I have a kid. He’s pretty much my favorite thing. Snow is on the list of favorite things, as is my wife. Thus, this photo is kind of like the whole list of favorite things.
I’m sure most of you have heard the phrase “eating your own dogfood.” In tech, it often means using the very tools you build. Or adapting the ideology you preach.
Last summer I decided that I wanted to hold a small event here in Portland. To help teach people the principles I’ve learned starting dozens of failed and successful online ventures. None of them were big, most of them were tiny. However, none of them were designed to be big. Some failed before I even told anyone about them, and did okay, and some pay my salary and that of my employees and have for over three years.
Paleo Plan is unquestionably my greatest success to date, and I constantly get asked “How did you start Paleo Plan? What tools do you use? What about Idea X?” And I love answering those, but to be actually helpful to people, it would take far more time and energy than I can give over a 30 minute coffee meeting. So, I thought it would be cool to have an event where I walk people through it. To actually teach them as much as I can in two days, and get force them to actually start building at that same event.
Skip ahead 12 months, and I still haven’t held my event (to my defense, I did triple the revenue of Paleo Plan *and* had a baby boy in those 12 months, so I wasn’t being too idle). But I still couldn’t shake the desire to share what I’d learned. So, I asked Cami Kaos to help me (she’s the Accounts Manager for Paleo Plan, so she already knew how to wrangle me). Two weeks later, we announced the event, and I couldn’t be happier.
Now, back to the dog fooding. One of my biggest encouragements to people is to quit guessing if their idea will work, and find out. Get a landing page up and test the idea either by tweeting it or buying Adwords. If people sign up, if they share it socially, if they contact you for more information, then you may have a hit. If they don’t, either tweak it and try again, or find another idea.
I was struggling to get my website up for Tiny Startup Camp, and Rick Turoczy looked me in the eye and chastised me “Just stick an Unbounce page up and move on.” Which is the type of advice I’ve always given other people.
So, now it’s up. And you can pre-register. This doesn’t mean that I’m waiting to see if I should have the event, but waiting to see demand so I can reach out to possible sponsors, and to determine a venue, and help incentivize different speakers to come. But I couldn’t have done that if I’d waited to get it all sorted out beforehand. And honestly, if all I’d heard was crickets, I’d pulled the idea and told people it was just a hoax. But luckily, that didn’t happen, and response has been awesome.
So, if you want more information on Tiny Startup Camp, then pre-register. We’ll be announcing pricing, location, and speakers very soon. But until then, you’re already helping me answer all my questions, prove my hypothesis, and eat my own dog food. So. Thanks.
A few of you may have read my review of William Hertlings’ Avogadro Corp on Silicon Florist earlier this year, and if so, you’ll know I’m a fan of the book. I’ve also had the opportunity to meet William for coffee several times lately, and thought it would be fun to do a little interview with him, as he has a second book coming out, and you all should know about it too. Everyone, meet William. William, everyone.
Q: You’ve previously told me you were influenced by my talk Build Something, Build Anything. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
A: When I first heard you talk, it really resonated with me. There’s an example that Clay Shirky cites, which I think you mentioned, that at the time, Wikipedia took about 100 million hours of effort to create, which sounds like a lot of volunteer effort. And then he points out that Americans watch 100 million hours of TV commercials each weekend. Not even TV content itself, just the advertisements. We could be doing so much with our lives.
Q: What was the first something you started building?
A: In 2000 I worked on a photo sharing web application. I eventually quit working on the project, but it taught me some valuable lessons about the scope of what I could address by myself and what I needed to get help with.
But it was even more interesting in terms of what it was doing for my career. At the time I was on a team of six engineers at HP developing a J2EE web app. And the whole time, I was working on this project on the side. I’d figure out how to implement user accounts for my photoweb project, and then we’d be implementing user accounts at work. I’d figure out how to do database backed session management on my project, and then we’d be doing it at work. I felt like a rock star.
Building something doesn’t mean that everything you build will be successful by itself, but it teaches you skills you can use elsewhere.
Q: You had a similar experience with the Netflix Prize. Can you talk about that?
A: Gene Kim and I have been buddies since grad school, and we worked together at Tripwire back in 1997. I think it was in 2007 or so, he asked me if I would enter the Netflix Prize with him. That was the contest Netflix created in which they offered a one million dollar prize for anyone who could beat their recommendation algorithm by 10%.
For about six weeks I totally immersed myself in the Netflix Prize and learned a ton about recommendation engines and big data sets. After that we knew we weren’t quite good enough to win the competition.
But even though we didn’t think we could win the prize, we had learned enough to be able to do something useful with recommendation engines. So I just kept asking myself what would be the best project.
At HP, I’d been working on improving the customer support experience. One problem we had at the time was the difficulty for customers to find the right support document for technical issues. We knew that if we could do a better job of matching up customers to the documents they needed, more people would be able to solve their problems on their own, and be that much more satisfied.
So inspired by my work on the Netflix Prize, we built a recommendation engine around support content. We looked at the clickstreams of previous visitors, and determined what pages they viewed and what pages they were ultimately helped by. With this data, we could recommend, given a particular customer on a particular web page, the web page they were most likely to be helped by. These recommendations made customers 25% more likely to be able to get the help they needed on their own. It helped HP avoid expensive customer support calls, and helped the customer get their problem solved faster. Win for them, and win for HP.
Q: So that’s another case of a personal project inspiring something at work. But given that your first book, Avogadro Corp is all about recommendation engines, I’m guessing it was also inspired by the Netflix Prize work.
Yes, but like all of these things, indirectly.
After the Netflix Prize, I had an idea for another personal project: a wishlist integrated with Facebook. My idea was that you could combine people’s wishlists and profile data and the power of a recommendation engine to be able to make gift recommendations for someone who didn’t have a wishlist.
One lesson I had learned from my first solo web project was when to look for help. In this case, I asked my friend Nathan Rutman to work on it with me. We taught ourselves Ruby on Rails, and got coding. I want to give a shout out to the PDX Ruby Brigade, because they are always so welcoming and helpful to newbie Rails programmers.
But getting back to the book: Around this same time, I had read and was really inspired by Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near. I drank the Kurzweil Kool-Aid and became a believer in Kurzweil’s predictions that strong AI was an inevitable outcome of exponential growth in computing power.
Then one day, sometime in the spring of 2009, Nathan and I were having a lunch meeting to discuss our wishlist project, and I was spouting off more Kurzweil Kool-aid. Nathan challenged me to come up with a logical, grounded explanation of how strong AI could come to be.
Based on our experience with recommendation algorithms, I came up with an idea on the spot. My example was around a bunch of Google engineers who decide to write a language optimization engine for Gmail that optimize the particular words chosen based on the intended recipient.
By the end of lunch I had filled a few napkins with notes and diagrams, convinced Nathan that strong AI was plausible, and convinced myself that the idea would make a great book.
Of course, Nathan and I had just embarked on this wishlist app, so I didn’t have a chance to write the book. But I’d think about it literally every single night while falling asleep. By the time we were done with the wishlist app in November, I’d spent most of a year thinking about the book, but written exactly zero words.
Then in December 2009, I took four weeks vacation from HP and wrote the entire first draft. On New Year’s Eve, my wife kept calling me: “Are you coming up? It’s almost midnight.” And I finished the manuscript a few minutes before midnight.
The wishlist app never really amounted to anything, but it provided the inspiration for what’s become a three book series and also led to my current job inside HP where I’m doing Rails development.
Q: You’ve told me that writing the books then inspired other business ideas. Can you tell us about that?
After ten months of trying to find a publisher for my first book, I decided to self-publish.
It was easy enough to create the e-book version – it was a few hours work to get a Word document uploaded to Kindle Direct Publishing on Amazon and formatted correctly.
But it took weeks of research and work on my part to design the interior layout of the print version. Everything from font family, font size, leading, margins and more are based on expert knowledge and are different for every book form factor. And it’s sad to say, but styles still don’t work correctly in word processors.
After about forty hours of work trying to format it myself, I eventually turned it over to a professional, Maureen Gately.
Based on the publicly available data I could find, about 750,000 books are self-published each year, but only 50,000 or so are made available in print editions. My guess is that the largest reason for that is because of the manual design work involved in creating those print editions. I think the right technology could eliminate all the pain of doing interior book design.
HP is expert in making stuff look good on the printed page, and we have a ton of technology to accomplish that. So this is a perfect opportunity for HP.
Q: I loved how Avogadro Corp is set in Portland, the image of a mammoth 10,000 employee tech company located in downtown, and the maps you shared showing Avogadro superimposed over what is now a trucking company. Why did you set it in Portland?
A: It started out set in Silicon Valley. But I didn’t know Silicon Valley well enough to write at the level of detail I wanted to write.
I know Portland. I’ve lived here since ‘95. Although I work from home often and from HP’s campus in Vancouver, my time working downtown at Tripwire in the nineties was very vivid. So I knew that Avogadro was going to have to fit somewhere in the heart of downtown. Then I started doing employee space calculations and realized I needed to find a pretty large spot. I fired up Google Maps and the obvious spot was the Conway Trucking site, which is about six blocks in Northwest.
For my second book, A.I. Apocalypse, I set parts of it in Portland, but I heavily used scenes from Brooklyn, where I grew up, and South Shore High School, where I went to school. There’s a few bits in Milford, Pennsylvania, where my dad and I built a house in the 1980s.
My third book is largely set in Tucson, where I went to grad school for three years.
Q: What can you tell us about the third book?
It’s called The Last Firewall, and it’s about a nineteen year old girl who is all that stands between an unstable AI and its quest for world domination. It’s kind of a cross between Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Matrix.
It’s part of the same universe as the first two books, but it’s set another ten years out in the future. I try very hard to extrapolate out technology trends and try to make it as realistic as possible. So building on the first two books, there are intelligent artificial intelligences and robots, and they’re pretty commonplace. But what’s different is that by 2035, when the third book is set, computing technology has shrunk to the point where pretty much all people have neural implants so that they can be connected to the Internet 24/7.
Q: Any last words of advice for people who are setting out to build something?
A: It’s a given that you have to pick something you are passionate about. It’s tough to come home from a day job, and maybe also then take care of family and kids, and then still come up with the energy to do something else. So first and foremost, follow what you’re passionate about.
And then don’t worry about making money with your projects. I mean, money is always nice. But nine times out of ten, these things don’t turn out to make money. But they can lead to your next job, or the next project, or an entirely different field.
My day job is at HP, which is a big company and it’s almost the opposite of a startup environment. But in the last ten years, all of which was spent at HP, some of what I’ve done has been: web programming, customer support, project management, web based support systems, user experience design, data analysis, recommendation engines, social media strategy, social apps, more web programming, blogging, and writing three books. Luke Kanies, the CEO of Puppet Labs, jokes that every time we see each other I’m doing something totally different.
All of that has been really fun, a little bit profitable, and it’s given me tremendous flexibility when it comes to looking for jobs. None of that would be possible if I didn’t have a build something, build anything mentality.
Q: So, you mention that you’ve been doing side projects for around 10 years, and now you’ve really come to see how they can contribute to your full-time job, and other side projects. What was your ambition for your first side project when you started it, and how has that ambition changed? Was there a moment when it had the most dramatic shift?
A: With the Photoweb project, I had two main ambitions. One was to be able to earn enough to be able to work for myself, as opposed to a full-time job working for someone else. The second ambition was to influence the world in some beneficial way that was bigger than just myself.
Twelve years later, I think these are still my two main ambitions, but the change is that I’m tackling the money piece in a different way. Instead of looking for all or nothing projects that would have a big win (or none at all), I’m looking at projects that are going to generate some trickle of income. Hopefully it’s sizeable, but if not, that’s OK too. I think that shift in thinking was inspired largely by Tim Ferriss’s book The 4-Hour Workweek.
I’ve been blogging since 2002, and starting last year, I finally saw a steady income stream from my blog. Then as I’ve published my books, they’ve created another income stream, and that is increasing month by month.
I’m not going to be quitting my job yet, but I could envision a point in two or three years where it might be possible.
Q: You’ve mentioned that in many of your more recent projects, you’ve collaborated with other people more (especially the non-book projects). Have those people found the same value in side projects that you have? Meaning, do they share your same enthusiasm for them, even if they don’t turn out to be monetarily beneficial?
A: When I worked with Gene Kim on the Netflix Prize, I think the enjoyment and benefit was largely that we were working together. We could have been out at a bar drinking, and had a great time, but we could also code side-by-side, and have a great time. Creation is rewarding in and of itself, and working with a friend is rewarding in and of itself. I found the same thing working with my friend Nathan Rutman on the wishlist project. In that respect, I do think they shared the same enthusiasm.
That being said, I think you need to have a large number of projects going before you start to get synergistic effects where one project ties into another project. If you’re narrowly locked into a day job and you’ve allowed the scope of that job to be defined by someone else, then you might not be able to use what you’ve learned elsewhere. I think having a positive feedback effect, where one project helps another project, which begets yet another projects — I think that is what sustains enthusiasm and momentum over the long run.
Q: Of all the things you’ve worked on, what do you consider to be the most successful? And can you qualify what you mean by success in this case?
A: Definitely my book, Avogadro Corp. I mentioned that one of my two main ambitions was influencing the world in some way. I’m fundamentally an idea guy, so for me this means getting my ideas exposure, whether that’s implementing them in code or writing about them in fiction.
Since publishing Avogadro, I’ve been blown away by the feedback I’ve gotten.
Brad Feld, cofounder of TechStars, highly praised Avogadro Corp, calling it a “tremendous book”, and recommended it not just in social media, but also in a talk he gave. Amber Case, Portland’s own cyborg anthropologist and cofounder of geoloqi, said a bunch of really nice things about it and the sequel, calling it a “nerd’s dream”. I received an email from a mom one day whose thirteen-year-old son said I was his new favorite author. A colleague read it, and said she had nightmares afterwards. (It’s a technothriller about AI run amok, so this is good.) Ben Huh, CEO of I Can Haz Cheezburger?, endorsed it.
I feel like my ideas have finally reached an audience, and they like them and find them thought-provoking. That’s very, very rewarding.
About William Hertling
William Hertling is the author of Avogadro Corp: The Singularity Is Closer Than It Appears, A.I. Apocalypse, and the forthcoming The Last Firewall.
A fifteen year veteran of the technology industry, he holds ten patents on software and internet technology, developed web and social media strategy at Hewlett-Packard, coached senior executives on social media, and has spoken three times at SXSW Interactive.
An active blogger since 2002, his website, williamhertling.com, receives more than 50,000 visitors a year. He’s been building online communities since 1986 when he ran seven phones lines into the back of his Apple //e to create an online chat system.
For the past 7 years, my wife and I have been taking photos and trying to figure out how to both share those between us. Sometimes, I have the camera, and take great shots, then transfer them to my computer. Other times, same story, but Holly is in charge and it’s her computer the photos end up on.
I’ve wished iPhoto allowed us to share a single library, but I can’t even get my entire library properly shared between my two iMacs, the MacBook Air, my iPad and iPhone. I have a lot of machines, and my pictures are always on the wrong one.
Not any more.
This week, we bought an Eye-Fi card for our Nikon D90. It allows us to take photos, and seamlessly transfers them over wi-fi to a computer on our network. It’s like beautiful magic. I love how it works, and it’s perfect.
But that isn’t enough. Which computer to shove the photos onto? How do we get beyond the same problem of multiple machines with different libraries?
Enter Dropbox, shared folders, and my Mac Mini (our always-on media center machine). Now, when we take a photo, it’s transferred to our Mac Mini, which accepts the photos and puts them in a Dropbox folder that I’ve shared with my wife. Then, either of us can sort through the photos and delete the crappy/fuzzy/poorly lit ones. The ones we want to keep, we can crop, edit, Instagram-ify, and save in a separate Dropbox folder (again shared) that we then organize all fancy like (by date and/or event). And with Dropbox‘s amazing web browser, it’s super easy to take a bunch of photos, move to any of our computers, grab the ones we want, throw them into a unique folder, and send a link to our family to share within seconds, and the best part is they can simply view them, or download them if they like.
It is the perfect solution, and one I’ve been waiting for for a long time.
Ok, so I’m a bit biased. But, I’m pretty proud of my old man, and he’s one of two mechanics at a really great auto repair shop in Eugene. They didn’t really have much of a website, so I put one together for them over the weekend. It’s small, but it does the job. Their shop is called Wagon Works.
However, I do have to say, if you’re in the market for a mechanic in Eugene, you’d have a hard time beating Wagon Works. He’s been working on my cars for as long as I’ve been driving, and has kept them running smooth and happily despite some of my best efforts. Once, “fixing” even meant going to work with a crowbar and a sledgehammer. But that’s another story.
They’re also the kind of shop I can easily promote, as he treats all his customers the same way he treats me. First, let’s make sure that car is safe to drive. Then, let’s talk about what it needs and what it doesn’t. If you can handle a few inconveniences, he’ll tell you which upgrades and fixes are worth doing now, and what you can put off until later (or never). It depends on what you want and can afford. But he’ll give you real options. He’s also the kind of guy who won’t charge you for shit you don’t need, and he won’t tell you to fix something just because they need to make a sale. They’re also about $25/hour lower than a lot of their competitors, because they have almost no overhead. Just two mechanics, working on cars. Saves them money, saves you money.
OK, as I said. I’m really proud of my dad, and I wanted to give him a little shout out. Now, go get your car fixed. Ask for Ron, and tell him his son loves him.
So, if you know me much, you know I fancy myself decent at parallel parking. Today, I feel I accomplished some of my best work to date. If you don’t like bragging, turn away now. ;)
I got this with only the slightest of bumping. Honest. The other cars didn’t even shimmy. And at most 4 “Austin Powers Turns” to get in.
That’s about 1 inch in the back.
And maybe 4-5 inches in the front.
And a nice total overall shot:
But this shows it the best.
So, I for the past few years, I’ve been giving more and more of my digital life over to Dropbox, and it’s changed the way I use computers, and how I think about information, and share content with my wife.
Someone asked me recently how I use it, so I thought I’d write up a short explanation.
First, I upgraded to the 50gb a year plan. This costs $99/year and is worth every penny. I know plenty of people who bought larger hard drives for their computers, iPhones, or iPads, or whatever, and paid much more than $99 for that extra room. But for me, I worry more about how much I can store in my Dropbox than anything else.
I should also state that I am a tech geek retard. I have an iMac at home, one at work, I carry a laptop, have an iPhone and iPad, and my TV is connected to a Mac Mini. However, every file I need is synced to all of these immediately and globally, with version backups available as well. This is the miracle of Dropbox.
Every digital artifact that I’m working on at any given time lives in Dropbox. Because I don’t try and sync all of my photo libraries, or all of my music, this is fine. I’m also not a designer with 1GB files, so I have no problems. However, this alone has made my life infinitely easier.
I no longer worry about backing up to an external hard drive, as all of my computers are synced and have all of my content. I no longer worry about carrying a thumb drive or a small USB drive because just saving a file to my hard drive within Dropbox automatically makes it available on my phone or any computer or even on the web when I’m at my parents and using their computer. I’m completely freed to just “own” data and not worry about managing it.
I also have hired a few students who help me with my Paleo Plan website. I use Dropbox’s folder sharing feature to share that folder with them, and they immediately have access to all the files for that project. When one is done working on a file, he just saves it, and the other can open it. There is no emailing files back and forth, just saving them to the hard drive of whatever computer they’re working on. It’s miracles.
My wife and I share a folder in Dropbox called Glaspey Sync. This allows us to transfer important files to each other by just saving them to our computers (in that folder). We also have copies of our driver’s licenses and passports in there, so no matter where we are in the world, or what machine we have with us, we have our critical documents.
I recently read this article on syncing your iTunes libraries with Dropbox. I haven’t had a chance to do this yet, but I can’t wait. One of the pitfalls of having so many computers is that I can only sync my phone to one of them. With this hack, no longer.
I use the wonderful 1Password application to store and manage my passwords and credit card info. This is also synced with Dropbox, which means all of my passwords are available on any computer, iOS device, and from the web. They do an amazing job discovering Dropbox and making the database sync process easy and simple.
Just today I needed to share a large 200mb file with a friend. Rather than FTP it, or use YouSendIt or some other service, I just put it in my Public folder in Dropbox, which gave me a sharable URL that I sent to my buddy. All I had to do was copy the file to that folder and he could download it immediately.
I really can’t say enough, the only other tool that has impacted my digital life this much is my smartphone. And this is close behind. Thank you Dropbox.
If you want to get in on the action, sign up for free here.
So, I’ve been watching this for several days now. Maybe over 200 times total. I just start it, let it play in the background, and then go and start it again. I just love this song. You should too.
“Hi, It’s Vince from Slap Chop. You’re going to be in a great mood all day.”
“Watch this, you’re gonna love my nuts.”
Damn this is good stuff.
When I first stumbled into the Drunken History series, I immediately knew I had found something special and beautiful. Take a bunch of very smart, yet youngish folk, and have them recount specific tales of yore, while under the influence. It’s brilliant.
And I also immediately thought of trying to get my good friend, we’ll call him ‘standes,’ to do this, as he’s also the smartest guy I know, and a “I’m getting my PhD in history” kind of guy.
Alas, that hasn’t happened yet, but I just love the hiccups in this so much I had to post it for you all.
Speaking of side projects, I’ve always loved movies, and can’t imagine how hard it would be to make one. However, some extended family members are trying to get funding for a new feature-length movie, Crowbar. It actually looks like a pretty decent horror/thriller. And I have to say, my sister’s father-in-law plays a pretty sinister looking character. Check out the trailer and pass it along.
Check out their trailer and other info about them at their YouTube page.