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.