From 0 to 1M customers, a conversation with Y Combinator

Eric Migicovsky is a Partner at Y Combinator, one of the top of U.S. startup accelerators, and he was previously Founder and CEO at Pebble, the company that created the first commercially successful smartwatch. Last Friday, he was interviewed by Adora Cheung (another YC Partner) on being an entrepreneur at the intersection of hardware and software. Here you can read a summary of my five biggest takeaways.


Fast iterations can save you a lot of money

7 out of the first 10 smartwatches built and shipped at Pebble ended up exploding (as in, broke into pieces), and the company learned a ton about what caused the issue. This early finding prevented them from making hundreds of devices with the same problem.

 “We screwed up everything you could possibly screw up.”

Going from implementation to validation as fast as possible helps uncover issues that can be fatal if discovered in future iterations, when it might be impossible to recover due to lack of resources like time or money. Validating your product with real users is the ideal case, but you risk losing customers’ trust if a problem is not handled properly: if you ask your customers for their feedback, you better be ready to listen.

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Facebook forced me to use a password manager

Last week Facebook reported an important data breach that resulted in between 50 and 90 million accounts potentially compromised. This is more serious than the Cambridge Analytica issue reported earlier this year, because unlike that infamous case, this last breach provided attackers with access tokens for these accounts.

The access token enables someone to use the account as if they were the account holder themselves. This does mean they could access other third-party apps using Facebook login,” said Guy Rosen, Facebook’s Vice President of product. Imagine the following scenario then: someone shares on Facebook their favorite vacation spot from Airbnb, and the hackers use the stolen token to access his Airbnb account and get information about the rental properties that this user owns. Any site that relies on Facebook’s Single Sign-On, like Airbnb or Spotify to name a few, is affected by the data breach.

Even though it’s unclear if any of these accounts or access tokens were actually misused in any way (Facebook is still investigating), many security experts recommended affected users to reset their passwords as an added precaution measure. I was one of the affected users, and when I found myself struggling to define my new Facebook password (the 3rd one I’m forced to use in 2018), I knew it was time to stop using Facebook’s login and start using a password manager.

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How to revive a Pebble watch in 2018

I sold my 1st generation Apple Watch a few weeks ago. Since it was right before Apple’s event, I thought it would be fun to revive my Pebble watch and use it with my iPhone while I waited for the Series 4. The thing is, Pebble was acquired by Fitbit in 2016 and stopped giving support to these old devices earlier this year. After a bit of research, I discovered the light at the end of the tunnel; here’s how I brought a Pebble watch back to life in 2018.

In case you are not familiar, Pebble was a smartwatch launched with the biggest Kickstarter campaign in 2012, reaching $10.3 Million in a little over a month. The watch started shipping in early 2013 with a black and white memory LCD screen, which provided about a week of battery life.

Given the head start that Pebble enjoyed, a thriving ecosystem was created around the tiny device. In the 2 years before giants like the Apple Watch or the Samsung Gear started selling, more than 1000 apps and watch faces were available on the Pebble app store.

You might think that the Pebble had an odd design, but you could forget about charging it and there were a lot of cool apps: sleep tracker, fitness tracker, even a Domino’s Pizza tracker. Regardless, when Apple released their competitor in April 2015, the Pebble ended up stored in my closet, and it stayed there all these years… until now.

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Interview: can tech and education solve social inequality?

The tech industry has created millions of jobs and an unprecedented level of wealth. It allows people across the whole planet to solve a wide variety of problems and improve the communities around them. Coding is one of the most valuable skills of our time and students around the world are beginning to learn it earlier in their lives than ever before.

The problem? Education affordability, social and racial disparities and gender discrimination. Many kids in low income families have never touched a computer, never given the opportunity to learn computer science, or what’s worse, they don’t believe they can ever become software engineers, thinking of the job as something reserved for privileged people.

The good news is that there are a bunch of amazing engineers out there focused on mitigating these problems, and today I’m interviewing Fernando Sanchez, Software Engineering Manager at Microsoft and Co-Founder of ‘Geeking Out Kids of Color‘ (GOKiC), a nonprofit focused on empowering kids of color with education in computer science so they can use technology to help make a positive impact in their communities. His story is not only inspiring, but also one that I hope reaches any kid out there thinking that they are not allowed to be part of the tech industry.

How did you get started in tech and how did you prepare yourself to land a job at Microsoft?

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I’m leaving Microsoft after 9 years. This is what I learned.

I joined Microsoft right after college, and during these 9 years I’ve learnt a great deal about technology, the tech industry and about myself. I worked on several iterations of Windows and Bing, using a myriad of frameworks and languages. Nonetheless, the people who I worked with are the highlight of this almost-a-decade, and today I want to share the biggest takeaways I got from them.

Don’t be scared of the Kool-Aid

At Microsoft, the mission of empowering everyone on the planet to achieve more is a powerful motivator; at Google, saying someone is ‘googley’ is the equivalent of measuring them against a high bar; at Amazon, their leadership principles are frequently used as jargon in meetings or documents. You might be tempted to mock or dismiss these culture bits as stupid or superficial, but in reality, a strong culture can help propel the company forward, in a single direction.

Every company has a source of Kool-Aid, and “drinking” from it consciously can help you become a more engaged employee. Analyze the culture objectively, extract its benefits and internalize them. It will motivate you and your team.

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Unboxing Google’s 7 new principles on Artificial Intelligence

How many times have you heard that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is humanity’s biggest threat? Some people think that Google brought us a step closer to a dark future when Duplex was announced last month, a new capability of Google’s digital Assistant that enables it to make phone calls on your behalf to book appointments with small businesses. You can see it in action here:

The root of the controversy lied on the fact that the Assistant successfully pretended to be a real human, never disclosing its true identity to the other side of the call. Many tech experts wondered if this is an ethical practice or if it’s necessary to hide the digital nature of the voice.

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Fixing Facebook’s privacy problem

Facebook has been receiving criticism once again for how they handled users’ personal data. Here is a quick summary: in 2013, a 3rd party developer acquired large amounts of data from about 50 million users through an old platform capability (which was removed by Facebook itself one year later to prevent abuse); this data was then used to target US voters during the 2016 Presidential Election. The issue is complex in depth and it highlights a bigger underlying problem: users’ privacy expectations are not aligned with the commitment from most tech companies.

Zuckerberg said in a recent interview with Wired, “early on […] we had this very idealistic vision around how data portability would allow all these different new experiences, and I think the feedback that we’ve gotten from our community and from the world is that privacy and having the data locked down is more important to people.”

Regardless, Facebook never committed to fully lock down users’ data, and their business model was in fact built around the value that data can have for advertisers through interest relevance and demographic targeting. Google and Facebook accounted for 73% of all US digital ad revenue in the second quarter of FY18, up from 63% two years before.

I can nonetheless relate to that idealistic vision between privacy and technology. The more information the Google Assistant knows about the music I like, the better it can personalize my listening experience. Richer actions become available too, like allowing me to control the Nest thermostat or the lights by voice. At the end of the day, I’m trusting Google with my music taste and the devices installed in my house, and I get the benefit of convenience in return.

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4 lessons I learned losing money on Bitcoin

I looked at the “Buy Bitcoin” button and paused, was I ready to do it? had I read enough articles explaining what is blockchain? 2017 had just closed after an all-time high for cryptocurrencies, and according to many enthusiasts, it was just the beginning. I felt like I was missing out, so I pushed the button and sat back. I felt confident, but in reality, I had no idea what I was doing.

I passively consumed news about Bitcoin for years, but I never went deep enough to properly understand the technology behind it and its potential. Even though I followed the ultimate rule of “investing only what you can afford losing”, the truth is that I only began to comprehend blockchain technology after I already got my feet wet. I started losing money shortly after my first order completed, these are the 4 lessons I learned since then.

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1. A big Bitcoin dive can drag the rest of the crypto market with it

There is so much speculation around cryptocurrencies and so many people investing in them without having a clue, that a moment of panic can snowball into a sudden market crash. A Bitcoin crash can affect many investors’ confidence in other cryptocurrencies (or altcoins), dragging their price down as well.

Many altcoins are variants of Bitcoin with small code differences, making their prices change practically in parallel to Bitcoin’s.

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I experienced the future of retail: Amazon Go

The craziest thing I’ve seen is someone who came in dressed in a Pikachu costume,” said an Amazon employee while she handed me a promotional bag with the Amazon Go logo on one side and the text ‘good food fast’ on the other.

I arrived at the new store in downtown Seattle around 7:20 pm and was surprised to see the line of people still reached the end of the block. It had been a cold day in Seattle but that didn’t discourage the hundreds of people who came to see the ‘magical’ store on day 0. I didn’t use the term ‘magical’ lightly here: the experience was truly unique and it felt too good to be true. Amazon Go is probably the store with more sensors on the planet right now, and it is intimidating:

The ceiling of the Amazon Go store

Each of those boxes on the ceiling are cameras connected to deep learning algorithms that analyze every move you make: which aisle you walk through, what items you grab to read and then return to the shelf, what items you put in your pockets or bag… everything to ensure you only get charged for what you take home. But also, everything to ensure your shopping pattern is studied and well understood. Maybe not today, but it’s the inevitable next step and the ultimate dream for any retail store: to know what their customers like and the type of advertisements that will work best on them.

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Are you rude to your virtual assistant?

2017 has been the year of the smart speaker. Amazon’s Echo Dot and Google’s Home Mini are currently selling for around $30, which makes them a popular Christmas gift. Using an Artificial Intelligence (AI) has never been cheaper and it’s finally reaching critical mass.

Companies are investing on AI more than ever: natural language recognition still has to improve a lot, but the current algorithms are already impressive. My favorite example: it’s now possible to ask “how long would it take me to get to Starbucks on 15th Ave?” and get an accurate response with the right assumptions. What a time to be alive!

All of this progress comes with side effects: having to learn how to talk to a machine. Often, people start talking without the wake-up keyword, and sometimes they forget to check if the device is actually listening, getting confused when there is no response to their inquiry. Talking to a machine is not easy and usually, very unsatisfactory.

Perhaps that dissatisfaction is what makes us be less aware about our manners when addressing an AI. What would you think if someone interrupted you mid-sentence with a sudden “STOP”? What if someone kept giving you orders relentlessly, never pausing to thank you? That’s how most of us talk to AI’s like Alexa or Siri, never saying “please” or “thank you”.

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