Startups want *operators* — what about Special Forces?

First thread: I try to go out of my way to help current and recent military members to transition to civilian jobs and careers. I remember how tough it can be to translate the very rich experiences I had in the Navy to something that most employers could understand. And it’s usually tougher the longer you stay in the military.

Second thread: What I see pretty much each day at Techstars is the value that startups place in execution. The people who can consistently get things done and fight their way through difficult situations are hugely valued. They can get far more done per dollar and thus have a greater chance to both survive and thrive given each incremental investment dollar.

These two threads collided for me today.

Special Forces?

I’ve gotten to know a few different special forces operators in my time during and after the military. My boss for about a year was a Navy SEAL that went on to command a Navy SEAL team. They’re both tremendous individuals, but also strangely normal people, too.

Today I met a Special Forces operator, with over ten years in the SAS. (Equivalent to Delta Force, SEAL Team Six, etc.) He’s a really smart and accomplished individual, who for years has done nothing but operate. He’s gone on virtually no notice to countries where he and a team would be required to evaluate current situations, make plans, and execute those plans, often under tight time pressure and imperfect information. And in places where if you screw up, you (and others) could die.

This person is also interested in branching out from the traditional security/policy/government roles that recent military retirees often fall into. (This is a bit unusual, but I think very highly for him in proactively thinking and researching how to make the switch.)

I think this particular person is a specific example of a broader idea. Special forces operators regularly “retire” from the military in their 20s, 30s, and 40s with incredible expertise, but often little commercial experience. So while the guy I talked to today could probably easily step into a COO role and has the operational expertise to warrant the role, his lack of direct business experience means that he wouldn’t ever be reviewed. It feels like the world of startups is missing out on a category of potential key employees, that could radically improve their chances for survival, because they can’t translate individuals’ military experience into something startups understand.

(Side notes: Techstars operates Patriot Boot Camp for US military and military veterans, and I think highly of the program. We’ve also invested in at least one company that was founded by a Navy SEAL: FitDeck, founded by Phil Black, which went through the Nike+ Accelerator, powered by Techstars.)

My questions

Broadly — How can/should startups think about hiring people with non-traditional operations expertise? Would startups be willing to hire special forces operators? Would they be willing to take someone on for a 3–6 month trial to evaluate their operations ability? What would it take for startups to seriously consider special forces operators on a regular basis?

Specifically — What roles should a person like this consider? What are the job titles he should be on the lookout for? Should he go get an MBA and use that to help transition?

I would love to hear your thoughts.

Trending on Product Hunt during YC’s Demo Day — the Seed-DB experience

I had a bit of a weird experience on August 19th this year.

And the circle of self-promotion closed, as Seed-DB was promoted on Product Hunt, driving people to see the YC listing on Seed-DB, which showed users that YC’s class had Product Hunt in it.

What does this mean for stats? Well, let’s go to Google Analytics. Here are the hourly pageview stats for the week on either side of trending on Product Hunt:

I think the first spike came after initially trending on Product Hunt, and the second spike came after the Product Hunt daily e-mail was sent. How does this compare to Seed-DB’s traffic across the year? Well, it was by far the biggest spike:

And here are the stats from the “referral” acquisition channel for a week on either side of August 19th. Product Hunt drove over 2000 people to Seed-DB:

Since then…

Product Hunt has grown massively since then, and would now probably drive an order of magnitude more traffic for the top trending products. For me, August 19th was a bit of a surreal day but was pleased about the coincidence in the timing.

I was recently going over the statistics, and Seed-DB has grown virtually every metric by 30–40% compared to 2013. While I could look at that in startup terms and say “meh”, because I don’t do any marketing of the site I’m pleased that more and more people are finding it and finding it useful. I’m going to be adding a few key features in the coming months, so please stay tuned!

No regrets… ever

definition of regret:

re·gret — r???ret/

verb

1.feel sad, repentant, or disappointed over (something that has happened or been done, especially a loss or missed opportunity).

One of the principles I use to live my life is simple: have no regrets. I believe this has made me a happier person, and has allowed me to turn decisions that might eat away at me into lessons that I can use to make better decisions in my future.

An example

A big decision that I made relatively early in my life that has had massive consequences for me was the decision to accept a Navy ROTC scholarship in the senior year of high school. Doing this meant that when I graduated in 1999 I entered the Navy, instead of potentially going to work in the nascent internet industry (or somewhere else). I was effectively locked into six years of Navy service instead of participating in one of the craziest times of the internet’s growth.

But while I could regret the opportunities I passed up, I also have to recognise the transformational experiences I did have in the Navy. At 23 years old I was put in charge of a nuclear reactor. At 24 years old I was running a $2billion submarine and responsible for safety of 130 crew members’ lives. And because I had my ROTC scholarship, I graduated with zero college loans or any other financial burdens. So while I might have been able to be a part of the internet’s wild ride, I actually did start my career with some very unique experiences and a decent financial footing.

(That said, at the time I was a huge Google fan and user… partly because I got to Michigan just after Larry Page left and knew people that were friends of his. If I had managed to convince Google to hire me around the time I graduated in 1999, I would have been anywhere from employee number 15 to 60. That could have been… lucrative.)

How I think about potential regrets

So while I have made a number of decisions in my life that if I look back I might do differently, I remember that each decision was made with the best information I had available at the time. The benefit of hindsight is information that you never had when you actually had to make the decision! Where I would have chosen to do something differently I analyse what I wish I would have known to figure out if there are ways I should systematically do more research or think differently about categories of decisions. Then I can take any lessons from those situations and apply them to future decisions.

Having this attitude has made me a lot happier. I have made a conscious decision to have no regrets, which allows me to focus on the benefits I’ve had from the decisions I’ve made. The only control I have in life is over the decisions I’m making right now, today. Regret is simply a waste of time and energy.

Highly recommended read — “The Martian”

I originally heard about “The Martianvia this tweet from Clay Bavor, a VP for Product at Google. As he wrote:

If you’re an engineer, you must read The Martian.

If you’re into space, you must read The Martian.

If you’re an engineer AND into space…

That was intriguing enough to pick it up, and I’m so glad I did. It was a brilliant read, and the story has stuck in my mind ever since.

The premise of the book is simple: a team of astronauts travel to Mars. But they have an incident and need to leave quickly. One of the crew looks like he died in the incident, and they are forced to leave without him. Except he wasn’t dead, and he has to learn how to survive until he can be rescued.

For an engineer or anyone who enjoys some of the technical details of space travel and survival, this book is incredibly well researched and has just the right enough depth of detail to make it very realistic, but without going so far as to come across as a textbook. But it doesn’t just focus on what people might assume would be the problem of survival on Mars (air, water), he also deals with the smaller but critical systems, too.

The story itself is a thriller… it has just as much or more momentum than a Baldacci / Lee Child / John Grisham novel. The story takes place on Mars, on Earth, and in between with the crew members that left. It’s very well crafted, and you literally never know what’s going to happen next. The benefit of the setting of survival on Mars is that the writer was completely free to think up highly plausible scenarios that could kill any astronaut… and he does!

As it turns out, The Martian (the book) is being made into The Martian (the film), which started filming a month ago. For the Interstellar fans amongst you, the film will star both Jessica Chastain and Matt Damon. 🙂 I can’t wait to see it next year.

Like Clay Bavor, I simply can’t recommend this book highly enough for anyone that enjoys space, engineering, technology, or thrillers. Seriously… go buy it and start reading it today. (Get it at Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk)

Accelerators and the focus on Demo Day

If you check out seed accelerators for long enough, you’ll come across one relatively consistent criticism. (Particularly for the lower quality programs, I have to say.) That criticism is that accelerators focus way too much on Demo Day. I believe that founders that say this don’t understand the real “why” behind the preparation.

I joined Techstars at the beginning of June this year, and in that time have seen the preparations for the Demo Days of the Techstars London 2014 batch of companies, as well as the first Barclays Accelerator batch of companies. So I’ve already seen, up-close-and-personal, two cycles of companies spending time and getting ready to pitch at Demo Day. And Demo Day is important: there are hundreds of angels and institutional investors there and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most companies. They need to work hard to make the most of the opportunity.

But the subtle secret about preparing for Demo Day is that it’s not just about one 5-minute pitch, it’s a month of deep critical-thinking about how to communicate a product, a company, a market, a team, and an opportunity. Sure, the direct output is that 5-minute pitch, but founders learn how to give a one-line description of what they do, an elevator pitch about their company, and how to talk about the company in ways that really resonate with a particular audience. This process, and particularly the feedback from experienced entrepreneurs and mentors, is critical to founders. (And while it involves the whole team, it should only be the day-to-day job of the CEO, leaving everyone else to continue working on the company.)

Let me give two examples from the Barclays program:

ClauseMatch— Evgeny from ClauseMatch was not a natural speaker, and his company (a platform for contract negotiation) is in the legal world, which tends to make peoples’ eyes glaze over. And at times, he struggled to communicate how revolutionary their product is. But he cracked it with a simple (and amusing) anecdote to start his Demo Day pitch. He took the audience back to 1995, when Microsoft Word introduced “Track changes” and e-mail started to become widely introduced. For the first time, instead of faxing manually annotated contracts back-and-forth, lawyers could e-mail Word files back and forth… it was a revolution. Then he made a simple statement: after twenty years of internet and cloud technology development, lawyers are still working the exact same way. It was a massive “a-ha” moment for the audience that grabbed their attention for the rest of his pitch.

GustPay — Werner from GustPay actually spent a bit of time at the start of his pitch talking about Disney… specifically about the NFC wristbands that Disney has developed for their theme parks. He talked about the “magic” of the experience, in that the wristband becomes their ticket and their wallet and their room key, and everything they need for their stay. Then he told the audience that Disney spent >$1billion in developing this technology, but GustPay provides the same experience for venues and events for just $1/wristband. Again, it was an “a-ha” moment that got people to recognise what they did, and why it was important.

Being able to communicate your startup to a wide variety of audiences (investors, early adopters, sales prospects, press) takes a lot of hard work. And while it may seem all that hard work is just in service of a 5-minute pitch, the real benefit is far, far beyond that.

Life with my “distraction-free” phone

Earlier this summer I read two posts by Jake Knapp (a design partner at Google Ventures) about his “distraction free” iPhone: how he started it, and what it felt like a year later. In a nutshell, he found himself getting constantly distracted by his iPhone, and consciously made choices to take key applications off his phone: Safari, Email, Twitter, Instagram, etc.

I decided to try it for myself and my Nexus 5 Android phone. I didn’t want to be that guy that always had his phone six inches from his face, even when out to dinner or playing with my daughter. So these are (some of) the apps I deleted from my phone:

  • Chrome
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • Kindle
  • NYTimes
  • Google+
  • Facebook

All of these were apps that had a strong risk of the “infinity” effect, where once you get started you just get lost. I had a particularly bad habit with opening tabs in Chrome (from Twitter, e-mail) that I then left open, always meaning to go back but never actually closing.

Apps I kept include: Calendar, Music, Maps, Camera, Photos, SMS, WhatsApp, Hangouts, USAA, Todo.txt, Voxer, Slack, Beeminder, Runkeeper, and a few others. The one app where I chose differently from Jake and did keep was Gmail (and now Google Inbox). E-mail in my job is just too important, and living several time zones away from the majority of the people I work with means that I can’t rely on just dealing with e-mail during the UK business day.

What I’ve learned

I’ve noticed a few things from this experiment. First, I’ve started to see how critical a web browser is to a mobile phone experience. Disabling Chrome means that a small number of apps (that aren’t well designed) just don’t work well, if at all.

Second, Google has made Google+ a key layer of infrastructure. I can’t use the modern, built-in “Photos” app on my mobile because it requires the Google+ app to work. Instead, I use a previous version of the stock Android Gallery app to view my photos.

Third, it’s fascinating to watch human behaviour. Pulling out a mobile phone, even when out with good friends, has become a reflex for (seemingly) everyone. The number of times that a conversation over dinner goes down a thread where once person checks their phone (to look something up or Tweet something), and then a second person does, and the next thing I’m looking at a table of people that are all staring at their phones instead of interacting with each other. I even find myself feeling like I should join in, but then realise I don’t have to stress out about it and can just enjoy the moment… even if no one is paying attention to me or each other! 🙂 I’ve become comfortable with momentary moments of boredom.

Fourth, you have a different relationship to a mobile phone when it’s purely a tool for messaging, navigation, health/fitness and not a tool for broad media consumption and broadcasting. I liked feeling that I had a less “emotional” tie to my phone.

How I cheat

It’s not like I’m no longer using a web browser, or Twitter, or reading Kindle books, or checking Facebook. But I decided that I would make my Nexus 7 tablet my “distraction” device. I have all of those apps there, and so then I make a conscious decision to consume media and be distracted.

Also, when I’ve traveled to the US I’ve had to cheat and re-enable a bunch of apps. I don’t want to have to buy and use two SIMs, one for my phone and one for my tablet, and I need to have a phone connection when I’m traveling.

Going forward?

I’m definitely going to continue this going forward. I may re-enable Google+ just so that I can use the full functionality, and because I think I can resist any G+ distractions. But I like constraining myself to use my mobile phone purely as a tool and not as a magic sinkhole of time.

Knyttan: the newest, coolest, “printing” company

One of the companies in the current Techstars London batch just launched their website yesterday, Knyttan. They’ve got some of the most interesting/unique technology I’ve seen in a while: they turn current industrial knitwear looms as 3-D printers for knitwear. The founding team includes three graduates from the Royal College of Art, and they’re full of passion and knowledge of knitwear. When it comes to disrupting an industry… they’re about to do it.

Current state of affairs

Knyttan is currently focused on classic knitwear: sweaters/jumpers and scarves. Today’s technology is literally archaic; the current code/protocol is 30–40 years old, and can be directly traced to punchcards! To create a sweater, a designer has to communicate the design/dimensions as best they can to a factory that has the loom manufacturer’s software to create the punchcard-code necessary to knit the sweater. These are then sent back to the designer in a series of back-and-forths until the designer gives their okay for manufacture. And when you’re a designer in the US/Europe dealing with a factory in China/Southeast Asia, this is a long, painful process.

For manufacturers, they also have significant constraints in what they can do. To knit a particular design of jumper, the different colours of yarn have to be on very different specific spools on the machine. And once a machine is set up to knit, it is time-consuming and costly to set it up to do something else.

Knyttan’s technology

What Knyttan can do with these existing industrial looms is incredible. They have essentially re-created the entire stack of code necessary for these looms to run. Instead of having to use complex software provided by the loom manufacturers, Knyttan has created a web interface that anyone can use. For people with knitwear factories, they can use Knyttan to turn their looms into general-purpose knitwear printers. It doesn’t matter what spool each colour of yarn is on, Knyttan can adjust. A loom can knit a sweater, and then a scarf, and then something else entirely without any costly change-over time.

For the first time, a designer can have complete control of the design/manufacture process. And for the first time, a manufacturer can radically improve productivity of their existing machines.

The two BIG effects

1- Democratization of design. Right now knitwear design is a pain in the ass, because designers don’t have the full set of tools necessary to go from what’s in their head to the actual creation of the item… manufacturers have to be part of the process. Knyttan allows any designer to create something they’d like to have/wear, and print/knit it out right away. This is transformational in the industry, particularly for designers that want to do more with knitwear, but don’t because of the pain involved.

2- Radical change in supply chain. The design cycle to design/develop knitwear is extremely long, potentially weeks/months as samples are sent between western designers and overseas manufacturers. Knyttan upends this process… designers can get back a prototype of their design in a matter of minutes to hours. But perhaps more importantly Knyttan disrupts the supply chain by making it far easier to create knitwear in smaller batches that can be manufactured on demand. Instead of being forced to make an order months ahead of time, either getting stuck with excess inventory (or having demand for product that can’t be filled), designers can order stock when they get low.

How you can check Knyttan out

If you’re in London, go check out their shop! You can buy some of their existing stock designs, or even design and print yourself an item in-store! (Literally, they have a loom in the store where they can create items immediately.) It’s in Somerset House, and you can find information here: https://knyttan.com/find-us/

If you’re not in London, you can design and create a sweater/jumper or scarf today, and have Knyttan deliver it straight to you. They just launched their site yesterday, so check it out here: https://knyttan.com