but most are only jerks when they have to be, usually out of pure self defense.  The problem is that most pedestrians that have never ridden a bicycle in Manhattan have no idea what its like to constantly be looking over your shoulder for the next cab deliberately trying to pass as close as they can to you without actually hitting you.  We’re fast, but not as fast as vehicles.  And the facts don’t lie: Cyclist collisions with pedestrians caused zero deaths in Manhattan last year.  The same cannot be said for automobiles which caused nearly 270 deaths. 270 people were hit by cars and died, but cyclists are still the jerks.

The “Don’t be a Jerk” campaign has done nothing but strengthen the false illusions that all cyclists are deliberately jerks on the road.  What the DOT needs to do is strike a balance of blame between all of the parties involved. Pedestrians are equally as guilty of J walking, crossing on red lights, opening doors into traffic, etc.

Not the first time we've seen this..

The same is true for vehicles: speeding, running red lights, parking illegally, and pulling into bike lanes.  That said, it should be noted that police are not above the law.  If they want to dish out tickets to cyclists that don’t have bells and lights on their bikes so be it.  But I would love to know how to dish it back to cops equally as guilty.

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Top Priorities for serious entrepreneurs

I’ve met a lot of entrepreneurs over the past couple months. Some are really exceptional; true visionaries who leave you with no doubt that their company is going to be very successful.  And then there are those who miss the mark entirely.  I’ve realized while working at NYC Seed, the two most difficult challenges faced by every entrepreneur. To most, theoretically, both tasks are blatantly obvious.  However, the actual accomplishment of these first two challenges is what sets a serious entrepreneur apart from the everyday dreamer

The Opportunity: Identifying new  innovations that are right for a particular market is extremely difficult.  There are essentially two frameworks for learning about a market/industry to identify problems or inefficiencies: work directly for a company or research. Both are time consuming, and neither is perfect. Working for an organization will give you a pretty good representation of the problems the employees and company faces everyday.  It also validates you as a credible source; an industry “expert” of sorts.  Performing research requires numerous conversations with industry professionals with the hope that they will shed some light on their needs.  This approach allows for a much broader perspective of the market, but requires a certain level of skill in identifying real opportunities.  Discovering opportunities cannot happen over night.  It takes time.  In fact, a serious entrepreneur never ends the search for new opportunities.  Customer’s needs change too quickly.  Successful companies adapt to what the market will hold. Focusing only on the product can be deadly.

The Team: Creating the right team takes a lot of hard work and patience.  Finding partners that believe in your own capabilities as much as their own is undeniably a difficult task.  The right set of co-founders will make or break a company.  It’s the first thing any right-minded investor evaluates immediately after the pitch.  The best duo, without a doubt, is one business minded, market oriented, sales driven guru and a technical co-founder.  Teams that can build a product, sell it to a customer and repeat this process a thousand times over are serious entrepreneurs.

In a future post, I will dive deeper into some of my own experiences evaluating opportunities and seeking a co-founder.  This post was not meant to provide too much detail on either subject, as there is clearly a lot to discuss.


PPW

Not Quite Copenhagen

I picked up the most recent issue of New York magazine the other day while shopping at Whole Foods when the cover caught my eye.  I’m not one to sporadically buy magazines at the point of purchase for groceries but I couldnt help myself after seeing the words “Bikelash” plastered across the front.  I would think its pretty rare that a bike lane lands a five page story, plus the front cover of any urban magazine, especially one from NY.  The PPW bike lane did just that.

I would encourage anyone interested in the dispute over the PPW lane or just the growth of NYC biking in general to read the article.  Unfortunately it is a little bit one sided, especially at the beginning where the author (although a cyclist) focuses in on the views of anti-bike lane proponents.  It isn’t until the continuation of the article at the back of the magazine (pg. 91) that the good stuff is presented.  One of my favorite quotes, written about the 9th ave bike lane, which was originally met with fierce opposition until tempers slowly dies down was this; “there is something infinitely joyful in putting foot to pedal, something intoxicating about not being bound to the whims of a bus driver or subway conductor or thick tangles of crosstown traffic.  Whipping down the street, completely protected from the cars zooming by just a few feet away, may be the closest any New Yorker comes to flying” (Matthew Shaer). While not presenting anything factual to back up the need for bike lanes in NY, it is certainly an accurate testament to the feelings held by NY cyclists riding in a protected bike lane.  Now imagine a world where those lanes no longer exist.  Not such a pleasant dream when you’ve lost your wings.

Checking-in to foursquare 3.0

Foursquare 3.0 logoI went to bed last night anticipating the release of foursquare 3.0.  I woke up this morning and looked out my window hoping it would be snowing, for it indeed felt like Christmas Day.  I opened up my freshly charged HTC Incredible (nothing short of its name) to find the fantastic new update for foursquare.  Feeling like a 6 year old who just got a new Nintendo 64 (you all remember those days) I dove straight into it.

It’s well understood that foursquare has a long road ahead of itself in its quest to grow to the likes of facebook and twitter with hundreds of millions of users.  In my own view, sharing location, can be a bit daunting.  Even if you are not publicizing that data, the very idea that someone else behind the scenes can track where you have gone may be too progressive for mainstream America.  That said, simple gaming mechanics, virtual badges, and mayorships were clearly not enough to bridge the “security” issues and attract a larger network of users outside of the tech-savvy early adopters.  Admittedly, even I stopped checking in for a few months because the value proposition was not high enough for me to pull out my phone everywhere I went to share my location.  Alas, foursquare has certainly been focused in the past year on improving this experience.  At approximately 2AM this morning they released foursquare 3.0.  There are only two words to describe the new release. GAME CHANGER.

I’m not going to go into detail about all of the new features they have integrated into the platform, reason being that anyone with an account should upgrade immediately to try it themselves, and anyone without a foursquare account is at a pure loss.  Anyone with a Blackberry should just throw their phones away now and save themselves the hassle of having to wait another few days/weeks.  I will say that I found it quite refreshing to see a product delivered to its users whose features really touch upon the founders’ original vision; “making cities easier to use”.   Foursquare 3.0 doesn’t just make cities easier to use, it makes cities more interesting.  How often have you gone to the same restaurant or bar because you couldn’t think of anything else off the top of your head in a particular neighborhood?  Gone are the days of repetition.  The beautiful thing about the foursquare “explore” tab is that in a way it transcends the recommendations  you find on any other service (yelp, google, urbanspoon, opentable, etc). In a way, it feels real.  The things foursquare and other users are telling you to visit are personalized based on your own preferences, i.e. where you have checked in before.  This is important for one reason.  The incentive for me to to check-in has been multiplied.  Knowing that the service is getting smarter to better help my ability to explore areas or venues I’ve never been to is really rewarding.  I love services that get progressively better the more you use them.

Anyways, there is a lot more to say about foursquare 3.0 and I will probably write another few posts once I really start to use it in the next few weeks.  In all, I’m excited, if not proud, that foursquare has stuck to its vision and delivered an exceptional service that is an amazing first step to changing the way we interact with each other and our city.  To read more about the new release, I strongly encourage everyone to Dennis Crowley’s post on the foursquare blog.

Founder’s Round

I had the opportunity to attend Founders Meetup on Tuesday night (March 1) and listen to a few CEO’s speak about their technology, business models, milestones/goals, questions, and concerns.  They included SeatGeek, HyperPublic, and RocketHub.

SeatGeek, an NYC Seed portfolio company, is a sports and concert ticket search engine that uses predictive algorithms to show you the best price for tickets sold on secondary markets (meaning not directly from TicketMaster or another large service).  They also have spent an extensive amount of time mapping the configurations of stadium seating across America that way you can see exactly where you will be sitting during the show or game and make sure you are paying the best price on the market!

HyperPublic may be a little bit more difficult for me to explain correctly.  On the surface, at the moment at least, its gives you a simple way to tag and search people, places, or things that they you everyday and then find and connect to those things by location.  On the backend, they are creating really rich data layer from which other applications can be built.  Cofounder, Jordan Cooper, described it as the intermediary between infrastructure sites like SimpleGeo and heavy user generated content sites like Yelp.com.  Either way the opportunities that the dataset will provide to developers to build applications for local entities on the platform will be amazing.

Last one, since I really didn’t mean to go into a lot of detail about these companies.. RocketHub is similar to KickStarter, as it uses crowdsourcing to help people raise money for various projects.  Whats most interesting is their partnerships with larger brands who also join in on sponsoring some of the projects.

One of the more interesting topics that was raised was customer acquisition, which includes the debate about time spent on marketing and PR for startups.  By now everyone should have read Fred Wilson’s views on what it means for startups to spend time on different marketing initiatives.  Anyways, I wanted to point out a really interesting comment made in the audience about an example of a company that came up with a very clever, and relatively successful way to acquire customers.  The company is called Blingo (it still exists, not that anyone would use it) and they are a search engine owned by Publishers Clearing House.  However they offered one distinguishable twist from all of the other search engines in the market.  Every time a user searched for something they had the opportunity to win a prize at random.  GENIUS. Blingo successfully acquired millions of email addresses at the cost of giving away a few inexpensive prizes each day.  They also incorporated a social networking tool into it; users that recruited their friends to join would receive the same prize that any of their friends won.  Blingo encouraged their users that it was best to use the service like they would use any other search engine on a normal basis.  For the casual searcher, there was much more incentive to go to Blingo (which was using Google’s search anyways) because they had a chance to win.

While it seems obvious, I think campaigns like this could be applied to a number of platforms today whose largest priority is singing up millions of new users.  Foursquare is a great example.  Merchants that are willing to give out special offer are the most valuable for the platform because they keep users engaged.  Here’s the question: Is it possible to make it required for merchants to offer a special to a minimum number of customers on foursquare every week at random?  That would be such a huge incentive for current users who never receive anything to keep checking in and for people not currently using the service to sign up for an account.

*Note I got some information from wikipedia.  It’s credible enough in my mind. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blingo

Broken things= startup opportunities

Facebook invented the Events page.  Arguably one of the biggest attractions to the platform besides sharing pictures, the ability to tell friends about upcoming events is invaluable.  But, through all of facebook’s growth and development over the past 5-6 years, it seems that the Events section has not seen any major improvements.  Instead, the right hand corner of our home screens have become a haven for unsolicited parties and meetups and has slowly, but surely rendered itself useless.  The system is officially broken for what I would think is a large number of users.  Sharing events among a close network of friends is vital to any social network.  The traditional mechanisms to get a group together on a particular night are completely outdated. Unfortunately, Facebook Events can also be added to that list, along with snail mail, email, and mass text messages.

Presently, on facebook the types of events we receive usually fall into a few distinct categories: birthdays, planned parties, promo events/benefits/concerts, community meetings, and lost cellphones (if that can even be considered an event).  I usually have a range of 12-16 events in my list on facebook, of which there are 2 that I will respond to if I remember in time.  This is a problem that needs to be replicated, and I don’t think facebook will be the one to do it.  If a large technology company like Facebook won’t or can’t do it, it is definitely an opportunity for a startup. I think event planning online needs to be made a bit more spontaneous, allowing for organic growth of “attendees” rather than forced pressure (ie facebok messages, which I also think are useless).  There should be a dedicated application separate from email, facebook, and twitter that helps users manage the types of events they receive from their friends, the timing that you receive the event (for example, birthdays i would like to know way in advance, regular parties i would like to know about the day of or the day before), and the number of events currently in the “inbox”.

Anyways, I think it would be an interesting side project and I might just take some time to experiment with it.  I have a few ideas about how to best go about getting the data to build an personal event manager. If anyone is interested in joining or has some advice please send me an email at scott.amenta89@gmail.com or leave your comments below.

Do it or dont do it..

..Or Call it A Side Project.

The thought of running a successful company can be overwhelmingly daunting. I believe many first time entrepreneurs suffer from a common problem; the idea of starting a successful company gets put on a pedestal.  As new entrepreneurs begin to think about their idea, assemble a team, create decks, and reach out to their network they get caught up in the hype of creating a startup.  All of the sudden, it becomes a big deal to take an untraditional path and run your own company.  Founders become more aware of the risk of failure, the time commitment, and the thought that maybe their idea isn’t worth the next five years of their time.  As soon as an entrepreneur puts their company on a pedestal, they are destined to fail. Excuse after excuse, they get caught up doing everything but what needs to get done; building a prototype and getting it to users or customers to test.  There is no reason to open a bank account, incorporate the company, or even to spend time alerting friends, families, and even potential mentors or investors until it is absolutely necessary.  All of this acts as a waste of time.  Time that could have been spent testing the product, talking with customers, and figuring out the next iteration.

To this problem, my solution is the side project. Having a side project means that one is also spending time on one or more things simultaneously.  The benefits of having a side project outweigh the benefits of committing 100% of your time to a single idea.

Here’s five reasons why:

  1. Dedicating 5-25% of your time to a side project forces you to focus on the most important aspects first, like building a prototype and speaking to customers.
  2. Side projects can change by week, month, or year.  This keeps things interesting and allows you to explore different opportunities without committing all of your resources at once.
  3. The risk of failure does not appear as daunting, especially to a first time entrepreneur because there is always something else to fall back upon.
  4. Side projects teach you how to manage your time more efficiently to get things done quickly.  Having a lot of things going on at the same time doesn’t leave room for procrastination and keeps you engaged.
  5. Side projects are great conversation starters and generally make you look more interesting.  They are a great way to meet new people with interests that parallel whatever you are working on.

Arguably you can have one or more side projects at the same time. Building a website, running a blog, doing volunteer work, or taking online classes, are just a few types of side projects.  Of course, everyone is always busy working on a thousand different things at once.  The lesson for myself and other first time entrepreneurs is that its dangerous to think about things as being absolute. So call whatever you’re doing a side project.  Put your mind in the right place and your work and time will be better spent.  Failure is just an excuse to focus harder on something different.