In 2007, I wrote a book on the then (to the masses) widely unknown AVR RISC microchip. Yes, a whole book. For those unfamiliar with the topic, let me just say that the AVR RISC is basically exactly what you get when you use an Arduino. Now that rings a bell, doesn’t it? But more on that in a second.
I remember when I and a friend were the only ones I personally knew how to make a website and put it on the web. Nobody around our school, neighborhood or families had any idea on how to do it (and neither on why this was important, really). I wasn’t around when Bill Gates and Paul Allen had their idea, or Woz started hacking around with chips. But I was around and at the right age when the web rushed in. It existed a good while before my friends at school or I even knew what it’s about. But once everyone figured out you could make a lot of easy money with a computer, at home, making websites for the dentist’s office or that doctor down the road, people went crazy. Tools like Microsoft Frontpage or Dreamweaver took off like nobody’s business and brought everything to the masses finally. Today, the web is floated with ideas, has help mankind iterate to a new era and it’s definitely not going anywhere.
So, the fact that you likely have heard about the Arduino makes me very happy. I am not affiliated with their great efforts, but it basically resembles an unbelievably great example of what differentiates a minor idea from a perfect product that has potential to (really) disrupt an industry. Here’s a product I built with it, for example: aircubus.
When I started playing around with microcontrollers, I was quickly surprised by how much you could actually do with these little things, despite a very simple and sort of strict logic design. It can output 1s, and 0s, voltage and no voltage. It can input 1s and 0s (high voltage and low voltage), and then it can convert a voltage measured at a pin into an integer value (0..5V equals a number between 0…1024, for instance). And that’s about it. The rest of it is internals. Yet, I was making motorcycle alarms, car-reverse-parking-distance assistants, digital laser communication to my friend’s house 400m away, GPS Waytrackers for running/walking/hiking (before Android/iPhone took that over), garage openers, light notifications, universal TV remove controls – you name it. The list goes on and on. I did all of it with the same chip. Price of that chip? Maybe $2.
The problem was this: In order to get started with programming microchips, you needed at least a basic electronics lab, consisting of resistors, capacitors, oscillators, soldering equipment, ideally an oscilloscope as well as a signal generator, potentially a lot of LEDs and photo diodes, cables and soldering boards. Oh, AND A LOT OF ELECTRONICS KNOWLEDGE. In other words, it was nearly impossible for the average person to get busy with it.
That’s why I decided to write a beginner’s book about it back then. Germany’s largest tech publisher immediately signed me and the book was published a year after. It was great, but I felt like I didn’t really make that sort of impact I had imagined. My book started at almost zero knowledge and – in under 300 pages – it tried to teach the basics of electronics, the AVR chip, the C programming language, Assembler and so forth. It worked all that newly-acquired knowledge into 6 DIY projects covered in greater detail at the end of the book and on the CD. Yet, I still got a lot of reader questions about issues with their electronics, on how to set up the controller and I sort of noticed beginners struggling with the topic, despite my (probably poor) introduction to this great world of DIY electronics.
Then, the Arduino arrived. I barely noticed it and only slowly realized what this actually meant. The Arduino project identified the absolute hardest parts of this whole DIY microchipping thing and just focused on one thing: To remove every single one of those issues:
- No more soldering, you order the fully assembled device.
- No more soldering, you simply connect the wires through pin-plugs
- No more developer environment setting up, ATMELs AVR Studio was a pain and I never really liked it. Today it’s close to 1GB download and is basically required for the beginner to start with (you can also start with Linux command line tools, but most might not feel up to the task at the start). The AVRGCC compiler had weird flags, you had to make sure to use the appropriate (often expensive) tools produced by ATMEL to flash the chip and to get from “I got everything in the mail” to “Hello World” often took me (and I did this a few times) half a day or more at a minimum.
- NO EXTERNAL COMPONENTS required. You buy it, you plug it in, done.
- It works on Linux, Mac OS and Windows.
ATMEL never seemed to care much about solving these issues, I was in contact with the company a few times and their mission statement was clear: Large manufacturers are the market, not hobbyists. Basically: Why bother. Now, they’ve gotten incredibly lucky nevertheless with the Arduino guys using ATMEL’s chips, re-inventing DIY electronics:
The Arduino user interface is so simple it’s almost like they’re making a joke. When I started it the first time I actually started looking for the setup menus, the debugger – all the other things. None of it is there, just a simple serial monitor.
Then I entered my first program, taken from the super-minimal reference page on the Arduino website and bamm, it worked, first attempt. Anyone with a background in electronics will tell you this: It NEVER works on the first try.
So, while this obviously required a whole lot more effort than writing a book, the guys behind the Arduino have transformed the industry. They’ve pushed it off to a new level, and I mean it. It might not be immediately visible to the fellow average web surfer, but in my opinion, this is comparable to the time when Bill Gates and Paul Allen figured out how to make the 8008 Intel chip accessible to a wider audience.
Am I reaching far with my statement? I don’t think so, hear me out:
If you browse around Kickstarter or Indiegogo, even check out the vast amount of content on things like instructables.com or the MAKE magazine, you’ll quickly realize that the number of electronics projects has skyrocketed already. This world, once limited to a few nerdy electronics guys had a hard time hitting the innovation virus. There were less people involved, less collaboration, less ideas. But having so many new folks join this community of DIYers, using golden tools like GitHub, the Arduino Forums, Raspberry Forums, HackerNews, Reddit, having companies like SparkFun supply just about anything that comes to mind and Amazon overflowing with books on “how to get started with getting started on beginning working with the Arduino” – it’s all headed in a clear direction.
It was incredibly tempting to create a website back then, you could show it to people and surprise them by the fact that you made this, you understand how it works and you can help them understand it, too.
Unlike me, my girlfriend was never associated with electronics much. She runs a DIY blog (22ideas.com) and focuses on other things, like crafting, fashion and design. Yet, when I recently showed her how the Arduino works, she got curious. It took less than a day for her to write a pulse-width-modulated drum trigger application for her cachon, to light up a powerful color led inside once someone hit the box. Lighter hits triggered white flashes, a stronger hit triggered a bright blue flash. Turn off the light, have a drummer go at it and you’ll quickly see why this is a lot of fun. The program has about 50-60 lines of code, that’s it. And she understands everything, she read it up on the Arduino reference page. I just helped a bit with coding structure (what is a loop, what is a function, what is a variable, that’s about it).
The Arduino obviously has limits. It’s a great prototyping device. But you can’t do high-speed video processing, audio processing or signal analysis with it. There’s a lot of things it might not be suitable for. But it’s suitable for more things than people can still imagine.
And once the Arduino isn’t enough anymore, a Raspberry Pi costs $30. That’s insane – and everyone in the industry will agree with me. We’ve NEVER had something like this before. The Raspberry Pi is the lowest denominator, if you don’t start with it now, you never will (like Microsoft Frontpage). It doesn’t get any simpler (except LEGO, but well, you know).
So my thought really is, go hack everything. Disassemble things, build products in real life. Make them do what you imagine. Interface one object with another, build the intelligence. It’s incredibly rewarding and fascinating. Build the home automation you always wanted.
My apartment is completely light controlled by my iPhone, I can turn my speakers and music on, or my glass-wire ambilight. I click a button on my iPhone, it routes a signal to the Raspberry Pi, which uses a hacked (read: cracked open and re-wired) remote power controller and numerous remote-controllable power sockets. It’s amazing. And so simple.
If you want to be part of a new industry, go start now, you’re already late. If you’re too old for this, make sure you buy a Raspberry Pi for your kids. Trust me.
Here’s another example of what you can build with the Arduino:
Tweet Like Nobody Listens? Why I Unfollowed You
So here’s a tricky one. Who is your Twitter audience? Do you tweet to please your audience? Are you responsible for entertaining your audience? Or does your audience follow you because of who you are on Twitter? What do your tweets say about you – and what do they push your audience to think about you? Are you just yourself on Twitter?
Here’s a scenario you’re certainly familiar with: You meet someone at a random event, you exchange Twitter names (or notice afterwards), you follow each other on Twitter shortly after and realize soon after that the other person keeps tweeting about Search Engine Optimization, Auto-Likes YouTube Videos, Auto-Checks-In on Foursquare or AGREES WITH VERY INTERESTING SCIENTIFIC JOURNAL REPORTS, or cats.
What do you do? Quietly block or hide you say? Well, now you still can (with the right Twitter clients). But soon, there’ll likely be a world without the ability to block/hide people on your timeline through your oh-so-smarty-pants Twitter client. Twitter is working hard to force anyone offering such clients to display timelines without modification and adhere to their display guidelines – or shut down many clients right away. This is because they know that you’ll likely also start hiding ads if your client allows it.
Either way, your main option now and later is and will be the UNFOLLOW.
So you unfollow that person, no big deal. Right? Yes, at least until the day that very person approaches you with a seemingly casual question: “So, I noticed you unfollowed me?”. Now that’s #awkward. And I’m sure it has happened to you and is often followed up with a quick assurance to follow again, since it must have been an accident, …or something.
Now this is easy with people you don’t know very well. But it gets pretty uncomfortable quickly when it relates to people close to you, life-long friends, relatives or newly found friends. Some don’t notice – but many find out when trying to send you a DM or use a tool like FRUJI.com to see who unfollowed you recently. Eventually, they’ll find out. Most have the social manners to not call you out on it, luckily, but still consider this a dent in your relationship to them. Why is that? Why do people take this so personal?
To understand this, I’d urge everyone to re-consider how you are actually using Twitter.
I, for one, use it as a daily filter of what’s going on out there with a twist of entertainment and a shot of technology and nerd content. So, anything (anyone that is) that helps me filter the massive load of information out there according to this criteria, is someone I’d love to have on my timeline. If I don’t follow you, then this does NOT IMPLY that I don’t like you. It simply says that the stuff you tweet or retweet is not matching my personal preferences on Twitter. Your stories and knowledge might be astounding when we meet in person, but not so much while I need a quick break from working or something that I can wake up to or read while falling asleep. If I like you, I have your phone number in my address book. Or you will have heard from me some way or another in the past weeks or months. But our Twitter connection indicates absolutely nothing other than the fact that I don’t understand you as a suitable filter for the world out there to meet my very specific interests. Twitter is the only tool that gives me the chance to make my day interesting, almost up to 100% to my liking. No newspaper can do this for me. They often get close, but there’s always the sports section I don’t care about or something. On Twitter, I can change this filter daily. My limit is currently set tight at around 100 people that I use as a filter. Yes, use. Again, I don’t follow (or not follow) you because I like (or not like) you. I just feel you filter through the information out there in a way that attracts and inspires me.
And yet, many still feel like this is personal. Again, this is no Facebook. It only is personal if you make it so. If you unfollow me now, I’m sorry to see you go, I really am. But I understand. My tweets are so mixed up, I sometimes write in German, sometimes I rant on about programming issues then I blog about my music and urge everyone to listen only to go bonkers shortly after on religion or anything not so important while I’m at it. It’s my channel of expression. If nobody listens, I will still tweet the same stuff. It’s something I want to get out of the system, something I feel I want to be associated with and something I want the world (even if that is just one person, thank you @citysandra) to know.
You should do the same and accept people disconnecting with your timeline. It’s a normal process. They might want to see cat pictures and cat pictures only – you didn’t produce those, so natural selection at work, 2.0 style.
This is different of course, if you consider yourself as an entertainer of your crowd. If you want to make everyone happy, it’s usually wise to stick to comedy with a mix of things nobody knew and something smart to wrap it in. More power to you, it’s hard to keep an audience happy, especially if you are just at the beginning of building your act. But as many entertainers will tell you, there’s the act – and then there’s the person. I, want to be me on Twitter, not a character I know would work really well with the audience.
So, for you entertainers and want to be entertainers out there, continue to deliver, try to Tweet like EVERYBODY listens, take it deeply personal if you are being unfollowed and see what tweaks your character might need to win them back.
For everyone else and me, tweet like nobody listens, be happy about those who stick around not because they’re friends but because they somehow, oddly connect with your weird personality. That’s true gold right there.
Oh, and on that occasion: Follow me on Twitter if you want. If you ask me I’ll hook you up with a free FRUJI premium account. How about that.
A solid mindfuck on the meaning of time in our lives
Life’s a bitch. We’re constantly struggling to escape things that seemingly keep us locked up in our tight schedules and take away precious life time. “I hate that I have to get up and go to work again on Monday”, “I hate going to to school!” and the classic “I guess it’s time to start a family before we get too old for this!?”. On the other hand, some of use are going through a time where we just don’t do those things much, well, generally not doing much with life at all other than passing day by day – and have to live with constant pressure or uncertainty of what comes next, after all of this doing nothing kind of lifestyle.
How much of this is really being pushed on us though? Why do we agree to give up this precious thing called life time? Don’t go to work, don’t go to school, who needs to have kids, go party!? Ha, right, well, not so fast. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t work very well for most of us. Each and every little thing that seems to be restricting us in life, is something we actually accepted on the basis of a very basic deal. I go to school, well, why? Because I can sort of see what my future will most likely bring if I do not go and finish it. I can also tell you how fast you’ll be thinking about finding a new job again once you finally quit your job. Money’s gonna fly out the door and you’ll be noticing those Hawaii vacation advertisements, new iPhone 5 reports and other things take over most of your internet browsing attention in no time.
Money will control a lot of what you’re willing to accept in life.
But what about starting a family, getting married, buying a house, settling down? These are all things that cost money and time (bare with me), not return any (unless a financially rewarding divorce is on the secret mission plan). Why do we often feel that these things are also restricting, or causing the feeling of giving up more and more of our own time and life? If you’re starting a family, you give time, money, lots of effort and passion, and hope for all possible luck to bring someone to life who hopefully enjoys life even a tad more than you did, has equal or better opportunities and literally outlives and continues your character in a strange but interesting way. It’s all that remains once we die. A DNA trace that keeps going forward, for as long as someone reproduces and manages to survive. That and of course the hope for gaining a life-long return of happy moments. I am sure almost every parent would stick to their decision and do it the exact same way again, despite many tough years in bringing up the kids. The only thing people mention is that they probably would have done it earlier, or later, so they could have enjoyed their time a bit more before/after they had kids.
So we’re back on the concept of time, giving some of it away and hoping for the return to be more than worth the time we invest. Now this is where most of us completely fail to grasp the idea - it’s not a 1:1 transaction. It’s not even a fixed transaction, it’s a completely variable transactional conversion, with many factors. What makes you happy on Monday, won’t make you happy on a Tuesday two years later. There are so many things going into this equation, it’s hard to plan for it.
For instance, I remember the first days at my job at Microsoft, when I was making more money during my casual morning walk to the coffee machine than I make now during a full day (on average) sitting in front of the computer - it was awesome. I felt my time is really paying off, it’s a GOOD investment. I am getting more out of this than I invest and it feels like a smart decision. Then I had to fly home for Christmas and stuff.
What, 3 weeks of vacation per year?
You have no idea how hard it suddenly gets to accommodate for this when your life is still rooted on two continents, Christmas, birthdays, new years, vacation? Vacation time became the cocaine of my work life, on it you’re having the time of your life (money, time, any place in the world with anyone you want) – once you’re out of it, you’re going through a very different life at work, you’re sitting out the time until it restarts next year.
It frustrates you and makes you hate the fact you’re at work, losing life time.
So what about all the money? Well, it becomes clear that having money is awesome, but without freedom, it’ll (unless you’re really, really good with this) find its way to get spent on many other expensive things that keep you happy for a little while but quickly lose the ability to keep up the spirit more and more (one of these moments for me was the time when I suddenly upgraded to the latest iPhone, Macbook, iPad and iMac almost at the same time - whatwhy?).
So, I quit, started a company. Nobody bosses me around and I get to do what I want.
I have built everything my company does all by myself, wrote hundreds of thousands of lines of code and worked harder on this than on anything else I’ve spent time on in my life. I felt, every day was worth it.
Today, I have decided to shut it down.
Reasons and details will follow soon, but right now, it’s more about the implications on life, rather than the experience and things I have learned.
While I do have all the time in the world now, or, put differently, a much more flexible schedule, I do not have any money to spend on enjoying my free time, I rarely have money to go for a weekend city trip anymore. Life has changed dramatically.
So I wake up, and ask myself the question: Is the time I invest in building my company really, worth it? Money wise, no. It was not worth it so far, my bank account will clearly show that. It was worth it from an experience point of view, for sure. But that does not buy me back my time nor does it buy me more free time.
Also, for most of the time, I enjoyed working, and if work is fun, then vacation, friends or any sort of social get together takes you away from the fun. So why bother leaving work?
SO, WHAT KIND MIND FUCK IS THIS? JOB? BAD. ENTREPRENEUR? BAD. SLACKER?
Put differently, what is life time worth really?
We’re basically starting out on this planet without being asked whether we want or not. That’s how it starts for every one. Then, we’ll have about 80 years (a bit more or less) to do stuff while we’re here. The first 10 of those, we’re basically just doing random things and figuring stuff out. Another 10, are invested in detaching from the safety and mindset of our parents. At 20, we’re mostly making a decision on studying a bit more or stopping there and starting to make some money. Either way, it’ll be at least another 5 years of more or less planned out paths. But then, between 25 and 30, things start to change. You’re thinking about a career, you’re thinking about relationships, family (albeit in distant thoughts for many like me) and a whole bunch of other things. You’re still trying hard to see the world and likely fail to accept the fact that most people will not make that many more changes to what they’re already doing at that point, moving forward.
The last 10 to 20 years of your life, are probably (and I definitely speak out of imagination here) a lot of opportunities mixed with often little enthusiasm and a lot reflecting back on the early years in life, especially when seeing kids grow or grown up.
And then, eventually, we die. And that was that. We’re passing away and leave this world like every other person. We certainly, again, didn’t ask for it. So what’s left? At that point, you probably won’t care, since, well, you can’t really care about it anymore.
But what are we supposed to do, with all this time in between 20/25 to say, 60 or 70 years of age? A solid 30-50 years to fill with opportunities! What is one supposed to do?
This is where I have a pretty clear answer, finally. I think it is our only mission to enjoy it. Have fun along the way, try to see things you want to see, experience whatever you feel like experiencing and just make the most of it, literally. Doing that, try not to hurt anyone else, make someone’s life harder or act like it’s worth less, do not backstab people, don’t try to become someone at the cost of other people’s future. Just be curious and imagine you can do a lot more than you were made to believe by your social circles, friends, family or whoever you’re looking up to.
Just imagine the final day of your life, looking back. If your sad relatives and close family give you terrified looks and all you’re saying is:
It was fucking awesome, thanks for everything, time is up, I’m out. Be good, make the most of it and be happy while you’re here. We’ll never meet again, but this is what we signed up for. I enjoyed every moment we spent together and hope you did too. I did my best and have always tried.
If I manage to leave this weird world like this on my last day, then I know that my time was spent well. Anything that helps me stay on this mission, is life time invested well. Anything you do that is not directly moving you forward with these things, should only be taking up time that ultimately helps you go back to what you’re actually here for, enjoying it. This is no attitude to live by before 25, it will lead to complete distress and failure, I am pretty sure of it. But now, it seems like everything is solid enough to start enjoying life more, fearing less.
We’re second generation post-war, in Europe. We’re having the time of our lives, basically all of us have parents with a house or nice apartment, we have enough money to step on a plane and see a bit of the world every other year at the very least. WE FLY IN FUCKING AIR VEHICLES! The world was dramatically different before us, all the time before us. Most of us live the dream everyone never thought was possible all these hundreds and hundreds of years ago.
It’s just fascinating to me, how much of a mind-fuck this all becomes, so quickly. And it’s so hard to just blur out all the fear we feel around us day by day when you worry about the next deal, about the nature of your business, about the future of your character and life. I feel that as long as I get to crawl back through the forrest of confusion and horror to the innermost mission of being happy at the very end, things become clear again.
If you read all the way to this part, then we should sit down and chat. Anytime.
Breaching Identity in 5 Minutes or Less
NOTE: This is serious. You can mess up people’s lives, identities and online presence considerably with this. It is highly illegal, you will be caught and there is no point on doing this. But there is HUGE POINT in understanding how it works. Because you will not believe how easy it is, to mess somebody up.
Update: I found an even more serious and easy way, at the very bottom, read this first though to understand it.
There was seemingly shocking story recently about a guy who realized that his Apple account was breached and all his devices were being swiped remotely. People quickly dismissed this as a one-off, semi-famous guy’s issue. Nobody cares about my account, right?
I see why most people unfamiliar with programming might not see how big of an issue this all is. Your e-mail provider tells you about increased security, everything is HTTPS and SSL and there’s so many weird characters in your password, it’s uncrackable. Sure.
What most people don’t realize is that the attacks have changed, the weak point has shifted away from secure data transmission methodology to something much, much simpler. I want to illustrate how easy it actually is, in simple terms, to destroy the identity of a random person online, a person just like you. This will not guide you to do stuff like that, but it will hopefully serve as a clear and simple-to-understand warning of what we should be expecting to happen more soon.
A few things to clear up beforehand:
We assume you sign up for a number of services online. Say you have a GMAIL or HOTMAIL account, possibly an account with your local community forum, a sports forum, maybe an account with a bunch of new startup services you tried out, a dozen accounts on random boards forcing you to register because you wanted to download an attachment, an account with your favorite artist’s fan page, an account on that photo page you were trying to download the photo of you and your friends taken at a recent party, you name it.
For most services, you signed up using your regular username, and most likely, one of your standard passwords. Most people still use the same password for everything, but due to the fact that some services require stronger passwords, I believe most people have opted for using 1-3 passwords, in varying strength. Let’s assume a few typical passwords:
I seriously just came up with these words. This second.
Now, for a password-cracking tool, these might take a while to crack. In fact, you check how long each of these passwords would take (rough, rough estimation) to crack (try it: http://howsecureismypassword.net). Here are the results:
1) skrillex123 takes about a year
2) emp3r0r takes about 19 seconds (surprised already?)
3) londonparisnewyork takes about 233 million years
These are, obviously estimations, since a good word-list and picking the right algorithm would crack password 3 in a microsecond, possibly password 2 not in a long time. Anyways, here’s the real cool part:
NO NEED TO CRACK ANY OF THESE PASSWORDS
While technology is changing at dramatic speed, knowledge of the masses (and in a more limited sense, of programmers) usually takes a bit more time to catch up. Back in the day (and oh boy, it does still happen!), a lot of services were storing your password unencrypted. You can tell these services apart from more secure ones by the fact that they provide you with an option to send you your original password, in case you forgot it. Immediately close your account there, if you come across something like that.
Still, we’re assuming you signed up for proper sites.
A lot of these sites are using a technology called MD5, a one-way-hash. What is this? Well, it’s a mathematical algorithm that takes your password, slices, mixes and mashes it up in a very specific way and gives you something that looks like this:
Now, since this is just a lot of numbers, how would the service know that you indeed entered the correct password whenever you login later? Well, simple trick: It takes any password you give and applies the same mathematical function to it. The first cool thing about MD5 is, it always (ALWAYS) produces the exact same end result from the password given. Then you simply compare what you just calculated with what is stored for this user in the database and if it matches, same guy.
Now, why does nobody reverse it? Well, that’s the second cool thing about MD5. It’s a one-way-hash. That means it generates a lot of garbage that can not feasibly be reversed back to the original form. But it always produces the same garbage for the same input. So this is cool, right? So thought the internet. And, my personal estimation, probably more than 80% or 90% of web-services storing passwords are using this algorithm to hash your password and then store it.
So, remember this for a second.
BUT I DON’T HAVE ACCESS TO RANDOM DATABASES OF MD5 PASSWORDS? AND EVEN IF, I WOULD NOT BE ABLE TO REVERSE THEM?
Right. True that. Except, there is no need to reverse them, but more on that on a second. First, access to random databases.
Sometimes, you’ll hear about Anonymous releasing large amounts of datasets they hacked on some random system (recently it was the San Francisco transport system, BART, with thousands and thousands of accounts). They basically publish a list of e-mail address, and an MD5 phrase (password). This is useless you say? No reversing? True. One could take a large list of words (from a dictionary) and just generate an MD5 hash of every word in there and compare it to these hacked MD5 strings. But still, would take a lot of time, right? More on that in a bit.
What is surprisingly unknown, is the fact that not every website continues to exist forever. There are a lot of websites / startups, ready to shine and years later, go down in history as just another little site on the web nobody used. These sites tend to not be upgraded, sometimes there’s things going wrong, the administrators don’t catch up with technology, and bamm, suddenly you’re running an open book. Especially lack of knowledge is terrible here, there are A LOT of websites out there, prime services, which accidentally leak database information to the public. HOW? Due to backups, tests, experiments and not following through or understanding the technology. I’ll show you how:
Open Google, type this in: “— MySQL dump” filetype:sql
Mind you, most of this stuff might not make immediate sense for you. This mostly returns backups of databases website administrators made and accidentally left open on the web. Yes, this happens frequently. And there are MUCH better search terms here. You can improve a bit using this:
“— MySQL dump” password filetype:sql
Click on some of these results and you will either see clear text passwords, sometimes strange encrypted passwords and sometimes you’ll see these super secure MD5 passwords. So, in case you just hit a site that has LOTS AND LOTS of passwords and e-mail addresses next to each other, all encrypted with MD5, they still remain secure, right?
No. Not at all, you discovered pandora’s box. Here’s why:
I gave you the three passwords above, right? So here is how these passwords would look like if you accidentally found them in a SQL backup on the web:
Now, and this is what people DON’T UNDERSTAND (and it will lead to a LOT of trouble in the coming years). Copy/paste any of these strings into Google and tell me what you see.
Googled them? You suddenly saw a clear-text version of the password?? How is that possible?? Does Google crack this? No.
The intentions are random. There are sites out there producing MD5 hashes for every word in existence. Then, they mix these words and create more hashes. Then they add numbers, large and small caps and just anything people would use for a password. With the combined power of many computers, there soon will be a list of every possible password out there. A look-up list. A list that says, if you see 0bc752f427d85169e7309a900b330a7c then this really means “skrillex123”. And this is what is already online. These lists are everywhere on the web.
In other cases, people test their passwords with MD5 generators, or get tricked or whatever it is, they get leaked and Google mercilessly includes them in the index so you can find them.
Enter your password into INPUT and press MD5 (not MD4). You can also try SHA-1, same problem. Copy the result into Google and see if you are vulnerable. If it produces a result and shows your password, change it everywhere, immediately.
Uh, come one, what’s the worst that could happen?
Well. If you head on over to Apple.com, try to log in with an e-mail address you found and an MD5 password you were able to decrypt, you’ll have access to iCloud, all Apple devices, can remote swipe and whatnot. Same goes for other services. But, sometimes, Apple passwords are stronger than usual passwords (Apple now requires numbers, at least one upper case character, etc.). The only, only thing you ever need to do is gain access to someones e-mail account. And most people use a simple password here (since they have been using it forever). So this means, once you’re in their e-mail account, you again head on over to apple.com, enter the password (any password) wrong three times and wait for the password reset e-mail. You’ll click the link on it (while being in that random person’s e-mail account) and immediately delete the e-mail afterwards. Nobody notices. On apple.com, you simply enter a new password twice and you’re in. It’s that simple.
Update: I just realized something even more obvious. If you MD5 random passwords, like “newyork” or something and then take the resulting hash and add “@gmail.com” or “@hotmail.com” when searching on Google, it’ll return all e-mail accounts which at one point used newyork as a password. WTF.
Mapping Your Life
If you have ever been under chaotic pressure, considerable stress, at work or school, trying to get your shit together last minute in absolute chaos, then you have experienced what many will experience later in life again in terms of psychological stress, just at a whole other level. It will all evolve around the question:
What am I supposed to do with my life?
Note: This post might be more relevant to people heavily mixed up in self-employment, the world of entrepreneurship, employed but involved in side-projects, studying but working or for those at the brink of a new stage of life. If any of this applies, read on.
Let’s see if you can relate:
Sometimes, there is a lot of work. Sometimes I find myself in the middle of it all and start to get this uneasy feeling of nothing giving me a sign of progress or success. This can relate to a project, to a job, to a phase in life. It hits those who spend more years in (under-)grad-school than anticipated, those with the kind of friends hitting it big time with their new jobs and insane salaries while you might not even have a proper resume to start with, those with overachieving parents or siblings and the list goes on and on. In a nutshell: You feel the world is moving at the speed of light while you stand still and can’t move.
I have been through this a few times, but more importantly, saw others go through it and it got me thinking quite a bit on where exactly our otherwise incredibly powerful brain fails us here.
Here’s my attempt on clearing up the fog, putting order to the chaos. It will feel like stating the obvious once you are through the process, but trust me, extracting the obvious out of chaos is exactly what you need.
Start with a list of things you would consider your ultimate goals in life.
This one is a tough nut to crack for those already at loss with mapping out their immediate future. But it is easier than you might accept right now. No goals are set in stone. They might change tomorrow or in 20 years (and they likely will). So if you can’t decide on whether you’d like to have a family and kids, just don’t make it a goal right now. It matters what, today, your ideal future life would look like. Girlfriend/Boyfriend? Yes? Good. Write it down. An article in a newspaper? Writing a book? I want to have more than 100k in the bank? I want to have a regular income? I never want to be employed again! Traveling to a country none of my friends have ever been? Be honest, sincere, keep the list to yourself. Put things in there you would like to achieve. Recording a song with Lady Gaga? Likely not happening, but write it down if you must. Find some 5 to 10 life goals.
Next up, in order to complete this first step, make sure you add a column next to them. Title it: “How much does this goal make me feel like I failed in life and myself if never achieved?” (I know, not the shortest title, but it delivers the message). Use your own system of ranking, 1-5, or “very” to “not that much”. Rank it. Ideally, this splits up your list and gives you a few things that you, today, consider your absolute goals. The others are life goals too, just not sharing the first place here.
Time for the next step. Start a new list for that.
Write down all of the stuff you do, sometimes do and wish you did more often, or have to do because work/boss/school/anyone forces you to. This includes re-ocurring things, not necessarily related to work. Events you attend, bands you play in or blogs you write. Anything that keeps you busy, or entertained in life.
So this includes all of your projects. Write them all into a column. For instance, I occasionally do voice-overs, rarely but at least once a year, I play in a band rehearsing every other week, I am thinking of writing a book and have a few thoughts down, there’s this domain I have, love to travel with my girlfriend when I can, have to do contract work sometimes, etc… just make a big-ass list of things you do. This is the time to dump your brain and get it all out there. Have a blog? Put it on the list. Go to pub-quizzes much? Put it on the list.
Things you do because you love doing them vs. things you do because you have to.
This one is important. While we are born free, we quickly realise that there are a lot of moments when we are not in charge of our free time. This starts as a kid, and never ends until death. For this exercise, add a second column to the above list and start adding one of three tags to each of the things you do:
- love to
- have to
- love+have to
Making music, for me, is because I love to. It does not generate money, neither does it help my career (I am occasionally realistic on that one). Doing contract work, having a job (going to work), studying / finishing school are things I have to do (well, I already did this, phew). You’ll quickly realise that obviously, “have to” items are sort of your decision, but they (usually) offer you a deal tied to them. I have to go to work, but I get paid. I have to study, but it’ll eventually help me in my career (or get the parents off my back).
The “love to” items represent your ‘free life’. These are things you would do day in and out if there was no money, need to work/career, degrees and so forth. Make sure this list does have a few items on it, if not, go back and think hard, there’s LOTS of stuff you love to do, but depending on your stage of life, you might have forgotten what would all be available to you, if you had the time. And, keep in mind: These can be things that you rarely find time to… but wish you could do more often.
Alright, at this next point, some people will want to go a different route, but for the sake of simplicity, I’ll assume one of the life goals is money. It might not be an ultimate goal, but merely a requirement to stay happy, or to pay for the things you love doing. So let’s assume money is a goal. Add a third column to the list above, and call it “Makes Money?”. Go through every line and put a yes in this column, if the thing you do is actually making you money (or realistically will, soon). If you have this great idea for a startup that’s likely to produce cash in many years but not the next few, don’t put a yes in (stay short-term realistic).
You’ll now have a list that will look similar to this:
The final combination of what you wrote down
Now that you have a list of things tagged with how you feel about them and whether they contribute to your overall goal of ‘making money’, you will quickly see the pattern. “Making money” can be replaced with all of your other goals. Just add them right next to each item in the list as new columns. The map you are building is a complete overview of your day-to-day life. This will clearly visualise the state of things, albeit obvious information. It certainly is a step more obvious now than it was before. You can use this list moving forward as a foundation of personal, life strategy. The items labeled ‘love to’ are things people often call hobbies (although not exclusively). The items labeled ‘have to’ are things most would refer to as work. This is where life-work balance comes in. There is no single configuration of life-work balance that will work for everyone, simply because we all are at very different stages of life. You have to find a balance that will work for you. I know everyone spends 8 hours at work, productively working probably 5-6 at most. So if I dedicate 8-9 hours a day to my startup, or project (for people not employed), I have the facts written down. The remaining time is free, free for things I love to do.
So ultimately, you would be adding your life goals as columns and get this large map of things that exactly shows you, which things contribute towards life goals. Which things have nothing to do with your life goals (why do you do them??) and which things might be a blurry component in between all of this.
THIS IS STUPID! Is it? I’ll show you, in my last (bonus) step, on how I personally made this list valuable for me. Your approach might differ.
One of my personal problems usually is the uneasiness of feeling like I’m not making enough progress. This blocks motivation for doing things other than work. It especially kicks in after I spend 4 hours in the morning recording music (or playing a game or whatever it is you do for fun). I feel bad, for wasting all this time. So I wondered, do I actually ‘waste time’?
My day usually starts between 8am or 9am. Let’s say I am available for doing stuff starting at 9am. I’ll spend about an hour for lunch at noon. Maybe another hour or so sometime in the evening. I usually spend about an hour before I fall asleep reading stuff online (reddit, damn you) and try to head to bed at around midnight. So I sleep from 1am to around 9am (sometimes I get up earlier).
In a 24 hour day, that’s all we have available unless you are on the 25 hour schedule (look it up on Wikipedia), about 8 hours are dedicated to sleep. 2 more hours are dedicated to food/cooking/restaurant/coffee/etc. This gives me about 12 hours at my disposal. I made the statement that I want to feel fine when I dedicate 8 to 9 hours to working (things I have to, or have to + love it). And have a remaining 3-4 hours every day to do things I love to do.
Careful: Your mileage may vary. If you feel the freedom of being self-employed deserves more free-time (or less), change these 8-9 hours to whatever you feel is appropriate to help you achieve your life goals. But in order to make money, you need to do things you won’t always tag as a ‘love it’. Ideally you would, but this is not the case for most. So, accept the ‘have to’ items as they are and make damn sure you never forget to spend the remaining time on the love to items on your list.
This resembles the life of someone who is full-time employed in many ways. It just crucially helps me feel better about the time I spend at home working, the time I don’t do work at all (my dance music sessions in the morning) and I maintain a clear picture of how this fits all together in the greater scheme of things.
It also helps me identify the ultimate goals in life, that I currently consider important and how I am actually tracking along those.
For instance, one of my ultimate life goals is a certain weight that I want to maintain. Coincidentally, NONE of the things I do contributes to that goal. I don’t work out anymore, no more jogging around, nothing of the kind. So why feel sad for being fat when I don’t do anything about it? I have it black on white in front of me, this is why I am not progressing towards that goal.
And the same applies to goals like making money, achieving a certain level of education, finding the girl of your wildest dreams or traveling to the remotest area on this planet. If you are not already doing things to achieve these, then it’s about time to start thinking of adding these to your plan. Spend your additional 3-4 hours a day wisely and distribute the things contributing towards your life goals somewhat evenly.
And, don’t be afraid to kill a life-goal if there is just no way for you to accept the things necessary to be added to your plan to make it happen. The upside is, you don’t have to feel sad or pressured if you are not getting closer to a certain goal in the case you are actually not doing anything about it.
That’s what we call a wish, but not a goal.
Microsoft: The Shoes of a Giant
So, today, Microsoft is reporting its first quarterly loss.
This is just starting to hit some front-pages around the web but I can clearly imagine a lot of online journals seeing just another opportunity to write a little Friday hate-post about Microsoft, and how much we all despise them, right, all of us?
Well, not me.
I worked for Microsoft for a brief, almost 2-year period, had a chance to talk to Steve Ballmer on a couple of quick occasions and met/experienced other executives in larger meetings as an attendee quite a bit. It’s not my part to shed light on how things run behind the walls at Microsoft, but what I can tell you for sure is that there are a lot of very smart folks working there. If you are ever on campus and get a chance to see any labs division, or meet with people from Microsoft Research, mind-blown, promised. It’s really great work happening there. And, even looking at the insane amount of complexity the server & tools people are dealing with, this is no little one-trick-pony Instagram-share-a-photo-with comments operation, no, this is a hyper-complex large-scale global business making billions (yes, some $69 billion total revenue in 2011, more here ).
Fact is, Microsoft has been around for a LONG TIME now. The fact that they are still making money is fascinating. They were there, when business was all about chips. It briefly was about chips again when we had a sudden interest in mobile devices, but it’s all back to software. And Microsoft is a true and pure software company. xBox360 and its success is a great sign on what’s possible with integrated hardware/software approaches, but can’t be rolled out to any scenario that Microsoft is catering to.
Apple did great, insanely great, but they had a distinct and clear market ahead of them. And, remember, they basically went close to bankrupt and irrelevant and recovered slowly afterwards focusing on a clear market.
Microsoft’s market is EVERYTHING. Go and find a remote area in India, you’ll see a copy of Windows, at the very least of DOS. Medical software, large scale financial software, stock markets run on Microsoft software (Microsoft SQL is a widely used product in Fortune 500s). Try and make these guys happy, year after year. How do you do that? Ideally, by not changing much. But then, someone wants more, someone wants this, someone hates that, someone NEEDS THIS, someone can never have that (legally) and it goes on and on. The scale Microsoft is operating at is unbelievable and far from what most people I’ve met working in startups or software are capable of imaging.
If you are Google, you literally popped up a few years ago, no back-story, no existing customers. You pick a market (like many other companies did, Netscape, AOL, etc.) and hit it. Some win and stay, some lose and go. Microsoft has been there, ALL THE TIME. Keep that in mind for a second.
Now, if Microsoft has kept up with markets for so long, one can only imagine how hard it must be to keep going, to continue being that young, dynamic sexy company. Oh boy, that thought and Microsoft in a sentence? I know, but how would you do it? It’s incredibly hard, being around for so long.
It’s easy (well it was a few years back at least) to say, “Google made billions and look at their stock price! Apple is rising like crazy too, what is MICROSOFT DOING?” – Microsoft is trying to survive.
Sometimes, this happens by putting on new clothes. Design changes from XP to Vista were, well, worth trying, now major design changes to Windows 8 will be more dramatic so will Office 2013. Sometimes, you need to find a whole new side of your character, like Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices division turned out to be, or Bing or whatever it is that the market is responding too. Sometimes it works out, but keep in mind, most of the time, it won’t. Others will pave most new markets before Microsoft has a chance, and if these new companies did it right, they’ll get to keep and milk it for a good while.
Google is known for search. You might beg to differ, naming Android and Google+ and Maps and what not as their other core products, but basically, money is rolling in through search and it has always been that way. Everything else is really just Google trying to solve the same problem Microsoft is facing: The markets are moving forward, faster than your company is able to follow. And some products become irrelevant, or less relevant, or somebody else pops up and does it faster, stronger, better, nicer. If Google would still bet on search only, they’d be gone within the next five years for sure.
So, Microsoft having a bad quarter is like the last problem anyone should be focusing on or worrying about right now. I’d much rather invest my worries into how document processing, operating systems, mobile integration and connectivity will evolve in the next 15 years, try thinking about these kinds of things for a while and imagine you are a giant software house with long decision processes.
It’s easy sitting home or at work and write about an industry giant like Microsoft and how much they suck. But when was the last time you were running a global software business with close to a 100.000 employees making billions for almost 40 fucking years?
How would you keep up with the world, if you were in the shoes of such a giant?
The Power of Photos
Recently, I bought a large capacity network-attached storage device to finally pull down all the photos I scattered throughout the past 15 years to one device, and one device only (which will be hooked up with some sort of backup soon). And there’s something I realized only now, after spending hours browsing through these photos:
A photo, to a random person, is basically a snapshot of something and that’s about it. But a photo you took (or were actively part of), is a key to a story, hidden all the way back in your brain. Today, we know that our brain is capable of storying an insane amount of data (estimates value it at around 2.5 petabytes, that’s 2.5 million gigabytes (more here). Information is stored through a very different mechanism than regular disk storage devices accomplish this. Best example to illustrate this: Somebody tells you about something that happened many years ago. And while the first words do not remind you of anything at all, this might change with the blink of an eye as the person keeps telling the story, you jump up with crazy enthusiasm because you suddenly remember all the details! The link has been activated again.
So, today I realized that browsing through a full-year worth of photos (in a quick scroll-down auto-preview kind of manner), must be insane fireworks for your brain. I remember where each and every photo was taken, I remember the day, I remember little details and time of the year, how I felt and so much more. And then, next photo, different scene. And it keeps going and going and your brain quickly unlocks story after story.
While this is fascinating all by itself, I went a bit further and actually had to go (and still do) through 15 years worth of photos. They started with really really poor scans of actual photos, then terrible first digital cameras (640x480 resolution, BMP) and proceeded to the first snapshot-style pocket cameras (batteries lasted some 50 photos) and 100 MB compact flash cards. Then videos start to appear more often, about a decade ago the first videos emerge in my folders and they are terribly poor quality. They get better, the recording devices change from A/V-grabbed tape recorders hooked up to the computer to small pocket camera 30 second clips, to the first digital handheld-camera clips, back to incredibly poor mobile phone camera clips (less than 320x240 resolutions), over to the first iPhone hacks to enable poor (I mean poor!!) video recording on the first generation, second generation, official iPhone video recording. The first DSLR photos show up with awesome quality, only to be trumped by even better DSLR photos, and eventually DSLR video (insane quality) and semi-daily iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4 and finally iPhone 4S video.
The complexity, quality and frequency of recordings has almost exponentially increased up to a point where I can go back to any day you like within the past 3 years and find out EXACTLY what I was up to. Where I was eating, traveling, living and who I was with. There are gaps, which are also very likely huge gaps in my memory and will mostly, eventually, all fade away. But for those days with photos, I have the key. They might be up in my brain, hidden and stored away, but one tiny click on a file and my brain does magic only to return a full recall of that particular day in my life.
It’s purely insane. Integrating the camera (an insanely high-quality audio, photo and video recording device) into our mobile phones has unlocked an unbelievable cheat-mode to the inner workings of our brain, previously completely unavailable in such detail.
When people talk about the power of photos, having a camera in your pocket and what not, I used to acknowledge it as tech-blabla, as something that’s just a normal progression of technology-enabled life. But if you have a rainy afternoon or weekend at your disposal sometime soon, try to go back to photos some 5, 7 or possibly 10 years back. And let your brain digest them. It’s a very magical and completely touching experience.
I mostly get sad looking through old photos though, because they all portray a life I lived where every day seemed worthwhile taking a photo. It’s just another melancholic fallacy, but boy is it a powerful one. There is so much information, you can literally scroll through a full year of your life in less than 5 minutes and re-experience a dramatic amount of emotions.
So maybe, as the story goes, when you die, when all these flashbacks of your life are passing by, maybe this is what is happening after all when our brain finally unloads and shuts down. We have the information, we have it all locked and stored away in our brain – we just never had a good way to instant-access all of it. And while photos are just one of many keys able to fetch and activate the memory again, I believe they represent the most powerful and touching method to remember the past.
It’s fascinating to see how quickly years pass, and how much of it is actually condensed (or compressed) down to tiny bits of moments once our brain archives the years, one after the other. 2006? Yeah that was when this happened, and in 2004, that thing happened. That’s all we put on the label of past years, but photos allow you to extract and basically de-compress all the memories of a particular year, a month, a week, a day, sometimes even a very special hour or moment of your life.
Back to the archive, to discover more weird memories, like the day Mark Zuckerberg noticed me. Sort of.
Why leave home for making money?
In about 2 hours from now, I’ll be sitting in a room on the other side of town joining a group of people smarter than myself discussing why some of Austria’s (best?) startups are leaving the country to find success abroad. And this certainly does not only apply to us here in Austria, it’s valid globally. It’s the number one topic at every not in Silicon Valley set event I’ve attended in the past two years.
I’d say it’s actually a much easier question to answer than most people would assume. And the answer is a well known one: It really depends.
There’s a lot of things that come into play, starting from VC interest, startup funding/financing, government grants and incorporation modalities. But taking all that aside (a dedicated founder will not be reliant on any of that to make it happen), there is another reason that beats all the above.
Playing the odds, at a slightly better chance.
Everybody can make it. In hundreds of years from now, statisticians will have the exact numbers. Out of a million people, 1.8923 people made it between 2001 and 2050. Or whatever the number will be then. But, the major difference is: Some had a higher odd of winning from the very start.
But let’s look at why companies might consider moving abroad and when it might not make sense to do so:
If your business model is centered around becoming number one, market leader for a certain industry (and a great example might be anything from Groupon over AirBnB to you name it), then well, please stay where you are! The whole idea is focused on owning your own, local market and becoming number one acquisition target. Why go somewhere else, where it’ll be insanely harder to market your product when you have all these connections and roots right around the place you grew up in. So that’s easy. No reason to move.
Now, if your idea is something that is just this absolute killer product, and mind you: This is NOT saying you feel it’s a killer product, this is the market telling you it’s killer. This is like Jurassic Park big, you unleash something by accident and your servers go down repeatedly, with people asking you to please please make it available to them. Well then, never mind the country you live in or operate out of. Just go and grow. As fast as you can. There will be subsidiaries and other reasons why you might want to travel more frequently, but for a good while, you can exist. And if the product is killer, then any VC with some sense of the business will be happy to visit. So yeah, while this really never happens to anyone except the absolute super minority, it would be a straight forward answer: Stay where you are and feel comfortable, expand when necessary.
[This is hard to swallow, but this following paragraph applies to the majority of us, yes that probably includes you] So, what if your product is really great (to quote the Big Lebowski: “That’s just like your opinion, man”) but the market doesn’t just seem know it yet (or seems to have an issue with grasping this), and you are not planning on becoming your country’s market leader but root for world domination (it’s the internet, so, why not). Well, then you will sooner or later start to understand that people will give you a certain look when you attend conferences abroad, meet other founders from the Valley or even talk to VCs occasionally. “No, no, Austria is a lovely country” – is what you’ll be hearing a lot. Just not much else.
So if you are smart, you have by then already figured out that you need partners. You need someone who can lift you up to the big boy’s table. Partners very likely not in your country but in London, New York, or you guessed it, San Francisco. Or, where ever your industry is located. Fashion? Paris, LA or London! Music and Movie Distribution? US! So that means pitch e-mails, phone calls and meetings. That means, time-zones, flying in/out and trying to look REALLY PROFESSIONAL. Sure thing. Problem is: You will most likely be starting with lots of cold calls, cold e-mails more so and not getting anywhere. People on the other end will be thinking “There’s this guy from Austria, this company from Hungary, these three guys from Italy”… And that could be great, if these countries (or cities) were known for being birthplaces of some of the world’s greatest internet startups. They’re not. It’s not Austria’s fault necessarily. The country could do a lot, but it’s really late now, everyone has accepted the epicenters to be somewhere else. And hell yes is it a nice country to live in… but we’re not connected as much as San Francisco is, even London. The brits feel much more connected than they really are in fact, but at least all the big companies have subsidiaries (with decision making capability) in London. Not so many in Vienna.
So, in a nutshell, I believe nothing here in Austria prohibits me from doing business. It’s just the fact that somewhere else, there’s a higher chance for me to meet the right people, be at the right party or have the afternoon meeting at the right headquarters.
At the end of the day, founders and everyone else floating around in the startup business needs to realize that YOU ARE NOT SPECIAL. Your product will very likely NOT change the world. So no matter how hard you work, how great you feel about your product, this is still a big world, with a lot of chances floating around randomly. If you happen to be at the right place, with the right idea, you do have a chance (but not a guaranteed win). But being at the right place is so much less likely to happen somewhere remote in this world than being closer to the epicenter.
I feel people need to realize more that your product will most likely NOT come with hyper viral nature. If it would, you would most definitely not be reading this and hoping for answers.
Career Choices: Corporate vs. Startup
What would you do? Are you thinking about making a career choice? Here’s what I did, being a freelancer/startup enthusiast who went big time corporate for 2 years and then started a company right afterwards:
Some late winter-day in 2007, I heard about an internship call at Microsoft. I was working for a small company in Vienna, Austria / studying / freelancing on the side at that time. I figured it might be worthwhile trying to to see how far I’d get. So I sent in my documents.
Fast-forward, 6 months later, I’m interning in Redmond, as a Product Planner for Microsoft Office. Of all positions offered, this was the absolute uber-best fit I could possibly ever be matched with. I identified with the internship, the role, the company (don’t judge, the brand is one thing, but there’s tons of incredibly smart folks behind that) and eventually got a full-time offer.
Now, this brought up a problem for me.
I have always been a freelancer on the side, startup enthusiast and really chasing the dollar on my own terms since I learned how to use a computer (at around age 10). Working for somebody else, was always just a thing I did to learn more, to experience environments, to apply my skills to real-world problems and such. Small companies rarely paid good cash, typically averaging at around 15 to 20 USD an hour maybe, when employed. With freelancing on the side, I made up to a 100 USD the hour with US clients. I was perplexed as to what sense it would make going to work daily, when I made a day’s worth of cash between breakfast and the 10am meeting at work already from home.
I am not allowed to post salary details for my role at Microsoft, but I’m sure you’ll find all the necessary ranges online somewhere. Hiring bonuses, awards & stocks included, all bells and whistles, it was a good, lower 6-figure salary for my first year.
Now, this made sense again. Working for Microsoft, was paying me what I felt I was investing, time/effort-wise. I had a great, demanding job, but it was not a crazy Goldmann Sachs crack-job, far from that. I did 9-5, sometimes less, sometimes slightly more. It gave me a life outside of work. I loved traveling for work, doing focus groups and so forth.
But still, I was having this one question hanging high above my head every day:
Will I ever quit and join the startup craziness? Or, live my forever corporate life?
Being at Microsoft, surrounded by nice people, great nature, serious money, the high-rise apartment with city-view I always wanted, I figured, wow, this could be a life. What a stupid question to ask oneself. Life is good! Nonetheless, I figured I might never know what’s going to happen in the first 2-5 years, so I decided to start saving cash, lots of it, as strict as I was able to manage (damn you apartment leases). I eventually gave in and bought a car, it was, however, a used Chrysler Sebring for around $7.000, so I sort of saved after all.
Then, I received a call by the attorneys working on my green card application (I’m an Austrian national), explaining how they messed up something and it can’t be changed and instead of 2.5 years waiting for the green card, I was looking towards 7 years. I have a long-distance relationship with a perfectly smart, hot and brilliant girlfriend in Austria, the US doesn’t want me for now, my bank account was loaded (for me, a guy coming from rural country-side in Austria, it definitely was), I had the corporate tattoo on my resume and it all started to make sense, all of a sudden. I filed my resignation, 30 days later, I filed for incorporation in London, United Kingdom. That day, http://www.twentypeople.com was born.
The power of being taken seriously
When I was doing some freelance work, I occasionally talked startup/business ideas with many different people. First thing you’ll notice is that people rarely tend to believe you are being serious, qualified and standing a tiny chance of being actually successful. There’s so many people, with so many ideas. Go to a StartupWeekend. There’s one every weekend around the globe now, with new ideas, new groups, new big plans. And, despite the occasional exception to the rule, most people are not being taken seriously outside of this startup bubble. Try this: You think you have a great idea? Go to a bank, ask for a USD 50.000 loan to fund your first one/two employees. Tell them about your idea. You’ll feel like a 10-year old explaining how time-travel works. Nobody is going to take you seriously, unless you have serious traction.
At Microsoft, one of the things a manager once told me was, “you know, life is a bit different here. If you call someone and get to voice mail, mention you’re calling from Microsoft, and you will surprisingly always get a return call.” – And that was true, every time. And not only that, checking in at hotels, talking to customer support, bank managers, border patrol, the police, etc. – you have a tiny but notable joker.
I met tons of CEOs (of serious companies, traded on stock markets, making music videos, you name it) and it felt like being among peers. Not because of me, but because of who they suddenly saw in me and consequently decided to treat me.
I thought, giving up that corporate card (there actually is a corporate card, but that for another story) by quitting my job, I would lose all of these benefits. Turns out, almost none of it changes:
“I recently left my job at Microsoft to start a company, I was wondering….”
— HOW CAN I HELP YOU SIR?
And, while this will totally not resonate with ANYBODY who hasn’t gone through a large corporate brand, trust me, it’s golden card that only helps if played wise. You can make a serious dick out of yourself pushing sentences like that, but sometimes, it’s the magic butter you were looking for.
This way is probably the easier way: Here’s why
Now, there’s a gazillion startup founders out there who never worked for a large brand, not Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple or Facebook. None of them. Yet, they are or will be successful. I truly believe there’s a lot of you out there, hey, you reading this, might just be that person. Chances are, however, you are not. People are dicks, they don’t believe shit anymore. Showing up at a meeting/event outside of the startup bubble, explaining your grand-masterplan of how you’re going to change the world, most of the time, will result in responses like, “ahh, nice, sounds interesting” - “hm, sure, great to hear somebody is after this”, “wow, that’s so cool, your own company” …. but nobody, ever, takes you seriously enough.
Working one year for Microsoft and putting some cash aside, gives me enough leeway to live and work on a startup for about a year, with no further income.
Two years at Microsoft, probably amount to two years of leeway. This might vary depending on your role/salary/company/saving-habits/expense. But it’s about right for most people intending to go self-employed afterwards.
Having two-years of “not doing distracting, annoying, time-consuming freelance gigs on the side” is pure gold. Mind you, this does not mean it’ll be worry-free. You will be seeing your bank account going downhill in seriously intense steps. You work, work and work - and yet, your bank account drops, drops, double-drops (Christmas), and drops some more. It’ll make you think fast about revenue models, fine-tuning, customer acquisition before your money runs out. It’s like a dry-run investment. You paid for it. And, in my opinion, it’s the best kind of investment, albeit the emotionally most hardcore instance of investments.
I was always wondering what life would be like, had things progressed the other way around.
I start a company, great idea, nobody takes me seriously but I pull through. I manage to stay alive for a year or so until money runs out and I face consequences. I get a job on the side, work through some freelance gigs. Work starts to suck. I wonder if I should travel more to get my head free. I don’t have money to travel. Maybe I should see if I could go corporate, make some serious dough, come back afterwards. Applying might be tougher, I might not even feel like applying for anything, it’s like giving up. And even if I’d get a corporate job, I can only assume life would suck. I would be there only to leave again, since I know I failed in my past life and had to do this for the money.
This brain-fuck gets worse with every minute. I understand there are A LOT of people out there going down that path. But hell would I fail at it. Not saying I haven’t succeeded yet, but things definitely look much brighter from where I’m standing now, looking at my resume, the future probably will be fine, either way.
A note to dreamers and haters
Sorry to insult the dreamers. I’m one of you. But at the end of the day, if you live a life among others, have family, girlfriend or anything important nearby, it will demand your time and happiness. Being out of cash, out of inspiration and without much ahead of you will not make the day brighter. Dreaming will be dead by then. So go and do your resume some good, make sure your professional profile is set up for going wild before you actually go wild. There will be enough time, just read these words again, there will be enough time for you afterwards.
What we learn from the first 1.000 users
For most startups, getting to a 1.000 users is a serious marathon. People say it gets a lot easier after the first 1.000, and even more so after the first 10.000. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with it, since it really depends on how active these folks are, if they ever return after their first visit and so forth. Anyways, here’s what we learned from our 1.000 users at http://www.twentypeople.com
1. There are many, many different ‘types’ of users
We cater to corporate users as well as individuals. So we figured, that means we are targeting two audiences: Employers, and well, regular (and extraordinary) people. So we went ahead, figuring out what ‘regular user’ wants to do and why ‘corporate user’ would stop by. Communicating with both types of users, actually surprised us by leading us to realize that there is actually a pretty large amount of different ‘regular users’ – and I don’t mean personalities only. A few archetypes we noticed:
- Early-adopter Startup Founder
Tries to figure out if you’re big yet, if there’s anything he/she likes and could incorporate into their service. Saw it on Hacker News or met the founders at a conference/event. Will never really use the service. Just wants to evaluate the potential.
Complains about not being able to use the site without creating an account. Will always want to use a demo account. Will eventually sign-up, never specify a real name, access the site often with cookies turned off, using Firefox, often from Linux. Will fill out feedback form, mostly contains a message very similar to: ‘Your site does not work with cookies disabled. I can not use it and people will not want to turn on cookies just for this site all the time. This is a privacy fail.’
Signs up and does everything there is to do. EVERYTHING. Fills out every form, clicks every checkbox and spends more than half an hour on the site, if not more. You never met the person before, have no idea where they are from and there’s a 50/50 chance you’ll never be able to contact them for feedback. Only about half of them actually respond to your awkward excitement e-mail, thanking them for their engagement in this.
- Super-Minimal User
This person you should be testing for. Seriously. If your website becomes richer, or really starts unfolding once a minimum amount of information is entered, make sure you keep testing/iterating from the absolute minimum anyone can possibly just enter to get by with and work your way up, ensuring the user experience is fluid and makes sense. This person will try to use a fake e-mail account, doesn’t care about verification e-mails, will try to use an OpenID provider, possibly Google E-mail or Twitter rather than Facebook and just try to get behind authorization without identifying too much / getting any future e-mails. Once in, the person will click around, not enter anything, at all, pursue no selections that would shape the user characteristics (gender/interests/skills/etc.) and just expect to get to the absolute beef of the service. This is a big problem if there is no data to work with. The return on time spent on twentypeople.com becomes much, much bigger once you pass a certain time involved, defining your personal preferences. So with a no-involvement user, there’s barely any chance to give them great visuals/data to make them spend more time on this. Suggestion: Provide rich demo accounts, or explain which bits and pieces would severely enrich your experience at any point.
- The Developer
Signs up, wants to figure out what this is about and also understand the technologies, workflows and overall implementation. Will point out any flaws, like visible script file extensions, lack of HTTPS, absence of smart URL forwards, call out certain frameworks, like why jQuery might not be ideal, why Bootstrap looks so old and cheap and definitely call you out on rendering flaws between IE/Firefox/Safari and Chrome. Will provide you with helpful advice, but is not interested in really using the service. Just wants to evaluate it, from dev to dev.
- The VC
Signs up, enters some data, clicks on what he/she considers a tiny bit above minimum information, stops half-way through (typically being on the phone during that time, pending to answer a question), asks rest of the questions on the phone, closes browser and will likely never come back to use the site.
- The Computer Novice
You don’t really know how they found you so early in the process, but they are here. They will try to sign up, and probably use the wrong user-type (mix up corporate users vs. normal users), make a typo when entering their e-mail address or contact you because their login does not work. Support helps them to login, everything works with support, nothing worked without. Developers spend a day to figure out what happened, won’t find anything wrong with the authentication. Almost always uses Windows, Internet Explorer 7 or 8 and will scare the shit out of your developers. Casually notifies you about major UI issues (blaming themselves of wrongdoing), will try to use the services, possibly fail to continue since the site might be too complex for them to fully emerge into it. Anything you touch, regarding UI/UX, talk to these folks. Watch them, communicate with them. They resemble the computer literacy of your parents, or that friend who never really touches a computer other than using Facebook and checking Hotmail. They are the masses you need to become big. make sure they understand the service, very well.
2. Nobody sees what you see
You have been iterating of the idea, the concept, the pitch, the tests, the features – everything, a hundred times. You know exactly what this site does. You summarize it, put it on the front page and assume people will basically unzip this small summary on the front page to the huge concept you have in your head, right now. That’s not happening. There’s nothing more fun, shocking, devastating and motivating, than being at a party, talking to two people who have recently tested your service. Take the opportunity: Fetch a third person. Ask one of the users to explain the site to the third person (who ideally never used the site). You’ll be (likely) shocked to hear how another person, not familiar with your great master plan, will describe your site, in a simple sentence. They will cut, disregard, forget and ignore everything you worked on so hard, they’ll use one sentence to describe how they think the site is to be perceived. It gets really exciting (devastating, etc.) when the second user joins in, only to correct the first user, explaining how, strangely, he/she thought the site was actually supposed to be used for this and that… It’ll be a defining moment, trust me.
Make sure you keep doing this. I often ask my girlfriend, parents or even friends not very literate with computers to take a look at the site for a minute, maybe allow one or two clicks and then have them summarize whatever they know about it. This tells you a lot about how much you still need to refine your statement, the two lines on your front page.
3. The first thousand are just stopping by
Most of your first 1.000 users will never come back. This is really sad. But they’ve been confronted with several iterations of your idea, where with every iteration, maybe a bunch of them will actually stick around for long. But the type of people who decide to use your service, because they saw it on Hacker News, heard about it at a conference or through a tech blog, are the kind of people who probably have over 500 accounts total, having signed up with every other startup/service just as well. They come, see, and leave. They didn’t show up because you are solving their problem, for which they were trying to hunt down a solution. They stop by for completely different reasons. Don’t get all sad about this. Some will stick. And, most importantly, they’ll enable you to pitch your idea to more people, test your features with not 5, but hundreds of people (send out an e-mail, it’ll re-active a lot of these folks for a few moments) and boost confidence, somewhat.
4. They won’t tell you much about the potential of your idea
One thing I constantly read across all these startup advice blog posts is the idea that once you pass a certain number of users and you keep listening/watching them closely, they will clearly guide you through re-shaping the product to absolute success. This is wrong, in my opinion. They will certainly help with new ideas, pivots and such, but their opinions are very different than the opinion your average user will have. The average users will start to show up afterwards, once you pass the first thousand. Make sure you keep that in mind when iterating. Suggestions/thoughts will be strong, coming from the first thousand, you will be happy and open to integrate/iterate on them, and things will become very confusing very fast. MAKE IT MORE PRIVATE! You allow to hide usernames. MAKE IT MORE USEFUL AND PERSONAL. You suggest to re-enable usernames. THERE ARE TOO MANY CHOICES. You auto-select preferences. THE DEFAULTS ARE CREEPY AND ANNOYING. And so forth…
5. They represent your hard work
Passing a thousand users, for most people/startups, is a big achievement. You might hit bulls-eye being covered on TechCrunch, maybe you even launched through TechCrunch Disrupt, DEMO or anything like that. Then your first 1.000 users will be easy to accumulate. But if you are, like most of us, booting from the ground up, you’ll be required to spend a lot of time, hard work, desperation to reach the magic 1.000. It’s definitely a magic number in many ways, but I find the most magical part about that is this:
Once you reach the area of around a thousand sign ups, you’ll notice how things keep going all by itself. You stop posting on Twitter, you don’t mention your service much or have some quiet time in the press/blogs – yet, people still sign up. On some days, up to 20 new people come along, out of Google, someone’s suggestion and other mysterious sources. They are the interesting ones, they’ll often stick around much longer, than anybody else.
As usual, use the comments to share your experiences. Would love to hear about your first 1.000. Contact me at @mittermayr or follow my company at @tphq (http://www.twentypeople.com). Would love to hear your thoughts!