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Bird watching was first traced back to the Victorians, in an era when the cultural drivers of science felt the world could be best understood by mapping the world, collecting data, and harvesting enough of nature so that before long Man will control it. Ostensibly, this worked itself out in the forms of hunting and collecting. All the while, the pace of industrialization led to new optics products and field identification guides that altered the commonly held relationship of Man to nature. Over time, the killing of animals to extract knowledge fell out of favor when the data could be gathered by observation. Bird watching was and is a reflection of Man's desire to observe the nature of the Universe so that, from time to time, a glimpse of the underlying nature of the world might be caught in snatches. The essence of truth comes from the act of observing, from that first moment when one leaves the comfortable gray world of theory and discourse and goes into the field to participate and do. Those of us that are members of a technical discipline that are any good at all have experienced the sensation of being in the zone, of exiting the plane of ordinary and becoming jacked into an elevated state of being. This feeling is not unlike obsession in some ways, so those who commit themselves to birding must experience something of the sort.
Note that the first of the field guides that made this possible was published by Florence Bailey, a New Yorker born in a town that no longer exists. There's some special irony that Google Maps claims all that exists anywhere in the world of Locust Grove is some house north of Manhattan. If it ever really existed at all...
For New Yorkers like myself, bird watching never resonated with me. For most of my life the only birds I could identify by name were pigeons. All other types were background noise, critters without names and anonymous. For New Yorkers, the essential nature of the physical world isn't to be found with the birds. Unlike the Victorians who came out of adolescence in the midst of majestic wildlife, the cogs of our Universe in New York are the trains, the buses, the streets, the hydrants, traffic lights, storm drains and manholes. The accoutrements of Gotham are in sight at every turn, and while all New Yorkers gradually acclimate to their sight, sound and touch, occasionally the skin is peeled back to reveal insight into our modern world. Maybe this happens thanks to construction, or some natural disaster. But sometimes the knowledge is brought into view by accident. Today we'll spend some time looking at this most mundane of these elements, the manhole cover.
So with some delight, I unintentionally found a book written by the Queen of Manholes herself, Diane Stuart, called The Art of Manhole Covers in New York City. She may describe her calling as architectural history, but it's no less than an Audubon Society field guide for that most common of artifact, unappreciated, trodden underfoot, but each and every one guarding an interface into the underworld, potentially laying open long buried secrets. When I found this book, I felt like Gandalf himself amongst the scrolls of Minas Tirith busting open a cache of arcane knowledge.
In this most amazing of field guides, Diane Stuart carefully noted the geocoordinates of every significant manhole type, be they Flowers, Croutons, Waffles, Honeycombs, Chevrons or Herringbones. There's a moment in Genesis 2:20 where the Man gave names to each and every thing. It's said that to truly know something, you have to know its name. This urban field guide, each species of manhole is carefully, nay, lovingly documented with photos and descriptions and names. The arcane lettering and NSA-like acronymic obfuscation are revealed by Stuart's obsessive research.
What comes to light is not just iron and civic infrastructure, but also a vast history of entrepreneurship. Many of these manhole covers were manufactured when much of the country was agrarian, and these makers typically produced them on location. There was a time when enterprising foundry workers formed a startup a dozen or two at a time, shipping their manholes and promptly vanishing. If not for the signatures or advertisements stamped on these artifacts ("for any purpose", "for every need", "at Bedrock prices") there would be not a trace. The impressive and remarkble fact is the hustler DNA of entrepreneurship cuts right across time. What's revealed beneath the surface of time was a New York dotted with smitheries, fly-by-night forges and pot makers hustling to make extra cash on the side and maybe strike out a success story. It feels no different than today's New York.
And while volumes can be spoken of various episodes of the City's history, such as with the ancient manhole covers that hid the ancient pipes of the Manhattan Company water supply system that supplied by all accounts an unreliable and insufficient supply of water to New York. The Manhattan Company was a startup that pivoted by using its water revenues to propel itself into banking, first as Bank of Manhattan, and through acquisitions, became Chase Manhattan and then JP Morgan Chase, the largest bank in the world.
Other interesting manhole companies like Empire City Subway Co (now through a complex series of machinations is known as Verizon) hint at why there is so few choices for Internet in the Big Apple. The way Stuart cataloged her field guide invites participation, a field outfit and a set of exploratory gear is necessary after obtaining a copy of this book.
But the most remarkable are those manholes that even Stuart could not discover a true purpose, leaving to the readership a mysterious wonder to find and ponder. But what I do know, is beneath these humble manhole covers are hidden the mythology of the entrepreneur, the creation story of New York, and some certain truths about the nature of the Universe just waiting to be revealed, in snatches.
The Connected Devices Phenomenon
As some of you may have heard, R/GA and Techstars joined forces to lay down an important beachhead to force-multiply the connected devices phenomenon right here in New York with the new R/GA Accelerator. And after working many great years here at Columbia advocating for startups, mentoring entrepreneurs in the City, and by tooth and claw seen through the birth of so many startups, I'll be shortly leaving to join the R/GA Accelerator as Managing Director. I want to thank all those in the community that have supported my efforts and that today I count as friends. My new role at R/GA Accelerator will be in many ways a continuation of what I've been doing for many of you, and a return to doing startups again, but with a focus on a passion of mine--connected devices.
These are exciting times for startups, but even more so for the rarest of this breed, the ones with a calling to build physical devices. It's called hardware for a reason :-) and hardware entrepreneurs who make it to a delivered product earn their wings in defiance of the forces of nature working against them. We've seen vast changes in the business landscape thanks to globalization of manufacturing in the past few decades, and by-and-large in the wake of the manufacturing exodus, by dint of sweat and ingenuity, web entrepreneurs have put this country back onto the most positive footing when it comes to data services.
Bringing a new vitality to the ecosystem
But witness: the confluence of the Cloud, Big Data Analytics on one side and the Maker movement and the resurgence in local and personalized manufacturing on the other. These forces are a tidal wave crashing to shore, bringing a new vitality to the ecosystem and we're seeing the first results with the rise of the quantified self, wearable computing, Internet-of-Things and augmented reality. All these devices were possible before, but matter now because of the backbone of services and data. But the crazy thing is the very data that makes possible the personalized and relevant results is also driving the evolution of unique devices for unique demographics. These devices are quickly forming the connective glue that connects people together, and that innovation is happening right here right now. It's a great time for hardware innovators.
All truly great hardware products begin with a story
The strength of New York is in its diversity and density. Our people here are a mirror of the nation and the world. This is a powerful testing ground to those who build products and together with a great tech community situated here it's no surprise so many new entrepreneurs are drawn into this City of Demographics and making it happen. One thing I've taken to heart is that all truly great hardware products begin with a story that connects to people. I look forward to helping tell those stories and also to getting to know everyone with the calling to build connected devices.
I've decided to bite the bullet and get started on the blog I've always had cooking on the back burner. It'll be a work in progress, so excuse the dust.
I became aquainted with Theodore Roosevelt's quote here in the course of reading apocalyptic science fiction, but it resonated with me and I've come back to it time and time again as a beacon quote to remind myself of where I need to go next.
Challenges of the past, present and future
I'll plan to write mostly about challenges great and small, successes and failures. Things that embody the spirit of fast failure, and amazing end games.
For those of us in a profession where upon completion of whatever endeavor the outcome is something that is delivered, received and enjoyed--it's actual a rarity that delight and joy is baked in from the start. Whether this might be a digital deliverable or a thing matters little. And the means by which this is done might be by engineered beauty, or via wonderful theatrics and suspense, some perfected blend of form and function.
Those of us that dream, construct and deliver physical goods struggle with the concept of minimum viable product. As the barriers to making hardware become easier and less costly year over year, more creators are coming into the scene bringing in agile development skills. For all that I've seen this is an amazing thing. But sometimes I worry: what of beauty, what of joy and what of delight? Whenever I see an agile roadmap, or a minimum viable product description, it evokes sometimes a delicateness like a bird without skin and features, or a spareness of function from being cut down to the core, and sometimes a focus so tight it resembles brutalist architecture. Since software engineers have the luxury of doing continuous release, the bird can be skinned, the core can be fleshed out and paint can be applied to the architecture. But when it comes to hardware design and development, even experts can be at a loss for doing MVP.
The best hardware products seem to have a three-way trajectory that eventually meets in the middle: 1) an MVP that stacks mostly all the fixable elements that could be corrected while the ship is launched (firmware, protocol, drivers, cloud, application, and so on) 2) a nonminimalist first generation hardware platform that is allowed to take certain risks, make possible some growth headroom that if the features don't fly, can be easily nipped and tucked a half generation later and 3) an user experience driven team that worries about the out-of-the-box experience, and whether there is enough joy and other more complex emotions being constructed in at all the different layers of the product.
The big phrase of the day is intellectual honesty -- which in the product world means creating a cohesive product that communicates a honest description or feeling of itself. For example, a flyswatter with a laser scope would feel fake, a computer with the term turbo on it feels ignorant, a mercedes-benz under $10,000 feels wrong. Any of these these if they existed would feel dishonest. This is why skeuomorphism has been ripped out of iOS 7 and why Apple's mobile devices feel like a more collected product line now. The point being that even the very best of us can't always get it right, and if the design falls short early on, the perceived correct vision might not be easily pulled together cohesively again. Unlike software, if experiential corners are cut early, it may never be fixable again in a way that feels correct to the users. Therefore it's incumbent upon us to consider or have somebody worrying constantly what users might be feeling at the different levels of use and how to actively cultivate for the desired emotions.
So for all of us who are opening presents today, keep your inner observer present and drink deep from the experiential well as the gift wrap is torn, the box is admired, and opened, and the bits and pieces are strewn about, apps installed, toys played with and consider how any or all of this might have been designed to play out. For certain of these items, you'll feel joy, and the best of these items, there is also a complex histogram of emotions evoked on purpose. Consider that there are many web sites doing hardware teardowns but few out there doing this exact sort of emotional analytics. The best thing you can do is to take note, don't let the moment be lost and understand as best you can how to replicate and improve upon it.
After a product goes live and starts to sell and ship out, unless the product is connected to the Internet, it's hard to estimate engaged usage, but it's nearly impossible to estimate the competitor's total customer population and their engaged usage. The following little trick is something that only works in a dense enough population area like New York or another major metro.
When I was designing navigation devices for in-car use, I spent more time than I will admit to looking inside parked cars. I was looking for evidence of a navigation system such as an in-dash unit or a telltale circular suction-cup mark on the windshield itself. But the holy grail is seeing an actual device out in the wild. When it comes to an early market, with neither your own or your competitors' products ranking highly on adoption, this is sometimes the only way to put the finger to the wind.
The key to this is in a high population high density area, at most hours of the day, and especially rush hour, places like Times Square, ball games, major city events and so on are packed with large amounts of people and this situation lends itself towards statistical observation. For example, by simply noting how many of your own product ships out to the city, it's possible to get a "number of sightings per day" and correlate that to the known total population of devices shipped. And then by noting the number of sightings per day of the competitors' products, it's possible to come up with a pretty reasonable comparative estimate of what you're up against. This isn't rocket science, but it's a quick measure of the iceberg that lies beneath the surface.
Using this technique, it's also possible to observe inflection points in a product's adoption cycle--the iPod to iPhone transition for example, or the steady progression of Amazon's Kindle, can be easily considered just by walking through any subway car.
Also important, when possible, observe the usage scenarios, and the demographics of the users of the devices. Even without shipping a single device, this sort of observational study would yield plenty of information on the types of users out there in the wild. This could lead to a decent user profile or persona for later use.
One of the startups I've mentored came to me with an idea for a new physical product. While I'm no clairvoyant, I quickly identified a proxy product of very similar characteristics and asked the budding entrepreneur to spend days roving the streets and subways of New York City doing nothing but counting. And what occurred over the course of a few weeks was one of the most spectacular pivots. The startup is currently in stealth mode but the product undergone changes that has taken it from a niche product to quite possibly a globally relevant platform that is ready to scale.
So keep your Evernote ready or a Moleskine in your back pocket to do quick tallies whenever possible!
It's with some great glee that Haytham Elhawary will be joining us as Mentor-in-Residence at R/GA Accelerator. Haytham is Director of the Zahn Center at City College, and an important lighthouse for entrepreneurs working in hardware. For everyone in New York's fast expanding hardware community, Haytham needs no introduction. Stay tuned: from time to time throughout this article you'll discover extended cut info on Haytham.
Haytham's first startup company chased after suspended animation technology for use in organ transplants.
A smidge over a year ago, the first of the City's hardware hackers, engineers, developers, entrepreneurs and dreamers became aware of Haytham with the establishment of NY Hardware Start-up and CCNY's Zahn Center. Within days of the new meetup forming, they came a dozen at a time, week after week, day after day until about a year later there are over a thousand strong and growing. The meetups pack the rooms month over month to capacity: Standing room only! Haytham recalls, "There was obviously a latent demand for this kind of thing, and in July 2012 we had our first event with some top notch startups pitching, including Makerbot, LittleBits and Social Bicycles, and about 70-80 people in attendance." New York is and has always been a city of diverse talent and capabilities: engineers, developers, industrial designers, entrepreneurs, investors. All these disciplines have operated on the edges of hardware but without the means to connect until Haytham catalyzed the community.
As I mentioned in my previous post, there is a perfect storm brewing. Multiple independent trends are converging. Crowdfunding, personal manufacturing, open source hardware, local hardware development, quantified self, wearable computing, Internet-of-things, cloud services, big data analytics, and more are bumping up against each other. Most interestingly, the epicenter of the action is most quickly assembling here in New York. Organizations like Kickstarter, Quirky, Shapeways, Makerbot and now the R/GA Accelerator are headquartered right here at the center of the action.
It is possible for a new from-scratch hardware startup today to crowdfund, prototype, iterate, find manufacturers and launch within a year. If we go back just a few years, this would be an exercise in futility. Haytham points out "All of this would be unthinkable just a few years ago, I mean, many of the tools didn't even exist then."
Haytham drops hints in his bios he probably intends for sleuths to eventually discover. He leads a so-called double life as a theatre reviewer for Theasy.
Haytham was kind enough to summarize his philosophy towards hardware startups here:
Diversity of skills and people
- Hardware solutions can rarely be developed by a single type of engineer - unless you're a modern day Da Vinci, even the simplest hardware will require someone proficient in mechanical engineering, aesthetic design, circuit design and electronic component sourcing, firmware and software development, redesigning your hardware to be manufacturable and quality control.
@helhawary declares his love for penguins here.
Access to prototyping tools
- Tools for prototyping can be easily shared, yet there are few places where you can have access to the machines you need to get something going. I often had to do development on the hush at my academic lab, and travel to different places to have access to certain types of equipment, like a mill or a 3D printer.
Haytham feels Americans have a vast underappreciation of soccer, therefore, as program leader of New York's chapter of the Start-up Leadership Program, he made it a point to easter-egg the Motto as: "You'll never walk alone." This happens to be the anthem of Liverpool FC, his favorite soccer club. It also happens to be a Rodgers and Hammerstein show tune.
Seek out mentors
- Experience is everything - get mentors to help you think through your hardware product development. A lot of the skills you need for things like design for manufacturing or sourcing of electrical components are things rarely taught in a classroom, and are often not rocket science either, but things you learn on the job, which can be greatly accelerated (and costly mistakes avoided) if you have the right type of people around you.
We'll end this post with this final fact about the man: Haytham climbed Mt. Kenya, the second highest mountain in Africa, and almost died trying. This is likely because he was attempting to do improv comedy while simultaneously belaying. One of these sentences is a truth fact.
So with that, I'm incredibly pleased to welcome Haytham to the R/GA Accelerator and I'm thrilled to be able to work more closely with him now. Best of all, to have his passion and experience brought to bear to help accelerate our startups is something I look forward to. And that's a true fact also.