Sunday, December 30, 2012


“Impact” is a key term used by both startups and big companies to attract talent. Both claim that joining them would be the best way to “changing the world”. But “impact” and “changing the world” can mean two very different things: setting direction, or creating value.

In a startup, you have heavy influence on the direction of the company and thus how society as a whole allocates resources. If you’re the founder or the CEO, the idea is yours and you’re setting the direction. However, the amount of actual value created per person is not yet certain.

In a large, established company, the company’s activity is known to be something with a high yield, one that creates a lot of value for society. As an employee, while you did not set the direction, you’re doing something that guarantees the creation of value.

Both of these influence the world. The former is important because it can further society in new and previously unthought of ways, even though there is little guarantee of success. The latter is important because it is where value is actually created, even though there is little room for innovation.

So who is changing the world more? The Microsoft or Google employee whose code is routinely rolled out to hundreds of millions of people, or the founders of startups creating new and exciting yet-to-be-released products?

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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Goals vs. Resources

Should you define your goals based on the resources available to you, or find the resources for the goals that you choose?

That's what I think book So Good They Can't Ignore You really boils down to. More often than not, successful people got to where they are by taking full advantage of the resources that are available to them. They did not choose a goal blindly, without having access to the resources to support it. Instead, they let their goals be influenced by what is available around them.

If you're equally interested in two fields, and have more resources, connections, and skills in one of the two, then it's obvious which one to pursue. But what if you're more interested in the one with less resources? No resources? Wouldn't your passion guide you through?

Perhaps, but the odds are against you. The sad thing about all the success stories we hear where "passion" won out is that we don't know how many people failed doing the exact same thing. Failures don't make a good story, so it doesn't get talked about.

Then again, "success" can mean different things to different people.

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Friday, December 7, 2012

Startup Girl Survival Guide

This is a guest post I wrote for VeloCity's guest blog. When Kim asked me to write about being a startup girl back in September, I wasn't awfully thrilled about the idea. There were many of themes that I was only beginning to come to term with, so it look a lot of thinking. By far this was the hardest blog posts I've ever written. (Yes, even harder than the blog post about Galois Theory.) You can also read the post at, and check out my startup Polychart when you're done! Enjoy!

It feels like I’m doing a disservice talking about being a startup girl. True, I’m one of the few female technical founders in the VeloCity program, and as a pure & applied math grad, a programmer, data scientist, entrepreneur and a go player, there are many facets of my life where I’ve felt a distinct lack of the double-x chromosome. Despite all of that, I was fortunate to have a very supportive (and female) programming teacher in high school, and really awesome co-op and VeloCity mentors. They helped me make it through without feeling like a startup girl is all that different from any other startup founders.

But are we really that different? We face the same challenges as anyone else, balancing between getting the product out, talking to users, innovating, shipping, selling, building, and marketing. We go through the same emotional roller coaster ride as everyone else.

I don’t think that we are really different. I do think, though, that there are challenges we face that our male counterparts do not. That’s what this guide is about, advice from one startup girl to another.

1. Be confident. Confidence is crucial for all startup founders, and especially key when you could be mistaken for the secretary or the supportive girlfriend who’s helping out her co-founder boyfriend. It should be your priority to take the lead to introduce yourself, and to take a more assertive role in conversations. Confidence building is very personal, but there are tools out there that can help, rejection therapy being a great one (that I haven’t, but should have, finished). Understanding the imposter syndrome helped me a lot personally.

2. Build a Reputation. Just by having a female name, women are perceived to be less competent. How, then, can we build trust and make sure we are heard? One solution for this is to build a reputation by being outspoken about your work. Keeping a blog is a great way of doing that. Writing about projects you’re working on, sharing insights, and contributing to the community gives people a chance to understand what you’re capable of. It also gives a chance for people you meet to do “background checks” on you, and see the best of your talents.

3. Find Mentors. Lack of mentors is a frequent complaint from women in technology. Entire blog posts have been written about why this is the case, and the most interesting one hypothesizes the following: older and more experienced men don’t want to be seen as the “dirty old man” that is helping a young woman for a less than altruistic reason. This is a difficult stereotype to overcome. One way around it is to join a program with a mentorship component. VeloCity is one, as are other incubators and accelerators.

4. Find Peers. I don’t necessarily mean being in a community of other startup girls, but I do find it important to be amongst peers — people who are in similar positions, with whom there is mutual respect. This should happen naturally as you gravitate towards people with similar interests, but in a male dominated industry, groups can be difficult to break into. Like in any situation, confidence is key. The culture of the group may change because you’re a female, but let your confidence and actions speak for themselves. As with all social groups there are always challenges to entry, look at this as an opportunity, not a problem.

5. Affirmative Action. There, I said the “A” words. I used to get very worked up about affirmative action and how unfair it is to men, and even pondered whether my team won the VVF because I am a startup girl. Not any more. While affirmative action programs are right in our faces, the subtle ways we are discouraged are not. It’s a fair compensation.

6. Don’t think about being a startup girl. If you look for discrimination, you’ll find it everywhere. As a startup girl, you’re better off spending the emotional energy on the startup itself.

Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that as a society, we need to understand and eliminate the extra barriers that prevent startup girls from succeeding. There are a number of characteristics that women must have that men don’t need to be successful in this business, and it’s not fair. For now though, I think the best way for women to be successful is to be confident, be relentless, and break through those barriers.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Don't follow your passion

Cal Newport argues in his book, So Good They Can't Ignore You, that "follow your passion" might just be terrible advice. This is a much needed challenge to the typical North American "you can do whatever you put your mind to" philosophy. While Newport's tone is not at all pessimistic, it's hard not to be reminded of this comic:

No one in their right mind (at least in North America) would tell a kid that they can't be what they want to be. This optimism can be healthy and can encourage innovation, but can also trivialize the amount of hard work required to build any kind of great career. Great careers are rare and in order to have one, one must have skills that are equally rare and valuable. These skills take many years to develop.

Newport studies people who are passionate about what they're doing, to find out how they got there. For one, these people took little steps (as opposed to big ones) to get to where they are. They focused on gaining valuable skills at each step, and when their abilities outgrew their current job, they took the next logical step.

These people did not identify a passion and follow it. Newport believes that focusing on passion is harmful. He believes it convinces people that there is a magic "right" job waiting for them somewhere, and the moment they find it they'll recognize it. In reality, this kind of certainty is rare, and questions like "Is this who I really am?" and "Do I love this?" rarely reduce to a clear yes-or-no response.

Among the many suggestions he makes, one that stood out was to try different projects, each one not taking more than a couple of months, and see how you and the world feel about them. This feels like the start of a "lean career" movement: try a lot of different projects, see what works and what doesn't, and iterate. He also suggest that perhaps it's not so much about what you do, but about how you do it and the attitude you take. I certainly know people who seem to enjoy everything they do, and do it all with an intensity that makes you think that this is their life passion.

So Good They Can't Ignore You is a book with some refreshing ideas: ones that finally put more emphasis on skills and hard work, and less on passion and dreams.

PS: Sivers has a great set of notes for this book that covers the main points (and is also more concise than the book itself).

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