Startups and Other Problems

I cringe a little bit when I hear the word “startup”. This word has several different meanings in modern newspeak. In Silicon Alley (this is what New York’s startup scene was called in 2000) it appears in several typical phrases such as: “well, we can’t afford that – we are a startup” and “we are a startup, but we are very well funded”. This word is basically used either as an excuse for wanting below-market labour or an excuse to flaunt investor-supplied riches. In the first phrase it means that the company has been burning dumb money for at least a few years, in the second – it’s just starting. One “startup” that I worked for (and have fond memories of) began in 1997 and gave up ghost in 2012. UGO was truly the Dick Clark of companies (except not as successful).

Recently I was researching an engineer who designed the Wright 2600 keypunch. An article about him on Tripod (another blast from the past) has a very interesting quote: “After retiring from US Gov., he volunteered for SCORE, the retired executives helping businesses with start up and other problems.” Startup is not a type of a business! It’s a problem that businesses have!

The term “serial entrepreneur” has also acquired a thick patina of sleaze. The thing is, entrepreneurs are not really like flying aces (I think I read somewhere that most military pilots are either aces who shoot down 5 or more planes or the ones who are shot down). No. You only need to take a look at Jerry Kaplan, who wrote “Startup: A Silicon Valley Adventure” and probably set some kind of a record in running companies that don’t make it. A large percentage of startup money is made through sales to larger, lumbering companies. Was broadcast.com a great deal? Nobody remembers it when watching its founder wearing relaxed fit shoes. There certainly a lot of money out there chasing some not very viable ideas. Unfortunately the startups of yesterday and today are either huge failures or huge successes. Or both (but not for everybody).

Luckily these days startup costs are at all time lows. To create a huge failure of a company you need a lot of money. On the other hand, to barely succeed all you need is some pocket change. Forget about Y Combinator. The Pinboard Investment Co-Prosperity Cloud will “barely invest” and try to help you to “barely succeed” – in other words to encourage you to build a business that realistically aims to be profitable. Forget “go big or go home”. Just try to honestly to build a business. Screw freemium. Forget about “incubators”. All you need is $37. And The Pinboard Investment Co-Prosperity Cloud will maybe give it to you. If you’ll get a rejection – dig deep.

Blogging Through Interesting Times

I’ve lived in NYC for a while. I don’t want to go all “I’ve seen attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion”, but I have seen ships on fire. I’ve seen shooting – the movie variety and the regular kind, two hurricanes (one weak), an earthquake (not a strong one), a major blackout, and 9-11.

I always wanted to own a house in Breezy Point. I also always wanted to work in the Twin Towers. In hindsight, it’s probably good that I never achieved these things. On the other hand I spent 5 years working in the rebuilt WTC 7. I hope Breezy Point will be rebuilt soon too.

Sandy Aftermath

It’s calm. A good time for some meditation.

The building windows still have the useless tape crosses, some probably still from Irene.

Tons of sand are removed from the streets

Beach is where it was not before

Most of the messed up cars have been towed, but some streets are still full of sand

Garbage imbedded in fences

The iconic Shore Hotel sign twisted in the wind

Nathans is full of water and sand

Brighton’s old ladies are back on the benches though

This limo probably spent some time under water

Dirt marks the high water line

Brighton beach streets are never particularly tidy, but now businesses have basements full of water

This cab has seen better days for sure

The swans are back. I wonder where they went for the storm. The Sheepshead Bay bridge is all jacked up though.

Getting into Manhattan is a pain in the ass.

Buses think that they are trains

Downtown Manhattan is eery – it’s dark and there’s no cell reception. Cops set up flares by the bus route

Getting back into Brooklyn is even more of a pain. Cops have no idea where the shuttle buses stop saying that they are not MTA, and MTA employees send you in the wrong direction. Streets by the bus routes are lit by road flares. Only the Empire State Building is lit. It’s red – orange – yellow in honor of Thanksgiving.

Memories of Obtaining Books

Early 1980s (Odessa, Soviet Union)

Most of the walls of my parent’s apartment were lined with bookshelves. When bored, all I needed to do to get a good book to read was to climb the shelves, read the titles and colophons, and taked one. It was best to look in the areas that proved fruitful previously, mining the locations full of science fiction anthologies and historical prose. All that I needed to do was to replace the book when done and not let my father catch me leaving the book open face up or otherwise mistreating it.

Mid 80s (Odessa, Soviet Union)

I remember sitting in a public library while my father combed the bookshelves for something interesting. It always took him hours because 99 percent of the books contained political propaganda, speeches by various politburo members and turgid prose of social realists. The pickins were slim.

Late 80s (Odessa, Soviet Union)

Decent foreign and homegrown sci-fi books were available for purchase in an outdoor market. While pricey, my dad purchased everything good in sight. The home library was overflowing. This is also when I learned the meaning of arbitrage.

Early 90s (New York City)

I spent hours in the bowels of Strand Bookstore. My hands were plenty sore bringing home stacks of hardcovers and paperbacks that cost me from 25 cents to $3. I could not understand why anyone would want to spend more than 25 cents on a paperback. Besides Strand there were library sales – I once bought a dozen tete-beche pulps for a quarter each.

Mid 90s (New York City)

Besides raiding Strand, I would sometimes go to Barnes and Noble and splurge on paperbacks that I really wanted at $6.99 each or worse.

Early 2000s. (New York City)

My first job at a publishing company introduced me to free review books. My library swelled. I also purchased my first real ebook readers (reading on a Palm device does not count): a Softbook and a Rocketbook (at the time I worked at a company that produced both of them). Converting text files and web pages into .rb format was a pain in the ass, but these kinds of “books” were free. After reading a Rocketbook for a couple of hours in a dark bedroom I’d see the glow of its backlight for the next 15 minutes. The future of the book was freaky. The official ebook pricing for Rocketbook was the same as for hardcovers (if I remember this correctly) and seemed like an insane waste of money. Rocketbook died a slow death, so it actually was.

2000s. (New York City)

The online ordering of books at Amazon, ABEBooks and the like revolutionized book buying for me. Now I could get exactly what I wanted for a few bucks over what a paperback would cost me at Strand. An average price of a purchase was $3-$5. Sometimes I’d splurge on a rare or an autographed book (this is how I ended up with a $250 Cray at Chippewa Falls. More free books at work – working for publishing companies is awesome.

Now (New York City)

My home library is a drag: finding a book is hard, searching inside a book – well, impossible. Plonking down $13 on a Kindle copy does not seem like insanity any more: the book arrives in minutes and is completely searchable. But staring me in the face is a $2.99 paperback of the same book on Amazon. The cost of instant delivery, searchability and the cost of keeping the clutter down turns out to be about ten dollars. But what about books that are not available on Kindle and have a $2.99 used copy available? These are heartbreaking.

I keep wondering about the fate of my library – should I purge it? Should I donate it? Should I have the nice people of Strand Bookstore drag it away completely? Should I put every book into a database and then pack everything away into plastic boxes and store in the basement?

In the past I was usually heartbroken because I could not obtain a book at all, or could not afford it. The modern book buying heartbreak is of a very different type indeed.

On Facebook Advertising

Two things happened recently: Facebook’s IPO fizzled and there was a slew of articles and blog posts about how Facebook ads are ineffective. The majority of the articles follow the same song and dance: we spent $250, got some likes from random people and nothing changed. The one standout it GM dropping Facebook ads. GM’s budget was 10 million dollars, and the way I understand it, this is their equivalent of $250 for a small business.

While I personally dislike Facebook tremendously and want it to fail, I think that the FB ad-bashing articles are off base. Facebook ads are a great deal. I am not an advertising professional, but I drank with a lot of them and I think picked up a reasonable amount of knowledge about the industry. I also stayed at … hmm, can’t remember the name of the hotel, but this is a reference to the TV ads where people say “well, I’m not a [professional that has to be very smart and skilled] but I stayed at [name of the hotel]”.

There are many, many bad deals in advertising. There are big-name websites that have “respectability” plus a huge saleseforce. These guys can charge $15, $20, $30, sometimes even $50 per 1000 banner impressions. cost for 1000 impressions is called CPM: cost per M where M is the Roman numeral 100. At the higher price you get gigantic custom ads known by a variety of names: browser crashers, godzillas, superskyscrapers, page fuckers, etc. There are also “sponsorships” where dumb companies buy little badges on new sites with next to no traffic.

How do these things get sold? Well, the agency people who control how the ad budget is spent are often young and get a lot of free drinks. Also, ad sales people are very good at what they do.

Then there are cut rate ad networks that have 5-20 cents CPM. The traffic for these comes from all kind of low quality sites: lyrics websites, guitar tab sites, all kinds of web farms, dating sites, porn and near-porn sites and the like. Big sites sometimes buy traffic from these sources when they don’t have enough “inventory”, but they’ve already sold a lot of high CPM ads. These are a pretty bad deal, and I suspect much of the traffic is simulated by bots. It is cheap and there’s a lot of it though. Targeting options are pretty weak with the exception of plentyoffish.com: POF allows for very detailed targeting. If you want to target only Canadian redheads between the ages of 18-22 – you can.

Google ads are a better deal: you are targeting people that are searching for something. Google has pretty sophisticated algorithms for detecting fraud, but I suspect click fraud is still rampant. Google’s predominant model is charging per click instead of per 1K impressions, and you have to compete with other people for hot search keywords. For instance, ambulance chasers pay ridiculous money for “mesothelioma” keyword. Mesothelioma is a type of cancer caused by asbestos, and layers apparently can make crazy money suing on behalf of people who have it. A click on an ad can fetch as much as $10 or more. There are many other expensive keywords where even a single click is worth paying actual humans to click on them from time to time. There are also pity clicks and punitive clicks: sometimes people click ads to support sites that they like and to punish ones advertisers they don’t like.

Facebook ads by my estimation cost about 1/10th of Google’s, almost in the low quality network territory. The targeting is amazing though: Facebook knows a lot about what people are interested in and lets you have a sniper-like precision of putting your ad in front of them. Do you want New Yorkers who are into planted aquariums, fishing and knife sharpening? If there are 10 people like that you can reach them on Facebook for a few bucks. Unlike Google users who are searching for something, Facebookers are there for ogling hot people and playing Farmville. They tend to ignore the ads, but you can get an even better deal by buying CPC ads. Massive click fraud is difficult on Facebook, most of these clicks are real.

There are many things about advertising in general that are mysterious: starting with the “if I almost never click on ads then who does” to “do tv and magazine ads actually make me buy anything”. Are funny ads where you remember the joke but not what was advertised worth the money? Are people swayed by car commercials? How about those Coca Cola billboards? How about those ads in New York taxi cabs and ads that annoy in general – are they effective? QR codes ( http://wtfqrcodes.com/ ) – are they the advertising equivalent of “free public wifi” zombies? I have a hunch, but I don’t really know.

What I do know is that compared to other options FB advertising is a pretty good deal at current pricing.

On Learning to Code. Or Not.

Alert! Jeff Atwood wrote an excellent post about the “learn to code” movement.

He starts with a tirade full of incredulity about Mayor Bloomberg’s New Years resolution to learn to code with Codeacademy.

“Fortunately, the odds of this technological flight of fancy happening – even in jest – are zero, and for good reason: the mayor of New York City will hopefully spend his time doing the job taxpayers paid him to do instead.”

Let’s put aside the princely sum of $1 that His Honor collects from the job. Let’s even put aside that Mayor Bloomberg is doing exactly what he’s supposed to be doing – promoting New York’s bustling tech industry. More to put aside: our Mayor happens to be a technology pioneer with a ridiculous IQ.

This all comes down to a very difficult question: should people learn nerdy things when they have little use for them, just for the sake of learning.

I remember a Livejournal discussion that was hashed over and over in the Russian-speaking community. A math teacher was stumped by a question from his student: why was she supposed to learn about trigonometry when she wanted to become a beautician. The teacher did not come up with a good answer, but the livejournalers did dig up some awesome reasons. One well meaning pro-education-for-the-sake-of-education zelot said something to this effect: well, if you work with nail polish, tangents and cotangents figure prominently in formulas that deal with reflectiveness of thin films. That will lead to a greater understanding of how and why nail polish looks the way it does.

On the surface it may seem that Mayor Bloomberg has about as much need to know how to code as much as a beautician needs to know about sines and cosines.

There’s more: executives who learned a little bit about writing code at some point tend to say the following phrase “oh, I don’t know much about writing code, just enough to be dangerous”. They say it with this look on their faces:

Jeff takes this further with the plumbing analogy: since almost everyone has a toilet, should everyone take a course at toiletacademy.com and spend several weeks learning plumbing?

Normally I’m against education for the sake of education. I once argued for a whole hour with a co-worker who felt that _any_ education is worth _any_ amount of money. I did not know at the time that he held degrees in Psychology of Human Sexuality, Biology, Sociology and Communications. He must have been on to something: he made an amazing career while mine took a nosedive soon after that discussion.

Here’s where Jeff is wrong (I know, this is shocking, Jeff being all wrong and such): it is better to push people to learn incongruous things then to tell them that this is a bad idea. Steve Jobs learned calligraphy in college and it turned out to be super useful. He might not have become a master calligrapher, but man, did that piece of esoteric knowledge change the world.

When I was in college I badly wanted to take a scientific glass blowing class, but did not. I deeply regret that.

Are there people who learned plumbing from This Old House annoying contractors? Yes. Are self-install refrigerator ice maker lines causing millions in water damage? Yes. Is the world better off because Richard Trethewey taught it some plumbing? Absolutely.

If anything, attempting to learn to code will make people more compassionate towards coders. I do believe that people who are not already drawn to programming are not likely to become programmers, more than that, they are not likely to sit through a whole RoR bootcamp or worse. Learn to code movement is not likely to lure in bad programmers, but it might give people some understanding of what coders go through and maybe be more hesitant to have loud yelling-on-the-phone sessions near their cubes. Mayor Bloomberg, who enforces open workspace policies everywhere he works, might understand why programmers need offices. Jeff, let His Honor code a bit.

Varnished WordPress

As this blog comes closer to the 10th year anniversary, my blogging software choices continue to change. So far the path has been: Livejournal -> Movable Type -> WordPress -> Drupal 5 -> Pressflow Drupal 6. Since I had some time on my hands lately, as an exercise, I decided to upgrade to Drupal 7, but after a few hours gave up in complete disgust. Drupal community is very proud for keeping its technical debt very low, but they rarely talk about who pays it.

It turned out to be quicker to export everything to the latest version of WordPress. I still like Drupal, but latest WordPress has some really nice features. I also took the time to install Varnish and trick out my sites with reasonably advanced caching via Memcached and APC. I also switched to Percona MySQL just for kicks.

Webmaster Tools Crawl stats

I’m still working on theming the blog, and tweaking, so things will break from time to time.