This Article Nails Natural Language Generation, What I Do With It, and Why I Do It


My parents still don't really know what I do.

I mean, they know I'm at Automated Insights and they know I've been there from the beginning and do my part to run the place. They know I do those fantasy football articles (well, that's not really me anymore but my fingerprints are still all over it). They know I use computers to create words out of data.

But they're not really sure how. Or why. Or why anyone would pay me to do that.

A bunch of my friends fall into the same bucket.

So I've been fighting this battle for the last six years, with sometimes limited and sometimes satisfying results. When we landed the fantasy football recaps (we do this for the two biggest providers), a light went on for a lot of people. Oh -- you take the scores from everyone's fantasy football matchup and use computers to write millions of recaps in a couple hours. Makes fantasy seem more real and more fun.


But that's a minor scratch on an Earth-sized surface.

Last week, I sat down for an interview with Mike Riggs from FreeThink, and we talked for close to an hour about Natural Language Generation, Automated Insights, fantasy football, the Associated Press, and a bunch of other stuff that has made up my six years in the science of automated content.

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There's More Than One Way To Start a Company


This is one of those things no one talks about until you bring it up, but then when you do, everyone knows exactly what you're talking about and totally agrees with you.

Revenge is an awesome motivator, especially in startup.

Seriously, run this by any entrepreneur you know, especially those that have sought help and/or raised money. Don't sleep on the fact that all that rejection, rudeness, and backstabbing made them work three times as hard to succeed, and when they did, it wasn't like some Hollywood movie where they felt like they'd driven themselves into becoming something they no longer respect.

It actually feels great. Not even kinda great. Just great.

I have a story I tell about how I was supposed to have a coffee meeting with a guy and he didn't show. He also didn't tell me he wasn't showing, so while I was sitting there waiting for him, I started thinking about the thing we were going to brainstorm about, and I came up with some really good ideas. That led to me sticking around at the coffee shop, typing away. Then, five minutes after the end of our allotted meeting time, a text exchange:

"Hey, I'm not gonna make it."

"Everything OK?"

"Yeah. No worries, Just lost track of time."

I stayed at that coffee shop for another three hours. By the end of it, I had the plans for a new startup that I went on to create, and that guy was out of business within a year.

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I'm Full Of Good Ideas

And I Finally Realized Why That's Bad


I could have called this post One Simple Trick to Discovering Great Ideas. But reading that back sounds like sandpaper scraping across my soul, and it's also not entirely true, because the trick isn't that simple, and it isn't going to work for everyone.

I mean, it'll work for most people. I'm pretty sure it'll work for you. Just keep reading.

Here it is. I stopped writing down all my ideas. Because they were sucking the life out of me.

I actually wrote about capturing ideas last year -- I used to write down every idea I had. Well, almost every idea. I kept a running list of not-fully-formed notions, and I tried to keep that list accessible, so whenever something hit me, I could jot it down and come back to it later.

This was a very good exercise, kind of a no-brainer, if hard to stick to, and it worked well for years. But one day it just stopped working, out of the blue, and I almost didn't notice because everything around me was going so well.

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Five Funding Sources for Startup: Self

Out of Pocket, Day Job, Consulting, Co-Founders, Loans


In the last installment of the Five Funding Sources series, we talked about getting money from your customers as your first, earliest, and preferably sole source of funding for your startup.

Now let's talk reality.

I'm kidding. But we're all aware of the fact that starting a company costs money, and if you're relying solely on money from customers, you're going to be restricted in how fast you can grow, especially in the beginning.

Let's face it. Everything costs money. Incorporating your company costs money, developing a product costs money, marketing that product costs money, waking up in the morning costs money. If reason number one why people don't become entrepreneurs is that they fail to act on their ideas, reason number two is that they're unwilling or unable to spend the money necessary to execute on those ideas.

I fall victim to this more often than I'd like. I don't enjoy spending money, even other people's money. I'm frugal by nature, just ask my notoriously under-privileged kids. This frugality has been more of a plus than a minus on my entrepreneurial journey, but it's also made things more difficult, and probably kept me from acting on one or more ideas that could have returned a lot on any initial investment.

So you'll most likely need some money before you get your first customer, or if your future plans cost more to implement than your revenue stream can support. That money is going to have to come from somewhere, and the best place for it to come from is you.

Funding is the most complex part of startup. How, when, and why you get funded is an individual series of choices, and every startup will take a different path. No one strategy is better than another, but you should definitely have a strategy in place before you raise a dime.

Self is the next best way to fund your startup after Customers, and self-funding is always going to be a requirement. An entrepreneur should always have some of their own money in their startup, and the more money they put in at the beginning, the better off they'll be at the end.

In fact, I'll go so far as to say you should never go after Friends and Family, Angel, or VC funding without having your own money invested first.

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This Might Be My Best Prank Ever


I had to get some work done on my car yesterday, and they gave me a loaner for the day, a brand new white mini-SUV, kind of bland, nothing like I'd drive. With all that's been going on lately, my three kids had no idea I was having work done on my car. Since I took my car in right after they left for school, my car was still in the driveway when they left for the day.

I also had to cover for my wife and pick the kids up from school. I opted to skip the car line and just park in the parking lot and sign them out. I park far away. I'm that guy. So as we're all walking back through the parking lot, they're already complaining, all the way until we start to approach the small cluster of cars at the back of the lot.

As we're approaching this brand new white mini-SUV (with dealer plates), I say to them, "Ooh, look, someone has a brand new car, let's look in the windows and see what it has." They're already cranky and want to leave but they give me a second and we all look in the windows.

Then I say, "Oh. Looks like they left it unlocked."

And I open the driver's side door.

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Bribery As a Negotiation Tactic

More Real-World Leadership From Parenting


I didn't think this one would have a happy ending.

After a 14-hour miserable day spent in what is probably my least favorite place on the entire planet, all stressed and worried and dealing with big life-or-death issues, I came home to hear that my daughter wanted to quit soccer.

On the scale which I had been operating for the previous 14 hours, this should have seemed like a small problem, a drop in a river of worry. But it was a big deal, and the more I got into it, the bigger a deal it got to be.

A little backstory.

See, she's graduated from touchy-feely-happy soccer to real soccer -- wind-sprint soccer, tackling-is-cool soccer, my-parents-call-soccer-football-soccer.

My daugher is small, but she's quick and she's good at every position, and she got placed on THAT team -- that team that somehow manages to dominate even though it's still all supposed to be about fun and fair play, that team with the coach that doesn't want help from the parents because they just get in the way, that team where the other kids don't speak to the new kids because no one spoke to them on their first day.

Yeah, she ran into that buzzsaw.

Anyway, she made it through the first practice and then immediately decided she wasn't going back. Period. End of story. First ultimatum she's ever given me.

Here's what it taught me.

Bribery as a negotiation tactic is OK.

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Trust Your Employees

How to Delegate and When to Let It Go


If you don't trust the people who work for you, you're going to fail. This is a pretty simple equation, but one that's commonly misunderstood by most people, especially entrepreneurs, and especially entrepreneurs whose job it is to lead people.

That's because most people confuse delegation with trust. Or rather, they don't put trust into the people they delegate out to until it's too late, setting those folks up for failure. That, ultimately, sets the entrepreneur-slash-leader up for failure, and usually leaves them questioning where the hell they went wrong. Or, worst-case, blaming their underlings for their demise.

Those are two great words -- "underlings" and "demise" -- aren't they? I mean, you rarely get to use them in the right context so I feel pretty good about shoehorning them into one sentence.

Anyway, here's how that happens and how to keep it from killing you.

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Five Funding Sources for Startup: Customers

Early Adopters, Licensing, Future, Strategic Partners, Crowd


OK, let's talk about money.

No matter the reasons you embarked on your startup journey, you're going to need fuel for the engine. Ideas, talent, and technology are crucial, but if they don't lead to cash, you'll be wasting them.

It's money. Money is the fuel.

When I talk about funding, I'm going to ignore your intentions as a founder -- in that, I mean I don't care how noble and altruistic your reasons are for doing what you do. Startup street is littered with the burned out carcasses of enterprises whose founders had the best of intentions, but couldn't or wouldn't focus on making their mission sustainable.

Don't let that be you. You need to be funded.

Funding is the most complex part of startup. How, when, and why you get funded is an individual series of choices, and every startup will take a different path. No one strategy is better than another, but you should definitely have a strategy in place before you raise a dime.

Customers are your primary source of funds. I can't state this emphatically enough so I'll just repeat it a number of different ways.

I'm not leading off this series on funding with venture capital or angel investing or friends and family money or even self-funding. While all of those are certainly valid and important, and I'll get to all of them, the value brought by money from all of those sources is completely eclipsed by the value brought by money from customers.

In fact, you can start your company without ever raising money from any of those four other sources. You can't survive without revenue, and you should be in this mindset from the very beginning.

There. I think I beat that to death, and we can move on.

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Academics + Athletics + Art: A Quick Lesson in Balance

Why You Have To Approach Each Completely Differently


I've been pushing the boy too hard.

I realized this, thankfully, right before the beginning of the Fall Little League season, as we were about halfway through a week's worth of prep to go over the fundamentals and shake off the rust.

On one of those days, particularly hot, with me just getting off work and him just wrapping up his homework, we went out a local park that has two decent fields and two batting cages. He was flubbing everything, walking from place to place, arguing with me about what he was doing right and wrong, and plus there were a few other dads and sons out there and those conversations were even more heated than ours.

He just didn't want to be out there, and I envisioned an entire season of him limping through every practice and game, and me finally having to draw the line on baseball, which I knew might come someday but I didn't want to have to do. He's good. Very good. It'd be a lot easier if he wasn't.

We had never gone through this before. We had had some bad practices and some minor arguments, but on this day everything came to a head and we yelled at each other for the first time ever. It was maybe 20 seconds, and we both instantly felt awful and I immediately turned on a dime and went the other way. He started hustling and his performance improved, as did both of our attitudes.

At the end, I bought him an ice cream and we hugged it out.

It took me a couple days, but I finally figured out what I wanted to say to him, and luckily again it all came together as we drove to the first official season practice, which is nerve-wrangling enough with new coaches (I'm one of three on the team and I didn't know the other two this time), new players (he knew three out of 12, lots of turnover this season) and coming off a heartbreaking end to last season.

But what I said in the car that afternoon did the trick. In that first official practice, I'd never seen him hustle so hard, which resulted in him making plays, hitting like a pro, and being in the right place at the right time every time. I couldn't have been more proud.

What I figured out was pretty simple. There's Academics, Athletics, and Art. All three of these are critical to success in life, but you have to approach each in a completely different way in order to win at them.

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Why It's Time for Distributed Workforces in the Triangle

There's a Way Out of This Traffic Nightmare, But It's Not What You Think


Last week, I spoke on a tech in sports panel for the NCTA over at the EMC2 facility in Apex. For those not local, Apex is kind of southwest of Raleigh. Also for those not local, stay with me, because you've been there.

The kickoff for the event was at 8:30 am, and since I needed a little bit of prep time, I wanted to get there around 8:00. Knowing that trying to navigate Raleigh metro during morning rush hour has now become akin to trying to navigate Class 5 whitewater rapids on a pool float, I decided getting there by 7:30 would probably be the way to go.

Now, I live in Chapel Hill and work in Durham. Ever since Automated Insights moved to the Durham Bulls Ballpark (come work here), my commute has been a joy. No I-40, no 540, no Durham Freeway, no 15-501. It's basically all back roads, and my biggest concern is garbage day.

I don't get to Apex much. So the morning of my talk, I let Google decide from the three or four toll-free options (more on tolls later) to get from A to B. Yeah, I should know better, and as it turned out, not even Google could have predicted that my 32-minute drive would become a 68-minute drive.

And of course, being the super-spoiled backroads Magellan I've been for the last three years, I dropped a lot of F-bombs every time traffic stopped. For. No. Good. Reason.

Oh, and then there was also the 4-to-5-mile backup on 64 West into Raleigh that, thankfully, I only had to spectate.

Am I right, Apexers?

Anyhow, my point is that this is a bigger mess than I thought, and it's a bigger mess than it should be.

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Stream of Unconsciousness

Sometimes You Just Have to Flush


I've got 20 minutes of free time, and I'm starting a post for the fourth time today, and this timeā€¦ it's personal.

OK, I made it through the opening sentence. That was kind of a joke at the end there. Not really funny, but it foreshadows a little bit. Awesome.

And those two sentences, taken back to back, happen to be the farthest I've gotten trying to write today. After knocking out a pretty good piece yesterday on why poker is an important educational tool for entrepreneurs, I felt like I could really get some momentum going for this new idea I have.

Just write.

I'm not really concerned with where the content eventually ends up or whether or not it has any value outside of its own existence. In fact, I'm pretty sure that the less importance I put on what I'm writing, the more valuable and -- well, I don't want to call it important -- it simply means more to both me and you because it's straight from the brain, the heart, the soul, whatever metaphor you want to use.

Either that or it's going to be a complete disaster.

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How Poker Makes You a Better Entrepreneur

Startup Isn't About Risk, It's About Risk vs. Reward


I was giving a talk, part tech, part startup, part sports, to a group that happened to include some entrepreneurial-minded students from one of the local Universities, and I knew there were students there because their advisor or whoever introduced herself before the talk.

Kinda cool, she asked if I wouldn't mind if they came up and introduced themselves after the talk -- which is something almost everyone does, but she didn't look like the kind of advisor who had the same sense of humor as me, so I just said sure, send them up.

The talk went really well, and the line of post-talk intros was long, longer than usual, so I found myself trying not to slip into the answer trap, because you tend to get a lot of the same questions, if asked slightly differently each time, and I don't want to be that guy who just spits out Successory slogans:

"Getting into sports is really hard."

"Learn Ruby, it's still pretty good. But it doesn't matter, just learn anything. Learn the concepts."

"I'd start by regularly going to ExitEvent." (A startup event held by a company I founded and sold a few years back)

Then one of the college kids introduced himself and asked me something along the lines of: "What's something you can tell me about learning to be an entrepreneur that no one else will?"

I mean, without even thinking, I spit out, for the first time ever: "Play a lot of poker."

I wasn't joking then and I'm not joking now.

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Introducing Teaching Startup: Getting Started

Everything You Should Know About Starting Your Own Company in 10K Words


So summer is winding to a close and that's kind of disappointing. I never feel like I'm squeezing an entire summer's worth of fun into what seems like an increasingly small window of time. Didn't summer used to be like end of May to beginning of September? Now it seems like it's three weeks in July, and for most of that time it's either 100 degrees or thunderstorming.

But I did get something accomplished this summer, and it came from an unlikely place.

On the digital shelves of Amazon you'll find my latest book, Teaching Startup: Getting Started. It is, as the cover proclaims, "everything you should know before starting your own company." It's a free book, because it needs to be, and it's a quick, easy, comprehensive-but-enjoyable read through each stage of startup and what and who you need to get through each one.

Go get it. Right now. There are no strings.

A couple of things this book isn't.

Notice I didn't say "everything you NEED to know," because this book isn't it. You can't possibly know everything you need to know before you start a company. If you did know all that, your hourly rate would be off the charts. But this a rough sketch of the startup universe. It's meant to tell you how long the race is and what the markers are, as well as what you should be bringing along with you.

And notice I didn't say "before starting your FIRST company," because the book isn't just meant for first-time entrepreneurs. It took me several years and several starts, including a couple exits, before I felt like I had the lay of the entrepreneurial land. Sure, I wish I had read this book before I started my first company. I also wish I had read it before I started by fifth company, or before I joined my first startup. Or for that matter, before I took my first job.

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How Numbers Can Wreck Your Startup

Sometimes the data is lying


I'm about to commit heresy in certain startup circles. So let me state first that I'm a devoted numbers guy, I believe wholeheartedly in the measurement of progress. I get chills when the numbers I've decided will determine the success of failure of my pursuits happen to point towards fortune. And I get all cranky when they dip, or even worse, when they don't move at all.

This is true not just of startup or business or money, but anything. Let's talk health. I track my runs, their length, my speed, the miles I run in a month, and maybe you do this too. But I also track everything else, my weight, my calorie intake, my caffeine intake, my shoe tread -- at one point I had a stat for how I felt at the end of a run, and I was seconds away from deciding that the data point for that metric should be an emoji, like, "After my run, I feel = (poop)"

I inched back from that precipice.

But if there's one thing I've learned from a lifetime of setting goals, establishing metrics, tracking progress, and recording the results of myriad experiments, it's that sometimes the numbers don't mean anything, and in rare cases the numbers will straight up lie to you.

Now, I'm not talking about tracking the wrong data, what's more commonly known as vanity metrics. Anyone with six months in marketing or old enough to remember eyeballs as a metric will tell you to watch out for stats that make you feel good but really just mask imminent doom.

I'm talking about those moments when all the numbers are off. I'm talking about gut over brain, heart over head, and the fact that most people don't tell you often enough that an entrepreneur has to be right when everyone else is telling them that they're wrong, and those naysayers have the data to back them up.

Yeah, I know. Me, the data guy, telling you not to trust the data.

Your results may vary, and this is a stunt that should only be performed by professionals on a closed course under heavy adult supervision. Don't try it at home.

But sometimes you have to ignore the numbers.

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Rerun: The Late Shaft

Talk Shows Battle Like It's 1993


Over vacation I'm reading The War for Late Night by Bill Carter, the 2010 recap of the massive dustup of NBC Late Night when they replaced Leno with Conan and then reversed it. Then I found this piece I wrote while that was going on. Turns out I was right. How come no one ever asks me about these things?

When people approach me in the local supermarket or at the Jazz Dance studio and ask me how I got to be so damn funny, I usually have three answers:

1. Screwball Teen Comedies
2. Gatorade
3. David Letterman

Then I chastise my entourage for letting the general public wander into the Joe Zone.

Beyond the obvious implications of the rule-of-threes and non-sequiturs in that list, my answer has a lot to do with upbringing. I was exposed to funny at an impressionable age. I was a little kid during the time when the edge of television began its transition from Little House on the Prairie to Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction.

Somewhere in there, TV grew up, and during its dorky teen period, shows like Saturday Night Live and Late Night with David Letterman were pushing the envelope. "Lord and Lady Douchebag" may seem almost quaint today, what with the smack usage and hooker references, but back then, it was sophomoric humor aimed at adults, meaning it struck a huge chord with kids and teens as taboo we could kind of get away with.

Yeah, it may have nerded me up for a life of... whatever it is I do. But it kept me away from the smack and the hookers. The unfortunate side effect for me was a brimming fascination with this entertainment universe, a lifelong study of the mechanics of fleeting fame. I don't really dig the Sex Pistols, it's not my bag, but I've read and watched everything I could get my hands on about their story, which is far more fascinating than their art or their music, which is crap.

It's why I watch Survivor, not because I'm curious about the relational dynamics of putting 20 strangers on an island to compete against one another, but I'm a sucker for the relational dynamics of putting 20 strangers on an island to compete against one another with a camera crew.

Late Night with David Letterman skewered that entertainment universe. In those early years, the jokes were awful and the sketches were unwatchable, but it was meant to be that way, because the target was rich. The Top Ten Lists were only funny when they tackled fame and notoriety. And all along as Letterman worried about becoming what he mocked, he found he could do little to stop it.

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