Tag Archives: Grandin CoLab

Agora! gora! gora!

I had hoped that posting last week, if only briefly, about my summertime sadness would shock/shame me into getting off my duff and writing again. Can’t say that worked.

But like Gibreel Farishta, I’m trying to heed the call! (Am I using that reference correctly? Probably not. I just read The Satanic Verses, and while not all of the subtext was lost on me – all those issues of faith, family, and identity – it was frankly the overt, on-the-page story that sort of threw me. What do I know about the history of India, or Islamic folklore? Bubkis, that’s what. My man Salman Rushdie could have helped this young brother out with a bit more explanation, but the entire history of a religion would have been a stretch for any novelist to integrate…or it would have been Infinite Jest, which is easily the most brilliant novel ever written that features one hundred pages of footnotes [technically, endnotes. And how fucking annoying was that, having to flip to the back of the book constantly? Seriously, Wallace’s genius is truly undeniable, but if you can’t integrate that shit into the believable world of your novel, isn’t that a fatal flaw? Or was I supposed to skip that shit, DAVE? But then, I’ve always been drawn to the minimalism of Hemingway, or the lean black prose of Cormac McCarthy {who has himself been accused of being overwrought. Why? Because you have to consult a dictionary multiple times during the course of one of his chapters?}]).

Wow, it’s a book report, y’all!

So. Agora. Here’s the deal: I want to help spread the word, but I really haven’t formed an opinion yet. Ya dig? I don’t want to go off half-cocked, but if I don’t, I might never get fully-cocked. Heh.

Lemme just fill you in real quick, and let’s agree to circle back to this topic at some point in the near future.

Agora is a civic-engagement, democracy-hacking startup. They are trying to become THE online townhall. What is an online townhall? I believe the idea is that it will be like a city council meeting that you can attend remotely, from your home, while you are making dinner or sitting on the toilet. Because you need more options for toilet reading material, naturally.

*Stop right there: this is a necessary thing to have — thhe online townhall, that is, not the toilet reading material. But like the fire department, you probably hope you’ll never need to use it. Can you build a business on such an idea?*

If you’ve ever read the comments on a news site, or YouTube, you know people want to connect. Mostly, they seem to want to connect like assholes. There is, in other words, clearly a market for “engagement.” However, I wonder how much of that engagement is driven purely by the opportunity to unleash that inner asshole, which is why I truly question the central organizing principal of Agora: it is NOT, repeat NOT, anonymous. They have designed the site around a 10-point identity verification algorithm.

Totally makes sense, if you think of Agora as an actual, legitimate, useful tool for governing. But if you are trying to get buy-in to grow your user base, I just don’t know that there is enough of a market among the currently marginalized members of our society who would seek to do anything other than call city council members a bunch of twat waffles.

Why am I talking about this? Well, Agora was born out of Harvard’s Innovation Lab, but they are launching in Roanoke. Yeah. Harvard kids are launching their startup here. Far out, right? We can’t convince the Virginia Tech startup crowd to stay here in the Valley, and yet Harvard has targeted us as superterrific and dopetastic. So SUCK IT, you stuck up Blacksburg meanies.

And Agora has apparently put in real time connecting with local government here in order to make this dream a reality, because as much as you need community participation, it would all be for naught if local government didn’t agree to join the conversation.

And…I guess I’m done. That is the basic info. As I said, I don’t know how I feel about all of this yet, other than to say it is awesome to have these peeps trying something new, and trying it here.

Let’s put a pin in it and come back later to discuss.

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Filed under Grandin culture, Roanoke Start-ups

Periscope Isn’t airbnb, Or: Don’t Suck

Can we all agree that Periscope is a sad train wreck? I think we can.**

I was on vacation last week. I checked Twitter on Wednesday, saw that CoLab had tweeted that they were broadcasting XpoWednesday LIVE! on Periscope, and didn’t consider for even one second wasting data clicking the link.

No reflection on CoLab or XpoWednesday…it is just that watching anything on Periscope is boring and painful. Meerkat isn’t any better. The technology promises to put you LIVE! in the experience, but it doesn’t and can’t.

The problem is one of curation. A live feed is inherently boring.

Consider this anecdote about airbnb: when they first launched, they had real trouble attracting users. And what they realized after soliciting feedback is that the site was unappealing because all the posts of available lodgings featured poor quality cell phone photos. So, they took a chance and hired professional photographers to go around and photograph available places. A few multi-billion dollar valuations later, that gamble seems to have paid off.

At the time, though, hiring professional photographers could have appeared like throwing good money after bad. Which is to say, airbnb sucked and pouring more money into that “bad” idea was sort of crazy. Yet, it worked. Not because the concept or technology got better, but because the content did.

The analog to Periscope? Actually, there isn’t one. Sorry, Periscope, your technology isn’t worthwhile. Because what is needed to save Periscope is an editing suite to merge multiple live streams into one coherent whole. We call that “television.” And while live streaming is cheap and boring, live television is compelling but hella expensive, y’all. That expense doesn’t come in to the equation because of the technology, it is because you need talented professionals to do the editing, in real time. Talented professionals are precisely the people cut out of amateur live streaming.

So why this discussion? Because I think it illustrates a really simple, basic (and you would think obvious) truth of the new online economy we find ourselves navigating like Vasco da Gama, with confidence and purpose yet without certainty as to exactly where it is we are going to end up. If you want to make it, your content MUST be either wanted or needed, and it must be good.

It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that Periscope does such a bad job providing a good version of something people want (a live experience) given its association with Twitter, considering Twitter’s bad job of providing a good version of something people need (a real-time news outlet).

“Need” is an elastic term, but think about IMDb. IMDb is the gold standard, a site everyone uses and treats practically like a like a public utility. You’ve got a question about who was in a movie? You go to IMDb. You don’t go anywhere else. Ever. They are accurate and reliable and everyone knows where to go. Easy. They provide exactly the service you need for the specific purpose for which they exist.

Compare that to Periscope. Why would you open Periscope? That is not a rhetorical question. You go to IMDb with a purpose in mind. You go to Facebook with a purpose (baby pictures and vacation pictures, amiright?). You go to Reddit with a purpose (kill time/learn weird shit). And then you visit those 10 different sites you check because they feature your other interests (ESPN for sports, Car and Driver if you are into cars, whatever…you know what your interests are).

Ok, so, why would you use Periscope? The promise is compelling live content — in a nutshell, whatever you click on should be interesting. However, the reality is almost NOTHING on Periscope is interesting, and even those events that could be interesting are poorly shot and have bad sound quality.

Some people might say YouTube started out with bad quality content and turned out pretty okay, and they’d be right, but the technology already existed before the site launched to create good content, e.g. editing software. You can’t make live content “good” in the moment without a trained team of editing professionals. You know, like tv.

A really interesting comparison is to Twitch. Twitch is also a live streaming platform, but with a built-in content advantage: video games. There are millions of gamers around the globe, whereas all the streamers on Periscope who broadcast the contents of their refrigerators (really, that is a thing) have no built in audience at all.

Nobody wants this product.

And that is why I wanted to write about it. Sadly, there are a number of start-ups locally that are facing this problem. There isn’t any need to name names. But there is a need for soul searching. These local guys don’t have API problems or UI problems, they have “why?” problems. “Why would anyone visit your site or use your service?” is a much more clarifying question for a start-up than “Is there an unmet need?” Even if you are correct that there really is a need, that doesn’t mean the product you hope to build is going to properly address it.

Took me almost a thousand words to come around to the point…maybe I’m a bit too polite. I don’t want to just come out and say, “hey bro, everything you’ve been working on is kinda shitty.” So I’ve illustrated the point with a big dumb startup far away from us. The idea that if you build something “cool” people will show up just isn’t true; there are simply too many options out there. Cool is a starting point, not a destination.

**So, in an interesting twist, just an hour after I originally posted this, I got some feedback from a regular reader letting me know that she sometimes enjoys watching the occasional stream on Periscope, specifically from people working in television and radio. Let me therefore slightly revise my thesis: Periscope can be used to some decent effect by media professionals, especially when supplementing their other media efforts, like a radio host broadcasting what is going on live in studio. It can be done. However, that isn’t the norm and is in fact a very small, very specific subset of streams.

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Filed under Blacksburg Start-ups, Pointless musings, Roanoke Start-ups

Meet VOXXEL founder, David Conner

After the Star Tank event a couple of weeks ago at the Grandin CoLab, I tracked down one of the most interesting presenters, a fellow named David Conner, and pestered him for an interview. What made David stand out from the pack of other presenters was that his product, Voxxel, had actually been created, as opposed to most of the other presenters whose ideas existed as yet only in their heads.

Voxxel is sort of a training/coaching application for vocal impersonations. For instance, if you are trying to nail your Christopher Walken impersonation, it matches your voice against a clip of Walken speaking and tells you how close you are. You can demo the product at the site here, but David does ask that you have a bit of patience if you run into any UI issues, as he is continually updating the product and is specifically working on some big items this week.

As for David: he is 29 and a Roanoke native, having graduated from Salem High School in 2004. He did start out at Virginia Tech in the computer science program, but left after a couple of years. He describes himself as a basically self-taught programmer, though he was quick to give credit to all those he has worked with over the years as being very helpful to his development. After a short stint working in Denver, he is back in town and working on Voxxel more or less full time. If you wish to bother him like I did, or just want to learn even more about Voxxel, you can find him on Twitter using the handle  @dcunit3d.

Anyway, I harassed this poor guy into spilling his secrets. I submitted a bunch of questions to him in an email, and several days later, he wrote back with some thoughtful answers:

Are you from Roanoke, and if not, what brought you to town?

I’m a Roanoke native and I’ve lived in the area for most of my life. 

Are you a full-time developer, or is this a “side” gig/hobby?

Right now, I’m technically self-employed, but mostly focused on Voxxel.  I’m pretty picky as to which technologies I work with.  Since I’ve starting making my idea public, I want to continue focusing on it solely for now.  

Is Voxxel your first finished product? If not, what else have you done?

I originally got into Ruby development back in 2007 when I created a song request app for my family’s roller skating rink.  The app was a hit with the kids, but I didn’t know much about deploying apps.  I just put it together because it was fun to work on and I was tired of taking song requests with pen and paper.  
I wanted to launch it as a product marketed towards skating rinks specifically, but I had no idea how to put together a business model and I didn’t know where to turn for advice. I spent a lot of time in the past few years working on a startup for music producers called Oscillate, but I never got it off the ground. I originally had the idea in late 2011 and the product would allow music producers to collaborate on tracks they were making.  It was originally geared to be the Github for music producers, but I pivoted later on to make Oscillate a kind of app store to find new sounds for hardware and software instruments.
The level of commitment for getting a startup off the ground is staggering, especially if you’re working a full-time job and don’t have funding.  In the past, getting a prototype together has been the main impediment to getting funded.  Most important is to have something to show prospective investors that they can use.  If you’re working 40+ hours per week and putting together an app, there’s not much time left for much else.

Do you have a team, or did you create Voxxel on your own?

No, at the moment, I’m the sole founder.  I’m actively searching for a CTO and in particular, cofounders who have experience with IP licensing and rights publishing.  I have lots of technical experience, but I’m looking for a CTO to help offload this, so I can holistically focus on other aspects of the business.  I’m a fairly good programmer, but I’m looking for someone who can rapidly prototype mobile and web interfaces for the Voxxel UI.  

Did you develop Voxxel from scratch? Is it patented? Will you be patenting it?

Yes, but for now our demo is limited to the web, with a mobile friendly layout.  I was planning on using the Ionic framework for the mobile apps, but for technical reasons, I’m going to have to develop native Android and iOS apps.
Some of our voice processing may be patentable, but for now, we haven’t done the research for patenting our IP.  I’ll need to spend some time digging around on the USPTO website to identify what is patentable as well as what IP our software depends on, if any.  Getting patents is a very expensive process and from what I’ve heard can require $2000+ to follow through with and that doesn’t guarantee you’ll get it.  Provisional patents are much more reasonable.  About $200, I think.

Would you say Voxxel is your “life’s work”? By that I mean, do you intend/hope to make a career on this? If not, what are your goals for the product?

Definitely, if I can get the runway I need to launch Voxxel.  I have several goals for the project.  I’m always going for more than two birds with one stone.  If we launch and Voxxel is a hit, that’s great.  If not, I’ve built a fun app that I can use to market my dev skills.  But mainly, I just want an app that helps me improve my impersonations.

How much further development is needed? Is it completed?

There’s a few months of work left before Voxxel can officially launch.  We need to develop native apps for iOS and Android, as well as the API backend.  On top of that, the backend will need a lot of technical work to process the user’s vocal samples, which involves machine learning.  

If Voxxel isn’t your one big idea, have you already moved on to the next one? What is that next move?

I have a ton of startup ideas, but most of them require significant upfront investment and technical skill to move forward.  I’ve got a log of ideas for biotechnology and bioinformatics, but they require a lot of skills I don’t have.
Voxxel is great because it doesn’t require investment to get started!  Those ideas are becoming rarer as more apps get built out.

What is your opinion of the Roanoke “start up scene”? Is there one? Do you have local collaborators/friends who also are building or have built businesses and applications here locally?

I just moved back from Denver, CO about a year ago and I’ve been blown away by all the developments in the Roanoke startup scene.  The CoLab is a great facility that is really building up our community.  The best part about our startup community is that it encourages entrepreneurs and developers to connect and learn.  Everyone exchanges great ideas and grows their network.  The community has something to offer everyone, whether you’ve got a great startup idea or you’re working a more corporate job.  Innovation is everywhere these days.
I’m planning on producing some custom content for Voxxel, so I’m very excited to hear about CoLab Oration Studios!  It’s another great resource for entrepreneurs here.
I miss some of the more niche tech meetups that Denver had to offer, like Cassandra and Neo4J.  Our local .NET meetup group recently presented on Neo4J.  Last year, I started a Ruby meetup and an AngularJS meetup.  I spent a lot of time marketing it and our first few events pulled in quite a few developers, but I got busy with work and we stopped meeting.

I know you pitched at Star Tank…are you actively seeking investors to bring Voxxel out on your own? If you do get funding, would you stay in Roanoke? Have you identified enough local talent in order to build a business here?

I’m not actively seeking investors at the moment.  I want to build up my user base and develop my app further beforehand. 
I’m planning on staying in Roanoke for six months at least, but because of my app’s focus on the entertainment industry, the ideal location would be NYC or LA. 

Totally understand that Voxxel is likely your baby and that takes most of your focus. However, I happen to know of other local people who want to start a tech company but who do not have the technical chops themselves to get it off the ground. Would you be open to joining another start-up?

Voxxel is definitely my baby lol.  I’m just focused on Voxxel for the moment.  But, I’d love to connect with entrepreneurs in the area to exchange advice on technology and business strategy. 

Did you see any of the other presentations at Star Tank? What did you think of them?

I actually had to run to work at the Skate Center as soon as my presentation was over.  I wish I had been able to hear more of the pitches. 

Where did you come up with the idea?

I was watching Parks and Rec on Hulu one night a few months ago, impersonating the characters on screen — but not very well.  I found myself wanting an app to improve accents and impersonations, but I couldn’t find anything like it.  Since we all sound different to others than we do to ourselves, I wanted an app that could provide me with unbiased feedback. 

…and there ends the interview! A first for Grandin Republic, and I’m going to give myself a ton of credit and say I’m pretty much the world’s best email interviewer. Suck it, Anderson Cooper.

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