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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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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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.

Continue reading “I’m leaving Microsoft after 9 years. This is what I learned.”

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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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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Nintendo Labo: Thinking outside the box (or with the box?)

When Nintendo released the Switch last year I was very surprised by what they had been able to achieve, take the gaming industry on a spin (again). Once again they proved that they can innovate in a crowded space with deep pocket rivals. They were able to achieve something fun, flexible and that meets our new lifestyle not by thinking of specs but thinking of use cases. They understand people still want to play but they don’t do it just in a living room, so they would meet them where they are by providing play flexibility (great article about that here). Now, with Labo they have done something I consider priceless: enable kids to imagine, play and dream by connecting both the physical world and the digital one.

I have to be honest, I did not buy the Switch right away and when I did I played it and then returned it. Sometimes there is a price for innovation. To me, the Switch has two big drawbacks. First it is the lack of games. I could care less for Zelda (yeah yeah hate me) and some of the other games are just “meh”. However, it was the release of Mario Odyssey that finally made me get it. I loved it, it was fun, I could play at home and take it with me. I bought my Switch just before my holiday trip and took it on the road with me. This meant playing with the Joy-Cons inserted to make a huge Gameboy. I’m a big guy and I am very jumpy and move around when playing. Towards the end of the trip my Switch started to break. My gameplay would stop every minute because they would get disconnected (guess I can’t be that excited while playing). Turned out that the price to pay for the hardware flexibility was ruggedness. So when it was time to return, I could exchange or return and decided for the former due to lack of games.

I thought that would be the end of my Switch journey but this week Nintendo announced Labo. Nintendo has always been great at thinking outside the box. Some of these product work (Wii, Amiibos) and some don’t (VirtualBoy, Wii U) and that is the price to pay to try new things. What amazes me is Nintendo’s relentless pursuit of not thinking about what is the next big technology push they can do, but how to enable new ways to bring playfulness into our lives.

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Would you give up your privacy for unlimited movies? interview with René Sánchez from CineSinFronteras.com

MoviePass is a subscription-based service that allows users to watch almost any movie in theaters for a flat monthly rate. In August, the company announced a surprisingly low price of $9.95, leaving many scratching their heads. I interviewed René Sánchez, cinema expert and movie critic at CineSinFronteras.com, and we discussed the privacy implications and the potential impact to the online streaming industry.

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Even though I’ve been using it for a month already, it still feels too good to be true. Were you surprised by the MoviePass announcement?

Yes, I was surprised by their announcement to reduce the monthly subscription price to just $9.95. It is such an amazing deal, especially when you consider that a regular, 2D movie here in the Seattle metro area costs between $12-15. So even if you only watch one movie every month, you will be saving some dollars with MoviePass! What shocked me the most was to know that the major exhibitors and theater chains were onboard with this change. I expected a lot of pushback from them, considering their old-school ways to operate. So far, only AMC has tried (and failed) to restrict the use of MoviePass in their theaters.

What’s the problem that MoviePass is trying to solve?

People don’t go to the movie theaters anymore. Studios and exhibitors keep blaming Netflix and other rival streaming platforms for their audience loss, instead of recognizing the real root cause: the movie-going experience has become very expensive and obsolete. Ticket prices rise every year (the same goes for concessions), studios keep releasing sequels and remakes no one asked for, and most multiplexes scream for renovations (uncomfortable seats, run-down interiors, and poor image and sound quality). To top it off, patrons can sometimes be rude and annoying.

Again, it’s really not Netflix’s fault that people want to stay at home, rather than going out to watch a movie. Who wants to pay more than $60 (including tickets, food and parking/Uber) to enjoy a mediocre movie in a rickety auditorium, while everyone else is either talking or staring at their phones?

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Visiting the Oculus office in Seattle: is augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) the future of user interfaces?

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of visiting the Oculus Seattle office for a private tour, some cool demos and a very interesting conversation. During the whole visit, a question kept popping up in my mind: will augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) ever become the standard way of interacting with our desktop or mobile devices?

User interfaces have evolved over the years in very significant ways: we moved from punched cards to command-line interfaces, and from there to graphical interfaces, which ended up evolving into what we know today, mouse, keyboard and touch. With recent advances in artificial intelligence, we are beginning to transition into conversational interfaces, where we can use natural language to get things done, sometimes even without touching a button or reading a line of text.

Is the future of user interfaces an (almost) invisible one? In many cases, yes, just watch the 2014 movie Her to see a glimpse of where we will be in a few years (minus the “falling in love” part):

However, for many other tasks we will still need to read, type, touch and draw. This doesn’t mean that we will be tied forever to a screen, and here’s where VR and AR come in.

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About the iPhone X notch controversy

The iPhone X was already controversial even before it was officially introduced last Tuesday, mostly due to the rumored removal of Touch ID in favor of Face ID.

However, Apple’s presentation caused a new controversy: the infamous notch. Even though the array of cameras and sensors got leaked long before the event, nobody knew how Apple was planning to do in order to integrate it with iOS 11. We have the answer now: Apple is so proud of that black bar that they decided to render the user interface around it.

Since Apple controls the operating system, they made sure it looks good with most 1st party apps. But what happens with 3rd party content like a website? The notch gets in the way. Continue reading “About the iPhone X notch controversy”