July 2012 Archives

The Start of a New Adventure

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Today is my last day as a full-timer at Famigo. It's been a great 2+ years, and I'm very grateful for all the things I've learned and all the friends I've made. However, it's time for my next adventure. Next week, we move to Seattle where new, big challenges await. (I'll go into more detail on my new job in a later post.)

Why are we leaving? We've built fabulous products at Famigo, raised VC money, had lots of cool stuff written about us, and the company continues to charge ahead. Not only that, we have great friends in this city and a wonderful house. Why go? Well, all of this startup stuff has been way more complicated than I expected. Allow me to explain.

You Can't Put Life On Hold
I joined Famigo at the ground-level as cofounder and CTO. My plan was to immerse myself in my work and make this company a great success. I knew that would probably take years, but I was ready to make the commitment. In true comedic fashion, we immediately found out that my wife was pregnant. All of a sudden, questions about user retention and referral mechanisms looked trivial compared to questions about diaper rash and tummy time.

My plan to put real life on hold and focus on the startup failed in a million different ways. We had health issues, car issues, house issues, and family issues. Not only was all of that stressful for our entire family on top of the startup rollercoaster, it was also expensive. And, unfortunately, I couldn't pay for any of these expenses with Famigo stock options, even if I offered them with no vesting and a ridiculously low strike price. (Note to American economy: come on, man!)

Even more than the issue of money, there's the issue of time. The idea of doing a startup is something that had appealed to me for a long time. It was my dream. After a couple of years, I began to realize that my dream was causing all other dreams to be deferred. We wanted more kids, my wife wanted to take some time to be a stay at home mom, we wanted to give my son a neat childhood with plenty of adventure. Slowly, I began to realize that pursuing this startup dream to the exclusion of everything else was a little bit selfish.

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The lifecycle of a startup wasn't what I was expecting. There's a lot written about huge successes like Instagram, where lots of good things happened. There's also a decent amount written about startup failures, where lots of bad things happen. There's not much written about all the startups in the middle, where you experience some success but Facebook isn't exactly shaking in its boots.

Everything was a surprise; that goes for just about every good and bad thing that happened to us. You can read about startups all day long, but ultimately, that's no preparation for the experience itself. Deals take way longer or way shorter than expected, helpful people appear or disappear as if by magic, and the key human relationships beneath the business can spontaneously combust. Not all of these surprises are bad, but they are a constant.

The tough part about all of the surprises is that it makes it impossible to plan anything. That's tough, because things like families, investors, and employees like to know what might happen next. Do the inherent surprises behind a startup ever end? I'd venture a guess, but then life would find a way to surprise me.

Do It Anyway, But Do It Right
Given what I've written thus far, would I do this again? Would I recommend this experience to others? Absolutely. I have had a blast, I've learned so much, and I have met some of my best friends this way. I am incredibly proud of the entire experience. I also discovered an unexpected benefit: if you're a technical person and you do it right, people notice.

When I say 'do it right', I mean build something fabulous that people know about. Both parts of that are equally important. As an introspective person, I feel weird drawing attention to the work I do, either here on this blog or on Twitter. (You probably would not guess this from the giant ego fest that is my website!) It simply must be done, though. If you don't do it, no one will, and then you run the risk of all your hard work never getting the notice it deserves.

If you do manage to build something fabulous that people know about, you will be inundated with incredible opportunities. Then, when you decide you need to find your own next adventure, you will quickly find something great. That's what I did. Onwards!

I think we can do mobile media better. Let me explain.

When I watch a movie, I'll often have the movie itself on our big TV and then the movie's IMDB page up on my iPad or Kindle Fire. When I watch a baseball game on TV, I'll also follow the game on MLB's website or its At Bat app so I can see the pitch tracker and look at stats (I'm slightly obsessed/infatuated with the pitch tracker). If I watch a live event, I'll often have Twitter up so I can see what my friends and other funny tweeters are saying about it.

This is now a pretty common use case: people watching something on one big device, then diving in deeper into that content on a smaller device. It's kind of weird though, isn't it? Why do we need multiple devices for this? It's inefficient, it's cumbersome, it looks weird (that's according to my wife, I personally think it's a very debonair look). Even more than that, it's hard to truly pay attention to anything when your head keeps swivelling back and forth. There's a completely new media usage pattern here, but we're not taking advantage of it yet.

Here's one way we could approach this: combine streaming and navigation on a mobile device.

I don't mean toggling back and forth between an app that is streaming and a web browser. I want to stream my TV show or album as I normally would, then I'd like to pull up a translucent browser window on top of that where I can navigate wherever I'd like. The user then isn't constantly switching apps and thus switching contexts; they can see and hear everything, while still having the freedom to browse. It's one big, glorious context that the user controls.

Would that experience work as well on a TV? I don't think so, given how hard it is to navigate with a remote control. (Seriously, you could watch the director's cut of Das Boot while I try to search for a YouTube video on my TV.) I'm not sure about a laptop or a desktop, either. The inputs are there, but the use case I described above really feels to me like a living room activity, not an office activity. That's why I think this is a distinctly mobile opportunity.

I am in favor of the navigation being totally free-form. As a user, let me decide where I want to navigate instead of locking me into an IMDB tab and a Twitter tab with a predetermined hashtag. There's a lot of neat content out there to supplement my media; let me go find it! Much of the time, I might not even want the option to navigate. When I do want it, I should be in charge.

I don't think this would be easy to implement. It'd take a lot of playing with window sizes, locations, and aspect ratios to get this right; a maximized browser window on top of a maximized streaming baseball game would be probably be disorienting. I bet we can find some ratios here that make sense, though, depending on the form factors involved.

There are a load of opportunities beyond this, in terms of mobile media and users joining the conversation. The first step is actually finding that conversation, though, and that's easiest done through this one big context.

(Many thanks to Carlo Longino for chatting through a lot of this with me at Uncle Billy's the other night. Also, many thanks to the brewmasters at Uncle Billy's; y'all do fine work.)

About the Author

The Art of Delightful Software is written by Cody Powell. I'm currently Director of Engineering at TUNE here in Seattle. Before that, I worked on Amazon Video. Before that, I was CTO at Famigo, a venture-funded startup that helped families find and manage mobile content.

Twitter: @codypo
Github: codypo
LinkedIn: codypo's profile
Email: firstname + firstname lastname dot com