Atlanta, Java, Technology

The Next Episode

Back in March, I reached a decision to leave WeTheCitizens and spend some time in a contract role with Premiere. At the time, I expected that a contract gig would let me spend less after-hours time thinking about the day job, and more time on side projects and other interests. It turns out that even as a contractor, I cared about what I was working on. I consider that a good thing, we built up a good team, cranked out some pretty cool software, met some awesome people – I truly enjoyed my time at Premiere. The challenge for me on contract, was balancing life with billing more hours. In some ways, having a dollar amount directly attached to each hour of your time helps you better value your time. In other ways, it’s easy to imagine how working just a few more hours that week can earn you a shiny new gadget.

In spite of that, I was able to hatch FeatureFrame during my off-hours. It did occupy much of my creativity, and the process of building a product prototype, a pitch for Startup Riot, filing a provisional patent, designing a logo and business cards, and creating an actual business entity has been exciting, challenging, and in a twisted sense, fun. Many thanks to my Twitter posse, who often functioned as my co-founder, providing feedback and helping with decisions where I needed more than just my opinion. No I do not have stock options for any of you. Some interesting FeatureFrame news may yet be around the corner. It is still an interest and a passion of mine, and it will live on, but it’s not quite ready to be my main job.

The other thing I suspected when I left WeTheCitizens was that there were some interesting opportunities out there that weren’t crossing my inbox either because they were being filled by recruiters we’d used at WeTheCitizens, or because people generally seem to have the (often correct) impression that an executive in a startup isn’t really looking for another opportunity, at least until the startup’s been bought/folded and the earn-out is done. Being on contract actually did seem to send a clear signal, “Hey, I won’t be doing this new gig for too long, and I’ll need something interesting to do after that.”

A few moderately interesting things came and went, but one opportunity stood out, and I’m now a few weeks into my new role with Good Egg Studios. For all the times we jabbed at one of my Premiere colleagues for his work on Barbie.com, I never thought I would be working to build a virtual world for kids.  But here I am working on Elf Island.  A glance at the site and the blog should begin to make it obvious why.  This is an amazingly talented team, with the right marketing, the right funding, and the right product at the right time. The creativity and talent of the creative team is off the charts, and has combined with some talented technical resources to build a virtual world that a generation ahead of what kids are currently using.  The $2 billion valuation of Webkinz and Disney’s $700 million acquisition of Club Penguin are both examples of companies who have made this space extremely profitable.  The “secret” of Elf Island and our “play games, do good” mantra (which allows users to directly help non-profit causes) are going to be very sticky features that I think kids and adults will enjoy (even before launch, we’ve already had eager & hopeful users build us a fan site).  Our office space in west Atlanta is a win both for commute and for awesomeness – I need to take some photos, or come by and visit some time.

So that’s the news.  We are hiring a Java developer, a Flex developer, and a technical project manager (dev mgr?), so if you are somebody or know somebody who would enjoy such a role, do let me know.

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Atlanta, FeatureFrame, Technology, WeTheCitizens

Startup Riot is HUGE for Atlanta

Startup Riot will rock Atlanta on May 19th, 2008.  ~70 startups will have 3 minutes each to pitch themselves before an audience of other startups and prospective investors, employees and customers.  Bilgistic creator Sanjay Parekh has been a force in organizing this event, recruiting his high-school colleague Drew Curtis of Fark.com as the keynote speaker, and getting more than 70 regional startups signed up to pitch.

Atlanta has had several cool startup community events.  TAG‘s annual business launch competition is underway again, Atlanta Startup Weekend launched Skribit, and we have had awesome unconferences such as 2 years of SoCon and last year’s BarCamp Atlanta.

What sets Startup Riot apart is that it is ORIGINAL and UNIQUE.  I haven’t heard of ANY other cities hosting events where an early stage company can pitch their company to investors and customers for FREE.  Sanjay has certainly been working hard to make the event happen, and the costs seem to already be covered by sponsors.  It is an event I can see other cities copying, and it’s starting here in Atlanta.

Of course I have a vested interest in Startup Riot.  My previous startup, WeTheCitizens. will be pitching.  I’ll be pitching (for a whopping 3 minutes)  FeatureFrame, a video platform for independent film-makers and commercial content-producers, but I’m also interested in the community aspects.  Many, many startups that I know of will be using this event as a major catalyst for them to build their pitch and move their business forward.  I can’t wait to hear about what dozens of other Atlanta startups are working on, and for Atlanta to pioneer an event that other cities will undoubtedly look to reproduce.

Atlanta, Premiere, Technology, WeTheCitizens

The Seas of Job Change – Wrapping up at WeTheCitizens

18 Months ago, I left a transitional role with Proficient/LivePerson to head up the development team at WeTheCitizens. In that time, we scaled the Wildfire platform from running a single gubernatorial campaign to a true SaaS platform that successfully ran for Rudy Giuliani and scales well to holding many national customers concurrently. It’s been quite a ride, filled with all of the highs and lows you could imagine. One of my fondest yet most stressful memories is working until 2 AM on a customer launch, waking up at 5 AM to catch a plane, and spending the morning calling back and forth to Atlanta as our production servers bounced up and down as the team in Atlanta discovered critical issues and bounced the server to apply fixes. Probably 5 minutes before we started training individual users, the system was stable enough to stay up, and the training and launch went great, thanks to an awesome technical team. I’ve worked with some of the best folks a startup could ask for, and I think we’ve accomplished a lot to be proud of. I’ve had great opportunities to expand my involvement in the Atlanta startup community, and met many more incredible people.

With these expanding horizons, came a conflict. There are a number of things I’d like to pursue, but trying to do to much “on the side” while serving in a startup VP role AND pursuing an MBA only comes at the expense of the MBA or the startup.  Testing the waters of any new venture while already in such a role is difficult at best. It’s been a great chapter at WeTheCitizens, and I it’s an opportune time to move on to new things – the team there is poised to thrive without even missing a beat. I’d like to explore some opportunities to co-found a new company.  I have a few ideas of my own I’d like to explore, build, and see if they get traction.  I’d love to take more of the load of Skribit development of of Calvin.  I’d love to explore leadership roles in some other local, fast-growing, young companies.  In leaving WeTheCitizens, I was trying to walk a fine line of finding a role that provided interesting work and long-term potential without conflicting with these other interests.

I found all of that and more in a contract position with Premiere Global (fondly locally known as Ptek), where I’ll be starting on Monday.  The project is important and interesting (I’ll share as much as I can, when I can – strategic projects at public companies can be a bit more sensitive than startup progress), we’ll be building a high-quality development team (solid Java resumes/referrals welcome), and we’ll be building a massively scalable system.  There’s potential for a longer-term position, but the contract nature of the position also affords a more natural boundary between day-job and other interests.  I’ve decided not to take any MBA classes this summer, freeing up some more time.  I’ll have time to pursue a number of different projects that have eluded me recently.  Six months from now, I’ll be in a far better position to decide what my next big step is.  Expect this blog to get a bit schizophrenic.  The role with Premiere is a good bit of hands-on development, so I’ll be sharing some nuggets that will help Java people.  I’ll be a bit more public and promotional with some of my other projects, which will be fun.  I think I’ll be just as busy, but with a much more diverse array of tasks on my plate.

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Now playing: The Doors – The End
via FoxyTunes

Atlanta, Sports

Tornado Night at the Georgia Dome

I went to the Georgia Dome tonight for the SEC basketball tournament.  I caught up with a good friend who’s on UK’s faculty to watch both games, but the weather had different plans.

The Mississippi State vs. Alabama game went to overtime.  The Kentucky fans (a majority of the attendees) seemed quite excited for overtime even though they weren’t even playing, so I thought little of it when I heard what I thought was the UK fans loudly stomping their feet.  Until it became evident that it wasn’t them… it was too loud.

Looking beyond the UK fans, I could actually see the fabric of the roof of the Dome shaking in the wind.  I’ve been in the dome before for storms, and the fabric has never moved.  One of the advertising banners near the roof tore, pieces insulation started visibly blowing through the air of the dome, the scoreboard and partitions hanging from the ceiling were swaying widely, and the stomping noise got louder.  At this point, we decided that being underneath the steel and fabric roof was a bad idea, and were among the first wave of people to head for the concourse.

This was the edgiest part of the evening.  The aisles began filling up, people were becoming impatient with the slow walk up to the concourse, and the train-like sound of a tornado grew louder.  Here, there was a major possibility of a Cloverfield moment – like some monster was about to peel back the roof of the dome, screech, and create mass hysteria.  But simpler than that, if the power had flickered or gone out, if a larger tear had opened in the roof, I think chaos would have erupted.  It was a nervous and tense moment that could have taken a very bad turn.  After this, the stories began to circulate and we looked at visible damage.  One person almost got hit with a bolt that fell from the ceiling.  One security guard saw a rotating storm, another saw a woman who was outside slammed into the building by the wind.  There was an obvious hole in the roof of the Dome.

After lots of waiting, they somehow managed to finish out the Mississippi State  game, and they decided to wait to start the second game.  Overall, their crisis plan needed a LOT of work.  Via my phone, I learned there were ongoing tornado and severe weather warnings, but they left people in their seats rather than requiring them to move to the more sheltered concourses.  They provided very infrequent updates.  They kept telling everyone to stay around, and then suddenly announced that the Dome would close in 15 minutes.  They also postponed the second game just when all of the storm threats were subsiding.

The walk back to my car proved to me that a tornado was almost certainly the culprit.  The damage was extreme, but localized to very narrow areas.  We saw pieces of insulation surrounding the outside of the dome, and what appeared to be random structural pieces of the dome.  Insulation was blown so fast that it severed halves of shrubs.  Metal barricades were bent as they blew over.  Branches and plywood were sheared.

The most convincing evidence was on the Northside Drive side of the Dome.  Just below the roof of the dome were 2 sections where the exterior paneling was ripped off.  The insulation was gone, and torn banners were visible.  There were effectively 2 huge breaches directly to the interior of the dome, which explained why is was so drafty after the initial hit, and why they were reluctant to resume games if more bad weather was coming.  Large metal monument signs had been wrestled to the ground, twisted and wrested from their foundations.  Power poles and trees were toppled like twigs.

The Georgia World Congress Center may have sustained some of the worst damage.  LOTS of windows on the west side of the building were shattered.  Water pipes were broken and spewing water, and fire sprinklers appeared to be running as well.  News reports showed that this caused flooding in the building, and I’m sure this will require major repairs.

My car was frighteningly close to the path of destruction, but appears to be fine.
What a night!  I’m exhausted, and glad to be safe through this experience, which will also be another intriguing memory with a great friend.

Atlanta, Technology

Skribit Reloaded

Andrew Hyde notes that Skribit is now publicly available.  We had been in private beta as we stabilized the product and environment, and are now open to anyone with a blog who’s interested in collecting reader feedback on what they should blog about.  We also added some nice features along the way, and cleaned up some gaps on the Skribit site.

One key focus for this release was closing the feedback loop.  We notify bloggers when they get new suggestions, give them weekly activity summaries, and notify suggestors when a blogger writes about their suggestion.  Simple, but critical in keeping the conversation going.

Startup South is showcasing the Skribit widget as it now renders correctly when the width is narrowed.  Narrow-sidebar-bloggers rejoice!

Lastly, my contribution (with gratitude to acts_as_commentable) – you can now comment on a suggestion.  Because the meaning of a suggestion isn’t always clear.

Major cred goes out to Calvin (the feature machine), Paul, Jason, Lance, Alan, Josh, and anyone else I’m missing who made this latest release possible.  These guys make burning free time on a second startup a pleasure.

P.S. – You may note that I don’t have Skribit on this blog.  It’s not that I don’t want to use it (I REALLY do), it’s that hosted WordPress blogs such as this can’t handle iFrame widgets.  Boo.

Atlanta

The Big Starbuck’s Scam of 2008

No, I’m not talking about charging $4 for a latte. I’m not talking about the fact that Starbucks has wormed their way into so many of my MBA classes as a company to be fawned over. I’m talking about their much trumpeted 3 hour employee training that closed every single U.S. Starbucks tonight. I called shenanigans when I first heard about it – this seems far more likely to be a marketing move – get everyone to talk about Starbucks focusing on “quality”, and maybe they’ll come back to Starbucks a bit more often.

There’s no logical reason you have to close a store for 3 hours to provide decent training, and it’s even less likely that you’ll be able to provide decent training at 7,100 different stores at the same time.So what’s involved in this “training”? Apparently it meant watching a DVD on a portable DVD player. I’ve attached a picture of this, though it didn’t come out all that clearly from my Treo, and I felt hurried as the manager inside glared at me and contemplated chasing me away.

I passed by this Starbucks several times during this training. I saw them looking at paper, watching a DVD, sitting arround, but never did I see them actually touching coffee. Not that I saw the whole thing. But it seems really strange that a company that pays above market wages and benefits can’t teach their employees to properly push the espresso button on the machine, write my name on a cup, and read my name aloud when the drink is ready without kicking out customers. Bad stores need better managers, not 3 hours without customers for one day. Does this look like service-revolutionizing training to you?

Starbucks “Training”
Atlanta, Technology

Skribit – Atlanta Startup Weekend, Morning of Day 2

Our blog content suggestion engine has a name – Skribit.

This morning we’re kind of lurching up to speed.  Getting the foundations of the app in place is tough to parallellize, so there’s a lot of stepping on each other’s toes and sitting on the sidelines.

The other teams seem to be humming along at full tilt, and I think the lawyer just arrived.

As with any software project,  something that started off fairly simply is steadily growing into a meatier application that’s more than just CRUD.