I built an app to save my Mom’s life

Republished from https://www.homehelpstatus.com/posts/2015/08/19/i-built-homehelpstatus-to-save-my-moms-life.

Legend has it that many (most?) people that start a software business, launch an internet site, or create an app in the modern era are looking for a big payday. That may or may not be true, but I know that, when I set out to create what would eventually become HomeHelpStatus, I did so for one reason: I needed to save my Mom’s life.

This sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not. As I’ve written before, my Mom has advanced secondary-progressive Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a degenerative neurological disease that is symptomatically similar to ALS. In my Mom’s case, MS has left her quadriplegic with a host of “secondary” conditions, such as limited respiratory capacity.

As her condition worsened over the years, she became more and more dependent upon her home care workers, which we call PCAs (Personal Care Assistants; other terms like Home Heath Aide [HHA] are used as well). This has mostly worked out well; without their help, my Mom would not be able to live at home.

…a caregiver not showing up for their scheduled visit could result in my Mom’s death.

The problem is, sometimes things happen. People get flat tires on the way to work. Their child is significantly injured, and they can’t come in. Sometimes (thankfully, very rarely) PCAs we’ve trusted have ended up not being reliable, not showing up for work when scheduled for little reason.

This is generally not a serious problem in other healthcare contexts. For example, a nursing home, clinic, or group home will typically be staffed by a multiple people at any given time; one or two people being absent there will be inconvenient, but usually not an emergency. However, in my Mom’s case, she only ever has one PCA scheduled at a time (a constraint understandably enforced by the government agency that thankfully pays for her home care).

So, when someone doesn’t show up when they’re scheduled, my Mom isn’t just inconvenienced: she can’t eat; she can’t drink; she can’t go to the bathroom; she can’t take her medications. This last fact is particularly problematic, as some of her medications must be taken rigorously, at the same time every day, or very bad things can happen. There have been times when a PCA not showing up has resulted in an emergency room visit for my Mom…that is, once a PCA shows up for the next scheduled visit, or me or my Dad discover what’s happened.

Once I drove over to her apartment after calling a dozen times over the course of an hour or two, only to find that the phone cord had accidentally been yanked out of the wall.

As you can imagine, such situations are horrible experiences. And as terrifying as it might be, it’s not hard to think of scenarios where a caregiver not showing up for their scheduled visit could result in my Mom’s death.

Knowing this has for years resulted in a sort of mild, gnawing worry: around the times caregivers were supposed to be arriving, I’d look at the clock and wonder, “Are they going to show up?” I’d debate with myself about whether to call over and confirm. Sometimes I would, and sometimes the phone would just ring and ring. Are they just a little late? Are they busy? Did my Mom send them to the store for something? Or, are they not going to show up at all? Once I drove over to her apartment after calling a dozen times over the course of an hour or two, only to find that the phone cord had accidentally been yanked out of the wall.

Earlier this year, I knew I had to do something, but no obviously good options presented themselves:

  • Caregiver check-in services did exist, but they were built for organizations like home care agencies that had dozens of staff, and cost $1,000’s just to get started. I found nothing suitable for individual and family use.
  • Informal check-in services also exist, but they’re largely intended for families, e.g. so teenagers can let parents know where they are. While we aim to hire trustworthy people, I wanted to know for sure that caregivers were actually at my Mom’s apartment, and not checking in from their phone from wherever. Trust, but verify is an apt proverb.
  • Emergency call services like Lifeline are available, but my Mom simply isn’t able to operate the switches or even blow tubes you can use to trigger them. Also, we don’t need EMT calvary rolling in when a caregiver doesn’t show up; knowing that that’s going to happen actually discourages the use of things like Lifeline.

What I wanted seemed very simple:

  1. A way for caregivers to check in from my Mom’s apartment in a verifiable way (by phone using caller ID or maybe using a mobile app that used GPS to verify presence).
  2. When a caretaker doesn’t arrive within some minutes of when a visit is scheduled, I want to get a text message or phone call so I can do whatever is necessary.

I don’t have to worry anymore about whether she’s being cared for.

Thankfully, being a reasonably competent software developer, I built this. It’s worked wonderfully for my Mom for some months now: when a PCA has very occasionally been running late, I get a text message, and my Dad gets a phone call. PCAs now also check in when they’re departing at the end of their visit, so a nice side benefit is that I now have access to a complete in/out log that I can use to verify their pay (and thus protect the hours of care that my Mom is allotted).

I don’t have to worry anymore about whether she’s being cared for. And, if I do feel a flutter of paranoia, I can just go look at the checkin log in 10 seconds and be reassured. More subtly, my Mom doesn’t worry about what will happen the next time someone is late or doesn’t show up.

But, most importantly, I know my Mom will never be in danger again, when someday a PCA really doesn’t show up again. It’s not glamorous, and it’s not technically boastful, but the code and system that enables this may be the most important I’ve ever written.

Other people, maybe many others, could get the same benefit from it that I and my family have. I know I wish I had had something like this when my grandmother was getting some minor home care some time ago: she remains in good health, but is the sort of person will say “I didn’t want to bother you!” when you find out that the aide didn’t show up the week before, but didn’t call anyone.

So, I’ve done what I can to make it as easy to use as possible; this is what HomeHelpStatus is today. Please pass it along if you know someone that might find it useful.

100% time

Perhaps you’ve heard of “20% time”. In many ways, it or something like it are table stakes for many software folk, and perhaps other creative specialists as well; i.e. if a company doesn’t offer something like 20% time, it may have a hard time attracting top talent, and could end up suffering by not profiting from the results of the outside-the-box sorts of ideas and work that emerge from people’s 20% time.  Some organizations — Valve comes to mind as the most prominent — even make it policy that staff are to use the “law of two feet” to self-organize, with the theory that more impactful work will emerge from the resulting economics.

I relate to this insofar as I’ve been lucky to have wandered into having what I call, tongue-in-cheek, “100% time”.  Most discussions of 20% time seem to characterize the mix as being 80% slog, 20% “freedom”. In contrast, “100% time” is a mix of near-complete professional and personal freedom where I can be available to every opportunity that comes my way.  Whether related to new business, following new creative inspirations (in programming, web or graphic design, or writing), pursuing scholarly interests, keeping myself healthy, traveling at length, enjoying the company of and taking care of family, volunteering for causes I believe in, or slacking to recharge, 100% time means that I choose what to care about, and then dedicate all my energy to making that choice have impact.  Having had the opportunity to live like this and becoming acutely aware of it, I’m nearly certain I won’t be able to “go back” without a fight.

I don’t write this to brag.  More than anything else, if 100% time seems out of your reach, I hope to be some proof that it’s not.

There’s nothing in my past to suggest that I should be where I am, doing what I am doing: no family money, no name-brand school (or diploma, for that matter), no powerful connections.  In fact, I came very, very close to getting stuck in a “regular” job ten or eleven years ago, after sinking $140K in debt trying to start the first incarnation of Snowtide.  I thought that had been my one “shot”: after failing dismally and being forced to take any work I could get (initially landing in a hyper-dysfunctional office run by maniacal Russians…), I figured that my life’s trajectory was fixed.  I know I shouldn’t lament a “professional” career with stable companies — it was far more than I had any right to expect — but, perhaps irrationally, I wanted to be king, with direct control over my life and my future.

Thankfully, I’m either too stubborn or too stupid to give up.  I extracted PDFTextStream from the smoldering ashes of my wayward startup, and managed to build a small but reliable business serving fabulous customers in a technically-challenging niche.  Somewhere along the way, I discovered that the biggest benefit of entrepreneurship was not money (as many have said, far safer routes to much larger piles of cash exist elsewhere; go be a banker or management consultant if that’s where your objectives lie), but time, and the freedom that comes with it.  Once my livelihood and income were decoupled from the time I had to dedicate to earn it, I felt like I finally understood the concept of opportunity cost and the aphorism of spending time: you will exist for only a finite duration, and you’d best ensure that that precious capital is used wisely to build the most value possible.

How you personally define “value” is where all the fun and challenge comes from.  Build bigger, better, more beautiful things; learn to make music and art and drama; inspire an empire and then go save the world; love friends and family and neighbors and strangers.  Do what you can to have the opportunity to make those choices yourself, so you can be the best person you can be, and make the most of the time you’ve been allotted.

Stymied from within (an entrepreneurial experience)

In his interview of Andrew Warner, Jason Cohen provided a nice snapshot of the experience of being a software entrepreneur (taken from the transcription provided on the interview page, emphasis mine):

You hear all these stories of success, and luck also always plays a part. We didn’t talk about that much, but of course it’s true. And great networking helps. If you’re ideas really good, maybe the customers will come easy. Again, you hear all these stories on Mixergy. When people condense the timeline, it’s almost inevitable that it sounds easy and straightforward. And one leads to two and that sort of thing.

But then as a listener, you come back to your own reality where it’s hard. You don’t have a network like Jason Baptiste has. You don’t have an article on Mashable. You don’t have a strong sense of your own philosophy and what you think is true in the world and who you want to be. You don’t know yet, because you haven’t gone and done a whole bunch of things and seen how you feel about it. And there isn’t a big rush of customers at your door.

You’re sitting there in front of the computer, with your inbox and a compiler and an A/B tester. You’re overwhelmed by all this stuff. How do you know – obviously, this is too abstract a question to have a specific answer – but how do I take that next step and go running? How do I just go running? Do I just have to say, “Look, there’s nothing but going and running.” That’s it? It’s as simple as that? It’s hard, but that’s all there is?

…where “running” is being used as a metaphor for getting the job done and achieving what you want to achieve.  What really resonated with me was this perspective of being one guy (or maybe just a couple guys/gals) who is at point A, wants to get to point B, and fundamentally must find his own path when none is visible.

As a solo entrepreneur / business owner, I feel like I face an uncertain, massive void every day, through which I must find my way, avoiding all sorts of pitfalls.  Sometimes, that void is the outer world, filled with challenges of all sorts related to technology, business, customers, and money.  However, that void is usually myself, where far more difficult riddles await: What do I want to achieve? What should I focus on now in order to be successful? How can I break out of unproductive habits and cycles? What do I not know today that would save my ass tomorrow?

Some days are easier than others, with answers coming easily.  It’s especially pleasant to have a run of time where one is simply doing, knocking down technology and business problems like so many piñatas. Other days, it’s impossible to make such obvious progress when it’s not clear what should be done in the first place.  And then there are the really bad days, when overwork or self-doubt breeds loss of focus, procrastination, and prodigious mental bonking: a particularly painful state where the flesh is willing, but the mind is weak.

For weeks now, I’ve been tangling with this dim state of being — probably the longest and deepest period of time I’ve ever spent coping with an inability to focus and execute.  As painful as it’s been, I take some small bit of solace that every other entrepreneur, engineer, artist, and writer seems to have been afflicted with similar problems from time to time. Unfortunately, each time this happens to me, I seem to forget for a time that the best salve is almost always the same: keep trying to build, write, create—and eventually the blocks and cobwebs and limits I place on myself fall away.  One really does just need to “go running”.

Recovering from and avoiding “cloud service” lock-in

We all love our shiny cloud services — until they break, die, or otherwise go away, turning all those unicorns and butterflies into what can only be described as a bark salad.  Case in point: sometime this week, I’ll be wasting time migrating data out of DabbleDB.

DabbleDB, if you don’t know, is was this great interactive “relational” database service: think of it as a massive spreadsheet where anything could be related to anything else — schema-free, BTW — with hooks into web forms for surveys and such, an excellent reporting and query engine, and all sorts of goodies like mapping geographically-related data, charting, etc. Similar services include WuFoo, Intuit’s Quickbase, and ZoHo Creator.

I say was because DabbleDB was acquired by Twitter last year; as a result, the service is shutting down next week, and I need to yank the data we were storing there and reconstitute it into some corresponding in-house applications.  Mind you, there’s nothing difficult about this, but I’m slightly irked at myself for being in this position.  While building the replacement apps will be far more costly over the long term than the $8/month we were paying DabbleDB, the real cost is the dislocation associated with relying upon a “cloud” service provider to provide a particular set of features and then being forced to roll back that reliance.

In this case, the precipitating event is a happy one for DabbleDB; they’re good guys (go Smalltalkers!), and I got my data out just fine, but the scenario isn’t so different than if they went out of business, or had a massive technical failure.


This perspective prompted me to think about what I would have done differently, what questions I should ask myself before again committing to use a particular “cloud” service, and what I should focus on as a vendor of such services to minimize the chances that my customers will be faced with the same grim drudgery that I’m facing now.  Obviously not a comprehensive treatment, but off the top of my head:

Things that (prospective) users of cloud services need to think about

  1. How likely is it that the providers of this service will be around in a year? Five years?  Do they have a reputation for retiring new services if they don’t take over the world? (viz. Google Wave)
  2. Do you have a suitable backup plan? Just because data is in the cloud doesn’t mean it can’t be lost; service providers go *poof*, data centers burn.  Get and keep snapshots of your data just like you do for data on your local workstations and in-house applications. If that’s not practical (i.e. you’ve too much data in the cloud to store locally), then at least push snapshots into another provider.
  3. Don’t be (too) swayed by the chrome and glitter.  Many online services put design at the center of their offerings, and it’s true that quality, functional design can be compelling — just make sure that you’re not taking on a ton of risk just to get a shinier dashboard.
  4. For each service you use, ensure that you can either reasonably recreate it in-house, or source a comparable service from another provider.

Like all rules, you have to know when to break them.  If a service is amazing enough, the risks of using it may be dwarfed by its benefits, and maybe your data is transient or otherwise not worth bothering with backups.  In any case, the key is to choose who to do business with wisely, and after properly considering alternatives and attendant risks.

Things that builders of cloud services need to think about

If you’re building (or already providing) a “cloud” service, you need to think about all of the issues your customers should be thinking about — to minimize the perceived risks associated with using your service at the very least, and ideally to maximize the actual trustworthiness of your service.

  1. Ensure that data loss is asymptotically impossible.  I could say “don’t ever lose data”, but that’s sort of like saying “don’t get into a car wreck”.
  2. If data is compromised (not lost but obtained by someone unauthorized to have the data), make it so that that data is unusable.  This isn’t always possible, but when it is, encrypting bits before shuffling them off to persistent storage is ideal.
  3. Always provide an obvious way for customers to get their data out, and in the most useful form(s) possible.  A silly counterexample are these CSV files I got out of DabbleDB — a dreadful format for schemaless yet relational data.  It’s easy to view data export as an unnecessary early cost, but many potential early customers will rightfully view robust export capabilities as a necessary condition before they will trust your shiny new service.
  4. Assuming yours is not a commodity service, consider what it would take to reimplement or reprovision it if something went badly wrong.  Play out scenarios that include fatal design flaws in your software as well as failures of your upstream vendors, from a couple days’ outage, to the-CEO-was-indicted-and-their-servers-are-already-liquidated.  Is it possible to fail over to other providers? Is it possible to replace your service with another as a temporary bridge until you can restore service properly? The result may not be perfect, but customers will always prefer a degraded service to a disappeared service.
  5. If you do find yourself in the happy situation of being acquired, but your service is not relevant to your acquirer, do right by the customers that got you there.  The DabbleDB guys did pretty well on this count, providing sane data exports and nearly a year of live service allowing their customers to calmly migrate (certainly far better than many other cloud services that get shut down within days or weeks after being hoovered up into Google and Twitter and Facebook).  Going beyond this would, in DabbleDB’s case for example, mean partnering with a competitor or two to make migrations absolutely painless.  (It looks like Zoho Creator has done this to some extent on their own using DabbleDB’s APIs.)

Ironically, enticing your customers to commit (née be locked in) to your service requires that you give them reason enough to believe that they can leave any time, and sanely survive your passing.

Opa

Right now, I’m sitting across a table from my grandfather. He’s remarking for the hundredth time today that he can hardly see, though he’s spotting specks of planes flying in the sky and clearly enjoying bathing in the sunlight streaming through the westerly huge windows of the dining room of the rehab/nursing facility he’s moving into today. Sitting in a wheelchair, he seems content for the moment.

Meanwhile, I’m exhaling in the relative peace.

This is the man who first exposed me to electronics and soldering when I was so young, maybe five or six years old. I remember him having a sharp, skeptical mind, a vigorous devourer of news and debater of politics. The youngest of a huge brood of first-generation Russian immigrants that fled when things went south there in the early part of last century, he was a World War II veteran in Europe, using his fluency in Russian and German as a field translator. An electrician by trade, he worked on “high steel” helping to build many of the largest buildings that still stand in downtown Hartford and Denver. He survived the war, the job (which was ended by a 30-foot fall), a heart attack, and a series of strokes about ten years ago. Throughout it all, he’s been my Opa (German for “grandfather”).

Now, he’s barely recognizable. Those strokes that caused aphasia for a few months were the starting shot for a slow, inexorable decline. He lost interest in news and politics. His short- and long-term memory slipped away, bit by bit. His default reservations about others grew into something approaching xenophobia. And bit by bit, especially as I became more and more involved in his care, I learned about this other man who was more and more separate from the kind Opa I knew when I was younger.

I suspect my failure – or, perhaps, unwillingness – to integrate those two personas is simply a self-defense mechanism. Surely I want to preserve the better memory I have of Opa, separate entirely from the husband of my grandmother that so irredeemably slipped into irrationality and disablement through the ravages of unexercised, untended old age.

In some ways, it is far more important to me to understand the process by which he got where he is now, rather than the end state he has settled into. Recalling it now, the occasional odd behaviour and inappropriate comments over the years that only in hindsight were laid bare as hints of what was to come, I’m forced to consider, contemplate, and recoil from the prospect of my own decline, presumably (hopefully!) many decades from now. As much as I have ever prized my own mental state, I’d like to think I now have a more nuanced appreciation for it as well as a thoroughgoing awareness of how fleeting it may actually be. And, in the background, terms like dementia, dignity, and end of life have shifted from comfortable abstractions to present conundrums and likely permanent riddles.


Why talk so publicly about what is a usually shrouded in silent time away from work for caregivers, greeted with sympathetic, impotent condolences from friends and coworkers? Because nearly everyone must face these or similarly challenging circumstances, but our glossy collective expectations have little time or patience for the grit of real life and the grim choices and hard work that it demands, except perhaps as a gaudy spectacle. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that success and satisfaction must come from hustle and deals, a Series A and a smiling spread in BusinessWeek – and, if we stray from that plastic, purely linear path of ambition, we are somehow sullied. Through the course of the last weeks, I’ve discovered that I have far more constitution than I ever dreamed possible, allowing me to care and provide for family through thick and thin, and keep pushing ahead, inch by hardscrabble inch, in my business, its products, and my book, never sacrificing one part of my life in a gambit to attain glory in another.

Next time I see him, I think I will silently thank Opa for his part in this.

– Written on or around March 17, 2011

Update, September 1, 2011

My grandmother (I call her Oma) wanted to have her husband’s obituary published in the local paper.  It was, but that seems like quite a memory hole to me — the paper’s website only retains obituaries for 2 months (!).  So, here it is, hopefully in a place that will have a little more permanence in the world than that.

Daniel Agayoff, 89, of Hadley, MA, husband of Anna Marie (Döebberin) Agayoff, passed away on Wednesday, July 6, 2011 at Hadley at Elaine surrounded by loving family.

Born in 1921 in Fall River, MA, youngest son of the late Daniel and Mary (Opanacenko) Agayoff, he lived in Canterbury and Enfield, CT; Denver, CO; and Santa Barbara, CA before moving to Hadley four years ago.  A veteran of World War II, he attained the rank of Seargeant within the U.S. Army Signal Corps before being honorably discharged in 1948.  Daniel was then a union electrician for 30 years, working to help build many of the largest buildings that now define the skylines of Hartford and Denver before retiring in 1983.

After retirement, Daniel found joy in various hobbies, including a continued interest in electronics (such as installing custom-built remote controls into the family television before they were widely available), classical music, current events & politics, and a newfound love of painting inspired by Bob Ross.

Daniel is survived by his wife Anna, beloved daughter and son-in-law Darleen and Charley Emerick, and grandson and granddaughter-in-law Chas and Krissy Emerick.  He was predeceased by three sisters, five brothers, and his two sons, Daniel and Jerry.

There are no funeral services or calling hours. Burial will be at the convenience of the family.

Ashton’s plight, fight or flight

Joel Spolsky is a stellar writer and a fine storyteller. His latest, the apocryphal tale of Ashton, tells of the plight of a software developer stuck in a crummy job, surrounded by sycophants and half-wits, desperate to escape the inevitable resulting ennui.  To top it off, this miserable environment happens to exist in…Michigan.

Of course, there could only be one solution:

…it was fucking 24 degrees in that part of Michigan, and it was gray, and smelly, and his Honda was a piece of crap, and he didn’t have any friends in town, and nothing he did mattered.

[…Ashton] just kept driving until he got to the airport over in Grand Rapids, and he left his crappy old Honda out right in front of the terminal, knowing perfectly well it would be towed, and didn’t even close the car door, and he walked right up to the Frontier Airlines counter and he bought himself a ticket on the very next flight to San Francisco, which was leaving in 20 minutes, and he got on the plane, and he left Michigan forever.

It’s a sad story, but mostly because of the thread of self-righteous metropolitan exceptionalism running through it that is all-too-typical of parts of the programming and business of software circles in which I often circulate.  If Ashton hadn’t bought into that worldview, he might have left his disaster of a job with the cubicle manufacturer for any of the small software companies nearby, filled with talented, engaging people working on challenging and rewarding problems. Or, he could have started his own company, with potential to make a big impact in his town, in Michigan, and in the world.

Instead, he flies to San Fransisco, the Lake Wobegon of the software world: where the managers are sane, coworkers are friendly hacker geniuses, and everyone’s exit is above average. Of course, that’s apocryphal too. There are sycophants and half-wits everywhere, and chances are good our friend Ashton will be working on a backwoods project at Google/Facebook/eBay/Yahoo/etc, or at one of those earth-shattering startups you always hear about on TechCrunch (you can hear the pitch now: “it’s like Groupon for Facebook game assets!”). Maybe he’ll be happier, maybe he’ll be more satisfied, maybe he’ll be richer; or, not.

I love large cities dearly, and I wouldn’t mind living, working, or building a business in one. But, metropolitan life is not a salve for what ails you and your career, and not being in one certainly doesn’t doom you or your future prospects. In this age of decentralizing of work, people in more and more professions (perhaps software development in particular!) are uniquely positioned to work where and when and for whom they want regardless of geography. Opportunity is everywhere – and anywhere you are, if you’ve the talent and determination to thrive.

Xerox’s Inspirational Carlson and Wilson

I recently finished reading Xerox: American Samurai, an out-of-print business case study of sorts that tells the story of Xerox from a mid-1980’s (the book was published in 1986), decidedly American perspective of worrying how domestic industry would compete with the growing influence and capability of Asia, and Japan in particular. It’s a very entertaining read, something of a more business-side Soul of a New Machine: the core of the narrative is the engineering, marketing, manufacturing, and organizational efforts that brought about Xerox’s 10 Series copiers to market starting in 1982 (some of which appear to still be supported and in service!), which were to be Xerox’s response to the accelerating success of its Japanese competitors.  Along the way, the book weaves a story encompassing Xerox’s early days developing and commercializing electrophotography, its fantastic success in the late 1950’s and 1960’s, its “lost decade” in the 1970’s where innovation stagnated and the business began to fray, and finally its then-in-progress rejuvenation into the early 1980’s as Xerox slimmed down and refactored its business and engineering practices to compete effectively.

It’s a great story, but I’m not writing a book review.  Most striking about the book was the glimpse provided of Chester Carlson, the inventor of electrophotography, and Joseph C. Wilson, the co-founder of Xerox (née The Haloid Photographic Company).  As far as I can tell, these men were forces of nature unto themselves, and possessed an array of values and principles that I find inspirational.  Indeed, the book mentions more than once that part of what held Xerox together, especially in the bad years, was the legacy of its progenitors, Wilson and Carlson.

To illustrate, it would be best if I simply quoted from the book; here, from pages 54-56 (bold emphasis mine):

…Wilson never liked it when people referred to Xerox during its spectacular growth years as a Cinderella story.  The company earned its success, he said.  The only magic was the magic of hard work.

As a boy, Wilson grew up in the shadow of Kodak’s largest manufacturing facility in Rochester–Kodak Park.  His dream was to build a company as great as George Eastman’s.  He didn’t want to make a quick killing and then retire with his riches, he wanted his company to have an impact on the world. He wanted to make his company his life’s work, just as Eastman had done.

Chester Carlson and the 914 copier helped Wilson realize his dream. Carlson, the investor of xerography, filed his first patent in 1937, calling his discovery electrophotography.  His first successful image was made in 1938.  Over the next nine years he tried to sell his idea to more than twenty companies, including RCA, Remington Rand, General Electric, Kodak, and IBM.  They all turned him down, wondering why anyone would need a machine to do something you could do with carbon paper.

Although Carlson was often frustrated by the lack of interest in his invention, he never quit.  Sometimes he put his idea and equipment on the shelf for a few months, but soon the enthusiasm would return.  He scraped together a few hundred dollars in 1939, a large sum during the Depression, and had a prototype of an automatic copier built by a model shop in New York.  It didn’t work.  Another model maker got it working, briefly, but soon the war diverted expert machinists to more urgent tasks.  Carlson went back to demonstrating his process with manual plates.  Finally, in 1944, Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, signed a royalty-sharing agreement with him and began to develop the process.  A short time later, John Dessauer, Haloid’s director of research, showed Joe Wilson a technical article on Carlson’s electrophotography in Radio News. Haloid made the initial contacts with Battelle, and in 1947, it signed an agreement with Battelle and began funding research.  With the help of a professor from Ohio State University, the term “xerography,” Greek for “dry writing,” was coined.

The early manual copying process was excruciatingly slow, almost like developing a photographic print.  An early Haloid brochure describes Thirty-Nine Steps for making good copies on its first commercial copier, the Model A Xerox, which was sometimes called the Ox Box.  The best operators took two to three minutes to make a print, a long way from Carlson’s vision of an automatic machine.  Still, Wilson and Haloid pressed on.  Over the next thirteen years, Wilson committed more money than his company made to developing the process.

Carlson and Wilson both made fortunes on xerography; Carlson earned more than $200 million, Wilson more than $100 million. Their backgrounds and personalities were different, but both of them were reflective men who were concerned with more than money and business.  Carlson was a quiet, shy man from a poor family who struggled to put himself through college and never knew material comfort until late in life when the royalties from xerography finally started to arrive.  During the early years at Haloid, Dessauer once asked him out to lunch.  Carlson declined because he couldn’t afford to reciprocate.  When he made his great breakthrough in xerography he was working days in a patent office, going to law school at night, and doing his experiments on weekends.  He always felt uncomfortable in large groups and avoided public involvement in causes, although he anonymously donated millions of dollars to many of them.

Carlson was never on the regular Xerox payroll, though Wilson made several offers.  Instead, he preferred the independence of working as a consultant.  He died in 1968, at the age of sixty-two, of a heart attack.  A year before his death his wife asked him if he had any unfulfilled desires.  “Just one,” he said. “I would like to die a poor man.”  When he died he had given away more than $150 million. U Thant, secretary-general of the United Nations, sent this tribute to Carlson’s memorial service in honor of his substantial financial contributions: “His concern for the future of the human situation was genuine, and his dedication to the principles of the United Nations was profound.”

Wilson was a graduate of the Harvard Business School.  His father was president of Haloid before him and his grandfather had served as mayor of Rochester.  Unlike Carlson, Wilson was an outgoing person.  His speeches were as likely to contain quotes from Byron and Dostoyevski as they were to contain the latest earnings and revenue numbers.  Even after the company became successful, he would frequently lunch on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at his desk so he could catch up on his reading.  He welcomes involvement in community affairs, often speaking about the obligation of successful enterprises to contribute to society.   Wilson died in 1971, at the age of sixty-one, of a heart attack, while having lunch with the governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller.  A frayed, blue index card that he had carried since the early days of his career was found in his wallet.  It summarized his goals: “To be a whole man; to attain serenity through the creation of a family life of uncommon richness; through leadership of a business which brings happiness to its workers, serves well its customers and brings prosperity to its owners; by aiding a society threatened by fratricidal division to gain unity.”

The tenacity, dedication, and grounding principles of these individuals are remarkable, both on spec and compared to the fluff usually offered to entrepreneurs and business owners like myself as examples of success.  Carlson as the inventor and technologist and Wilson as the investor and clueful technical entrepreneur and executive would appear to be far better options.

For those that are interested, it looks like there are at least two other books specifically about Carlson and Wilson, at least in connection with their development of electrophotography and association with Xerox.

Reducing purchase anxiety is a feature

Talk to anyone outside of the software world, and you’ll quickly realize that one of the most gut-wrenching, anxiety-inducing acts is buying software. Even if one has evaluated the product in question top to bottom, past experience of bugs, botched updates, missing features, and outright failures and crashes has tempered any enthusiasm or confidence that might be felt when the time comes to pull out the credit card or write the purchase order.

Of course, the blame for this lies squarely with the software industry itself – the failures in software quality are well known, both discrete instances as well as in aggregate. Those of us whose business and livelihood are tied to the sale of software (whether sent out the door or delivered as a service) must do whatever we can to reverse this zeitgeist.

Given that, we’ve decided to adopt a very simple, no-nonsense “Satisfaction Guaranteed” policy for PDFTextStream. Hopefully this will help take the anxiety out of someone’s day, somewhere.

This isn’t a new idea, of course. Lots of software companies have had guarantees of some sort or another for ages, but I think my first encounter with the concept as a business owner was Joel Spolsky’s post from a couple of years ago:

I think that our customers are nice because they’re not worried. They’re not worried because we have a ridiculously liberal return policy: “We don’t want your money if you’re not amazingly happy.”

Joel raised the issue again on a recent StackOverflow podcast, which prompted me to think about our own approach…

What do we do about unhappy customers?

To be honest, our customers are pretty happy. Of course, we occasionally receive a bug report, but we generally knock out patches within a couple of days, and sometimes faster. In the 5 years we’ve been selling PDFTextStream, we’ve never had a single request for a refund. Part of that is offering up a very liberal evaluation version, but I’d like to think it’s because what we sell does the job it’s meant to do very well.

Given that, I’ve never thought to make a big stink about a refund policy – it just never came up. But hearing Joel and Jeff talk about the ire that they felt towards various companies that refused to issue refunds when they weren’t happy with something motivated me to make our de facto policy explicit. Thus, the new “Satisfaction Guaranteed” statement.

Part II: the Open Source Influence

An elephant in the room is the influence of open source software on customers’ attitudes towards buying software, and the assessment of risk that goes along with it. As more and more users of technology (just to spread the net as widely as possible) are exposed and become accustomed to the value associated with open source software (which, in simple terms, is generally high because of its zero or near-zero price), it increases pressure on commercial vendors (like us) to up our game along the same vector.

But, the impact of open source software on pricing is a pretty stale story. The real impact is derivative, in that a zero or near-zero price means that the apparent risk associated with using open source software is zero or near-zero. The promise of proprietary, commercial software is that, if it does what the vendor claims (whatever that is), then that software will deliver benefits far in excess of its cost and far in excess of the aggregate benefit provided by the open source alternatives, even given the price differential.

The problem is that a lot of people only turn towards commercial options as a last resort because of the aforementioned historical failures of the software industry vis á vis quality: the apparent risk of commercial options is higher than that associated with open source options, simply because the latter’s super-low price is a psychological antidote to any anxiety about quality issues. So, there’s flight towards low-priced options, rather than a thorough search for optimal solutions. Injecting an explicit guarantee of performance and reliability (like our new “Satisfaction Guarantee”) might be enough to tip the relative apparent risk in favor of the commercial option – or, at the very least, minimize the imbalance so that it’s more likely that price won’t dominate other factors (which are potentially more relevant to overall benefits).

Of course, this can only work if one’s product is actually better than the open source alternatives, and by a good stretch to boot so as to compensate for the price differential. In any case, it’s a win-win for the formerly-anxious software user and buyer: they should feel like they have more choice overall, and therefore have a better chance of discovering and adopting the best solution for any given problem, regardless of software licenses and distribution models.

Venture capitalists are entertaining, but please don’t take them too seriously

I often enjoy the Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders podcasts, which deliver talks from the Stanford Technology Ventures Program.  In particular, it is often useful to glean an idea or moral from the war stories told by some of the weathered entrepreneurs that the STVP invites to talk about their past or current companies.

Every now and then, though, a podcast lands in my iPod that involves a roundtable of venture capitalists.  VCs are often very dynamic, engaging people that are entertaining to listen to, but just as often, they say the most amazingly absurd things.  A recent roundtable podcast (entitled What is the Next Big Thing) really pegged the absurdity meter, though.

Addressing a gathering of Stanford students, alumni, and associates, three venture capitalists, Tony Perkins, Tim Draper, and Michael Moediscussed the recent economic conditions, with the bottom-line message that it is in “times like these”, when markets and economies look their bleakest, that the most successful and impactful businesses are often forged.  That’s an oldie but goodie — so far, so good.

Things go off the rails around the 13:20 mark, though.  One of the three speakers — I believe it was Tony Perkins, but these things are hard to be sure of in an ensemble podcast — relayed how Marc Andreessen (former founder of Netscape and now also a part-time investor) was talking with Charlie Rose about how the New York Times should just kill their paper version.  That’s no huge new idea, but that got Tony off on a slight tangent that led him straight into the weeds (bold emphasis mine):

A lot of the whole [dot-com] bubble period was based upon a vision of the Internet steamrolling the way people do business and creating what was then called the “New Economy”.  My theory right now is that all of those things we talked about that were going to happen, like the end of television, the end of newspapers, all that stuff that we poured a bunch of money in because we thought it was going to happen ten years ago is actually happening now.

So a lot of the destruction in the market, a lot of the jobs that are being destroyed, are jobs that are being steamrolled — a lot by the Internet — but increasingly by the “green tech” movement because entrepreneurs are looking at how we do everything, and they’re saying “how can I do that same thing in a way that is better for the environment?”.  That’s bringing the Silicon Valley mentality into the whole green space, which is super-exciting.

The reason I share your optimism is because we are the future.  Silicon Valley is the future; a lot of the jobs we’re seeing being destroyed are never going to come back, but it is our world that is causing the destruction, and therefore is going to be the one that creates the jobs.

Hey, I’m essentially a nobody, so maybe Tony’s really got the inside track, and I’m not seeing the forest for the trees.  But wow, the U.S. economy lost 598,000 jobs in January, including:

  • 22,000 cut from Caterpillar
  • 4,500 from Kodak
  • 19,800 cut from Pfizer
  • 5,000 cut from Microsoft (the first mass layoff in that company’s history)
  • 2,400 cut from EMC
  • 13,500 cut from Alcoa

Etc., etc.  Sorry Tony, these job losses aren’t due to Silicon Valley and VC-backed internet and green-tech companies owning the world and replacing Caterpillar’s earth movers and minimizing the need for Alcoa’s aluminum.  There are a lot of theories about why the economy is what it is of late (lending practices, creative derivative strategies, poor Federal Reserve policy, etc.), but honestly it never occurred to me that I’d come across anyone with the chutzpah to say that recent shrinkage (and reversal) of economic growth and the attendant job losses are due to internet and green-tech companies “steamrolling” the Old Economy1.

Even more crazy to me is the notion that Silicon Valley is going to be singularly responsible for reinvigorating the economy.  It certainly has a role to play, and has had tremendous impact in the past, but from where I sit, Silicon Valley has been far too busy over the past couple of years building Web 2.0 trinkets to be ready with any kind of game-saver anytime in the near future.  Thinking (and saying) otherwise is good marketing within that particular echo-chamber, but it likely sounds like simple self-aggrandizement anywhere else.  (Hopefully there’s a stealth-mode clean energy startup that will prove me wrong on this point.)

I don’t mean to pick on Tony here.  Lots of other VCs have said similar things — it’s just that in this case, the usual VC rhetoric happens to bump up pretty hard into real-world facts and real-world struggle.  Big-picture notions about how entrepreneurship and innovation are the keys to building a stronger economy and a better world are good, but watch out for the odd notions that are borne out of the VC bubble (which seems to have its effect upon almost everyone that steps inside for a time).

My general point is simply that VCs say the darnedest things, and especially as it’s become clear that venture capital isn’t at all required (or even desirable) in many situations, one needs to be careful about how much of the VC worldview one takes to heart.

1 Wow, typing “Old Economy” right there reminded me of back-in-the-day when Wired was raving on and on about the new economy and introduced The Wired Index consisting of 40 New Economy companies.  That’s classic entertainment.

Paul Graham’s Y Combinator leaves Boston, entrepreneurs dive under the bed

Last Friday, Paul Graham announced that his Y Combinator incubator was leaving Boston for Silicon Valley, prompted by the impending birth of his first child.  He didn’t lose any sleep over it though, and made his thoughts on Boston vs. Silicon Valley clear (yet again) in that announcement:

Boston just doesn’t have the startup culture that the Valley does. It has more startup culture than anywhere else, but the gap between number 1 and number 2 is huge; nothing makes that clearer than alternating between them.

This has been picked up in a variety of areas by Boston-local entrepreneurs and those that watch that space.  The reaction has been predictable, if you know just how much of an inferiority complex people have vis á vis Silicon Valley (emphasis below mine):

Scott Kirsner:

That’s not just his opinion… it’s reality… and we ought to be addressing it head-on.

Buzz in the HUB:

Paul Graham has long been a critic of the Boston Venture community and their reluctance to invest in his crops of nascent startups. He has now given in to the fact that the Valley is a better place for (web) startups.

Robert Buderi:

…the full-time departure of Graham and Y Combinator is a real loss for the New England innovation community

The most grating reaction I saw was this anonymous comment left on Scott Kirsner’s post:

For people like myself who are on the cusp of creating something new, Boston’s conservative culture translates directly to greater risk and scarcer opportunity. The question always boiles down to: if you have a family, how do you take the plunge, even if your business intention is indeed groundbreaking? Is the risk too great in this town?? And if it is, doesn’t that mean a move to the Valey must be considered.

At this point, I should remind my two readers that I chose to start a software company in Northampton, a town in Western Massachusetts, a solid 80 miles from Boston, thankyouverymuch.  This fact is always disorients my Bostonian acquaintences, who generally have one of three reactions:

  • “Heh, so you’re out past the tumbleweeds?”
  • “What’s it like, living in the country?”
  • “Wait, you mean Northampton Street in Cambridge, right?”

I fully realize that that’s just one way in which I’m outside of the mainstream of the “Boston startup scene” (the other ways include the fact that Snowtide is 100% bootstrapped, and that we’ve been profitable for years— also shocking, I know).  That said, all of the bellyaching about Paul Graham choosing where to spend his summers seems vaguely ridiculous.  It feels very similar in tone to the discussion I witnessed at the end of the 2008 MassTLC Unconference last October, where dozens of people in a room of perhaps 300 of the brightest entrepreneurial minds in the Boston area expressed varying degrees of concern, despair, and panic about how the “Boston scene” has fallen so far behind Silicon Valley.

Now, maybe there are fewer VCs in the Boston area; maybe the “startup culture” is more vibrant (for some?1) in Silicon Valley; maybe Bostonians are technically and financially more conservative than their west-coast cousins.  I have no way of evaluating the truthiness of those assertions, having never spent any time in Silicon Valley.  However, it’s entirely reasonable to say that all of these assertions are wholly irrelevant to an entrepreneur’s objective: building a sustainable business2 (or organization, if your aim is to innovate in the non-profit space).

A business is built out of innovation in a particular market, combining expertise and insight and networking and execution.  Nowhere in that formula is a requirement that some guys from Sand Hill Road need to come down and drop $20M in your lap so you can staff up.  Nowhere in that formula is a requirement that you need to have your offices down the street from 20 other entrepreneurs3.  And in today’s (or yesterday’s!) global economy, nearly all of your customers will be hundreds or thousands of miles away.  Innovative technology startups thrive in places as diverse as Chicago, New York, Austin, Seattle, Liverpool, and yes, even in smaller towns like Champaign, IL and Northampton, MA.

If I were to make a geographical recommendation, I’d say two things:

  1. If there is some compelling reason why a particular city or locale would provide a significant advantage to your company, go there.  (e.g. you’re working on tide power, so it makes sense to be near the ocean, or your largest potential customer and first beta site is in Bismark, so you should move in down the street)
  2. Otherwise, start your business where you’ll be happy and where you’ll find like-minded people.

If Silicon Valley is where you really want to be, godspeed; however, don’t move anywhere (or really, do anything) just because that’s where the crowd is or because some ostensibly-important person passes gas.  Innovation means thinking for yourself, doing what others think is strange, or foolish, or wrong, and being right in the long term.  Make sure you apply the same kind of independent thinking that will hopefully build your business over the coming years to where you choose to call “home” for that time.

Footnotes

  1. My impression of Silicon Valley “startup culture” isn’t particularly positive.  Seeing trendy ad-supported websites hit $15 billion paper valuations when they might not be trendy with next year’s incoming class doesn’t make me respect the culture that produces such organizations.  If that’s the sort of culture you’re interested in, fine, but please call it the lottery that it is.
  2. If you’re an “entrepreneur” in the sense that your business is raising some VC, building buzz about a website, and selling out to Yahoo/Google/Microsoft/etc before you’ve banked a single cent of profit, I’ve nothing to say to you.
  3. Although I will grant that such an environment does make for a more enjoyable after-work bar scene.  But, surely cocktail parties aren’t key ingredients in a technology startup?  If so, I’m going to become a carpenter.