Adapted from my 2018 Ignite Talk

For most people in the tech world, life can be fairly drab They sit in cubicles, at insurance companies, writing code, designing their millionth, mind numbing button, or making cold calls to hostile schmucks all day. It’s a job right? Something you have to be paid to do, because no one in their right mind would do this for free.

On the other hand, we have the guys in Silicone Valley, wrapped in hoodies and self righteousness, planning on getting rich and changing the world (not necessarily in that order). But how do you get from cubicle to your dream? Working on what you love?

“I’m never doing this again”

I would like to tell you about one the best dumb ideas of recent history: The StartupBus. A Navy Seal boot-camp training program for tech entrepreneurs. Or so I like to think.

In 2010, my friend Elias, was working in Venture Capital, and wanted to get a bus with a bunch of friends and go to South by South West – the huge film, music and tech conference in Austin. He thought would be funny to semi-mock Startup Culture in Silicon Valley by having everyone on the bus try and build a tech startup in the three days it would take to get there from San Francisco.

It sounded crazy to everyone, but they all had so much fun, that a group of them decided to turn it into a “my-city-is-better-than-your-city” tournament the following year. They all went back to their respective states, and started recruiting riders for a full-blown competition. 

The format is simple: 30 strangers get selected to get on a bus, as long as they are extremely competent and fall into one of three clichéd categories: Hipsters Hackers, and Hustlers: Graphic designers, Computer programmers, and Marketing and Business Development people.

They then get on the bus day one, introduce themselves, and pitch an idea for a startup. Groups then form around the ideas, and then the teams work like crazy, for three or four days, to make an actual business. With REAL products, and even Customers – In three days!

I was first invited to ride the 2011 Miami bus. I worked on two separate teams, competed against 10 other busses, 60 other teams,  and didn’t sleep for four days, and met some of the most amazing people that are still in my life to this day.

Since then, the competition has grown. There are more and more busses every year from more cities, a separate European competition, and I’ve recently gotten back from the inaugural StartupBus Africa trip, which was epic! But why would anyone do this?

Well, most people are just… terrible at their jobs. I assume you’ve found this yourself. But the bus is different. The sheer caliber of the people you meet if off the charts. Everyone works so hard, and is so good at what they do, that there is a feedback loop of inspiration; You WANT to work harder to show that you belong. 

The result is productivity to an extent not seen in the real world. What can you create on a bus in three days? How about a fully fledged, artificial intelligence food ordering system that will automatically order you lunch every day? Yeah, we did that. 

Nomscription – Built in three days. On a bus.

Internet free chat system for disaster areas? Yup. A career matching system for Veterans? Check. Customized cereal delivered to your door? Yup. A full social network for selling what you grow in your back garden – a team from Tampa built that!

And there are hundreds of others. But the bus isn’t all flowers and roses. In fact it is totally awful. And that is one of the reasons it’s so successful. If you can build something amazing in three days next to a chemical toilet, you can do anything.

There is bad food, motion sickness, team melt downs, spotty power and internet access, and every new hell you’d find in a real startup, but compressed into the equivalent of a long weekend.  As a result, you learn to be flexible, to deal with the chaos, and to thrive.

Then there is the physical side.  Try having a normal conversation after writing code for ten hours doing this. Also, after four days without sleep, you can have some pretty inspiring insights, as well as some mind-blowing hallucinations. Not to mention all the caffeine and alcohol.

The pure squalor of the situation, combined with the amazing team work that goes on, binds you so closely to those people, that you instantly have 30 new best friends. I started referring to the processes as entrepreneurial Stockholm Syndrome. 

But the process opens your eyes. A passionate, five person team, working 16 hour days, for four days straight, produce 320 hours of actual work. That’s an equivalent 40 work days of super productivity. 

If you can build a complete product, create marketing materials, pitch decks, business cards, have customers and sales, etc., all in three days, ON A BUS, what could you do if you gave yourself six months?

I bet that you’re pretty amazing. You just can’t begin to realize how freaking amazing you REALLY ARE until you’ve HAD be amazing waste deep in crap and sleep depravation. There are no excuses. Go and build something, right now!

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I help cruise lines turn their technical ideas into reality. I'm experienced in all stages of innovation and technology management. I've also been programing since I was 8 years old, and have somehow retained the ability to have normal human interactions. Occasionally I speak about how Industrial Psychology and Neurophysiology can be interrogated with IT and systems management, because I spend a lot of time thinking about the subject, as strange as that may seem.

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Remote Controls: From Napkin to Production

Solving problems is what my company does for a living. 95% of the time we solve problems by building software. Over the last few years, hardware solutions have entered our solutions tool box more and more. This is largely due to the fact that you can now hook a bluetooth module to some larger device like a printer. You then handle the data processing on some mobile device. Or, we are write software to live on some small-board machine like a Raspberry PI that monitors water temperature or something. These hardware solutions are however, largely integrations, and not actual hardware development.

So when a client asked us to build them a remote control for their interactive TV system, I thought: how hard can it be? This post tries to lay out some of the lessons I have learned while designing, programming, manufacturing, and shipping a custom-built hardware project from soup to nuts.

Like with any new venture, I didn’t know where to start. I know what a remote control is (I use one every day to watch Youtube videos about bad movies) but I’d never really thought about them. Iterative design works in software… so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to just start with something very simple.

The first sketch

Lesson: Just start with something. Anything. Inertia is the enemy.

Humble Beginnings

I sketched the thing out on a piece of scrap paper. In my infinite creativity I took a generation one Apple TV remote control (which at the time I thought was very cool) and traced it on some scrap piece of paper. As Picasso said, good artists borrow, great artists steal. I then used dime to trace the d-pad, and a pen lid to outline the function buttons. You never think about regrets when you start something, but documenting your first steps will make you more mindful of the process. I wish I still had that napkin, or receipt, or whatever I first drew it on.

Lesson: Keep baby photos and napkin sketches. Looking back gives your perspective.

Fortunately, I did keep the first digital rendering that I translated into Balsamiq (totally the wrong tool for the job.)

Surprisingly, this very basic initial start was good enough to get some general client feedback and approvals. Now the real work began. We how to actually build a remote control. We had a few connections in the set-top-box manufacturing world and knew engineers and account managers at two of the big TV brands. So we reached out and asked for some recommendations.

Contract Manufacturers

We evaluated a few manufactures in Texas, China, and Taiwan. Most of them were up for the task, but none clicked for us. We were looking for a partner who talked to us about the future, about innovation, and brought their own ideas to the table. We didn’t really know what we were doing, but we knew that we would want to push the limits eventually, and having a manufacturing team who got excited about remote control technology was a must.

Lesson: Find partners who share your values.

The process was slow. This was not our wheelhouse, but it was a fun, tangible project, with a single, definite measure of success – something that is often elusive in software development. So we pushed on. In the end, one of our DRM encoding partners introduced us to a manufacture in Hong Kong. They were responsive, helpful, and had US-based project managers.

Lesson: Ask EVERYONE for help. The more people you speak to the more likely you are to get valuable signal from the noise.

Learn About Everything

Our new vendor gave us a ton of options. Did we know that there are a huge number of molds already out there? Ones that look almost identical to our sketches? And that we could easily customize them? No, no we didn’t. So they went to work sourcing three or four demo units from other manufacturing firms they were familiar with. This way we could send our client actual samples to touch and feel without spending tens of thousands of dollars in manufacturing prototypes.

Early button layout designs

They also began educating us on IR codes, button mapping, and materials design. While the learning curve was steep, it was rewarding and edifying experience. It is so satisfying to be able to design software systems in concert with hardware. When your code jumps into the tactile world it is just so cool. Working hand-in-hand with the manufacturers, we threw ourselves into their processes, language, legal ramifications, and communication patterns.

Lesson: Learn how to communicate with your partners from their perspective. Even if you are a client, you will benefit from speaking their language.

Test, Test, and Test Again

We tested a bunch of the molds, shipping them around the world for client feedback. We also spent a lot of time hallway testing (asking random people walking by to give us feedback). We gave them to our parents and grandparents, friends and children, and basically anyone who would listen. I actually met one of our client’s customers in an airport (identified by a sticker on her luggage) and dragged the poor woman into user test. I had one of the test remotes in my pocket, and the prototype TV system on my laptop’s local server. We didn’t give her any instructions. She absolutely loved it. The customer felt special getting to play with something before the public do. I learnt more in those 15 minutes with her than anything I had read online about remote design and TV interactions.

Lesson: If you are not showing your product to clients along the line, you are not doing your job well.

One of the early example models

We evaluated everything: feel, weight, button squishiness, response time, everything. This was a little easier now that we had a few comparison prototypes, but our clients were very particular group of people. The company’s owner was to give final approval; he oversees much of final the public-facing products. We sent two finalists to him, that we could barely tell the difference between. After he made his selection, I asked for his team to ask him the following day if he could tell the difference, and he made the same choice. They were extremely pleased with the design and functionality – the owner said:

This is so good it makes everything else look embarrassing

Our Client

Which might be the highest compliment anyone has ever paid me.

Lesson: If you want to do something well, take every part of it seriously.

The Trouble Begins

Once we had approved from the client, we gave the go-ahead for manufacturing. Then the Hong Kong problems started. The protests throughout the metro area brought manufacturing to a temporary halt. Workers could not even get to work. Suppliers couldn’t access roads. The whole city came to a halt.

Then the mold vendor disappeared. Our manufacturer had sourced a ready-made mold from another company. One day, our project manager called us in tears because the owner of the vendor’s company had not shown up to work. No one knew where he was. The political situation had made is so that asking questions was not encouraged. Say what you want about the American political system; you don’t have to worry about your business partners not showing up after a rally.

So the search began for a new mold manufacturer. Unfortunately this meant once again going through the approval process with our client. This time it was a little easier because we had learned so much from the first round. After a ton of time and a huge DHL bill, we finally had a new mold, and client approval. Eventually the factories started opening up again, and we were ready to go!

COVID-19

Then the factories shut down. COVID-19 hit China hard, and Hong Kong with it. Almost as soon as we had started printing boards, everything went into quarantine. At the beginning there was some pushback from suppliers, clients, contractors, and even our project managers. But as the scope of the pandemic become obvious, everyone became more tolerant and understanding. It still added almost three months of delays to the project. All while my developers got to move to the comfort of their homes and continue working. More perspective.

Lesson: Like everything in life, it came down to lots of failure followed by perseverance. Feeling frustrated every morning and swearing a lot are the steps in between. With enough failure, swearing, and pig-headedness, stuff works out somehow.

The two final versions
Down to two finalists

The Final Stretch

The day those first four remote controls arrived in our office felt like we had landed on the moon. We wiped them down with disinfectant wipes and went to work (no one really knew anything about COVID back then!) We did find a small manufacturing defect with the battery connection in two of the remotes, but it was easily remedied.

Then programming began. This went a little smoother due to the fact that my team had done this type of work many times before. We already had IR code programming tables, IoT systems for managing multiple receivers in close proximity and tools too complicated for me to understand that can change the TVs’ or set-top-boxes’ input expectations. It felt… easy, but in reality we had been working on those particular problems for over six years, so the perspective of a thousand small failures didn’t feel anywhere as monumental as the hardware production.

Lesson: Trying new things puts things you already know into perspective.

Where We Are Today

Today, there are tens of thousands of these remote controls out in the wild. People write reviews about them online, and my client mentions them in interviews with international news publications. As a software guy, it continues to be one of those things I’m proud of, and still shocked by the success we achieved from such humble beginnings.

Lessons

  • Just start with something. Anything. Inertia is the enemy
  • If you are not showing your product to clients along the line, you are not doing your job well
  • Keep baby photos and napkin sketches. Looking back gives your perspective
  • Learn how to communicate with your partners from their perspective. Even if you are a client, you will benefit from speaking their language
  • If you want to do something well, take every part of it seriously
  • Like everything in life, it comes down to lots of failure followed by perseverance. Feeling frustrated every morning and swearing a lot are the steps in between. With enough failure, swearing, and pig-headedness, stuff works out somehow. Why do I have to keep relearning this?
  • Trying new things puts things you already know into perspective