Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Six demos and a BBQ

I went to an end-of-term Demo Night at the University of Waterloo's VeloCity Residence last night. The evening started with a nice barbecue and an opportunity to mingle and talk with students and other visitors. There was then a program of six presentations by student teams that included two complete and functioning products as well as some product concept presentations, and even a great overview on the subtleties of creating applications for the iPhone. The discussions after each presentation were engaging and instructive. At the end of the night the crowd favourites were the guys from giftah.com, who I had previously seen at StartupCampWaterloo, and who seem to have found a winning proposition in their business.

The folks who run VeloCity are building something special here.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

How fast can VeloCity students demo?

I've written previously about a presentation that I made at the University of Waterloo's VeloCity Residence (which, by the way, led to my Ten Thoughts series of posts). VeloCity is a great idea that seems to be thriving.

For the end of their third term VeloCity is holding a Demo Night on Monday July 27. Here's what they have planned:

As the end of our third term approaches, we’ve decided to try something a little different to showcase the projects that our VeloCity students have been working on.

We would like to invite you to join us for Demo Night at the VeloCity Residence. Drop by to listen to pitches from 6 of our teams, view demos of their projects, and interact with and provide feedback to the students. Afterwards, join us for refreshments and a BBQ to celebrate the end of the Spring term at VeloCity.

We hope that you’re able to join us in this casual celebration of the accomplishments of our Spring-term students.
Have a look here for all the details.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A desire for streetcars

I've written a few posts on things that I enjoy about living in Waterloo. Sometimes what I enjoy is that Waterloo is close to something special. One example is the Halton County Radial Railway, an amazing museum where visitors can ride on functioning streetcars and other rail cars. While it's not in Waterloo, the museum is just a short drive to the east and is well worth a trip if you've never been there.

I've been taking my sons there every summer for years, and we've never tired of riding vintage streetcars through the woods or of hearing about where the cars were originally used. All the work that is done to restore decades-old equipment to running condition is done by volunteers, and the results are beautiful. Until my first visit it just never would have occurred to me that streetcars could have stained glass windows! It's volunteers, too, who run the equipment with such cheer and enthusiasm.

Thank-you to everyone who helps make the Halton County Radial Railway such a special place.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Ten thoughts on what matters at a startup: Culture

Why does culture matter at a startup?

A culture will emerge, whether explicitly created or not. You’ll be happier, and the startup more successful, if the culture is positive and rewards productivity. A bad culture will drag productivity down and drive good people away.

There are a lot of things that can contribute to a company's culture. Irreverence can be a great reminder not to take yourselves too seriously. At one company where I worked, the washroom walls were covered with the degrees earned by founders and employees at the various universities we had attended.

At Primal Fusion we do a few things that contribute to a positive culture, some of them driven by the fact that we like to learn. We have lunch and learn sessions on a variety topics. When someone goes to a conference or other event, they'll often do a “teach back” session to share the learning. While it's hardly revolutionary, we use an internal blog for which everyone has an account and is encouraged to post on any topic of interest.

Of course it's probably best to avoid encouraging cultural activities that, no matter how much fun they are, detract from productivity.

Finally, the flip side of a positive culture is one that's just not fun to contemplate. I recently encountered a wonderful aphorism in a tweet by John Maeda: “Pessimism loves company. Optimism makes companies.” Better to focus on building a positive culture and making your company successful.

• • •

This is one in a short series of posts called Ten Thoughts on what matters at a startup. The thoughts started life as a presentation I made at VeloCity residence at the University of Waterloo. While they're far from definitive, and aren't a top ten, they've mattered to me in my software startup experience.

Friday, July 10, 2009

On the Iron Horse Trail

I previously wrote about the charms of cycling the Grand River Trail in RIM Park. Another favourite cycling route is to ride the Iron Horse Trail between Kitchener and Waterloo. Like the trail at RIM Park, this trail is paved and supports multiple uses. As the name implies, the Iron Horse Trail makes use of a what once had been a railway right-of-way. It passes by current (and also former) industrial ares, as well as making its way through residential neighbourhoods.

The trail also passes Victoria Park in Kitchener, which is a great destination for my sons when we cycle on the trail. The trail has served them well in terms of learning to cycle and enjoying longer rides.

Another great feature of the trail is the evocative equipment-as-art that can be found along it. Pieces of now-retired heavy machinery from the region’s industrial past document the kinds of work that was done, the output of which may well have have traveled by rail.

I'm lucky that I live close to one end of the trail, and have enjoyed using it for many years. Judging by the varied traffic that I see along it, others enjoy it as well.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Alpha beta soup, summer edition

Back in March I wrote about a major milestone at Primal Fusion. We went public with our first product and put out an alpha release for people to try. I also wrote a little about what it means to be in alpha release, particularly in a world of permanent beta products such as Gmail. We certainly decided what alpha means at Primal Fusion, as I wrote in that post, and we continue to make progress with our releases.

Meanwhile, over at Google, as of yesterday the the beta designation has been removed from Gmail and other Google apps. Wonderfully, for Gmail users made nervous by such an epochal move, ‘Back to Beta’ is a Google Labs feature that restores the now-missing word ‘beta’ to the Gmail logo. I wonder how they'll measure the impact of that feature?

Perhaps alpha is no longer the new beta. Maybe it now really is the place for innovators!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Ten thoughts on what matters at a startup: Fit

Why does fit matter at a startup?

You'll likely spend more time with your team than with your family. Each member of the team needs to fit, and a startup needs to hire carefully. At Primal Fusion, we talk about fit in terms of a “three be” approach.

Be Talented: You need to have the skills and expertise to do your job. If you can't help deliver then you're not going to add value. This is really table stakes, isn't it?

Believe: You need to believe in the company and where it's going. If the startup makes accounting software and you think it should make games, there will be friction. Resources are too tight to recalibrate your expectations on an ongoing basis.

Belong: You need to be able to get along with others and contribute to the culture. Make yourself useful, support your team, and get to work.

If you're missing any of the “three be’s” you'll have trouble fitting in and adding the most value to the venture.

• • •

This is one in a short series of posts called Ten Thoughts on what matters at a startup. The thoughts started life as a presentation I made at VeloCity residence at the University of Waterloo. While they're far from definitive, and aren't a top ten, they've mattered to me in my software startup experience.

Monday, July 6, 2009

DemoCampGuelph on Wednesday July 15

DemoCampGuelph10 is happening on Wednesday July 15 from 6:30pm–9:00pm. I demonstrated Primal Fusion's thought networking service at the last edition of GuelphDemoCamp, and enjoyed the great questions and feedback. I'm looking forward to this edition and the opportunity to just enjoy what others are showing without thinking about my own demo. As with the last edition, the venue is eBar at 41 Quebec Street.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Ten thoughts on what matters at a startup: Balance

Why does balance matter at a startup?

There can't be a large number of people who looked back on their life from their death bed and said “I wish I had spent more time at the office”. It's important to maintain some balance between work and the rest of your life. Even if you're lucky enough to love your work, which is almost certainly the case if you're working at a startup, being able to get away from it and do other things will help reduce stress. Moreover, you'll also get a little distance from pressing problems, which can help you see them in a different way and even discover solutions.

It's also important to maintain some balance between the perspectives of the various stakeholders that matter to your startup. To achieve a balance, you need to understand your customers, your users, your team mates, and your investors. Critically, you need to understand yourself and why you’re doing this. Without balance, your customers can pull you in a direction that isn't strategically important to your company, or your users can push for features that add more clutter than value, or you can push for features that your team mates know are extremely costly to implement. Balancing the various perspectives will help keep you on track.

• • •

This is one in a short series of posts called Ten Thoughts on what matters at a startup. The thoughts started life as a presentation I made at VeloCity residence at the University of Waterloo. While they're far from definitive, and aren't a top ten, they've mattered to me in my software startup experience.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

On the Grand River Trail at RIM Park

One of the great things about living in Waterloo is the cycling opportunities.

One of my favourite routes includes the portion of the Grand River Trail that winds its way through RIM Park. The trail is paved, which makes it ideal for people walking, roller blading, cycling, or pushing baby strollers, all of whom easily co-exist on the trail. Apparently there are even horses, based on the “deposits” that I saw on a recent visit! The trail includes plenty of places to stop and enjoy the view of the river.

While I mainly cycle the trail on my own, my kids have enjoyed riding and walking the trail as well. The pace is little slower when we use the trail as a family!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Canada designs, builds, and shares

Today is the July 1 Canada Day holiday where I live. In a departure from the bulk of my posts, I'll celebrate, in a small way, Canadian achievements based on the design/build/share theme of this blog.

Design: Not only did Canadians at de Havilland Canada design the DHC-2 Beaver, they also built hundreds of examples of it for use around the world. It's arguably the greatest bush plane ever, and even has the distinction of appearing on a 1999 commemorative Canadian 25-cent piece. That's distinct from the beaver that appears on our 5-cent piece!

Build: We build a lot of things, and do it well. One that's close to home for me is the Toyota Corolla. Yes, it's a Japanese car, but thousands of them have been assembled just down the road from Waterloo, in Toyota's Cambridge plant, and the build quality is outstanding. Corollas are built to last; my family's is 12 years old and still going strong.

Share: The Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics here in Waterloo exists because Mike Lazaridis, co-founder and co-CEO of RIM (makers of the Blackberry), decided that he wanted to share his wealth by funding basic research. He supplied a large seed in the form of $100 million. The result, with a lot of help from others, of course, is a world-class research facility. It's not the only example of his sharing, but it's one from which I get direct benefit as a result of living here in Waterloo.