Reinventing the Audio Visualizer: The Atomic Sprocket

I've been working on a new audio visualizer I'm calling the atomic sprocket. I wanted to artistically reinvent what music looks like and move away from the vertical bars of the traditional audio visualizers. It's still a work in progress, and the following two videos show the atomic sprocket visualizing Radiohead's Reckoner and Sufjan Steven's Sister Winter. I'd appreciate feedback, so please leave a comment.

Return on Involvement - The Rainforest

I've been reading The Rainforest over the past few weeks. I recently came across a concept called ROI: not  return on investment, but return on involvement. Huang and Horowitt, the authors of the book, have observed that "people in rainforests are motivated for reasons that defy traditional economic notions of 'rational' behavior." Learning that the different actors in a booming startup ecosystem, what Huang and Horowitt call a rainforest, behave with motivations that defy rational economic theories of human behavior answered a major problem I've been struggling to answer in my thesis. The underlying problem is a problem about mentor motivations. Since my thesis is about mentors and entrepreneurs identifying each other, a part of the problem is what motivates mentors to provide free advice and even meet with an entrepreneur in the first place?

I think the return on involvement describes the behavior of various actors I've also observed in Philadelphia's startup ecosystem. Huang and Horowitt show that the denizens of a startup ecosystem help startups because they "seek a return on involvement from participating in and contributing to the success of innovative ventures."

As it applies to my thesis, this means that mentors are motivated to provide advice to an entrepreneur for a later return on involvement in the venture.

To learn more about my thesis, check out the Table of Contents.

The Badge, Iteration 2

In a previous blog post, I wrote about and showed some examples of the first iteration of the Badge. A name tag that helps the right entrepreneurs and mentors to identify each other. I've been working on a second iteration that I also printed out on 3.3" x 4" labels. In this version of the name tag, I'm experimenting with using color to afford easy communication of information. For example, color coding could allow for differentiation between a mentor or an entrepreneur, or it could convey whether their expertise is in product development, customer development, team development, or business modeling. At the moment, I've used color to signify whether the user is a mentor or an entrepreneur.

You can see the first iteration and relevant information to it here.

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Table of Contents.

Analysis of First Round of Interviews

After finishing my first round of interviews, I came back to the studio and placed a single quote and observation per card. I spread them out to see all the cards at the same time. I began grouping the different data points and slowly, a pattern emerged. The following few images show the process I went through to make sense of the interviews I conducted. 

I learned there are three major concerns entrepreneurs seem to have: traction, mentors, and funding. I discovered that when startups want funding from investors, usually, they had to prove they had some sort of traction, and a mentor sometimes proved to be a point of traction early on.

To understand how a portion of the Philadelphia Startup Community communicates about funding, traction, and mentors, I went through the Philly Startup Leader’s Listserv Archive to get a feel for these correspondences. A data visualization software I wrote went through and analyzed word frequencies based upon the months and graphed the percentage of the conversation those words filled up. This type of data visualization is known as a stream graph and is best used to show evolving pieces of data in comparison to other pieces of information within the same dataset.

Mentors lend their credibility to the discovery stage startup, and thus, act as a point of traction. By lending their credibility, it reassures investors that their funds are in safe hands. In turn, funding allows the startup to set up more experiments to test how well their product or service fits in the market. Essentially, it becomes a cycle. In some cases, some amount of traction is needed to get the attention of the mentor, which then permits funds to be raised in order to propel the business even further than before.

I had learned the importance of mentors as a key starting point to the discovery stage startup, and I had chosen to focus on them at this point in my process. However, I needed a larger perspective on how mentors are attained, who they are, where they are, and their level of influence within the ecosystem. This new knowledge about traction, mentors, and funding informed my next step to map the different perspectives I had acquired and create the tangible interview.

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First Round of Interviews: David

David is a graduate of UPenn in computer science. He is a cofounder with Jameel of a startup called Inhabi. Inhabi is a rental matching service. Essentially, they match a list of renters to a list of landlords and facilitate the conversation through their website.

At the moment, he’s concerned with how to track metrics and what types of metrics to track because he thinks a lot about how to set up an experiment such that the outcome can be measured for their website. Regarding Inhabi, he wants to understand two major things: the cost of acquisition of a new customers, and the lifetime value of that customer.

Inhabi has been having traction and has had a few customers. However, he’s trying to figure out how to replicate this success by pin-pointing the variable that allowed for the customers to use Inhabi’s service. He thinks setting up the right type of experiment and knowing what to measure will reveal why these early customers used their service.

When asked about the role of the designer and when a designer should become involved, he believes the designer should get involved on behalf of the venture capitalist, act as an intermediary between the startup and the venture capitalist, and ensure the startup has an effective user experience.

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First Round of Interviews: Jake

Jake is a 2011 graduate of the Master’s of Industrial Design program at UArts. He currently works with a startup called Elect Next. His challenge while being a designer working with a startup is making clear that the client knows the service you’re providing and to make sure they understand what’s included and what’s discluded. While doing user experience design, he has noticed that internet startups don’t realize how much time it actually takes to do user experience design and user testing - he has explained the process many times to different startups, but it seems to take time for the start-up to understand how long it takes.

From the time he’s spent at Good Company Ventures and being involved with social impact internet startups, he’s realized that it’s very challenging to figure out how to monetize social impact internet startups. More importantly, he has noticed that investors are less willing to invest in an internet startup that doesn’t know how to monetize its service or product.

In a discussion about when designers should be involved with a startup, Jake thinks that designers should be involved from the beginning, but he also thinks that a single person doesn’t have enough time and money to afford a designer. Instyead, he believes that more designers should be starting businesses.

First Round of Interviews: Todd

Todd is the founder of Philly Side Arts, and he’s currently concerned with the replicability of a business model he’s been refining over the past year. Philly Side Arts is a service that helps artists to reach an audience they normally wouldn’t and sell their work to people that want it. His startup has had some traction and has seen growth over the past year, but now he is trying to figure out how he can reproduce the real world validation he has had in Philadelphia to different cities. And along side replicating a business model, he is concerned with how to attract users vs paying users so his business may prosper and continue to grow. To accomplish this, he uses google forms, direct interviews, and survey monkey to get user feedback to further refine Philly Side Arts. He has also figured out after doing all these surveys and interviews that there’s really three important questions he should be asking: Why would you use our service? What would make you switch from another provider to use our service? Why wouldn’t you switch? These three questions helped narrow down his value proposition

When he first started his business, he had between ten to fifteen different value propositions, and it took him about three months to narrow it down to three specific areas: allowing the users of his service to retain as much profit while selling through the site, allowing users to sell as much as they can, allowing users to be able to reach an audience they wouldn’t normally reach.

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First Round of Interviews: Jonny

Jonny works with startup teams to make sure they understand their value proposition. He’s had experience working with about twelve startups, and he’s worked with ten of them for free and two of them have paid.

Currently, he’s working with an incubator, Alphalab. He believes he could be helpful earlier in a startups life, but Alphalab said he should come in a few weeks before demo-day, the day that they pitch to investors and aid the startup in visually enhancing their pitches. When working in this context, his allegiance is to the startup as opposed to the venture capitalist (VC).

He’s turning his visual thinking service into a consulting business and wants to create an illustrated guide to starting a business. He knows there’s a large market in creating visual animations and thinks he can reach out to a niche market with his visual thinking service. On one plane ride, he was talking to an experienced entrepreneur, visualizing what he does, and the experienced entrepreneur said he can be hired by VCs to help their companies because it’s good for the VCs if their companies succeed. He’s interested in what and how VC’s think, but he hasn’t worked directly with them yet.

He has observed that most startups aren’t really going and understanding the value they’re bringing their customer, so he helps them build metaphors for effective communication.

He likes to work with start-ups because he gets to meet everyone, “it’s exciting, they’re real people, they’re probably going to fail, but I can probably help them, even if a little.”

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First Round of Interviews: Yuriy

Yuriy grew up in the infrastructure world, and wound up in wirelress infrastructure, cable TV, and his entire career was a series of networking encounters. He’s never applied for a job, he’s either created a company or made his own job position at a company – and he feels like it’s a divergent career path than most. to be the things that actually make the tools work.

He is currently working with an incubator in center city Philadelphia, Seed Philly. He’s personally interested in this incubator in order to break down the silos, which he thinks are age and geography. The reason age is creating silos is because the older generation isn’t talking to the newer generation, and this generational gap is creating a lack of communication. He believes that creating a space will create room for dialogue to occur and for experiences to be shared. The reason he thinks that geography is another silo is because he has observed that the internet start-ups in northern liberties don’t communicate to the service providers and lawyers in center city who don’t communicate to the science center. He explains the reason that Seed Philly is located at 1650 arch is because it’s centrally located and it has easy access from all directions by regional rail.

He also believes that the problem in Philadelphia for startups is the lack of investment funds. He thinks that the older institutions in Philadelphia are not fostering innovation and that by creating a space like Seed Philly, they’ll break down barriers and nurture innovation.

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First Round of Interviews: Aliza

Aliza graduated from the University of Delaware in 1999 with a degree in psychology. She’s self-taught in design and html, and then began freelancing. She currently wants to start her own co-working space for parents, where parents can have their children taken care of while the parents work.

Her first experience with start-ups was “Start-up X”, right out of college (The start-ups name has been omitted upon request). They grew too quickly, had to layoff people, and then were acquired.

In her experience, design is an after-thought for the more inexperienced entrepreneurs. She says they see design as a way to make something presentable at the final stage.

She has dealt with the paradox for the need of equal ownership of the work that’s being done while also balancing the need to have one or two people be the final decision-makers. In essence, it’s about team dynamics.

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First Round of Interviews: Evgeny

Evgeny is 23 years old, a recent graduate of Drexel’s MBA school and also studied finance. He’s also does photography as a hobby. He currently works at Energy Plus Holdings LLC – the “energy business” as he describes it. He feels that working in this kind of environment, the cubicle environment, is better for people who work alone and the individualist personality type. Even though he was born in Ukraine, which is a communal society, he was raised in America and is individualistic. He strives to be a jack of all trades, yet he knows he can’t do everything alone and he struggles with this paradox.

Evgeny is one of the co-founders, Aaron being the other, of Fit of Passion. Monday and Tuesday evenings, him and Aaron spend time programming and developing Fit of Passion. For the two of them this is their first start-up. He believes that the personality of the company should not reflect the personality of the founders, but instead should reflect the personality of the team. Even though he’s best at working as an individual, he’s had to separate responsibilities between him and his co-founder because it’s difficult for him to split his mind on several tasks – another paradox as he strives to be a jack of all trades.

He believes that a successful start-up isn’t one that can receive funding from a venture capitalist or become cash flow positive, instead a successful start-up is one that has a positive impact on people’s lives. He believes that a successful start-up is a start-up that provides a useful and beneficial service or product to the consumer while also being better, easier, and simpler. The reason he wants to be an entrepreneur is to save people time and to decrease people’s worries as they go clothes shopping both in store and online.

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First Round of Interviews: Interviews with Community Members

During this first round of interviews I was still looking for an area to focus, so I interviewed all sorts of individuals, from designers, novice and experienced entrepreneurs, community organizers, and technology developers. Click on the person's image to see a summary of the interview and few takeaways.



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Different Types of Information Technology Startups

Steve Blank in The Four Steps to the Epiphany observes that there are four types of startups: those “entering an existing market,” those “creating an entirely new market,” those that “want to resegment an existing market as a low cost entrant,” and those that “want to resegment an existing market as a niche player” (Blank, pg. 23). Essentially, he’s defining a startup based upon how they reach and offer a service or product to their customers and users. One can identify a startup entering an existing market with a new product by looking at the product they’re offering, comparing it to competition and noticing higher performances in the new product when compared to competitors (Blank, pg. 24). A new product in a new market is “when a company creates a large customer base who couldn’t do something before,” is a result of creating something that has never before existed (Blank, pg. 25). When a startup resegments an existing a market as a low cost entrant, it means that a startup is targeting a smaller group of people within an existing market. Doing so, allows for the startup to successfully allocate resources to focus on a single user group before going on and tackling the rest of the market.

Within the IT industry, the Startup Genome has discovered startups grouped into three major clusters: the automator, the integrator, and the challenger, with a fourth type, the social transformer, similar to the automator except that its product also has network effects. Each type is based on the way the startup acquires and interacts with its users and customers. The three main types are defined by a spectrum with 100% marketing on one end, 100% sales on the other, and a midpoint. Furthermore, the Startup Genome also provides a definition for a startup with multiple audiences. For example, the startup could be an automator for one of its user groups, while an integrator to another (1). The Startup Genome uses the word “wing” to describe a startup with multiple user groups. The startup may have a core type and have one of the other types as a wing. All the types interact with their customers via their software, which is their product or service, and usually by means of the internet.

The automator is a type of startup that is focused on the product, a self service customer acquisition, and has low overhead. They are on the end of the spectrum of 100% marketing. They're “more likely to tackle existing markets” and have a lowest barrier to entry in comparison to the other three types. This also means that they have the most competition because their competition may simply build a product, put it on the internet, provide a fantastic user experience, and begin taking market share from an existing automator (2). The average number of months for this type of startup to reach late stage, where it begins to scale Examples that are provided by the Startup Genome of companies that fit into the automater category include: “Google, Dropbox, EventBrite, Slideshare, Mint, Groupon, Pandora, KickStarter, Zynga, Playdom, Modcloth, Chegg, Powerset,, Basecamp, Hipmunk, OpenTable, and Amazon” (2).

The social transformer is similar to the automator in that it has a self service customer acquisition strategy, except that its product also has network effects. Since the social transformer type has network effects, the biggest challenge for their product is to reach a critical mass of users. “Their products are characterized by creating new ways for people to interact” (3). Examples of social transformers include: “Ebay, OkCupid, Skype, Airbnb, Craigslist, Etsy, IMVU, Flickr, Linkedin, Yelp, Aardvark, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Youtube, Dailybooth, Mechanical Turk, MyYearbook, Prosper, Paypal, and Quora” (3).

The integrator is in the mid-point of the spectrum, with 50% marketing and 50% sales. In other words, they “have a semi-automated customer acquisition strategy” (4). This means they are partially hands-on with how they acquire new customers and partially hands-off when compared to the other types. Examples of integrators include: “HubSpot, Marketo Xignite, PBWorks, Zendesk, Uservoice, GetSatisfaction, Flowtown, Kiss Metrics, Mixpanel, DimDim, Kontangent, and Zoho” (4).

The challenger is at the end point of 100% sales, and are focused around selling to enterprises. Examples of challengers include: “Salesforce, Zimbra, MySQL, Redhat, Jive, Ariba, Rapleaf, Involver, Oracle, Yammer, BazaarVoice, Atlassian, BuddyMedia, Palantir, Netsuite, Passkey, WorkDay, Apptio, Zuora, Cloudera, Splunk, SuccessFactor, Yammer, Postini, and BrightEdge” (5).


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The Opportunity for Design to Add Value

The opportunity for design to add value exists in designing a system that will help mentors and entrepreneurs to identify each other. This opportunity was discovered at the intersection of mentoring relationships, mentoring sessions, networking events, and tech startups. Connecting these different areas creates the opportunity to enhance entrepreneurial learning by designing a filtering and matching system bringing the right entrepreneurs and mentors together. 

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A Smartphone App: {novice || experienced}

{novice || experienced} is a prototype that is testing the way mentors identify teachable novice entrepreneurs. This smartphone app provides a simple text box where the novice entrepreneur may submit a business problem they're tackling. The software then places the entrepreneur's question in a public digital space allowing any mentor to engage in answering the question. The current prototype exists at the following url:

Jay Shah and Mike Krupit, both experienced entrepreneurs turned mentors, pointed out that they identify teachable novice entrepreneurs by the questions they ask. In his own words, Jay said, “It’s important to be able to tell the difference between an entrepreneur that knows his or her blind spots and is willing to ask for help and an entrepreneur that doesn’t. I tell the difference by listening and asking questions. And I think to be able to tell the former from the latter depends on the questions they ask.” This is a piece of data I needed to test first hand with the prototype {novice || experienced}. Essentially, I needed to test: if mentors identify teachable novice entrepreneurs by the questions they ask, then would entrepreneur be open to receiving advice and feedback if they pose the problem they're tackling in a question format.

Furthermore, having observed many interactions at networking events held by organizations like Philly Tech Meetup and Philly Startup Leaders, I had noticed that many entrepreneurs carry smart phones and use them to organize their schedules. I interpreted this piece of cultural information as smart phones are an appropriate channel to use to build a prototype that tests a question-answer format for business feedback. In this image you can see Balu and Lenny exchanging calendar information at Philly Tech Meetup.

I set out to design the proposed interaction. The following images shows the process from rough sketches, to information architecture, to trees organizing user flow, to hand-drawn wireframes, to mockups, and finally to a working prototype.


Organizing User Flow


Backend Software Structure

Working Prototype
After building this prototype, I implemented it at Philly Tech Meetup by making business card size fliers informing the entrepreneurs of this new tool.

While going through the networking event, I spoke with and handed out fliers to roughly twenty people. Of those twenty people, three checked it out and one person left a question after the networking event was over. They asked, "Should I meet investors with traction data but no revenue model proven yet?" Without running more tests with this prototype at networking events, it's difficult to know why the one entrepreneur left a question after the networking event was over and didn't submit the question during the networking event.

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Finding the "Right" Mentor

The Startup Genome brings up the factor of the “right mentors” and how they positively influence the startup's ability to raise funds. However, the startup genome doesn't articulate what it entails to be the right type of mentor. In order to discover the “right” types of mentors for startups, I conducted interviews with novice entrepreneurs, experienced entrepreneurs, and read through academic research.

A novice entrepreneur and I at Philly Tech Meetup’s happy hour were discussing why he would want a mentor. He said, “mentors speed up interpreting the metrics and figuring out how to act on them.” He went on to add, “mentors are good at pattern matching." We continued our discussion in an email dialogue. I asked him to described what a great mentor would look like for his company. He defined a “great” mentor as an individual with “deep knowledge” of their respective industry, to “have connections to others to fill in gaps in their, [the startups] experience, and business links that would help grow the company." According to this entrepreneur, the right mentor is a well connected and deeply knowledgeable individual in one or more industries, with the respective business experience to go with it.

In one of my interviews with the startup Inhabi, I learned that they’ve already attracted their first set of paying customers. They've been setting up experiments to test one product feature over another, and they currently have a lot of data on their users. From their perspective, they also believe that mentors are good at “pattern matching" for the purpose of making decisions on data that's been acquired during product tests. This startup seemed interested in making sense of on the data they were acquiring because they're concerned about how to acquire more customers. In other words, they're improving their customer acquisition.

Another entrepreneur with the startup Dine&Ditch, when finding the right mentor, he "tends to look for weaknesses of core competencies of specific aspects of the business model and team."

And for your viewing, the following set of entrepreneurs were asked a single question, "How do you identify a mentor for your business?"

While interviewing various entrepreneurs, it seems that it's the norm to have several mentors at the same time. Whether that mentor is providing strategic advice on how to refine the product, the business model, or even customer acquisition, it's also the norm to have each mentor satisfy one particular area of expertise for the novice entrepreneur's business. 

From this data, it seems that the right type of mentor for a startup, or novice entrepreneur, is a person with expertise and connections in an area the novice entrepreneur or the startup team lacks.

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The Badge

The problem the Badge is solving is the challenge of finding the right person at a networking event.

The Badge is a name tag that reveals the user's business experience and current business problem he or she is tackling. It is intended to encourage people around the user to start a conversation around the business problem the user is tackling. Ideally, a room full of people wearing and using the Badge will allow them to easily find individuals with the right business experience to strategize about their respective business problem.

In the following images, you can see a few different versions of the Badge.

The Badge was informed by several pieces of information.

The first piece of information is an interview with a managing director of Dreamit Ventures. During this interview I learned that experienced entrepreneurs do not necessarily self-identify as mentors even though they may have the appropriate experience to provide strategic advice to novice entrepreneurs.

Another key piece of data is the peer mentoring I've observed at Novotorium and Good Company Ventures. From observing these peer mentoring session, I learned that the group of novice entrepreneurs sitting around the table were able to strategize and think through other entrepreneur's businesses. Each entrepreneur sitting around the table has various levels of experience and expertise, but they were able to think through their peer's business.

The Badge is finally informed by the name tags I experienced using at TedxPhilly. These name tags were designed as a social ice-breaker. The name tag showed other people the wearer's interests. For example, I wrote down that I like whiskey. The conversations that ensued always began with a discussion regarding whiskey. I believe a similar technique for name tags can be used to direct initial conversations at a business networking event around an entrepreneur's business. Specifically, I think strategies can be discussed and learning will take place.

I've also made a second iteration of the Badge.

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Motivation to Design in the Information Tech Startup Community

Originally a small side project and a minor encounter with the community at Philly Startup Weekend, I found the intensity and commitment these people have towards changing the world via technology to be unparalleled. The majority of them are trying to ease human life of problems through technology in a manner that’s economically feasible. This passion is also captivating for a like-minded individual such as myself – it’s also invigorating being amongst people my age that are trying to improve the world, even if incrementally. I was motivated to empower this community by designing tools that may further enable them to learn and succeed.
The Early Stages of This Thesis, Visualized by Hand

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The Local Philadelphia Backdrop

The context and backdrop of this thesis is the Philadelphia information technology startup community. The community is young when compared to the already established communities of Silicon Valley, London, and New York (1). It's also dwarfed in comparison to the already established industries of Philadelphia: pharmaceuticals and health services, bio-tech, real estate,  the life sciences, and higher education (2). The challenges facing the community are many, ranging from a lack of designers, to a lack of investment funds, to a need for mentors and advisers, to work spaces that allow for collaboration (3). These are some of the challenges and lack of resources that the community will have to overcome. In order for this community to grow, there needs to be mechanisms in place that retains the information technology startups. In an ideal case, scalable and economically sustainable startups, which are startups that can grow into businesses that hire people and can generate enough revenue to continue growing, create ancillary jobs. This is then followed by the generation of tax revenue and a wealth of business experience, which in turn permeates to the rest of the city via tax revenue, business experience, mentorship, and investment capital.

  3. Interviews and observations

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