Introduction Chapter

Several people have encouraged me to write about my experience doing a startup company.  This is the introduction chapter.  Figured I’d do one of those “en media res” things.  Feedback is welcome.

October 2010
Memphis, TN

“We’re no longer ‘rolling’. Everything’s digital now so we’re just absorbing photons.”, he said as he sipped on a Diet Coke. I was sitting across from him, our chairs slightly angled towards each other so that the cameras could give the impression that we were facing each other directly. The man sitting across from me could sense my tension. After all, he was unknowingly responsible for my entire career. Of course, there was no way for him to really know or understand that. I had tried to explain it but I don’t think it sunk in for him.

The retrofitted air conditioner finally kicked off, which meant that our mics would no longer be filled with the ambient white noise that echoed through the hundred-year old building. We were sitting in an office inside of the Emerge Memphis building. In the mid 2000’s a group of investors bought a disused furniture warehouse in the South Main district of downtown Memphis and converted it into a startup incubator. The building was filled with hipsters crouched over expensive Apple hardware and pounding out code for what they hoped would be the next big dot-com. Exposed ceilings and brick walls enveloped us and made us feel like we were actually part of some cool scene. If you squinted your eyes while sipping on a microbrew, you could almost convince yourself that you were in “The Valley” or Soho.

Of course, we weren’t. There were no venture capitol firms throwing money at us and programmers were still looked upon as subhuman. In this town, biotech and logistics took all of the headlines. Who ever heard of a web company coming out of Memphis, TN? More importantly, who would take us seriously? It was this very attitude that made this interview such a big deal. It was also yet another reason that I was so nervous.

This man was a Very Big Deal in tech circles. He only interviewed people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. His counsel was often sought by people that ran Fortune 500 companies and he had produced a documentary in the mid 90’s that convinced me to go into software development. Earlier in the year he made an announcement on his blog that he would be traveling around the country and meeting with different startup companies in the flyover country. Hoping against hope, I jumped on the chance. My team put together a packet of information and sent it to him and waited for months to learn whether or not we made the cut. Three days ago we got a simple email saying that he was on his way.

I turned and looked at Scott who was leaning in to the cramped office. He gave me a smile which was equal parts comforting and terrifying. He had no idea how scared I was. This entire thing was Scott’s idea. The company, I mean. He was the one with the vision. He was the one that taught me an entire new development language. He was the one that pushed me to succeed. More importantly, he was the one who dragged me from my hobbit hole and into the blinding light of this insane world of tech startup companies. I was just some geek that was along for the ride. The look that he gave me said, “Great job dude! I believe in you! Now don’t fuck this up.” One of the cameramen gave us the count and let us know that he was ready to start the interview. I turned back and faced the man across from me. He put on his game face and started the interview.

“So, what makes you qualified to even do a startup company?”, he asked and sat back, waiting for a response.

I gulped, prayed that I wouldn’t say something stupid, opened my mouth and heard myself say, “Nothing. Absolutely nothing at all.”

Facebook has buried the needle on my personal creepy meter

Last night I decided to re-purpose an old workstation that was collecting dust. I had read some interesting things about the crunchbang linux distro and was eager to give it a spin (side note: it’s a really cool minimalist distro that runs in under 500 MB of RAM, including MySQL). It has been years since I had booted the system and was not even sure that it would still work, but I wanted to see if there was anything on the drive that needed to be backed up.

Luckily the drive was fine. It booted into XP and soon I was going through the file system and copying data to my NAS. As I said earlier, it has been years since I had used the system and I had forgotten that I had installed the Yahoo! chat client. This client starts on boot and sits in the tray. I only really used it to communicate with my friends that had not yet switched to GMail and had almost forgotten about the associated email address.

While waiting for my files to transfer, I fired up a browser and logged in to check an event invite that I had received on Facebook. I was only logged in to the site for a few minutes. My file transfer had completed and I was ready to format the drive and install crunchbang. As I was about to shut the system down, the Yahoo! client informed me that I had received a new email in my disused Yahoo mail account. Again, I haven’t used that account in YEARS so I was curious to see what had landed in my inbox.

It was an email from Facebook.

They wanted to know if I wanted to link my Yahoo! email account with my Facebook profile.

So Facebook was able to determine that I was logged in to Yahoo’s system, harvest my email address and invite me to link my defunct identity with their system.

I’m going to assume that the Yahoo! client probably uses the same cookie store as my browser, which is how Facebook knew who I was.

So yeah. Facebook is now that crazy chick that you went out with once but wasn’t really into but won’t take the hint and just move on with the rest of her life.

48 Hour Launch 2011 – Recap (Or: My Weekend Beats Your Year)

This weekend I did my part to help a new company get off of the ground. I’m not the only one – most of Memphis’ best and brightest showed up to brainstorm, solve problems, pound Red Bull, write code, design graphics and, best of all, learn from each other.

The first time I did something like this I ended up helping to launch MarksMenus. This is my 3rd time out and I am amazed at how much bigger it gets every year.  Different people have different reasons for participating.  For some, it’s the promise of hitting that next billion-dollar idea.  For others, it’s a chance to see what is going on at the bleeding edge.  For me, I just enjoy the company of some of the most intelligent, creative and driven people that I have ever met.  I simply love the collaboration and encouragement that exists between the different teams.  Sure, every team was competing for the top honors, but there was still a sense of cooperation and fair play.

About a month ago, I learned that this year’s 48 Hour Launch would be a little bit different.  The newly-formed SeedHatchery was going to put up $15,000 and entry into their mentor program for the winner.  I took this news with mixed emotions.  On one hand, I was excited that this event had gotten so big that someone was willing to take it seriously enough to put up that kinda scratch.  On the other hand, I was scared that the teamwork and sharing of ideas would turn into dirty pool and petty fighting.  I arrived on Friday afternoon with my MacBook, pulled out my headphones and got to work.

It was around Sunday morning when I noticed that a funny thing was happening.  Rather, it WASN’T happening.  Teams were still sharing resources.  The team lent some web design help to the team.  The team helped the team with their biz plan.  Each project was engaged with every other project.  Not for any devious purpose but because everyone honestly wanted to see each project succeed and have a damned good shot at the prize.  It was like everyone believed in the concept of something greater then themselves for that one weekend and wanted to actively contribute to that idea!

Personally, I though that my team was gonna take it.  That is, until I saw a live demo of the Llamatag technology.  It was pretty much the Mozart to my Salieri.  If you haven’t heard about it yet, you soon will.  There were a TON of great ideas and a lot of progress was made in two days.  I’m really hoping to see all of these companies move forward and evolve.

Needless to say, I cannot WAIT until next year!

More Android Development – Taking a Picture From Your App

Ok folks – many Bothans died to bring you this information (along with a good number of my brain cells and sanity points) so I hope you appreciate it.

Let’s say that you’re developing an app and you want to let your users take a picture from inside of the application. Maybe you’re writing an app that will let you take a picture of your friend and then superimpose a rainbow halo over their head. Or maybe you’re writing an app to let people track their comic book collection by cover art. Or maybe you just wanna let people post pictures of food. Whatever, I dunno.

If you google for something obvious like “Android development camera” you’ll hit a bunch of links like this one that will describe a process so arcane that you’ll end up waving a dead chicken over your device while intoning verses from an ancient book written in a dead language just to get it to work properly.

I tried those solutions and ran into a serious problem – right now, Android devices are slowly but surely being upgraded to the 2.1 api, but most phones are still running 1.6. The issue here is that the camera api has changed quite a bit between 1.6 and 2.1. Unless you want to fork your code and release 2 different versions (hint: you don’t) you need to code to the lowest common denominator, API-wise.

After a weekend of threatening, cajoling and finally pleading with the API to just TAKE A DAMNED PICTURE, I came across a solution. Feel free to use this code in your own projects. If you DO use it, I’d love a shoutout or at least an email saying thanks.