Form, Feeling, and Reading

Last Sunday I read an interesting article in the New York Times “Learning from Legos” which recalled a Frank Lloyd Wright quote about Froebel wood blocks:

“The smooth shapely maple blocks with which to build, the sense of which never afterward leaves the fingers; so form became feeling.”

I feel much the same way about reading. Over the past couple of years as I read more on iPads/screens (or at least as much as I read on paper), I find myself favoring certain topics in one medium vs. another.  As I thought about what I have read in the past few years, I find I prefer to read fiction, news, design on paper and quantitative, science, and non-fiction subjects on iPad.

I cannot remember a time when I did not read a newspaper. Even in these fast emerging digital times, I have stuck to a physical newspaper subscription in addition to its digital form. There is something deeply engaging about paper, typography, and column layout that I scan rapidly, often reading weekend newspapers end to end. Growing up in India, I read the newspaper my grandfather edited, noticing with satisfaction the black ink smudges on my fingertips at the end. There were no digital alternatives at that time. I read my first screens in late teen years at engineering school. I have a feel for words on screen as well – it is different though – from words on paper.  And that difference I feel seems to stretch to subjects I prefer in each medium.

I am certain I enjoy fiction more in pages made of paper and the weight of typefaces,  serifs or the way certain numbers look, especially angular ones, always stays with me. So does the feel of paper itself and the edges and binding and the cover. News is now mostly consumed on a digital screen although the analysis that follows is preferred on paper. Much as intelligent news recommendations engines try, serendipity seems to work better and I scan faster within a newspaper. The legos article I mention at the start was one such discovery – delightful. The sensory sum that is the end of the newspaper on a weekend is something I miss on the iPad. There is no end, always another story to be googled, another site to be browsed. And that dilutes the concentration I exercise with newspapers.

Browsing breaking news, reading some kinds of non-fiction, and quick reading engineering papers is something I find natural to do on screens. Of course there are experiences unique to this medium – like the live newsroom that is Twitter, email, all of the web, Kindle.

I wonder if I cannot and perhaps will never develop a feeling for reading everything on a screen. Reading printed words, the weight of paper, edges of letters, relative angles of numbers, left-justified togetherness of text,… all combine in a form that eases in to a feeling. On a screen, the smudges are on the screen, not on my fingertips.

Bevel up! A man and his shave.

gillette

my father’s razor – adjustable Gillette

In India I grew up watching my father shave with his trusty Gillette safety razor (Adjustable Super Speedcirca 1962) and real blades. He used a real brush for lather and a solid soapstick. We got to use the ‘used’ blades (Wilkinsons were the best) for sharpening pencils at school.

When I reached shaving age, I stubbornly resisted shaving off the first growth for a couple of years, finally giving in when I was in engineering school. The choices for shaving tools had changed by then and the new Gillette multi-blade razors with disposable blades were in vogue. Over the next few years I realized the various swirls under my chin and the way my hair grew required multiple passes to get a close, smooth shave. And even with a brand new blade, I had red patches if I tried to shave close. Staying with the grain (fatherly advice since my first shave) meant I could still see and feel hair sticking out and even with multiple passes I irritated the skin. Over grad school and then with startup life, I never had to shave daily and it sort of worked. I would let the stubble grow for a few days and was lucky never to shave more than once or twice a week for many many years.

My shaving regimen, meanwhile, had improved and like all things I care about, I searched as much as I could for various products to make the experience better. Pre-shave oils, pricey Kiehl’s shaving cream, l’Occitane after-shave balms seem to help but there was no real or practical substitute for the razor. Over the past decade+, Gillette’s ever increasing blade-number madness of a razor ‘system’ only made things worse. I tried all the new ones they released – Mach, three blade, Turbo, Fusion,… and then in an ultimate insult to the shaving man – a ridonkulous five blade system. I tried all but the five-bladed madness… none gave me a closer/better/smoother shave.

Meanwhile, Gillette withdrew the previous 2 blade products from most retail outlets – which just made me angry. There may be hair types and focus groups which convinced them five blades were better than four or three or two or one. For me and my stubble and skin, it made things worse.  In 2011, I ranted

..and not finding any comprehensible answer from Gillette, started buying sensor excel (2 blade) refills in India on every visit. 50 at a time twice a year and a spare razor too since those are not sold here anymore either.

So when I heard Tristan Walker was launching Bevel, I was excited to experiment and thrilled that someone was thinking about customers and their needs differently. My only worry, frankly, was: ‘Am I brown enough to use bevel?’. Bevel was potentially exciting in two ways – a simple rethink of an everyday problem for men Gillettes of the world don’t care about, and a founder whose passion for finding solutions to tough problems was clear the very first time we met (Thanks Semil).

The Bevel package arrived on Wednesday and I didn’t shave till this morning (Friday) so I could throw a challenging stubble Bevel’s way. The experience began with opening the box. The first thing I was drawn to was the simple message ‘#itsagoodlook’ – reassuring!

IMG_0141

The bevelled sturdy cardboard box is very well thought out packaging. In experiencing a new product, I expect every aspect of the product and its packaging to signify the commitment to quality and careful thought. Bevel’s packaging feels Apple-class.

bevelled edges

bevelled edges

Now, on to the goodies. The kit is complete with priming oil, brush (soak it extra long before first use), and shaving cream + after shave balm and of course the razor and blades.

The razor body is simple, unadorned, and just the right amount of weight/heft to hold against the skin without jitter.

Bevel

Bevel

 

 

IMG_0154

IMG_0153After priming with Bevel oil, I wet the brush and worked up a lather – effortless. The cream felt good and rich – and it took me a while to remember the almost forgotten art of brush whirls to get lather on to skin while working up more. Muscle memory and mimetic memory helped. I opened the razor, took out a blade and put it in. Fumbling a bit because I expected only the top to swivel open.

The shave was uneventful – ftw! Since it was the first time, I only did a single pass everywhere. The curve of the bezel plus the weight works well to go the whole stroke without altering pressure. The increased width versus Gillette means that the curve right under the jowls (my hair grows straight back towards my neck like windswept Cypresses in that region) requires special care. I am still thinking about how to navigate that next time. But the chin area worked wonderfully. Thats where I seem to have the highest density of hair and the razor edge curved nicely with the grain downwards. Not seeing any holes for water drainage I was a bit nervous about hair getting trapped between the blade-edge and the bevel case but a quick examine afterwards proved otherwise. My engineering self thinks a couple of drainage holes for water may make rinsing it during shave a bit faster. Note the blade edges after the first shave – no tiny blunt dings – quality!

Unassembled after shave and rinse to examine for hair trapped inside. None!

Unassembled after shave and rinse to examine for hair trapped inside. None!

Accustomed to frequent razor burns, I usually rinse first with warm water (often with warm water soaked towel to soothe the irritated skin) but this time a quick warm splash to remove soap, then cold to ‘close the pores’ (delighted to see this little gem in the Bevel shaving guide – i’ve used that forever – father’s advice at 18) and after shave balm. I examined the skin everywhere and ran my fingers up and down – exactly as expected and w i t h o u t any razor burn or redness or nicks !

Yes! it felt good. No, felt great because the smooth skin was without irritation for the first time in ages after a close shave.

smoooooth

smoooooth

I think Walker and Co. with Bevel met every expectation I had from the kit. I don’t yield counter space at my sink lightly but I think  Bevel is going to live here happily for a long time. Well done Team Bevel !

A new logo finds its home on my mandeck

A new logo finds its home on my mandeck

Now for a few specific points of feedback for Team Bevel:
1. I understand that the metal edge of the case prevents the blade-edge from dings or dulling if I simply rest it on the counter (see pics below) or at the edge of my mantray. But it seems disrespectful to a serious ‘tool’ to be left lying there. I’d happily pay a bit extra for a contour-fitting simple case to hold the razor. Maybe it can be a pop out rubberized cardboard pack that holds the razor in the initial packaging.

IMG_0146

Bevel at rest.

Bevel at rest.

2. Think about adding a notch or band with knurling right where smooth/matt finishes meet. When I am shaving, a notch/dip/knurled pattern will let me locate the angle better by feel (my forefinger will be at that notch/dip). This way I will feel a bit more confident that I am holding the razor right (in the rotational sense) as well as give me fine motor control at (fore)fingertip.

3. In my first ‘unboxing’ experience, I expect a personal touch from the founder or the startup. A startup is not a brand or a faceless company. In this case, a simple inkstamped note from Walker & Co. perhaps re-establishes the link between a new user and the startup team. Or a simple signature from a human – a craftsman asking me to respect the pride that went in to making the product and signaling their commitment to delivering a great experience. One of the best furniture makers around Thos Moser carries this statement “Each piece is handcrafted to our exacting standards, signed and dated by the craftsman who built it, and carries our lifetime guarantee.”

Update: 2:30pm Tristan msg’ed me to say a handwritten card should have accompanied the package. It is included in every one of the first shipment.

Overall, a great experience and I am happy to move out some big, established brands from my morning routine to bevel up!

At risk, some brands.

At risk, some brands.

 

Thanksgiving 2013

Thank you founders – for being the only human part of this very silicon valley.

Thank you Palo Alto – for balancing out bespoke SF hipsterdom with your suburban ambitions.

Thank you Bitcoin – whether you go to 1 or 1000, for making us think different.

Thank you iOS7 – for your blurs, typography, and monopolistic emotion.

Thank you Android – for trying to get better each year.

Thank you 101 – for carrying greed and dreams across our tech favela.

Thank you VCs – for believing code and data can manipulate everything.

Thank you twitter – for occasionally you let us glimpse other real worlds and when you do, it is magic.

Thank you digital robber barons – for not even pretending to care about the rest of us techno-serfs.

Thank you silicon valley – for one more bubble.

Thank you.

So you want to join an accelerator?

F = m.a;
a = F/m
... implies that F is the accelerator entity (partners, money, resources) and 
'm' is you, the founder and your startup. hmmm.

My friend Semil Shah asked me about accelerators and demo days. I thought about it for a few days and other than Elad’s incisive “Incubator of Incubators” parody, I think there has been little of substance, though lots of noise in the valley about accelerators.

The five myths of an accelerator are:

1. Partner and Accelerator brand will bring introductions and subsequent financings.

2. Demo days create froth for your startup (that results in financings, acquihires, customers!)

3. Accelerators have divined the right time-period for you to grace the accelerator.

4. Office hours with partners and mentor pools picked just for you.

5. Optimal number of startups in each batch that make it the best experience for you

 

The reality is:

1. Ultimately the relationships to upstream VCs transact on credible and high talent opportunities that ‘graduate’ from accelerators.  Accelerator/partner’s personal brand must  be a composite of your startup successes and in the event of failures – honest/authentic effort.

2. Demo days are irrelevant. No high quality venture interaction results. It is like doing a ‘graduation ceremony’ for Grade-1. Meaningful only in the short-term and vaguely so to the participants, irrelevant to the ecosystem you may care about – partners, customers, users, employees.

3. The timeline is surely different for each startup and for each team. Herding them through the same time/effort seems distinctly sub-optimal. I’d suggest accelerators offer a clear, honest timeline for each opportunity and a set of criteria with which they graduate. The notion of a ‘class’ or ‘cohort’ is a toxic concept borrowed from a nearly-dead patriarchal education system. Pitch and commit to the startups/founders that the accelerator will tailor their efforts to founder needs, not ask founders to contort their efforts within an arbitrary ‘window’ of a batch, class, or cohort.

4. Founder-to-founder peer interaction is invaluable. The best problem solvers are their peers, not the accelerator-partners or the accelerator-mentors that have never been founders.  An accelerator must encourage this interaction and make it structured. Think “Founder Platform” minus the VCs.

5. Very few components of a venture capital model scale up well. Unless the accelerator started out small (1, 2,.. 3?) and scaled up by learning the kind of hard lessons a startup learns, you – the founder, are merely a dot on an initial experiment of finding the right scale of operation for the accelerator.

 

What does mobile mean to me?

There is much excitement, rightly so, about all things mobile.

Mobile to me means native mobile. Not mobile-first, not mobile-focused, not mobile-optimized, but an experience you deliver that cannot be delivered in any other medium.

iPhone and later Android drove the initial cracks and now the tectonic shift is splitting apart the pangaea in to new continents. Instagram was the first exciting mobile company that wasn’t just an app – such a shame they sold out early before they threatened other social platforms. SnapChat is immensely exciting because it is a new and mobile-only behavior and experience. Uber is fast becoming the very definition of importance of delivering a unique experience – on mobile – and eliminating all other friction (Phone calls, reservations, card entry, opaque delivery,…) from this experience.

Pradeep Elankumaran, co-founder & CEO of Kicksend, recently tweeted out a series of great rules to think about app-commerce.Pradeep-AppCommerce

App-commerce is one of the new mobile segments appearing in this new native mobile landscape resulting from said tectonic shifts. Transactional engines riding on top of fast growth.

These kind of innovations in design, experience, growth, and delivery are going to define our brave new mobile world. As for all that’s legacy-web, we’re fast approaching Fahrenheit 451.

 

the downside of impulsiveness

no mission. i have no mission. there are some things that feel right and some pursuits that feel wrong but i have no mission. a series of impulsive decisions is how i have described my ‘path’ through education, jobs, and technology to those who’ve asked.

there were clearly a number of shaping influences early in my life including technology, literature, and an environment that encouraged curiosity above careers. there were, however, no maps of ambitions longer than the next few years. my world as a school kid was competitive swimming, my click III camera, books across the house, glimpses of life in Boston & Rochester from my father’s photos/slides, stacks of life and aviation week & space technology magazines, and that fantastic blue of early xerox of typed grad school papers and assignments. my thoughts on who i wanted to be went from a journalist to engineer (Civil/Architecture) to communications (EE) in a few years across high school and the first few years of engineering school.

and it got easier every year – from the tyranny of linear algebra in first year (42/100 – not my proudest moment) to tensors, electromagnetic theory, and lasers where assignments and exams became trivially easy.

still, no ambition – neither money nor fame, or any notions of a career. but i was curious – about everything i did not get to know or do.

amount/nature of scholarships was a path to Canada for grad studies, then a sideways arrival in the valley at a time before i knew what a bubble was or startups or venture capital. i passed up two offers of conventional employment with Nortel, a company that was among the top 3 in telecom equipment makers and now doesn’t exist anymore. but i got to do what i wanted to do here and was curious for more.

now, after startups, failures, and a good amount of learning, still no mission. this is the downside of impulsive decision making. fortune, timing, and great talent of others around me across all the impulsive decisions i made has propelled me thus far, not a (or my) mission.

though not at any cross roads or impending forks in the road, it feels like a more formed set of wandering paths if not a straight road around my curiosity may be better. i honestly don’t know if it would be but it does feel like it could be and like most of my decisions, i feel like impulsively acting on it.

In other words, I may be getting old.

The VC’s conceit

Inspired by reading @Pv double post on Engineer’s conceit and Marketer’s conceit, I tweeted

This is the venture capitalist’s conceit. We often throw up an array of stats, facts, and extrapolations of founder statements in order to coax ourselves out of our quicksand trough of conviction and manufacture courage where there is none to move to a funding decision.

Our conceit is not asking founders to bend the future to their will, it is asking them to handcuff that conviction with certainty.

In all honesty (and thanks to @Om for clarifying it), the only things we need to be moved by is:

  • Is the idea big enough that it will change how adjacent technologies/products/markets behave?
  • Is the market big enough that it will contort itself to pay for it?
  • Is the founder’s conviction big enough that they must do this or the idea will die, and  that they can and will recruit the very best team possible to deliver on the idea?

Beyond these realizations, we can argue financial projections, models, and hiring plans forever and will not get a shred of certainty. Yet we ask for it…. and more. And most founders partake in this ritual habitual by supplying ‘data’ riding on powerpoint in response. This is the founder’s conceit.

This kabuki back and forth produces incremental decisions, incremental innovation, and incremental startups. Condemned to inconsequential creation of moribund value, a change of pockets for some dollars, and more than a flesh wound from time’s arrow.

I thought I was better than this.