Should You Contribute To The “Orlando Tech Community” Kickstarter?

In case you missed it, Wednesday at around 10:00 AM the Orlando community started buzzing with requests to contribute to The Orlando Tech Community Kickstarter. The campaign is a Hail Mary pass at the start of the season; they are looking to raise all of the funds required up-front to keep several well-known local tech-centric organizations afloat. Specifically, Orlando TechFireSpring Fund, Starter Studio, and Canvs.

And at first brush, their goal seems…lofty. Standing at a whopping $165,000, the literal shovelfuls of cash required to meet this all-or-nothing goal is daunting. And besides, where was it all going? As is Kickstarter tradition, the description of where exactly the money will go is loose. For example, the Starter Studio portion notes the money will go toward “the funding needed to use the beautiful Dr. Phillips center for demo day.” How much does that  cost? Why should I contribute money so they can use the beautiful Dr. Phillips center?

[edit: Gregg Pollack was kind enough to send me a message on Kickstarter about this. He hadn’t realized the adjective “beautiful” could be construed as lavish, so he removed that from the Kickstarter description. He also noted that the demo day event last year actually made money for the organization.]

I’m fairly critical and tend to question any organization I give to. In the checkout line at Publix, whenever they ask “Do you want to give a dollar to Whatever Fund?,” I can’t help but wonder what that fund’s impact is. How much do they pay staff? Is this just a glorified tax haven for Publix or their CEO’s friends? Do they throw lavish parties? Due to the store’s insistence at exploiting typical social contracts, I give a dollar so the cashier won’t think I’m Hitler. In the back of my mind, it irks me that I may have wasted that dollar on an ounce of caviar to be eaten by some debutante at a “charity event.”

Back to the Kickstarter page, I thought “At least these four organizations are working together.” I have no numbers to quantify this, but lately the Orlando tech scene has felt a bit stagnant and lacking cohesion. Several things have contributed to that gloomy feeling. Orlando Tech has had a lot of upheaval with the original founder Orrett Davis joining financial chat bot company Abe.ai in July. In the Orlando Devs Slack, arguments in #career-advice regarding moving to San Francisco happen like clockwork. UCF seems like a natural ally to the downtown tech scene, but it seems like their involvement is incidental at best. Same goes for the tourism industry here. I’ve met a total of two Disney employees at meetups, and I’ve attended my fair share.

When I moved from DC back to Orlando, I was pleasantly surprised to see the resources we had. This was in 2015; Orlando Tech was going strong and there were typically three startups giving talks each month. I attended the Canvs one year anniversary when they announced the second location in Winter Park. Once I was on the Orlando Devs Slack, I felt like a whole other world was opened to me. However, as time went on, I stopped going to Orlando Tech. It’s not that Orrett didn’t do a great job (he did and I think his efforts are a big part of why we have a tech “scene” at all), it’s simply that I lost interest in the subject matter. I don’t think I’m alone in that.

“I’ve been a few times [to the Orlando Tech Meetup], I like knowing what the community is up to around the area.  A few of the startups have interested me.  Most haven’t.  Few job offers here and there, but yea the general feel is ‘business business business…  numbers.  Is this working?’… I think I attended four or five through 2016. Each time I went, I felt like I was witnessing demos from a weekend hackathon, but where the devs got drunk and the designers had a cold. It was absurd to me to hear that these products were seeking investment. So maybe I’m the asshole.”

— Andrew Studnicky, Software Engineer in Orlando

It seems like in their eagerness to fund and support Orlando’s potential unicorns, an unintended consequence was that some of the very people on which those tech companies rely, the developers and designers and people in the trenches every day, felt alienated. Perhaps it was the lack of interest in slow-growth service companies, or the infiltration of get-rich-quick “idea guys,” or some other intangible that kept me from going.

However, with the kickoff of this Kickstarter, it seems like the horses are starting to pull in the same direction and I’m liking where they are going.

It feels like the start of Oceans 11, or perhaps Gone in 60 Seconds. Pressing matters has brought the old gang back together and the audience wonders if they can pull it off like the old days. Orlando Tech feels like a spiritual cornerstone of tech in Orlando, and now with a well-supported Diane Court acting as Executive Director it seems like they have their footing. I have not met Diane personally, but I have heard nothing but great things. I’m hoping she and the rest of the board can help make Orlando Tech into what it can become.

Starter Studio, along with the UCF Venture Lab, has been one of the big tech accelerators in Orlando, and it seems Gregg Pollack is back in full force manning the effort. Although he never left, lately it seems as if he’s playing a more active role in both hyping Orlando Tech and the closely aligned Starter Studio. We don’t need to worry too much about Gregg being in it for the money, thanks to his multi-million dollar exit from Code School and activism in the community. Working legalese into that transition that included keeping the Orlando office open and staff employed shows his commitment to the community here.

When I moved back here from the DC area, one of the first things I did was get a desk at Canvs. The company I now work for, Nebbia Technology, started out of Canvs and graduated from there. We now have our own downtown office, have seven employees, and turn a profit. We need more success stories like that and places like Canvs and Catalyst can be the difference between success and failure for early-stage companies. Not only do they provide cheap working space, but more importantly, foster an environment where water-cooler talk about who can help who comes naturally. Dayle Moore is the manager of Operations and Programming for Canvs, Starter Studio, and FireSpring Fund. The world is a small place, previously she worked at UCF Venture Accelerator and I met with her to talk about my now-defunct business. And who can mention Canvs without mentioning the always bubbly and helpful Shanika Marlow? As Operations and Membership Coordinator at Canvs, her job is getting and retaining Canvs members. When I finally realized it didn’t make sense to keep a desk there when I never used it, it was extremely difficult to look Shanika in the eyes and tell her I no longer needed it.

And then there’s FireSpring Fund, of which I know so little about that I can hardly comment. Suffice to say that I hope they, too, are making meaningful changes.


As you can tell from the paragraphs above, I’m not a blind cheerleader. Even acknowledging that certain organizations aren’t perfect can be social suicide, but at this point in time we have to wash our face with cold water and take a good, hard look at ourselves in the mirror. What do we stand for? Are we not a community? At the end of the day, these organizations have a solid track record. As the Orlando Tech website says, we have a $14 billion dollar tech industry here. Can we not raise $165,000 to help some of our most visible organizations that support our industry?

When we look in the mirror, what do we see? Be honest. I hope we are a community that’s willing to risk a few bucks for the good of our tech industry. That’s why I gave some money.

That, and the sweet t-shirt.

Consider chipping in to the future of tech in Orlando yourself.

 

Modularizing The Internet Of Things

The Internet of Things has many design considerations, and one very important tool that needs to be considered in all but the most disposable IoT devices is the idea of modularization.

You might be of the age where you remember going to work on the ol’ Buick with your dad. You handed him crescent wrenches in sizes like 5/8th and 7/16th sizes, because this is America and whole numbers are for Commies. These were good times. Sometimes your dad would swear, and scrape his knuckles, and would end up needing to wash the grease off his hands with Ajax and apologies to Mother.  Sometimes you’d take a sip of his Coors when he wasn’t looking and examine the shiny new part he was about to replace, or to your dismay, examine the jets of the carburetor he’s merely rebuilding. Shiny parts always seemed better.

If you liked shiny new things then, this is your time. Nowadays, in auto repair shops across the country, they don’t replace parts.  Parts are going the way of the middle class. No, what’s replaced now are subsystems. Or components. Or modules. And you can go ahead and full-on forget about rebuilding something.

Once the tolerances got too tight, replacing or rebuilding a single part is too expensive and error-prone for the backyard mechanic to do. And doubly so for the professionals who are paid per hour. No, if you have a bushing in your control arm go out, replace the control arm sub assembly. While that simpler time is gone where the average Joe could rebuild his Buick’s carb in his back yard, he’s traded that ease-of-maintenance for complex-but-efficient modularization.

Unfortunately, this fate has run amok in electronics. Even as few as ten years ago, phones had screws that you could use regular screwdrivers on to tear apart. Now everything is soldered and slapped together with glue, driving the iFixIt people crazy. The Samsung folks are probably looking very hard at the consequences of such thinking, thanks to the great dumpster fire that is the Galaxy Note 7.  It’s a story of burns, and smoke inhalation, and Samsung losing about $17 billion dollars in revenue.

When it comes to the Internet of Things, this cautionary tale is foreboding. What could have potentially been an easy fix via a battery replacement has now become a recall and PR nightmare. I am guessing the designers of the next Samsung devices in the pipeline will be given some requirements around being able to fix it, not just replace it.

There are many challenges to making bits and pieces of your hardware replaceable. All areas of technology are getting smaller, more integrated, and the push for thinner, lighter, more efficient lithe devices continues. Even in big devices like refrigerators and stoves and all the home automation stuff people associate with IoT, the manufacturing costs and design considerations that need to happen to make the smarts easily replaceable can be a hard sell to the marketers, the C-levels, and accountants. How do you justify the cost?Another barrier to entry is tying down standards. If you make something able to be upgraded, that means that future designs that want to take advantage of the same packaging are inherently limited in their designs.

As IoT becomes mainstream, questions will emerge when consumers are burned (hopefully only metaphorically). Is this secure? How do I upgrade the smarts of my refrigerator without replacing the whole thing? How will I keep it secure? How will I replace the broken sensor or computational unit within? If the company I bought this from goes out of business, can I still upgrade my components?

These questions are more easily answered with modularization, even if the practice is more difficult than the theory. And when those questions are on the forefront of every savvy consumer’s mind, the marketers, CEOs, and accountants will fall in line.

 

Koenigsegg: A Lesson For Startups

I am a car guy. If it has means of propulsion and a go pedal, I love it. Recently, I’ve been astounded by Koenigsegg. They’ve just released the Regera, a mind-blowing hybrid “Megacar” with 1,489 horsepower. And no transmission. With plush seats and Apple CarPlay. How can they produce cars like this at such low volumes and still turn a profit? They’ve been in the business for over 20 years, which is a heck of a long life for a small-volume car manufacturer. And, to grow through that time is even more incredible.

The lessons that Koenigsegg is quietly providing are applicable to more than developing cars. Some of the development ideologies they follow parallel with the tech world, and by proving them out with carbon fiber and aluminum, they fortify those ideas. Let me share with you what I think is making Koenigsegg so successful.

Technical Leadership

Christian von Koenigsegg, I’m certain, has never counted a bean in his life. He espouses the technical details of his cars wherever possible and never once does he mention shaving pennies off of production costs. In-chassis fuel tanks, “triplex suspension,” “wg precat systems,” and the showstopping “Dihedral Synchrohelix Door Actuation System” are just some of the innovations that Christian loves to bring up whenever possible. Invisible to customer eyes, there is honeycomb aluminum sandwiched between the door sills for strength. Every Koenigsegg has a removable roof because, well, if your chassis is already that stiff there is no downside to lopping off the top. There are videos of Koenigseggs braking from 150 mph without the driver touching the wheel. These cars are mechanical marvels.

It goes without saying that a startup’s CTO shouldn’t merely be a tool used to build the CEO’s dreams. It is convenient to hand-wave technical details away as the means to an end, but those means are the very basis for success and should be put on a pedestal. Sometimes, the Minimum Viable Product needs to include a certain level of quality.

A user story of “Users will want to enter car” could have led to Ford Festiva hinges. But, there was a much cooler and arguably better answer out there. Just check out the robotized openings on the Regera and tell me that doesn’t make the car desirable (and it doesn’t add much weight, by the way).

 

Resiliancy

In 2003, a fire burned Koenigsegg’s factory to the ground. Thankfully, most of their cars and equipment were saved. This kind of setback has drowned lesser companies, but Koenigsegg got back on the horse. Enough said.

Charge What You’re Worth

Freemium is quite the trend these days, but the dredge of free apps have lead to slave development. A similar trend emerges from the supercar world. As Jolopnik puts it, “for every Ferarri, there are a dozen bankrupt companies that have tried, unsuccessfully, to enter the supercar game.”

Every backyard mechanic dreams of shoving high horsepower engines in lightweight cars and beating the big boys, but often the place where this dream falls apart is making the leap from fun one-off to production. You, me, and the guy down the street can plunk $50,000 down at the tuner shop to create a tube-chassis Subaru-powered mongrel. And you might even use it once to beat a Ferrari once, before it catches on fire.

The fun stops when you realize the details of making a real production car: crash testing, insurance, import fees, switchgear, R&D, accountants, marketers, the building, this all adds up. Suddenly, that $50,000 is gone, you’re left with a one-off piece of junk rusting away in the annals of history, and you still have to pay the dry cleaners to get the gas smell out of your trousers.

This could all be avoided by facing reality and charging $1.9 million for your premium supercar. Rather than figuring out how little they could charge, Koenigsegg  figured out how much they had to charge to turn a profit. In the world of development, leave freemium volume to the Facebooks and Googles of the world. The person who really, really needs your application will happily pay $9.99 for it. Or $1.9 million. Or whatever it is worth.

Manageable Growth

At Koenigsegg, they have much higher overhead than an average tech startup and are in a relatively slow-growth segment. Despite this, they have survived and thrived for 20 years. How?  It took them from 1994 to 2013 to build 100 cars. In fact, they produced their first customer car eight years after starting the company, in 2002. They’ve ramped up slowly over time, and if my napkin calculations are correct they are on pace to make about 30 cars this year alone. At over $1 million a pop, that’s not chump change. You’d be ecstatic if you saw that trend on a chart without any dates attached to it.

Life in the startup culture demands a quick return. However, quick growth can come with cancer – dilution of culture, slower iterations, dilution of shares, mismanagement, loss of control, lack of cash flow. If your aim is to bootstrap without outside capital, these problems are compounded. Koenigsegg teaches us to think long-term.

Founder With A Mission

The company, Koenigsegg, that I founded, it’s pretty much all I am and all I do. I spend all my energy, all my time, all my passion creating the cars together with the employees that feels like my family, and the cars are like my children together with my two sons.

I guess to me, Koenigsegg is pretty much everything.

— Christian von Koenigsegg

Christian credits the animated film Flåklypa Grand Prix, which focuses on a bicycle repairman who creates his own race car, for igniting his drive to create his own car when he was just five years old. He’s not looking for a buyout, he’s looking to continue to build the best cars he can. This is lifestyle entrepreneurship at it’s finest, a founder who is doing something he would do if no one paid him and is managing to make a living from it. There’s nothing wrong with starting a company just to make money. Nobody in the import/export business watched a pivotal film in their youth that made them study the complex dynamics of a changing global transportation economy. However, there is something truly special about a founder who manages to make money doing something they love.

Conclusion

While there are a ton more individual lessons to learn, these all stem from Christian von Koenigsegg’s single-minded focus to make the best cars possible. I’ll let him say it in his own words:

Bridging The Management / Programmer Gap

When I read comments from programmers on the internet, one thing that stands out is how much management matters. Good management makes the difference between people staying and people leaving, people being productive or people being smothered. Essentially, it can be the difference between a department that works and one that drags on the company’s bottom line.

Unfortunately, a large portion of managers just don’t get it. They don’t understand the process of programming and have to rely on the information their own programmers feed to them. If you are a programmer, you probably have been there: it’s the 9th hour on a project, and the boss comes in and asks for just one more teensie weensie feature. It sounds so simple! So, you try to explain technical debt, or babies being born in 9 months, or the architecture revisions required, or that you’ll need to test it. And the manager nods, smiles, says it will be “just this one time,” and in a few weeks does the same thing again.

In my life, I’ve had the fortune of having excellent managers. But even so, not everyone I’ve worked for and with always empathized with the programmer. “You estimated 20 hours and it is taking you 40. Explain yourself!” How many times have we all heard that? Programming estimation has become a fine art or perhaps a horrible science to some. Multiply by pi, use planning poker,  weekly sprints, or just give in to the religious tribe that is Agile and never talk to those Waterfall heathens again. Some of these approaches work better than others, but there is always the moment when a project feels like it should be going faster and management is wringing their hands.

Having stepped out from my role of a pure programmer to the founder of Upward Pixel, I’ve had to juggle many roles. It’s a one-man shop, but perhaps I’m too proud to call myself a freelancer. In any case, I’m more ambitious. But, the reality is that I’m currently performing all the roles in a business: bookkeeping, marketing, selling, building. I’m my own janitor, and believe me, my employee is messy.

The funny thing is, some of the frustrations I’ve had as a developer with a W2 are the same frustrations I deal with as a manager of myself. I would love to know at the beginning of the project how long it will take, I would love to shove features in left and right, I would love for deadlines to be always met. But, the programmer side of me knows that development is inherently a tough cookie to crack. Fortunately, these two needs – to make the client happy and to take the time needed to write what’s needed – are easily resolved in my own mind and more easily communicated clearly to the client.

But for those out there who have a manager, now that I can see the other side, please cut them some slack. Just as you wish you could truly educate them on why “just use a library” isn’t always the answer, they would love to sit down with you and explain the sales funnel and why we need to stop you in the middle of working to give them some info on a future project. The best management-developer relationships have this mutual understanding, but it’s rare to develop naturally. This understanding and empathizing on both sides of the table usually has to be molded from the hellfire of projects going wrong and the shared attitude to learn from missteps.

As one programmer to another, this is the message I’m trying to share: your manager is not your nemesis. They are not out to get you (unless they are, in which case please find another position). They are trying very hard to balance the needs of the client or other stakeholders with your needs, and sometimes they might not understand why unit testing can save time in the long run. Give them some slack, because you may not have client retention rates in the forefront of your mind all the time, either.