Archive for May, 2006

A night in Cambridge

We made some small changes to our website this weekend. Thanks to everyone for the feedback. Please keep the comments coming.

We are back to work tonight after taking a short, 3 hour break to enjoy Memorial Day in Boston. Adam, Bryan, Drew and I were all sitting at our desks hacking away when I ran into a small JavaScript problem with one of the forms on our site. One of the good things about our working environment is that there are always at least four really good minds in the room to tackle any problem.

Me: “Can anybody tell me why this form is submitting, even though I’ve returned false?”

Adam: “I bet that I can solve it in one minute.”

Me: “One minute? Go ahead.” (Adam takes over command of my workstation)

Me: “Good luck figuring that out in one minute. You don’t even know the .js and .php file names.”

Adam: “Tell me them, then I’ll solve it in one minute.”

(I give him the appropriate information)

Drew: “I’ve got the timer…… Go!”

Bryan: “I’ve gotta see this”

Despite Adam’s quick fingers and quicker mind, one minute passes.

Drew: “Time’s up buddy”

Adam: “Give me 30 seconds. If this was C# I would have solved it 30 seconds ago.”

Drew: “I told you guys to use Python!”

Adam ended up solving the problem in 2 minutes and 20 seconds.

Eight Indicators of a Good Startup

Vermeer Technologies created Frontpage in the mid nineties and was bought by Microsoft. I highly recommend the cofounder’s book – High Stakes, No Prisoners by Charles Ferguson. It is my #1 or #2 all time favorite business book.

One of the many t-shirts that they made at Vermeer said “You’re working at a good startup when you’re working 80 hour weeks.” On the back it said “Vermeer Technologies – a good startup.”

In a similar vein we have a list of the top indicators that you’re working at a good early stage startup. Here they are, in no particular order:

0. Your living room looks like this:

Xobni Email Headquarters

1. You can’t understand why Boston Market isn’t open at 4am. That’s dinner time!

2. You still have luggage from your move in 6 weeks ago sitting in your hallway.

3. You have 196 inches of LCDs in your living room

4. You start to grow a beard, by accident

5. You have more servers in your apartment than edible items in your fridge

6. Your idea of a decorative wall hanging is a 50×60” printout of the Outlook object model

7. You consider hiring someone to do your grocery shopping

Since these things correlate with a good startup, I wonder if investors should use them to establish valuations. We’ll tell our next investor that we want a valuation at $200,000 per 1/10th inch of hair on my new beard.

Fire at Xobni HQ

There was a fire at Xobni HQ yesterday.  It wasn’t in our apartment; it was in the apartment below us.  Our friend and colleague Bryan Kennedy (from and was working on his laptop at our kitchen table when he noticed that “something smells like burnt toast.”  We looked out the window and saw smoke billowing – yes billowing – from the apartment below us.  I ran downstairs and banged on the door.  No one answered.  I tried opening the door. It’s locked.  The smoke alarm was going off, but no one appeared to be home. I ran back upstairs to tell Adam, Bryan, and Julia that it was looking serious.  Julia called 911, Bryan pulled the fire alarm, and Adam started packing up our development computers and servers. Wow, now that is commitment to Xobni!

I grabbed a fire extinguisher, put on my shoes in preparation for kicking in the neighbor’s apartment door, and returned downstairs to bang on the door of the smoke-filled apartment.  This time someone answered, only to release a cloud of black smoke into the hallway.  “I fell asleep, you woke me up, and my beans are on fire.”  Our overworked neighbor, a student of Harvard Business School, had fallen asleep and was not woken by the smell of smoke or the ear piercing sound of the smoke detector!  We put out the fire and moved the charred and smoking amalgamation of beans, oil, and steel to the porch.  The Cambridge fire department arrived within minutes.  Good job guys.  They showed up with 3 tanker trucks, a paramedic, and 2 police units.  Woops, false alarm.

The Scientologists of Web 2.0

It is 2:48 AM and we are cranking away here at Xobni Headquarters. We have Drew Houston from Accolade Prep, an online SAT prep startup, working with us temporarily. There is nothing like a bunch of guys streaming out lines of code in the middle of the night. Every once in a while we will all poke our heads up and start discussing one of our favorite topics: girls, other companies, or famous startup personalities.

Tonight’s discussion was spurred by a design decision Adam and I made. We reduced the number of options a user would have when using our first product, Xobni Statistics. It decreased the amount of coding we would have to do, and will simplify the users’ experience. We took the easy 37Signals‘ way out.

For those that are not familiar with 37Signals, it is a software company that has received a lot of attention due to their stated motto: “Join us and say goodbye to bloated software.” Their strategy is to sacrifice functionality for simplicity. So far they seem to have developed a following; they supposedly have 500,000 users.

Drew commented that “The 37Signals guys are the Scientologists of Web 2.0”. Like their religious counterparts, 37Signals advises their followers to take “the easy way out.” Like not having the rules of a strict religion, doing the easy thing allows them plausible deniability. When a user asks, “why can’t I put a picture here” 37Signals would say, “your life will be easier because you can’t.” Some times additional functionality is not needed; other times the developer might just be lazy.

Dharmesh Shah, the author of, posted a good article about 37signals titled “Less Is Sometimes Less.” We agree.

Rainy Day

There is nothing better for work productivity than a rainy day in Cambridge. More like a rainy week! It has been raining for nearly a week straight. We are anxious to get outside and enjoy what Boston has to offer; however, all the time spent inside has allowed us to get quite a bit of work done. We are making consistent steps towards releasing our first product Xobni Statistics. We also plan to have our new webpage up and running soon. As always, comments are warmly welcomed.

Web Innovators Meet-up

Matt and I attended the Boston Web Innovator‘s meetup yesterday at Hotel@MIT. This is a forum for local technologists and investors to present and learn about each other. We hope to present Xobni Statistics at a future event.

The organizers have been experimenting with different formats for the event. There were two main courses, without opportunities for questions, and several tables in the back area where some companies were doing demos. I have a few suggestions for the organizers of this event and future presenters. Let’s hope that I remember to practice what I preach down the line.

1. Take questions. And don’t waste time answering questions that don’t have substantive answers.

2. Know and communicate why you’re presenting. Are you looking for investors, users, or hackers to join you? Have an easy way for me to give you permission to contact me. Don’t hand out business cards expecting me to email you.

3. Don’t give us the grand vision. Instead, focus on what your code does, and give use cases. Projects begin with a vision, so it is an important inspiration for you. But telling us how you’re going to change everyone’s daily life erodes credibility.

4. If you’re presenting a demo in the back, have some way to allow many people to watch what you’re doing. Use a projector facing the wall, or a monitor up on a stand. A 19″ LCD at waist height is suboptimal.

    I am glad to see events like this in the Boston area. Multiple people independently remarked that they were encouraged by the growth of this, and other, events. Apparently the Silicon Valley scene still beats Boston, but a cofounder from flagr mentioned that Boston is up-and-coming relative to the Bay Area.

    Matt and I are still evaluating the merits of moving to the Palo Alto area at the end of the summer. It’s great to have utter flexibility on your location. When we were starting Xobni I told Robbie Allen that I would move to North Carolina if he would join us. I guess we didn’t yet have enough ice cream to seduce him.

Ice Cream or Weather

This blog is about three things: business, software, and email. So when we aren’t talking about those subjects, we have to talk about something everyone can relate to. We can think of two possibilities – weather and ice cream. The weather in Boston is starting to feel like summer. Now let’s talk about ice cream.

Seth Godin, a marketing guru, advocates being remarkable. If you can align being remarkable with something you enjoy, you’ve hit a home run. At Xobni, we strive to make our products remarkable, but it doesn’t end there. If you ever make it to Xobni Headquarters for dinner you will find a remarkable dessert selection.

We currently have 6 flavors of ice cream in our freezer:

Fudge Tracks,
Chocolate Fudge Brownie,
Peanut Butter Cup,
Toffee Bar Crunch, and
Mint Chocolate Chip.

Someone who hasn’t read this blog post and is fortunate enough to join us for dinner at Xobni HQ we undoubtedly remark “you guys have a lot of ice cream.” Admittedly this is a small thing. But our hope is that the small things add up.

The number of ice cream flavors in our freezer will never decrease due to exponential decay. This is because we are enforcing a half consumption rule. The rule states:

“At no sitting can an individual consume more than 1/2 of the remaining amount of any flavor of ice cream”

Like radioactive decay, the remaining amount of an ice cream flavor will never reach zero. At Adam’s current consumption rate the Peanut Butter Cup’s half-life is somewhere around 6 hours, which is more than seven orders of magnitude less than that of Uranium 238.

As time goes on we are going to need an unbounded number of freezers.

Over a week

Adam and I have been cranking away on our first product “Xobni Statistics” over the past week. We paused to contemplate programmer compensation. Some method must exist that is better than the canonical time-based method we are all familiar with. We have had long mind bending conversations on the quantitative value of time. There is an adage that says great programmers are 10 times as productive as an average programmer. Should they then be paid 10x as much per hour?

Also consider this- If you are getting paid $60/hr, is researching the cheapest cable internet options and spending an hour on the phone with Comcast worth the $5 you saved per month? Obviously not for at least the first year. So should you then just take the first offer you find? It is a dumb example, but the expected value of the amount of money you saved over one year for 1 hr of effort better be greater than $60. However, the pdf function of the time spent and the amount saved has such a high variance it is nearly impossible to predict. Of course, was this paragraph worth $10 (it took me 10 minutes to write)? Probably not.

One more thing….I just recently noticed that google has started to crawl our blog. The crudity of this webpage I threw together in a few hrs is excusable if you consider that each day that google crawls your blog means one less day that your product’s webpage will be in the search sandbox. For an explanation of the google sandbox effect click here. Simple explanation: They treat your webpage like all the established pages for a few weeks, then they knock down your search ranking for a probationary period. So when you search “xobni” in google our current rank is 3 (weird i know, who else uses that word!!), but after a few weeks we will drop to the bottom of the list for an unspecified amount of time. Actually Sergey Brin’s dad is a professor at UMD. I’ll ask him why Google does this next time I see him on the UMD campus.

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About Xobni

Xobni’s contact management products offer lightning fast email search and organization of your inbox, as well as an innovative and comprehensive address book for the mobile device.


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