Startups in Philadelphia: PSL's Map of the Ecosystem

Philly Startup Leaders has developed a map showing the locations of many startups, various companies, accelerators, coworking spaces, investors, and a variety of services. It's the most comprehensive map I've ever come across, and having a map like this when I first started my thesis would have been a great aid. It would have sped up the interviewing process of finding entrepreneurs across Philadelphia. To find entrepreneurs, I to attend the different organizations like Philly Tech Meetup, Philly Startup Leaders, Philly Startup Weekend, Founder Factory, and various other events where entrepreneurs gather in order to tell them about my thesis and find prospective interviewees.

Having trekked across Philadelphia to find and interview people within the startup ecosystem, I mapped out and discovered relationships. Though it's not even close to being as comprehensive as the map above, it sheds light on the relationships between the different types of organizations and how they influence and sustain each other.

Reflections on Design Research: Framing the Problem

This is the first post in a series of posts I'll be writing about human centered design. I see these posts as a way to help me think about and verbalize what I do by practicing and getting feedback on these essays.

I've been involved in the field of human centered design for the past two and a half years. It's a field that has at its core a meta-level of analysis and synthesis on the design process. A process that many say started at IDEO, and it's a problem solving technique that has greatly shown its impact in Silicon Valley. But there a other design firms, like frog design, which also demonstrate a similar design philosophy.

The design research process is about creating new wisdom for the purpose of designing tools that solve problems people face as they go about their lives and perform their jobs. I think the most important part of the design research process is to figure out how to frame the problem, because in the end, the solution will closely follow the description of the problem. Looking at design at this high level, there are three parts, framing the problem, prototyping a solution, and oscillating between the two states of framing the problem and prototyping a solution.

I've come to understand design research as a way to learn about the world and make sense of the human experience by fashioning and fabricating tools that can probe and structure the information observed about the world. I'll use examples from my thesis to demonstrate and illuminate design research in practice.

One place a human centered designer can start is by performing ethnographic research. This can take the form of interviews, surveys, shadowing, role-playing, etc. One application of ethnographic research is to understand a community, a person, a market, an organization, corporation, etc. This type of research will reveal the community's culture, how the different individuals comprising the culture function autonomously and interactively. This process eventually reveals a problem or opportunity that can be addressed via design.

For example, I engaged with and ethnographically researched the Philadelphia technology startup community for my thesis. I began by doing interviews, which then led to discoveries of challenges and opportunities the community faces. There were two rounds of interviews for my thesis, the first was my initial probe into discovering what the community's problems, challenges, and opportunities. The three major themes discovered revolved around a lack of funding in the Philadelphia region, the need for mentors and advisers who have been entrepreneurs, and each startup's need to figure out how to gain initial traction. The second round of interviews leveraged the knowledge I had gained from the first round of interviews, and I designed a research tool to reveal the community's perspective on resource dispersion. To move my thesis forward, I had to discover where mentors and advisers were located and how they were dispersed throughout the community. Being able to visually map data that's collected in this manner has played a key role in making new connections between information that's normally not connected.

Mapping the Philadelphia Startup Community and the Relationships between different organizations
Another example is observing startups operate and function in their natural environment in order to observe the entrepreneurial culture specific to Philadelphia. To do this, I attended and observed multiple Philly Startup Weekends, observed the Philly Tech Meetup and PSL's Founder Factory, and had the opportunity to help and observe the various startups at the 2012 GoodCompany Ventures program.

Startup Weekend, Mentor Providing Advice
Doing this aided in understanding that mentors/advisers and entrepreneurs can serrendipitiously meet or have planned meetings; eventually, realizing how mentors and advisers may serendipitously interact with entrepreneurs and how mentors and advisers trust and identify each other. At this step in the process, I was finally able to frame the problem for my thesis and I could begin prototyping different solutions (Request for Mentoring, Mentoring Progress Report, and Mentoring System). Also, at this point in my thesis, my thesis began oscillating between prototyping solutions and reframing the problem as I continued to learn from the prototypes I tested.

The next phase of research for my thesis was understanding what goes on during a mentoring/advising session and what goes on before and after the mentor/adviser and entrepreneur meet face-to-face, which eventually will lead to a mentoring system that will benefit entrepreneurs, mentors/advisers, and the organizations that provide mentoring/advising.

You can explore the current draft of my thesis here.

Read the next post in this series here.

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Mentoring Conversations Visualized: More Data, New Discoveries

Two more mentoring sessions recorded, analyzed, and visualized! The first infographic is a conversation between an idea stage entrepreneur and a mentor. It's also a first time meeting between this particular mentor and entrepreneur. The second infographic is a conversation between an entrepreneur that's built a prototype and a mentor. The entrepreneur and mentor depicted conversing in the second infographic have been meeting for several months now and have an established relationship.

Idea Stage Entrepreneur

Prototype Stage Entrepreneur

When comparing these two conversations with the first mentoring conversation I visualized, which was a first time meeting between an idea stage entrepreneur and mentor, the similarities are mostly in how the conversations begin. The entrepreneur has to bring the mentor up to speed about what he or she has been doing for the past month or so before the mentor can provide any strategic advice. This part of the conversation is highlighted in burgundy. Furthermore, another similarity is the total amount of time taken up by current/past strategy. It takes a significant portion of the mentoring session to bring the mentor up to speed on what the entrepreneur has been doing and is currently doing. I do not yet know if it's good or bad that it takes somewhere between 10 - 15 minutes to discuss current/past strategies.

One noticeable difference between these two mentoring sessions and the first mentoring session is the amount of questions asked by the mentor from the first mentoring conversation. I think the difference in the amount of questions asked has to do with the mentoring/advising style of the mentor.

The part I'm still struggling to figure out is how to measure an effective mentoring/advising conversation. Looking at the infographics, I'm not yet sure I can see or point to markers that comprise an effective mentoring conversation.

Even if I can't figure out how to measure an effective mentoring/advising conversation, implementing a prototype will show one of three things: positive deviation from the norm, no deviation from the norm, or negative deviation from the norm. A positive deviation will be when a prototype aids in facilitating knowledge transfer. No deviation will be when the prototype did just as well as there being no prototype implemented into the conversation. Negative deviation is when the prototype hinders knowledge transfer from mentor to entrepreneur. In other words, designing a prototype for these conversations will either lead to something good, something bad, or absolutely nothing...

You can see one possible prototype here, or another prototype here.

Back to Table of Contents.

TuvaLabs moves into Project Liberty Incubator

Great news! TuvaLabs is now part of the third class of the Project Liberty Incubator. The incubator has brought together several different organizations including The Knight Foundation, Interstate General Media, Ben Franklin Tech Partners, Drexel University, and Dreamit Ventures. The incubator's work space is located on 8th and Market, right on the end of the Gallery at Market East.

It's been about a week in this work environment, and I finally received my badge.

The work space is a bit empty and needs a little love. Maybe I should bring Johnny Four and set him up on the desk?

Art that Dies

During the panel discussion for the closing reception of >get >put at little berlin, the panelists circled around the idea of art that dies. This was in reference to the piece I contributed to the exhibition titled "Lo and Behold, I am become as a God." A question was posed, what will happen to my piece when all the sentences from the book Flatland have been recorded?

Technically, the software will catastrophically fail. It will throw a null pointer exception because the software contains an array of 1318 sentences. When that last sentence is finally recorded, the software I wrote will attempt to retrieve sentence 1319, but it won't be able to find it. Instead, the system will throw a null pointer exception. A null pointer exception is just a fancy way of saying that sentence 1319 doesn't exist.

"Lo and Behold, I am become as a God" has a lifespan, in some strange sense... It will exist for 1318 sentences, but it will then crash. The exact time frame for when the piece will die is not set in stone, but is determined by how many people interact with the piece. It's art that grows and matures based upon its interaction with people. This reminds me of the lifespan of a person and the proverb about the candle that burns brightest burns half as long... In other words, the more people that interact with the art, the quicker the retelling of Abbott's Flatland, the sooner the piece will stop functioning. All that will be left are the pieces of interaction "Lo and Behold, I am become as a God" has had with all the participants. It reminds me of a human life and the remnants of our interactions is one form of how we'll be remembered. In this case, the remnants of this piece will continue to exist on YouTube.