Energy and stuff

My plan:

Maximize contribution to mitigation of global warming and liquid fuels scarcity, consistent with personal and family happiness, while pursuing agricultural and musical interests to indulge romantic longings and atavistic tendencies, and as a hedge against hard times.

Notes on startup culture:

The following is a braindump in mostly random order of thoughts on how to set up a startup company, based on my own experience and conversations with friends.

  • Don’t grow too big too fast
    • The primary failure mode is that your company gets too big and expensive for the maturity and value of its technology.
    • You will be in a much better position if you maintain control of costs and keep focus until the core technology works
  • You need a very good idea, but you don’t need the absolute best idea. In many cases you’re better off with 3rd best idea and best execution, than with 1st best idea and average execution. (The average attempt at execution of a good idea fails.)
  • Don’t get distracted – focus on the key technical goal, or a couple of goals with important threads connecting them. Don’t try to dominate or even play in everything instantly.
    • Don’t try to reinvent everything.¬† Buy or modify available equipment rather than launching some interesting tangential development
  • Project confidence but maintain a balance of humility internally
    • The actuaries your funders employ believe you have a 10% chance of success. You must navigate a tricky balance between optimism and reality.
  • Encourage a culture of openness, challenge to the status quo, and technical fluidity
    • Very few companies will end up with exactly the same market, product, and technology that the founders first envisioned
    • Statistically speaking, in any team worth working with, your (or my) personal idea will only be the best one a small fraction of the time
    • Solid technical data and the laws of physics trump founder status, number of degrees, org-chart seniority, etc.
  • Pay close attention to culture and the tone of personal interaction
    • The thorniest problems are not technical but interpersonal
    • The smartest people are not the richest nor the happiest
  • Take advantage of modern communication technology – Including digital photos and video, wikis, IM, videoconferencing, etc.
    • Also take advantage of old-fashioned isolation – encourage people to turn off the distraction gadgets and think for extended periods
  • Invest in the cool equipment that excites dedicated hardware people
    • Nothing substitutes for the opportunity to build physical intuition about the key technical aspects
    • Err on the side of bringing in specialized equipment rather than always sending out, if it will help people get their hands dirty
    • Have a respectable machine shop, basically whether you need one or not
    • Good computers are cheap
  • Don’t blow a lot of money on gratuitous ostentation – like catered food every week. Good quality pizza and beer will do the job. Know your place – you are a fragile entity with a 10% chance of becoming fabulously wealthy, and a 90% chance of running out of money – and act accordingly.
  • Recruit the absolute best people you know
    • Development at the bleeding edge requires top-notch people with incisive vision and a canny intuitive sense for technology
    • Talented, dedicated people are orders of magnitude more important to success than policies and procedures
    • These people will not be browsing monster.com
  • Pay well and provide good benefits, but don’t try to buy people. Inspire with solid technology and infectious enthusiasm.
  • Maximize internalization of goals and principles by team members; minimize rules, policies and procedures
  • Keep the structure flat, and make sure everyone feels comfortable speaking to anyone, for as long as possible
  • Know the competition, and understand why they believe in their technology – many are hopeless clowns, but some are just as smart as you are, or smarter

One Response to “Energy and stuff”

  1. Jason Says:

    Ben,

    Hey, what a gift it was to find your site. Especially this page… I can’t help my curiosity – clearly this can’t have come from startup-farming? You either retired from some other technical career (hopefully you cashed-in!) or that machine shop is not just making cider presses. This series of statements about running a startup reads like you were/are in the thick of it. I’ve been reading for an hour and I haven’t found the clue to what that was, yet.

    I’ve struggled with the details of running a small business, and continue to do so. It’s a breath of fresh air to read another’s thoughts about how to do that well.

    Anyway, my real reason for finding you is that cider mill and press. I’d already begun hacking my web-bought hand-crank press apart and thinking about how to hook up that old stump-jumper and add a flywheel, when I sat down to see if anyone else had tried the same. Glad I did! I never considered a crusher to follow the grinder. Poverty lane produces a fine mash, and I figured I’d leave that level of mastication to them, but now I think I might try your design.

    I have a machinist who’s made us lots of stuff – capstans pullies, etc. – they built their own CNC lathes (x3) that are something to behold. So: would you try to machine the involute? Or, is the cog-tooth adequate? It looks like it may be, and the complexity of cutting such a large pair of involute gears is daunting.

    Further: I use a surface-modeler (MultiSurf from AeroHydro) but my bro uses SolidWorks. Any chance you would license your designs and send parts/assemblies? We could probably re-invent this stuff, but your efforts have clearly made great progress, and if you’re willing that could be more fun.

    Finally: lots to tell! A friend and I carboyed and fermented about 65 gallons of cider this fall/winter. We’ve bottled about half of it. Results are all over the map – it’s our first try, and we’re learning. He comes from a background in wine-making, so he knew what to expect. Very fun, and we’re both fired-up to grow the operation.

    Regards from the outskirts of the UV,

    Jason L.

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