Back to school

“Back to school, back to school, to prove to dad that I’m not a fool. I’ve got my lunch packed up, my boots tied tight, I hope I don’t get into a fight.

Well … here goes nothing”

After 13 mostly wonderful years “in industry,” I’m hopping in my own Delorean and will be studying amongst the kids like it’s 1999 ,as I try to dust off my math and computer science skills at the University of Alberta in pursuit of my M.Sc in Computer Science.

I believe it was Daniel Pink who first wrote about the motivation trifecta and the keys to motivation being 3 things – Autonomy, Purpose, and Mastery. This has stuck with me since I read it several years ago. It resonates perfectly. Perhaps because of my involvement in entrepreneurship.  I’m not sure there’s another vocation that can match the autonomy and purpose entrepreneurship provides. But even more likely is that it represents so well what entrepreneurship completely lacks. Mastery. Founders in startups by definition wear multiple hats. You write code. You manage. You raise funds. You talk to investors. You do your own finances. You shop for office space. You interview every employee. You write your own marketing material. You run customer support. That’s amazing. And completely rewarding. But the price you pay for this diversity is becoming good at a lot. But amazing at nothing. Furthermore, there’s no room for intellectual curiosity unless it can be justified by a business case. Time at SRI and later Samsung as an entrepreneur in residence left that intellectual itch even stronger.

For anyone fascinated in reinforcement learning (an area of machine learning / artificial intelligence motivated largely by behavioral psychology), there is quite literally no better place in the world to get training than at the University of Alberta. Rich Sutton literally wrote the text book. He’s there. Jonathan Schaeffer solved checkers. He’s there. Deepmind garnered a lot of press for GoAlpha’s victory over the worlds best Go player.  David Silver. Deepmind’s Chief Scientist did his PHD there. Many of the collaborators still reside there. This doesn’t even mention the other professors I’ve heard good things about, but haven’t yet met.

As someone who’s been amazed with Machine learning and AI, but only been able to dabble, the fact all of this, and an opportunity to become “a master”, is in my backyard of Edmonton still amazes me.

I’m sure University won’t be as fun without the Yukaflux parties! … but I’m incredibly excited for a bit of a diversion from a world of board rooms, brogrammers, apps, and financial models.

Moving on from Samsung Accelerator

It was about a year ago that I started working within the Samsung Accelerator in San Francisco. Depending on the day, I’d refer to myself as either an Entrepreneur in Residence, CEO of Distilled Labs, or Director at Samsung Accelerator. These are the games you allow yourself to play when your title is an afterthought. Regardless of title, the goal was – not surprisingly – to build a product that solved a market’s need. We were afforded the autonomy to essentially build the product we believed in, how we wanted to do it, and with whom we wanted to do it with. As a builder/inventor/entrepreneur/<insert your title here> you can’t ask for much better, so I sincerely thank those at Samsung for the chance.

However, after a year, it felt like time to come home. A weekly commute south to San Francisco would likely seem dreamy to many who head north to Fort McMurry … but while in some ways you feel like you have 2 homes, in many more ways you feel like you have none.

This of course doesn’t even mention the biggest motivation.

You can’t put a price on those feels.

Don’t track Mixpanel events for debug ios builds

Developing a new app I didn’t want to pollute my analytics data in mixpanel with development / test data.  So I wanted a clean way to be able to separate the test data with the release data.  “Not” tracking anything when in development mode was an option but I kinda wanted to be testing this as well … making sure I was always tracking the right things.  At the same time, I also wanted to be able to blow away the metrics from development really easily.  You hit Mixpanels 500K free events surprisingly quickly.

So a drop dead simple way to do this was to create two different Mixpanel projects – one for release, and the other for debugging.

Then in your ios AppDelegate.m you can simply use the appropriate key based on what mode you’re in.

#ifdef DEBUG
@implementation AppDelegate

- (BOOL)application:(UIApplication *)application didFinishLaunchingWithOptions:(NSDictionary *)launchOptions
    //Other stuff
    [Mixpanel sharedInstanceWithToken:MIXPANEL_TOKEN];
    return YES;

Now that I’ve done that, my development analytics data is nicely partitioned in one place (so I know things are working), and it’s easy to delete.

Working with SRI International

I can’t tell you how excited I am that tomorrow will be my first day working at SRI International as an Entrepreneur in Residence.  It does mean that Tim and I have stopped working on Zenlike.  That sucks.  We worked long and hard at it.  But working with SRI represents an incredibly unique opportunity to build a *cliche alert* game changing business by partnering with some of the worlds best researchers and technologists.  In particular experts in the field of artificial intelligence – speech recognition, natural language processing and virtual personal assistant technology.

What I’ll be doing as an EIR is 3 sided.

  • I’ll be working with SRI researchers and executives like Norman Winarsky (founder of Apple’s Siri and current VP Ventures at SRI)  to understand the research and assets SRI owns, and lessons they’ve learned about commercialization.
  • I’ll be studying and iterating with the market to identify its needs.
  • And finally I’ll be iterating with investors and other industry thought leaders to help identify patterns and opportunities within the market.

Combined, the goal is to find opportunities to massage SRI technology and research into a company that can build products servicing this market need using SRI technology as a starting point.

SRI is one of, if not THE most successful research and development centers in the world.  Originally “Stanford Research Institute”, they invented, among other things, the MRI, HDTV, Siri, ultrasound imaging,  stealth technology, remote surgery, and much more.  A good list of some of their inventions is here:

They’re amazing at building and researching this technology, but what they often ask for help with, is how to turn these core technologies into extremely profitable ventures.  That’s essentially my job.  A big challenge, but given my passion as a computer scientist for building amazing technology products and my passion understand what the market really want to pay for, is something I’m stoked to do.

From a logistics standpoint, I’ll be splitting my time between Menlo Park in California, and Edmonton Alberta where my family resides.

Paleo Challenge. Part 2

I’ve been silly enough to impose a paleo diet challenge on myself in the past and I’m doing it again.

As I’ve said before, I don’t necessarily believe in any “science” behind the paleo diet, but it’s hard to argue against it being a simple set of rules for clean and healthy meals.  Placebo or not … I’ve felt great when following it in the past.

So as per my last challenge, anyone catching me eating anything non-paleo (except coffee or wine), scores $100 from me.

*until Sept. 1, 2013

Why Startups Should Choose Canada Over Silicon Valley

* This post originally appeared as a guest post on Techvibes.

Recently, there’s been a lot made about the advantages for starting technology companies in Canada, as well as the optimism for the Canadian Startup Visa.

But to me, it’s always felt slightly disingenuine and self-promotional. Canadians trying desperately to convince themselves that they’ve arrived on the tech startup map. In a global market, would anyone with experience, connections, and residence in Silicon Valley, actually choose to start a company in Canada?

Yes. I did.

I’m a Canadian citizen who sold my last startup Attassa in 2010 to Silicon Valley’s Yousendit. I also led mobile Product at Zecter, a Y-Combinator company that was later sold to Motorola/Google.

In the last five years in the Bay area, I’ve built a healthy Rolodex of Silicon valley connections. But in January 2013, I moved back and incorporated my new company in Canada; and not because of SR&ED, not because of IRAP, not because of soaring engineering costs in Silicon Valley, not even because of the US’s luddite immigration policy which makes it difficult for foreigners to start companies in the US.

I did it largely because of the incestuous bubble of false positives that pervades Silicon Valley.

The valley is an amazing place, and in a lot of ways, I’d say there’s no better place to start a company. If it weren’t for the fact that I have a strong network there, allowing me to leverage what the valley is amazing at (capital, marketing, business development), I might not feel as strongly about starting in Canada.

But for all the positives of the Bay Area, there’s one downside that few talk about which can kill startups: false positives. False positives lead to premature scaling. And premature scaling leads to startup’s death.

It’s well known that startups, new products, and taking risks are all deeply ingrained in the Bay Area culture. But what’s not talked about is the downside to this.

Ideas often succeed there—but nowhere else. In the Bay Area, investors, friends, and early adopters are so embracing and supportive of new ideas that startups get funded, apps get downloaded, and ideas get thumbs up, even if they won’t scale.

All too often these startups hit a wall when they try to scale, after having spent way too long on a vision that doesn’t scale. I love Zaarly, believe in the team, and vision, but I can’t help but wonder if they would have changed directions earlier had they been based out of Vancouver or Edmonton, where they could have better validated their business, instead of being based out of San Francisco, and raising money on (literally) day one from Ashton Kutcher.

It’s not all upside for Canadian startups. People are less risk averse so recruiting is hard. But it’s hard anywhere. I’d argue it’s harder in the Bay area, where instead of competing with RBC, Atco, and Telus, you’re competing against Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter.

Fundraising is possibly a bit harder in Canada. But Canadian firms I’ve interacted with—namely iNovia, BDC, Version One, and Real Ventures—are great. Furthermore, a 2010 change in tax laws has essentially removed all the barriers for foreign investment in Canada.

The real challenge, in my opinion, is to constantly be striving for a massive vision in an environment where few peers are doing the same. In the valley, you’re crazy if you’re not shooting for the moon. In Canada, you’re crazy if you are. It’s easy to settle for status quo in Canada.

At the end of the day, my advice to Canadian startups is to stay in Canada, but build connections and spend real time in the valley focusing on business development and marketing. And finally to surround yourself with other local startups shooting for the moon.

Pair programming for anyone wanting to learn how to program an iOS app

In the hours in the day I have to program recently, I’ve been writing Python / Django.  And man do I miss my objective C / iOS.

So I’m gonna run a little experiment starting next wednesday May 15, 2013 by committing Wednesday evenings to hack on an iOS app for Zenlike and invite anyone looking to learn iOS programming to join me for some pair programming.  “Pair programming” … could mostly be me programming and describing what I’m doing.

That time … probably would be better spent hacking on the main service, learning more NLP, blogging, or any of the other “non-programming” tasks that I’m feeling myself increasingly occupied with starting Zenlike.  But I love iOS, want to keep those skills sharp, have a few interesting ideas for Zenlike apps, and want to continue to meet awesome smart people in Edmonton and San Francisco.

So … if you’re from Edmonton or SF and looking to learn a little iOS … ping me on twitter @dquail and we’ll plan to meet up at a coffee shop / Startup Edmonton or other for one of these Wednesday nights.  You don’t need much … but  a bit of programming experience would probably be wise.

* Edit – Lawyers will probably force me to get you to sign some silly doc re: ownership of code to prevent potential weirdness.