Speech for Startup Reykjavik 2015 Mentors

From left: Salóme Guðmundsdóttir, CEO of Klak Innovit, myself, and Svava Björk Ólafsdóttir
From left: Salóme Guðmundsdóttir, CEO of Klak Innovit, myself, and Svava Björk Ólafsdóttir

For the last three summers, I’ve participated as a mentor in the Startup Reykjavik accelerator programme. Today, I was honoured to be voted by the 2014 alumni as “mentor of the year” for last summer’s programme.

I was asked to give a short speech for the occasion, for the mentors who are participating in the Startup Iceland accelerator this summer. I gave the speech in Icelandic, and it is available in its original form here. What follows is an English translation:

Hi everyone,

I’d like to say a few words about what it is like to be a mentor, and in particular about being a mentor in the Startup Reykjavik accelerator, which I’ve participated in from the start.

I know many of you are experienced mentors, from Startup Reykjavik or elsewhere. For those of you who are getting started, it might make sense to talk a bit about what it is like in practice to be a mentor for Startup Reykjavik.

Usually, the way it has worked, is that at the beginning of summer, you let the organizers, Klak Innovit, know what dates you are available, and they will book mentor meetings with most or all of the ten teams participating in Startup Reykjavik.

You then meet each team individually, get a short presentation, and try your best to give them some useful feedback based on this first encounter. You follow this up by deciding which teams you think you could and would like to help, and this often ends up not being more than one or two teams per mentor. Of course, it can take several meetings before the mentor-mentee relationship clicks with one or more teams.

After this initial process, your communication is more directly with the teams you are taking under your wing, to organize meetings or use other communication tools. But at the start, it’s great if you can meet as many teams as possible, to be able to make the best selection.

Often, you can help a team in a quick way, for example by making connections for them within your network, even if you don’t intend to take the team on as a mentor. This is another reason to try to meet all the teams, or as many as possible, at the start, even if you don’t expect to be able to be an effective mentor for particular teams.

In addition to the organized meetings, Startup Reykjavik has several open events such as barbecues where you can meet and chat in an informal setting. These events are tremendously useful as a venue for helping a few teams outside the ones you are mentoring in an informal way, and to get to know the teams well enough to pick one or two to mentor. I strongly recommend that mentors show up for these events. Apart from being very useful, they are a lot of fun.

In fact, I think more opportunities for informal meet-ups between the teams and the mentors would be great.[1] Some of these could be more low-key than the barbecues, for instance just an afternoon to grab coffee at the Startup Iceland offices. The informal events are one of the best ways to create personal relationships that can last much, much longer than the 10 weeks the accelerator is ongoing.

Once you have established a mentor-mentee relationship, I’m pretty sure that it’s largely a question of personal style which modes of communication are suitable. All of the classical modes are available, such as meeting in person, using the phone, email etc. I’m willing to bet $10 that some team this year will use Slack to communicate with their mentor. Any takers on that bet?

For my part, I’ve found it most useful to engage in real-time communications with my mentees, either in person or over the phone or via Skype. While email and instant messaging can be great for follow-up or for classical management, being a mentor is not being a manager. It is much more about reading between the lines, seeing how your mentee is feeling, and hearing from the tone of their voice what it is that really worries them or that they’re unsure about.

This brings us perhaps to what it is fundamentally to be a mentor to a mentee. Is it like the relationship between a teacher and a student? I don’t think so, because a teacher usually has significant control over the path the student must take.

In my opinion, a fundamental tenet is that as a mentor, you must let your mentee take their own decisions, choose their own path, and shoulder all of the responsibility for their choices. When mentoring an entrepreneur, you must let the entrepreneur be the entrepreneur and remain firmly in the driver’s seat; the mentor should never assume that role.

I think a mentor should also expand the mentee’s horizons both outwards and inwards. Outwards, by pointing out other paths that could be taken, and possibly recommending one path above others, even though your mentee should always make the final call. Inwards, by helping the mentee recognize their own weaknesses or unscrutinized basic assumptions that might be hurting their decision making or prioritization.

First and foremost though, a mentor is someone who shares their experience in a meaningful way. Experience that could have come about from making their own mistakes, or possibly from being challenged by a mentor in their past. Any kind of experience counts, as long as it has bearing on what your mentee is doing or going through.

This is why it’s best to find an individual or a team that is working on something that you truly have insight into, something where you have meaningful experience you can bring to bear. Relevant experience and a strong desire to help the person or team in question is what makes us great mentors.

Let me end with a thought for all the mentors here. It’s a well known fact that investors, unfortunately, have a strong bias to invest in teams composed of entrepreneurs that remind them of themselves. This has meant that for example in the US, teams composed of white males from privileged families who studied at Ivy League schools, have had a much easier time getting funded than other teams.

Can we all join together to not let the same thing happen when we choose teams to mentor? Everybody, or at least most people, has unconscious biases that they’re often not even aware of. To reduce the impact of these unconscious biases, we can be mindful of how and why we are making our decisions, and try to consciously nudge them in a direction that hopefully reduces the impact of our biases.

I therefore encourage all mentors to pay special attention to teams composed of individuals who are different from themselves. That way, I think we will all learn more.

Thank you.

[1] The organizers of Startup Reykjavik have since informed me that there will in fact be quite many informal events, almost one per week. Yay!

Why CrankWheel, and why Iceland?

cropped-island_startupiceland111The following blog was first published on the Startup Iceland blog on May 11 2015.

About a year ago, I left a fantastic job at Google to fulfil my long standing desire to start my own company. I took a couple of months off, then started working on the startup idea I had when I left Google, only to discover that I was not passionate enough about building that particular business. I won’t describe it in detail in this blog post; suffice it to say that it was related to software localization, an area I worked on quite a bit at Google.

What followed were a couple of months of gut-wrenching self-doubt. This blog post is about those months, how I found and fell in love with the idea that became CrankWheel, and why my co-founder Þorgils and I chose to start in Iceland.

The metaphorical winter of my discontent was actually late last summer, when the sun in Iceland had started dipping below the horizon for a few hours every night. Þorgils and I had attended elementary school in Akureyri together, back in the days when Iceland had just one television channel which broadcast only 6 days a week, 11 months a year. We had become reacquainted a few months earlier, and were spending quite a lot of time together socially that summer.

On one of these long late summer nights, taking in the view from Þorgils’ house of Reykjavík’s city lights, we got to talking about what was missing in his line of business, which was advising and selling to clients over the phone. He described the typical process of selling financial products such as term life insurance: The sales agent calls the customer, tries to get them interested in buying, and if there is interest, they book a meeting in person the following day. A huge portion of such meetings gets cancelled or rescheduled ad infinitum. In the meeting, you bring presentation materials that will let you close the sale.

Why not finish the sale over the phone, I asked? The product being sold is too complicated to explain just by talking. You need to show charts and figures, to point to things and explain. At first, I thought people could use online conferencing systems to achieve this, but after we talked some more and did some online research, our conclusion was that all of the existing systems are way too complicated to ask your customer to use within a phone call; in most cases you would need to spend several minutes helping them set up such a system, and in all cases there would be a high likelihood that they would have problems joining the meeting because of outdated software, lack of technical skills, or a poor Internet connection.

This is how the idea for CrankWheel was born, as we brainstormed well into the night. I wrote down this one-liner as an early dawn approached: “For telephone sales and call centers, to add a visual element.” The idea really resonated with me, because I had vivid memories from the years I spent living in Canada, of attempting to stay focused while a customer service agent I had called to change my mobile phone subscription spent minutes reciting the details of my current plan, then the details of the plan I was switching to, and then repeated all of the details again after I confirmed that I wanted to switch. How much easier it would have been, I thought, if they could have just shown me?

The other reason I fell in love with CrankWheel is that it lets me leverage technology I care deeply about, namely WebRTC. This technology is built into the Chrome and Firefox browsers, as well as hopefully soon a few more of the major browsers, and can also be used in stand-alone applications. It makes it possible to create web applications that make use of real-time communications, i.e. real-time audio and video streams. Think of it like this: If Skype were starting today, it could be done as a web application, using just JavaScript, no download required. I care about WebRTC not only because it’s super cool technology which has the potential to be as disruptive to what you can create on top of the web as AJAX was back in the day, but also because WebRTC was the last project I worked on at Google, so I feel a bit of ownership in it, and I know a lot of the very cool people working on it.

I believe CrankWheel is 10x better than anything else out there today, because we are laser focused on one particular use-case, and on making it work every time with no hassle: You have a customer on the phone. You need to show them something. CrankWheel makes that happen in 10 seconds or less, regardless of whether the user has a computer, a tablet, or a smartphone, regardless of how outdated their browser is, regardless of whether the customer is a computer wizard or computer illiterate, and regardless of whether they are connecting over fiber optic cable or a 2G mobile connection. They never need to download anything, or do anything more complicated than point and click. The service agent is never in doubt that the customer is seeing exactly what they want them to see. We believe the whole thing has to “just work”, not just 99 times out of a hundred, but better than 999 times out of 1000, and we’re confident that our solution achieves this goal.

That brings us to the other subject of this blog post: Why we started CrankWheel in Iceland. It’s a fair question and the answer is not obvious. I have a significant network in both Montréal (in Québec, Canada) and in California’s Silicon Valley, both of which are great places to start technology companies, and it would have been financially feasible to move to either place and start there.

First off, there is the obvious inertia of moving away from family and friends. Both Þorgils and I have kids, and the kids’ school and friends and lives are here. But even if this had not been the case, I think it’s very likely we would still have started here.

It’s very easy for us to get started in Iceland. We both have strong networks here, and there are several Icelandic companies that have been extremely willing to act as beta customers and to run structured trials of our solution so that they can give us measurable testimonials, e.g., how much sales improved, how much customer service phone calls were shortened, how customer satisfaction improved, and so forth. Although the Icelandic market is not going to be a significant focus going forward, it’s great to have friendly and willing world-class companies almost literally next door that are happy to let us learn from their use of the first versions of our product, before we enter our growth phase and start focusing almost all our efforts on larger markets.

Starting in one of the world’s technology hot-spots can be very expensive compared to Iceland. Just look at the cost of living in Silicon Valley, or London, or New York, and it’s obvious. In the past 5-6 years, the typical size of a Seed investment round in the US has more than doubled and is now in the 1.5 million USD ballpark, and in Silicon Valley, that kind of money typically only lasts a startup 12-18 months, and that’s assuming a very small team. In Iceland, investors’ money will last considerably longer, and the time needed to reach break-even is shorter, since you will need less revenues to cover the expenses of a given size of team.

Finally, the talent pool in Iceland is really good. It’s small, but in my opinion the average quality of the people you need to build a product, e.g., programmers, designers and such, is very high compared to what I’ve experienced abroad. At some point I hope CrankWheel will have grown enough that it will start to become difficult for us to hire people with the right skill set in Iceland, but until then, this is a great place to grow our team.

There can be disadvantages to starting in Iceland, or any place that is small and far away from your future market area, but the magnitude of these disadvantages will depend quite a bit on the business model you choose. CrankWheel is a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solution, meaning it is a hosted solution and the kind of deep integrations and long sales cycles that are typical for enterprise software solutions are unnecessary. For a globally focused enterprise software company, starting in Iceland could be a significant disadvantage since most of your customers are far away, and you have a considerable need to visit them in person. For a SaaS company, there is much less need to meet in person, which reduces this disadvantage considerably. For our company in particular, that likes to use its own product to further reduce the need for meeting in person, this disadvantage becomes even smaller.

I hope I’ve given some insight into why I fell in love with CrankWheel, and why I’m excited to build CrankWheel in Iceland. I’m happy to continue the conversation on Twitter at either @joisig or @CrankWheel, or on CrankWheel’s Facebook page.

Shameless plug: CrankWheel is hiring! Check our Facebook page for links to listings.

I’d like to end by giving a shout-out to Bala. Thank you Bala, for the opportunity to guest blog, and thanks for everything you’ve done for the Icelandic startup community! I look forward to attending the Startup Iceland conference in just a couple of weeks, and I encourage everyone connected to the Icelandic startup scene to attend – it’s the premier event for our community.


The above was first published on the Startup Iceland blog on May 11 2015.

Introducing CrankWheel

This part of your bike is called a crankwheel. Without it, your bike would suck.
This part of your bike is called a crankwheel. Without it, your bike would suck.

I’m finally ready to blog about my startup, that I’m now working on full-time after developing it since last fall with my co-founder Þorgils (I’m the technologist, he’s the sales wizard). Our tagline is “CrankWheel: Power your Sales and Service,” we’re on Facebook and Twitter and you can sign up at http://www.crankwheel.com/ to get news (and a special offer) when we launch, which should be this summer.

In a nutshell, CrankWheel allows a customer service agent, a sales person, or anybody else who might have a customer or colleague on the phone, to enhance the phone call with the ability to communicate visually, as if you were sitting side by side in front of a computer screen, in ten seconds flat.

Why didn’t I blog about CrankWheel sooner? The truth is, I’ve been through the typical Valley of Doubt with this project.

It’s a trail that starts in the hills of “This is the Best Idea Ever,” meanders down to an outcrop called “Oh look, there’s competition doing something slightly similar but nowhere near as good” and further down to the still-happy foothills of “This will be hard but worth it.”

After an enjoyable start, the trail keeps descending into the Valley of Doubt, and just as it starts to rain, you hit the dense forest of “Ouch, we just found a lot more competition.” As a thunderstorm of the soul sets in, you end up at the bottom of the valley in the marsh of “I’ve just wasted months of my life with nothing to show for it!”

Luckily, in my case, I made it through to the green pasture of “Every customer we speak to wants our solution” just as the weather started to improve, up the knoll of “I’m sure there’s a better way” and after that, step by step up out of the valley until I’m now standing on a plateau called “Time to commit very publicly.” Hence this blog post.

Now that I’m on the other side of the Valley, I’m strongly convinced that we’ve figured out a much better way to solve the problem at hand than anything that’s out there today.

I made it through to the other side thanks to questions such as these:

  • Why would you ever force your customer to install software or an app on their computing device, just so you can show them something?
  • Why should you ever live in doubt about whether your customer is seeing exactly what you think you’re showing them?
  • Why should it take more than a couple of steps, ten seconds at most, to see something being shown to you? Why should you have to remember and type in ten-digit conference room codes?
  • Why should you be forced to care about what kind of network connection you’re using, or what browser version you have, or whether you’re using a tablet or a smartphone or a desktop computer, when what’s happening is something so simple to do in real life? Just to be shown something?

Those questions gave rise to CrankWheel. In ten seconds or less, your customer will see exactly what you want them to see, no need to worry about what kind of device or which browser they have, no need to install software on their end, and it’s extremely easy to join a presentation. It just works, every time.

I think CrankWheel will make the world a better place through happier customers, a more personal touch, and less need to burn gasoline while driving to places to receive the kind of service that can’t be delivered over the phone alone.

To give a hint about CrankWheel’s “secret sauce,” I’ll mention that the last project I worked on at Google was WebRTC. It’s great technology that makes an excellent foundation for a product such as CrankWheel, but it’s also very new technology, supported by only a handful of browsers, which on the face of things conflicts with some of CrankWheel’s main goals. I’ll leave it at that for now – more later.

Right now, Þorgils and I are finalising the lineup of our first several customers, one in each of a few different industries, all of them willing to run scientific trials with us to see how much CrankWheel increases sales, shortens support calls, increases customer satisfaction, etc.

We are also ready to hire employee number one, based in our Reykjavík office. The ideal candidate is a rockstar programmer interested in web technologies and real-time communications. Don’t hesitate to get in touch with me if you are one or you know one. I promise, this will be fun!

I really look forward to being able to show and tell you more about CrankWheel in the coming months, both here and on the yet-to-launch CrankWheel blog, as well as by email if you sign up at http://www.crankwheel.com/.

In the meantime, I’ll keep pedalling.

Why I left Google

Make like a tree and leave

When I decided to leave Google a few months ago, I was asked all the questions you might reasonably expect people to ask. “Isn’t it a fantastic place to work? Couldn’t you just switch projects to something really exciting like self-driving cars? Don’t they pay really well? Are you sure you still know how to fend for yourself after all of the free food? I’d cut off a leg if it meant getting a job at Google, what’s wrong with you?” And so on.

Since this blog is supposed to document my post-employment adventures, I guess it makes sense to start at the beginning: Why I left Google, and why I’m not planning to be an employee again for the foreseeable future.

Was it because I no longer liked the project I was working on? No. My last project was Google Chrome. It’s a pretty fantastic project, I’m a fan of the product, I was working with a lot of incredibly great people, and it was, for a long time, an incredible learning experience to be part of such a massive engineering undertaking (last month, over 600 user accounts made code changes), witness the problems you start having at very large scale, and participate in fixing them. To be honest though, I enjoyed myself quite a bit more when I worked on much smaller teams that owned an entire product end to end, such as the Google Desktop team that was never more than about 18 or so engineers and about 30 people in total, yet produced and supported a product used by tens of millions of users every week.

Was it because, for the last three years of my nine and a half years at Google, I was working remotely from Iceland? Not really. The Chrome project is a fantastic project for working remotely, because its culture fosters contribution from teams and individuals all over the world. I traveled a fair amount, enough to see the core team in California quite regularly, but not so much that it became a drag. If I’m being honest though, I think I might have stayed at Google for a bit longer if I’d been working from Google HQ in Mountain View, California. There is just so much Kool-Aid to drink there.

Was it because I felt like I was no longer learning new things and growing in my role at Google as fast as before? Maybe a little bit. For my last couple of years there, I started feeling that maybe Google wasn’t the place where I was going to do the best work of the rest of my life. But that wasn’t the only reason. If it had been, it would have been quite easy to let things slide, stay in the cushy job, maybe switch projects to something where I could learn a bit more.

I think there are two separate reasons I decided to leave. One is that I have unfinished business, and the other is that I want to be the master of my own destiny to the largest extent possible. Let’s start with the latter.

I went through two different project cancellations at Google, of projects that I was leading at the time of cancellation. One of them I led from its inception, the other I had taken over about a year prior. Both of these projects were innovative, risky, and were significantly affected by outside forces – competition and a shifting technology landscape – and were cancelled because Google didn’t want to invest more in the face of those outside forces.

I believe the best work of the rest of my life will also involve risky projects.

When you do a risky project at a big company, there will always be a decision maker somewhere above you with the authority to pull the plug, regardless of how much you are willing to fight for the project, make the case, and pledge your blood, sweat and tears to make things work. To make matters worse, when the plug is pulled, the project might completely disappear from the face of the earth.

When you do a risky project as an entrepreneur and things are not quite going your way, your investors might get spooked, you might have to pivot, pull all-nighters, scale down your company, fire some of your best friends, pull favors, piss people off, and generally do incredibly difficult things. However, your ability to figure out ways to continue the project if you still believe in it is much greater. Worst case, you can probably open-source some work that could prove useful to others.

There are other ways to get to finish risky projects, you might say. Go into academia, or join a research department somewhere. You might not get to build full products but you’ll generally be able to find ways to keep researching whatever you’re interested in. This is where my unfinished business comes in.

Before Google, my career in software was exclusively at startups. I was an early employee at Iceland’s first Internet startup, I co-founded a spin-off from that company, co-founded another company on the side that I ended up not joining full-time, and was an early employee at another couple of startups before joining Google. But I never had full responsibility for any of these companies, and I didn’t see any of them through to successful exit or profitability. That said, a few of them did enjoy significant success, ranging from moderate to Icelandic-entrepreneurship-landscape-changing.

Bottom line: I have the bug. I need to build my own company. I have a lot of useful experience that I can build on.

I might be crazy. The statistical track record of entrepreneurship says that I probably am.

But hell, here goes nothing.