The Universal Remote Problem

Part of last week's Boulder Open Coffee Club conversation turned to how adoption of the Internet of Things will occur in mainstream households. BOCC regular Jamie Seiffer used the universal remote control as an example of how challenging the adoption of IoT hubs will be despite a widening selection of connectable devices.

On paper the universal remote is a no-brainer - it's an affordable solution to the First World Problem of needing to juggle remotes for a home entertainment system. In my home we've got four remotes that can be replaced by a single universal one but aren't. Why? The setup process is too complicated. I've got to find model numbers for my TV, stereo, and other devices. I've got to cross reference the model numbers with codes that I've got to enter into the universal remote. It's enough of a pain that I'd rather live with four remotes instead of one.

At Simpler we face a similar problem. In our case, however, it's not so much the number of steps that we've got to worry about, it's the number of new concepts that we've got to introduce.

We've built a product that unifies the sign-on process for a wide variety of web applications that people access in their daily workflow (a single sign-on product in tech parlance). At the beginning of each day our customers sign into Simpler to access the rest of their web apps without having to sign into each of them individually. In daily use Simpler is incredibly easy but we've discovered that the setup process still stands in the way of wider adoption.

Installing the Simpler browser extension, for instance, has proven to be an important onboarding hurdle. As a result we've bundled a browser, the browser extension, and a default configuration into a single installation file. Most of our customers have never heard of a browser extension before, let alone installed one. When our customers had to install it as a separate step, for many the related dialog boxes introduced a moment of hesitation and confusion. Not a great first impression for a product that is supposed to simplify things.

Now our customers don't have to think about the browser extension at all as it's handled by our single installation file and runs in the background. We learned an important lesson - eliminating the steps required for onboarding is good; eliminating the new concepts that have to be learned is great.

Can You Expand Your Market?

Entering a large market is generally good. Entering a large market that you can expand is always great. I recently had lunch with an entrepreneur who is doing just that, and after reading Bill Gurney's post on evaluating Uber's market size, it's really got me thinking about how a market may expand when an innovator enters it.

I'll abstract what the entrepreneur is working on since they've kept things quiet to date, but it's fair to say that they're entering an established, large market segment. Large enough to make any entrepreneur chomp at the bit, even with naive "I only need 1% market share" thinking.

The real beauty of their business is that they'll be enabling more transactions, and therefore expanding their market, in two key ways:

  • Like Intuit's TurboTax, this company will be walking users through a process that has traditionally been too complex for most to handle themselves. The market for those willing to handle it themselves will increase dramatically as a result.
  • By offering financing in this context, buyers will be able to purchase inventory that was previously out of reach in these types of transactions. The existing market is mostly cash based, so most transactions are small, even with willing buyers and sellers at higher price points. Financing will unlock these bigger ticket sales.

If you don't read Bill Gurney's blog Above the Crowd, I'd encourage you to take a look at it. Grab a cup of coffee and settle in - his posts are long but always incredibly insightful. His most recent post about the size of the taxi and car-service market makes a solid argument for Uber's $17 billion valuation (though that's not the point of his post).

I've wondered out loud at Boulder Open Coffee Club whether or not Uber's valuation is plain crazy or not. The best answer I could come up with is that it's not crazy if you evaluate Uber's market not as the taxicab market but the broader same-day logistics market.

Gurney makes a killer argument that the taxi and car-service market alone is enough to support a $17 billion company. He lays out network effects and new use cases that both greatly expand the global taxi and car-service market. At the end of the post he mentions that he didn't bother arguing the point that Uber is moving into the same-day logistics market. He didn't need to.

As I've been digging into industry dynamics in the automotive space for Simpler I've started looking for ways to expand the market segment that we're interested in. We're looking at a decent one already - why not make it bigger?

Understanding Industry Dynamics

I've been digging into the auto industry since I joined Simpler a few weeks ago and have come to appreciate the complexities of how consumers, dealers, manufacturers, regulators, and software vendors interact with each other. It's been a nice reminder of how important these relationships are in understanding the status quo and the future of the industry.

If you've ever wondered how the car buying experience came to be what it is today, for instance, it's important to understand that dealers, their employees, and manufacturers have a love/hate relationship with each other. This American Life does a great job of laying this out in 129 Cars, a great podcast about a dealership on Long Island trying to hit their monthly sales goal.

There are a lot of reasons why the car buying experience is less than ideal before a customer even shows up on the lot. Manufacturers and dealers squabble over issues like inventory allocation and CSI scores (Customer Service Index, not Crime Scene Investigation). Dealers and their employees game each other every step of the way to pad their paychecks. Monthly goals with huge financial incentives override improving processes and long term strategy. It's a mess.

At Simpler we're interested in data in the auto industry. As a result, we're mapping out the relationships both inside and outside the auto dealership to understand all the moving parts. There are quite a few. Software is moving from on-premise servers to the cloud, regulatory agencies are scrutinizing lending and data privacy practices, hackers are more and more active, and customers are armed with better information. We're excited because where there's change and uncertainty there's opportunity.

Before you start cranking out thousands of lines of code I'd recommend that you follow Mark Suster's words of wisdom to Skate Where the Puck is Going, not where it is today. Identify industry experts, trade organizations, regulators, investors, customers, and vendors to map out the industry landscape. Most importantly, dig into the details to understand all the intricacies. I'm reading everything I can get my hands on, writing on this blog to help organize my thoughts, and am talking, talking, talking to tons of people in the industry.

If you've got other ways to get acquainted with an industry, I'd love to hear about them in the comments!

Google Announces Android Auto

Android Auto was unveiled this morning at Google I/O, Google's annual developer conference, with the announcement providing several clues about the direction that auto manufacturers will be going with the technology. In-car technologies will never be the same.

The driver's Android device, typically a smartphone, will be the heart and soul of how Android Auto works. Once the device is connected the phone will "cast" to the vehicle's in-dash screen. Android Auto is designed to work seamlessly with the vehicle's dials, buttons, and touchscreen.

Making the driver's mobile device the brains of the system has several important implications for in-car technologies moving forward:

  • The product development lifecycle for in-car software will no longer be tied to the product development lifecycle of the car itself, which can be as long as 5 years. In-car technologies will no longer be outdated as soon as cars roll off the lot.
  • The in-car experience will be as personalized as the mobile experience, as Android Auto will have access to just about anything that is already on the driver's device.

The presentation was light on detail but a live demo showed off key features including music, communication, navigation, and voice recognition. The SDK, which allows the developer community to create Android Auto apps, will be available soon with functionality initially limited to music and communication. Expect to see Android Auto enabled vehicles to show up on dealership lots this year.

The Open Auto Alliance, formed earlier this year to collaboratively create Android Auto, has expanded significantly to include almost 30 auto manufacturers and a group of technology partners, including Google.

It's fair to say that many are seeing the connected car as a key component of the Internet of Things (it's no coincidence that Google sandwiched Android Auto between announcements for wearables and televisions). With Google's Android Auto and Apple's CarPlay both officially in the mix, I can't wait to see what happens.

My New Home: Simpler

I said I'd never return to the car business. I lied. A little over a week ago I ended a beautiful relationship with Quick Left to join Simpler, a startup where we'll be writing software related to data in the automotive industry. It's been a great first week.

"Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." - Michael Corleone, The Godfather: Part III

I've been asked about Simpler a fair amount so I thought I'd share the FAQs:

Q: What is Simpler building?

A: We're starting with a data security product for auto dealers, as dealerships can be thought of as giant databases surrounded by a parking lot full of cars. I won't get more specific as we're working with dealerships to determine, well, the specifics. We've also got our eye on a much larger market but we've got plenty of work to do before we tackle it.

Q: What's the team look like?

A: The team looks like three men with lots of ideas crammed into a phone booth sized office. The Founder/President previously built a successful startup where he was backed by the same investors that are backing Simpler. Our Software Engineer has broad programming experience and brings data visualization and algorithm design to the party. As VP Product I'll be leaning on my experience with defining MVPs and planning product builds. Plus, one of my dirty little secrets is that I've spent several years a car salesman, finance and insurance manager, and vendor (let's keep that between you and me).

Q: Are you funded?

A: Yes. We've got a nice chunk of change in the bank. Moreover, our investors have deep domain expertise, have been operators themselves, and have built a great network in automotive.

When I considered that we've got smart money in the bank, a founder who's successfully done it before, team members who have worked together previously (I'm the exception), and a market opportunity that has trends working in our favor, it was a no brainer for me to join Simpler to help build the team and product. Startups are risky propositions but I like our chances. Strike that - I love our chances.

It's Been an Honor House of Genius

The leadership team at House of Genius recently asked me to step aside to make room for a new City Director in Boulder. I'm very happy to share that my successor will be Tim O'Shea, a friend and a deserving community leader. Last night I had a great time in my last session as a House of Genius volunteer and took an extra moment to appreciate the great people that I've had a chance to meet and work with.

Over the course of the past three years or so I've had the opportunity to participate as a contributor, presenter, moderator, organizer, and director. Starting in Boulder, House of Genius popped up in a few cities around the country, then around the globe. I've had the privilege of participating in all three annual gatherings of volunteers from cities near and far. It's been a ton of fun watching the leadership team grow the organization from it's first event in Boulder to events in Asia and Europe.

I'm excited to see Tim shape Boulder to be the model by which all other House of Genius cities are compared. He's been a great community leader already and his positive influence will be felt immediately.

Thank you to co-founders Toma, Tim W., and Collin as well as Jacqui for giving me the opportunity to hold the fort in Boulder as House of Genius expanded its reach city by city. Thank you to the hundreds of contributors, presenters, sponsors, and other volunteers that I've had a chance to work shoulder to shoulder with to help entrepreneurs move their businesses forward.

It's been an honor. Truly.

A Fond Farewell to Quick Left

Earlier this morning my CEO Ingrid let the Quick Left team know that this week will be my last with the company. Next week I'll be joining Simpler, a new Boulder company that will launch a SaaS product for the automotive industry. While I'm incredibly excited to share more detail about Simpler I'll wait until next week; this week I'll be busy enjoying my last few days at Quick Left and giving thanks to the great people that I've worked with the last two and a half years.

I'm very proud to say that Quick Left and I have grown significantly since I originally signed on as an apprentice in the fall of 2011. In that time the Quick Left team has more than doubled in size, moved into a beautiful office, established an international presence, added Sprintly as a product, and expanded into Portland and San Francisco. It hasn't been rainbows and unicorns the entire way but we've managed to do a lot of things well together.

In the meantime I learned a ton about code, stepped up my volunteer efforts in the startup community, created a reality in which my wife is retired in her thirties, learned something new about leadership and management on a daily basis, and advanced from Apprentice to Managing Director in the span of less than eight months. I made a ton of mistakes along the way but always had the support of my work family, the greatest example of brainpower and give-a-shit that I've ever been around.

There's still plenty more room for the company and I to grow together. Ingrid continues to be the best boss I've ever worked for and the team only got stronger after our recent merger with Sprintly. Quick Left is just getting warmed up. If you think I'm crazy to be leaving, you may be right. Then again, people thought I was crazy when I signed on with Quick Left as an apprentice at the age of 35. It's fair to say that it worked out.

To my Quick Left family past and present: don't be a stranger. And thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Denver Open Coffee Club returning to Fluid 6/10

In response to feedback that my co-moderator Doyle Albee and I have gotten we're moving Denver Open Coffee Club back to Fluid Coffee Bar this week. We've really enjoyed our stay at Galvanize but have always had trouble being able to hear each other in such a large space.

If you're not familiar with DOCC it's an informal gathering, mostly of those in the startup space, to talk about current events in technology. We open each session with new people introducing themselves, upcoming event announcements, and job announcements. The rest of the time is spent in a group discussion of whatever topics strike our collective fancy. It's a great way to have a sense of what's going on in the startup community.

We'll be sticking to our usual schedule, meeting every other Tuesday from 8 - 9am. The next session is this Tuesday June 10th - I hope to see you there!


Don't forget Doyle and I run Boulder Open Coffee Club on the opposite Tuesday of each month at Scrib (now the Boomtown Accelerator) and our friend Marshall Smith runs Loveland Open Coffee Club on the same schedule as DOCC at The Armory!

Loveland Open Coffee Club Launching Tomorrow 4/1

Open Coffee Club is spreading north in Colorado tomorrow! Marshall Smith, a Boulder Open Coffee Club (BOCC) regular, is kicking off Loveland Open Coffee Club (LOCC) tomorrow 4/1 8am at The Armory.

Doyle will be moderating Denver Open Coffee Club (DOCC) as usual at Galvanize. I'll be heading north to co-moderate LOCC with Marshall to help get things off the ground. Thanks to everybody involved, including Clint Bounds for making The Armory LOCC's home.

If you've never been to a xOCC event, it's an informal gathering of startup folks every other Tuesday running 8 - 9am. Here's what we usually cover:

  • Introductions: new attendees introduce themselves
  • Announcements: everybody gets a chance to share open job positions, work they're looking for, and events that are coming up
  • Discussion: the group discusses whatever comes to mind; when things get slow, moderators suggest topics, usually centered around tech news that has come up since the last meeting

LOCC will run every other Tuesday starting tomorrow 4/1 8 - 9am, so be sure to mark your calendars. I hope to see you there, and please help us spread the word!


Candor Shouldn't Require Blunt Force Trauma

Lately I've noticed that people thank me for speaking candidly. Sometimes, including now, I worry that my candor is noteworthy for the wrong reasons. My intention is to be concise but the unintended consequence can sometimes be blunt force trauma for my recipient. It shouldn't be that way.

More often than not feedback is watered down with the best of intentions. In an effort to soften the blow, many people sugar coat it or are passive-aggressive about it. I've found that watered down feedback is incredibly hard to understand and build on, which can create frustrating, drawn out problems. At House of Genius, we go to extremes to ensure that feedback isn't muddied by a person's credentials or qualifying comments either. Candor is a good thing.

It's not all rainbows and unicorns, however. There are times when I have an emotional response to being on the receiving end of candid feedback. It can be tough hearing things I don't want to hear. That said, I'd rather have my ego bruised temporarily than to be blissfully ignorant about how to get better. 

With that in mind, my first lesson learned about being candid without blunt force trauma is that it requires tasting your own medicine from time to time.  I try to remember that the knee-jerk reaction I can have to candid feedback is something that recipients of my feedback can also feel. Plus, who really wants to get feedback from somebody who isn't open to it himself?

Secondly, I try to be candid in delivering both the good and the bad. While the compliment-criticism-compliment approach has its place (also known as the shit sandwich or the compliment sandwich), that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about being equally straightforward, and more importantly, equally opportunistic about delivering good and bad news.

It's important to say things like "Hey, I noticed that you're falling behind on the timeline you committed to. We need to talk..." I submit that it's even more important to say things like "Great job on that last hackfest! I really appreciate the work ethic and execution that you bring to this team. Thanks..."

You may notice that people have unexpected reactions to candid compliments. Some have a harder time accepting a candid compliment than a candid criticism. Regardless, you're showing the recipient that candor is a delivery style, not a way to assert power or to hurt feelings. Even if that's not the case, at least you've given somebody you care about a nice little boost of encouragement.

With each interaction I have and each relationship I build I get more comfortable with speaking candidly, but I'm still a work in progress. If you've got a tip you'd like to share, I'm open to feedback in the comments below (sadly, pun intended).

The Startup Colorado Community Fund As a Sponsor

Startup Colorado Community Fund logo.png

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of accepting a $6,000 grant from the Startup Colorado Community Fund on behalf of House of Genius Boulder.  I thought I'd share what the process was like to help out those of you interested in similarly funding your startup community event or organization.

 The Community Fund is "on a mission to assist entrepreneurs in Colorado leading their startup communities - with resources to amplify community growth and engagement." They're looking to back an organization that:

  • Focuses on driving entrepreneurship and innovation
  • Puts entrepreneurs first
  • Is inclusive
  • Engages the entire entrepreneurial stack
  • Is Colorado-centric
  • Has the intent of becoming sustainable.

The application itself was a simple text form which took 15 minutes or so to complete. After doing so I had the option to invite others to provide a recommendation and/or to show support on Facebook to help build our case.

A few weeks after submitting our application we were informed by email and phone that House of Genius would be awarded one of the two inaugural grants along with 1 Million Cups Denver. I was asked to accept the grant during a Startup Colorado event as part of Denver Startup Week, which was a great opportunity for me to speak about House of Genius in front of 100+ people from the community.

The final details I had to provide as a follow-up were also simple: a short written summary about House of Genius and how it meets the criteria bulleted above, along with the organization's EIN and address. The grant is being routed through the Entrepreneurs Foundation of Colorado and will arrive shortly. It was that easy.

For House of Genius Boulder, the Community Fund grant will go an incredibly long way. The funds will fuel roughly a year's worth of our monthly activity, which brings together twenty or so volunteers from the business community to help three entrepreneurs move forward with what they're working on.

More importantly, it does two less obvious things for us:

  • it frees our team from having to chase sponsor dollars, giving us more time to focus on making Boulder the standard by which other House of Genius cities around the world are measured
  • it has put House of Genius on the radar of the grant committee members, an active and influential group of entrepreneurs, investors, and community leaders here in Colorado and beyond

For any of you leading an event or organization that supports the startup community in Colorado, I highly recommend looking into the Community Fund as a resource. With $200,000 committed to the fund and a rolling application process, you should apply now.

Thank you to the grant committee and David Bennett, my main point of contact with Startup Colorado - the Community Fund is an incredible resource.

If you've got questions about the fund or the application process, I'll do my best to answer them in the comments!

How Are the Boulder Chamber and the Startup Community Relevant to Each Other?

Having had a tour of duty with the Boulder Chamber and being active in the startup community these days, I'm still looking for answers.  I could use your help.

The Boulder Chamber has a 100+ year history of anchoring the entrepreneurial community. It does a tremendous amount to support entrepreneurs at a high level as an advocate and influencer of economic policy as well as at a granular level by offering free consulting to small business owners, among many, many other activities. That said, it's odd to me that the Chamber and the startup community overlap so infrequently.

In thinking through how we're relevant to each other, keep in mind how different the Boulder Chamber and the startup community are. The Boulder Chamber has both the constraints and resources that the startup community does not: a budget, headquarters, influence over economic policy, and full time employees. Clearly we execute in very different ways, but our interests are the same: to see entrepreneurs thrive in Boulder.

Consider recruiting, one of the startup community's biggest pain points. With downtown Boulder itself as one of our best tools for recruiting out-of-state talent, there are plenty of ways that the Boulder Chamber can help.

To their credit John Tayer, President & CEO of the Boulder Chamber, and Sean Maher, Executive Director of Downtown Boulder, Incorporated (an organization largely responsible for how vibrant and amazing downtown Boulder is), have already found ways to collaborate with Boulder Startup Week, one of the startup community's most notable events. Together they've successfully convinced out-of-state developers and designers to move to the area, deepening our talent pool.

A recent chat with Tim O'Shea and Rich Maloy, two of BSW's organizers, reminded the three of us of how much more we could be doing with established organizations like the Chamber and DBI. Advocacy was one of the first things that popped to mind. I'm sure there are many others.

John and Sean have also reached out to me to learn more about my involvement with Boulder Open Coffee Club and House of Genius and their place in the ecosystem. More importantly, they've shown up to participate in both events. Because the startup community rewards those who participate, I'd love to have the startup community reciprocate.

Perhaps you'll consider coming to Esprit Entrepreneur today and tomorrow to help the Chamber celebrate entrepreneurship in Boulder. Companies including Rally Software, SparkFun, SendGrid, Return Path, and Quick Left (disclosure: I work there) will be among the companies represented.

Help me out here - what other ways can we welcome folks like John and Sean to learn more about what we're doing, and conversely, for us to learn more about what they're doing? I'd love to get a conversation going in the comments below!