Entrepreneurship Challenge

Since my first (crazy) swing at anything business I consider myself “infected”. It seems like that is only a matter of time I start my own venture, for better or worse. It is just too much fun and to difficult to stay out of it.

Challenge

In line with that attitude, now I notice all kinds of related events, and fortunately some of them are in the neighbourhood. So, last Sunday found me at an entrepreneurship challenge – a business plan competition. It was organized by a local startup, Enspyre. It’s founder is a serial entrepreneur who started at the age of 15. The company itself also runs an internship program to find interesting/creative people, and I have no doubt that the event was aimed inspiring young people to start something new – which in turn would boost their own business. I say, double-clever!

The audience was quite mixed, of the 25-30 participants more than half was Taiwanese, mostly students in their sophomore and senior years. The rest of it were strange foreigners (your’s truly is no exception), from Indian software engineer to Filipino Business majors and American expats. The day was supposed to be learning by doing. First, some current entrepreneurs and VCs present their take on what is a business idea and how a business plan and a pitch comes out of it. Then, in the space of a couple of hours, people would form more-or-less random groups, come up with ideas, refine them, do some numbers of how much capital the idea would need, prepare a pitch, deliver it – and see how it flies with the real VC judges. Most of the people did each and every step of this process for the very first time. Sounds intense? It was and also incredibly stimulating.

Entrepreneurship Challenge
Entrepreneurship Challenge, "Double Dream" pitching

Experience

In the initial “name card exchange” phase I was really slow – or at least slower then the rest of the people. I did want to know a little bit about my potential team mates, so ended up talking more to them than the other (I guess 5 sentences instead of 1). This made me in the end one of the last person to choose a team. That’s not a problem, I like random, usually works out brilliantly.

Out of the 5 members, our team had 4 Taiwanese students (2 business, 1 psychology, 1 medical science) and me. The language posed a little bit of difficulty, but I’d say we worked around it pretty well (I came a long way in terms of patience since I started learning Chinese as well). It was pretty amazing to work with them, especially because we all didn’t know each other, and that I could resist pushing my own things.

Some lessons learned:

  • The original business ideas were pretty bad. Many of the better ones were maybe a bit too conventional. On the other hand, when we revisited them, each and every was brainstormed into something I could feel excited about and would be totally happy to start working on. It was absolutely awesome to hear and discuss their ideas, to live through the process. Later talking to some other groups, their ideas just grew but none of them changed substantially upon review. Sign that we had a naturally agile team?
  • The language barrier is pretty big at the moment. Once one gets beyond that, by either having more patience, communicating even a tiny bit in their native language, or letting them discuss things between themselves for a whole, creativity really shines. There’s a lot of potential in this country. (Not that I didn’t know that earlier:)
  • Feedback from VCs, even – and maybe especially – before pitching is invaluable. That is, if I can say my question clearly and concisely enough. And that gave me a duh moment: of course they want everyone to succeed. If your idea/pitch is boring, they are going to waste the time. If there are few creative people then they will have fewer investment opportunities. So it is their very on selfish interest to do everything for you to succeed. Don’t abuse it (i.e. make it more trouble for them to help then the potential reward) and you have the best teachers.
  • It’s good to take the back seat sometimes. I didn’t push that our group would develop one idea originating from me, but one that more people in the team liked. I had advantage in the language front so pitching wouldn’t have thought me much, I insisted that the girl (Ping) who came up with our original idea would do the pitch – regardless of her English. She protested first but in the end I’m sure she liked it. This way she had some awesome experience and I could also see (ie. introspect) how do I listen e.g. to a pitch – even our own. I’m sad to say, that I’m a terrible listener. Got to fix that, and glad I had a chance to realize it.
  • As we were told multiple times during the day, the team is more important than the idea. After working together for a few hours I can certainly see how that comes into play very-very quickly. The business ideas I had these days lack any kind of consideration who would I do them together with – really should think about who else is in my social circle who I should consider because no matter how idealistic I am, I won’t make it completely on my own.

Guess these are just part of what I have realized, the rest of it will probably pop up every now and again in the coming weeks and months.

And now for the punchline: out of the 6 teams we took home the first prize. We came up with an idea that could impress other people who are doing this for a long time (and one of whom were telling us how the salesgirls pamper you much better when buying an Armani suit than at any other boutique – a lifestyle clearly out of my league). Their feedback was that out of the 6 pitches, ours was the one that could be done realistically, on a sane budget, with sane assumptions and might just work! It is an interesting feeling. I want to keep this and continue growing on it. Already started: my part of the bounty for winning went for recovering the entrance fee and “investing” in more resources for my journey (“Technology Ventures”).

Language of the Month: Lua

New month, new language. So far in this series:

I think I do want to amend the original rules set up for this Language of the Month series. At first I though I can write a new project in any language I learn. That is probably too ambitious. So new rules: every month write a new project in the given language OR contribute to an open-source project in that language. This should take away most of the stress and add some social aspect as well. :)

Lua

I’m intrigued by this language because of it’s niche: scripting language within other software. How one sets out to do something like this? What are the requirements for the language, in terms of design, syntax and so on?

Lua programming language logo
See, the moon!

First impressions

So far I was trying out some code snippets and example scripts. First thing to notice was that Lua is pretty darn quick to start. And pretty quick to run as well, though I haven’t used it for very heavy computation yet. E.g. the “get_all_factors” code at the Lua Crash Course (using a larger example number, 1029384756) is timed at ~7ms, wheres the same version on Python (the language that I probably know best and compare other languages to) runs ~10x slower. The snappiness of a scripting language is a surprisingly happy feeling. :)

Tables look very interesting, how the same thing can implement several data structures at once (it’s like Python’s dict, list and kinda-struct at the same time).

Quite intriguing that the Lua Virtual Machine is stack based, probably that’s the reason the language is so embeddable. A while back I was looking for a language with small resource (especially memory) requirements. I had a few suggestions (Dalvik, Forth) that were interesting, but maybe Lua is the one?

The “local” keyword (and the reasons for having it) seems to be a possible source of many harder to debug scenarios. Got to keep this in mind, again not being in Pythonland anymore.

Interesting how the “function” can be defined inline, so looks like there’s essentially no need for a special “lambda” keyword, at the expense of tying a few characters more…

The interpreter is quite well done (with it’s intelligent indentation probably even better then ipython, though would love to see more colours ^^)

As an exercise, here’s a version of FizzBuzz:

Links

This section will be updated gradually as I find more information.

(Edit: added the second part of this experiment.)

Install

Tutorials

Books

Articles and info

Source of code

Projects using Lua

Language of the Month: Scala, part 3

This is a post I should have written yesterday, actually, since it is already June, ready for the next “Language of the Month“. Still, let’s finish off this May Edition.

Taking score

First, I should have spent more time on practicing Scala, as I haven’t actually finished anything in the end. It is probably an excuse, but after using Python for such a long time, getting used to a compiled language with its own weird path-, naming- and import conventions, was just a little bit too much. Mostly I was reading the Pragmatic Bookshelf: Programming Scala, practicing the examples within. That book uses Scala 2.7.x and the current version is 2.9.0.1, so there are a few things that work differently and I ended up having strange error messages with little to no clue how to fix them (mostly imports, and some method signatures must have changed as well). So it was a limited but exciting success.

Scala screenshot
Using them example code

All in all, I liked the language even if I don’t have a clear usage case for it in my mind (just yet). Some bullet-points of my experience:

Good

  • Different way of thinking about “batch” operations (i.e. foldLeft)
  • Once I figure out the Actors that well that I can write related code without referring to the tutorials, that’s going to be a very powerful tool
  • Pattern matching, pattern matching everything. This is one thing that blown my mind in the little Haskell I checked so far, and missing from Python a lot.
  • Flexibility with class definitions, they can handle so many different situations in a very logical and powerful way

Bad

  • Length of compilation and program start. Will have to get used to it, though I read some hints that this can be improved.

Ugly

  • Pretty frequent need of using things directly from Java, so one is never quite independent
  • Special methods that have reserved name for certain functionality (act, apply, …) that are non-obvious, and not easily distinguished from the arbitrarily defined methods.

Future

Definitely will come back to it and learn it in more detail. It looks like a fine language to do parts of larger projects in. In the meantime I will update the link collection in the previous post with new links that I find. I certainly notice more and more Scala posts on Hacker News these days.

Language of the month: Scala, part 2

For the last 3 weeks or so I was checking out Scala, and will do for a little while more, so just want to do a little catch up where things are at the moment.

Start

I tried to find a couple of starting points to start to know about Scala. First thought video tutorials or talks would be useful, so been around checking on YouTube. It seems the mainly referenced intro is Scala: a scalable language. Well, it told me a lot about how Scala compares to other languages and how is it better than those, but not much to start learning it. Though the talk made it sound like it is one of the best and most modern languages out there, taking the most useful ideas from loads of other languages.

Had a copy of the Pragmatic programmer: Programming Scala, and just finished going through it. By that I mean that skimmed all the chapters and did try some of the code samples that looked interesting or strange. Not bad, but from the book I just have a very limited answer to the question of: “but what is it really great for?” Concurrency, sure, but that is probably not all.

I don’t know a language before I code enough in it, but before I know it I don’t have to much inspiration what to code. In this case, programming puzzle sites come very handy, though not all of them support Scala. I went to Coderloop because they do and I can submit my solution for performance testing, or could use Project Euler because they are language agnostic (one sends the results only).

Experience

Since Scala is built upon the Java Virtual Machine and supports pretty much all of Java, it feels a little Frankenstein language: every now and then, even for some things that should be quite commonly used, things have to be programmed in Java. Lots of language features are cool, though, even if most of it feels just syntactic sugar. In a way, maybe the whole language is just that? It’s not bad, makes things very concise and powerful, but always feels there’s something more in the background.

Actors and concurrency are pretty cool, though. In the talks I’ve seen people compared them to Erlang, just even more powerful. This is something more to play around with, would like to make something interesting, scalable and fault-tolerant – those are the fun stuff aren’t they? (But this also makes me want to try Erlang soon so I can compare).

Since I was doing mostly Python lately, it feels a bit weird to use a compiled language. For simple programs, it takes quite a long time to do that compilation, enough to wind me up a little when I was troubleshooting. That said, maybe I’m doing a little bit too much “programming by accident“, so I deserve it? Also, starting a Scala program takes a while as well, though once it is up and running, it’s pretty fast.

At this point, I’m not totally sure yet what project to make until the end of the month. I need more programming itches to scratch. The only ideas I came up so far are self-playing games with actors. Or some server/provider. Well, just keep brainstorming, something better has to come up. Maybe when I dive a little bit more into it, since at the moment I cannot really “think Scala” yet.

There’s also a web framework for it, called Lift, which is probably not surprising. The close connection wit Java (and hence with so many of enterprise software) and event based, fault tolerant concurrency is just too juicy. Not sure if anyone’s hosing it, tough (got to check out), either way I can just try it on my local network. I wonder how does it compare to Django, since that’s what I have a bit of experience with.

Links

Information

Example sources

Companies using Scala

Others writing about Scala

(Last updated: 2011 June 23)

Igniting Taipei

A few weeks ago with a couple of friends we started to organize the first Ignite Taipei. There’s still 5 weeks and a bit to go, but it has already been a fun experience. In many ways, starting a community feels very similar to how doing a startup would feel (I imagine). No surprise there, the startups I would want to create would want to have a great community. :)

So far it is mostly about choosing the place, the time, starting to invite people, keeping in touch with them, building involvement by others and keeping those “fans”. It’s shaping up nicely, but there’s a lot more to go, we are not ready yet.

Another connection I found with doing an business: the best way to build up one’s own enthusiasm is to be as closely involved as possible. I keep watching Ignite videos on YouTube and sharing them. Writing a blog about what’s going on. Talking to people about it and see what they are interested in. Since at the actual event I think I will be managing the technical issues, there’s one thing I haven’t thought about before: what kind of talk would I give? How would I use my 5 minutes / 20 slides to have an impact? Unless I know that, I cannot really recruit speakers well, cannot help them effectively and would miss out on the core of the things. Also, it does help to exercise my idea muscles [1].

Ignite talk brainstorming
What _else_ to talk about?

Here’s the copy of the brainstorming I had today while I was waiting for my lunch:

  • 30 day challenge: take different bus route I haven’t taken before
  • 100 uses of measuring time
  • Hungarian for dummies
  • Comparative tea-ology
  • Feynman’s spaghetti-braking experiment
  • “How to measure the high of the lighthouse with a barometer”
  • Camino de Santiago
  • Organizing Ignite
  • Geocaching
  • Version control systems for fun and profit
  • Rejection Therapy
  • Startupbus
  • Everyday physics
  • A very short introduction to <insert author’s name here> (e.g. Palahniuk, Vonnegut, Beckett)
  • Kitchen in a pot: the electric rice cooker
  • Long distance travelers of ancient times
  • 100 uses of a wiki
  • Open-source hardware
  • Movie stars’ movies before they became really famous
  • All those different ways of brewing coffee

These I think fall into two categories: things I know a little about, and things I know too little about but would use Ignite as an excuse to learn more. Actually, since I wrote up this list more ideas keep flowing in and I think I will have to prepare some of these, even without a plan to show them to anyone: why would one need an excuse to do something awesome?

Any more ideas to talk about?

[1] “Idea muscles” come from James Altucher, one of my favorite blogger/writer lately. It is the habit of being creative, or by his word:

Every day I write down ideas. I write down so many ideas that it hurts my head to come up with one more. Then I try to write down five more.

I’m not that good at this just yet. The list above is as long as it is because that’s where my page got full. Not as if there are no 97 other, empty pages in my notebook… Maybe I’m too pain averse, but got to overcome that. I actually long for the feeling of doing as many ideas that it hurts thinking more…