Startups and growth

September 22, 2012 | Leave a comment

Y Combinator founder Paul Graham’s essays are invaluable if you want to be a part of the startup ecosystem. His latest, Startup = Growth, is required reading, and defines, once and for all, the difference between a “startup” and a “new business”:

A startup is a company designed to grow fast. Being newly founded does not in itself make a company a startup. Nor is it necessary for a startup to work on technology, or take venture funding, or have some sort of “exit.” The only essential thing is growth. Everything else we associate with startups follows from growth.

[...] Starting a startup is thus very much like deciding to be research scientist: you’re not committing to solve any specific problem; you don’t know for sure which problems are soluble; but you’re committing to try to discover something no one knew before. A startup founder is in effect an economic research scientist. Most don’t discover anything that remarkable, but some discover relativity.

You should read the whole essay over here.

What’s important to remember is that this is one model – you don’t have to go the Y Combinator / venture capital route if you don’t want to. If there’s one thing I learned at XOXO, it’s that a lot of people are earning a living in a lot of ways: there’s many routes to covering your costs, living a sustainable life and doing what you love. Patrick McKenzie and Amy Hoy are worth paying attention to here – as is virtually every successful technology project on Kickstarter.

XOXO: crafty makers from the future

September 17, 2012 | 3 comments

XOXO Festival 2012

I know these things:

The mass market will be obsolete.

New kinds of enabling technology – including, but not limited to, the Internet – are changing the way people make things, the way they sell them, and the entire mechanics of how marketplaces work.

We’ve been able to create software very easily since the beginning. In fact, the very reason you’re reading this now is that I decided, as a kid, that programming languages were my fastest route to building the things I had in my head and sharing them with other people.

But here’s the thing. Atoms are the new bits. The MakerBot Replicator, a full-blown 3D printer, retails for upwards of $1,749. That might sound like a lot, but it isn’t. Each one is a mini factory: you feed in a digital 3D model, and the printer makes the real thing. Suddenly, objects are as easy to create as apps.

Need a marketplace to sell the things you create? Etsy is an amazing portal to consumers all over the world. (And the single best place to buy this year’s Christmas presents.) Need a little more startup capital? Kickstarter lets you raise money without losing control, as well as test the water to gauge interest in your idea.

And of course, the Internet allows you to reach a huge audience of billions of people. The makers of Indie Game: The Movie – a must-see, very emotional film about makers – didn’t need to get their film distributed by a traditional media company. You can buy and watch it from their website (as well as iTunes and Steam), and they organized their own theater tour.

For many of us, the mass market is already obsolete. We’re not all the same demographic, and there’s no need for us to be homogenized so we can be sold to more efficiently. There’s no need to succumb to the MTV American Idol Fast and the Furious lowest common denominator morass (unless we want to). All a creator needs to live is 1000 true fans who will reliably pay for their work. And all a consumer needs to find art and products catering for their niche is to look for it.

Portland is amazing.

Exactly my kind of town: progressive, smart, optimistic, skeptical and with more breweries than any other city on Earth. It’s got the world’s largest independent bookstore, which is like a city dedicated to the written word, filled with miles of shelving meticulously curated and individually arranged in a way that corporate chains like Barnes and Noble can’t match. (It reminded me a little of my hometown’s Blackwell’s, which, while much smaller, is still home to the largest room of books for sale in the world.) Organic, locally produced food is everywhere. And the people are fun and friendly. Art is everywhere. The only sour mark is the weather, which people consistently tell me is poor. (My reply: I lived in Scotland. Cry me a river.)

XOXO is the best tech-related event I have ever been to.

Andy Baio and Andy McMillan are superheroes. When I saw the announcement for the Kickstarter project that started it off, I knew it would be an event worth attending, and bought my ticket immediately. (Later, I acquired one for Celia, too.) I wasn’t, however, prepared for how good it was.

I think we’re going to be talking about this for years.

Rather than book out the Oregon Convention Center, the Andys rented YU Contemporary, an arts space in one of the coolest parts of the city. (It was between exhibitions, but there was actually an Ian Hamilton Finlay collection in a closed room, which Celia convinced the space staff to sneak her into.) They convinced individual, independent food carts like Cheese and Crack and PDX671 to set up shop outside. They filled the downstairs with local artists and makers, including printmakers, photographers and a group who were collaboratively building boats. And then they booked some of the most inspiring, individually creative speakers they could find, pinned around a central theme of empowering creators with technology.

The talks were incredibly inspiring, in a very unintimidating “get excited and make stuff” sort of way. Among others, Etsy’s Chad Dickerson, 20×200′s Jen Bekman, Diesel Sweeties’s R Stevens, the writer/filmmaker Dan Harmon and the musician Julia Nunes all held forth on making it on your own. If you’re interested, Anil Dash did incredible work liveblogging them all, and you can pre-order videos from the main site. But the attendees (here’s an unofficial directory courtesy of Tantek Çelik) were every bit as motivating, educational and interesting. I’m excited by the people I already knew; I’m excited by the people I met for the first time and might never see again. The conversations stretched past midnight every night. Everyone was an equal participant, and the meaning of XOXO – literally, hugs and kisses – was evident from the opening party through to the closing moments, as the conversation spilled over into an entire street in the middle of the night.

More than anything else, this was an uncynical, hopeful event that celebrated humanity and individual creativity. This is the promise of technology. Let’s make things and connect.

Photo: XOXO Festival 2012 by Erin Jo Richey, released under a Creative Commons license.

Why I think Marissa Mayer should buy Automattic

September 12, 2012 | 9 comments

WordPressPandoDaily reports that Yahoo! has sold half its stake in Alibaba for $4.5 billion. Their take is that Yahoo! needs one or two big products to turn the company around, and that Marissa Mayer should look to successful large acquisitions like PayPal and YouTube.

I agree. And I can’t think of a better company for them to buy than Automattic, the company behind WordPress.

For every 100 new domains names in the US, 22 of them run WordPress. Around 10% of all websites in the world run WordPress. Those are two amazing statistics.

Automattic’s CEO, Toni Schneider, worked at Yahoo!, and actually created the Yahoo! Developer Network. Meanwhile, the open source WordPress now contains Jetpack, a tool that links each disparate installation to the hub.

Automattic makes around $45m a year, with a valuation of $300-500m. Yahoo! can afford that, with or without the Alibaba transaction.

What would it get, beyond a connection with the platform powering between 10-20% of the web? Well, let’s think about Yahoo!’s origins: a curated index of the web. Not algorithmic search, but edited channels that were the best of the web for any particular topic.

In the mid-2000s, Yahoo! acquired Flickr and Delicious. It no longer has the latter, but it’s started hiring again for the former. Flickr’s a great way to find photos of things or collections of things. (And of course, Delicious was too.)

Yahoo! also has a pretty cool set of semantic API technologies under its belt, for extracting meaning from free text, for example.

By curating content from blogs, Flickr, its Hollywood connections, plus integrating with its APIs and content-specific grouping and filtering tech, it has the potential to be how we find new content online. (Google, of course, is how we find specific content that we know we need, Facebook is how we keep in touch with our friends, and Bing is trying to be Google.)

Is Yahoo! a technology or a media company? It could be neither: a platform company, in the truest sense of the word. It can provide a platform for content creators to find an audience, and for audiences to find interesting content. That’s still, really, missing in 2012.

Going back to WordPress, what if Yahoo! integrated its own ad platform with WordPress, allowing bloggers to make money from their content quickly and easily, while simultaneously finding an audience through curated topical channels? What if it then acquired the OpenPhoto Project (run by another Yahoo! alumnus) and pulled the same trick there, integrating those photos with Flickr and allowing photo owners to pull the Flickr trick of allowing licensing through Getty? Rinse and repeat for video and other partnerships.

Yahoo! could embrace the distributed, creative anarchy of the web while at the same time consolidating an ad presence, declaring once and for all what it actually does, and – I would argue – positioning itself to take over from other, declining media models.

WordPress, meanwhile, would gain from Yahoo!’s resources, assuming the Automattic team and the WordPress open source community retained control. And an unconstrained Matt Mullenweg would make both companies fly.

More secure password hashing in PHP 5.5

The most recent set of PHP releases suggest that the core development team are serious about keeping PHP at the forefront of web development technology, and addressing some of its legacy criticisms. I’ve previously talked about the JsonSerializable interface; now, PHP 5.5 is introducing an easier way to make password hashing more secure.

(What is password hashing, and why is it important for protecting your users’ privacy? Here’s a great introduction.)

Here’s the RFC, which was recently accepted. The idea is that too many people are using a naïve salting mechanism plus weak hash algorithm to store their passwords:

$hash = md5($password . $salt);

This is subject to attack on a bunch of different levels. bcrypt is the generally-accepted algorithm for hashing passwords, but the truth is, new attacks emerge all the time, and the standard is going to be a constantly moving target.

The new PHP passwords API will abstract that away. All you’ll do is get a hash like this:

$hash = password_hash($password);

To verify a password, you can simply use:

if (password_verify($password, $hash)) { /* Yay */ } else { /* Uh oh */ }

Salts and algorithms will be taken care of behind the scenes. Should you ever need to re-hash the password, at a point where you have the plain-text password, the password_needs_rehash($hash) function will let you know:

if (password_needs_rehash($hash)) {
    $hash = password_hash($password);
    // update hash in database

If you don’t want to have the salts managed transparently for you, and want to set a higher computational cost on the hash algorithm than the default 10, you can specify them in the function options:

password_hash($password, PASSWORD_DEFAULT, array("cost" => 14, "salt" => $salt));

There’s a compatible PHP shim for coders who won’t be using PHP 5.5 for a while yet.

I’m pretty excited about these additions to the PHP APIs. I’m also looking forward to checking out Ratchet, a way to develop real-time applications using WebSockets in PHP – something that removes a long-standing hole in the PHP functionality stack.

Meanwhile, I’m still experimenting with more development-related posts. Again, please let me know if this was useful!

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