Monthly Archives: March 2010

Worth At Least 45 Seconds of Your Time…

Let’s see, how long has it been since I started a new blog? Probably too long ago if I can’t remember.

My mom sends me insane attachments in emails. They’re usually collections of strange pictures and drug recall warnings. I have a theory that Asian ladies communicate primarily by sending Powerpoint presentations to each other.

These emails are way too awesome to keep to myself, so I started a blog to document them. I called it “Worth 45 Seconds” because one it was included in the subject heading of one of my favorite emails. You can see that one on Worth 45 Seconds. I’ll be adding more periodically as I sift through my backlog and as my mom keeps sending me new email forwards.

SXSW 2010: My Panel Moderator Experience

I got back from SXSW 2010 a few days ago, and I thought I would write a post about what it was like to moderate a panel while it’s fresh in my mind. As you may know, my panel submission, “Student Startups: Entrepreneurship in the University” was selected to be a real panel at SXSW 2010! From the time that I knew it was accepted, I sprung into action and got my panelists together. Ellen from Alight Learning, Ben from Olark (formerly Hab.la) and Rishi from Underground Printing.

While I did my research beforehand (I was a student entrepreneur myself, to begin with), I felt the need to cram some preparation a few days before the panel, too. I guess I should have gotten everything ready before the conference started, but I also wanted to get proper feedback from my panelists.

One way I prepared to moderate was by reading a few blog posts on the subject that were linked to from the Speaker FAQ. Most agree that one should not over-prepare the panelists. You want the discussion to happen during the panel itself and not before. In the hour before the panel, inside the green room, I had to sort of referee the panelists to avoid discussing too much. Most also agree that the moderator needs to do the most homework. I had to come up with the focus of my panel, questions to ask to reach that focus, and I had to be prepared to follow up with more questions depending on where the conversation went (which included asking questions to get the discussion back on track if it was going off on a tangent).

At first the panel was going to be about details: where to get money, what kind of corporate structure to use, etc. When I started thinking about the potential panel attendee, I realized that these questions would probably be really boring and unnecessary. I tried to frame my panel from the viewpoint of a college undergrad who just wants to get something started. I hoped that by the end of the panel, at least one person in the room would decide to give startups a try, or at least be excited enough by the idea to do more research into it.

My biggest worries were that no one would come, or that too many people would come. I also worried that people would be mean on the backchannel (as I have witnessed during other panels). I worried that I would not have enough questions to ask and that there would be a bunch of dead silence. Luckily, none of these things happened. The audience was a good size, I treated the audience with respect from the beginning and asked them to do the same on our hashtag, and my panelists were really interesting and led me to ask other followup questions. I don’t think there was much filler content at all.

Probably the only truly stressful part of the process was when Rishi called me the day before the panel and told me he couldn’t make it, by no fault of his own. I had to find a replacement panelist within less than 24 hours! Luckily, I am an entrepreneur at heart and rose to the challenge. I went to the trade show floor and started asking the startup-looking companies if their founder was there, and if so, if he/she had started a company while in school. I got incredibly lucky the first time I asked, at Tungle.me‘s booth. I ended up meeting Marc Gingras, a really awesome guy who ended up working out perfectly. Marc rounded out the panel as the guy who started a company during the dotcom boom. He also has experience being a VC and doing other startups after his first. I really can’t thank Marc enough for spending his time sitting on my panel and helping it become a great success.

My basic strategy during the panel was to break the ice by asking the audience to participate a bit first. I stole this from the App-Vertising panel I saw a few days before. I asked who in the audience were students, investors, entrepreneurs or educators. Next, I had my panel introduce themselves and then I introduced myself. I started with an easy question: “I am a student who wants to get into startups, what should I do?” From there I listened to the panelists and tried to anticipate where the discussion was heading. I had a few points I wanted to hit, so if I heard something that related to another topic, I segued into it. For example, I might’ve said “Ben, you mentioned finding your co-founders at a student group, did anyone else have a similar experience? If not, where did you find your co-founders?”

The backchannel on Twitter also provided a good source of questions. I’m really glad that people asked them because it kept the conversation relevant to what people wanted to know and it gave me a chance to save my questions for a more relevant time to ask them.

I haven’t gotten the official feedback on the panel yet, but I think that it was overall a success. Very few people left in the during the panel and many people were nice enough to come up and talk to me and the panelists afterward. I wish I could have talked to every single person to see if the panel was helpful, but I think they had to run to the keynote right after (and so did we)! I really hope that the panel inspired some people to take a chance and become an entrepreneur. I think that if one person became more inspired after hearing the panel, our mission was definitely accomplished.

While the process was a bit stressful and required a fair amount of work, I’d love to either moderate or participate in a panel again, someday. I’ve got to start thinking of panel ideas for SXSW 2011!

[Photo credit: Chris Norred]

SXSW 2010 Official Celebrity Sighting Namedropping Post!

I have lots of material to post from this year’s SXSW 2010 Interactive Festival. First thing’s first, though: I need to document all of the celebrities that I sighted and took pictures with!

The first celebrity of South By came fairly early. While leaving the Windows Phone party on Friday night, I ran into my old friend Pete Cashmore. I can call him my old friend because we used to be in that 9rules thing together and he wrote about Notecentric and MapsKrieg on his Mashable blog. I chatted him up a bit to see if he remembered me (he either did or was being nice). And he was pretty nice, too! He told me about the Mashable party at Buffalo Billiards (that I didn’t actually get a chance to go to). Then I had to run off because there was a free taco truck nearby and Pete was trying to get into the Speakeasy anyway.

That same night I also spotted Scobleizer, but I didn’t talk to him because I was looking for additional Korean tacos and I already met him last year. I also met some Jonas Brothers but later found out they were just cardboard cutouts.

The next night, at the Frog Design opening party, I was waiting in line and met a cool guy named Mike D’Amico. The line was for a photo booth. I guess we’re both pretty narcissistic. Anyway, some gals ran up to mike and started talking to him. They seemed strangely familiar. I thought they were maybe in a TV show or small-time movie actors. Once they started handing Threadless buttons to me I realized the magnitude of the situation.

They were Threadless t-shirt models!!! Kristen and Colleen were both really nice. I took a picture with them, Threadless style, though I didn’t have a Threadless shirt on at the time. We exchanged business cards and I promised them I’d wear my Three Keyboard Cat Moon shirt the next day.

Sunday was a slow day for celebrity sightings but that was probably due to the fact that I was busy preparing for my panel the next day. Monday turned out to be a good day, both for my panel (more on that in a later post!) and for celebrity sightings!

My friends Sameer and Maureen and I were heading to the 20×2 party but found the foursquare party along the way. The line was huge but somehow we became VIPs by drinking some Vitamin Water and having out pictures taken. The party had a bunch of tables with t-shirts and schwag lined up. I got a Brizzly, Foursquare and something else (some kind of iPhone app company) shirt. While at the foursquare table I saw that iJustine girl. I talked with her for a second and got a picture with her. She seemed nice enough, but kinda had other things to do besides talk to me. She probably needed to go stream her life or something, whatevs!

danah boyd was also at the party but someone was chatting her up relentlessly. Sameer got her to say “Hi” (he’s met her before) but she had to run to the VIP area or something. She also seemed nice but kinda busy.

Later that night, Sameer and I were in the line for the Mens room and ran into the CEO of Twitter, Evan Williams! He was wearing the same dress shirt/sweater combo as during his keynote earlier in the day. Sameer asked for his business card and Ev nicely obliged. We didn’t get a picture. That might’ve been a bit too odd, given we were waiting for the bathroom. I heard that Ashton Kutcher was also at the party but I didn’t head up to the VIP area to check him out.


Overall it was a very good year for celebrity sightings at SXSW. I really wanted to meet Cashmore last year, so it’s great I finally got to talk with him a bit this time. Next year I hope to run into even more famous celebrities like Guy Kawasaki or Leo Laporte! See you soon, SXSW 2011!

New Hobby: Letterpress

Recently I’ve become really interested in letterpress. It’s basically a form of printing on a movable type machine that results in a print that’s sort of embossed as well. I recently bought a set of cards from Vince Letterpress:

Meaghan was really nice because she had originally sent me two blue cards and a yellow. I told her that I had intended to frame them as a set of three and she printed a red one and sent it to me for free. It was really good of her to do that.

I think the reason I like Letterpress is that it leaves a very tangible impression. The object itself is a representation of something that’s not quite 2d, but not quite 3d either. In an age of all things digital, when it’s so easy to reproduce something by printing it out on an inkjet or laser printer, it’s nice to have something that’s a bit more difficult to recreate. Sure, someone could scan the card and print it out, but there would be something lost in the translation from a physical object with physical properties to a digital representation back to a physical object.

I like that the printer works by smashing into the paper. It creates something that’s different every time. I like that you can touch the card and feel its texture. I like that you can see it from different angles in the light, and how it changes a bit. In the example above, I really like the colors.

So far my hobby consists of collecting letterpress’ed stuff. I’d really like to take a letterpress printing class some time. It seems like it’d be a good way to balance my love of new technology with some older-fashioned tech.

Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture – Book Review

I recently picked up a copy of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. As a self proclaimed cheapskate (I picked this book up from the library, after all!), I was very interested in the subject.

Ellen Shell does some in-depth research behind the psychology of why we (humans) love cheap stuff. Some of us go bonkers finding good deals, even when it’s not really economical (driving miles to save a few cents on gas). I’ve displayed this behavior in the past, buying videogames when they’re on sale while never having enough time to even finish the ones I’ve started, let alone the new ones I bought. I’ve chilled out a little when it comes to randomly buying stuff, but the allure of a good deal is still strong.

There are also some fun experiments described. Like the one where a person is presented with a crappy Hershey’s chocolate for 1 penny or an upgrade to a premium chocolate for 25 cents. Most people pick the premium. But when the price of the Hershey’s drops to the magical price of “free,” most people go for the free option instead of the “better” 25 cent deal.

Shell also describes the history of the discount store. Originally goods were priced according to quality. It was easy to tell that something made well cost more. But people started selling crappy quality goods at super low prices (and thrive on volume). This caused the more expensive sellers to go out of business. The super low prices made poor people feel like kings, being able to afford new socks instead of repairing their old ones! People could afford to just buy new things, which was good because the new stuff they bought would fall apart pretty quickly (think H&M).

The basic thesis of the book is that people love cheap things, but cheap things come at a cost. The lower class will always be involved (and basically abused), because if you paid people well to make things, the things themselves would need to cost more. This means that working retail sucks. It also means that the conditions for the people making the cheap stuff (mostly in China and Vietnam and other poorer countries) sucks really bad. If people saw what their need for cheap led to, they would probably be willing to pay a bit more to improve the quality of life of the people making their things. Sadly, most people don’t think about it because it is very out of sight.

One interesting section of the book concerned Ikea. I’ve always really liked Ikea because they make fashionable stuff and it is, indeed, cheap. I’ve had issues with their “stainless steel” items from China that rust like the surface of Mars. Overall though, I have a lot of love for their furniture. Learning that they use a hella lot of lumber and their “planned obsolescence” mentality leads to waste makes me reconsider. I’m not sure they’re the devil, but I think that next time I need to furnish an apartment, I may instead think of Crate & Barrel (which has way cute stuff!).

As for getting rid of my own cheap habits altogether, I don’t think I can do it. I will say that I am lucky to have the luxury of being able to choose to spend more or not. I don’t shop at Wal-Mart because I think it’s kind of evil and exploitative. One interesting thing to note is how well Wal-Mart does during a recession due to its focus on crazy low prices… I do shop at PCC because it’s good quality food and Michael Pollan says I should spend more on healthy food. I can’t really justify paying more just for the sake of paying more, however.

The book closes with a story about a company that goes against cheap culture. It’s a grocery store that focuses on customer service instead of price. People really love the store and are willing to pay more because of it. The store actually has fans. I think this is a great example of competing on another factor and really kicking butt doing it. I think that other companies that do this are Apple (for selling high quality products that people develop emotional bonds to) and Zappos (for focusing on customer service above price and making customer happiness their main goal). There is a special place in our brain that loves cheap, but I think there are also other things that are important to people.

Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture is a really interesting look at where we are and how we ended up this way. It says something interesting about our culture, our brains and ultimately our nature. If you buy just one book this year, then Cheap is probably the book for you! (It’s on sale at Amazon! 35% off!)