Ever notice that (even with the same premium shipping options) Amazon.ca is way faster when it comes to getting the books you want to your door than Chapters.indigo.ca? I ordered two books on the 28th, got an email on the 29th saying it'd been shipped, and the status on the website today is "Being sent to post office"... that status was last updated on the 29th. What exactly went on in the last day or so? No idea... and this is the premium ship option. Indigo's great for in-store shopping (I love their stores, and go there often), but I'm not sure I'm going to be using them online anymore?
Anyone else have similar or different experiences?
One of the most interesting parts about working for a startup is the reality that everyone, truly does everything. Well... everything they're potentially any good at :-)
Most days, my job tends to be pretty focused on the go-to-market strategy side of things. David and I spent some time recently with Ted Burns, a friend of mine who is director of product management for a cool startup called 4info that's focused on mobile search. We spent a bunch of time talking through the things that Ambient's got right, and some of the things we need to work on... for example, many of our "guides" aren't that explicit. We've been thinking about re-wording some of the screens in Nakama to make them clearer, easier to use, etc. We also spent a bunch of time thinking about how we can get the word out about and build buzz around our launch when we start to open our beta up. That's what a normal day for me is probably like: think about the product, about marketing/PR/advertising, about hiring for some of the open jobs we've got, and generally about how to keep everyone on-track to hit our objectives :-).
The last couple of days, though have seen me spending a lot more time over on the engineering side of things. Guess being a geek's coming back to haunt me :)
So what has this geeking involved? Well, we've been thinking a bunch about system scalability (how do we handle LARGE numbers of people hitting the site at once?), availability (what happens when one of our servers fails for some reason?), and security (you wouldn't believe the number of random hacker wannabe's from China, Taiwan and eastern Europe that have nothing better than to try to break into any machine that happens to be on the Internet). Geeking (for me) is a way to get back to where I started... it's actually a lot of fun to hang out and sketch out systems architecture on a whiteboard, or think about some of the cool new tools we can use to increase system security.
It's not something I can do all the time, which is one of the reasons we're actively looking to hire a lead engineer (if you are, or know a scary-smart software engineer/architect, please do send us a note!), but it is a good way to stay close to the product and the market. I know that Tom Peters is a huge fan of Managing By Walking Around: hang out with your customers and your team to see what's going on. It occurs to me that actually getting to dive in to things is even better if you can.
Oh well, enough of this... I think I've got another server to set up. :)
We had Khai Truong from UToronto in the office today to tell us a bit about the research he's working on. Khai was formerly at Georgia Tech in their ubiquitous computing group. Khai's doing some cool work that looks at how people share the pictures and videos they capture with other people.
One of the things we've been thinking about at Ambient is how we help people share things with their friends... how can we make it super-easy for you and your friends to take a bunch of pictures at a party, and then (without anyone having to explicitly do anything) let you check out not just your pictures, but everyone's. Some cool, related research, and I'm sure we'll be talking more in the near future. I have to say, my inner geek loves having researchers pop in every now and again. :-)
Barry Fogarty, the CEO at diginiche stopped by the office recently to give us a demo of Octopz, their new web-based collaboration tool. Barry even went to the length of bringing in a projector... it was pretty swanky for our little startup-brains :-)
Octopz lets people share documents, pictures, even videos, and remotely edit, annotate, etc. them, all over the web. It worked with Barry showing off the app on his Windows laptop, and me playing on it with my Mac. Even the video-conferencing feature worked flawlessly with my MacBook Pro's webcam. Building a Flash-based web application isn't exactly what we've been doing here at Ambient, but it's always cool to open our minds up and see what other folks are working, on, so we loved having Barry in to demo for us.
Barry also got a little bit of free user-interface and usability consulting when David walked up to the whiteboard and started giving him feedback on how else they might start to lay out some of their windows, etc. The coolest part? We get a free license to play with and use Octopz internally at Ambient, which'll be especially useful in the next month or two when I'm living on a plane.
Professor David Yoffie (who's been on the board of Intel for over 17 years, and who I had the pleasure of meeting at this year's AceTech conference) talks about building mutually beneficial partnerships, and talks about what happens when those partnerships are unequal, and how force can often come to bear.
Examples used include Intel/Microsoft, Microsoft/Apple, Microsoft/Netscape, and IBM/Linux. Definitely a worthwhile read for any technology company.
If a server falls in the woods, and it's ethernet's gone down... can you hear the engineers scream?
David managed to shut down the network connections on our new Sun server, and yet (thankfully for us), we found out that the box is designed to protect us from our own stupidity. Sun's got the coolest lights-out management feature I've ever seen, and it let us get back in, reconfigure the network connections, and get the rest of our day back. Check out David's post on the whole episode.
I keep saying how great our team is... Mike, Minaz, David and Ann are all just wicked-smart and a joy to work with. Mike, Minaz and David are the engineering/product team, and so are really the heart of what we do here at Ambient.
I'm a big fan of learning... always getting smarter, better, etc. So how do we drive this on the engineering side? Buying great books, brainstorming and chatting about things that may not be only what we're working on today, and doing things like TechTalks, where we get to bring in the best and brightest scientists, researchers and practitioners, and get them to hang out with our crew.
So what about me? Well, I'm a first-time CEO, trying to build a great company. I'll be the first to admit that the challenges of building and running a company are all new to me. This isn't something I've been doing for the last decade or two.
That's where our advisory board comes in. We've got some super smart people who've been here before, and have helped us through what we're doing. Let me introduce you to a few of them.
- Leila Boujnane. She's the CEO at Ideé Inc. They're a visual search company. They've got some amazing, tier-1 customers, awesome technology, and they've bootstrapped the business to get there. Leila's also one of my closest friends... I can talk to her about anything from how to recruit people, to getting yelled at by her for avoiding my daily running schedule.
- Andrea LaFayette. Andrea was the VP Marketing at DWL, a company she was a co-founder of, and that was sold to IBM recently. Andrea's one of those wicked-smart, super-quiet, thoughtful people... and I'm thrilled to have her on our side. Being very-much a software guy, the insights she's able to provide on marketing, positioning, PR, etc. have really helped us understand things that we didn't when we started this.
- Michael Stumm. Michael's the CEO at Oanada. They're a massively profitable currency trading company. They got where they are without needing to raise a lot of money, and only recently decided to do a large venture capital round. Michael's also a prof at the University of Toronto, and used to run the Computer Engineering department there. Michael's got a super-clear bias towards execution. Just build it, ship it, see what happens. Don't over-design, over-complicate, or do things just because it looks good to an outsider: do what actually needs to be done to grow the company.
- Mark Fox. Mark's the CEO over at Novator. They're one of Canada's biggest e-commerce success stories, and power all sorts of sites you use every day, including FTD.com. Mark's also a computer scientist, and a professor at the University of Toronto. Besides business and strategy advice, we've had our team hang out with Mark more than once to talk about systems design and architecture: Novator builds web systems that scale to handle massive loads, so they've dealt with a lot of the technology challenges that we do. Mark's more than once smiled thinking about the days "when we had the same challenges."
We've got a couple more, but the post is already getting a bit long :-)
Okay, so we've got a great team of people ... how'd we get them? We asked. Really. That's it. We called them up, told them what we were doing, and asked if they'd have a coffee with us. After some cajoling, they even agreed to join our advisory board. Nothing special, no magic... we just asked nicely... and believe me, you'd be surprised the kind of help people are willing to give you, if you just ask.
Touchy subject: How do we compensate them? We gave them a few options in the company. Some of them even argued with us, "I'm not helping you just for shares you know," or "I haven't done anything to deserve these shares." That's a good sign. When someone says something like, "give me 2% of your company and I'll help you," it's a sign to run as fast and far away as you can. Find great people who want to help you, and give them enough equity to also be able to win if your company's a success... but don't deal with people who want big chunks of your company to "open some doors."
So you've got you advisory board. What do you do with them? Meet them. Every month. In person. Around a table. 2 hours. Make this clear up front. If someone doesn't have the time to commit to do this, you don't want them on your board. You want someone who can commit to giving you this time. It doesn't mean it's going to be easy. All of our board members have crazy schedules, so we try to book meetings months in advance, and even then it's hard to juggle so many calendars (our next meeting is in September, and I realized that I'm going to be in Los Angeles... so I'm going to be on the phone for this one, as it turns out)... but that's what we do.
Treat the advisory board as a real board of directors. You need to present to them every month. What've you done? What're you going to do? What problems/questions/etc. are you facing. Be accountable to them, and have them push you. If you don't leave at least the occasional board meeting feeling like you've been beaten up, then you didn't get all you could out of it. Get your board to push you harder, to help you, and your company grow and succeed. That's why you're all sitting around the same table, right? Use their time and yours effectively to learn and grow.
So that's it. That's my advice. Build an advisory board. Get people with business, sales, marketing, technical experience. Ask them to have a coffee with you, and if it's a good fit, ask them if you can spend even MORE time with them. At the end of the day, it's (in my mind) the single biggest investment you can make in your company and yourself.
We had Prof. Eyal de Lara pop in today, to have a look at what we're doing, and tell us a little bit about the research he's working on. Some very cool stuff, as it turns out, including adapting page content for screen or bandwidth constrained devices... hmm... sounds like a familiar set of challenges :-)
So, we're two TechTalks in and having a great time so far. We're hoping on having them every other week. We'll see how that works out ... so far, it looks like we're learning a bunch, and getting to share what we're up to with the University as well... in fact it sounds like Mike and Minaz may be making a guest appearance to teach at one of Prof. de Lara's classes in the fall. So, if learning about web apps wasn't cool enough, now U of T CS students have another reason to sign up for CSC 309: "Programming on the Web."
So what has everyone else out there done? Any other tips on how to get your team meeting the best and brightest out there? We've shamlessly copied what we think's a great idea from Google... got any other great ideas? :)
So today we started TechTalks here at Ambient. What's a tech-talk? Well, we think we've got some smart people here at Ambient, and there're obviously a lot MORE smart people outside. We want to start talking to some folks both in academia and in industry about the kinds of problems we're all working on, and try and learn from one another about this.
The idea was one we pretty blatantly copied from Google. They've been bringing in smart researchers, journalists, authors and people from industry to their campus to get their people to meet other smart folks, and perhaps even get some new perspectives on the problems they're solving. What's good for Google's team is good for ours, we think, so today we had Nick Koudas from the University of Toronto come in and chat with us about some of the interesting projects they're working on, including BlogScope. The scribblings on the whiteboard (previous post) are talking about how we figure out how different pictures, videos, etc. are related to one another : an interesting problem space that we happen to share with them.
We've also got a few ideas for other people at the university we should be talking to, so even more benefit for us (and hopefully them) there as well.
So, if we can share one idea that we think is going to be good for us... get other smart people to come in, chat with your team... as long as both sides have interesting problems, thoughts, and solutions to share, everyone walks away winning... and if they're especially lucky, inspired.
Oh, and also head over to Google Video and do a search for "TechTalks". Google's been kind enough to record and share a number of their sessions. They're fantastic.
We're pretty eager to fill two key roles here at Ambient. One is to have someone lead our marketing strategy and efforts, and the other is on the engineering side . We're a work-hard, play-hard kind of group, and think we're a great place for the right candidates. Here's what we're looking for from both. Both positions are in Toronto, Canada.
If you've got any leads to anyone who you think might be a good fit for either role, please send me a note, we'd really appreciate it. Please feel free to forward this to potential candidates, or people who might know any.
Engineering lead We're looking for a senior technical leader to drive system architecture and implementation. We're building a mobile content platform that's got to be able to store, publish, convert and serve terabytes of media. We deal with all the complexities of internet applications, mobile applications, mobile messaging applications, and even some interesting voice applications... there are a tonne of interesting, hard problems to solve for the right person.
The right person for this position should have at least 5 years of hands on experience in shipping commercial products. Experience with developing for internet or mobile handset platforms is a definite plus. Must have experience with high level server applications as well as low level operating systems. Ability to take products and to innovate within short timeframes is a must.
Goals: - Design and implement a large-scale, scalable internet and mobile, consumer application. - Help drive the technology vision and architecture forward, recognizing the pace of change in the internet and mobile landscape.
Responsibilities: - Design and implement systems architecture. - Perform analyses and make recommendations that affect critical technical initiatives for customer-facing products. - Lead other engineers through code reviews, internal infrastructure, and process enhancements.
Skills: - Strong technical skills, track record of strong coding and individual technical accomplishments, and strong academic record. - Software systems background, Internet a plus. - Entrepreneurial drive, demonstrated ability to achieve stretch goals in an innovative and fast paced environment. - Experience should cover the complete software development lifecycle, from requirements definition through implementation and release. - Strong knowledge of application servers, networked applications, operating systems and kernels. - Strong project-management skills. - Proven track record for product delivery. - Able to fit in well within an informal startup environment. - Experience working in UNIX/Linux environments. - MS CS or Computer Engineering preferred (PhD, a plus).
Nice to have experience (in order): - Worked on large scale internet applications. - Developed applications that deal with various wireless networks, and multiple handsets. - Should ideally have experience with the idiosyncrasies of handsets. - Experience with telco systems (ideally mobile). - Experience with online ecommerce systems. - Experience with telco billing systems.
Marketing lead Ambient's building a direct-to-consumer mobile service. There are a lot of similarities here with online marketing, and so the ideal candidate is someone who's been working in this space for a while. We need someone who understands online marketing, how to use blogs and social networks as ways to seed a marketing message, and wants to take on the challenge of building and positioning a brand in the global mobile market. It's a big role, but would be terrific for someone with the right background, looking for a great challenge.
Goals: - Build a consumer-facing brand online. - Build a global audience of mobile subscribers. - Partner globally with carriers, advertisers, other online properties, handset vendors, etc. to do so.
Responsibilities: - Foster the success of the business via efficiently managing all aspects of the marketing mix. - Build brand awareness and meaning within the relevant target, acquire customers, promote trial, retain customers and maximize profitability. - Manage all partnership and agency relationships (ad agency, PR agency, media buying agency, distribution and promotional partners and others). - Monitor and manage against agreed to critical success factors. - Work as a key member of the management team. - Recruit, manage and retain team members as required.
Key requirements - Bias to execute: Ability to move from high-level strategy to lower-level execution and back, and thrive on it. - Experience Internet/interactive marketing and major interactive/ad agencies. - Needs to *get* blogging, social networks, content sharing (flickr, etc.). - Minimum 5 years of increasing experience in a consumer marketing role, preferably in a technology or internet based company. - Passionate about technology and customer experience. - Comfortable in a fast moving start-up environment.
Send email to careers --- @t --- ambientvector.com with subject "Engineering Lead" or "Marketing Lead".
That gorgeous little Sun box we just got? Quad-core (2x Dual Core) Opteron @ 2.6 Ghz, 2x73 GB Serial SCSI (SAS) drives, and 8 GB of RAM... Mmmm... Can't wait to see the boys fire Solaris up on this puppy.
We launched Nakama into a closed beta today. That brings an end to two ridiculously late nights (3:30 AM yesterday and well... it's almost 11 PM at the moment). So first, thanks to the guys, Mike, Dan, Minaz and David for putting in the crazy hours to get this out the door.
We're not quite ready for the whole world to start playing, but we will be soon, so please feel free to visit us at AmbientVector.com and sign up. We'll send you a note in the next couple weeks as we expand the beta.
We're working on building the best mobile content publishing and viewing experience... and we've launched around the new Nakama theme : Be seen. Be heard. Be you!
Check us out, tell us what you think, and sign up for our beta if you're interested.