11 Tips for Finding an Apartment in San Francisco

Few “first-world problems” are more miserable than finding a place to live in San Francisco during a summer when the tech industry is booming and people are flocking to the city.  Each good rental listing will have 30+ interested parties bombarding the landlord or rental agency for private showings.  At open houses — many of which have more than 20 potential tenant attendees — visitors desperately compete for the attention of the renting party, trying to prove that they have all the qualities a qualified tenant should have.  Not to mention rent prices are out of control right now — average studios are renting for $1,800+.  I spent the last two months looking for an apartment in San Francisco.  I’m relieved to announce that I found an apartment I love last week and moved in this weekend.  And I’m sharing my advice with you in this blog post.

Before I dive into advice, I should provide some facts about my search:

  • Me and two male friends — Jon and Ryan — were looking for a three bedroom.
  • We were picky about our neighborhood — Mission, Lower Haight, Upper Haight, Cole Valley, NOPA, Western Addition, Divis, Hayes Valley,  Noe Valley, Inner Sunset, Inner Richmond, Castro.
  • And we weren’t willing to pay exorbitant rent prices to expedite our search.
  • Prior to moving, Jon and I lived together in a two bedroom, and Ryan lived in a different two bedroom.

And now onto my tips:

1: Check Craigslist very often

You need to know when a new listing becomes available, and you need to email or call the renting party to express your excitement as early as possible.  Find a good way to check Craigslist repeatedly throughout the day — I averaged about once an hour.  I built a Craigslist search tool to help me (developers: here’s the source).  Find a process that works well for you and stick to it.  There are plenty of qualified tentants looking at the same Craigslist listings, so you don’t have room to be lazy.

In our experience other listing websites weren’t as useful as Craigslist.

2: Be personable and professional

When you email or call the renting party, be kind, excited, and professional. Don’t waste their time with long phone calls or emails. Get down to business and save them time — you’ll be one of many qualified tenants, and they’ll be grateful for your conciseness.

3: Open houses for market research; private showings for applications

Open houses are awful for tenants interested in applying. They’re incredibly uncomfortable, because everyone is competing for the renting party’s attention. It’s like a pony show — “look at me, look at me! I’m great! Rent your place to me because I’m great!” The chances are very low that you’ll get a place through an open house. However, open houses are great for market research and application practice, which are both very important. Try to schedule a private showing for places you want to apply. And try to be the first applying party — there’s huge value in being first.  When asking for a private showing, tell the renting party that you want a private showing because you want them to have a chance to get to know you.

In summary, use open houses for research. Schedule private showings to apply.

4: Start early

Most places in San Francisco are available immediately — very few are available weeks or months in advance. You should still start looking at least one month ahead of your desired move-in date. You may get lucky and find a place that is available at the right time. And you’ll also get practice at your pitch and the application process in general.

5: Be prepared with application material

Go to every open house and showing with material about each potential tenant.  But only apply to places you like. For each tenant have the following information printed and organized into a Manila folder:

  • One general cover letter, with a photo and short bio of each tenant.
  • Generic application with basic information: social security number, previous landlords, personal references, employers, desired move-in date, etc. I’d suggest finding a generic application online.
  • Proof of income: pay stubs, bank statements, stock certificates, W2s, 1099s, anything to prove that you can afford rent.
  • Credit check and score from all three major credit reporting companies.

6: Offer more money if you can

A landlord will love the idea of getting more money for their unit. If you can afford to offer more than the list price, do it. They’ll appreciate your urgency.

7: Negotiating usually doesn’t work

Most places have too many qualified tenants applying — you almost certainly won’t have the upper hand in a negotiation.  That said, if a renting party likes you, you may be able to ask them to accomodate your needs.  For example, they may be open to slightly lower rent in exchange for tenants they have high confidence in.  But again, in general, negotiating won’t work in this market — it’s far too competitive.

8: Do whatever you can to make the renting party’s life easier

Finding an apartment sucks, and renting an apartment sucks, too.  Imagine trying to rent your own unit — the bombardment of incoming requests, stupid questions, disorganized, impatient, and stressed tenants.  Be sympathetic and do what you can to make the renting party’s life easier.  They’ll like you for it and consider you over other possibly more qualified applications.

9: Try to be first

There is no rule that says the first application will get the apartment. But being first makes a big difference. The renting party will remember you better, and if their first impression of you is good, they’ll probably rent to you. Show up to an open house early. Call new listings immediately and try to schedule private showings as soon as possible.

10: Make sacrifices

You’re going to have a hard time balancing work, your personal life, and your apartment hunt.  You’ll need to make the tough decision to set priorities.  The more you prioritize your apartment search, the faster it will be over.

11: Be patient and persistent

We found a place we loved after two months of searching. Most people I’ve spoken to who moved recently have given me the same feedback — finding a good place takes time, persistence, and patience. Don’t give up no matter how discouraged you get. Hang in there, and keep going. You’ll get lucky eventually, and until you do you need to come off as excited and friendly.

Bonus #12: Get Lucky

See Robert’s comment below.

Good luck to those of you looking right now.  It’s a brutal market out there.  But there’s hope.  Luck favors the kind and hard working.

Bonus #13: Understand Biases

Read this great blog post on apartment hunting biases.

One Year, Six Products: 16 Tips for New Entrepreneurs

Exactly one year ago I quit my job with the dream of starting a technology company.  I didn’t have a plan except to work hard and learn.  Yet I could have used a lot of advice in the early days, which is why I’m writing to you today.  My hope is that the below advice will help guide some of you if and when you make the decision to quit your job and pursue a startup.

I have two blog posts summarizing the year and the six products I’ve built.  The first — here — is a telling of what I’ve done, what products I’ve built and what I’ve learned from each.  The second — the post you’re reading right now — is a summary of advice for others who are in a similar position as I was a year ago.

1) Be prepared for dark days: the last year has been both the hardest and most amazing year of my life.  There have been days where I was angry at everyone, scared that my life-long dream would drift away out of reach because of my insufficiencies.  And there have been days when I’ve been on top of the world, literally running down the streets skipping with utter joy.  You’ll have both of these days, but you’ll remember the dark ones.  They’ll leave a stain on you that only washes off with a good attitude and a happy candor.

2) Try not to freak out about your personal runway: I have a panic attack once every few weeks about my personal finances.  I’ve emptied multiple 401k plans, consulted on the side, and sold other financial holdings that shouldn’t have been sold.  I’ve done what I’ve needed to do to survive, but I’ve probably done a little too much.  That is, I’ve let my anxiety control my financial decisions.

Set aside plenty of money to keep yourself afloat, and try not to stress out too much.  Chances are good you can find money to keep going when you’re close to running out.  But when you have money in the bank, try to focus on building your startup.  Easier said than done, at least for me :).

3) Raising money is not success: until recently I assumed that success meant raising money.  Perhaps the Silicon Valley culture has rubbed off on me too much.  Raising money is not success.  In fact, it’s an incredible distraction from running your business.  The lure of getting meetings with big-shot investors is strong, but your time is probably better spent elsewhere.

Only raise money if you truly need it.  Come up with a rough 6-12 month plan for your startup and determine all the possible costs.  If those costs are too large and can’t be offset with revenue or personal funds, raise money.  Otherwise, don’t raise money.  It’s as simple as that.  Furthermore, the best time to raise money is when you aren’t raising money.  Build your business/product, not your pitch.

Plenty of awesome businesses started without investment, Atlassian and Github to name two.  Raising money is not success unless you truly need the money.

4) Raising money is not easy: a common assumption right now is that raising money is easy because there’s a lot of it out there.  If you have an easy time raising money it’s either because you’re awesome or because you have shitty investors.  Good investors will ask great questions and find holes in your business.  You’ll need to do a lot of selling and a lot of convincing.  And you’ll need to infect them with your energy and passion for success.

If/when you decide to fundraise, take it seriously.  Learn from every meeting, find mentors to help you with your pitch and strategy, and go into meetings prepared.  Don’t let a bad meeting get you down.  You’ll probably have more bad meetings than good ones.

5) Start fundraising with investors who know you well: a successful seed round starts with one good investor.  With one good investor all other meetings you’ll have will be easy.  When it’s time to raise money, find someone who knows your market well and has worked with you in the past — your former CEO, a friend who’s in the space, etc.  Get this first investor to commit $10-50k on terms you both agree on.  Then go pitch other investors.  Pitching an investor when money is already committed is much easier than otherwise.  The conversation goes from “please give us money” to “you can participate if you want.”  The latter is a far better position to be in.

Again, try to get $50k committed from investors who know you before you speak to a professional investor.  If you’re interested in learning more about raising a seed round, I’d suggest you read this.

6) Customer development is key: customer development is the most important thing to get right in the early days.  The best customer development is with a product, not a survey.  Get a prototype out there, get people using it, and become friends with those people.  Your early adopters will make a huge impact on the success of your company.  Get to know them, treat them well, and listen.  They’ll fall in love and they’ll tell all their friends.

The following three questions matter the most:

  1. Why do you use our service?
  2. Will you continue to use our service?
  3. Will you pay $XYZ for our service?

Know the answers to these questions before you take any idea seriously.

When determining what features to build and what directions to go, never start with “I think we should …”  Always start with “Customers want X so we should …”  What you think doesn’t matter — your intuition is probably wrong, unless you’re incredibly talented or you’re your own customer.  Your customers are all that matters.  Without them you have nothing.

7) Team matters, a lot: there are incredibly few people out there who can build a successful startup by themselves.  Furthermore, finding good co-founders isn’t easy.  Pick a great team before you enter anything risky — before you pay legal fees for incorporating, before you plan to pursue something for the long term.

Pick team members who you’ve worked with before.  Have a total of 2-3 cofounders, anything more is too complicated.  Do not assume your team will work out until it does.  Doing a startup with someone else is like having a child or getting married.  You’re entering a commitment and everyone needs to have the same expectations around success, failure, and day-to-day operations.  Everyone needs to feel like a part of the team.  Otherwise your team will fail to work well together.  And your startup will probably fail, too.

Everyone on your team should have complimentary roles.  You shouldn’t overlap too much in what you want your role to be.  For example, two of three co-founders shouldn’t want to be the CEO or CTO.  This is an early sign of a dysfunctional team.

8) Divide equity evenly amongst the founders: I can’t stress this enough.  Do not be a founder with someone if the equity isn’t split evenly.  Uneven splits almost never make sense.  You’re all going to be busting your asses for years on this crazy idea of yours.  One person doesn’t deserve more — I don’t care how much more work they’ve done to get things started.  Split things evenly.  No exceptions.  The success of the company rests on each of your shoulders equally.  Compensate yourselves equally, too.

If one of your founders isn’t comfortable with an even split, they probably don’t trust the rest of the founding team, which isn’t good.  Or maybe they feel entitled, which also isn’t good.

If one founder did more upfront work than the other founders, put them on an accelerated vesting schedule.  Don’t give them more equity.

9) “Business people” fight an uphill battle: I don’t mean to discourage you, but your path to success is harder and longer than those who can build a product on their own.  Try to find a technical co-founder.  Unfortunately that’s the best advice I can give you.

10) Seek out advice and mentorship: make friends who are also entrepreneurs.  Find good advisors/mentors and meet with them regularly.  Try to work around other startups, either by camping at a friend’s office, or by paying for coworking space.

11) Balance passion, skill, and opportunityyou will succeed if you do something you love, something you’re good at, and something that has opportunity.  Try to build a startup that has a little of each of these.

12) Keep learning: you’ll never know all the answers.  After you read this post you’ll know more about the early startup process.  But when you finally get there you’ll have endless other things to learn.  Be ready for this.  Try to love the opportunity of learning something new.  Keep reading, and stay hungry for knowledge.

13) You might need to search a while for the right startup: I spent most of a year soul searching, building products and staying busy.  It took me nine months to find MemCachier, my current project that I’m in love with.  Don’t expect that after you quit your job you’ll know exactly what to build.  Stay busy, and ship as many products as you can while you’re in the experimentation phase.  You’ll find the right startup eventually.  And when you do, you’ll be so happy you spent time searching for it.

14) The best reason to get investment is for growth: investors want to invest in success.  Investing in a company without traction is risky.  Investing in a company that has traction and wants to see huge growth is less risky and very exciting.  There are plenty of good reasons to get investment.  But growth is the best reason.

15) Understand what type of investor you want: do you want an investor with good connections?  A trophy investor?  Someone with operational experience in your market?  Or do you just want money?  Understand what type of investor will help your business succeed and look for investors that fit the bill.

16) Starting a company is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done: this whole process has been absolutely unbelievable.  There have been lots of hardships: my personal relationships have suffered, I’ve dried up nearly all of my financial holdings, my net income for the year is -$40,000, I hardly buy or indulge in anything, and I’ve been highly stressed for almost an entire year.  Yet I wouldn’t trade this last year for anything.  For the first time in my life I’ve found work that I love, which is truly difficult to do.  I’ve pursued my life long dream.  And I couldn’t be happier about it.  It’s all worth it.

Questions? I’m more than happy to answer them.  Write a comment and I’ll get to it soon.

One Year, Six Products: What I’ve Built and Learned

Exactly one year ago I quit my job with the dream of starting a technology company.  I didn’t have a plan except to work hard and learn.  Yet I could have used a lot of advice in the early days, which is why I’m writing to you today.  My hope is that the below advice will help guide some of you if and when you make the decision to quit your job and pursue a startup.

I have two blog posts summarizing the year and the six products I’ve built.  The first — the post you’re reading right now — is a telling of what I’ve done, what products I’ve built and what I’ve learned from each.  The second — which I’ll post tomorrow (UPDATE: here it is) — is a summary of advice for others who are in a similar position as I was a year ago.

1) FoneDoktor: Android App for Optimizing Performance

FoneDoktor was my first project after quitting my job.  I spent 2-3 months working three days a week on the project, spending the remaining two days on whatever I wanted.  I worked out of my living room, where I setup a comfortable home office.  FoneDoktor was my first mobile app, and really my first consumer app since college.  I had a ton of fun getting back into the consumer side of things and learning Android.  I decided to stop working on it after the first version was released.  I still see a lot of potential for FoneDoktor, but at the time my desires shifted to the next project.

During those two extra days per week, I built two partial products — a Craigslist search tool and a celebrity photo browser powered by Twitter.  I never launched either of them.  However, both helped in the soul searching process while I figured out what startup I wanted to pursue.

Lessons learned from FoneDoktor:

  • Android was a lot of fun.  I wrote getting started instructions
  • Consulting is a great way to support yourself while you’re looking for a startup to pursue full time.  You can pay the bills and have the flexibility to explore and soul search
  • Working from home is incredibly productive, at least for me.  But be sure to make an effort to get out of the house and interact with others
  • Don’t let consulting work monopolize your time.  Make sure you work on your own projects, too

2) TownSquared: Ning++

TownSquared was a startup I worked on for about five months with my good friend, Eric.  He’d kill me for describing it as Ning++, but that’s more or less what we were trying to do. We incorporated the company together and eventually decided to part ways despite our mutual belief in the product’s potential.  We’re still great friends, though, and I’m glad we didn’t let business get in the way of that.  TownSquared was great for a number of different reasons:

  • I got decently good at Rails and Javascript
  • All my backend work was accompanied by a beautiful frontend, courtesy of Eric
  • I pitched a good amount of big-name investors
  • I got my first taste for how hard startups are
  • I saw first hand what happens throughout the seed funding process
  • I was exposed to the incorporation process
Five months of living expenses, an incorporation, and a trip to New York for investor meetings greatly reduced my personal runway.  But the whole process was totally worth it.  I’m closer friends with Eric than I ever was.  And for the first time in my life, I pursued my very own startup, a dream I’ve had for as long as I can remember.

Lessons learned from TownSquared:

  • Get out and talk to other entrepreneurs — working in a closed area with your team gets lonely and cramped
  • Don’t incorporate a C corporation until you absolutely have to — usually when you decide to raise money.  A LLC is much cheaper, easier, and faster
  • It’s hard to build a product for many months without launching.  Try to launch something quickly and iterate — you’ll feel better about yourself when you see progress
  • Don’t pick a team because your skills overlap.  Pick a team because you work well together
  • Your team doesn’t need to have all the necessary skills for long-term success.  Build a team for short term success and hire for the rest later
  • New York is a great place to do a startup — the city is amazing, the investors we met were awesome and energetic, and the entrepreneurs are passionate and fun.  (we didn’t actually work out of New York)

3) CriticallyIn: Events that need Critical Mass

CriticallyIn was an idea I had that I totally believed could be big.  With my newly acquired Rails and Javascript skills, I learned Bootstrap and built the product in three weeks.  I got the idea because I had two events I wanted to plan that fit CriticallyIn perfectly: a zoo animal bar crawl and a mock Tour de France style mountain-top celebration.

I didn’t give CriticallyIn a fair shot at success, mostly because I had doubts about its growth potential.  CriticallyIn would need to compete with both Facebook and Eventbrite in the mindshare of the consumer, and the product isn’t distinguished enough from the other two to become a serious contendor.  That said, I had an awesome time building the product and have no regrets whatsoever.  I pitched a few investors, too, and learned even more about the fundraising process.

Lessons learned from CriticallyIn:

  • Do your homework before you talk to investors: understand who your competitors are and will be, what the market size is, and how you’ll gain market traction
  • Doing a startup by yourself is strictly harder and more lonely than doing a startup with co-founders
  • Try to validate your idea before you build it.  The product only took me three weeks to build.  Some early validation would have saved time
  • Bootstrap is awesome if you’re someone like me with zero front-end skills

4) BreakStreak: Helping You get into a Routine

BreakStreak is an idea I saw a lot of promise in as well, but the product itself was more ambitious than I was willing to take on — it would have required a mobile app, website, and complex logic.  So I built a totally fake product as an experiment.  Some of my friends were upset with me for leading them on, but overall I’m very pleased with the outcome of BreakStreak.  I learned that BreakStreak was a good idea, but my product vision was off by a long shot.  And I only wasted two days figuring this out!

Lessons learned from BreakStream:

  • Customer development is everything — find out what customers want and what they’re willing to pay for.  Figure this out before anything else
  • Figure out the best way to get good customer development — usually surveys aren’t good enough.  Building a fake product was very effective for me
  • Don’t wait for a lot of customer feedback to make a decision.  Chances are good you’ll never have enough customer feedback
  • Start with a minimum viable product, get it out quickly, and continue customer development as you iterate.  A fake product is about as minimum as you can get

5) CharmRoom: Your New Way to Discover Beauty

CharmRoom is a product I built for a friend’s startup as a consultant.  Unfortunately I can’t talk about it because it’s still in a closed beta, but I had a great time building it.  I worked on CharmRoom while I got MemCachier (explained below) off the ground.

Lessons learned from CharmRoom:

  • Consulting is a great way to sustain yourself while you get through the early days of a startup (which in my case is what I was doing with MemCachier)
  • Try to consult for someone who’s better than you at something.  In my case, the CEO of CharmRoom has given me a ton of great advice and perspective on business in general, fundraising and negotiation

6) MemCachier: A Managed Memcache for the Cloud

MemCachier is the sixth product I’ve worked on this year.  I’m pursuing it full time with David and Amit.  We incorporated in April and have been working our asses off ever since.  I’ve been having the time of my life, too.  I’m writing code, creating marketing material, discussing and deciding on company strategy, negotiating with partners, talking to customers and working with an awesome team.  We’re growing fast and trying our best to keep up.  I couldn’t be happier.

This year has been about finding what startup I want to build.  I’ve struggled to figure out what I truly love, and what I’m truly good at.  MemCachier, I’ve learned along the way, is in a space that I both love and am good at.  It’s the perfect blend of opportunity, passion, and expertise, all packaged up in a company that I love building.

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Lessons learned from MemCachier (so far):

  • Raising money takes a long time.  It’s a full time job.  The process will distract you from running your business.  Spend as little time fundraising as possible
  • Investor meetings will beat you up; investors are good at picking holes in your business.  Don’t let them get you down.  But listen to their feedback
  • Raising money is not success.  Plenty of companies get started without investment.  Ask yourself if you really need money.  If you don’t need any, don’t raise any.  Be honest with yourself — you’ll have an easy time convincing yourself that you need money
  • Institutional investors aren’t the only option.  Depending on your capital needs, money can come from banks, the government, friends and family, Kickstarter and probably other places I’ve never heard of
  • Strive to find early adopters that love your product.  Constantly interact with them and learn why they use your service.  Give them small tokens of appreciation for their help (e.g., Amazon gift cards).  MemCachier’s early adopters have been incredibly helpful
  • Being cash-flow positive is a big deal in the investment community (that is, when your costs not including salaries are lower than your revenues)
  • When you find the right business to build, you’ll know.  I’ve had doubts about each product I’ve spoken about in this post, except for MemCachier
  • Again, don’t necessarily incorporate a C corporation.  A LLC or something similar works for many businesses.  Figure out what you need and make a decision.  C corporations are expensive to incorporate.  But you can’t raise money with a LLC


I want to thank a number of people that have helped me along the way.  I couldn’t have had such a great year without your help and support.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.  Your friendship and support is a constant energy in my life that I’m incredibly grateful for.

  • Christophe for your constant advice, friendship, and help
  • Nutron for your movies and UI/UX skillz.  Next time I won’t let you beat me gokarting
  • Jen for your love, support, and cooking :)
  • Eric for your worldly analysis.  Oh and for your friendship, too :p
  • Amit and David for putting up with me
  • Dad, Mom, Carly and Peter for always being there
  • Zoo for your kindness, positive energy, and fun attitude.  And for putting up with me
  • Ashley for Tia’s and the Family Dinner tradition
  • Kimball for your generosity regardless of my lameness
  • Ryan for setting the pace on those dirty uphills
  • All my Mission Cycling buddies for forcing me off my computer a few times a week
  • Hodges for all your marketing insight, even though you’re an asshole
  • Dror for your patience while I pitch 100 ideas to you at once
  • Omer for your frankness.  I owe you a hot chocolate
  • Dust for an excuse to go to Kansas.  Stoked you’re back in CA!
  • Todd for your technical advice and ice skating dates
  • ATM for kanyezone.com — without it I may not have survived
  • Andrew for your athletic inspiration and BBQ ribs.  You’ll kill Ironman Switzerland this weekend!
  • Glenn and Jay for always being huge inspirations and role models.  Jay, I’m still comin’ for ya on Hawk Hill
  • Whit for your patience and endless advice
  • Umed for your energy and negotiation tactical advice
  • Andy for your great soul-searching advice during those times when I didn’t know what to do
  • And everyone else I’m forgetting — friends, family, coworkers, cycling buddies.  THANK YOU

Patience to Find the Way

A young boy traveled to Japan to a school of a famous martial artist.  He wanted to be a student.  This young boy — when he arrived at the dojo — was given an audience by the sensei (teacher).

The teacher said, “What do you wish from me?”

The student responded, “I wish to be your student and become the finest student in the land.  How long must I study?”

The master replied, “How long do you think you should study?”

“I want to study for as long as I need to study.  How long should that be?”

“10 years at least!” the master answered.

“What if I study twice as hard as all your other students?”

“20 years, then.”

“20 years?!  What if I practice day and night with all my effort?”

The master answered, “Then it would be 30 years.”

“How is it that each time I say I will work harder, you tell me it will take longer?”

“The answer is clear,” said the teacher, “when one eye is fixed on your destination, there is only one eye left with which to find the way.”

In other words, a full, complete presence gives us more clarity and a broader view to find the way.

Source: The Power of Patience

San Francisco: Best City for Cyclists in the World?

The map you see below is a heat map of all the rides I’ve done in the last 2-3 years in and around San Francisco.  99% of these rides started at my house on my bike — no driving or car necessary.  This map illustrates how truly amazing San Francisco is for cyclists.  Without driving we have SO much access to amazing rides on the coast, over mountains, around lakes, through cities and by coffee shops and bakeries.  I claim that San Francisco is the best city for cyclists.

Here’s a view of just Marin, the county just north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge (which has a bike path).  In Marin alone you can ride 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 80, 100, 125 miles starting at my front door and ending at my front door, how ever many hours later.

And here’s a view of all the rides you can do quickly in a morning or afternoon, if all you have is an hour of time:

Have I convinced you yet?  San Francisco is the best city for cyclists.  And San Francisco as far as pure city experiences go is pretty amazing, too :).  I love San Francisco!

Some Context

For the last 2-3 years I’ve used Strava and my GPS-enabled bike computer to track my rides.  Strava is great because it lets me compete against my friends and measure progress.  Recently Jonathan O’Keeffe built a tool that uses the Strava API to create a heat map with all of the rides one has done.  The maps you see above were generated from his tool.

10 Startup Facts Panel at the University of Washington

If you’re in Seattle and want to learn more about what it’s like to work at a startup, you should attend a panel I’m in on May 2nd at 3:30 in the UW CSE building.  Glenn Kelman (Redfin CEO), Christophe Bisciglia (WibiData CEO), Oren Etzioni (UW CSE professor and entrepreneur/investor), and Dan Weld (UW CSE professor and entrepreneur/investor) will be on the panel with me.  More details about location/time here.  Below I’ll tell the story about why I’m organizing the panel.

I’ve been writing this blog for almost 5 years now, and BY FAR the most popular post I’ve ever had was 10 Facts About Working at a Startup vs. a Big Company.  About 30k people have read the post, and I’ve received a huge amount of interaction in comments, Twitter, etc.  The whole process has been a wild experience for me.  But most importantly, I’ve learned that there needs to be a lot more education about startups.  People don’t really know how amazing working at a startup can be.

Startup education and evangelism is especially lacking at the University of Washington’s CSE program.  The CS program at UW is world-class.  The quality of graduating students is incredibly high.  Yet the HUGE majority of them take jobs at mega-large companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Amazon.  I get so sad envisioning these awesome engineers working in a cubicle at some gigantic company, where they may make some small impact if they get lucky with a good team.

I originally wrote the “10 facts” blog post to try and show my friends why they should work at a startup, in particular at a startup I’m doing right now :).  My original blog post inspired me to put together the panel I mentioned in the intro to this blog post.  My hope is that Glenn, Christophe, Dan, Oren, and myself can inspire the UW CSE community to consider working at a startup.

I hope to see you on May 2nd!  Bring your friends, invite others that may be interested.  Even if we don’t convince you to work at a startup, at least you’ll understand what they’re all about.  See here for more details about the panel — location, time, etc.

Here We Go Again – Introducing MemCachier

The last nine months have been a practice in self discovery — I’ve been keeping myself busy trying out startup ideas, consulting, and talking to investors and other entrepreneurs.  I’m pleased to say that the search has been postponed for now.  I’m working on MemCachier, a better memcache for Heroku.  And I’m working on it for the long run.  We’re going to turn MemCachier into a thriving business, and I’m stoked for the opportunity!

MemCachier provides a caching service to web developers that gives them an easier, cheaper way to scale their website.  Currently it’s available as an addon in Heroku.  Nerd stuff, I know.  But the reality is that I’m a nerd and I’m good at nerd stuff.  I couldn’t be more excited.  I’m working with Amit and his lab mate, David — the three of us make a great founding team.

Amit started building MemCachier about six months ago.  He launched it in private, then public beta on Heroku.  And earlier this week we launched into general availability.  Times are very exciting, and I’m stoked to have been invited by Amit to work on this with him.  My primary responsibilities will be on the business/company side of things, although I expect I’ll write a little code here and there as well.

MemCachier isn’t an entirely new concept — memcached has been around for a long time for websites who manage their own servers.  But memcached hasn’t yet been offered as an easy, managed solution in the cloud.  Enter MemCachier: the primary goal is to make caching easy for developers.

Anyway, I thought I’d update you guys with what I’ve been working on.  If any of you use a cache in Heroku, EC2, or anywhere, I’d LOVE to get your feedback.

What I Learned from Making a Fake Product

I originally envisioned BreakStreak helping me and my friends be better about getting into a routine such as cooking more, working out, running, etc.  Rather than build a full fledged product, with a mobile app, complex reminders and check ins, and payment processing, I thought it’d be great to run an experiment first.  BreakStreak.com makes its users think they’re using a real product, complete with all sorts of fancy features.  But really they’re using a totally empty, fake product that’s tracking their usages in the background.  Cruel, I know, but this experiment let me disprove my original hypothesis that BreakStreak is a good implementation of my original vision.

The Product

BreakStreak is essentially a wizard that takes the user through a few steps.  The user is asked what routine they want to get into, along with a desired per-week frequency.  Then they’re prompted with a description of the product, and a few mechanisms for tuning their incentives — reminders, donations to charity if they fail, and guilt from friends.  Finally, they’re asked to create an account.  After creating an account, they’re directed to a page that explains this experiment, apologizing that BreakStreak isn’t actually a real service.

The Experiment

I wanted to see how far along in the wizard customers would get.  So I built the wizard such that only the user’s progress was stored, not the actual data associated with their routine.  For every single user I know exactly what part of the wizard they stopped at, what data fields they filled out (but not the values), and when they gave up with the wizard.

The Results

The results were very surprising to me.  Of 271 page visits, only 4 (1.5%) actually created a real routine and a real account (another 8 created test accounts).  Keep in mind, too, that those 271 page visits came from friends who found BreakStreak through my Facebook and Twitter posts — they weren’t a fair representation of the average consumer.

Furthermore, of those 271 page visits, 119 (43%) actually filled out the name of a routine (running, gym, etc.).  And of those 119, many were test routines such as “make sexy time,” “test,” and “masturbate.”  I built a little dashboard that models the funnel and the choice of incentive:

(You’ll notice in the chart that 12, not 4 finished.  8 of those finishes were tests, not real routines.)


My BreakStreak experiment proves two things: people want to be better about getting into a routine, and BreakStreak isn’t the solution.  The 43% conversion rate when prompted for a routine is very high.  However, the 1.5% final conversion rate shows that the product has fallen short of its original vision.

I built the BreakStreak experiment in about two days, whereas the real app would have taken me many weeks.  I was able to save tons of time otherwise spent on development by running an incredibly meaningful survey.  Instead of asking my users if they’d pay for something, I gave them a product experience that was real and let the results dictate their buying patterns.

I’m incredibly happy that I made the decision to run this experiment instead of wasting my time building the whole thing.  I’m stoked about the results, even with with (mostly) negative outcome.  Now I can rethink the original BreakStreak intention and either build a new/improved product or move on to my next idea.  (For now I’m choosing the latter.)

I’ve always been a fan of the Lean Startup movement, and this experiment drives home the importance of experimentation, at least for someone like me who’s relatively inexperienced building consumer apps.  Not to mention my sub-par design skills ;).

Introducing BreakStreak

I’d like to introduce my newest project: BreakStreak.  BreakStreak helps you get into a routine.  It does this in a few key ways:

  1. You sign up to perform a routine, say cooking or working out, along with a specified number per week.  Every time you accomplish your goal, progress gets added to your “streak.”  Eventually your streak will get so long that you won’t ever want to break it and start over.
  2. You can create incentives for keeping your streak — although incentives are optional.  For example, if you break your streak, you can have a SMS and/or email be sent to friends.  You won’t break the streak if you know your friends will find out.  You can also donate $1 to charity for each activity you don’t perform for a given routine.  30% of that $1 is kept by BreakStreak to help operate the website.  Again, these incentives are optional.

I built BreakStreak because there are so many things I wish I spent more time doing, in particular cooking and meditating.  And many of my friends have the same problem, too.  BreakStreak is designed to help us set a goal and stick to it.  My hope is that BreakStreak can be a common and useful tool for helping each of us hack our lives better, with the sole goal of making us happier and more proud of our accomplishments.  A friend of mine, Brian, has helped me with much of the brainstorming and product ideas.

Give it a try at breakstreak.com!  And let me know if you have any thoughts or feedback.

Introducing CriticallyIn

I’ve begun building a bunch of prototypes for ideas I have had over the last few years, each an experiment to see if my ideas have legs.  My goal is to turn one of these ideas into a business as soon as one is validated.  I’d like to tell you about the first of these experiments, CriticallyIn.

CriticallyIn let’s you create an event that requires a minimum RSVP in order for the event to take place.  There is a certain class of event that needs to hit critical mass in order for the experience to be enjoyable (think flash mobs, silent dance parties, protests, etc).  CriticallyIn was built to help plan and organize those such events.

I’m using CriticallyIn to plan my Bay to Breakers MC Hammer theme, along with gauge interest for a faux cycling celebration flash mob idea I have.

I’m not going to promote CriticallyIn that heavily, because at this point I’m solely interested in running an experiment and learning from the early users of the product.  If you plan an event or attend one, please let me know if you have any feedback or thoughts.  And while I’m here, feel free to fill out a survey for me here :).  Enjoy!