Startup Thoughts

Guy Kawasaki has started a Q&A in Forbes on starting a business. An excerpt:

Starting a company is not like finding a new job. With a new job, you want something that is interesting, pays well, enables you to reach your personal goals, etc, etc. It’s a stopping point along a journey.

Starting a company is very different. Your passion for the business should come from your heart. It’s not something that “matches your abilities,” but something that compels you to put everything on the line. So when something moves you to this extent, you’ve found it. You don’t necessarily go looking for it like you would read the “Jobs Wanted” section of the classified ads.

Well said! The desire and passion for an entrepreneur has to come from within. It is this inner determination and belief which will help the entrepreneur face all the challenges that will come – and there will be plenty of them.

Sydney ICT Workshop Presentation

I was recently in Sydney for a presentation (PPT, 80 KB) at an ICT workshop organised by the University of Sydney (Dr Dilip Dutta). Atanu and I jointly presented the paper entitled “Two Mutually Reinforcing Applications of ICT for Socio-economic Development of India”, which is being serialised in 10 parts in my Tech Talk columns.

TECH TALK: Transforming Rural India 2: Introduction

A few months ago, I had written a series on Transforming Rural India. Since then, I have had more opportunity to think on the issues facing rural India and have also interacted with many people. This Tech Talk series is a continuation of the same thread.

This was a paper written with Atanu Dey, Reuben Abraham and Vivek Padmanabhan for an ICT workshop in Sydney held on July 25. The original title of the paper was Two Mutually Reinforcing Applications of ICT for Socio-economic Development of India. Some of the ideas here have been adapted from Atanu Deys paper on RISC and my earlier series.

The gains from any innovation or revolution in technology or process usually have little impact on the poor in any developing country. The benefits usually accrue to the richpeoples as well as nations. The industrial revolution of the past is an example of this, where poorer nations are yet to fully benefit from the industrial revolution. So far, the benefits of globalization appear to have not had an appreciable impact on the poor. This should change and the revolution in information and communications technologies has the potential to help break out of this unfortunate scenario.

Povertyincome poverty as well as non-income povertyis perhaps the most common characteristic that defines the populations living in the developing world today. Non-income poverty in terms of education, health-care, access to markets, etc., directly produce the income poverty that traps the average citizen of developing countries. The question of how to raise huge populations out of this poverty trap is a formidable challenge that governments, multilateral organizations and policy makers face.

Because income poverty is relatively easier to measure compared to non-income poverty, it is more commonly reported and emphasized. (For instance, about half the world’s population, or about 3 billion people, have an average income of less than $2 a day, and of that about 1.3 billion have a daily average income of $1 a day. For India, the figures are even more stark: about 60% of Indians, or 600 million people, live on less than $1 a day.) Income poverty and non-income poverty are closely related, of course. The problem appears almost intractable because the two kinds of poverty are mutually reinforcing. Any solution that does not address both kinds of poverty is unlikely to be successful in poverty alleviation.

In this paper we focus on two uses of information and communications technology (ICT) that hold the promise of immense benefit to the rural poor, specifically in India, and more generally in other parts of the developing world. We focus on the rural population because the incidence of poverty is higher there than in the urban population.

Tomorrow: The Two Applications

Three Weblogs

Chad Dickerson writes about his three weblogs:

My first Weblog is the public one (you can read it at 93). In this space, I use Radio Userland to post my thoughts on a number of issues, knowing that anyone can read what I write and offer comments, either via e-mail or personal Weblogs. Anyone can subscribe to the RSS feed, which means I get useful feedback from people I have never met.

Not everything I deal with on a daily basis can be distributed publicly, but there is still information that needs to be disseminated regularly and made available to a group on an ongoing basis. This leads to my second Weblog, which isn’t actually a Weblog per se — it’s a Groove discussion for members of InfoWorld’s technology department. It functions essentially as a group Weblog (in fact, Tim Knip’s Groove Interop Tool for Radio can make it officially a Weblog).

My third and final Weblog functions more as a private information manager used and read only by me, a series of not-ready-for-prime-time “notes to self” about personal and professional interests. It’s a scratch pad for ideas that I don’t want others to comment on, if only because I don’t want to be constrained by having to write sentences that make sense to the larger world.

He adds: “The flow of RSS content into my newsreader each day has become as important to my personal information flow as e-mail.” I completely echo this.

Mozilla Roadmap

O’Reilly Network writes:

The biggest news in the roadmap update is that intends to stop development of the application suite it currently produces in favor of stand-alone applications. When Netscape created the Mozilla open source community, it released the code for its Communicator browser suite, which included a web browser, a mail and news client, an HTML editor, and an address book. Over the past five years the community has rewritten the code base and has added many new features and other applications to the suite. The community itself has changed over this time and producing a single monolithic set of applications is no longer its main goal.

In place of the browser suite, development will focus on a stand-alone Mozilla Browser (based on the Mozilla Firebird project, formerly called “Project Phoenix”) and a Mozilla Mail application (based on the Thunderbird project, formerly called “Project Minotaur”). Both of these applications represent a second generation of Mozilla application development. For a short period, the first generation application suite will be worked on in parallel with these new applications, but development will switch focus to Mozilla Browser and Mozilla Mail once it has been decided that the transition to the new projects has been completed.

Network Aware Software

Tim O’Reilly Network says: “THE frontier for the desktop, to see itself seamlessly integrated into the online world. And it’s not just web aware but cell-phone aware, p2p aware, and generally network aware.”

It is an important commentary for all software developers to read and imbibe.

Syndicating Topics

Bill Kearney has an interesting idea: “Basically I want to be able to find people and content based on their participation within a given context. That is, I’d like to be able to find out who’s in the known within a given context based on searching across topic spaces.”

New Ideas

ACM Ubiquity has an interview with management consultant Laurence Prusak, author of “What’s the Big Idea”. Some quotes:

One [of the big ideas in the book] the whole notion of “Idea Practitioner.” We wanted to identify a group of people who we felt had never been acknowledged or even written about in past management literature. And these are Idea Practitioners — people who, for whatever reasons, are intrinsically motivated, and who latch on to new ideas and bring them into the organization and fight for them. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose, but they do this over and over.

People like that tend to be disruptive. If I’m the head person of an organization, they’ll come to me and say: “Wait a minute.” Or they’ll come with some new idea that they actually want me to think about! It’s Quality, it’s Knowledge Management, it’s Reengineering, it’s Management By Objectives, it’s whatever. We have a list of several hundred ideas in the back of that book, and even so, there are many more Big Ideas we just didn’t list. Most people in organizations — including the executive — just want to maintain an equilibrium. They’d like to just keep going along doing tomorrow what they did yesterday. But then these Idea Practitioners come in and they disturb the equilibrium. I mean, if someone’s telling you about a new idea you need to listen to, it means what you’re doing could be improved upon or is wrong — and people don’t always like hearing that.

TECH TALK: Reflections on Ideas and Entrepreneurship (Part 5)

Things take time. When we launched Samachar (or now, the Info Aggregator), I used to think why is it that everyone does not start using the service from day one. It seems so obvious that the use can be beneficial to them. But, things take time. There are the early adopters, who are more than willing to try out a new product. There is then a chasm which separates this group from the early majority. A different set of drivers will make this group come on board. Perseverance in ones vision and course correction are needed. If you believe that the underlying thinking is right, you need to stick it out.

Share. I have made the point before, but it is more beneficial to share ones ideas than it is to keep them within. I got in touch with Atanu (in California) through Reuben (in New York) via my weblog. And now, we (along with Vivek in Germany) are brainstorming on how Atanus RISC ideas can be implemented in India to transform the rurals. Sharing means opening oneself up to the unexpected. It is not the most natural thing to do. We all like to be protective of our best ideas. My experience has taught me just the opposite. Even when I was doing IndiaWorld, Id talk about the ideas to many people and do what I call, value-added aggregation. Listen to people, make notes, and see which of their points can take the idea to a different level. After all, it is we who know the endgame.

Experiment. I do a lot of this. We launched BlogStreet a year ago. It did not become very popular outside a small set of people. But it helped immerse us into the world of blogs and RSS. It is also why we launched the Info Aggregator. These are experiments. I dont know where they will lead us. What I do know is they are not the destinations, but stations en route. They help us understand the landscape better, they help us talk to others from a position of knowledge. They get us a seat at the table, or at the very least, an entry into the club. With experiments, it is also important to recognise that they are just that. So, one must not be too sentimental if things dont work out.

Begin. As has been said, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. It is amazing how many ideas never see the light of day. My regret would be not that I tried and failed, but that I did not try. Failure is the worst thing that can happen and it is temporary. But not making the attempt one has to live a life with that thought. If one makes the decision to close one door, God opens others. But it is we humans who have to take the first step. This is in some ways a very difficult thing to do. Status quo is easy. Change and uncertainty is not.

So, this is my framework for thinking. It is not a very scientific one, but one fine-tuned over many failures and a single success. It is easier to write it, than execute on it. (At times, I myself forget to follow this framework!) I hope that these thoughts serve as a good enough checklist to keep in mind. There is no formula for entrepreneurial success. One needs to keep trying, learn from the mistakes made the previous time, and ensure that those mistakes are not repeated. It is the journey which needs to be enjoyed, and not just the anticipation of reaching the destination.

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Better Software

Dan Hon contemplates:

Consider what would happen if we kept a rolling record of everything that had been done with files in a CVS-alike manner: now we can undo past save points.

n one mode of editing our mammoth every-version-ever Letter to Aunt May, there’s a scrolling timeline at the top of the document window. At the extreme right hand side is “now”, and at the extreme left hand side is when your letter was first created. We can scrub through this timeline and watch every single change that was made to the document. We can even scan through its history to find changes that were made at a specific time.

The timeline-scrubbing is but one way we can represent the temporal aspect of a file’s life. What we’ve been concerned with so far has been WYSIWYG with no regard to the actual history behind What You Saw: another way of visualising this mass of historical data is as a tree, with large edits becoming branches that may or may not be merged back with the trunk at a later date. A further way is as a composite: documents constructed from blocks that change over time.

Good point: I lost some stuff I wrote yesterday because I forgot that OpenOffice does not do an auto-save of files not in its native file formats. When these kind of things happen in today’s era where processing power and storage are no constraint, one has to wonder why we haven’t been smarter on the software side.

Email Templates with XML

This is for our software team:

One feature that seems to eventually creep into every web application is the ability to send email. Generally, it’s a very specific kind of email, like a password reminder, welcome message, order confirmation, or receipt. Despite the fact that the content of these emails differs from application to application, the process of sending email rarely changes. You construct a message, give it to the mail server, and it gets delivered.

One alternative approach is to use XML for the email templates, and that’s the approach I’m going to discuss in this article. XML provides great flexibility in how you structure your templates and does not have the same strict formatting rules as property files do, so it’s easier to maintain large strings. The main downside is that XML files can be trickier to deal with than property files. With a property file, it’s easy to load the files and it’s easy to access the properties once they’ve been loaded. On the other hand, it takes more work to load the XML file and process it using one of the many XML processing libraries provided for use with Java.

RSS’ Missing Bits

David Galbraith writes:

On the detailed level: RSS content is so unnormalized as to be almost useless for commercial applications. To build a searchable index of RSS content you need access to the full text of stories – and commercial publications are not going to syndicate the full text of stories – but you don’t need to syndicate the full text of stories to index them. Encouraging the use of tokenized full text (i.e. remove stop words such as and, or, the etc.) allows for machines to index full articles but leaves humans to visit original publishers sites for the full article. This should be the default content of a ‘content’ tag and needs to be built into the default output from weblog publishing tools.

On the medium scale: because of arguments over the RSS core, not enough focus has been made on tools to create modules and allow extensibility. Forms need to be built into applications such as Userland’s, Blogger and Moveable Type’s to allow end user creation of RSS modules within a users namespace and without having to have users have any need to know about the underlying XML. Rapid adoption of modules will take syndicated content beyond the headline/link pair that is the only metadata currently being syndicated in any volume.

On the larger scale: content and the weblog API are two parts of the whole – most important of all perhaps is the ping server and related specs. In order to build personalized aggregators of real-time information, all of a weblog post needs to go to a neutral third party ping server and the ping server needs top have an API that allows clients to be alerted of changes in real time without having to scrape the ping server. Do this and you don’t have 15 minute old Google aggregated news but real time news – the stuff that people like Reuters know the value of.

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IT and Sustainable Workshop

On June 26-27, 2003 a number of experts from many countries and organizations gathered at a workshop at the World Bank in Washington, DC to discuss impact of information and communications technologies on sustainable development. The workshop was organized by Carnegie Mellon University with the support from NSF, World Bank and UN. Presentations from a recently workshop . (via Reuben)

TECH TALK: Reflections on Ideas and Entrepreneurship (Part 4)

Accept failures and move on. We launched Emergic Freedom as a thin client-thick server solution a year ago. If someone had told me then that we will only sell a few in the course of the next year, I would not have believed that person. (Optimism, you see!) But that is the reality today. We have to accept that we have not done well. But it is only from our failures that we learn. We now have a much better understanding of the marketplace and of the needs. For example, we ignored the need for running Windows applications and placed too much of an emphasis on the software value. We were wrong on both counts. SMEs in India not only use pirated Windows and Office software, but they place very little value on the software. So, we have not positioned our solution as one which reduces desktop hardware costs, besides making it a bundle with server hardware and support. We have to accept the reality that the initial approach was a failure. Will it work this time around? Watch this space!

Imagine the worst-case scenario. Too often, we only think of the brighter side of things. Nothing wrong with that. But when trouble comes, we are usually taken by surprise. It helps to think through possible things that can go wrong, and what the worst-case scenarios (broken partnership / friendship, financial losses, loss of time, legal troubles are some examples), and have at least a mental preparedness to face the situation if it so happens. Imagine the worst, work to avoid it and build the best.

Leverage the geography of where one is. For a long time, I would feel that I was at a big disadvantage being in India when all the action was in the US. I kept wishing that I was there. Because I kept wishing for a change of geography, I failed to see the opportunities around. And when I did, I was amazed. India has 3 million SMEs and 600 million people in villages. And guess what I am close to them! Can I use that to my advantage? In fact, over the past year, Indias position as part of the global technology supply chain is becoming all the more entrenched with the outsourcing and the offshoring that is taking place. Suddenly, India is the place to be. Who knows India better than us? And if we can make things work in India, there are markets 4-5 times larger than ours in the other emerging markets of the world.

Every Idea has a time and place. I had thought of the SME Tech Utility more than 2 years ago. But then, I did not know how to build it out. As I thought about creating a low-cost eBusiness software, I realised that in SMEs in countries like India, the hardware to run the software was missing. So, I had to look at creating an affordable computing solution. That started off another chain of ideas. Now, I am back a full circle, with a whole solution to target SMEs hardware, software, training, support, channel and financing. Another example is about RSS. I had thought about it more than a year ago the idea that RSS could be the base for a new publish-subscribe web. Again, then, I did not know how it would get executed. Now, the building blocks are seemingly in place to give it a try. So, ideas dont go away they rest till they are needed.

Tomorrow: Part 5

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Microcontent and Metadata trends

Joi Ito has a very nice summarisation of the emerging world. Key trends:
– Context instead of content
– Networked consumer electronics devices will make PCs less relevant
– New open standards for micro-content and metadata
– Multimedia

His take on the cutting edge: “Audio blogging (Audblog), mobile picture blogging with location information (Tokyo Tidbits), personal information and information about your friends in web pages (FOAF), machine readable copyright notices allowing micro-content aggregation and sharing (Creative Commons), Amazon book information and affiliate information embedded in blogging tools ( TypePad ), convergence of email and micro-content syndication (Newsgator), searching for micro-content based on context (Technorati)”.

It is a good view of the trends that we are seeing around us. There’s plenty of new things happening for us entrepreneurs to be looking at. We have two initiatives in areas mentioned above: Info Aggregator (convergence of email and micro-content syndication) and BlogStreet (blog search and neighbourhood analysis).

Open-Source Development

HBS Working Knowledge has an interview with Siobhn O’Mahony who discusses her research on foundations formed around three projects: Debian, GNOME and Apache. Some excerpts:

The hacker culture prizes autonomy and self-determination. Eric Raymond defines hackers as those who love programming for the sake of doing it, for the sake of obsessively solving a problem. Thus, hackers who contribute to the open source community are often intrinsically motivated.

[The] emphasis on demonstration of capabilities is even more critical in the open source community. One earns the respect of peers by demonstrating skills and making valuable contributions of code to a project.

Associated with these values is an embrace of informality and distaste for “administrivia”for this too can take away from the pure joy of programming.


Steven Johnson points out three:

1. All Shopping, All the Time. If you’re searching for something that can be sold online, Google’s top results skew very heavily toward stores, and away from general information.

2. Skewed Synonyms. Search for “apple” on Google, and you have to troll through a couple pages of results before you get anything not directly related to Apple Computerand it’s a page promoting a public TV show called Newton’s Apple.

3. Book Learning. Google is beginning to have a subtle, but noticeable effect on research. More and more scholarly publications are putting up their issues in PDF format, which Google indexes as though they were traditional Web pages. But almost no one is publishing entire books online in PDF form. So, when you’re doing research online, Google is implicitly pushing you toward information stored in articles and away from information stored in books.

Johnson’s point: “We’re wrong to think of Google as a pure reference source. It’s closer to a collectively authored op-ed pagefilled with bias, polemics, and a skewed sense of proportionthan an encyclopedia.”

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Directory Services in Linux

David HM Spector writes: “With all of the incredible strides that Linux has made from the smallest embedded devices to the some of the largest supercomputers ever made, there is one piece of its complete adoption in the enterprise that’s still missing–a not so little piece still to be done: integration and interoperability with Active Directory (AD).”

There’s also a nice overview of the importance of a directory:

An enterprise directory is a repository of concrete and metadata objects which describe the relationships between all of the objects in a computational ecosystem. Examples of concrete data objects include usernames, passwords, computer names, printer names, IP addresses, home directories, and so on. In general, these are objects you can see, touch, or manipulate directly.

The other set of objects managed by a directory are almost all “metadata”–literally “data about data.” Metadata objects don’t have any meaning unto themselves. Some aggregate concrete objects. Others describe relationships: to a concrete object, to a concrete object’s attributes, or to other metadata objects. Examples of directory metadata objects include groups of users or groups of computers, organizational units such as the marketing department, access control lists, password expiration times, computer configurations, software configurations, application license keys and end-users rights identifiers, print queue descriptions, campus locations, office/cubicle numbers, phone number data, and even relationships between enterprise applications that need to talk to each other.

A fully developed directory service contains enough information to allow an IT staff to manage totally an infrastructure from the infrastructure’s configuration to the day-to-day operational data needed for simple tasks: from allowing users to print to the right printers to complex tasks like holding credentials and data transformation rules used by applications. It must also allow for the delegation of roles and responsibilities so that interns can’t destroy enterprise databases or modify accounts but senior sysadmins aren’t clearing paper jams from print queues either.