Posts tagged Startup
Silicon Valley Street Style is a weekly feature that looks at the intersection of fashion, technology and taste.
Only in Silicon Valley can a simple design set against cotton blend say so much.
Youth, ease, confidence, arrogance, membership, laundry day … the startup shirt is a free piece of wearable, washable advertising that can reflect upon the wearer any or all of these qualities. It’s like a sandwich board you can wear to the gym.
Adaptable to all manner of tech culture, the startup shirt is the one true defining fashion statement of the San Francisco-based tech industry. It doesn’t matter if your game is hot yoga or “Call of Duty,” this versatile apparel fits any body type, while creating a strikingly similar impression on all.
There’s no empirical evidence supporting a branded t-shirt’s ability to inspire an angel investor to open his wallet. But perhaps there’s a more important question to consider.
Are startup shirts fashionable?
“Startup shirts are the opposite of fashion,” Corey Sklar, creator of the Dudes In Startup Shirts Tumblr, tells ReadWrite. “There is absolutely nothing individual about the items or the wearers. They are the epitome of ‘norminess’ in the worst sense.”
Sklar says he was inspired to curate a collection of startup shirts because as a San Franciscan, he’s constantly surrounded by the trend. Why then, in a town where techies struggle to stand out, do so many people in the industry make this sartorial choice?
“Two reasons,” Sklar says. “One, because they are too clueless to buy their own clothes even though they are making more money than 99% of the people on Earth. Two, to promote their sh***y app.”
The Dudes In Startup Shirts Tumblr showcases the best of men (and some women) wearing startup shirts, decked out with hoodies, sunglasses, and my personal favorite—underneath a blazer. Your business in the front, Dad’s business in the back.
Like the Dudes In Startup Shirts gallery, Silicon Valley startup culture is a strange mix of low-end and high-end. The low-maintenance, grassroots quality that birthed the tech scene is, more often than not these days, a facade of authenticity for the wealthy and well-connected.
In HBO’s Silicon Valley, the ubiquity of the startup shirt is showcased via a rainbow of jersey logos worn by attendees at TechCrunch Disrupt. Characters wearing startup shirts are painted in a deeply aloof, goofy way—almost as if their claims of “making the world a better place” and “local, mobile, social” are as empty and devalued as the startup shirts themselves.
Yet, one need not be entrenched in Silicon Valley’s startup culture to judge what is worn there, let alone judge it harshly. Rusty Foster, author of the popular tech newsletter Today In Tabs and Kuro5shin founder, takes issues with advertorial tees.
“What I find embarrassing about them is the neediness of farming out your resume to the words printed on your torso,” Foster tells ReadWrite. From his vantage point in Maine, Foster sees those words that hold certain value splayed across your chest as a vain attempt to convey that value to the world.
“’I want you to see what famous company I work for and/or admire!’” Foster mocks, going so far as to call such fashion choices “a kind of assault.”
“I wish we could issue remedial white t-shirts and require some basic education before people are trusted with the responsibility of putting words on their clothing,” he says.
Style blogger and Googler Elise Armitage of WTFab has a more friendly, neutral outlook to startup shirts, although she admits that the ones that she owns are only worn in private.
“My Google shirts are pretty much reserved for when I’m at the gym, sleeping, or working from home,” says Armitage, “When I see someone wearing a startup shirt I just assume that they probably live in the city and eat oysters at Dolores Park on Sundays.”
Street style photographer Ryan Chua agrees that startup shirts should be left to certain occasions, but he also argues that unity and loyalty to one’s brand is an admirable trait for any wearer.
“Startup shirts are fashionable if worn at the proper events, such as a conference or industry mixer,” says Chua, “My rule of thumb is to always dress accordingly to the occasion.”
At a tech conference or similar event, Chau says that there’s nothing more fashionable than a team wearing startup shirts signifying unity and company spirit. “But if that person wears a startup shirt way too much, people will start thinking, maybe that is his or her only shirt.”
Photos courtesy of Dudes In Startup Shirts and HBO’s Silicon Valley
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Everyone needs mentors. But as a startup CTO, it can be hard to find other qualified entrepreneurs who have faced similar challenges. To find out where startup CTOs can go to find this much needed advice, I polled a group of entrepreneurs from YEC to hear their suggestions.
Past Employers and Vendors
As a startup CTO, I find mentorship through my counterparts at past employers and vendors we use. Oftentimes, these can be transient types of mentorship. But with some reciprocation—they’ll usually want advice, too—they can turn into regular relationships, especially if you’re currently doing business with a vendor.
I find that these types of conversations turn out to be the best types of mentorship, as they already know what’s going on in your head through knowing you from a past gig or already know part of what’s going on in your business by being a vendor. Having conversations with these types of people can also have fringe benefits; past employers send you opportunities while vendors give you a heads up on new happenings and breaks on fees if things are tight.
CTOs of Larger Companies
A startup CTO should look to build relationships with CTOs who have worked in that role in a larger business, as well as those who currently serve in that role somewhere. Most of the time they will be more than willing to jump on a call or grab coffee with you. These individuals have a wealth of knowledge, can help you understand how the industry has changed and can offer you more connections and advisers.
Today’s interconnected world offers amazing resources, such as Clarity or Google Hangouts, where young CTOs can find mentorship from those who have already become successful. Personally, I found mentorship early on in my career by reaching out over nontraditional channels such as Internet Relay Chat to find like-minded professionals who helped me solve challenges in my business endeavors.
Business Incubators or Accelerator Programs
Startup CTOs can typically find mentorship through a local business incubator or accelerator program. Get a list of potential mentors from the program’s website and reach out to them via LinkedIn.
A lot of startup CTOs and engineers head to meetup groups, especially for their specific technology languages, to find mentors and like-minded developers. People who participate in meetups usually do so because they are genuinely interested in the subjects, which makes it easier to find a passionate mentor.
Meetups also provide a more relaxed environment for networking compared to formal business meetings, so it’s a lot easier to make connections that are genuine as well as skills specific.
It’s great to get together with like minds who share similar problems and experiences that you do. Go to meetup.com or look for local groups on LinkedIn for CTO meetups. Go to the next event, bring stories and ideas that you would like to discuss—they will as well.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock
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Given the gold rush going on in Silicon Valley right now, it’s not surprising that some young entrepreneurs think it’s time to drop out and start a company. Nor that billionaire VCs like Peter Thiel have started paying kids to skip school and build startups.
Not surprising, but still stupid.
It’s not just about money, though that’s an easy reason to stay in school: Not graduating from college will cost you $500,000 over the course of your life. But the bigger reason for me comes down to experience—rather, the lack thereof—in unstudied entrepreneurs.
Serious Experience Deficiency
There’s no question that education pays. College graduates across the economy can expect to make significantly more than their diploma-less peers. As the economy becomes more competitive and more people sport degrees, this will only increase:
Which is why I found John Meyer’s farewell to NYU (“It’s not you, it’s me!”) a bit troubling. He writes:
In my field of work, a college education is not necessary. You do not have to go to college to be an entrepreneur and you do not have to go to college to develop software.
All true. But it’s also irrelevant, at least for his first contention. While I’d be the first to argue that the best place to learn to code is to download and use open-source software, it was at my university that I was first forced to grapple with foreign concepts and others’ opinions.
In other words, I learned a little empathy.
MongoDB’s vice president of business development, Vijay Vijayasankar, also points out the networking advantage of having college classmates:
One of Silicon Valley’s biggest problems is that too many waste time building stuff that doesn’t matter. Such “thin” products derive from entrepreneurs with thin life experience. What kind of meaningful products are you going to build if your life struggles so far don’t extend much beyond optimizing the speed of pizza delivery?
Silicon Valley already has enough of this, as software engineer Jeff Goldschrafe indicates:
Experience matters. Of course, there are different ways to gain experience. For example, when I was admitted to Stanford Law School, I was (pleasantly) shocked to discover that the school had given me a fellowship to help with tuition. As the financial aid director explained to me, it was part of their diversity outreach.
Now, I’m a white male from a middle class background, but I had something that set me apart and gave me a very different perspective from my peers: I had kids.
In my experience, the best entrepreneurs are those that build with empathy for their potential users and customers. Obviously, there are exceptions. But for every college dropout that makes it big, there are tens of thousands who don’t.
Employers Conspire To Create Robots
In fact, being able to skip college to play entrepreneur may require a certain socioeconomic status, one that most people don’t share, as Twitter’s Chris Aniszczyk intimates:
Not that this has stopped employers from encouraging would-be entrepreneurs to join them. As Meyer writes of a conversation he had with an Apple marketing team lead:
She explained to me how in recent years, Apple has had more success with interns who are either college dropouts or in their first two years of higher education. She explained a trend the company had become very familiar with recently: when a college grad is hired, he or she tends to come in with a “textbook based mindset,” and is incapable of learning the unique ways in which things work in their marketing department.
I get why it might be better for Apple or other tech companies to create automatons in their image, but how can this be good for the entrepreneur? Instead of studying Steinbeck you instead learn how to optimize marketing collateral The Apple Way™?
But The Future Is Being Built Right Now!
There is a sense, however, that no matter how much it might make sense to stay in school, the reality is that SOMEONE ELSE MIGHT BUILD THE FUTURE! So Meyer feels that the opportunity cost of staying in school is way too high:
The startup space has never been more vibrant or exciting than it is today. I feel as if I have a duty to build all that I can during this time.
The funny thing about the future is it’s always being built today. I remember living in Silicon Valley in 1999, feeling like I was the only person that wasn’t making a billion dollars, and feeling just like Meyer, that the world was passing me by.
Fifteen years and several startups later, I realize that there is always opportunity to build great things. In fact, it may be easier to do that when the industry isn’t so saturated with noise.
Rather than feeling a “duty to build all that [he] can” at this time when his life experience is low, Meyer would be far better off to expand that experience with the diverse people, new thoughts and academic trials that school brings. In short, he’s right that “the best thing you can do is throw yourself out there and learn from experience,” but he’s wrong to think he’ll gain that breadth of thought from networking with like-minded entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.
Lead photo by capture-the-light.at
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Everyone wears many hats at a startup, and you rarely know what skills will benefit you most. And when hiring, it can be hard to tell who will turn out to be the most flexible asset to your company.
So I asked nine entrepreneurs from Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) to share their most unexpectedly valuable hires in the last year and why.
There’s a time and a place for publicity, and our company was there. The exposure to the right groups, at the right time, with the right message has proven to be invaluable in growing our business and getting us to that next level, which we had been struggling to do.
One of the hardest things as the founder of a growing company is learning how to let go of every detail. We hired an assistant for our team who does scheduling, research gathering and follow-ups.
It’s the kind of work that’s really valuable but eats up time I could better spend in other places. New hires who can fill gaps and make better use of time that’s eating up the schedules of existing team members turns out to be essential.
A Developer/Lawyer Combination
At Royalty Exchange, we sell private securities in an eBay/eTrade like marketplace, so have a heavy focus on both legal and tech. We desperately needed in-house counsel for the legal side, as well as another solid developer.
Initially, we hired a developer to work on expanding our trading platform and surprisingly, she also went to law school! After working on the dev side and producing great work, we decided to let her work on the legal aspects of the company too.
Best decision ever! Everyone at startups wears multiple hats, but she wears a top hat and a beanie. The hiring was an unexpected “two birds with one stone” scenario and helped us cover two major needs.
An HR Director
We finally decided we needed to make the jump and hire a full-time HR director. We initially worked with an HR director who managed HR for eight companies under our investor’s portfolio. This was a great way to start, but now that we have a team of over 70 FT and PT employees we needed someone who could focus on our human resources full time.
I didn’t realize how many HR duties I was taking on as a founder until we decided to make this hire, and I’m thrilled to offload some of this work onto someone who can put more focus on it and therefore improve a lot of things we are doing.
We hired two interns, 15 and 18 years old, who are sisters from Pakistan. They were users on the Miss O & Friends website and, like many users on the site, applied to be interns.
Not only are they incredibly smart and talented girls, but they are also hyperaware of everything going on in the tween and teen girl world from fashion to upcoming bands, from singers to new actors and actresses. They are also social media whizzes and the articles they write and tweet end up bringing the most traffic to our site. They are completely on target with everything they do and have become invaluable to the company.
A Remote Employee
We hired a remote employee who has turned out to be phenomenal. There’s nothing really unique about the hiring process, but I think we knew to take a more hands-off approach once we saw what she could do.
Basically, we just had to get out of her way and let her run. We are normally very mentorship focused from day one, especially with remote folks. But in this case, we found we had something special so we gave her room to shine.
An IT Manager
A good IT person can help replace three or four costly positions. We hired an entry-level IT person who turned out to be extremely valuable for us. He helped us scale our systems and identify solutions to bottlenecks that had plagued us for years.
A Content Creator/Wordsmith
I met Clint Evans at a local entrepreneur group event. I’m a tech and strategy guy, so one thing missing for me was the ability to weave my ideas and communications into a beautifully written tapestry. Clint is helping me do that. Because of this I’ll be able to reach and help more people across the globe.
An A/B Testing Freelancer
We hired a freelancer to mine our data, come up with and execute A/B tests across our site. I was skeptical at first but we have seen a 50+ percent increase in conversion rate after running our first few tests. I recommend everyone invest in an in-house or freelance A/B testing expert.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock
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Some people watch TV in their spare time. Others play basketball. Mitchell Hashimoto, overachiever that he is, started an open-source project.
And not just any project. In 2010, Hashimoto used his spare time to turn his college dorm room into Vagrant, a popular developer tool that makes it easy to build complete development environments. With a marketing plan straight out of Open Source 101 (“open source the code, blog and tweet about it and wait for word of mouth to take over”), Vagrant now generates millions of downloads, inspires a small army of contributors and boasts a bevy of big-name users, including the BBC, Nokia, Expedia and ngmoco.
See also: DevOps—The Future Of DIY IT?
Hashimoto, however, isn’t done.
Two years ago he formed a company, HashiCorp, to give him the funding and freedom to build a suite of services to manage the full lifecycle of application development, delivery and management. Not content to be popular with the developer crowd, in other words, Hashimoto is also currying favor with operations engineers.
This places Hashicorp right at the nexus of so-called DevOps, in which developers take on more responsibility for managing the infrastructure that hosts their applications and puts them in the hands of users. Some people view DevOps as heralding the eventual extinction of IT operations as a specialized function; Hashimoto isn’t one of them, although he does think IT suffers from a fatal lack of automation. And that’s a problem he’s trying to fix.
I sat down with Hashimoto to discuss DevOps, IT automation and how producing new tools for both developers and operations has turned into an open-source success story.
Special Delivery (For Applications)
ReadWrite: Hashicorp offers a number of different applications, from Vagrant to Consul. What’s the common thread between these seemingly disparate applications?
Mitchell Hashimoto: The common thread is application delivery in a modern datacenter.
Taking an application (or service—whichever vocabulary you choose is equivalent in this case) from development into production and iterating it is a overly complicated task right now. There are a lot of moving pieces and a lack of clarity of the capabilities of each piece.
With our tools, we’re trying to solve the common datacenter problems: development environments, service discovery, resource provisioning, etc. These are problems that anyone with a datacenter—cloud or physical—has, and it’s silly that there isn’t a common solution to these problems.
Well, that isn’t entirely true. There are technology-specific solutions in some cases. For example, VMware claims to solve all these problems, but with a VMware-heavy skew.
We want to build tools that are agnostic to these sorts of decisions: whether you’re using OpenStack or AWS, physical or virtual, we want our tools to apply to you to solve the common problems stated earlier.
We Serve Both Kinds—Dev And Ops
RW: Tell me a bit about the tools you provide. Who uses them and why? What do they replace, if anything?
Vagrant manages work environments; Packer builds machine images and/or containers; Serf does cluster membership; Consul is a solution for service discovery and configuration; and Terraform builds infrastructure. That is the elevator pitch for all of them. Of course, none of these “elevator pitches” really does them justice, but they’re a start.
Our primary users are developers and operations engineers. The percentage of each group varies from tool to tool (i.e. Vagrant is developer-heavy, but Consul is operations-heavy), but as a company we build solutions to problems in the DevOps space, which by its very name affects developers and operations! Our tools primarily replace non-automation-friendly predecessors, or less flexible predecessors.
Since we’re coming at this problem space from the point of view of DevOps, our tools work well with others in that space and our tools focus on automation.
Compared to predecessors in some categories, we focus on having a better user and operator experience, as well as bringing more flexibility where possible. For example, with Terraform, it can be compared to something like AWS CloudFormation, but Terraform supports any cloud, not just AWS. But Vagrant, for example, doesn’t replace any specific existing tool, it just makes it easier to do what was a primarily manual task before.
RW: What are the biggest inhibitors to developer productivity today?
MH: A lack of agility brought about by a lack of automation.
There are a number of aspects of a developer’s workflow that can be improved: we can make building developer resources faster, we can improve the delivery pipeline and we can increase the mean-time-to-feedback for deploys. But I posit that each of these improvements requires better automation and tooling to safely manage this automation.
The Relevance Of IT Operations
RW: In the DevOps debate, where do you fall? Are IT operations increasingly irrelevant?
MH: I believe IT operations will always have a place, but some job functions are shifting. Developers are increasingly taking control of their pieces of infrastructure, a realm where IT previously ruled supreme. In the future, I believe we’ll see IT teams shrunk down—but still extremely important—and we’ll see developers—or call them “operations engineers”, meaning less IT, more dev-like—having a lot of control over the datacenter.
Our technology is built for this future. We have some pieces that are more relevant to developers (Vagrant, Packer), and we have some pieces that are more relevant to IT or more sysadmin folks (Terraform, Consul). There is overlap in there, but in a traditional IT world, we see a scenario where our tools are really bridging a gap to allow them to work together more effectively.
RW: Who is your target user/customer? Do “Microsoft developers” want these tools, too, or is it the AWS crowd that primarily finds your stuff interesting?
MH: Our target user/customer is anyone deploying applications.
I’m glad you brought up Microsoft developers. I actually switched to using Windows full time earlier this year so I can better understand a certain problem space for Windows developers, and to make sure our tools worked well for them.
There is a huge interest in our tools from the Microsoft community, and we treat them as first-class citizens in our target user base. All our tools from Vagrant to Terraform are built to support the Microsoft ecosystem, and we think its going to be a big market for us as our business grows.
I think its fair to say the “AWS crowd” found our stuff first, but as time has gone on (remember: we’ve been building these tools for five years now!), we’re relevant in the Microsoft world now, too.
Lead image by Stefan Goethals; other images courtesy of Hashicorp
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Think Like A Startup: Five Ways To Boost Your SEO Strategy
In garages, dorm rooms, and basements all around the world, people are bringing their business ideas to life. But this surge of entrepreneurial energy isn't limited to actual startups. Big brands like Coca-Cola and Red Bull are adopting lean and agile …
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Starting a business and selling your product is a daunting prospect in itself. But the intermediate steps of attracting customers and convincing them of your product’s worth can stop you in your tracks long before you get anywhere near the break-even point. A much-quoted study by Forrester Research found that for every $92 spent on acquiring website traffic, a measly $1 is spent on optimizing it. (Page 9, Endnote 3) This post assumes you fully understand the importance of optimizing every page of your website for conversion. While there are umpteen beginners’ guides and advanced blogs that spell out every little […]
The post A Startup Owner’s Black Book of Web Conversion by @searchrook appeared first on Search Engine Journal.
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Ever wonder why your Silicon Valley developer peers make more money than you? As Brookings analyst Jonathan Rothwell points out, it’s not because they’re more experienced than you. Rather, it’s because the technology skills they do have are “particularly valuable.”
What are these skills, you ask?
While it’s impossible to get an exact read, Leo Polovets’s analysis of AngelList data offers some strong clues as to the skills you need to build a winning startup (and a few, like PHP, that you’d do better to avoid).
The Valley’s Money Machine
Developers everywhere are a well-paid lot. As U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows, there are over 643,000 application developers in the U.S., with salaries ranging from $42,250 to $183,380, across 66 industries. Developers in the Information and Manufacturing industries carry particularly big wallets.
The closer a developer is to a coast, the better her chances of clearing $100,000, as Brookings analysis shows:
As much as developers make, generally, however, they make most—and by a considerable margin—in San Jose, Calif.
Well, there’s the obvious element of supply and demand that keeps driving developer salaries ever higher. Developers tend to get paid more in the Valley because, well, employers have little choice. (Actually, they do, as I’ve written, but too few take the choice of remote, open source-style development.)
Even so, Rothwell says that something more may be driving Silicon Valley developer wages: they tend to possess higher-value tech skills. As he writes:
For example, 8.4 percent of ads for software developers in San Jose requested Java, a widely used programming language, associated with an average salary of $98,000 across all U.S. ads mentioning both it and a salary requirement. Yet, for the United States as a whole, just 5.7 percent of software developer ads required Java. In New York City, the share was 6.7, and it was 4.7 in Louisville.
Despite having less experience than developer peers in other high-cost, competitive metropolitan areas, Silicon Valley developers make more because they know more about the tech that matters most.
So which tech is this, exactly?
What The Popular Kids Use
Using AngelList data, Leo Polovet peeks under the hood of successful startups and compares the technology they use to those of lesser startups. It’s an imperfect measure—it’s not 100% clear that the AngelList “Signal” score Polovet relies on truly measures company quality and popularity, although it seems to do so reasonably well. Still, it’s at least a running start at figuring out what successful startups—and the developers that power them—use to build their applications.
In the following charts—and apologies in advance; they’re also small and hard-to-read in the original—the different colors represent how “successful” the startups in question are, as measured by that “signal” score.
Sometimes, as in the case of programming languages, the best and worst developers use the same technology:
But sometimes there’s a clear delineation between what the most successful startups use and what the least successful companies adopt.
For programming languages, for example, Povolets notes that “[t]he likelihood that PHP is being used is strongly anti-correlated with company quality.” Similarly, “[t]he better the company, the more likely it is to be using modern and/or functional programming languages (i.e. Go, Scala, Haskell, Erlang, Clojure).”
Or take the database, storage and caching layer:
There aren’t any real surprises in terms of what the top startups use (MySQL with a big lead). But Polovet’s conclusion that “[t]he better the company, the less likely it is to build on top of Microsoft’s products (SQL Server)” might be a wake-up call to Microsoft developers. So might his suggestion that company quality strongly correlates with iOS development and that “[t]he better the company, the more likely it is to use IaaS (e.g. AWS) instead of PaaS.”
Strong developers, in other words, seem to want to have more direct control over the technologies they use, rather than offloading the heavy lifting to a platform.
Growing Out Of Neverland?
While Povolets’ data suggests across the board that “The better the company, the less likely it is to build on top of Microsoft’s products,” it’s clearly not a good reflection of which technologies are currently most important to big companies. Microsoft remains the top “mega-vendor” with CIOs and looks unlikely to lose that place anytime soon.
But the data does help to remind us why Silicon Valley’s software developers get paid so much: they know the best new technology, which technology may well turn out to be the fuddy-duddy technology of the future. (Java, for example, remains highly relevant today, but used to be the language of upstarts.)
Is it enough to know these hot technologies? Probably not. If you’re living in Des Moines, Iowa, you’re probably not going to get a Silicon Valley salary no matter how much Haskell you know.
Then again, you won’t have to deal with traffic along Highway 101, either, so consider yourself even.
Lead image by Cory Doctorow
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Existing laws are supposed to prevent motorists from using smartphone apps while driving. But they aren’t working. The number of drivers injured or killed by distraction continues to rise.
I don’t harbor hope that automakers—notoriously bad at digital driver interfaces—will find the best solution. The way forward is more likely to come from a small startup, perhaps a company like Navdy. The San Francisco company is attempting to solve the distracted-driver epidemic by moving car data and mobile functions away from clunky dashboards and tiny phone screens—and onto simple interfaces that magically float six feet in front of the driver’s eyes.
Navdy’s one-two tech punch is straightforward: It combines a heads-up display with gesture recognition in an attempt to minimize distracting demands on a driver’s attention, whether taking in new information or giving commands.
Everything you might need to know—from vehicle speed and turn-by-turn directions, to incoming text messages or the name of the tune bumping on the radio—is displayed directly over the road. Every means for controlling the apps—wave your hand to the left to accept a call, or to the right to reject it—is supposed to work like Leap Motion, without diverting your gaze.
No More Touchscreens, Knobs and Buttons
Navdy today launched the pre-order campaign for its aftermarket product. The company is offering a price of $299—a 40 percent discount from its expected retail price of $499. The first shipments are expected in early 2015.
Last week, Doug Simpson, Navdy’s chief executive and co-founder, gave me a demo of the product on a spin around the Berkeley hills.
Simpson previously ran a research and manufacturing division for Hewlett-Packard and later created Digiblast, a portable multimedia device for kids. Karl Guttag, his co-founder and chief technology officer, has more than three decades of experience in integrated circuit architecture related to graphics and image processors. Highway1—a San Francisco-based hardware incubator sponsored by PCH, a major manufacturing company—helped bring the product to life.
“The idea grew out of my own frustration of using a phone in the car and fumbling around with a touchscreen, and having one too many almost-accidents,” said Simpson.
“The issue with touchscreens, knobs and buttons, wherever they are, is they force you to look down,” he continued. “Whenever your eyes are off the road, you are three times more likely to have an accident.”
Still More Idea Than Reality
Here’s a promotional Navdy video that gives you a sense of how the company expects the gizmo to work:
In reality, however, Navdy remains very much a work in progress. The prototype that I saw, mounted on the dashboard of a rented Toyota Corolla, lacked much of the polish—and many of the features—shown in the video. “This is not the final product, but most of the hardware development is done,” Simpson acknowledged. “We’re in final testing now.”
The flat device is about the size of a salad plate with a two-by-five-inch see-through flip-up screen. When the car idled, the bright image temporary vibrated until we got going. It was powered by a portable battery pack instead of connecting to the car’s diagnostic port as planned.
Most important, it lacked the gesture recognition and ability to react to spoken commands—features that are central to Navdy’s strategy.
Yet it was clear from Simpson’s immediate and thoughtful responses to my questions that Navdy has specific plans to address the technical challenges. “We think we’ll be first to market with the combination of the two technologies, which complete the eyes-on-the-road experience,” Simpson told me.
All About the Optics
Simpson said the tricky optics were custom designed. “We have an extremely bright projector. It’s 40 times brighter than your iPhone,” he said. Indeed, on the sunny day of the demo, the image was clear and focused as it pulled turn directions from Google Maps on a paired iPhone.
Simpson talked about high-gain screens, and different types of light being alternately reflected, distributed, dispersed, magnified or rejected.
Projecting on the device’s small glass screen is cheaper and easier than using the windshield itself, which would require special optics sandwiched into the glass. Also, those expensive windshields come in a variety of different curvatures.
To reduce the cost of heads-up displays, major automakers, such as Mini and Mazda, are also opting for the same type of “combiner” heads-up display—a small transparent screen on the dash—like what Navdy is using. IHS, an automotive market research firm, forecasts that by 2020, combiner displays will account for 60 percent of head-up displays sold worldwide.
For its gesture recognition functions, which will use an infrared camera aimed at the driver, Navdy partnered with a major company in the image processing space. (Simpson declined to give the name of the firm.) “We looked at what technology we could integrate versus what we could build ourselves, and how to blend it together into a magical experience,” he said.
One of the challenges is how close drivers are situated to the device—requiring a fish-eye lens to allow sufficient range of view to read the driver’s gestures. Car interior lighting conditions can also be challenging.
The interface is key. On top of the data coming from the phone—including apps like Google Maps and Spotify—Navdy uses the dongle attached to the diagnostic port under the steering column to gain access to a wide range of car data, including vehicle speed, miles-to-empty and tire pressure.
In that sense, Navdy is something like a hardware-software platform upon which apps—or entire heads-up designs—could be built. The company has future plans to open up its system to third-party developers.
During the demo, this text message popped up with the name and photo of the sender: “See you very soon.” It looked like a demo, rather than a real message. Simpson said that the default text-message setting is to read text messages while the car is moving, but display them when the car is stationary. Emails are out of bounds.
The company built Navdy on Android, although it can pair with either Android or iPhone devices. The system can work with any car. The biggest vehicle compatibility challenge is mounting the device on all the various sizes and shapes of steering wheel humps.
Getting From Here to There
Currently, the closest drivers can get to glanceable (and minimally distracting) phone functions is to install a dashboard mount for a cell phone. Amazon lists a few of them less than $10. That’s 50 times cheaper than the $500 device from Navdy—although of course the experience of looking at a fixed small display is dramatically different from one that’s projecting data right in the driver’s field of vision.
Who knows how quickly Navdy will move from the rough prototype I saw to a finished and affordable product that offers all the promised gesture recognition, voice, and deep integration with car and phone data. Even if it’s still a ways off, it’s still a fascinating glance at where in-car informatics may be headed.
I fully anticipate that within a few years—whether we are driving or the car is driving itself—we will no longer need to look down at a phone, or for that matter, a set of dashboard controls. Everything will be projected or embedded in the windshield, and hopefully, distributed over a wide area of view. “We are working on a scenario where we will use the whole windshield,” said Simpson. “That’s the vision.”
Images courtesy of Navdy
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