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Technology Thoughts

Hiring via API

It is easy for a team of developers to start a startup right now. Indeed, many are. There are now over a hundred developers in each new Y Combinator class! These are people that could otherwise be working at your company.

Why would someone start their own company rather than joining yours?  It isn’t because they are likely to make more money.   A developer has a much higher expected return going to work for Google, Dropbox or Square than doing their own thing. I believe it is culture, not money that is driving their behavior.

“Do my own thing.”  
I speak with lots of developers every week. If they are good I try to hire them. If I fail it is rarely because they choose another startup. Usually they say “I want to do my own thing.”  This translates to “I want to decide with who, how much, and on what I work.” This is a culture decision. This may be working only 20 hours a week. This may be working from 8pm-8am wearing PJs.  This may be working while traveling in Asia.

If there is all this talent out there “doing their own thing,” how does a company capture their value?
The simple answer is to become their customer. And no, i’m not talking about contract work.

I’ve never met a talented person who said “I’d rather do contract work.”  Developers don’t like equating their time to dollars.  They don’t like working on someone else’s stuff.  Good developers want to be as close to their customer as possible.

Partnerships written in code
Luckily APIs are an innovation that allow developers to create meterable value for a company without being employed by said company.  A developer gets paid for the value they create not the hours they put in.

Instead of building a notification system for your iPhone app (requiring an additional engineer and $150k in total costs), it is easier to pay Urban Airship a fraction of a penny every time you send a notification.

I encourage developer teams to make a meterable service that many companies need but don’t want to build themselves.

As a company scales they may end these API partnerships and vertically integrate – building every piece of their service and value chain. At 2M notifications per day, it might make sense to build your own Urban Airship. But maybe you don’t ever want to get into the business of sending notifications, and you don’t have to.

It is often said the best path to success is focusing on what you are good at. Everything else you should outsource to a partner.

APIs are partnerships written in code

Case Study: Sincerely Inc.
At Sincerely, many aspects of our service and business have been written by people who don’t work for us:
Postmark – instead of running our own SMTP server.
Appirater – instead of writing our own app review notification system
Hoptoad – instead of building our own crash reporting system
Urban Airship – instead of buildling our own notification system
Geckoboard – instead of making our own dashboard
Linode – instead of owning and running our own servers
Flurry – instead of writing our own analytics
Instagram – instead of creating our own community of photo content
Github – instead of hosting our own repositories

How you can hire us
Sincerely’s focus is making it easy to send real photos in the mail from a mobile phone.  We’ve gotten good at collecting physical addresses from users. We’ve learned how to bill users for small transactions.  We’ve set up relationships with print centers around the world.  We’ve built powerful customer support systems that address the challenges of sending real things in the real world.

There seems to be a new photo app launching every week. It would be a huge undertaking for each of them to recreate what Sincerely has built.  Our Ship Library for iOS makes it easy for any app to add photo print & delivery functionality in less than 30 minutes.
I believe we’ll see a pattern of more companies launching APIs and launching them earlier in their life.  It is the first step of a biz dev strategy – and it is a step that developers are comfortable with.  We get to talk to each other with snippets of code.  We don’t have go through a big legal process to work together. We can even create value together without having money change hands.  Heck, you can scale to hundreds of partners without having a biz dev guy – sounds like something a lot of developers I know would really like to hear.

What services do you wish developers “doing their own thing” would build?

*There is a good discussion going on over at Hacker News – join in

Social Networks, The Monkey Sphere, and Moore’s Law of Human Relationships

Just before Christmas I did an interview with the SF Chronicle for an article titled  Year in Review: Social networks come of age by Benny Evangalista.  Benny and I had a conversation about social networks and how far they have come. In the article he conjectures that social networks are here to stay, as is evident by their adoption inside big companies.  Our discussion revived a topic I’ve been wanting to write about after several years of working in this space; social networks represent the next step in expanding the capacity of human relationships.

Telephone, Email, Social Networks and the Monkey Sphere

The Monkey Sphere (also known as Dunbar’s number )  is a theory from evolutionary biology which was derived from the study of groups of monkeys (or more specifically non-human primates) in Africa.  Researchers studying monkey clans found that as a clan’s size grew towards a magical number of 150 monkeys, communication systems would break down, and the clan would break into two separate clans.  These clans would then each again grow to 150 members, split into two groups, rinse and repeat.  Researchers postulate that this barrier of 150 members could not be exceeded due to the communication strain on the clan as the number of nodes exceeded 150.  Dunbar and others postulate this same theory applies to human relationships.

cavemanFor most of human history our interactions were limited to a small social group, generally limited by physical geography.  Much like our primate relatives, this led our ancestors to only maintain relationships with those that they could talk to in person on a regular basis.

Enter the telephone

telephoneThe physical barrier was broken when the telephone emerged. We were no longer required physical proximity to another human to maintain a productive relationship (I’m ignoring physical letters because of their slow communication cycle time).  With the introduction of the telephone our monkey sphere increased monotonically.  But telephones had a limited effect because communication was limited to one on one discussions.


emailNearly one century later the monkey sphere was stretched further by the internet, and specifically email.  Not only could communication happen without the need for physical proximity, but it had less marginal overhead (no small talk), and it was our first of the democratized one to many communication mediums (newspapers, books, and magazines only provided one to many communication capabilities to a limited subset of the population).  Oh, and to add to the argument, email is asynchronous – you don’t  need to participate in the conversation at the same time as the other members.  Our monkey sphere started expanding geometrically.

Social Networks

twitter-facebookBack to my discussion with Benny.  The topic at hand was social networks and how they represent the latest step in expanding our monkey sphere beyond natural levels.  Social networks have no need for physical proximity, they have less marginal overhead than email, they are asynchronous, they are one to many, and increasingly they are public, not even requiring that you know the people you are communicating with (ex: Twitter and the increasingly public news feed on Facebook).  Social networks have changed how, with who, and how often communication is created and consumed.

The telephone, email, and social networks all represent big steps in our communication evolution, and it has all happened in the last 100 years.  Interestingly, it also appears to be accelerating.  I believe that I currently have personal relationships (which I define as knowing their name, face, where they live, what they do, and having shared some experiences together) with nearly 1,000 people.  What next step in communication technology will take me to 10,000 personal relationships? Is it possible?  The communication of our location might give us the next big leap.

10,000 personal relationships might sound ridiculous. But so did a 2 GHz processor in 1988 when I was booting from a 5 1/4 inch floppy disk so I could play video games on my dad’s 10MHz Digital computer. Is it possible there is a Moore’s law for human relationships? I think it is more likely that a Moore’s law exists for human relationships than a Dunbar number.

Moore's Law

Moore's Law