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What is Fashion?

I love fashion. I especially love tailored suiting. There’s something special about a suit that’s all your own.

I recently saw these two photos. Notice the tucked tie. Neat! (Credit to The Sartorialist and The Sartorially Inclined.)

So what? Nothing really, except this: My first thought of “too much of a pose” has now turned to “hmm, I might actually like this.”

Fashion is fluid. It changes as you change. I wouldn’t have taken to this look but it’s growing on me. What does that say about me?

My favorite jacket is a toirtoise green, Costume National leather biker jacket. But I didn’t wear it for a full year after I bought it. Why? Because I actually thought it was “too cool” for me. I couldn’t genuinely wear it, so I never did. But I love it now. Its only when I appropriately saw it as something that spoke to me at a real level that I took to it. Like the jacket, the tucked tie is in that early stage.

“Real level?” Sounds like horseshit, right? Fashion is surface. Fashion is superficial. Right?

Something changed in me the moment I put on a suit for the first time in my life. It made me feel powerful. It made me feel important. It made me feel good about myself. But most importantly, it made me feel something. And that something was emotional.

I never knew before then that clothing could do that. That clothing, at a certain level, could create an emotional experience. And if you haven’t had that experience with clothing, it’s hard to see the emotional landscape that exists beneath the surface, and therefore to appreciate it.

But that landscape exists all around us. That shirt you wore when you were 15 that represents all that was true and dramatic the summer you wore it and how it all comes back to you when you put it on again. How choosing what you wear every morning is a form of self-expression. How the handmade dress your mom gave you creates a link back to her past. Or the silk scarf your dad always wore that you wear now–the dad that’s not here in this world anymore.

Yes, yes, you don’t need fashion and clothing and all these things in the way you need air or water or your friends and family. This is true. But as I see it, you are born and then you die, and if you’re lucky, you can say during the time in-between, Hey I felt something that time and it spoke to me. I believe there’s value in human experience, and in that experience alone.

I hope one day to meld my interests in technology and fashion. I’d love to give others the chance to feel those things, too., Steve Jobs and The Meaning Of Innovation

On April 18th, Sprouter organized their monthly Sprout Up event at The Courthouse. It’s a useful event for those interested in hearing about new startups in Toronto.

April’s keynote was from Matt Meeker, one of the founders of Matt talked about the inside story of Meetup, how they got started and their journey. The best part of the evening.

Interestingly enough, as Matt was talking, I was reminded of my favorite Steve Jobs talk. It was a talk Jobs gave at age 26, before the Macintosh,  at the Academy of Achievement. In the talk, Jobs defines innovation as “connecting two experiences together” and that true innovation could only be done by people who “go out into the world and get experiences outside the normal course of events.” I always loved this because it speaks directly to things I care about: Human experience over theory; courage; discovering a path that’s truly your own.

Matt talked about two transformative experiences: 9/11 and reading Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam. In “Alone,” Putnam describes the disappearance of community in post-industrial America. Where once Americans participated in at least one social event a week is now reduced to once per month. At the same time, Matt spoke of his first-hand experience of spontaneous community building that sprang immediately after 9/11. About strangers reaching out to others offering help right there on the street. So while America was moving further apart, there was still a craving for meaninful belonging.

As such, Meeker and his cofounders created Meetup to solve this problem. Meetup offered a platform for others to connect in a community again. In other words, Meetup was about connecting two experiences together.

Innovation is a funny word. We often think of it as a Eureka moment, a brief moment of brilliance, a falling apple–an apple with a mind and existence of its own. Matt Meeker’s story taught me again the importance of your own experience.

Sometimes the best ideas are not ahead of you, but right beside you.

The Instagram Sale and What This Tells Us About Design

As we all know, Instagram this week sold to Facebook for a cool $1 billion. Not bad for a 22 person company! Much has been written about the sale. But among all the copy, I thought Om Malik’s article was the most insightful.

Om is right: Facebook bought Instagram partly out of fear and partly to find large scale traction on mobile. Paying $1 billion to fend of a serious competitor by a company valued at close to $100 billion may make sense in the long term. More meaningfully, however, is what Om rightly pointed out as well: People like Facebook, but love Instagram.

How did they do this? After all, Instagram is just a community of photo-takers. My answer: They created a real emotional attachment to the product itself. Beautiful photos for all. Great design. It’s the only app on my iPhone that I love and makes me feel…well, like I can actually take good pictures. It makes me feel good about myself. How many apps on your phone do that?

Square is another company that is showing the world that something as mundane as payment transactions can, with thoughtful design, have a seamless, even beautiful feel to the whole process. Everything from the website, the iPhone app, even the receipts you get, are thoughtfully constructed. I love that. It shows someone cares. It makes you want to use the product and talk about it with others. By making it beautiful, a halo-effect transforms an ordinary experience into an emotional one.

Instagram drove home for me that sometimes mundane sounding tasks can oftentimes become much more  through thoughtful design.

How We Built a HackTO Winning App

HackTO with Team Blu Trumpet

Yesterday, I took part along with my awesome teamates Scott Hyndman and Victor Mota, in HackTO’s April 2012 hackathon as part of the Canada-wide HackDays. We had a great time thinking through the problems and the day was a lot of fun. To boot, our entry LastResort ended up placing first! We all agreed before the winners were announced that the day was a success regardless, but it was a nice icing on the cake. There were a lot of great apps.

After talking with the judges and our own observations about our approach and seeing the other 22 demos, our team brainstormed possible reasons why we placed higher than expected. Here’s what we came up with.

Do your homework

In a hackathon, it’s all about execution. You don’t have time. Non-demoable apps do not make the final cut, so it was crucial we knew what we were getting into before the event.

That’s why the week prior our team sat down to scope possible ideas. We familiarized ourselves with the APIs to get a feel for their range and capabilities. We even played with some of the APIs, making calls and playing with sandbox tokens. You don’t want to waste your time with mundane issues like OAuth that slow you down.

Choose your problem carefully

As mentioned, incomplete apps don’t demo. We made sure we had a problem that was interesting and could be done in seven hours. A completed, less glamorous app is better than an unfinished, ambitious project.

After much discussion, we settled on the following problem: A tool that monitors your existing email stream for critical issues and calls the appropriate support people by phone who can fix them.

The problem had several benefits: it scratched our own itch, so we knew it was useful (utility brownie points); it could be completed in seven hours; we double-checked the APIs were capable of doing what we wanted; and it had the bonus of using more than one of the sponsored APIs (ContextIO for email mining and Twilio for phone calls, both awesome APIs)–which we learned afterward one of the judges appreciated.

Scope the day’s work

Once we had a problem, we scoped out an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) the day before. What is the absolute minimum, demonstratable demo? We decided it was phoning a list of contacts in sequence when a specified email was sent.  That’s it. On the actual day, we hardcoded the contact list and the email was triggered by a manual send during the demo. There was no special phone call behaviour. (You can easily see how features can be added, but again the goal is brevity and speed of execution to the demo.)

We built a mantra on the team: “Build to the MVP.” Anything that sidetracked us was thrown out. It gave our team focus. We knew what the goal was.

We also wrote out the actual tasks we would need to build: github setup, necessary API keys, etc. Then we assigned a team member to each task or component. Again, we made sure items contributed to the MVP. We also made a list of “nice-to-haves” of additional features that we could add on but weren’t critical to the MVP. In the end, we didn’t implement anything off this latter list.

Why did this work? Because everyone on the team knew exactly what they were doing, why they were doing it, and how it all contributed to the end goal. Most importantly, each of us knew what we didn’t need to do, and many times we found ourselves rejecting tasks before getting sucked into time wasting.

Choose a good team

This goes without saying. Scott and I work together at Blu Trumpet and Victor was one of our previous interns. We all like and respect each other and know our strengths and weaknesses. We also have the added benefit of being candid and critical and there was plenty of healthy discussions throughout the day. We were constantly talking with each other, pair programming at times, pitching to help whenever. “Hey, what do you guys think of this? How does this look?” was a common phrase. We were constantly checking in on each other.

We were especially vocal during our presentation prep. We constantly asked ourselves “Is this clear? Can we make this shorter? Can we make this more impactful?” We were quick to point out when one of us was using too many words or when key points were lost. It helped a ton.

It’s next to impossible to churn something out with random people you met that day. What’s true in business is true at hackathons.

Present as if you are pitching to VCs

We made sure we completed at least one hour before the 5pm deadline. Why? We knew a compelling pitch was critical so we left time for it. How you present your product is really, really important. How people perceive your product is the product. Good impressions go a long way.

We put together a three slide Keynote presentation that made sure we (1) defined the problem and explained why it was important to solve it (server downtime is bad bad bad); (2) which audience or “customer segment” our solution served (bootstrapped startups); (3) what our value-adds were (free, developer-friendly).

We spent the final hour going over and over our presentation, timing each time. We couldn’t afford to not finish. This saved the presentation, as a final decision to shorten the demo allowed us to finish exactly in three minutes, without a second to spare (literally).

We also added humour and that never hurts! It was truly a team presentation as Victor and I did the actual presenting while Scott worked the slides and executed the demo.

One final note…

Writing this now everything seems “obvious.” But believe me, we were very close to not finishing. A server failure or API hangup would have cost us and put the whole thing into doubt. My heart was pounding during the presentation and thank goodness everything went as planned. Afterward, we were all surprised how nicely it all came together, as in software this rarely happens!

It’s amazing what you can accomplish in one day. Obviously, you can’t work at this speed everyday. But it was fun participating in a “mini-startup” from end-to-end. And for those thinking of working in the startup world, I highly recommend it.

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