Leaving Justin.tv to found a company – Yobongo

“The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.”Walt Disney

Today will be my last day with Justin.tv as I am leaving to found a company called Yobongo with my great friend David Kasper.

Over the past year at Justin.tv we have accomplished a great deal — we re-imagined how web broadcasting should work, resulting in a 700% increase in conversion rate, redesigned our front page to increase the number of broadcasters on the site and more clearly position the site as a place to create and share live video, and most recently we’ve launched the best mobile broadcasting applications on Android and iPhone to millions of downloads. Justin.tv is thriving and has amazing products in the pipeline with uber-talented people tackling immensely challenging technical and user experience problems. The decision to leave was not easy, but we believe Yobongo is something special.

I have started many web projects in my life from Toluu, a simple way to share what you read, to Kallow which makes buying electronics comprehensible for regular people, to KickPost which is the fastest technology news aggregator. All of these have informed how I think about product — the critical importance of simplicity and focus of purpose. However, these ideas are small. They either serve a niche, in the case of Toluu, or are inherently not web scale businesses, in the case of Kallow. Yobongo is different.

It is clear to us that there will emerge new ways to communicate as a result of the proliferation of always connected location aware mobile devices. We have not seen anything truly new created yet, imagined from the ground up, that takes advantage of the unique characteristics of these new mobile devices. We believe Yobongo will be a new way to communicate and share with people nearby from your mobile device.

We are incredibly pumped to be building this product and company. Over the coming months we will be sharing more and more of our vision and shipping product. We are already hard at work.

If you are interested in learning more or want to join us in building Yobongo follow us on Twitter @Yobongo.

Here we go!

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Why do Startups Fear their Idea?

Startups are about potential. The potential to build something great, the potential to make people’s lives better, the potential to change the world. However, I often see this potential get in the way of the present with some of the early stage startups I meet. They let their vision for the future invade their present too soon.

The most obvious symptom is a bloated and unfocused product. I believe founders are afraid that their core idea isn’t smart enough, isn’t big enough, isn’t useful enough — so they add. It is this fear that leads to the rationalization for adding feature after feature in the hope that the sum will be greater than the parts. Founders are very good at convincing themselves that users will need this feature or that feature without actually knowing as such. Expecting to stumble upon a killer feature is a fools errand, that results in a product riddled with half-baked features collecting dust.

A good product is not a bucket of features, a mere bulleted list of things users can do. A good product is an exercise in exclusion. A good product is defined as much by what it doesn’t do as by what it does. This is especially true at the start. At the onset, people don’t care about you, they don’t know what you do, and they certainly won’t put up with a confused product. This apathy must be acknowledged and combated in a product that does one thing extremely well; otherwise it won’t stick.

When the product is merely a half-baked idea the excitement leads to idea after idea, cool feature after cool feature. It is hard evaluating the relative importance of these ideas in the glow of creation. The urge is to do it all, but the critical step is to realize most features are not absolutely necessary in the beginning, and that adding them can be destructive.

At the start, more features means more apathetic users. Every feature a user encounters adds to what is referred to as ‘cognitive load’. This added cognitive load will retard user adoption because there are more actions for users to comprehend and use than their level of engagement will permit. Users are deciding whether to leave your site, not how to take advantage of all your features.

Fear leads these startup founders to add. They add and add. Each additional feature can be rationalized on its own, but what is often left unconsidered is the true impact of these features on the product as a whole. More features require more code. More features require more design. More features lead to more user confusion. More features lead to less focus.

Startups need to be confident in their core idea. The idea should be sharp and pointy, an idea that lodges itself in people’s brains where no other idea has already taken up residence. The more they add, the more they do, the harder it is to own a unique spot in people’s minds. Features upon features is a downward spiral. Features are not the magic bullet, stop treating them that way.

Special thanks to:
Evan Solomon, Corvida Raven, Jordan Fulghum, Alex Hofsteede, Jacob Woodward, Ben Bloch and David Kasper.

Microsoft: Designers, Designers, Designers

The now infamous Steve Ballmer tirade of “Developers, Developers, Developers” has turned into one of the worst tech jokes around, however Microsoft seems to have tweaked it a bit for the launch of Windows Phone 7 Series with the inclusion of a 69 page PDF. They now seem to care immensely about designers.

Windows Mobile Apps have always been ugly and navigational nightmares. Microsoft’s native apps sucked and 3rd party apps sucked even more. With the launch of the Windows Phone 7 Series SDK Microsoft has obviously been studying Apple’s tactics as they just unveiled a 69 page document alongside the SDK launch entitled “UI Design and Interaction Guide” (Download). The document is strikingly similar to Apple’s “Human Interface Guidelines” it publishes for the Mac and iPhone OS designers and developers. These documents outline how to design intuitive apps for the platform. They outline the design goals for the platform and user expectations to be aware of, but they also dive into the nitty gritty details for good UI design like the correct margin and padding around buttons and which font colors are to be used in particular situations.

Why does this matter? Because people want polished thoughtful apps. Aside from one hit wonder apps like iFart, the majority of the longstanding top selling iPhone apps are impeccably designed and executed. They follow Apple’s conventions by default and stray only when it will actually enhance the user’s experience. Microsoft is going for the jugular with Windows Phone, trying to create the first true iPhone competitor.

They are dictating screen resolution, GPS, accelerometer, memory, CPU, even the number of physical buttons that can exist on a device. This level of control allows for manicured apps that will run well on every Windows Phone. This is critical. Android has struggled with this. They have not established a strong design language, which has led to a hodgepodge of app quality and interaction metaphors which makes it difficult to just “know” how a new app works. iPhone users generally know how a new app will work and this is good for users, developers, and Apple.

Microsoft signaling to designers that they care enough to author a document outlining the specifics of the platform at launch is big. It means they are serious about world class apps being developed, not just knock offs and shoddy ports. The question is, will designers and developers deliver?

Is the iPad for Dumb People?

I did not expect to like the iPad. I didn’t even expect Apple would create a tablet. The ergonomics of such a device never made sense to me. I couldn’t get over the lousy text input methods or the inevitable nuisance of holding it at all times. Plus the idea of navigating Mac OSX with your finger just seemed silly. Then the iPad was demoed, and it all made sense.

Apple didn’t set out to create a tablet as other companies had in the past, the same way they didn’t set out to create a phone the same way every other company had in the past. They set out to fundamentally change the way we interact with our computers.

More on the iPad in a bit, but first some background.

I used to build computers from parts when I was 12. I would obsess over the most stable motherboards, geek out on gamingbuff.com, finding the latest nVidia graphics cards, and study CPU benchmarks seeking the best price to performance ratio of AMD and Intel chips. All that was fun, it was a hobby, but it eventually became a chore. Reformatting and dealing with incompatibilities became frustrating once I had real work to get done. Always a PC guy, I thought Macs were for dumb people — people who couldn’t figure out computers. I overcame this prejudice when I was heading off to college and decided to buy a Mac notebook, because I didn’t want to have to deal with reformatting my windows PC every 6 months and I didn’t want to be chained to my desk anymore.

After a short time with my Mac I came to appreciate the affordances Macs makes for everyday tasks, it was as if the designers actually thought about the common things people do with their computers and really polished those flows. It was during this time that I stopped worrying about the details of my computer and worried more about what I could accomplish with it: browsing the web, listening to music, doing email, and writing papers.

Fast forward a few years and I get an iPhone. The iPhone changed the way I interact with my digital stuff. Being able to access email, music, restaurant reviews, the internet, Twitter, and the like anywhere and everywhere was surreal. I take it for granted now, but I never worry about being disconnected anymore, and I certainly don’t think about what processor powers my iPhone or when (if ever) it should be reformatted. It is natural, intuitive, and gets out of the way. I can do what I want without thinking about the “computer” that the tiny device actually is.

The iPad is the next step. It takes the ideals of the Mac to their logical end. We have been stuck with a windowing UI environment for more than 30 years. It is time for change. It is time for computing to leave behind the last remaining vestiges of geekdom. Apple has seen that multi-touch interfaces are more natural and intuitive and that with iTunes and the App Store they can deliver media and apps to people quickly and easily.

I will buy an iPad because I want the most essential way to get things done. I want the most polished and optimized experience for the tasks I want to accomplish. Apple will provide many of these, but 3rd party developers will fill the void with remarkable apps too, I have no doubt of that. I expect that all of the tasks I do at home will work even better on the iPad than on my notebook, and they will be more enjoyable to boot. It may take a few iterations of the device and software before I use an iPad at work, but I expect in time that day will come.

The iPad is where Apple wants computing to go. It is focused, elegant, and simple. It’s philosophy is centered around humans, not technology. It challenges us to rethink our assumptions of what it means to use a computer and what it takes to be productive with them. There will be resistance, of that I am sure, I expect many people will feel the way I did years ago towards Macs thinking the iPad is for “dumb people”, people who can’t handle a real computer. The iPad isn’t for dumb people, it is for people who don’t want to think about their computer anymore. And I can’t wait to join that group.

Who is Android’s Customer?

This is a question that has been swirling around my head for the past few months. Ever since I played with Android a year ago I’ve always been perplexed as to who Google envisions is Android’s customer. The tricky part about this question is Google has many “customers” of Android and that worries me.

Google has been courting device manufacturers for more than 18 months, extolling the virtues of an advanced smartphone OS that is free, open, and is not iPhone. Part of the appeal to many manufacturers is that they can customize it any way they see fit, however the problem with this approach is these manufacturers have already proven they are terrible at software, ala the need for Google to do it for them in the first place! Device manufacturers suck at software. Not only do these guys make strange customizations, their choice of hardware and drivers lead to very buggy devices. Then, because they customized Android and are bad at software, when Google releases a new version of Android they can take months to get their act together and make sure their device will work with the new build. This is the first chink in the Android armor.

Google also must work with carriers. Notorious for draconian control of their networks and the devices they carry, they have been slow to join team Android. They have seen the crippling effect iPhone had on AT&T’s network and they worry about the immense strain these data hungry customers will place on their network, but they have finally acquiesced. They simply could not keep ceding the market to Apple and AT&T. But carriers being carriers, they too want to leave their mark on everything they sell. They load up Android phones with their own media apps, partner’s apps, and other bullshit that is generally poorly designed and useless. These guys also have a say in controlling the speed at which OS updates will be pushed, since all OS updates are OTA (over the air). T-Mobile has been slow to update G-1 owner’s phones to the latest and greatest versions of Android, much to the dismay of T-Mobile customers. Google needs carriers to support Android, and they have been soft with them, allowing them to do things at their own pace. This is bad for consumers. Chink two.

Google must also convince developers to build apps. Apple has a massive head start, that is for sure, and as a developer it is very hard to spend cycles developing for a platform that is still quite buggy, that is fragmented across devices, and has an install base a fraction the size of the iPhone/iPod Touch does. Some developers are excited by the unfettered access they have to the device, however most of these apps are more science experiment than useful consumer app. Comparing some of the most popular apps that are on both iPhone and Android there is little comparison. The iPhone apps are smoother, more polished, and less buggy. This is what consumers care about, not root access. Google needs to work hard to build better tools for developers, document the OS better and provide stronger examples of how to develop world class Android apps. If you were to ask a developer thinking of building a mobile app which platform they are going to support first, my guess is Android will not be their first pick. Chink three.

All of the previous customers pale in comparison to end users. This is where I believe Google is most confused. When the G-1 came out it was positioned as an alternative to iPhone. An alternative. That sucks. It was not leaps and bounds better, just similar in some areas, better in few, and worse in most. Now I say worse in most with the filter of average internet users as the customer. Not tech geeks, valley peeps, or business users, but average internet consumers. People who buy things on Amazon every once in a while, who watch YouTube when they get links from friends and co-workers, people who have most likely owned an iPod, but not a Mac. I think Google wants these people to buy Android phones, but they have made so many design decisions that preference the hardcore geek over the average user that it is scary. Installing apps is a scary process, with alert screens practically suggesting you don’t install the app, menus within menus, notifications overflowing, and an on-boarding process that is laden with text explanation (a sign of un-intuitive design). Android has gotten a bit better since launch, but it still feels like a mini computer, rather than a sleek intuitive device. I have used the HTC Hero, the Droid and the Nexus One, and none of them really make me want to use them more. Chink four.

I realize this all sounds like terrible news for Google and that I am proclaiming the death of Android. That is not my intention. My concern for Android is that it is confused, it has to serve multiple masters and it won’t be able to serve them all while still creating an OS and end user experience people love. I think many Android users are actively choosing to not buy an iPhone. This is not a position of strength, and most consumers are not really looking for multi-tasking, or root access to their device, or the ability to hack their phone. Apple is dominating because they have created an experience with iPhone that people love and seek out. As Apple expands to other carriers in the US it will be even more clear the massively better product they have for consumers. Google really needs to focus on building out the user experience so that average users can pickup the phone and don’t want to put it down. This will require Google being tougher with device manufacturers and carriers, and more investment in the UI of Android to ensure the experience for consumers is great.  I am waiting for that Android. I hope it comes soon.

Are Mobile Payments the Next Big Thing?

Given the option between buying something at a brick and mortar store or online, I choose online 9 times out of 10. Yet, for all the benefits of buying online, there is still one major annoyance…checkout. I hate checkout flows. No matter how much sites work to simplify and streamline the process, the simple fact remains…they suck. There are dozens of fields to meticulously fill out, lest you wish to be slapped in the face with errors or worse, have the transaction be “flagged for review” sentencing it to customer service purgatory.

Now, I would understand if things simply had to be this way, if it were a legal requirement, but it isn’t. Checkout in the real world is dramatically faster and easier. It has advanced to the point of simply sliding your card then walking out the door goodies in tow. You don’t have to manually type your card number, enter a security code, or enter your full address. Why can’t online and offline be the same?

Paying by mobile phone is the closest you can get to just sliding your card. Having paid for a few things on Facebook with my phone, I can tell you the experience was almost magical.

Paying by mobile is easy. You enter your phone number, wait for a text message, then either respond with ‘y’ or enter a special code included in the text (varies by provider). And that’s it. When I pay by credit card I pull out my wallet every time. I simply can’t remember my credit card number, expiration date, and security for all three of my cards. But, I can remember my seven digit phone number. This removes even more friction from the process.

Not only are mobile payments better at the user level, they benefit from a massive natural market. Billions of people have phones with SMS capabilities, dwarfing those with credit cards. This simple fact illustrates the power mobile payments have to expand the market of online commerce. Just as fiat money allowed for more trade to occur after its invention thousands of years ago, mobile payments make it possible for billions more people to participate in online commerce.

There have certainly been attempts to solve this problem in the recent past, however none have addressed the systemic issues that plague the introduction of a new payments method. Alternative payment systems concocted over the years have had the fatal flaw of requiring you to explicitly signup for them and then link to your bank account or existing credit card. These were not actually new payment methods, rather mere wrappers of existing systems. PayPal is the lone survivor of the hundreds of attempts at this flawed model. However, mobile payments are a truly new way to pay. There is no need to signup for a new account or link anything; you already have a relationship with your phone’s carrier.

There are currently 3 major players in the space: ZongBoku and Obopay. Each works with many carriers across the globe, have millions of users, and constantly integrate with more games, stores, and social networks to offer users an alternative to credit cards and PayPal.

Mobile payments obviously have numerous inherent benefits, but they are currently being hobbled. Hobbled by carriers. The fees they charge are exorbitantly high. Carriers see the huge opportunity and they want their cut, a massive one at that. Visa and MasterCard have been able to build multi-billion dollar businesses on 2% fees, yet the carriers are currently commanding fees as high as 50%. This is the limiting factor to mobile payments exploding in popularity. Until the fees come down, mobile payments will be relegated to making it easier to buy virtual goods on Facebook.

I want mobile payments to succeed. The experience is fantastic and finally makes buying things online more efficient, at every step, then in stores. I can only hope the carriers will realize they are stifling growth to their own detriment. We are on the cusp of something big.

Why Facebook Should Acquire Foursquare

If Twitter was hard to explain to regular people Foursquare is a true enigma. While the digerati find it super cool to know the exact location of any friend, at any moment in time, there is a much larger swath of people who find the concept extremely creepy, and claim they wouldn’t be caught dead sharing that kind of “private” information. Even after you can get people over the privacy concerns, their next question is “Why do it at all?”. Foursquare and competitors like Brightkite (more of their own social network) and Gowalla (more game, than pure utility) are currently fighting the eternal social app dilemma; they become valuable only when your friends are also using it. Their isolated value is quite low. Facebook can solve the privacy concerns as well as provide instant availability of your friends, the chicken to Foursquare’s egg.

People trust Facebook and they operate with the view that only their real friends can see their information. Facebook, better than most recent consumer web companies, have assuaged peoples fears of sharing highly personal and private information. Facebook can solve the privacy concerns which otherwise greatly retard mass consumer adoption of a service like Foursquare. Facebook also solves the “friends” problem, they have the best and most up to date picture of people’s friends and their relationships than any web service. This connectedness is essential for Foursquare to provide value to regular users. Foursquare has implemented features such as ‘Mayors’ and ‘Badges’ to boost their “solo” value, but I would not use Foursquare if I were not able to get a core group of my friends to join. Facebook acquiring Foursquare instantly solves this problem. My friends would be there.

Foursquare gets a lot of value from being plugged into Facebook, but what does Facebook get? Simply stated, Facebook wants people to share more of their lives on the web. Facebook started their march towards this goal with basic information such as age, sex, phone number, high school, college, and other personally identifying information. Once users were comfortable with this, they moved on to photos, providing more value then ever before to sharing your photos online… seeing who was actually in the photos. Then came video sharing, and most recently a big push for status’. User’s physical location and they places they frequent would be a logical next step of new information to share. Sharing where I am, seeing where my friends are and have been, and being able to comment on these check-in’s  advances Facebook’s goal of helping people share more.

Facebook also has a fantastically large mobile user base which is growing faster than their web presence. From Facebook’s published stats, “There are more than 65 million active users currently accessing Facebook through their mobile devices.” Foursquare would add immense value to Facebook’s mobile offerings. If users became accustomed to checking-in everywhere they go, this simple activity would lead to more overall usage. After I check-in I might take a look at my Newsfeed and notice a friend uploaded some new photos from their latest night out, all the while I am seeing more highly targeted ads. This may be one of the most compelling reasons for acquiring Foursquare. Giving people more reason to engage is important to Facebook and Foursquare provides a clever Trojan horse for more usage. This stat provides credence to this claim, “People that use Facebook on their mobile devices are almost 50% more active on Facebook than non-mobile users.” In Facebook’s world, more usage leads to more revenue.

Facebook could certainly build this technology and product, so why buy Foursquare? Because it is more cost effective for them to acquire than build at this point. They are on a hiring tear and getting talented and motivated developers through a lightweight acquisition is a swift way to access the best and brightest. The recent acquisition of Friendfeed demonstrates Facebook isn’t afraid of this sort of thing, because the best and brightest are often building their own company or working at a hot new start-up.

Foursquare has recently raised another round of funding and is growing quite rapidly, so they may not be interested, but that doesn’t mean Facebook wouldn’t be a prime suitor. The two companies are well matched; Foursquare has locked onto an interesting social experience around shared place, which would be a logical next extension for Facebook in getting people to share more and be more connected.