Reflections of an Australian Startup in the Midwest

In November 2013 I moved to the US – so as I write this, it’s been just over two years since I became a non-resident alien in the great state of Ohio.

The entire time I was here I envisioned writing a bunch to explain what it was like moving over here and trying to expand our tech company – a virtual server hosting service called Binary Lane – into the US market. But, reasons, and I never did, and I’ve felt guilty about it. Now 2016 has arrived I thought I’d try to put some words down.

The first thing I wanted to scribble were some notes about why an Australian tech company might want to consider destinations that are alternatives to Silicon Valley.

I have finally done this and posted my rather long and windy series of thoughts up on Medium. I hope it’s useful to someone and plan to write some more on the topic.

Moving on from the USA

It’d been just over two years since I moved to the USA, and my time here is now almost at an end. Sadly I’m not going back home to Australia just yet – in January 2016 I’m moving to London.

There are few cities that can genuinely be considered capitals of the world – and London is at the top of the list. A nexus of culture, finance, technology, and history, it has everything I could possibly want in a place to live. (Except, perhaps, too many English people that remember the result of the last Ashes series.)

With the exception of Brisbane – which for me will always be home – there is nowhere else I’d rather be going.

I’m excited about a new adventure in a new land; from a personal point of view I’m looking forward to being able to explore the United Kingdom in more detail, and being at the doorstep to the rest of Europe. From a professional perspective, I can’t wait to check out their entrepreneurial and startup ecosystem to develop new insights that I hope to bring back to Australia.

When I first moved here, I’d planned a whole series of posts that I fully intended to write about the journey, mostly targeted to Australian startups that were looking to expand to the US – how the visa process works, what you need to do when you arrive, what it’s like living in the US, how the midwest compares to the more common destinations… As I look back, I realise I did precisely no writing on this topic.

I hope to rectify this in the coming weeks by providing some reflections of my time in the US.

“Your startup idea is worthless!” and other demotivational posters.

This recent Dilbert comic made the rounds in startup circles recently.

It is well known within the startup community that an idea by itself is not super useful – it is the combination of the idea and execution that matters.

This belief has become almost instinctive now, to the point where people are almost dismissive of listening to ideas from those who they believe have no capacity to execute them (i.e., non-technical people). It’s always fun to hear concepts that people are working on, but hearing about Yet Another App that someone wants to make – but probably won’t – can be tiring.

While it doesn’t seem to result in outright rubbishing of ideas, there seems to be a trend to devalue the concept of “the idea”, which I think has the potential to be demoralising and de-motivational – almost the exact opposite of every other experience I’ve had in various startup communities.

I am very confident this is certainly not what is intended. It is very important to ensure that people that are interested in startup life realise that the idea is only a part – a very small part – of what makes a business.

However, it is hard enough to motivate people to consider a startup in the first place. Creating a perception that “the startup community” thinks ideas are worthless is probably not the right tone to set – everything has to start with an idea.

It’s easy to see why this comic entertains – I loved it. But the response to it (including my own!) reminded me that it’s important not to be dismissive of “idea people”, when instead we should be focusing on encouraging them to execute their idea.

Idle thoughts on Mozilla, Firefox and Thunderbird.

I’m a big fan of Mozilla and have been a Firefox and Thunderbird user and advocate for many years. The last few years of development on these projects have left me somewhat disillusioned. Firefox seems to be slowly converging on Chrome, with disruptive UI changes making each update irritating, rather than exciting. Thunderbird, despite regular updates, feels like it has stagnated.

I feel like Mozilla have already won the browser wars. I’d love to see more effort going into Thunderbird and Lightning – groupware being something that open source is still really struggling with despite many valiant efforts.

It’s hard to convince myself this is a big deal; web-based groupware is pretty good these days. But I use Thunderbird every day. I’ve become almost dependent on a bunch of excellent extensions. I love having the option to be in complete control of my email.

I wrote about this in a bit more detail at Medium.

Update:

This seemed to resonate with a few people – ended up being the 18th “Most Read” article on Medium and was featured in their Technology section. Also spawned interesting discussion on reddit and Slashdot.

forgetting-firefox-stats

WPUpCheck – keeping WordPress up-to-date

WordPress is a great piece of software, but it’s popularity and superficial ease-of-use combined with the fact that computers are hard means running a site on WordPress is not always as simple as it seems.

I wrote about some of the ways to reduce the risk with WordPress over on the Mammoth blog a while back.

One of the biggest risks is a WordPress site that is out of date. There are three main components to the WordPress site:

– Core: the base functionality you get on a brand new installation.
– Plugins: all the other stuff you install for functionality
– Themes: what things look like

Each component is typically its own code base, requiring maintenance and updates. Many users only know they have updates available when they log in – and many of them don’t log in that often, especially if their site is primarily static.

WPUpCheck is a simple Windows tool that polls a WordPress site periodically to check for updates in any of these three components. If it detects available updates it will bring it to your attention via a balloon in the system tray.

The goal is simple – try to ensure a larger number of WordPress sites are no longer running obsolete, out-of-date, potentially vulnerable software.

Anyone interested in beta testing it can download WPUpCheck now.

Irritation, Confusion and Deception in the Android Permission System

The Android permission system seemed like a great thing at first – crystal clear understanding about what each application can do on your device. However, with the latest round of updates, it has become even clear that the permission system is confusing at best and deliberately harmful for users at worst.

If you’re a privacy/security conscious, tech savvy user, you might end up poring over individual permissions for each application before deciding to install it. This can be time consuming – even experienced users might have to hit up Google to see exactly what a permission means. Sometimes you might even veto an app or an upgrade because of onerous permissions. But if you watch normal civilians use their phone, they barely even glance at the security options, during install or upgrade. I’ll even confess to giving up dealing with permissions and just installing an app because I felt I “needed” it.

Everything looked good for a while back in Android 4.3 with the discovery of the permission tweaking system which lead to “App Ops”, allowing users to selectively enable/disable permissions on a per-application basis, granting total control over what they had access to. This was perfect, but sadly was pulled in a later release, with Google saying wasn’t intended to be available. The clever hackers over at CyanogenMod restored it as part of their release, but there’s basically no way to have fine-grained control over your apps – meaning you accept everything permission that they want, or you do without.

Here’s an example – I just received notice of an update for PasswdSafe:

2014-09-29 17.21.57

Now, the “What’s New” notes are provided by the application developer. Sometimes they are nice enough to include details about why there was a permission change, but I would say this is generally pretty rare.

Here’s what happens when you click ‘Update’:

2014-09-30 01.04.50

You only get this sort of popup when there’s a permission change. So this popup implies – to me, at least – that there’s some sort of permission change involving media, or files, or whatever.

But if you scroll to the bottom of the app page to click on the ‘Permission Details’ icon, you’ll see this:

2014-09-29 17.22.46

Here you can see the new permission actually has something to do with Near-Field Communication! (So in this case, the changelog provided by the developer actually does relate directly to the permission change, though it’s not really clear until you manually inspect the permissions like this.)

While you can find the information, this current flow is totally broken. It’s infuriating that the recent change now seems to actively hide and thus mislead the user.

This UI change is a massive step back for Android; it compromises the ability of the user to make informed decisions about the software on their device.

Setting Up Infobox Templates in MediaWiki v1.23

This article explains how to add the “Infobox” template to your MediaWiki installation. It is primarily intended for people who have installed v1.23 from source.

This is an updated version of this older post about setting up Infobox on earlier versions of MediaWiki. It is basically the same but has been modified to be suitable for the current (at the time of writing) version of MediaWiki, v1.23. Please see the older post for more info and background as well as helpful commentary from other users in different circumstances.

Here are the basic steps necessary to add working Infoboxes to a freshly installed version of MediaWiki. Note that the original steps required the install of ParserFunctions; this is no longer required as it ships with recent versions of MediaWiki by default.

  1. Download the Scribuntu extension into your extensions folder and add it to your LocalSettings.php as described in the ‘Installation’ section.
  2. Copy the CSS required to support the infobox from Wikipedia.org to your Wiki. The CSS is available in Common.css. You’ll probably need to create the stylesheet – it will be at http://your_wiki/wiki/index.php?title=MediaWiki:Common.css&action=edit – and then you can just copy/paste the contents in there. (I copied the whole file; you can probably just copy the infobox parts.)
  3. Export the Infobox Template from the Wikipedia.org:
    1. Go to Wikipedia’s Special:Export page
    2. Leave the field for ‘Add pages from category’ empty
    3. In the big text area field, just put in “Template:Infobox”.
    4. Make sure the three options – “Include only the current revision, not the full history”, “Include templates”, and “Save as file” – are all checked
    5. Hit the ‘Export’ button; it will think for a second then spit out an XML file containing all the Wikipedia Templates for the infobox for you to save to your PC.
  4. Now you have the Template, you need to integrate them into your MediaWiki instance. Simply go to your Import page – http://your_wiki/wiki/index.php/Special:Import – select the file and then hit ‘Upload file’.
  5. With the Templates and styles added you should be able to now add a simple infobox. Pick a page and add something like this to the top:{{Infobox
    |title = An amazing Infobox
    |header1 = It works!
    |label2 = Configured by
    |data2 = trog
    |label3 = Web
    |data3 = [http://trog.qgl.org trog.qgl.org]
    }}
  6. Save, and you should end up with something that looks like this:

Farewell Robin Williams, an oldschool video gamer

Very sad to hear about the passing of Robin Williams.

I loved his movies, but I also loved his lesser-known passion for video games.

He did an interview years ago where he talked about playing Quake – I’ve held on to this mp3 file since I got it and always enjoyed listening to it every time I stumbled across it when I was deep-diving in my archived files.

It’s embedded below.

The failure of the Australian state to gracefully deal with copyright

Nic Suzor has written another insightful piece for The Conversation which looks at the Australian government’s leaked plan to combat piracy.

In conjunction with research assistant Alex Button-Sloan, the article users several words that I think fairly accurately sum up this plan: “unrealistic”, “vague”, “unlikely to help”. Some of the outcomes are equally depressing: “likely to raise the price of internet access”.

Everyone in Australia should read this article. This plan does nothing to address the root cause of Australian piracy – the simple fact that content is not made available on the same terms as it is in other markets.

The fact that this plan could “massively increase the potential risks for companies that provide legitimate services” also fills me with dread; Mammoth – in addition to being an Internet hosting provider – has been actively involved in legitimate content distribution since the late 90s, across video games, music, and movies. With our clients, we have struggled for years to try to figure out how to make sure Australians have access to the latest content.

These are not technical problems; they are licensing and rights problems caused by media companies carefully choosing how to maximise their profits. The fact that they are now cooperating with out government to literally change the laws to better suit their business model is kind of irritating.

Disruption: why is the US so different for startups?

AVC’s¬†Fred Wilson wrote a post recently looking at platform monopolies and why they’re great targets for disruption.

It’s clear that almost everything about the US is different for startups. A lot of it is just its sheer size – having ten times more people than Australia changes everything. Probably the biggest complaint in Australia though is the lack of VC funding and a reduced appetite for risk.

It’s not clear to me which one of these is the chicken and which one is the egg. Is the startup scene awesome because of the VC? Or does the VC exist because of the startups?

Since moving to the US, the most striking thing I’ve noticed here is the prevalence of these large, giant “platform monopolies” – but not just in the tech space. Many aspects of daily life in the US seem to be managed by these giant institutions. Navigating these large institutions is cumbersome and tiring (especially if you’re a foreigner and have no idea how things are glued together) – and as a result, there are a lot of middlemen that try to make the process easier.

For example, if you’re looking for health insurance, trying to deal with the insurance companies is a real pain. So, there are hordes of health insurance agents and brokers that sit in between you and the insurance companies to try to make that easier. They take a small fee.

If you’re starting a company and need to pay your employees, you need to be aware of the specific tax issues in your state and federally. Even for a one person company this is challenging; I can’t imagine what a headache it’d be if you were trying to set up in multiple states. But don’t worry – there are many payroll companies that specialise in this, all for a small cut. (The first time I ran a payroll here in the US I was staggered by the fact that the company used UPS to courier me an actual payslip on an actual piece of paper. )

Near where I live there’s an entire business that appears to exist solely to cash cheques – a form of payment that is basically extinct in Australia, but because it’s so common here there are these weird cheque companies that exist. I assume that they must make a bit of money on each cheque they cash.

The list goes on. Almost anything complicated you want to do, there’s a support system that seems to sit in the middle to make your life easier.

Fred Wilson comment on this in his article:

The Internet, at its core, is a marketplace that, over time, removes the need for the middleman. That is very good news for the talent that has been giving up a fairly large part of its value to all of the toll takers in between them and their end customers.

This is where a lot of the interesting disruption is happening in the US – people tired of these old, monolithic systems looking to make a change. The payroll issue is being addressed by companies like ZenPayroll. I have no idea what people are doing about cheques but I thought it was entertaining to see that you can deposit a cheque here now by taking a photo of it. And everyone¬†is trying to crack the healthcare nut – health industry startups abound and appear to be highly favoured as targets for funding (hey, the US spend more money per person on healthcare than any other country – it’s good business).

There are many other examples, including ones with global application – Uber and Lyft are probably the most significant and most recent examples; their impact on the transport industry is still being felt. The music industry is another one – all those poor record company executives are going to be a relic of days gone by.

Every country, every society, every community has its own entrenched systems, their own way of doing things. The bigger the environment and the longer they’ve been around, the more likely you are to find middlemen. Technology makes it possible to go back and re-evaluate the old way of doing things. Better automation, communication and integration means a lot of the old ways of doing things are ready to be swept aside – and that’s where a lot of the disruption is happening.

Ultimately I think that it’s this potential for disruption that makes the US startup scene so vibrant and interesting. It’s the fact that every opportunity to change the status quo has the potential to pack a huge punch – even capturing a small percentage of the market here can mean a big business. The bigger the established players in a sector become, the more naturally resistant they become to change – meaning a lot of opportunity for smaller players to start to carve out a niche.

When you encounter someone saying “this is just how we’ve always done it”, pay attention – you might be on the verge of something big. These are tough fights to pick, but – as is being shown by Uber – if you make the right moves at the right time with the right technology, you can revolutionise a space.

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