Three Reasons to Love NY (and How They Inspire Us at General Assembly)

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“Despite the crush and the noise, I never tire of plunging into the crowd. I love the crowd as I love the sea. Not to be engulfed or lost in it, but to sail on it like a solitary pirate, content to be carried by the current, yet strike out on my own the moment it breaks or dissipates. Like the sea, a crowd is invigorating to my wandering mind. Almost all my ideas come to me in the street, even those related to my work.”

— Frédéric, from Eric Rohmer’s Love in the Afternoon

Reason No 1:  SERENDIPITOUS ENCOUNTERS

I was standing in line the other morning waiting to order my latte, when loud squeals exploded behind me, interrupting my pre-caffeine haze. I couldn’t help but smile when I turned around to discover two young women in a heartfelt embrace. It was clear from their interaction that this encounter was an unplanned one, and long overdue.

It was a classic New York moment—one we, as inhabitants of this city, have the great fortune of observing on a daily basis far more frequently than those who elect to live elsewhere. It’s a constant reminder of the extent to which this city is defined by serendipity, by happenstance, by the certainty of crossing paths with those from our past, present, and future. Much of this can be attributed simply to the city’s density, diversity, and scale (as deftly articulated by Steven Johnson); much of this is likely the by-product of its pedestrian nature; and much of this is undoubtedly due to the fact that New York functions as the Main Street of the world, attracting natives and transients alike. We live in a city perpetually in flux—where the only constant is the lack of constants, where the cast of characters changes every day, and possibility lies dormant around every corner.

In early days, when General Assembly was a nascent idea, we talked about this notion of alchemy—of the inevitable magic that happens when you take a group of bright, impassioned people from a diverse set of backgrounds and put them in a room together. Having spent the prior three and a half years at IDEO, I was electrified by the rich dialogue and exchange of ideas that occurred on a daily basis among our interdisciplinary project teams, and was eager to see these types of interactions play out organically among a community of people with individualized agendas but with overlapping interests in technology, design, and entrepreneurship.

Our name, General Assembly, was inspired by the models set forth by schools (a community of learners), factories (a community of makers), and legislative bodies (a community of self-governing people). We worked with Andrea Steele, an architect well-versed in campus design, to design a spatial program that centers around a communal gathering area that we hope will become our campus green, our town square, our Main Street—encouraging the types of fortuitous introductions and cross-pollinating behaviors that enrich our lives and forge new paths ahead.

 

Reason No. 2: COURTSHIPS IN MOTION

Like those rare and fleeting moments when the local and express trains move in slow synchronicity through the city’s subterranean depths, New York perpetually offers us glimpses of lives beyond our own, but ones seemingly within grasp. It’s inevitable that at some point during our time here we will find ourselves musing: this could be my future apartment, one day I could have a solo show, he/she could be my future husband/wife, oh please please please let me get this cab.

Within the first few months of moving to New York as a fresh faced 21 year old, I realized why this city aroused such impassioned allegiance among its inhabitants. At the time, I was sharing a claustrophobic apartment in the area now known as NoMad, two doors down from a particularly rowdy (but friendly) brothel of transvestite prostitutes. Every month, I would eagerly fork over half of my meager monthly earnings to pay my rent—all while feeling incredibly grateful for the opportunity to be here at all. Imagined or real, I felt an instant camaraderie with those around me—they, too, were willing to forgo the pleasures of backyard gardens and flush savings accounts for the chance to pursue a greater goal. It occurred to me that sacrifice seemed to inspire both passion and will—the more we invested, the greater our resolve, the more staunchly we defended our decisions. How else might we rationalize denying ourselves the comforts of a more civilized existence for a shot at a dream with unfavorable odds? Similarly, how else might we explain the conviction of the sleepless entrepreneur?

The dehumanizing mechanics of this city do much to attract a self-selecting population. By nature, New York transplants are voyeuristic, opting for connection and broader exposure over a more controlled, hermetic existence. We are buoyed and enlivened by the success of others—especially those with whom we feel a certain kinship or whose lot in life most closely resembles our own. At General Assembly, we’ve invited some of the city’s most inspiring startups to join our inaugural class. Our hope is that they might benefit from a empathic relationship with like-minded individuals on a parallel track—fellow travelers on another train, hoping to arrive at the same destination.

 

Reason No. 3: LAUNDRY ROOM RECIPROCITY

A few weeks after moving into my current apartment, I braved a visit to the laundry room. It was your typical tenement building laundry room—underground, overheated, and smelling strongly of Tide®. But by far, the best feature was that the table opposite the washers clearly functioned as much more than a folding surface. It had been designated as the building’s barter site—the unofficial marketplace for the free exchange of goods between tenants. On this particular night, I discovered a stack of three books: a textbook on financial risk management, another on econometrics, and The Giant Book of Tofu Cooking. In the end I claimed the cookbook, but left the others to find a more deserving home.

The mechanisms for how knowledge sharing occurs within any community, organization, or institution are as varied as our individual preferences and aptitudes for learning. For some, a wall of books is as tempting as an aromatic bowl of Tofu Stroganoff waiting to be consumed. For others, the best resources are easily sorted, searched, and transported. For others yet, their best learning occurs within the context of a classroom where they’re freed from life’s daily distractions. And lastly, some prefer tacit learning experiences—through observation and discussion, hands-on application, internalization and reflection.

At General Assembly, our aim is to design educational programming that establishes a reciprocal relationship between the wealth of talent, experience, and expertise that exists within these walls and the community at large. We ask our members to submit blog posts or teach classes on a regular basis and are also establishing partnerships with leading academics and thought leaders to offer a comprehensive curriculum within the domain of technology, design, and entrepreneurship. Lastly, we’re hoping to assemble both an online resource and a physical library that helps to aggregate the vast range of content shared. Our hope is that from this emerges a collective brain larger than the sum of its parts—one that inspires a new type of discourse and creation reflective of the changing world in which we live.

Why Entrepreneurs Need to Stop Making “Brand” a Dirty Word

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Brand is a dirty word to many entrepreneurs, but their skepticism comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of what brand is.

Brand is a lot more than just your name, logo or visual identity.

A strong brand should crisply encapsulate the role your organization plays in the world, and it should act as a filter to guide your business decisions. While a clever name and logo can set you apart from some competitors, a strong brand is what gets you your funding, builds your engaged community of users, and creates a focused vision for the future.

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Startup Marketing: You’re Doing it Wrong

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You don’t need to hire a “marketing guru” (in fact, you should probably avoid hiring people who refer to themselves that way) or amass a substantial marketing budget to get people to use your product–there are lots of free strategies out there. Still, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you’re doing it right–here are a few pitfalls to avoid:

Mistake 1:

CEO: I need 500 Twitter followers by the end of Q3. Procure these for me plzthxbye.

Marketer: Um, why 500? And how is having those followers going to help us get more users?

CEO: I just want more followers.

Marketer: /facepalm

Twitter followers don’t necessarily help your company just because they’re there. You could have 500 followers who are ALL spambots, and that would be worthless. On the other hand, you could have 250 followers who each engage heavily with your content, click on the links you post, and buy your products. Yes, there can be perceived brand value associated with a lot of followers, but spending a lot of resources to gain perceived brand value is a risky proposition early on.

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On Learning to Code, pt. 3: Resources to Teach You Rails in a Month

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Since I find the process of memorizing by looking at the same material over and over again extremely tedious, I’ve developed my own method, which involves finding a handful of introductory classes online and speeding through them really quickly. When I was in college, I used to download podcasts of the same courses I was taking but at different universities, like Berkeley or Stanford. Then I’d listen to the podcasts while I was on the subway or walking around. It turned out that my approach eliminated hours of studying I would have had to do otherwise, and teachers love it when you’re able to bring in a unique perspective that wasn’t covered in class.

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On Learning to Code, pt. 2: Choosing a Programming Language

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Not knowing much about coding makes it especially scary to jump right in. You’ve probably heard just enough about all the different programming languages–C++, PHP, Java, Python, Ruby, etc.–to have no idea where to start.

The truth is, most of these languages can do the same thing. They’re just different ways of doing it. Yes, there are some exceptions, but you don’t really need to know about those when you’re starting out. So which language should you learn?

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On Learning to Code, pt. 1

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I want to write about a topic that I think will benefit a lot of people: learning how to code. When I first quit my job to start my own company, all I had was an idea. The goal at that point was to find someone with a technical background to actually execute my idea. I suspect that many of you are in similar situations. There’s something you should know: it’s never going to happen.

Demand for developers has skyrocketed to unprecedented levels. Think about it. Anyone with any aspirations in the tech scene is starting their own company right now. Each of those startups needs its own lead developer (not to mention that companies like Facebook and Google are sucking up thousands of talented developers).

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Managing Excellence at Your Startup

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Basic management techniques don’t sound fun, but can exponentially increase employee efficiency and satisfaction at your startup. To make your product or service world class, a culture of excellence must be ingrained at every level. Check out our upcoming class on Managing Excellence at Your Startup.

A lifetime ago in a galaxy far, far away my cofounder Michael came to me and gave me an intervention. We had a problem, he said, employees were unhappy. People were getting burned out and there was an increasing rate of attrition. “What do you want from me?” I replied exasperated, as our conversation became heated. But he didn’t have any answer, outside of seeing the symptoms of something deeply wrong.

As our most important conversations typically go, I eventually got over my wounded ego and realized that he had a key insight here. The things he mentioned were serious and indicative of a lack of leadership that was caused as much by the things we weren’t doing as were doing. We had created the startup equivalent of Lord of the Flies, complete with new employees getting thrown into a foreign environment they are completely unequipped to survive in and then getting bashed in the head with a rock. We the founders had operated the company with little direct management for years, under the pretense that we were empowering employees by letting them work on things they wanted to do. In reality, we were often stepping back just enough to been seen out of the eye’s periphery, often to jump in without warning when things weren’t following unsaid directions. Anyone who has experienced this before knows that it is liable to make you a bit twitchy.

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Business Development for Consumer Web Startups: Growth Strategies from About.me

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As part of a series on business development for startups, I sat down last Wednesday with Ryan Fujiu, who leads business development and marketing for About.me. About.me allows users to create a simple splash page that links together their profiles across all the major social networks. The service was launched in 2010, and acquired by AOL shortly thereafter.

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A Story About Learning

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Last fall General Assembly was little more than an idea and a concrete floor. We held tours of the nascent construction site on a nearly hourly basis for designers, entrepreneurs, and technologists, dodging aluminum beams and stray wires. The tours weren’t about showing off—they were about learning. Specifically, they were about learning how to build the best possible experience for the community of entrepreneurs we were going to serve by gathering feedback and iterating on our plans.

Today, that construction site is a classroom, a lounge, a library, seminar rooms, and work areas. General Assembly is home not only to that initial community of entrepreneurs who toured the space many months ago, but to classes, hackathons, workshops, and the occasional serendipitous encounter.

That fall I was one of four entrepreneurs who signed a lease for approximately 20,000 square feet at 20th and Broadway. With partners Adam Pritzker, Jake Schwartz, and Matthew Brimer, we strived to meet the needs of a booming New York technology and design community with a new kind of collaborative environment. Over the past year, General Assembly has become a campus for technology, design, and entrepreneurship and a social education experience for developers, designers, entrepreneurs, dreamers, and those simply wanting to learn.

We’ve grown tremendously since our launch last January, responding to community feedback and launching new classes and workshops in topics ranging from user experience design to social marketing to network security. We’ve been learning what works and what doesn’t, how to build a vibrant community, and how we can best support the technology ecosystem in New York. And we’ve been learning how to offer awesome classes that not only provide our students with new skills, but open opportunities for them to build their startup’s alpha product, level up at work, or land a better job. As we’ve grown, General Assembly has developed classes that are at once social, application-focused, outcome-oriented, and taught by top practitioners. Developing this framework is key to delivering the outcomes our students want: meaningful education in core skills and best practices in technology, design, and entrepreneurship.

At the same time, the community has continued to grow and is asking for more classes, workshops, and even longer and more rigorous programs. When we launched our first certification program—Front-end Web Development—a few weeks ago, we received over 100 applications for only fifteen available spots. Demand for this kind of education has clearly outstripped supply. And we want to answer the call.

To that end, we have raised $4.25 million from a group of investors led by Maveron and including Jeff Bezos, Yuri Milner, Tom Vander Ark, Alexis Ohanian, Hosain Rahman, and Alex Asseily. Maveron is a best-in-class education investor. Our new board member Amy Errett has deep experience in both education and consumer retail businesses. Amy sits on the board of three other education companies we admire, including Livemocha, Lattimer Education, and Altius Education. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, has unparalleled experience building massive and successful online businesses. Yuri Milner of Digital Sky Technologies brings an international perspective, one wrought from a diverse portfolio of technology investments spanning the globe. Tom Vander Ark is the Managing Partner at Learn Capital, was the President of the X-Prize Foundation, and served as Executive Director for Education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for nearly a decade. Alexis Ohanian embodies the spirit of community at the core of our experience, and has scaled passionate communities including Reddit, Breadpig, and Hipmunk. And Hosain Rahman and Alex Asseily, who have worked alongside Yves Behar to build Jawbone, bring a unique perspective on product design to the group. Each partner brings something special to the table that will help as we grow our community and educational offering.

So will we open a bunch more campuses? Put all our classes online? Start training executives? We don’t know. Right now we’re singularly focused on continuing to create a great, meaningful experience at our New York campus. That said, we see the bigger picture: there is immense demand for social, application-driven education in technology, design, and entrepreneurship, and we’re committed to addressing this real need.

The past year has been an amazing climb, and we’re thrilled and honored to have the opportunity to take it to the next level.

A Founder’s Guide to Starting in 6 Weeks

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I met another young man today who is en route to a world class MBA program to fill in the gaps in his knowledge prior to starting his life in a startup. I gave him the same metaphor I have given droves of others. If you wanted to be a world-class cyclist and told me you were going to spend the next 2 years rock climbing in Nepal, I would advise that, sure, you would probably return in shape and with stronger lungs, but you would probably be a better cyclist if you spent the next 2 years cycling.

For some reason, many business guys have a Mr. Miyagi-style notion of doing something else full time for the sake of building skills prior to engaging in what you want to do directly. It worked in the Karate Kid, but it’s poor advice for entrepreneurs.

Today’s subject, who seemed quite smart, was at least interested in working at Profitably in an intern capacity for 6 weeks prior to school matriculation, but since he doesn’t write code and doesn’t sell, there wasn’t a lot we could put him on over given our stage in development (and so I told him, and I will be forwarding this post his way, so I am not trying to be rude).

Rather, I recommended he start his own company in 6 weeks instead. We talked through a concept he was batting around, which was actually quite sound, and I recommended setting specific milestones for no/no-go gate at the end of the 6 weeks. In that period of time, without writing a single line of code, he could:

  1. Launch a splash site
  2. Test out pen-and-paper mockups with real users from his target market
  3. Confirm if they would use or pay for what he was considering launching
  4. Get out in front of the other revenue streams and get letters of intent from key stakeholders in his ecosystem (his idea allowed for that, fortunately)
  5. Use a modest test budget to see if people would click on ads around his key messages

I thought I saw the spark in his eye, so I hope he follows through on this, but I realized that I have emailed a set of resources to a couple dozen bright-eyed folks just like him, so I figured I would consolidate that list once and for all so that I can just send people here.

And here it is, including the resources you need to validate a business concept with ridiculously little time and money. Please note: there are 3 steps, and they need to be followed IN PARALLEL, not in series. Start all 3 steps this afternoon:

The Ultimate 6 Week Startup Crash Course

Step 1: Get educated

Everyone’s got their favorite must-read list, but here’s mine:

  • Steve Blank’s Four Steps to the Epiphany (never leaves my bedside)
  • David Cohen’s and Brad Feld’s Do More Faster
  • Dave McClure’s Startup Metrics for Pirates
  • The Powerset Talent Essays
  • Dave Cancel’s Data Driven Startups
  • The Hubspot crew’s Inbound Marketing
  • The 37Signals crew’s Getting Real & Rework
  • David Skok’s SaaS Metrics
  • Tony’s Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness
  • Jessica Livingston’s Founders at Work

Just as importantly, you need to go read the key articles within and subscribe to the following blogs:

  • ANYTHING that’s big in your specific space (most importantly)
  • Fred Wilson of USV: avc.com
  • Chris Dixon: cdixon.org
  • Mark Suster: Both sides of the table
  • Eric Ries: Startup lessons learned
  • Paul Graham’s essays: paulgraham.com
  • Nivi and Naval at venturehacks
  • Jason Purtorti (designer from mint)
  • TechCrunch and VentureBeat (just to keep track of deals and launches)

Don’t just subscribe. Read through the “best of” lists and peruse archives as appropriate. You’ve got a lot to catch up on, so while we’re at it, follow these folks on twitter (and find out who they are talking to), get an iPad, and load up all this content onto the iPad. The collective knowledge all these folks are sharing is crazy. Follow their links serendipitously and soak it all up like a sponge. Build your list to share with others (and let me know what I missed!).

Step 2: Learn to write code

I have anecdotally heard business people objecting to the idea of learning to write code, as it’s supposedly a waste of their talent. Cute. If you’re going to start a software company, learn to write code. You’ll have a CTO who will write all the real code, but you need to know what models, views, and controllers are in the first place. You need to know the difference between a relational database, an OLAP cube, a document-oriented database, and a key-value store.

More awesome than all that, you definitely need to know how open source software works and how source control works, technically, culturally, and from an etiquette standpoint. The good news is that engineers are better than bankers, consultants, scientists, or any other adults when it comes to sharing and structuring knowledge in a distributed environment, all for free.

Try Dash, our free program that teaches you to make awesome websites by doing quick, fun projects in your browser.

Step 3: Validate your idea

We all agree that an idea and $3 buys you a cup of coffee at Starbucks. You don’t want to be ridiculed as a Winklevoss, so make peace straight away that your idea means nothing, but execution means everything. You don’t need startup capital, and you don’t need a coder. You need to find out if anyone cares about what you’re thinking about offering the world.

Hopefully all the reading I recommended above will give you a much more informed idea about how to do that, but since you’re starting each step at the same time (right?) you haven’t read all those books yet. So here’s a first week worth of to-dos: – Buy a domain and launch a splash site using WordPress You can find cheap hosting with 1-click non-technical install. Follow the instructions, and then search for a sexy theme that you dig out of the box (e.g. http://www.press75.com). Write some copy.

  • Don’t know where to start? That feeling isn’t going away—it gets profoundly worse.
  • Begin collecting email addresses on a landing page from people who want to use your service
  • Go to Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn, and create test budgets for ads that point to your landing page. See if people click on the ads and if they give you their email addresses. This is your first “conversion” data—enjoy the sweet delicious nectar of feedback!

Draw out full paper mockups of everything you have in your head, and put those drawings in front of people who will use your product. Ask if they would pay for the product. How often could they see themselves using it? Why WOULDN’T they use it? What would it have to do to get their attention? Don’t ask your friends. Ask your enemies. Presume they are being nice to you because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. They want what you’re offering, but they don’t want to sign up for your mailing list or alpha?! Bullshit. They hate your idea.

Go to a meetup related to your space and practice trying to convince a stranger to sign up for your email list with a couple mockups and a smile. Note: If you feel like getting cute, use Balsamiq. Or don’t. – If someone ELSE is going to pay you other than your users—and this is key—go talk to them. If you can’t get meetings with them in the next 6 weeks, what does that say? If you can, show them the mockups. Best case scenario, get letters of intent around pricing for whatever you’re planning to do. There’s nothing better when you need to explain to your mom and your girlfriend and your priest and your butcher that you’re not going to business school.

Once you know (on a preliminary basis) what people will pay, do some honest market sizing. If you’ve got something people will pay for, how many of them are there? If you multiply those two numbers and you’re north of $1B, you’ve got a fundable startup. Find other ways to qualify that number and calibrate it. Use Census Bureau data. Find other MBAs who have access to Hoovers, Capital IQ, Forrester, and Gartner, etc. You might even find a future intern. 😉

Two weeks in, sign up for 4-week trials to a dozen some-odd tools that help you kick ass all over the place. Steve Blank has a pretty good list, but definitely include KissMetrics and KissInsights, Google Analytics (free) and Apps (not as free), Tout and/or Mailchimp, SurveyMonkey, Dropbox, and whatever else applies to your space. (But don’t waste time on project management, planning, budgeting software or anything related to “scale.” You’re validating your idea, not building a business yet.)

Please refer to “I’m Going to Scale My Foot Up Your Ass” for more details.Learn by doing. I’m serious. Learn by doing. Then repeat.

Bottom line

At the end of the 6 weeks, if you have read until your eyes crossed, learned to write code, and validated that there is in fact a business there…and you still want to go to business school, you’re not an entrepreneur. At least you found out quickly and can spend your two years gearing up for a role at Amex, Bain, or JP Morgan rather than tilting at windmills.

And this is ok, by the way. My wife is a Harvard MBA and a successful consultant, and she’s amazing. The guy who introduced us is a Harvard MBA and a banker, and he’s ok anyway (wink). Amex, Bain, and JP Morgan are awesome. They just aren’t for entrepreneurs. It’s possible, though, at the end of the 6 weeks you’re going to feel the way most entrepreneurs feel, that there isn’t anywhere near enough time in the week to get done everything you need to get done, and you can’t imagine wasting another minute screwing around.

You’ve got 25 meetings already set up for next week, 10 meetups to check out, a dozen revisions to mockups you need to test out, Google Reader with a 1000+ article backlog, and an enormous market full of customers who are dying for what you’re going to bring them, god damn it.

Once you’re hooked, it’s over. And once you’re there, let’s meet for coffee again, and we can talk about who I can introduce you to so that you’re spending the following six weeks even better.

Get started learning more about business fundamentals with us:

Learn About Our Business Fundamentals & Tactics Course

Adam Neary founded Profitably after nearly a decade helping large organizations grow and improve profitability. As he says, “The patterns are so very similar across industries–we can automate this whole process and help so many small businesses do this.” Adam is a “data guy” at heart, at home with quantitative modeling and data management. He has cut his teeth with data optimization, normalization, and categorization algorithms and has written predictive algorithms for a variety of applications.