Aaronontheweb

Hacking .NET and Startups

Live by “Fuck you, pay me;” Die by “Fuck you, pay me”

March 25, 2013 18:57 by Aaronontheweb in Development Teams, Hiring, Startup // Tags: , // Comments (0)

I came across a blog post by Michael Halligan on Hacker News last week entitled “Benefits matter, or why I won’t work for your YCombinator start-up.” As a fledging entrepreneur trying to attract senior engineering talent to my startup, his post bothered me immensely. I spent about a week mulling it over before I decided to write this.

Michael’s attitude in the post is abrasive, needlessly cynical, and mercenary, but well-argued on its pure economic merits. He describes himself on his own blog thusly:

I'm just this guy who used to enjoy tech, now I would rather build bicycles. I still work in the tech industry, for the money, but I no longer call myself a "technologist".

And he ends his blog post with this call to action for other senior technologists like himself:

To all of my colleagues with whom I have been in the trenches, please repeat after me, "Fuck you, pay me."

This paints a picture of someone who’s been burned before by startup flameouts; who’s put in 100 hour weeks without seeing any life-changing financial benefit; who has real financial obligations like children to put through school; and lastly, a little burned out with his career.

It wouldn’t have bothered me so much were it not for the boorish cheerleading from scores of Hacker News commenters, which indicated to me that this attitude may be more widely held than I would have believed (more on that in a second.)

I really appreciate Michael being so honest about it, because I suspect that this is an attitude that neither he nor any of the supportive Hacker News commenters have ever had the balls to actually express in a verbal salary negotiation with a flesh-and-blood human being like me sitting across the table.

What bothers me about Michael’s post and the Hacker News comments is the cynical view of founders and employers; it dehumanizes them to self-interested profiteers who don’t give a shit about the people who work for them. And the attitude I grok from Michael’s post is “developers: don’t give a shit about [your employer / the founders] either – tell them ‘fuck you, pay me.’”

Let me show you why this bothers me. Here is my honest to God list of things I care about with respect to MarkedUp in order of importance:

1. My personal integrity – because startups are not things of life or death themselves, but integrity is one of the few character traits that outlives the man or woman.

2. The financial health of the company – because a failing company isn’t in a position to serve anyone well, whether they be founders, customers, employees, or investors.

3. The well-being of MarkedUp’s employees – because they are present and future of the business, and I’m going to spend more time with them than my own family.

4. The experience of our customers – because our customers trust us with important information they need to run their own businesses, and we are our own customer.

5. My personal well-being – because I have I dreams of my own but I know that getting items 1-4 right on this list leads to the realization of #5.

I’m sure that if Michael or any of the Hacker News commenters read this list they’d scream “bullshit!”

I treat the growth and well-being of my employees as a non-negotiable requirement for my own happiness and satisfaction, but that conflicts with the Hacker News worldview of the VC-land profiteering dipshit douchebag 27 year old founder (I am, in fact, 27.)

I hire people whom I want to invest in – sure, like any startup we have short-term needs that have to be filled. But the long term health of any business that’s being built to last depends on a high trust culture – where employers and employees interdepend on each other.

I’d crawl over glass for the full time people on my team who take work off of my plate and enable the business to grow – I need them. They support me, so I’d better damn well support them when they need it. I’m making sure they get important benefits like healthcare and the best compensation that I can afford – everything within the bounds of what’s economically feasible for an early stage company of our size and funding level.

I’m invested in MarkedUp’s employees – and when we’re not able to support an employee’s needs I feel like I’ve personally failed as a manager and employer.

So this brings me back to “Fuck you, pay me.” I would never hire anyone who doesn’t want to invest in our product, the other people on the team, and in the company as a whole – because I can’t depend on them to be there for me and everyone else when things aren’t going perfectly. They’d be the first to bounce and the first ones to put the screws on me and their teammates in a bind. I’d never be able to make a person with this attitude happy, so I’d never try.

“Fuck you, pay me” is a self-fulfilling prophecy that will doom you to work for exactly the sort of employers this attitude is supposed to save you from – the kind who won’t invest in you and don’t care about you. When you open the conversation with an employer with “fuck you, pay me” you’re telling them that you don’t give a shit about the product or people, so why should they care about your well being again?

You’ll be passed over for every promotion, every project of any import, any conference or occasional perk, and your opinion will not be solicited or valued on anything that doesn’t pertain strictly to your role. Your teammates will resent you for being unavailable and disinterested. Your managers and executives will treat you with all of the mercenary courtesy and cynicism with which you’ve treated them.

A job is a lot more than a salary and benefits – it’s about enabling people to be happy, employers and employees both. Anyone who comes to work with the attitude of “fuck you, pay me” is miserable by default, an assertion you can validate with a single read over the front page of Michael’s blog. There is little I can do as an employer for someone who is innately miserable. And that makes me sad and frustrated.

Throughout the course of your career you will inevitably deal with shithead employers who don’t appreciate you – quit and move on. Don’t make the situation worse by deciding not to appreciate all employers regardless of who they are – you’ll just alienate the ones who actually want to help you even if they can’t match another employment offer you have on the table.

If money and benefits are literally the only thing that matters to an employee, then they’re worse than the self-interested greedy founder stereotype described earlier. At least the greedy self-interested founders had the balls to take some risks.

So look at your employment opportunities this way – there’s a lot more to working somewhere than just the tangibles. That’s why developers, sales people, and marketers regularly take below market salaries to work at startups – because they get the rare chance to shape the work environment into one that will make them happy.

Happiness is what matters, and benefits + salary shouldn’t be the only factor at the expense of culture, colleagues, creativity, and self-ownership.

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Be Your Own Measuring Stick

December 3, 2012 15:54 by Aaronontheweb in Startup // Tags: // Comments (1)

Today was one of those days when it was nearly 1pm before I was free to sit down and make my daily to-do list. There was water damage in my apartment, one of our awesome engineering candidates took an amazing job offer with a top video game studio instead of us, and I was way behind on all of the PR / marketing stuff I’m doing because we haven’t hired someone for the position yet. Typical, stressful day in the daily life of an early stage startup CEO.

So I sat down at the counter of a diner near our accelerator and started writing down my daily to-dos in the nearly-full, leather-bound Moleskine notebook I’ve used to keep myself and my thoughts organized for the past couple of years.

I just happened to open my notebook to an entry from 11/12/2011 (about a year ago) entitled “Skills I Want to Acquire.”

At the time I wrote this piece I was 15 months into my career at Microsoft and had just finished off a stressful pre-Thanksgiving crunch period, and I was starting to think about what I would need to learn in order to run a new startup.

I remembered how I felt when I wrote it – desperate to try my hand at starting a company for the second time1, but unprepared by my own standards.

I wrote this list as a roadmap to prepare myself for startup #2:

Skills I Want to Acquire – 11/12/2011

  • How to work with a team of developers
  • How to manage developers operations
  • How to manage a product lifecycle and iteration
  • How to measure customer engagement and how to incorporate those learnings into product design
  • How to build an online revenue channel
  • How to build a production + web and mobile service
  • Natural language processing + machine learning
  • How to build a developer platform / API
  • How to build a team
  • How to quickly prototype ideas and test them in market
  • How to manage a team
  • How to raise capital
  • How to acquire early customers
  • How to do great front-end development
  • How to build a brand

To be clear: these are all things that terrified me.

These are things I didn’t know or think I would be good at, but I knew I needed to learn them in order to realize my goals.

Today I went through this list and made the following notes:

Skills I Want to Acquire – 11/12/2011 updated 12/3/2012

  • How to work with a team of developers – done
  • How to manage developers operations – done
  • How to manage a product lifecycle and iteration - done
  • How to measure customer engagement and how to incorporate those learnings into product design - done
  • How to build an online revenue channel – done
  • How to build a production + web and mobile service – done, at scale
  • Natural language processing + machine learning – not done
  • How to build a developer platform / API – done, at scale
  • How to build a team – done
  • How to quickly prototype ideas and test them in market - done
  • How to manage a team – done; will be a lifelong process
  • How to raise capital – done
  • How to acquire early customers – done
  • How to do great front-end development – in-process
  • How to build a brand – done, but different than I expected.

To my immense pleasure, I had learned how to do most of these very scary, unfamiliar things in just a year! Of course I haven’t mastered them all yet, but I’m at a point where I feel confident that I can do any of these things competently at any time for our company and our team.

Given my day to day responsibilities at MarkedUp, I can’t imagine a world where I don’t know how to do most of the things on this list; it’s remarkable to think just a year ago that all of this stuff was alien and frightening to me.

Seeing this list and thinking about the progress I made from a year ago made instantly lowered my stress level and reminded me just how much progress one can make in a relatively small amount of time. It made me forget about all of the things I tell myself I’m doing wrong every day.

You are the ultimate judge of your own success, and I judge myself as having a really successful year so far.

If you want to do something hard like start your own company, start by sitting down and making a list of the things you need to do in order to get there, start trying to do them, and then review your progress against goal. You might be really surprised with how far you can get in a short period of time!

Now I’m going to get back to work on the next set of things I know I need to learn…

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Get a Grip

November 20, 2012 20:25 by Aaronontheweb in Startup // Tags: // Comments (0)

My regular source of entrepreneurial catharsis is watching Deadliest Catch.

If you've never seen it, it's a Discovery Channel show that follows four-six actual fishing vessels during two different Alaskan Crab fishing seasons a year (King and Snow.) “Bering Sea fisherman” is considered to be the most dangerous occupation in North America, hence the name.

Many of the crab boat captains are entrepreneurs themselves, being part or full owners of the boats. If the boat stops fishing, they go broke. If the boat breaks down, the fuel / parts / labor / time cost comes out of the crew and captain’s cut.

Deadliest Catch - fishing vessel coming down a 30-40 foot wave The captains are constantly put into situations that your average tech entrepreneur can relate to: dealing with emergencies, constant HR issues, having to make strategic bets on incomplete data, the emotional rollercoaster, you name it. The viewer watches the captains struggle with these decisions in every episode, and it’s as much of the experience and drama as the harsh nature of the Bering Sea itself.

What puts Deadliest Catch in perspective for me is this: people actually get maimed and even die on that show.

Boats get capsized by 60 foot rogue waves; deck-hands go overboard never to be found again during uneven seas; or get crushed by 1,200lb steel crab pots falling from a four-story tall stack. The fishermen’s lives, in addition to their livelihoods, are always at stake and are lost with regularity.

Back in the universe of technology entrepreneurship, the most danger I'm in everyday is getting carpal tunnel or eventually putting on weight due to poor diet and lack of exercise. No matter how hard things get, even if I fail epically, I’m not at risk of dying as a result of anything that can happen at any tech startup.

In one column: death, in another column: average health and with well above-average opportunities.

When I read maudlin stuff like today’s “The last day” short story on Pando Daily (with all due respect to Francisco Dao, a friend), I can’t really take it seriously.

I’ve failed a couple of times already in my short career thus far, including a big public flop in front of a number of my classmates when I was in college – and you know what?

You experience total humiliation and vulnerability when something you created falls apart, and that’s how you’re supposed to feel if you cared about what you did.

But dead startups aren’t things of life or death themselves – you’re not going to die; your stock will only rise as a result of what you did at your startup provided that you didn’t do anything unethical; most of your friends will admire you for having the balls to try something on your own in the first place; and you’re going to have a chance to try again.

It’s hard to ignore the self-critical things we all whisper to ourselves as entrepreneurs; they’re sometimes a healthy and necessary gut-check against reality, but more often than not they’re just self-destruction mistaken for self-motivation.

So don’t be so hard on yourselves and be the first in line to kick your own ass, because your market / customers / employees / investors / co-founders / competitors will all have plenty of chances to do it for you. Accept the occasional beating as an inevitability and recognize that the one thing you can always control is how you choose to react to things you cannot.

And now, I think it’s appropriate to share a little wisdom from Deadwood:

Deadwood: Al's Take on Misfortune

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Thoughts on Recruiting Developers at Early Stage Startups: Determining Who’s Right for Your Company

I posted a little while ago about the job market for technical talent at early stage companies, and I promised a follow-up post on what you should look for in a developer when your company is at a critical, early stage. This is that follow-up ;)

Our company, MarkedUp, is still in the process of building out its early engineering team; however, we’ve had some success in finding the right type of people we want to work with – a process that wasn’t quick or easy, but will pay off massively in the long run.

When it comes to hiring developers for your early stage startup, here are the questions you need to think about:

1. What are you optimizing for?

At this stage in the evolution of MarkedUp, we optimize for changeability and reliability – the ability to change things on the fly quickly and do it in a way that doesn’t interrupt the service of our customers.

This means that we have to recruit people who are architecturally sound with .NET, are able to learn new technologies quickly, and are good at socializing / articulating problems and design considerations to the team.

When we evaluate a developer for who’s considering joining our team, we look to make sure that they have experience with multiple technology stacks, have a well-written technical blog or are at least conversant in their respective technology areas, are versed in design patterns and can explain their architectural thought process on-demand, and have well-defined goals with regard to how they want to grow and develop.

For your company, you might need to optimize your engineering team differently – if you’re building a big consumer app, you might need to optimize for developers who have a good balance of front-end and back-end skills initially.

Make a deliberate choice about what your engineering priorities are and let that set the top of the spec for your recruiting.

2. Do you need soldiers or chiefs?

One mistake a lot of startups make is the seniority issue: hiring people who are too senior or not senior enough.

People who are too senior might demand a lot more equity / money / power / titles early on in the life of your company, which creates problems if you ever need to bring in even more senior people over them if you don’t manage it correctly. Additionally, senior developers bring a career’s worth of habits and experience into your company – which isn’t always necessarily good.

Conversely, evaluating a fresh-out-of-college CS grad to CTO isn’t a great decision either sometimes – they might not even know just how horribly they’re screwing up your company’s technology until years after the fact.

On top of the issue of experience, you also have to consider the person’s ambitions – do they want to be an executive in the company one day and have people reporting to them? Are they even capable of doing that one day?

Again, make a decision: do you need people with experience and authority who will lead the engineering team or do you need people who just want to do the right thing and make a difference, but don’t yet want to be involved in management? Recruit accordingly.

3. Can your company afford to train developers on your technology stack?

Do you need people who’ve been working on a single technology for 5+ years, or just people who are smart and want to learn?

If you’re a really early stage company, then you don’t have the luxury of time or money to invest much into a new employee who is totally unfamiliar with your chosen technology stack.

If you have the time and money to invest into training good employees, do it.

Investing into training will widen the pool of acceptable applicants dramatically because you can tailor your recruiting process to target a smaller number of things. Be realistic about your resources and the availability of your existing engineers to train the new folks, and then decide accordingly.

4. What’s important for your engineering culture?

You know what makes a huge difference in MarkedUp’s culture? Being passionate about development – we like people who have pet projects in their spare time; take the time to learn new languages and platforms; and love to talk about what they’ve done and what they’re doing.

We build products for developers – passion for development makes us more relatable to our average customer, who is typically someone building a Windows 8 application in their spare time because they love doing it.

Your company may be different – you may want to recruit people who are really into music if you’re building a media-oriented company, or people who are very algorithm / math-oriented if you’re doing a lot of work in a field like NLP or predictive modeling. Maybe you want to run a really structured environment and want people who are going to be in the office every day.

Company culture is ultimately something that will take a life of its own, organically, but during the formational stages you have a massive amount of influence over it as a founder. Pick people who fit your vision for what the culture should be and be conscientious about it.

5. What’s your level of urgency?

Trick question. The answer is “super urgent” in every early stage company. Unless you’re profitable / growing, every day is a race against the clock and the bank account.

You can’t afford to keep people around who don’t get that and won’t work hard to make sure the hard problems are solved on-time.

A lot of developers, particularly ones who’ve been in industry for a while, approach startups with the expectation that they can still work from 9-5, get the same benefits they got at MegaCorp for some relatively low level of output, but get a giant chunk of equity and work on cool, consumer-facing startup products without any bureaucracy or managerial overhead. Avoid these developers.

Hire people who want to race the clock, because they believe in your company’s vision and want to work with other competent people who can move quickly. They’re out there.

Parting Thoughts

If you do a good job coming up with clear, thoughtful answers to these questions then good fits and bad will be obvious.

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Thoughts on Recruiting Developers at Early Stage Startups: Understanding the Job Market

September 23, 2012 12:03 by Aaronontheweb in Hiring, Startup // Tags: , , // Comments (0)

Shortly after leaving Microsoft to work on MarkedUp full time, my founding team and I joined an early stage accelerator here in Santa Monica. We’ve gotten a tremendous amount of value from it so far, and the directors of the accelerator have done a great job helping me prioritize and do all of the things I need to do in order to launch MarkedUp properly.

One of the things they’ve had us do is gradually step up our recruiting efforts, and for the little we’ve invested into the recruiting process so far the results look pretty good.

Most startups at this early stage are founded by 1-2 people who have unique insights and connections into a market, have done some work to validate a new business concept in said market, and are now trying to form a team to help them execute and eventually scale it. Usually the first hire a startup has to make is a founding engineer who can help them build a customer-ready version of the product.

MarkedUp is a little different. Our engineering team is the entire team, at the moment – I’m also our “business guy” in addition to being the technical lead and Erik, a founding member of our team, is 100% committed to technical endeavors. However, we still have to recruit developers! MarkedUp is solving a big, complex problem1 – analytics and data visualization are problem domains with large technical surface areas, so even early on in the lifecycle of our company we have to expand the engineering team.

I’ve been asked a couple of times recently by founders in the first category of startup “how do you find and recruit developers?”

The short answer is “I’m still figuring this out, being new to running a startup myself, but here are some ideas.”

So in that vein, I thought I would share with a wider range of people how I try to recruit developers for MarkedUp and what I think is most important.

Take everything I say with a grain of salt – I’m new to running my own company and am figuring out much of this as I go.

Things You Should Know about the Market for Software Developers

Before you start recruiting, you should wrap your head around the market for software developers. Having this information will decrease the likelihood of you making an ass out of yourself when you start recruiting in earnest.

1. It’s an employee’s market – there’s far more demand for developers than there is supply.

The demand for developers has always been high since the PC revolution and the past few years have been particularly high. So what’s the practical implication for your startup?

The answer is that any competent developer in the US can get a six figure salary, with amazing benefits, from a variety of well-funded, stable employers. Before you even start recruiting you’ve already lost the battle of benefits and compensation.

So when you’re recruiting, don’t even bother leading with the promise of wealth, big exits, or any of that sort of puffed-up-chest nonsense. The reality is that most startups fail and if any developer evaluates the prospect of working for you versus their six-figure employer, you will assuredly lose on opportunity cost every time.

2. All of the competent software developers you want to hire already work for someone else. Not only do you have to convince them to join you – you also have to convince them to leave a paying gig. 

Let that sink in for a moment. How hard is it to leave a job? If you give a shit about what you do, then the answer is “pretty hard.”

Convincing someone to leave a gig, even if you have a great opportunity that is more interesting, is a challenge unto itself unless that candidate is utterly miserable with the state of things at their current job.

So, be prepared for a long, dragged-out process for each technical hire – you will have to deal with counter-offers, ludicrously good counter-offers even. Don’t hardball your candidates with “join us now before we raise money and offer you less equity” – keep them sold on the things that money can’t buy: working on projects that they find meaningful, working with people they like, learning new things, and so on.

3. The best source of “available” developers are recent graduates.

If you followed point #2 above, then what I’m about to say next should resonate: the best source of developers who are openly looking for work is recent college graduates.

Many of them get passed over by big software development shops like Microsoft / Google / et al because they don’t have enough time behind the wheel; this is exactly what happened to me when I was graduating from Vanderbilt with good grades, a successful freelancing track record, apps in market, and good recommendations.

On top of being available, recent grads have the absolute best risk profile for working at a startup. They have no obligations, no mortgages, no expectations of six figure salaries out of the gate – they just want to work on something cool and take home enough money to start building a life for themselves.

There is a downside to hiring recent grads, however: having no experience means what it means! You’ll have to invest a lot of time into training them all of the things they didn’t learn in school, which in some cases includes the ability to code.

Truth be told, I only recommend going the route of hiring recent grads if you already have a CTO or another veteran onboard who’s willing to train and coach them.

It’ll take a while before you can get an acceptable level of output out of a recent grad, but as long as you continuously invest in making your new hires better they will (1) stick around because they’re learning and improving and (2) will deliver output at startup speed.

4. It is phenomenally easy to start a company and raise money in 2012 compared to earlier years, and the most senior technologists who fit the risk profile for startups are able to start their own companies. 

One important facet that’s overlooked about the technology market for software talent, especially among startups, is just how easy it is for top-tier technologists to start and launch their own companies.

All of your prospective founding CTOs who are interested in startups and have an idea they’re really committed to could probably raise money and build a v1 product themselves; so how does this affect your ability to recruit?

It dilutes the market for talent – spreads the small slice of the Venn diagram of all developers who are willing to work for free on a high-risk idea across a much larger number of smaller companies. So what’s a startup founder like you to do?

Invest some effort into helping any talented developer who’s trying to build their own company be successful, because even if that developer is unavailable to help ease your pain now they’re someone you want to build a good working relationship with and maybe work together later.

I never try to steal someone away from a project they’re deeply, personally, and fully committed to, nor do I ever suggest something stupid like merging two totally irrelevant ideas together into one company just so we have more developers on the team. Recognize that recruiting is a long-running process – it takes a long time to find the right people.

It’s in your best interest to be someone developers trust, not a self-interested jack ass who constantly tries to poach them away from their passion projects.

“Pay it forward” is my advice here, and for your short term needs – don’t even bother with people who are trying to get their own projects started. If they decide to can their project, they’ll come and approach you if you’re someone they trust and would want to work with eventually.

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I’m going to write a second post on our philosophy when it comes to actually recruiting developers and what we think is important.


1MarkedUp provides in-app analytics for Windows 8 and WinRT developers. You can sign up for a beta at http://markedup.com/beta

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Seven Unproductive Habits of Startup Founders

August 23, 2012 20:28 by Aaronontheweb in General, Startup // Tags: // Comments (3)

Now that I’m running my own company and no longer speak on behalf of Microsoft or anyone else, I feel like I can speak a little bit more freely about some of the things I’ve observed about people at startup companies over the past couple of years.

I worked with close to a hundred companies in some capacity as a Startup Developer Evangelist – some much more closely than others, but nonetheless had a chance to live vicariously a lot of different companies in different markets run by different types of teams with different types of people on them.

Regardless of all of those differences, there’s one thing that a lot of these founders had in common: the less disciplined and experienced founders manage to waste a lot of their time and energy on things that are counter-productive and others that are actively self-destructive.

Here’s seven really unproductive habits that I want to call out in particular.

1. Attend and spend money on countless “startup” events without goals or regard for opportunity cost

My father, an experienced serial entrepreneur, offered up a single rule for me to heed above all others when I started working at Microsoft: “guard your time, jealously.”

Your time is at a premium, particularly during a pre-funding / pre-launch stage – you can’t afford to waste it on things that don’t provide value in some way. The first thing I’ve skipped since going full-time on MarkedUp? Every event that is non-essential; my evenings and weekends are reserved for production deployments or blowing off steam.

There’s consensus among many people in the startup community that “meetings are pointless” – and that’s often true of internal meetings. So what are events?

They’re external meetings – there’s nothing special about a tech event that makes it magically productive. You have to weigh the costs of going against what you could be doing instead, which most startup founders do not.

Be honest with yourself about the value you want to get out of an event – if you’re going there to work a room and generate leads, then it’s probably worth it. If you’re going to go because you just want to “network” and don’t have any real sense of purpose about it, then don’t bother. Go talk to customers instead.

2. Waste enormous amounts of time on “omnidirectional” networking with no real purpose and promise of value in return

Corollary to time wasting behavior #1 – networking with no real purpose.

Networking when done right takes a lot of time – it’s not as simple as collecting up a truckload of business cards at a conference, carpet bombing those poor saps with LinkedIn requests, and watching your stock rise.

What networking should be about is:

  • Seeking out potential business partners, mentors, advisers, co-workers, investors, etc…
  • Qualifying the ones who are interesting;
  • Establish your credibility (so they can qualify you;) and
  • Finding mutual benefit in working together.
    The process of building credibility and qualifying takes time – so, why spin up a bunch of threads with people who aren’t the right fit to help you accomplish your goals? Just so you can say “oh, I know X” at one of those stupid events you should be avoiding?
    Pick your battles – if you’re going to go through the trouble of networking, do it like you mean it and mean it when you do it. Don’t be that clueless person in the middle of an event handing out business cards to people who don’t need you and you don’t need.
    Figure out who you need and pursue those people.

3. Buy crazy expensive booths at startup conferences

Take it from a guy who’s had to work booth duty for a company who can afford the big ultra-delux booth at TechCrunch Disrupt: the booths are worthless.

Unless you’re demoing something tangible that will get people’s attention (MakerBot being a really good example,) you’re better off spending that money on literally anything else.

MarkedUp won a free booth spot at LAUNCH conference due to our performance at Startup Weekend Los Angeles, and we happily signed up. The booth traffic we got was modest – the real value we got out of the event was talking around and working the room.

Every startup should probably try this once – it’s like touching a hot stove or oven: everybody needs to do it one time to know not to do it again.

4. Chase top-down media coverage and press way too early

How many entrepreneurs do you know who’ve stated “getting covered on TechCrunch” as a PR goal?

This is going to sound kitschy but it’s true: the secreting to getting covered by a giant tech blog like TechCrunch is not to try.

Don’t waste time trying to pitch under-developed stories to writers swamped with a glut of press releases from professional PR firms – build something unique and interesting, build interest organically, and the story will start to sell itself.

You’ll still have to put some effort into managing your messaging and top-down marketing at some point, but it’s absolutely the wrong place to start. Your pitch won’t seem like a quixotic / desperate marketing goose-chase to the bloggers if you’ve executed well and have some momentum.

Getting top-down PR for your startup is just like raising money – the conversation starts with a vision and the close comes with traction.

5. Fretting over equity when your company isn’t worth anything

It’s a good thing when an entrepreneur takes the ownership of their company seriously – avoid anyone who doesn’t. However, taking it too far and being miserly with equity during a stage when you’re cash poor and equity rich is both naive and counterproductive.

If you can find a great CTO / biz dev person / designer / product person who believes in your idea enough to be willing to work without pay for months in the name of getting equity, you should be mind-blowingly thrilled.

Congratulations: you’ve just met a really talented person with super high risk tolerance and a tremendous amount of passion for your company’s vision; that’s like wandering the Sahara for days only to stumble upon an oasis with a 5-star resort in the middle of it.

So why screw up a beautiful thing by trying to lowball the person over a few percentage points of ownership interest in your company?

Ditto for early investors and advisors – if you find some competent angels and advisors who are really passionate about your work and are able to put a little bit of money in, err on the side of equitability.

There will come a point where the equity is worth more than the cash, and it will become obvious when that is the case and you’ll be right to preserve the ownership interests of the other stakeholders as much as possible.

6. Dismissing friends and family who commit the crime of “caring about you”

When I reached out to friends who worked at startups over the past couple of years, I was occasionally dismissed with a sentence along the following lines “I’m sorry, I’m just not available – you just don’t know how hard it is to work at a startup.” I’m certainly not the first person to be told that.

I try to have a sympathetic ear as often as I can, but every time I hear this it thoroughly pisses me off because (1) everyone has to deal with grinds and long nights and (2) stress is no excuse to be dismissive to family or friends (people who care about you.)

I’m no stranger to 12-14 hour days – I worked plenty of them at Microsoft and my first startup before that. And being human, I sometimes did a poor job of getting back to people in my life who wanted to hear my voice. That’s one of my biggest regrets over the past couple of years. But even under a great amount of stress, I don’t surrender to exhaustion and say something stupid and hurtful to one of my friends or family members who wanted to check in on me.

You need the help of a lot of other people to pull off a startup successfully. I screwed this up in a major way with my first startup. However, caving into pressure and pushing your friends and family away takes you from neglecting your relationships to actively doing harm to them.

If you’re going to take on something as arduous and demanding as a startup then have the maturity, class, and discipline to bear it like an adult, rather than a child out of his or her depth.

7. Sacrificing nearly all social, physical, and personal needs in the name of “getting it done”

You can push yourself to a large volume of work over a short period of time – you can cram 80 hours into a work week if you can try. But you can’t do it forever.

You know what a successful entrepreneur needs?

They need to work out and get sleep so they can maintain their stamina and energy level. They need to go out with friends and blow off steam. They need to go out on dates. They need “me” time to collect themselves.

Creating a balanced life takes discipline – I dropped the ball on this epically at Microsoft. I starting changing my behavior before I left Microsoft and it’s made me more effective and productive.

When you feel the pressure around any product launch or fund-raising activity and start sacrificing everything else in the name of “getting the job done” all you’re really doing is panicking with a long fuse. Burying yourself in work indefinitely isn’t a virtue – it’s surrendering away the life you’re trying to improve in the first place.

And ultimately it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you keep burning the candle from both ends too long, you’ll eventually fail.

8. Writing cathartic blog posts when you should be reaching out to customers and closing Github issues

Shit. I need to get back to work.

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Today I am Leaving Microsoft and Starting my Own Company

August 10, 2012 04:36 by Aaronontheweb in MarkedUp, Microsoft, Startup // Tags: , , // Comments (10)

I’ve spent my last two weeks at Microsoft wondering how I was going to write this blog post.

Microsoft recruited me off of Hacker News two years ago. In the Summer of 2010 I was still brushing off the ashes of my first failed startup when I wrote a blog post about some of the challenges the .NET community faces with respect to adoption among startups, which subsequently got a ton of attention on Hacker News and inside of Microsoft.

Ultimately, this was the start of an amazing two year journey at Microsoft as a Startup Developer Evangelist. I relocated from San Diego to Los Angeles and built a new life, met scores of wonderful people, worked with some of the absolute best startups on the planet, and honed my skills as a technologist and software entrepreneur exponentially further than they were when I attempted my last startup.

I love my job; I love my team; I love the developers / startups / accelerators / investors I’ve worked with; and I learned reams of applicable real-world stuff from people far more experienced than I. However, it’s time for me to do something different.

Today, August 10th 2012 is my final day with Microsoft. It’s been a life-changing experience and I have few regrets about what I’ve been able to accomplish with my time here.

It’s not easy to leave something when you (1) kick ass at it and (2) love doing it, and few people ever make that leap. But I’m going to, because I don’t give a single iota of shit over the risk of failing at something new. I’m much more afraid of getting comfortable and never trying anything dangerous at all. You only live once.

What’s Next?

 

MarkedUp - Analytics and Insights for WinRT Developers

Starting on Monday I am assuming my new role as the Founder of MarkedUp, a new startup company which will provide Windows 8 and WinRT developers with analytics and insights on how they can make their applications better.

 

I couldn’t be more excited to pursue something new and to have a chance to do something I’ve wanted to do since I graduated: build a company that ships products made by developers for developers.

I love the .NET ecosystem and our team at MarkedUp is committed to delivering tools and services these developers will absolutely love. We have the right tools, the right people (more on that), and the right expertise to deliver a kick-ass experience which will help WinRT developers build better apps faster.

If you’re building a Windows 8 or Windows Phone 8 application then you should sign up for beta updates from MarkedUp and follow MarkedUp on Twitter.

We’re based in Santa Monica and we will be hiring additional developers soon. If you’re interested in hearing more about what we’re working on email us at team@markedup.com.

Parting Thoughts

The past two weeks have been humbling for me. I spoke individually to all of my co-workers and the startups I worked with closely about my future plans for MarkedUp, and the outpouring of support and genuine excitement for us has been beyond my wildest expectations. I couldn’t be more fortunate to have met and worked with such terrific people.

While I’m sad to no longer be on the same team as my amazing co-workers and manager, I am absolutely thrilled to be pursuing my own startup and betting on the success of Windows 8 independently.

I’m going to work my ass off to build a company developers love and stands the test of time.

Money, exits, and glory do not mean jack shit to me if they aren’t the byproduct of delivering exceptional value to customers and building a team that is absolutely in love with its own work. This is what I am now setting out to do – wish us luck!

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Taking Risks Requires Practice

July 16, 2012 02:44 by Aaronontheweb in General, General, Startup, Startup // Tags: , // Comments (0)

And patience. This is intended for people who recognize that a need to change themselves, their environment, or whatever and are having trouble getting started.

Until last month, all of the books in my Kindle collection were exclusively technical.

Whenever I travel for work and spend two hours uncomfortably seated between obese strangers and screaming children, I fire up the iPad and delve into a world of exciting subjects like Spatial Data Analysis in SQL Server 2008, the Ruby programming language, ASP.NET MVC3, iOS development, NoSQL Databases, and so on. Behold the “traveling with Aaron Stannard experience” in its full glory.

Before a business trip to Boulder I loaded up The Flinch in my Kindle collection because it was (1) free and (2) I had read someone somewhere say that this was a life-changing book. Whatever. I set about my business, had a good day of work in Boulder, and on the return trip home I fired up the iPad and started reading.

The Flinch delivered on its second-hand promise of being life-changing… The basic premise of the book is this: all people are born with a very small number of built-in reflexes. Loud noises make us tremble, high pitched cries make us look for children and people who are in distress, and “the flinch” is there to protect us when are in immediate danger.

The flinch isn’t just the physical cover-up-with-your-hands reflex you had when Tommy Tommerson tried to drill you in the crotch with a kickball line-drive in 3rd grade – it’s also an inertial force that stops you from taking potential risks and making changes. Do I really need to explain what’s wrong with feeling resistant to taking risks and making changes? Fine.

As I hinted in my last post about our first post-collegiate years and as Paul Graham spelled out explicitly in his  “Top of my Todo List” essay – our biggest life regrets are errors of omission. Drifting apart from great friends, finding out years later that the hot girl from English class thought you were cute but you were too much of a pussy to make an advance, not taking the job at the early stage startup that made it huge, not staying close to a family member who passed away suddenly, and the list goes on.

The reason you let this stuff happen is because of the flinch – the flinch speaks to you in your own voice, rationalizing reasons why you shouldn’t pick up the phone and have an awkward conversation with your sick relative or why dating is a waste of time. It makes you feel comfortable sticking with the status quo and tells you “you’re fine, you don’t need to change.”

In the ancient days, when changing your routine might mean getting eaten alive by a Sabre-Toothed Tiger because you decided to go hunting in an unfamiliar part of the woods, the flinch was a good self-preservation instinct.

Today, what’s the biggest danger you can possibly run into? Being the one out-of-shape fat person struggling with the Stairmaster at 24 Hour Fitness? Dear God, anything but that!

The flinch gets in your way more often than it helps. It stops you from making the sorts of changes you need to realize your goals. It drives unwarranted compromise and needless caution.

So how do you overcome it? Like anything else worth doing, you practice.

More abstractly: overcoming your aversion to risk takes practice and effort – the very real physical and psychological reflex that your body and mind impose on you when presented with a risky choice must be unlearned by way of repetitive exercise.

I’m great at taking risks with some things and not so with others. I’m not as averse to risk in some areas because I’ve developed a competency for risk-taking through repetitive effort; in areas where I suck at taking risks it’s because I’ve spent years rationalizing away my need to practice and improve.

After I returned home from Boulder I set about making some long overdue changes. I started exercising again. I reconnected with some old friends. I started teaching myself things I’ve needed to learn for years but had told myself “no Aaron, you suck at X.” Fear of taking even minor risks, like the self-awareness you feel the first time you work out in twelve months, is an everyday thing that can (and must) be overcome.

The most impactful thing I’ve tried is a recommendation taken directly from the text of The Flinch itself – I’ve started taking cold showers. It’s initially uncomfortable and you’ll feel the flinch kick in as soon as you turn the dial on the shower, but it’s a start to programmatically overcome the fear. I thought it sounded stupid (if you find yourself saying this a lot, you might just be afraid of whatever it is you’re describing) but I tried it anyway and have stuck with it.

It’s a struggle to push aside something as deeply programmed as the flinch, because it’s our natural default. But we do it because the things we want require us to sack up and overcome it.

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How to Recruit a Technical Co-Founder for Your Startup

August 3, 2011 12:54 by Aaronontheweb in Startup // Tags: , // Comments (2)

The LA startup scene is fascinating, having lived and worked in it for a year now - it's a scene teeming with brillaint people with big ideas, and it's starting to attract some major capital from the Bay Area. It has one major issue: a big shortage of technical co-founders.

As a result, people like me get approached fairly regularly by companies that are either trying to recruit me or recruit through me - the vast majority of the time it's a pair of non-technical co-founders looking to third founder aboard, a technical cofounder, to build the MVP prior to raising some money. In my personal experience, the majority of pitches I've received have been poorly calculated and in need of much improvement.

Speaking as a former and future technical founder, I wanted to share my perspective on what non-technical (and technical, for that matter) founders could do differently to try to bring an early tech guy / gal onboard.

Don't Pitch Airtight Ideas; Start a Conversation

The last pitch most technical people entrepreneurial enough to leave a well-compensated job for a startup with no income want hear is one where a product-oriented founder presents an airtight idea that has no room for discussion whatsoever; every single pixel and user interaction has been planned, as has the business model and everything else. They just need a code monkey to build it.

If this sounds like you, start over or hire an outsourcing firm. Founders want to leave their mark on the the business itself and that means all aspects of it, whether it's the branding, the commercial model, or the product's implementation. Sure, a technical co-founder will defer to a commerce person on the specifics of the customer acquisition strategy or the product person on the details of the UX, but that doesn't mean that they want to sit out of those conversations in their entirety.

Any technical co-founder who's willing to take the risk to leave a high-paying job where they do someone else's bidding isn't going to take a not-yet-paying job to do someone else's bidding. They want intellectual co-ownership as much as any of the other founders.

A better way to do this is to start a conversation about a business idea in general, get the people you want as technical co-founders to buy-in and contribute their own ideas into the business, and let them take some degree of intellectual ownership over the project. Don't pitch! Ask questions - get the people you want to co-found with you involved. The amount of work someone like me will do without cashmoney for a project that we "co-own" is dramatically higher than if we were working on "someone else's project" under the same conditions. Read Leadership is an Art and remember what Max Depree says about letting your creative giants roam free; that applies here!

If you're not comfortable letting a geek (or anyone other than yourself) into the idea ownership fold, you're probably not mature enough to found a company.

Build a Demo Yourself

You know what impresses the hell out of me? When a non-technical person has the drive to build an early prototype or a set of wireframes themselves to help illustrate the concept and what they ultimately want to do.

There's still room in the business model and product idea for me to get some mindshare (see point #1,) but the fact that the person was passionate and humble enough to build a cludgy demo that doesn't work quite right tells me that they're not going to flake out and move onto something else while I'm left holding the bag.

A demo is also a great way to get a tech co-founder to buy in, see where improvements can be made, and help them understand the business.

Prove Your Worth

I know I can code, and I can prove it with my Github profile or my portfolio - how do I know that you can aquire customers or design a truly usuable prodct? Go out of your way to demonstrate that you've got skills - get some early partners signed up early; build a blog and a following around whatever idea you have; get some user testominals; do some UX testing; and so forth.

Present an Interesting Challenge

You know what intrigues me, as a developer? Solving big problems and helping a business grow. You know what doesn't? Modifying a WordPress blog for a lame-assed content play. Give me (and other technical types) something big we can chew on - we dig that. It's not that we're looking for overly-complicated solutions for simple problems - we're looking for interesting problems.

Here's how you can tell if your problem is interesting or not: is there an off-the-shelf product that does this? If the answer is "yes," you probably don't need a techincal co-founder.

If you need some advice, swing by Coloft and I'd be happy to talk with you. I'm usually there ;)

 

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Announcing XAPFest – A Massive Windows Phone 7 Hackathon in Santa Monica, CA on June 4th 2011

xapfest_black_logoI am pleased to announce something very exciting that Microsoft is doing in my neighborhood of Santa Monica, California: we’re putting together XAPFest, a massive Windows Phone 7 hackathon aimed to bring together startups and mobile developers of all skill levels for a day of creativity and competition.

XAPFest is going down on Saturday, June 4th at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel (directions) – doors open at 9:00am and will close at approximately 10:00pm. There will be opportunities for individuals and teams of developers to win prizes, eat great food, and have fun hacking down by the beach.

XAPFest is free to attend, and anyone can register for XAPFest if they wish to participate.

So here’s the full scoop behind XAPFest.

XAPFest Rules & Conditions

Your goal as a XAPFest participant is to produce a Windows Phone 7 application in a 80-90% complete state by 6:00pm on Saturday, June 4th at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel (see the full schedule and driving directions.)

Here are the rules:

  1. You can get started early, and we ENCOURAGE you to get started before June 4th; install the tools and create a project on XAPFest.com and begin working on your app ASAP.
  2. You can work either as an individual or on a team of up the three people.
  3. Any apps you submit for consideration must not be in the marketplace prior to June 4th (new apps only!)
  4. In order to claim a prize, your app has to be accepted into the Windows Phone 7 marketplace shortly after XAPFest.
  5. You can submit multiple apps in XAPFest, but a team can only claim one prize in total.

 

Install the free Windows Phone 7 development tools early, create an app project, invite your friends, and write updates / post screenshots for your apps often!

If you have any questions about the event or want to know how to get involved (beyond registering and attending XAPFest,) please contact me and I’ll be in touch!

Otherwise, see you on June 4th!

P.S. Take a look at the apps I've created for XAPFest:

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About

My name is Aaron, I'm an entrepreneur and a .NET developer who develops web, cloud, and mobile applications.

I left Microsoft recently to start my own company, MarkedUp - we provide analytics for desktop developers, focusing initially on Windows 8 developers.

You can find me on Twitter or on Github!

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