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The latter had already been accomplished some 20 minutes earlier. Apparently some of you are up to a lot these days while others are still taking pictures of your food.
Come on. It's 2015. I don't have time for stories that don't have an amazing twist guaranteed to make my jaw drop.
I was simply staring into the void. And this was something I hadn't done in months, maybe a year. I got up and took a walk, came back, sat back down. Nothing.
I had absolutely, positively, beyond the shadow of a doubt, nothing to do.
And I freaked out a little bit.
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Spolier Alert: I'm Bearish
Some of these recommendations are just plain nuts. How could you possibly have a buy on BlackBerry ($BBRY)? They just put out a pager, I think.
I get it. It's about financial tradability, not necessarily the long-term viability of the company or its products. But every call is still based on the ability of the company and its products to succeed. So even if it's a trade, there has to be a catalyst.
Or irrational exuberance. Either will do.
Have you ever read recommendations of public tech companies? Most read like they were written not by technologists, but by bankers. Research Note: This is because they were, indeed, written by bankers.
So, as with most things I barely understand, I thought to myself: “Hell, I can do better than that.”
Here's what I think 2015 has in store for the tech darlings I fell out of love with in 2014. I'll use terms and reasoning that just about anyone can relate to.
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But it's not like that. Not even close.
One of the reasons I started ExitEvent, that thing that began with a monthly free-beer get-together and evolved into a self-perpetuating network and media source, was that there was way too much noise in the startup system here.
ExitEvent, and its “verified entrepreneur” foundation, was meant to be a way to get the cream to rise to the top – and by cream I mean those startups that were pursuing product launches, customers, and revenue, not pitch contests, publicity, and press.
Not that there's anything intrinsically wrong with any of that, just like there's nothing intrinsically wrong with sugar. It's just that when the sugar-to-substance ratio gets too high, value becomes an afterthought, and you're left with a quagmire of wantrepreneurism and feel-good back-patting.
Levels of wantrepreneurism and feel-good back-patting took a nose dive in 2014, and that trend will continue in 2015.
In fact, there are quite a number of trends you're going to see in 2015 in startup in the Triangle, and while they may sound like negatives at first, the end result is actually addition by subtraction. The less noise, the more signal.
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But you might have missed the bits between the data points, and those bits, when connected with a sense of context developed over the last dozen-or-so years of entrepreneurial upswing that started at the Bulls ballpark and has now spread to the far reaches of the Triangle and even in some sense to the outposts of Charlotte to the west and Wilmington to the east, tell you that the American Underground has accomplished something bigger than the deltas in the numbers.
That's my job, to find the story told by the bits between the data points.
If I were to be dramatic, which is something I'm not really known for (until you get a couple of beers in me, then the stories come out), I'd tell you that in 2014, American Underground changed the definition of entrepreneur in the Triangle. But like I said, I'm not dramatic (seriously, a couple of IPAs and I start naming names), and that change didn't happen overnight, or this year. It's an evolution that's been going on for at least those dozen years of context. But it did get hammered home in this report.
And I'll tell you how.
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I also went to support this particular iteration of Triangle Startup Weekend, as it sought to give more visibility to local women entrepreneurs while casting a wide net for the hidden potential that keeps falling through the cracks of our nascent startup community.
I saw a lot of said startup community there. I wish I had seen more on a rainy Sunday afternoon. But that's neither here nor there. I've been over this -- specifically in an article I wrote detailing the reasons why this event was good for our entrepreneurs.
So there's that.
But the sneaky reason I spent my rainy Sunday afternoon at TSW Women was to introduce my twin 9-year-old daughters to a side of entrepreneurship that I can't give them by letting them into my world or helping them start their own startups over the summer. This was a public Petri dish of real startup – live and actual company-and-product-building in a way only the 54 hours of Startup Weekend can realize.
At the end of three and a half hours (mostly sitting and listening), the experience wasn't life-changing for my girls, but they got out of it exactly what I had hoped.
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And Why That's Critical
We want you to love your job.
Because when you love your job, you'll do great things.
Come and do great things with us.
That's how I ended my four-minute pitch to the 250 or so job seekers who had gathered for Tuesday night's Tech Jobs Under the Big Top. I went for the gut, the jugular, the heart -- whatever you want to call it.
In this environment, where talent is king and startups are plenty, it really is a job seeker's market for those who have the skills and the experience to help us do what we do.
This was the seventh iteration of Tech Jobs, and I've attended every single one. Unlike your normal, soul-sucking job fair, the entire process is turned on its head, and potential employers like me pay to be one of a handful of companies to pitch to job seekers.
There are short presentations by each company, followed by a couple hours of networking time. The evening is fueled by beer, hot dogs, peanuts, and popcorn, and the atmosphere is augmented by acrobats, jugglers, music, and giant balloons.
Thus, the Under the Big Top part.
This was my first time actually delivering the pitch, but it was cake. Because while it's kind of a novel thing for a job fair, as an individual this is something I've been doing for as long as I can remember.
If you want the best people to come and work for you, you have to sell them.
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Furthermore, the break away from traditional VCs as a source of funds continues, with just a third of money raised here in the first half of 2014 coming from VCs, compared to 50% during the same period a year ago.
But like any conference, you get the best stories when you hang out by the bar at the reception. And there, the talk centered around bubbles, specifically the one being called by Benchmark VC Bill Gurley in the Wall Street Journal on Monday and rehashed in Business Insider the same day. All the VCs I spoke to had read both articles as well as Fred Wilson's equally ominous follow-up, and 90% of the founders I spoke to had at least heard the story.
In a nutshell, Gurley sounded a new bubble alarm in the startup industry (and frankly, I'm not sure that startup is an industry so much as a process). This time, however, the warning was not about ridiculous valuations (although valuations are ridiculous), but about burn rate.
Money is easy to get. Money is tempting to spend. The darn rent is too darn high.
Another unique aspect of this bubble call is that, unlike several others that have been sounded over the last few years, everyone is talking about this one. It stuck.
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I use that term thoughtfully. As someone who has followed the Triangle gaming scene from a startup perspective, I've always wanted to see gaming succeed here, from both a business and cultural standpoint. But as someone who has spent the last four years trying to get a handle on the local business and culture, I've been flummoxed as to why a community that is so welcoming on the inside has had such a problem integrating with the rest of the Triangle scene.
There is untapped strength here. You'll never find a nicer, more helpful, more we're-in-this-together bunch of folks.
So I can conclude that the gamers who went all-in to this past weekend's rebooted and Triangle Game Initiative-led Tilt Expo at the Durham Convention Center had an excellent experience. The problem is, and you could tell as soon as you stepped in to the Convention Center, this year's version was definitely a work in progress, especially in comparison to the wildly popular Escapist Expo it replaced.
“Man, Escapist was just better at getting the word out,” one anonymous indie developer told me. “The organizers just couldn't get as many people out this year.”
Oh. I don't have any evidence of this, but scheduling the Expo the same weekend as the Hopscotch Music Festival, the Triangle's single biggest crowd draw outside of the state fair, likely didn't help.
These insights should come as a surprise to exactly no one. So with that out of the way, I can also tell you that while the marketing may have missed the mark, the solid programming I saw throughout the Expo means there's hope.
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Why I chose American Underground for ExitEvent
Back in the spring of 2013, I took a long, hard look at ExitEvent and my continuing involvement with it. By that point, ExitEvent had evolved from a hobby into a startup – mainly because I don't have hobbies. I do startups. That's my fun. Go ahead and mock.
Over the two years prior to that spring, ExitEvent had gone from an idea to a meetup to a full-blown startup network, resource, and news source, with thousands of entrepreneur members, daily content hitting crazy pageview numbers, and serious revenue, all in the few hours of any spare time I had in a given a week.
And therein lay the pain. I already had a job, a really good job at Automated Insights, where we were getting ready to embark on our strategic Series B raise.
Don't get me wrong. I meant for ExitEvent to happen, with passion and a vengeance. I meant for it to grow as fast as it did the way it did. I just didn't exactly think it through.
I loved the cause of building stronger startup environments. I loved slashing away at columns in 15-minute bursts and just going with what spilled out, as long as it was honest. I especially loved getting to know more and more founders, investors, and all types of people who loved startups, from Durham to New York to Silicon Valley, and in places in between where I didn't even know they had startups.
By the spring of 2013, the chorus of voices calling on me to do more with ExitEvent was growing stronger and, eventually, it felt like my duty to pass it on.
But like any entrepreneur, I was having a huge problem letting my baby go. This wasn't just about a product or a service or an app, this was a startup about making better startups. It kind of folded everything I loved into one hastily-chosen brand name.
If I was going to give it up, I was going to make damn sure whoever I gave it to was going to see it as a mission, not just a brand.
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Would any local company actually hire one of the graduates? Would the graduates be more suitable for startups or larger companies or both? And could they make an impact right away or would they be more like project hires, with a bunch of upside at a lower price?
Sorry, that's actually multiple questions, but you can see where I'm going.
I thought about it in terms of my own technical hiring needs at Automated Insights. Our hiring needs, much like every other company in the Triangle, are plentiful. I emailed a bunch of my founder and management friends at the more technical startups with traction, those whom I believed might benefit the most from one of these hires (especially the lower price part). And I asked several questions of a few of the Smashing Boxes people who had helped get the school off the ground in Durham.
I actually got my answer during the first break in Friday's presentations, when I asked Drew Schiller, CTO of Validic, about the team he had mentored. That team had just presented an app called Pladel, which used the Validic API and a bunch of Ruby and other technologies to crunch a person's personal health data into something they called a "Health GPA." That was pretty slick, I thought.
So selfishly, with Automated Insights in mind, I asked Drew if he thought the backend developer on that team would be a solid hire.
"I hope so," he said. "I hired him."
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When I started ExitEvent back in 2011, my idea was to bring together working entrepreneurs in an effort to make them more successful. But my model always assumed “working” entrepreneurs, and I identified them only by their results. Sure, some of them were first timers, but they all had a product or customers or both.
But from the beginning, I was always fascinated by how an entrepreneur became an entrepreneur. It wasn't too long before I started seeing common traits and skills. For example, they all had an obvious passion for what they were doing and they were all keen to take on and manage risk -- two of the concepts I discussed in the first part of this article.
I never took a serious stab at adding an education directive to ExitEvent. The main reason being that startup education is a huge undertaking, still very undefined, and I wanted to keep ExitEvent's laser focus on those entrepreneurs who were already producing.
With ExitEvent having been acquired earlier this year, I was able to turn my focus to startup education, starting by asking the question ““>Are entreprenuers born or made?” and eventually helping out at the UNC Entrepreneurs Lab course taught by Ted Zoller.
I'm heading in this direction partly for selfish reasons. I have three school-age kids of my own.
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After spending the last three-plus years working on startup support and acceleration, something has become clear to me. Startup education is still lagging breadth and depth.
I'm not just talking about secondary school and STEM, but also startup education at the University level, adult continuing education, and the somewhat soft ongoing education required to help potentially great entrepreneurs build great companies.
The good news is it wouldn't take much to change that. But it's probably going to have to come from outside the system.
Like millions of parents across the country, I'm doing the elementary education shuffle. Between district living plans, charter lotteries, private/public options, and extracurricular activities, each year of my three kids' educational journey is filled with big, potentially life-altering decisions that can keep a working couple awake at night.
For all the talk of the STEM education revolution going on at the elementary and middle school level, a lot of it is still just talk. I understand the limitations that budgets and a dated infrastructure place on the STEM mission, but I've stated it before and I'll state it again, you shouldn't teach coding by sitting a kid down in front of an iPad.
The corollary of that theorem is also true: You don't need fancy toys and a mastery of object orientation to give a kid the foundational concepts of STEM. Most of the roots of these concepts are already in the curriculum, they just have to be emphasized.
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Takeaways from Columbia University's Quantifying Journalism Conference
In the four years that I've been designing and developing automated content at Automated Insights, the reaction of traditional journalists to our technology has been all over the map.
At one point it was straight-up denial – there was no way machines could create content, and even if they could, it would be painfully obvious that the content was created by a machine. See: Mad Libs.
Then there was fear – machines might someday be able to create viable content, which would put suddenly expensive human journalists everywhere out of a job, and maybe even start killing them. See: Skynet.
Fear drifted into a kind of bemused resignation – machines would indeed be able to create some kind of passable content, thus reducing a centuries-old dignified art to a constant stream of listicles and slideshows with soundbites. Since this was exactly where those same defeated journalists saw the industry heading anyway, it wasn't too much of a stretch or a shock.
I had spent the entire trip from Durham to New York anticipating all kinds of questions – from the curious to the skeptical to the cynical. What I didn't anticipate was a warm welcome, but that's exactly what I got.
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Ever since the L.A. Times Quakebot broke the news of a major earthquake back in March -- a story it developed, wrote, and published in less than three minutes after the first tremor -- the profile of digital journalism and automated content has risen dramatically.
For me and my team at Automated Insights, it feels like vindication, because the industry is starting to scale exactly like we thought it would. I've been designing and building automated content for the last four years, and in 2014, Automated Insights will publish over a billion unique articles for dozens of media outlets via the web, email, and social media.
With just 25 humans.
You've probably already read automated content without realizing it. This is because the Robot Writer side of digital journalism is already quite polished. It's a fairly robust technology that we've evolved from a process of filling in templates, the method Quakebot employs when it writes an article, to the programatic determination of topic, tone, style, fact-generation, and lexicon.
In other words, our engine runs dozens of algorithms before the first word is digitally written. It keeps those algorithms going throughout the entire writing process. If you look at what we put into the machine, it looks nothing like prose. It looks more like code. Because it is.
Thus, the process of automated writing is no longer about filling in blanks between words with the proper data. Scalability, variety, point-of-view, sentiment -- all the concepts that make a human-written article sound like it was written by a human -- can be done by a machine.
So if the last few years of automated journalism were about perfecting the Robot Writer, the next few years will focus on the technology that will make automation even more mainstream: The Robot Reporter.
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An Entrepreneur's Review
Remember Beavis and Butthead? That show should have been terrible. But underneath the sophomoric humor and bent edges where television had just begun to push the envelope of taste (see: Tosh.0), that stupid cartoon neatly skewered everything that was wrong with MTV, the music industry, and pop culture, back when we cared about that kind of thing.
The best parts of that show were and still are the music video commentaries. The rest of it was just filler, but filler we forgave.
And then Office Space, Judge's Citizen Kane and a film virtually ignored in the mainstream when it was released, became a cult classic and an industry standard. Fifteen years later, it remains the most oft-quoted workplace movie of all time.
I still drop lines about TPS reports, PC Load Letter, and cases of Mondays, not because I'm looking for a cheap joke like I would with an Anchorman quote, but because I know you'll get the message.
And now Silicon Valley, a new Sunday night HBO show aimed directly at the Hollywoodized, overhyped, and preciously insider parts of startup. I wanted to hate this show so much. I put off watching it until the fourth episode, although thanks to the startupish miracle of digital streaming and binge watching, I was able to start from the beginning. Within minutes, I heard this line:
"Yeah, I know what binary is! I memorized the hexadecimal times tables when I was 14 writing machine code, okay? Ask me what 9 times F is! It's fleventy-five!"
And I laughed out loud. Then I was hooked, and my faith in Mike Judge once again paid off.
See, you're not going to hear that kind of joke on Two and Half Men. Or for that matter the Big Bang Theory. Or at least I don't think you would. Truth be told, I'm guessing. I've never watched either show.
My point is that Mike Judge went and made a show for startup people under the guise of a show about startup people. The brilliance of Silicon Valley isn't in how it depicts what startup is really like, because it doesn't. It's a good show because it depicts exactly what everyone who isn't in startup thinks startup is really like.
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