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Articles about entrepreneurship, traveling, business and life from Alvin Tai

Startup Pressure Cooker

12/22/2015
by Alvin
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The Startup Pressure Cooker

In my experience, working on a startup should be like working in a pressure cooker. Just as pressure cookers speed up the process of cooking, your startup should be racing towards success (or failure). In the end, you don’t know if your food will come out tasting terrible or delicious, but at least it got there fast.

The two key elements that make pressure cooking possible is heat and pressure. In a pressurized vessel, the temperature of a liquid boils at a much higher temperature allowing it to cook at a much faster rate. This got me thinking about what key elements cause startups to “cook” faster:

  1. Add a couple of Founders: If you’re working on an idea as the sole founder, you’re only accountable to yourself. And while it might be very satisfying to know that your accomplishments are yours alone, you need other co-founders to maximize your potential. You need someone to bounce ideas off of each other and to tell you when ideas are good or bad. If you have no one to discuss bad ideas with, you’ll inevitably act on them and waste a lot of time to figure out that it was a bad idea in the first place. I’m not saying this is a foolproof plan to avoid bad ideas, but you might cut down on half of them, which is a lot because we all have a ton of bad ideas. Not only that, but having co-founders is a great way to keep each other accountable. All of the founders rely on each other for the collective success of the group. The added pressure that a co-founder puts on an, otherwise sole, founder makes things move faster.
  2. Mix in some Investors: Along a similar vein as having co-founders, having someone invest time and money into your startup adds another layer of pressure to the startup concoction. Suddenly, there is someone outside of your startup who has a vested interest in your success. Not only that, but that someone has a vast network of resources to make things go faster. You might think the contrary, but the more resources you have available to you, the more pressure there is to make the right decisions and succeed. After all, you don’t have any excuses for failure now, right?
  3. Add Money for Taste: Money can be a powerful motivator, both when you lack it and when you have it. When you lack money, there is a desperation to earn more of it. When you have it, there is a constant battle to figure out how best to use it. Both can help push a company to the brink of success or failure faster than the first two “ingredients”.
  4. Past Failures: If you have a few failures under your belt, there is no doubt that there is a chip on your shoulder. In the eyes of your family and friends, you are likely teetering on the line that divides an entrepreneur and a fool. Sometimes that line is so thin that it’s hard to tell yourself sometimes. But with each failure, the pressure inside the pressure cooker jumps up a notch. And with each new venture you are quicker to identify what works and what doesn’t.
  5. Location: Startups gravitate to Silicon Valley for a reason. Silicon Valley is rich with money and talent and is considered by many to be the Mecca of startups. It can be overwhelming and downright incestuous at times, but you can’t deny the history of success found there. When you’re in Silicon Valley, everybody is talking about the next big thing and you can’t help but be motivated to actually be that big thing. Just by being in Silicon Valley makes you feel like you have to get some million-dollar valuation on a half-built prototype that you developed with something called “html”. For better or for worst, Silicon Valley makes things move faster.

 

 

11/12/2015
by Alvin
0 comments

You Always Have a Boss

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A big reason why entrepreneurs work on startups is the desire to be their own boss. They want to have control of their own career and not have to rely on the requests of another person. It’s even a selling point in this National Car Rental commercial. The concept of someone else controlling your pay, your projects and your success can sometimes feel stifling. It’s obviously not as drastic as imprisonment, but there are some days when those lines are blurred.
Businessman working with documents in the office

Being your own boss is enticing but let’s be clear, you always have a boss:

Your customers are your bosses. Your customers are the most important part about your business and keeping them overjoyed should be everyone’s number one priority. Honestly, keeping your customers happy boils down to one critical element: unconditional customer service. Customer service can sometimes be the deciding factor between choosing your product vs. a competitor’s; so listen to your customers and react to their needs. And you better do it with a smile on your face. If you ever want to study what it means to provide unconditional customer service, all you need to do is buy a ticket to Disneyland. Employees are constantly happy, helpful and always “on”. Every little detail has been carefully planned out so that every single child that walks through their gates experiences the full magic of Disney and their characters. I’ve heard stories about how there can only be one variation of Mickey Mouse in the park at any given time and about how employees are even trained not to fingerpoint when giving directions. Each employee has their part in providing unconditional customer service and their job depends on it.

Your employees are your bosses. You have a huge obligation to support and develop good working relationships with your employees. I’m a big believer that happy employees will lead to happy customers. Though some people may disagree with me, I think that keeping your employees happy is harder than keeping customers happy. Attracting and retaining top talent is incredibly difficult because every employee has different expectations about career success. Keeping employees happy doesn’t just mean paying them well, it means having projects that are meaningful and establishing a safe and enjoyable work culture. Even if you’re willing to overwork yourself, doesn’t mean you should expect your employees to always feel the same way. As you get older, receive more promotions and have more responsibilities, it gets increasingly more difficult but even more important to have a good work/life balance.

Bonus Boss Round! In David Heinemeier Hansson’s recent article, Reconsider, he goes on an awesome rant about the fallacies of chasing the incredibly far-fetched startup unicorn (a startup with a $1 billion valuation based on fundraising). In the article, he states,

I wanted to work for myself. Walk to my own beat. Chart my own path. Call it like I saw it, and not worry about what dudes in suits thought of that. All the cliches of independence that sound so quaint until you have a board meeting questioning why you aren’t raising more, burning faster, and growing at supersonic speeds yesterday?!

You’re still the entrepreneur, you’re still “the boss”, but you’re no longer your own boss. The obligation to yourself that started this whole thing has now turned into an obligation to please your investors. With investments, come more board members that have voting power. The board of directors now have control over your pay, your projects and your success. Sound familiar?


 

Ultimately, being your own boss isn’t as simple as quitting your job. I’d argue that in business, there’s no such thing as being your own boss; you will always have some one, or some group that you are obligated to keep happy and report to. And honestly, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It drives individuals, teams and entire companies to perform better and get rewarded for doing so. However, you should never feel trapped in a bad situation because what you always get to choose is who gets to be your boss.

10/06/2015
by Alvin
0 comments

Assisted Suicide in California

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This week, California Governor, Jerry Brown, signed a bill that allows physicians to prescribe life-ending medication to terminally ill patients. Brown was quoted stating:

“I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain. I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this bill. And I wouldn’t deny that right to others.”

It was a surprisingly humane and emotional reasoning in a typically stoic and political environment.

I was first introduced to the term “assisted suicide” and “euthanasia” as a Freshmen in high school. Believe it or not, it was one of the discussion topics for my Speech and Debate class in the 1990s. During my research for my debates, I learned about Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a physician that illegally helped people kill themselves and famously stated that “dying was not a crime”. He was nicknamed Dr. Death and because he was years ahead of his time, he was convicted of second-degree murder and sent to prison.

How to Die in Oregon

Screenshot from How to Die in Oregon. This is the woman you will undoubtedly fall in love with and cry for in the film.

At the time, having never truly experienced death among my close family or friends, I didn’t truly understand the magnitude of his actions and I had simply accepted euthanasia from a factual standpoint rather than an emotional one. That is, until I watched the movie How to Die in Oregon, a film about the legalized assisted suicide laws in Oregon, the first state to pass it. That film destroyed me and made me rethink everything that I thought I understood about end-of-life care. That film really had a profound effect on me and I highly recommend it; just be sure to have a box of tissues next to you while you watch it.

However, I want to get back to the facts. While it’s important to understand the more human aspect of this issue, I want to look at this policy through an objective set of eyes instead of from the perspective of someone who lost a loved one. I think the benefits of this law are obvious but it is controversial and I think it would be constructive to review why it’s so contentious.

Could patients end their life due to financial or social pressures rather than the intended medical purpose?

I can definitely see how a terminally ill patient would consider ending his/her life if they were under financial duress from high medical costs or related expenditures. Even if a patient were not in pain but could see the financial benefit of leaving their savings to loved ones, the law could certainly be the extra encouragement a person would need to end their life quickly. I might argue that at that point, maybe it wouldn’t matter whether suicide was illegal or not.

There is another argument about how social pressures could make a patient make the decision to end life more swiftly than typical. What if someone was subtly encouraging a patient to have the toxic medication prescribed in an attempt to inherit wealth? From a psychological perspective, could this be done? This would obviously still be illegal, but I assume that it would be harder to prove in a court of law.

What if patients are not in the right mindset when making this life-ending decision?

For patients who have a sudden lapse of judgment, maybe from an associated mental health disorder, will there be a safeguard for determining true intent? How can we be certain that the individual making this decision is in their normal mindset?

For this policy to be truly effective, the right safeguards need to be in place. And while I think Dr. Kevorkian had the right mentality, there weren’t any protocols in place at the time, which is why he was ultimately convicted of a crime. I can already predict that this issue will be remarkably similar to the scrutiny that Gay Rights underwent and reach the Supreme Court for national attention. Regardless, I think we can learn from this and make end-of-life care a better and more humane practice.

Find me @thealvintai

I work @fastqs

Image Credit: Taken by Sim Chi Yin from the article, What It’s Like To Take Photos Of A Dying Man.

09/23/2015
by Alvin
0 comments

My Universal Healthcare Experience in France

medical

I recently traveled to the French Alps and, in a stroke of bad luck, I developed a bacterial skin infection that required medical attention. This was a scary situation to be in not just because I was unfamiliar with the language and the roads, but also because I didn’t know how to navigate their healthcare system. Having only been exposed to the complicated and often confusing US healthcare process, I was weary about what it would take to get the medical attention I needed in a foreign country.

France employs a universal healthcare system and I had heard rumors that such a system created long wait times and sub-par medical treatment. I also questioned how much it would cost an international traveler (who was not a tax-paying citizen) for, not just the doctor’s visit, but also the medication. I was prepared to face the expected maze of bureaucratic paperwork and healthcare administrators.

My concerns were unfounded. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy everything was. I ended up seeing two doctors; one at a private practice and one who was employed by a public hospital, and both provided simple and professional services. Here are some numbers to illustrate my point:

Private practice

  1. Wait time (no appointment): 15 minutes
  2. No paperwork requiring an exorbitant amount of personal information
  3. Consultation Cost: 35 Euros
  4. Medication Costs: 34 Euros

Hospital visit

  1. Wait time (no appointment): NO wait time!
  2. No paperwork requiring an exorbitant amount of personal information
  3. Consultation Cost: 60 Euros
  4. Medical Costs: 16 Euros

The whole experience was superb. The doctor’s knew enough English to get through a consultation, the wait times were essentially nonexistent and the medical costs were affordable. As a bonus, I was ecstatic that I didn’t need to fill out mountains of paperwork detailing all of my personal information; I just needed to provide some identification! After researching French healthcare, I discovered that the World Health Organization (WHO) had assessed France to provide best overall healthcare system in the world (http://www.who.int/whr/2000/media_centre/press_release/en/) with the United States ranking only 37th.

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This got me thinking about healthcare in the United States. Why couldn’t the process be this simple? Did it have to do with infrastructure? Finances? Level of care? We’re in this strange cost-cycle where healthcare costs are so high that citizens require insurance plans to cover the costs. But as a result, insurance companies create a powerful network that causes healthcare costs to rise over time. Unfortunately, it’s a positive feedback loop that can only be improved with federal responsibility.

 

 

deadend

08/11/2015
by Alvin
3 Comments

Why it’s so difficult to find Product/Market Fit

I’ve recently started binge-reading blog posts about product/market fit.

I’ve picked apart Marc Andreessen’s Pmarca blogs, in particular his post titled: “On product/market fit for startups.”

I’ve read and re-read Andrew Chen’s posts/presentations about “Minimizing Time to Product/Market Fit“, “When has a consumer startup hit product/market fit” and “Zero to Product/Market Fit.” 

I’ve gorged myself on Alex Turnbull’s “Journey to $100k a Month” (favs include: Lessons Learned from 0 to $30k a month and How we got our first 100 paying customers in 24 hours)

In fact, I don’t know why we still call it “Product/Market Fit” when it should really be called “Market/Product Fit” because you need to start with the right market, then build a product that fits. Sounds pretty simple, right?

In the beginning, every entrepreneur is looking for product/market fit whether they know it or not. In our first failed attempt at building a product, we didn’t know what we were looking for. We idolized the now-defunct mantra of “Build it and they will come” and didn’t fully understand our market. After that experience, we vowed to do extensive market research before building a product and to never make the same mistake again. And yet, just a few months later, we found ourselves repeating history for the second time.

Even though we knew the theory of finding product/market fit, we still ended up building a product with no paying customers. How did that happen? Were we in some sort of twilight zone? It was really frustrating. I tried to break down why it was so hard to find product/market fit.

archeryPractice Makes Perfect

Unfortunately my startup founder and I were not bred from an early age to hunt for product/market fit. We were engineers and while we could solve problems, the problems had to clearly exist before we could solve them. In the real world, you do not have the luxury of having clearly defined market problems laid out in front of you.

What exactly does product/market fit look like? I think the more times you try to find product/market fit, the better you become at successfully identifying it. Essentially, it is a skill that can be honed. My proof? Those who make a living as a sales representative have practiced their entire career figuring out market problems and fixing them. My girlfriend is a sales rep and she has her sales pitch down to a science; almost to a point where it becomes instinctual.

Each question she asks a potential customer is carefully formulated to reveal their needs and wants. Being able to sell effectively is a glorious skill set to have. This brings me back to my point of how practice makes perfect. I wish when I was younger I had worked in retail, or sold Cutco knives, or even started a lawn mowing business because the more times you try to figure out product/market fit, the better you become at realizing what it looks like.

Uncertain

Customers are Confusing

The most confusing part of finding product/market fit is talking with customers. I’ve read many articles saying things like “listen to your customers” and “customers don’t know what they want” and “make something people want” and “sometimes you have to say no to customers”. Well make up your mind!

Researching a market by talking to potential customers is frustratingly confusing. I’ve realized that you can’t just ask customers, “What are your problems/obstacles/bottlenecks/etc?” The question is often too broad and unfocused. There are two main ways to even get close to a problem. (1) Trial and Error – You have to ask them if they have a specific problem and they’ll be able to say yes or no. (2) Observation – Go through a process with them and the problems will likely surface.

And even then, people will lie to you! It’s not necessarily out of ill-will, but maybe they’re too nice to tell you that your idea sucks, or maybe they believe one thing but actually do another.

Ultimately, you’re trying to figure out “What does a good market look like?” If five people say they like your idea, three of them say they want more features, seven of them say they’d try a beta, but 25 of them outright said no, is that market good enough to build a product for? And if you do build a product and none of these people become paying customers, did your market research fail you? Maybe you just needed to talk to more than 40 people.

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Time

It takes a lot of time to identify product/market fit. If you watch this video by Steve Blank, you have to figure out the right market, build a prototype, test assumptions and then either verify or pivot. Most ideas likely pivot, but each pivot takes time. Each idea may take months to validate and you only have a limited runway. Ideally, you would do much of the validation upfront before you start building a product. But entrepreneurs are inherently restless. They want to research fast, build fast, and validate fast.

There’s also a mental expectation that is psychologically intertwined with this process. If you had quit your job and after three months didn’t even have a prototype built, you’d look like a fool. But what if, in those three months, you had interviewed 1000 people and gone through 10 ideas? Do you know how long it would have taken you to build prototypes for 10 ideas? But no one cares about that.

For SaaS startups, you have to spend most of your time networking and building relationships to even get the opportunity to ask the right people the right questions. Even if you were in the same industry as Cisco, do you think you’ll get the chance to ask Cisco’s VP of Engineering about his problems whenever you want?

I also think entrepreneurs sometimes fall into the trap (guilty as charged) of finding a handful of anecdotal evidence of a user need and then going full steam on product development, only to find that the evidence is, in fact, anecdotal and hearsay. This ties into my previous point about confusing customer research. Ultimately, time is an entrepreneur’s biggest liability and the longer you spend not finding product/market fit, the riskier everything becomes.


 

I think as entrepreneurs, we get scared if we aren’t constantly working on a physical product or a prototype to show people. That becomes our only proof that we are doing something. But that’s not true. Successful startups begin way before the product is built. Nobody just talks about that stuff.

08/04/2015
by Alvin
0 comments

Why Core Input is Important

rubber stamp marked with regulation

I sometimes get asked why I started a company like Core Input. At Core Input, we build software to help keep medical device companies compliant with the regulations. I believe that there needs to be a shift in how we develop technology in a regulated industry. This industry is too often associated with bureaucratic red-tape and unreasonably long product life cycles. I’ve met engineers who have switched over to this industry appalled by how much documentation and paper-work they need to complete, in addition to their design work. It’s an industry that needed a jump start.

The software industry is moving at an exponential pace and technology today can become obsolete and replaced with better technology tomorrow. It is astounding how quickly things can change in the software industry. Software can help the medical device industry achieve greater things. Which is why I started Core Input.

Core Input is our solution for this industry. Or at least part of the solution. We’re trying to eliminate paper, prevent over-documentation and yet still offer a compliant process. Misinterpretation of the regulations often result in either controls that are too rigorous (leading to stifled innovation) or too loose (leading to non-compliance). We basically take industry best-practices and distribute it to every medical device company in the form of software. What if there wasn’t a need to audit/inspect a company because the regulations were interpreted appropriately every time? Let’s think about that.

We understand that documentation is part of this industry, however, our vision for Core Input (www.coreinputapp.com) is to allow medical device companies to focus more of their time on building life-saving technology and less time dealing with the documentation.

Follow us @coreinput.

 

 

 

07/08/2015
by Alvin
1 Comment

Risk Management in Montana

I recently took a backpacking trip to Glacier National Park in Montana and it is a beautiful place to visit. The state is nicknamed “Big Sky Country” and I can see why. Coming from California where having a backyard is a luxury, it was great to see so much land and sky unoccupied.

While I was there, the Quality Assurance side of my brain couldn’t help but think about how risk management had helped prepare me for this trip to Montana. In a typical risk management process, you:

1) Identify Risk – Identify the hazards that you may encounter

2) Evaluate Risk – Assess which risks are acceptable and which ones are not

3) Mitigate Risk – Changes made that are driven by those risks

One of the biggest risks about going into Montana’s backcountry is encountering a bear. I don’t often backpack in locations with large grizzly bears so I did a mental risk management exercise.

Risk Identification: The risk of encountering a bear could lead to serious injury or death

Risk Evaluation: The severity of the risk, coupled with the high likelihood of encountering a bear made this an unacceptable risk

Risk Mitigation:
(a) Purchase bear spray in case of bear attack
(b) Keep all food and smell-able products in a bear bag/container to avoid attracting bears
(c) Make noise as I hike to warn bears of my approach

So you can see how risk management plays a large part in our lives even if we don’t immediately realize it. We mentally assess risk and let it drive our actions to prevent those risks.

 

Find me @thealvintai

06/15/2015
by Alvin
0 comments

The Engineer’s Dilemma

If you were to ask me, if I could go back in time, would I still study to be an engineer in college, I would say yes 100 times over. Being an engineer in college was awesome. You were exposed to some of the smartest people on earth, fiddle with technology you’ve never seen before and best of all, you could build anything you wanted. But being an engineer in college is very different than being an engineer in an industry.

What you soon learn is that you can’t build anything you want. You have to build something that will sell. There is a subtle difference. It is true, engineers are great problem solvers, but ultimately, engineers are wired to want to build the coolest, most bad-ass technology he/she can create. And therein lies the engineer’s dilemma. The majority of engineers out there are sitting at a desk building a product that the marketing team has instructed them to build. Why? The marketing team understands user needs. Traditionally, this is how a product should be built in a corporate setting: marketing teams collect data about the customer, identifies exactly what customers will pay for and engineers design and build it.

In college, you didn’t have to think about user needs. Or, if you did, you could collect information yourself without any repercussions from building the wrong product. And besides, in a corporate environment, it’s much more efficient to divide these roles into engineering and marketing teams. There are a few engineering jobs that do allow an individual to conduct both, but they are rarer.  The role of “Product Manager” is sometimes a technical role, but, personally, I’ve only seen the software industry embrace technical Product Managers.

But, as I said before, studying engineering in school was one of the best decisions of my life. It has shaped the way I think and how I approach problems. My only advice to people studying engineering is that you also have to understand how to use it in your career. You may not always be able to build what you want, but you should always ask yourself who you are building it for.

05/19/2015
by Alvin
0 comments

The $80 Prosthetic Knee

D-Rev is a non-profit medical device company. And their products are incredible.

If you haven’t already, I suggest watching Krista Donaldson‘s talk at Google a few years back: https://youtu.be/fXxDwchQQ54

She talks about the design process of creating an $80 prosthetic knee for people who make less than $4 a day. In a time when the cost of healthcare is increasing, D-Rev is a company developing high-quality medical devices for a fraction of the cost of comparable medical devices. In her talk, she mentions that a high-end prosthetic knee can cost up to $20,000. There is a cheaper option available by the Red Cross, but it lacks the quality and user-obsessed design that should be available to amputees. And this is where D-rev truly shines. Their mission is clear:

D-Rev exists to close the quality healthcare gap for under-served populations by designing and delivering medical technologies.

My attention goes directly to the keyword in that mission. Quality. Because when I see their device, I don’t just see the innovation in the design itself, but I see the innovation in the entire development process. Everything from dealing with the regulations, supply chain, labeling, distribution, manufacturing, risk analysis, post-market surveillance, etc. Every single one of those items require resources, which ultimately results in increased costs. In the later parts of her talk at Google, she mentions how each of the products they develop requires a completely different distribution model. It truly is incredible what D-rev has been able to accomplish.

Bonus!
KQED also just had a story on D-Rev: http://ww2.kqed.org/futureofyou/2015/05/14/d-rev-ceo-we-build-medical-devices-for-people-who-live-on-less-than-4-a-day/

Find me @thealvintai

05/04/2015
by Alvin
0 comments

Supplier Transparency 101

Supplier transparency is very difficult to define. It encompasses a lot of factors that are often subjective and subtle. True supplier transparency would be as if your supplier is a subsidiary or extension of your team. You have complete trust in each other and have access to all financial, quality, manufacturing and engineering information. And even though both parties in a customer/supplier relationship knows that true supplier transparency would increase production efficiency to near 100%, we all know this is almost impossible to achieve. So let’s focus on what can be done:

1) Relationship – The relationship is the single most important factor between a customer and supplier. A good relationship comes from the entire team working together to get things done. Engineers, buyers, executives, etc. need to develop a good working relationship with their counterparts. Any perceived rudeness or distrust goes a long way. In fact, this factor is so important that every other bullet point in this article is a subset of developing and maintaining a relationship. Keep communication cordial and respectful.

2) Accessible – This applies to people as well as data. All manufacturing metrics should be collaborative. Manufacturing yields, defect histograms, turnaround times, material usage, service activities, process capabilities, deviation tracking, etc. should be shared between customer and supplier. Even metrics trending in the wrong direction. Why? (a) It will further help drive a supplier’s motivation to improve (b) customers will eventually figure it out (c) a good customer with vested interest in the supplied good will help develop the right processes to improve their own product’s quality. Being accessible and allowing customers to see quality metrics is a sign of goodwill and lasting relationship. Suppliers can charge more for this openness and customer service.

3) Accountability – A mantra comes to mind when talking about accountability. Say what you do and do what you say. A relationship between a supplier and a customer will not last without accountability. And there are times when things are over-promised (it happens), but taking responsibility for it and developing the processes to prevent reoccurrence is all part of being transparent with customers.

4) Flexibility – Manufacturing is a volatile business. One minute, production is a well-oiled machine, the next, the line could be completely down. Every minute production is down, is money lost. Knowing when to be flexible and when to be firm is often difficult to manage, but flexibility without compromising cost or quality puts suppliers above and beyond their competitors.

Find me @thealvintai