Sunday, August 17, 2014

Learned From Surfing: The Importance of Business Intelligence

Thanks to Hollywood, many people might think that surfers are just stupid bums and a not well educated bunch.

But that is very far from the truth.

Many surfers today are great weather forecasters and take advantage of the latest technology from satellite imagery, including mathematical models combined with local weather forecasts to maximize their surfing experience.

We can reasonably predict where and when the best surfing condition will emerge about one week ahead. By 3 days prior we can almost determine when, down to a 1-hour window, and where to go to get the best waves.

Here is How Surfers Do It

About 30 days or so ahead, we in California look at the global weather models and watch for storms in the Alaskan gulfs or near Australia. This is a combination of remote sensing data from buoys scattered around the ocean as well as satellite imagery. The National Weather Service has supercomputers to work the model out and publishes the model diagrams on their web sites.

Speaking of big data analysis, the weather service department is one of the earliest users of supercomputers to help commerce, agriculture and military strategies. Surfers use this high tech data to determine the direction and power of the waves.

By about a week prior to a surf date, our local buoys will start to sense the arrival of the waves generated thousands of miles away a few weeks before. Local wind conditions and tide levels are the most important elements in determining the surf experience and best locations, and it is possible to predict this. We can start to mark our calendars for the next week’s sessions, and this becomes super accurate about 3 days prior.

Locally we also know which direction of the waves, winds and tide level will work the best. Some beaches are opened up toward the north, others toward the south. We even know about the local geography and the shape of the ocean floor, which can maximize our surf experience.

Lessons Learned

  • Today, surfers are cutting a lot of wasted time driving around searching for waves. Knowledge is power. Advanced planning and intelligence can help avoid wasted time and money.
  • These days, we have many different tools to analyze trends, usage, competitions just by looking for them on the search engine or going to analytic sites and can really give you fairly accurate grasps. 
  • If you want to see another perspective on this from another surfer / entrepreneur, please check out my friend's blog post, The Silicon Valley life, fun and work chronicled by Craig Oda

If you'd like to find out more about this, the Storm Surf web site is the best place to go. The master of the site, Mark Sponsler, does the surf prediction for big surf contests like the Mavericks invitational.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Story 5: After The Investor Panel Elevator Pitch

So I did my first solo pitch to a panel of investors at a public pitch event in Palo Alto.

I was an alternate pitch person initially, but the morning of the pitch date, our coach, Steve Austin from the “Idea to IPO” group, sent me an email saying that someone had dropped out from the lineup and I would be on stage. “OMG!”

It was the standard no-slide deck, 2-minute pitch format. We just talk for 2 minutes (no longer) and then there's a 4-minute Q/A from the investor panel.

I know we are all busy so I will boil this down to some key points that can make us successful in such a situation.

Lessons Learned

  • Anytime and anywhere, an entrepreneur must be able to instantly describe his or her business in under 2 minutes, at a party, dinner, etc. And we have to describe our ideas in a way that anyone can understand. After 2 minutes, if they need to ask “What do you do exactly?”, then that’s definitely a failed pitch. A 2-minute format is easy. Start with who you are, what you do or provide, benefiting whom, and a quick bit about your go-to-market strategy or how you plan to go to market. Create a 30-second version too!
  • Sell yourself as an integral, reliable, passionate individual about what you are doing. An investor must be confident that you will take their money and execute the plan to completion. This drives your pitch; it is more about the person behind it than any cool technology.
  • The investor that picks you will almost always be the final one you speak to. All the rest are failed pitches, technically. Most of us will end up giving a lot of pitches. So, let us simply unwind, imagine describing our business to a close friend, who does not hold a vested financial interest. Practice this with family, friends and colleagues. Ask them if they understand what you do and if they are excited. A simple 10-minute phone call would be all it would take to test this with many people.
  • The 2 minute pitch is simply to get the ears of an investor. Then the real talk will begin. Prove that you have done the research and spent some of your own money to prove the point. For most of us, this is easy: just write the software and show them. Three key elements most likely they will ask are: (1) the go to market strategy, (2) the business model, and (3) the competition. These were the top question items from the panel. You are expected to be able to answer these questions succinctly with actual numbers and without blinking! 
I highly recommend that you attend Steve Austin’s pitching workshop sessions that are put on by the Idea to IPO group. The head of the group, Rob Lau, also provides many other great sessions for budding entrepreneurs here in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Story 4: Need a Better Job? Read this.

Forgive me, if you have done this to me recently. But you are certainly not the first one.  My Linked-In inbox is full of the following types of message.

“Hi Manabu, how is your company? I think I am ready for a new job. Here is my resume. Do you think you can hire me?”

This is a difficult type of request to respond to because you have put me in a bit of a spot. I will be very honest, but if I thought I could hire you, I would have already tried a long time ago. And the most ironic thing is if I did try to pull you away from your current job back then, you would have refused, saying that you are happy and your boss is making a lot of effort to keep you there.

Don't try this in your own office!
Now, let me qualify this post a bit. I assume that you want a better career. Not necessarily another job doing the same old thing with a bit more pay or security. If that’s what you are after, then stop reading this post now and just broadcast your resume and start calling recruiters.

What I am writing here is about getting a real improvement in your career, and I am passing on to you my findings. 

Looking back, I find that people who came and went to better places (than me) do the following things so well:

1. They become experts on certain topics in their own industries. For example, some people know SQL Server inside out, and others know HTML5.

2. They are continuously improving their own skill sets. Remember, the better the position, the fewer slots are available. It is a very, very competitive world out there.

3. They are continually networking with people—people better than them, not on an equal or less level. 

You Are Now Stuck, Right? Wrong!

I know, I know.  You feel you are now stuck because your boss has not given you any projects that will allow you to improve your skills. And, honestly, if that’s the case, it is time to consider leaving your boss. You are just working for someone whose only goal is to not get fired. 

What people are looking for is this. "What can you bring to my table?" And that's basically the only bottom line. And you have to substantiate your claim that you can. Other stuff is important like personality etc., But if your boss can not be sure it will improve her or his chance to compete or even keep him or her on the job, nothing else counts.

The good news is that thanks to social networking, it is actually possible for you to get out of that rut without spending almost any money. It just takes time and determination.

 Here is what I recommend you do:

1. Become an expert in a specific subject matter that you are passionate about.

I see many people on resumes being decorated with all of the software languages ever developed by man from 6502 Assembly Language to COBOL to Java to Erlang. Unless you know these very well, don't mention them. Today you must know JavaScipt Plus, C# or Java, and a few others like PHP or Python or Ruby. But not 20 languages. You can be sure that if you mention a language on your resume, you will be tested on it. 

We once hired an SQL consultant. He knew the answers to every question I asked, from optimization to redundancy, which was taking a long time for the company to figure out. Are you that person? If so, you don’t need to worry about your current job or the next one.

If you are not getting that kind of experience from your job, then, the only way (at least in software) to do this is to read a lot and experiment a lot on your own. Fortunately, most anyone can now spin up a cloud machine or two and do a lot of experiments without much up-front investment, without the need to buy hardware, an OS or even an SQL license. Amazon and Microsoft Azure, for example, provide free-tier accounts and such. Even if you are paying, you can shut down the machines when you are not experimenting. 

And you can read as many books are you need on services like Safari Books Online for no more than buying one tech book a month.

Now if you say, “I don’t know how to run a cloud machine,” then I must say your IT career is almost completely doomed. Hint: I can buy my underwear and CPU time using the same user name and password!

2. Create demonstrable skills to back up your expertise.

Once you pick an expertise you want to gain and you're comfortable with, start participating in the open source group that’s solving problems you understand. Contribute your code, write some real usable apps, and contribute and interact with the group. 

This is a significant networking opportunity and you will become important to the community. You will become an expert and people will notice you. You can write that in your resume, and say in the interview, “My boss did not give me the chance at work, but you can see my code and my work on Project XZY at http: //...” Sure, you will need to know GitHub, and “we never used it at my work” will not cut as an excuse.

A demonstrable skill means we can see the actual app running on your cloud server or can download the app and start trying it. Now you're talking.

3. Attend Meetups and Hackathons.

Start looking at Meetup.COM and join the meetings that might interest you. Sure, they're usually in the evening or on weekends, but that’s an investment you are making to network with people, gain up-to-date skills and see what others are doing.

4. Collaborate or volunteer your skills.

If you are working with an academic institution or hospital, you will find that professors and doctors need a lot of help collecting, processing and analyzing data. In exchange for your work, you will become a co-author of a paper. People will take you a lot more seriously if your resume has a Publications section! 

Or how about helping your kid's surf team or soccer team by writing apps to keep track of results or meets? Some people start with a volunteer effort that ends up becoming a commercial product.
So decide now, find what you are passionate about, gain the skills using these methods, meet a lot of people and that will significantly improve the chance of getting noticed and getting hired for something that leads to a better career.

Lessons Learned

We should understand that each of us is an individual business. You have to market yourself, understand the current trends, know the customer base (your employers), innovate yourself, create differentiation, provide good customer service and fend off the competition. The harsh reality is that nobody else, including me, or even an enlightened boss, can escalate you to the next level unless you do something about it.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Story 3: Time Management Going Out The Window

If you’ve read my Story 1, you know that I’ve been out and about on my own.

In this post, I want to confess and discuss time management when we are embarking on a solo career.

I must admit that I am not the most focused person in the world. In fact, I am probably one of more defocused people you’ll ever meet. It has been a struggle for me for my entire life. You would not believe how many teachers pointed this out to me from the first grade, but somehow I’ve managed to focus in a “regular job” capacity as a productive member of society.

After I left my job to start up this new company, though, I did not realize how easy it would be for all of my hard-earned time management skills to get completely thrown out the window.

These days a lot of people are working from home, but that really doesn't count if you’re still part of a company's “working machinery.” When I had a “regular job” my calendars were usually filled from 6 AM Pacific to close to noon at least 3 days a week for various customer meetings, which I sometimes attended from home.

So my day started off by dashing out to the beach at 6, catching waves at 7, changing in the parking lot and then driving to work for the first telecom of the day, or more often than not, I'd make the first call while driving, and often would still be on the same call after arriving at the office. The calendaring function on my mobile was constantly busy as I'd fill up my slots, while others would be “penciling in” on my shared calendar at the same time. I functioned like this for years.

Now I’m on my own. There are few external events driving my calendar, and that’s the most significant change. I must be proactive and it’s a challenge.

For the next year to 18 months or so, I will be in the center of my own world, where I'll need to be focused on developing our new product and actively seeking potential deals that will “buy” our vision.

Now I must drive my own calendar.

I still wake up at around 5:30 AM or 6:00 AM. I do not have to set an alarm since I naturally wake up when the outside is light enough. Surfing will do that to you.

But do I go surfing right away? No, because I think, “If I go out now, I'll run into the pre-commute crowd. I’ll go at 9:00.” So then I check email and Facebook to see if there is something that might be worthwhile. One topic and link leads to another and I’m reading everything from ViralNova to MSDN to WSJ.

So far, I’ve wasted about 3 hours on that and it's already 8:30.

One thing leading to another, it is already 4:30 PM, and I have not even edited a line of code, and let alone caught any wave. Another day evaporated into the infinite universe...

So what’s wrong with this picture?

If this is someone else's post, I would be the first one to accuse that person (yes, I will blog about this later) of poor time management techniques, and that’s exactly what this is. The problem is that it is very easy and even comfortable to lose that control.

So now it’s time to make some changes and stick to a concrete, focused schedule.

I am not going to check email or Facebook when I get up and I'll go straight to surfing regardless if there are any waves or not. If there are no good waves, I will do some yoga on the beach.

When I get home, I’ll allocate each hour for a specific task and won’t do anything else.
In fact, I did buy a 1-hour sand-clock for this purpose. Now I will put it to use with this kind of schedule: 9-10 coding, 10-11 networking calls, 11-11:30 online networking or blogging.

Lessons Learned

  • It is very important to have some discipline to be a startup person! That includes time management, diet management and regular exercise.
  • Make a schedule and stick to it as much as possible.
  • Once you start something, stay focused on that activity. That means do not open email. Turn off email alerts, etc., and put your distracting devices away.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Story 2: Learning to Pitch

Last week I attended two events related to pitching a business idea to potential backers like a VC or an angel funder.

So I would like to quickly recap what I’ve learned to be important so far.

First, I need to pitch my business in both a 30-second and 2-minute version. The first is called an elevator pitch. I cannot do this quite fluidly yet. Can you?

As for talking to investors, short, concise pitches are very important because the longer I talk the more it will confuse people. And also I need to make short pitches to many, many people until a true believer appears.

To make these pitches effective, there are some very important points I’ve learned from these events.

First, many of us are engineers and so we tend to speak in "engineerese." For example, in my specific situation, I can say, “Our business makes access to DICOM images and HL7 information easier by providing REST APIs to JavaScript codes running in HTML5 browsers.” This would work if I am pitching to an audience of mostly Hospital CIOs and such, but if I am going to get money from angels or VCs, none of what I’ve just said will make sense to most of them. They are normally not industry specialists.

Something better might be, “Our business makes access to medical images like CAT scans and ultrasound a lot easier, so programmers can quickly make imaging applications on iPhones, iPads and Desktop web browsers.” This is probably not the best example, but I think it improves the chance of getting more people to understand what I am talking about.

Another important thing I’ve learned is that I have to understand the competition and be able to clearly differentiate my product from others. We all tend to think that our products are so superior and there are no other competitors. That may be the case, but nevertheless we have to be able to deliver the facts, not just guesses.

The next important concept is getting traction. Rather than me explaining this, this web site describes that well ( In my situation, I interpret this to mean that I should not be wasting investor money and skidding down a slippery path; hence no traction. Instead, traction seems to mean that they will look to see if we are going to make solid progress in whatever we are developing, and have a good sales and marketing plan, and the staffing to demonstrate it. To this effect, we can demonstrate our progress from week to week to potential investors and customers. These days, we can do that with remote screen sharing easily, and not much time or travel is required.

The investors do not want to fund a project, no matter how clever it appears, that has no clear path to make it marketable and to make money.

Of course the most obvious item to cover is to be able to describe how much money we can make for them and how easily it can be scaled up. In this area, too many people make overly optimistic or broad assumptions like being able to grab 10% of the market, or stating too broad of an answer like, “Any business can use our product.” There is not much fact involved in these responses. All these tend to indicate that you haven't done enough market research.

When pitching the idea to funders they will ask lots of questions. The mistake many people make here is that they do not answer the question straight, or throw a number that requires some math. For example,

(Q) How many customers do you have?

(A) There are about 2 that indicated some interest and one that we will try in August.

That answer should have just been: just one.

(Q) How much do you make?

(A) 10% per transaction.

Perhaps the better answer could have been:

(A) Typically $10 per transaction, which is 10% of the cost and we get 1,000 transactions per day. So that’s $10,000 per day.

Lessons Learned

  • Everything in my startup story must be fact-based, and I should only tell the facts, without speculation, honestly and straight to the point.
  • Many investors do not care how clever your ideas are; ideas are a dime a dozen. They need to get a clear understanding of your plans to make a great return on their investment

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Story 1: Why Did I Leave My Job?

No, I did not start a new winery in Paso Robles.

I did not take a huge sum of money to start up something new, either.

My previous arrangement had been to just help start a company for a year or two and then move on to my own stuff. Yes, it is my fault that I didn’t get the courage to get away earlier. But it’s easy to become complacent.

Fast-forward to Febuary 2014. I joined a surf trip and went to Nicaragua. I had done some “dude” trips before where we just sleep on the ground and surf, eat sleep and surf some more. But this trip included people who could advise me on what to do next, the type of people who have been professionally successful.

And a lot of surf trips can be like that. It is a chance for us to think about our lives, distancing ourselves away from everyday situations. We’re able to talk to people who have different perspectives and backgrounds and who can provide different views on things that we may not have thought about.

On this particular trip, I talked about my hope of doing something new or taking on a much bigger responsibility in my current company. With any partnership, over time, there develops some differences. And I’d been sensing that I’d lost direct control over my own fate. Leaving this company for something new had been on my mind for at least two years. I realized all of this by talking to my fellow surf buddies.

But the next question was: what should I do?

I picked up the phone and made some calls. Then I learned that a friend of mine I have known since the start of Stentor, Inc. in 1999 had also recently decided to start a new company. I had also been thinking about employing much newer and cutting edge technology in order to begin solving problems that my previous company was unable to do. (I will get to that in the next few blogs.) We were on the same page.

This was exciting, but the idea of leaving the world of regular paychecks and dipping into my savings was a bit too speculative for me at the time. But ultimately I resolved those issues and decided that I would go ahead and take the chance with my friend.

I drafted a letter of resignation and decided to leave Imorgon at the end of May.

Now I am back in my own control.

Lessons Learned:

  • Get out of doing something I do regularly. Go on a trip with a different set of people.
  • Networking is important. Keep myself exposed to many opportunities. I admit I have not  been good at doing this.
  •  Friends are important (that’s aside from networking with colleagues).
  •  Learn to recognize when you are in control of your own destiny and when someone or something has taken over.