freenerd

i'm johan. i do things with computers. i'm from berlin

/me & StartupBus NYC 2012

What is StartupBus?

It’s a bus driving cross country with strangers on board who start companies on the trip.

Actually it’s been 10 buses this year from New York, Washington DC, Boston, Florida, Mexico, Cincinnati, Louisiana, San Francisco and the Silicon Valley. They all drove three days to Austin, Texas for the South By Southwest Festival.

The people who board the bus are programmers, designers or business people. They mostly don’t know each other before, but certainly haven’t worked with each other closely. All have some sort of background in Startups and know their way around with starting things.

So this is how my experience was for the New York Bus: Boarding on Tuesday at 4am in the morning, after just some few hours of post-pre-party sleep. Rounds of intros and idea pitches. Teams are formed. The teams start to work on the idea by conceptualizing, building a MVP, researching the market and establishing connections to potential customers and business partners.

The buses went all day and arrived in a city in the evening where usually a pitch/networking event, often in combination with other buses, was held. Afterwards people booked into hotels for work or sleep until the buses left in the morning again.

After three days all buses converged in San Antonio and the teams then went to Austin to finish up their works. The conductors decided on which teams may pitch in the semi-finals. From there a jury decided on who advances to the finals the next day, where a winner was chosen.

What is StartupBus really?

It’s about the people, not the products. It’s about building a community. I think only a small fraction of all companies built will continue to live in any way. But I’m sure that a lot of the people participating will at a later point either found their own startup or at least work in one.

The competition is a huge driver for the teams and gives the conductors the opportunity to push the teams to their limits. Sometimes it left us with a shallow feeling when milestones where mostly only needed for the judges but had little real value, but you can always chose if you want to play along or not. It’s a game.

One of my major take-aways was pitching and ‘getting shit done’. From early on, a huge emphasis was put on the pitch. It forced us to limit scope and ‘get real’. Even though my team was eventually able to craft a really nice prototype, StartupBus is less about building something awesome, but more about conceptualizing it and thinking it through as well as how to build well-working team. Another good trait I practised was networking skills, walking up to people and try to figure out the value for each other as quick as possible (but not being creepy about it). Somehow this appears easier to me in the US, where very content focused encounters with little small talk are well accepted.

Things have to suck (a bit)

There were many things that sucked about StartupBus. I get motion sick quite bad. There weren’t enough power outlets in the bus. In general, there wasn’t enough space. Our windows became whiteboards. The floor became extra storage. Other people were constantly in the way. Even though we had a lot of Mifi mobile internet boxes, they don’t work well in the middle of nowhere and crappy internet is worse than no internet, because you sink a lot of time hoping it might work now. Sleep was never enough. The food on the road was bad.

The interesting thing is that I feel that all these things contributed to the experience. Especially in my team a “us against the world” feeling formed that led to high team cohesion. Also as everyone was pushed way out of their comfort zone, decision-making and overall communication were very effective. We spent less time on sensitivities and fears, but focused on making stuff happen instead. We stopped caring and started making.

Given that building a community is the overall goal, giving ways to distinguish your team, bus and StartupBus in general from the world seems to necessary, it enabled me to build strong bonds with the people involved but also I do share a common understanding with all the people I will meet in the future who went through the same procedure.

And now?

StartupBus got a lot of attention this year. For example check the articles in The Atlantic Wire and Bloomberg Business Week. Also there are more articles coming up, for example one in Time Magazine by an embedded journalist who rode in our bus. Harvard Business school also did research on entrepreneurship in the context of StartupBus. And I’m already excited for the class of next year. And one more thing: StartupBus is coming to Europe this year. It will be awesome. You should be on it!

Bonus: How did I get on the bus?

I heard about StartupBus about a month before the bus started. To be able to apply you have to be invited by an alumni and luckily i got help. I had a 15-minute Skype interview with Mike, the conductor of the New York bus, where I had to answer two questions: “Why do you want to get on the bus?” - “What was your most successful project”. I actually prepared that interview well and even hustled some testimonials from Dave, Eric and Henrik (thanks guys!). Some days later I was confirmed. To be on the bus every participant paid $300 which is a fair price looking at the overall calculation of having the buses run cross-country for several days. I arrived in New York some days before the bus departure and participated a bit in the pre-hackathon for setting up the StartupBus website and stock exchange game. The night before departure we had a small pre-party to get to know each other and then Boom, the fun started.

Update: Time Magazine posted a nice video about the trip …

Coming Up: @TheStartupBus and #SXSW

On the road. Tomorrow I will fly to New York and board the NYC StartupBus. It will be 3 days, 3000 kilometers and 30 ‘buspreneurs’ hacking and crafting on 3G internet on a bus driving cross country. We’ll eventually land in Austin on March 9th for the beginning of South By Southwest.

I’m very excited about the bus trip. It seems that the bus will be filled with awesome people and high energy. I tend to get travel sick, so let’s see how that pans out. Also somehow this whole project sounds like a silly idea, and I’m all in for silliness. I like working under constraints.

I’ll stay in Austin for about a week, probably hanging out at the SoundCloud Open House and the Hypem Hotel a lot. If you want to meet and talk about hackingz and starting things or give me a place to sleep (seriously!) you know how to find me.

Roundup #32

Roundup #31

  • Gandi: No Bullshit Hosting & DNS Company
  • "It's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission" (applies to race conditions in code and life) (python & wikipedia)
  • "Why Berlin is poised to be Europe's new tech hub" on GigaOM
  • "It was more fun to build the tree house than to sit in it." by Hannes
  • "Stylometry" is a great word
  • Stepping sideways might also just be moving forward in a different direction
  • I donated 50 € to Wikipedia. Because it's among the best things ever!
  • I'm working on making Music Hack Day Reykjavik happening in October 2012. Excitement!

Goodbye SoundCloud

With the beginning of this new year I’m not a SoundClouder anymore.

I SoundCloud as an intern and freelancer over three years ago when I was still a Bachelor student. After graduating I started full time, working on the API and the website, making client developers and users happy every day. On the side I ran TracksOnAMap, TakesQuestions and SoundCloud Labs, attended many MusicHackDays and organized the Berlin one.

It’s been an incredible time. The best thing was to work with such an incredibly smart team. Every morning I woke up full of excitement to see what this best-team-in-the-world is going to create today. The time at the cloud was my coming-of-age as a developer and team worker. Beneath all the practical skills I’ve improved like writing maintainable code, designing a clean product and communicating effectively, I learned how effective one can be with the right motivation and supportive structure. And how much fun being “in the game” can be.

Working at SoundCloud is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I’m proud and grateful that I was able to participate. The SoundCloud story has been incredible so far and it is far from finished. It will be even more disruptive the next year than ever before and already started with a bang. If you are searching for an amazing job, check these kick-ass open positions

And what am I going to do now? I want to broaden my horizons. I will attend some university courses. I will hack useless and/or nice stuff. I will try to find out what next I can bring to the world. If you know something, contact me now!

I’m full of excitement and respect for the time to come. It’s gonna be interesting.

Roundup #30

  • 2/3 Excited > 1/3 Scared
  • Lieber ______ als Verzicht
  • Being on top of Fernsehturm in Berlin at night is beautiful
  • Dense, my favorite record store in Berlin, closed :(
  • Sleeping before going to a club is the gentlemans choice
  • Interesting blog featuring a desertion on intimacy in nightclubs
  • Listen to Horse The Band talking about the meaning of life
  • "The biggest favor you can do for yourself when deciding what to bring is to buy a very small travel bag" from Vagabonding

I was in India

Sounds are here. Pictures are here and here.

I returned from my several-weeks trip to India. Everything went fine.

When people ask me how it was I have to shrug. The trip was way to multifaceted to be put into easy words. One thing that is for sure is that it was not a holiday but an experience. And this is not meant in a spiritual sense but in broaden ones horizons by going through a challenging environment. I’ve found India to be a country that doesn’t make it easy to be liked. There were too many things problematic for me like high structural poverty, disfunct garbage disposal, dangerous traffic, trickery in business and a general lack of quality. I tried not to judge but only observe, but it became hard when being confronted with a big pile of things that just don’t make sense to me. I tried to understand and I’m sure I succeeded to a certain degree. Still it was a fierce realization that we probably do some things objectively better in the Western World.

We had not prepared the trip much. No big upfront investigations about the country, people, history or the route to take. We spoke to some friends who’ve been there before but mostly we just let India come at us. We decided on the spot where to go next and gathered information on the way like from our guide book, the internet or speaking to locals and other travelers.

As we went along our opinions swung free between being amazed and appalled. A great day turned into a nightmare within minutes and vice versa. We also switched often between “Real” and “Western Tourist” India. They felt fundamentally different, with the later supplying a level of infrastructure geared to tourist that was not existing in the former (like international food or western music).

During the trip I took a lot of pictures and audio recordings. I noticed is that in them India looks far better than in the memories I have of it. It is just way easier to record nice things but spare the bad.

You can listen to the audio recordings here and view pictures (with descriptions) here. Also, we kept track of our trip in the Lonely Planet’s Thron Tree Forum here (mirror here). It includes how we traveled, where we stayed and what we’ve seen in glorious detail. Of course I’m happy to talk more about the trip. Chat me up!

Update: I’ve added more pictures here

Tim Exile's Online Stage

This Thursday, August 18th at 19:00 CEST/UTC+2, Tim Exile will play the first official gig on his new Online Stage at www.timexile.tv … and I’m super excited about it, because Roel and me build that site for him (with the design help of Sheikh). You have to tune in! You can watch an explanation video on the site now already.

So on Thursday, Tim will plug in his laptop, midi controllers and webcam in his studio in London. When the gig starts, the website will reveal a live video stream and a chat. Tim will make music and people can watch, listen and write fancy comments. So far a normal online performance.

The thing that is really interesting is the “REC” button under the stream. All viewers can record audio in the browser and send this audio via SoundCloud to Tim. Within seconds, the new sound will turn up on Tim’s Launchpad. Tim can instantly use it, manipulated, jam with it. Also, all sent sounds can be seen and listened to on the website via the play buttons under the stream. You can literally see the new sounds dropping in. And Tim will use the sound, that you just recorded on your little island in India or wherever, instantly in his live gig. Wicked!

So how did we build the site? The stream is done via Livestream and we also use the chat widget from there. The recording functionality is largely based on recorder.js. Playback of audio is done via Soundmanager 2. Everything is glued together with jQuery. The DOM and styles are plain HTML/CSS.

To get the newest tracks from SoundCloud we use a reverse proxy. This is needed since we do the requests to Tim’s activities with a never-expiring OAuth2 token and we can’t reveal that token in the frontend. The first version we wrote used Sinatra and Thin, but this performed very badly with concurrent users. When a request hit the reverse proxy and was relayed to the SoundCloud API, the server was blocked until this request returned. Such a request can take seconds. To solve this, we switched to Goliath, which doesn’t block on I/O, but instead suspends the request using Ruby’s Fibres, until the HTTP call returns.

The whole site is deployed to Heroku on the cedar stack.

To get the samples from SoundCloud to Tim, we use a simple ruby script that polls the activities of his SoundCloud account. Whenever a new sound comes in, it is played with mplayer to a sound card. The sound card’s output is connected with a cable (!) to the input of a Reaktor patch that records incoming sounds and maps maps then to the Launchpad.

Yes, this approach appears strange but it works surprisingly well. The two problems it has tho are 1) it needs the duration of the sound to load it in Reaktor and 2) we loose the mapping between the track on SoundCloud and the audio in Reaktor. This mapping could enable awesome stuff like a back channel for displaying which samples Tim currently uses. But for now we will leave this to future iterations.

I’m super excited about the launch. I hope you will be there to see it.

Roundup #29

Haven’t done this for four months, lot’s of stuff happened …

  • If I ever work in an R&D Department, I'd refer to it as "Research and Destroy"
  • The decision to always try to remember the names of people I meet has played out nicely so far ...
  • "What the FAQ?"
  • "The Test Suite Is Too Damn Slow"
  • Everyday I'm Hustlin
  • "serious about excess"
  • "Partying is: forgetting who you are while remembering what you are" from the Party Manifesto
  • #workhard #partyhard #sleepwell
  • I've been watching a lot of sunsets lately. It's a good habit.

Yay for Music Hack Day Barcelona

Last week I attended Music Hack Day Barcelona. This is a write-up of my experience.

If you do not know Music Hack Day (MHD) yet: It’s a two-days event where programmers, designers and artists meet to build prototypes for the future of music. I have attended several of them in the past and organized the one in Berlin a month ago (which still deserves it’s own post …). Watch this video from MHD New York to get an impression.

The MHD in Barcelona was the second one there; I did a write-up of the first one half a year ago here. The recent one was held in connection with the Sonar Festival. On the one hand this was amazing (Hello Nicolas Jaar & Four Tet, press, awesome people already on site to chat with). On the other hand it was pretty noisy and hectic, people just randomly dropped-by and it was easy to get distracted by the festival. To give you an impression, watch this video of me walking from the hack space to the exit:

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On a personal level I think that a Hack Day at a festival can be a pleasant change. On a professional level I prefer relaxed but focused Hack Days more. There is already a lot of stuff going on anyways and adding more distraction drains energy from the MHD core of hacking and socializing.

My Hack Potty Mouth Band

Which band has the dirtier lyrics? Let your favorite bands fight. Enter two band names and we will fetch their lyrics from MusixMatch and send them through the sentiment analysis by MusicMetric. The band with the pottier mouth wins.

I wanted to work with other APIs a bit and figured that this is a funny little idea. When working on it I realized that this can be done frontend-only. So I dived into CORS a bit and built the site with jQuery. @por helped me with the design, thanks for that.

Big advantage of living backend-less is that hosting it becomes dead-easy. My hack is deployed currently on GitHub Pages, just like Robb loves to do it ;)

In the end the hack won me the MusicMetric prize, which is a pair of amazing Sennheiser HD 25-1 || headphones. Yay, they will be used a lot!

One hack that really pushed boundaries is JS Mad by Amos from official.fm. It is a pure Javascript MP3 decoder that uses the Web Audio API of Firefox or Chrome to output sound. No flash, no audio tag. The internet is excited about this and so are we. Let’s hope this turns into a stable audio playback tool with sane CPU consumption.

There were a lot of other great hacks, have a look at the list here.

SoundCloud was a fairly large group with eight people on the Hack Day. We are very committed to Music Hack Days, send a lot of people and I’m always a bit afraid of us dominating the hack day with presence. But it turns out that we are actually a humble, nice-to-be-around bunch of interesting people that doesn’t just preach the SoundCloud gospel. At least this is the feedback I got from others. And for us it is very nice to be able to help others with their hacks but also to learn from them and engage in interesting conversations about everything.

After the Music Hack Day was finished, we started our week-end journey through Sonar-ish Barcelona, which lead me to seeing a protest camp, party in a fancy villa on the hill side and an abandoned theatre, breakfast on a lake in a park, swimming in the ocean, party on a hotel roof, dinner in a medieval backyard, party on a beach and in a basement, an early-morning bike ride and spanish breakfast. And a lot of great sound to make me very happy.

On the way home I was sure that there is probably no better company I could work at, with amazing people that perfectly align with the way I want to live my life.